Graphic Novel Reporter reviews HICKSVILLE

“Hicksville” / Graphic Novel Reporter / Peter Gutiérrez / September 15, 2010

First published in 1998, Hicksville has earned a quite a reputation among serious readers of graphic novels (even though it calls itself, significantly, a “comic book”) and right away it’s easy to see why: It’s a dark, knowing celebration of the medium, past, present and (probably) future. Recently reissued by Drawn and Quarterly, Hicksville now includes an inspired new introduction in comics format by Dylan Horrocks in which he recounts the work he undertook for “big American comics companies” in the wake of the book’s initial success. While hardly bitter about the experience he does confess that “[for] the first time in my life I was making comics I couldn’t respect.” And when juxtaposed with earlier pages concerning his childhood love affair with comics, this passage effectively previews the book’s compelling themes of corruption and innocence, making the entire section feel more like a prologue than an intro.

Focusing on the rise to fame of comics superstar Dick Burger, who left his titular hometown in New Zealand to find fortune and fanboy adulation in the U.S., much of Hicksville reads like a pointedly satirical look at comics culture from the inside-out. As a cynical view of that world via a portrait of one its more unscrupulous operators, the story recalls classic Hollywood tales of megalomaniacal opportunism such as What Makes Sammy Run? and The Bad and the Beautiful, especially given how Burger is approached as the subject of others’ testimony.

But part of what’s so remarkable about Horrocks’s achievement is that he doesn’t dwell too long in pure cynicism. In stark counterpoint to the corporatist mentality that Burger exemplifies, there’s the remote town of Hicksville, a kind of comics Shangri-La. There everyone takes comics seriously as an art form, as creators, readers, or both. In fact, Sam Zabel, one of the main characters, finds it easier to say, “Here, read my minicomic,” than actually speak about certain episodes of his life. In addition, the local lending library stocks early issues of Action Comics among many other rarities, a fact that all but knocks down visiting comics journalist Leonard Batts. (Batts, by the way, is the author of a biography of Jack Kirby, whose quote “Comics will break your heart” Hicksville takes as its epigraph). With Batts as the ostensible point-of-view character (“ostensible” because he’s off-stage for large stretches), the core narrative takes on the classic lines of an investigative reporter researching the humble—yet mysterious—origins of an eminent personage. Think of it as Citizen Kane except here Kane isn’t dead but rubbing shoulders with Stan Lee and a (thinly-veiled and off-panel) Todd McFarlane… and, oh yeah, those he grew up with now hate his guts.

When Batts—and the reader—finally discover the nature of Burger’s long-ago crime, the revelation provides a satisfactory resolution, not just dramatically, but thematically. Don’t expect a murder or something equally lurid: the mystery here is far more low-key… and haunting. Moreover, there’s a complexity to the narrative that makes it hard to reduce to Batts’s quest, as other intriguing characters roam Hicksville’s pages also looking to regain something of the past. And that keynote of nostalgia runs moodily, and powerfully, through the book, as Horrocks references Tintin and other emblematic texts/characters of youth. Along the way he deftly presents a variety of comics genres and sensibilities, so that when Sam Zabel off-handedly remarks that he “can do many styles,” he’s clearly a Horrocks surrogate. Employing devices and storytelling techniques that recall everything from woodcut prints to goofy gag cartoons to Kirbyesque cosmic superheroes, Horrocks implicitly makes a case for the cultural legitimacy of comics even as he laments the damage that the subculture itself has wrought on its true heroes.

Smart and cerebral, but never less than engaging, Hicksville is the rare work that manages to be both brainy and silly with equal credibility. When combined with its deeply felt exploration of what it means to be a cartoonist, the result is the perfect graphic novel to give to your intellectual friends who don’t quite understand why you’re into graphic novels. In fact, it’s actually the kind of book that comics creators and fans should gift to each other—a touchstone to remind them of the transcendent promises and dangerous temptations of their beloved medium.

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