Dylan Horrocks may not be a name familiar to most readers, but for those who have been following his career it seemed inevitable that he’d be “discovered” by the big players in the comics business. Horrocks’ first project for DC is a relaunch of one of Vertigo’s best-loved characters, Tim Hunter, first in a five issue mini-series, and then in a follow-up ongoing series. Craig Lemon spoke to Horrocks about his move into the mainstream, and about the over-night success that was ten years in the making.
Craig Lemon: Before we get this interview started, can you tell us something personal about yourself? Your family life, where you were born and raised, what schools you attended?
Dylan Horrocks: I was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, with few short stays in USA (about 1 year; my mother was born in Buffalo, New York) and Bouganville (about 5 months when I was a kid). I also did what we New Zealanders call the ‘compulsory O.E.’ or ‘overseas experience’ by living in London for a few years when I was in my twenties. As for school, I lived in Titirangi, West Auckland until I was 13 and all my schools were out there (Titirangi Primary, Green Bay High School). Even though we moved during my 3rd Form year [8th Grade], I stayed at Green Bay, which at the time was a very liberal and progressive school and a bit of a haven. This meant lots of long bus rides, which I actually quite liked. They gave me plenty of time to read, write and think.
I also did a BA in English at Auckland University, for what it’s worth.
CL: What was the first comic book you ever read?
DH: God only knows. My first words were apparently ‘Donald Duck’ so it may well have been a Carl Barks comic. My dad was always into comics and there were always good comics around the house. I wanted to be a cartoonist as early as I can remember and must have read all the Tintin books about a thousand times, Asterix too, of course – along with dozens of other stuff. But Tintin as always especially close to my heart). As I got older I got into war comics in a big way, British stuff like Battle, American stuff like Sgt. Rock, which I was more into than superheroes. But I read all kinds of stuff. I remember going through a big Robert Crumb stage when I was about 10 and then Heavy Metal magazine started up when I was 11 and I became a big fan of European stuff like Moebius and Chantal Montellier and Serge Clerc.
The English 2000AD started that same year, too. Oh, and Cerebus, which my dad introduced me to when I was 13, and so on.
In 1981 when I was 14 I spent a couple of months in San Francisco with my family, staying upstairs from an underground cartoonist called Shelby, a contributor to Wimmens Comix, and she introduced me to more great underground stuff.
She even took us to a party at Rip Off Press which was amazing – big bowls of dope on the tables and Furry Freak Bros. rolling papers. And boxes of free comics, mis-cropped or stapled ones, which I piled into my bag. So apart from fantasy comics like Conan and Elfquest and bursts of interest in Sgt. Rock, which had great writing and art from Kanigher, Kubert, Severin and the rest, I read very few mainstream American comics until a friend introduced me to Miller’s Daredevil. And of course I read Moore’s Swamp Thing. I’d been following Moore’s work enthusiastically when he was writing for 2000AD and Warrior in England, but by then my favourite comics were things like Cerebus, Love & Rockets, RAW, Weirdo and European stuff like Serge Clerc, Chantal Montellier, Moebius…
CL: Your current gig is a pair of follow-up series’ to The Books Of Magic, we’ll talk about those in a moment. Most people might know your name from your Hicksville graphic novel, which was originally serialised in Pickle issues two through eleven. However, for those unfamiliar with Hicksville, can you please tell us something about it?
DH: I should have my website up soon at which people can visit to find out more and look at excerpts and so on, but let me see now… Hicksville is the story of a small town on the east coast of New Zealand, where everyone is obsessed with comics. The farmers, the postie, the shopkeepers – everyone sits around talking about George Herriman, Edgar Jacobs, Charles Schulz. The local newsagent has copies of Garo, Lapin, Zero Zero – comics from all over the world, no matter how obscure. Into all this comes a journalist from Comics World magazine, who’s writing a biography of America’s most successful superhero cartoonist, a guy called Dick Burger. Burger’s always been coy about his background, but this journalist has learned that Burger comes from a small NZ town called Hicksville and when Burger refuses to talk with him about it, the journalist is curious enough to cross the world to find out what Hicksville has to say about the world-famous Burger. Of course he’s amazed when he finds out what Hicksville is really like. But he’s also increasingly made aware that Burger’s name is hardly popular in his hometown. It’s clear there’s some dark and terrible secret about Burger’s past, which the journalist becomes determined to uncover…
It’s a story about comics – their history and poetry – and also about what we New Zealanders call ‘turangawaewae’ – having a place to stand in the world – a kind of spiritual home. Hicksville is my way of creating such a home for comics. But it’s also about NZ history and – oh, all kinds of stuff. One of the nicest things about Hicksville is that it’s touched a nerve with such a diverse range of people; from small press, alternative cartoonists like Tom Hart and James Kochalka to people who’ve come more out of the mainstream, like Frank Miller; also people who’ve never been interested in comics. It’s just been reviewed in Landfall, NZ’s main literary journal, which was a treat. Even more surprising, it’s coming out soon in French from L’Association, and Italian from Black Velvet – I always thought the references to obscure American comics trivia would rule that out, but somehow there’s enough there that’s meaningful to them.
CL: How did you come up with the idea of Hicksville?
DH: Oh, it grew organically. I started out with Hicksville Press as an imaginary publisher for my mini-comics, when I was living in London and missing home. I invented a fictitious NZ town, which represented all the things I missed about NZ and from there it grew into the comics homeland it is now. Even the biggest secret about Hicksville, which I won’t give away here but which seems to be the image the whole book was built around, came to me quite late in the process. Comics and stories in general have always been for me about creating worlds or places to immerse yourself in. So my stories have often grown around a place or setting rather than a character or plot. Those things are very important, but they have tended to emerge for me out of the place.
CL: Can you talk about the characters in Hicksville?
DH: Well, there’s Leonard Batts, the journalist, who comes across as a real comic book geek-boy, but who has become perhaps my favourite character over time. So much so that I’ve recently revised the plan for Atlas, my new book I’m doing for Drawn & Quarterly, to make him the central character. He really changes over the course of Hicksville – someone compared it to a hero-quest, but whatever – he certainly is a different person by the end of it.
Then there’s Dick Burger, who I have to stress isn’t based on any individual cartoonist. Though obviously everyone will recognise things from here and there… He’s another favourite character of mine, in that he’s complicated – emotionally and morally. I feel a lot of sympathy for him, although in a sense he seems to be the bad guy…
Oh, there are so many characters who I really have affection for – Sam, the hapless small-press cartoonist who’s something like a grown up Charlie Brown; Grace, the sharp-tongued botanist who’s the exception in Hicksville – she’s ambivalent about comics; Lou Goldman, the elderly Golden Age veteran cartoonist whose creations are now making millions for Dick Burger; Emil Kopen, the cartographer-cartoonist who Grace meets in a country called Cornucopia…
Which is one reason Atlas has turned more into a sequel to Hicksville with each rewrite – in spite of my best intentions. Truth is, I just don’t want to leave these characters or places behind. Some have developed over years through shorter strips for Pickle and various anthologies. They’re family, dammit!
CL: Hicksville is quite obviously a labor of love, the work you really wanted to do. Now you’re with DC for the five-part The Names of Magic mini-series and ongoing regular series Hunter: The Age of Magic, how does the process of creating the comic compare?
DH: Well, writing about Tim Hunter has become a labor of love too. Thing is, although I’ve always wanted to do the kind of comic I’m doing with Hicksville and Atlas, I’ve also always wanted to write fantasy comics. I’ve long enjoyed stuff like Alan Garner’s novels Red Shift, The Owl Service, and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun , and have always been pleased when I’ve found fantasy comics that give me even a fraction of the thrill those books did. So this is my chance to put my pen where my mouth is and try and do that myself. The main difference is that I’m not drawing this, which takes a little getting used to. I’m used to putting a lot of the music of a story into the drawings – the ‘voice’, if you know what I mean. So now I’m learning to relax and let someone else do the singing, once I’ve written the lyrics and written the arrangements. Thankfully, Richard Case is very friendly and accommodating and puts up with my anxieties very well. And, hell, there’s something very nice about not having to slave over the drawing board solving all the visual problems I’ve set myself. Richard has the really hard job – I just get all the fun stuff!
CL: You’ve a strong legacy to follow with Hunter: The Age of Magic, obviously Gaiman’s four part mini-series introducing the character of Tim Hunter set the scene, a long stint by John Ney Rieber began to lose steam towards its conclusion, and Peter Gross finished the series off. In starting the mini-series, it’s almost getting back to basics – mini-series, followed by ongoing series. What would you say to the three groups of fans to get them to pick this book up:
- the long-time readers of BoM
- the readers who stopped reading BoM, feeling disenfranchised during the run
- people who have never picked up an issue of BoM before
DH: I’d just say to all of them to try it and see if they like it. I’m trying to write something that will be enjoyed by all three groups. I’ve got my own feel for the series, which is pretty different in many ways to all my predecessors. But I have no desire at all to reject or trash what came before; on the contrary, I’ve grown very fond of all three versions of Tim Hunter and his world and feel they actually complement each other very nicely. I hope I can do the same, while making it enough of a fresh story that new readers can hop on board and not have to ask: ‘say what?’
Having said that, The Names of Magic serves partly as providing closure to Tim’s childhood. It’s meant to work as a stand-alone story and has almost no characters from the BoM except for Tim, and a brief appearance by the Trenchcoat Brigade, so hopefully it should be enjoyable to totally new readers. My wife enjoyed it and she’d never read a Vertigo comic in her life. But for readers of the earlier series, it’ll clearly be designed as closure – finally answering the mystery of Tim’s birth, returning to a lot of things set up in the original Gaiman miniseries and building them into Tim’s present and future.
Ultimately, the NoM sets the stage for the beginning of the new monthly series, which will have quite a fresh feel to it. For one thing, Tim’s older and more adult by then…
CL: How long do you plan to be on Hunter: The Age of Magic? How far in advance have you plotted? Is there a definite end goal you will be working towards?
DH: Oh, well, as long as they’ll let me. I’ve planned years worth – seriously. At least 6 years of it is mapped out broadly. And yeah – there are particular stories I’m building towards, which will take some time to unfold. There are big climaxes planned, too. But no, I don’t have any desire to do a Preacher or Cerebus – you know, a limited number of issues at which point it stops. I love the idea of indefinite series. That readers (and creators) can keep characters as friends who they meet up with every month for years and years – growing alongside each other and having a real history together. Having said that, I also think it’s important that new readers can pick a book up and get into it, without having to hunt out 5 years worth of back issues just to make any sense of it at all. So I guess the short answer is: there’s no end goal, but lots of landmarks ahead…
CL: How have you found working with your artists, being in such wildly different timezones?
DH: Email makes this a breeze. Richard emails me character sketches and I email back comments. It’s really very easy. We fax too, and we’ve spoken once or twice on the phone. It’d be nice to talk more on the phone – that’s the only tricky bit, timezone-wise, but it is possible. We just haven’t needed to too much; email works just fine…
CL: Similarly, how about your interactions with DC?
DH: Well, Heidi and I email and phone a lot, too – and it’s been fun. Heidi’s great; we share a lot of tastes and ideas about comics etc. I’ve been reading her stuff since the days when she was at the Comics Journal. And she’s been following mine since Pickle in the early 90s. So she’s a real pleasure to work with.
CL: How can somebody contact you?
DH: Visit the website, once it’s up, and there’ll be a contact button there. I love hearing from complete strangers – so long as they’re not impatient about getting a reply. The kids and over-work make me a terrible correspondent.
CL: If you were stranded on a desert island, what 3 things would you bring with you and why?
- A life’s supply of paper and art supplies and pens. If you can write and draw, you’ll never be bored.
- Internet Access. Then it wouldn’t matter where the hell I was. Desert islands just ain’t what they once were, eh? Mind you, if there were no electricity, I’d have to make some kind of generator-bicycle set up like on Gilligan’s Island.
- A boat (ahem…).
CL: Your thoughts on the comic industry?
DH: Egad! Where do I start? I have ideas of how we could save the industry, but I won’t bore you with them here. I occasionally air them elsewhere, and I’ll put some of it up on my website. But one thing I will say is that whatever the state of the industry is, I reckon this is something of a new Golden Age as far as the actual comics go. From mainstream stuff like Alan Moore’s ABC line to art stuff like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Joe Sacco’s Gorazde, Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, Ben Katchor’s the Jew of New York. Hell, there’s never ever been a better time to be reading comics! Or making them!
Of course, Hicksville will give you some idea of my feelings about the industry’s history and ethics.
CL: Your 3 favorite fictional heroes and why?
DH: Umm… Mary Marvel, I had such a crush on her when I was a kid; Captain Haddock; Moomintroll.
CL: Your 3 real life heroes and why?
DH: Umm… George Herriman, Herge and Hayao Miyazaki. For hopefully obvious reasons. Tove Jansson sometimes nudges her way on there, at the expense of one of the others…
CL: What movies, cartoons and TV shows are your favorites?
DH: Miyazaki’s films, currently my faves. TV I watch too rarely, too busy except for kid’s shows with my two boys. My current fave of those is Arthur. My all time favorite TV show would have to be The Simpsons. When I do get time I usually want to see solid documentaries.
CL: What books do you read?
DH: Mostly non-fiction. I’m currently reading about the ‘Genome.’ All-time
Best read: ‘Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth’ by Gitta Sereny, Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ books. I tend to go between theory (Barthes, Derrida etc), history, science and – er – stuff. When I want a novel (rare these days) I tend towards fantasy (Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist etc). The fantasy writers I really like though would include Tolkien, Alan Garner, Gene Wolfe, Tad Williams, R. A. MacAvoy… But other writers I enjoy include Borges, Ondaatje (though I didn’t like the English Patient), Calvino. Possibly my favouite novelist is George Perec (especially W: a Memory of Childhood).
CL: What are your hobbies and recreational activities?
DH: Role-playing games, which I’ve been playing since I was 14, pretty much with the same group of friends ever since. I ran a game called ‘Sorrow Hill’ for 10 years and have a fantasy comic of my own I mean to do one day based on it. We don’t use any commercially marketed system, but usually one which a friend of mine called Matthew Chappory has written. It’s simply better than any other system I’ve played and really allows space for enormous creativity on the part of the games-master and players. Just like comics, RPGs can be very very bad, but they can also be the best venue for story-construction, which happens collectively. They’re still my favorite way to spend an evening with a group of friends…
Apart from that, hanging out with my kids and family and friends, just doing whatever… And I listen to a lot of music; buying CDs is almost as good as buying comics – maybe better.
CL: What comic books do you read now?
DH: Oh, everything. Umm… Moore’s ABC comics, all the Drawn & Quarterly stuff, Bone, European stuff like Edmond Baudoin, Blutch, David B. – the L’Association crowd); Japanese stuff from Garo when I can get it, and Super Manga Blast and Pulp. Anything and everything from James Kochalka, Tom Hart, Chester Brown, Seth, Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, David Mazzuchelli, John Porcellino, Ron Rege Jr, Craig Thompson, Jason Lutes, Jessica Abel, Megan Kelso, Robert Crumb, Raymond Briggs!
There’s too much! One recent discovery is Carrie Golus, whose drawing leaves me breathless. Someone whose work I miss, he hasn’t done a comic in nearly 2 years, is Joe Chiappetta who did Silly Daddy. Oh, and Carla Speed McNeill’s Finder is excellent, as is Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting. There’s so much very good stuff around now – this really is a golden age for comics.
Even mainstream stuff is better than it has been for a long time, with Moore’s ABC line, interesting things happening at DC and Vertigo… I even kinda like one of the CrossGen titles, which surprised me, Meridian. I’m a comics catholic – I’ll read everything and I like things from all sorts of genres and styles. It’s just gotta do something good to me…
CL: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
DH: Right here, doing basically what I’m doing now. This is pretty much what I want life to be. And whatever happens, this is what I’ll be doing until I die. Whether people are still paying me to do it – or reading the stuff – is a secondary issue.