Jason Sacks: Gentlemen, I sometimes think the greatest force we fight inside ourselves isn’t ambition or frustration or narcissism. The greatest force we fight is ennui, that sometimes overwhelming force of vague unhappiness that can permeate even the best of lives. Though a person may be experiencing a nice life with a wonderful wife and appreciative kids, their daily grind and the painful and endless sense of drift can cause life to go from dull to insufferable. Life progresses relentlessly in a painfully slow way as middle age approaches and the inevitable boredom of living your dreams tumbles inexorably into a much worse state: anhedonia, the overwhelming loss of joy from your life.
As we meet Sam Zabel, he’s suffering from a painful case of anhedonia. His love and passion for his chosen artform, comics, has descended into dull hackwork and a deep sense that somewhere along the way his life has wandered in the wrong direction. He’s become less his true self than a caricature of himself, a man literally weighed down by the pressure of his life, reduced to a mere collection of emails and index cards rather than the artistic powerhouse that he has always dreamed himself to me.
Maybe most sadly, Sam confesses to his loving wife that he’s been that way for six years. Imagine that, six long years of deep sadness and hacking, six lost years of moving away from the center of who you are.
But a fateful invitation changes everything for Sam. A chance discovery in a remote town shows him the world is much more interesting than it seems to be. He wanders from world to fictional world, slowly becoming more and more himself – but not his old self. Instead Sam becomes a wiser version of his own self, a man who has come to realize again that he has magic in his drawing hand.
As I describe it, this book sounds like a comic book version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, or something like that anyway; as some sort of deeply symbolic journey that helps a middle-aged man rediscover the true core of himself and thereby reset his internal compass to become that man again. And god help us as clichéd as that plot may seem, the comic is exactly that on some level.
But just reading Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen on that level ignores the fact this is a Dylan Horrocks comic, and as with his luminous Hicksville, Horrocks is all about the meta in his comics as well as about the specific. We can read this comic as being a specific biography of a fictional man, but we can also read it in a more symbolic way.
As we meet him, Sam is writing super-hero comics of the most bland and boring type; his comics are nth generation copies of an original idea from an artistic auteur that has been long lost to time and repetition. Sam’s journey begins when he is introduced to an auteur science fiction work by a man whose work encompasses his own life, and it concludes when he rediscovers the genius of the original super-hero whose adventures he’s hacking – and when Sam literally experiences the very first cartoon stories.
The story can be read – and I’m sure it’s intended to be read – as the symbolic journey of Sam Zabel, as the story of a man trapped in the factory comic’s machine to a man who finds the inner truth and beauty created by other men and women who follow their own visions of comics. He meets a woman who symbolically can be seen as representing him at a younger age (as well as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl – I hope we can probe into the meaning of Miki and her magic bottomless bag of comics) and seems to throw off his mask of despair. The book quite deliberately doesn’t establish what Sam does after the conclusion of his story, but we see that for the first time in years he has picked up a brush and is ready to draw.
After several reads I’m still wrestling with my feelings about Sam Zabel. On one hand I can appreciate Sam’s journey and enjoy following him as he learns more about himself and about his comics; on the other, I’m frustrated by Sam’s bland inaction and the way he often seems dragged along in his own story. He’s taken on a tour more than he drives the tour, and in the end he’s a bit of a void at the center of his story.
But isn’t that a sign of anhedonia, and isn’t the best way to escape that feeling sometimes to spend time with new friends who introduce you to new things. Help me, my friends, to untangle my feelings.
Keith Silva: Well, Sacks, this had to happen sooner or later; I have to disagree with you, vehemently. This is a Dylan Horrocks comic, the same cartoonist who, as you point out, wrote Hicksville. As the nuns used to say in the hallowed halls of my elementary school, Our Lady of Lourdes, ‘God don’t make no junk and Horrocks don’t make no bad comics.’ Since the titular Zabel is the same character from Hicksville, let’s start there before we get into this ‘magic pen’ business and your struggles therein with Sam.
For me, Hicksville is, first, a reminder to never forget every story has many mothers and many fathers, in other words, don’t steal; second, comics is a team sport; third, and most important, comics want to be diverse. For Horrocks, Hicksville is the ideal, a dream place where comics are celebrated for being … comics. It’s the fork in the road the comics industry didn’t take and instead became, “a medium locked into a ghetto and ignored by countless people who could have made it sing.” Hicksville celebrates diversity and is an indictment of how industry (in this case, comics) too often treats its creators.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen sings a similar duet. Diversity, yes, and this go ‘round Horrocks adds a similar tone: the irresponsibility and short-sightedness of an industry built on sexism, consequence-less violence and a tacit acceptance of the status quo.
If I was Zabel, I’d (probably) suffer from an “absence of pleasure and joy” too. I think ‘absence of joy’ was actually the subtitle of DC’s ‘New 52’ round about the entire line’s third or fourth issues. ANYWAY you’re right, Jason, Zabel is from the stable of sad sack characters that function more as (re)actors than actors, a bright guy, but dense. As Miki says, “Sam’s not old. He just thinks too much.” Sam is Charlie Brown, which, of course, is the character he dresses up as at the big Hicksville Hogan’s Alley party on the beach.
If anything, the put upon artist stuck like Chaplin in the soul-grinding gears of industry is the weakest part of the story. The diagnosis of Sam’s anhedonia — a symptom which can lead to some very serious mental disorders — fell flat. So he doesn’t enjoy his work which has led to him losing interest in other things like comics, books, movies, etc.; however, he still enjoys art and goofing off on www.artrenewal.org “methodically trawling through this endless ocean of delight.” That’s not depression, that’s called writing. Zabel’s a wet sandwich and a chaste wet sandwich at that, so what, countries and captains of industry have been brought down by less.
Horrocks is a cartoonist’s cartoonist. He holds it up for the ink slingers and pencil pushers, the women and men whom the marketing departments at Marvel and DC seemingly can’t be bothered to include in their promotion of the ‘cult of the writer’ which has, sadly, become too di rigueur — the last bit may be my own bias and not Horrocks’s, but I bet I’m not far off.
Horrocks loves comics, adjective-less comics. For him, there are no superhero comics nor science-fiction comics nor pirate comics nor nerdy-wish-fulfillment-fantasy comics. There are just comics. If Sam Zabel is having trouble putting pen (or brush) to paper, Dylan Horrocks is not. Horrocks finds palpable pleasure and joy as he gets to draw different kinds of comics, not to mention all the cunnilingus, fellatio and orgies he draws as well. Sam asks “Are all these comics so … er … pornographic?” Sure, Sam comes off as a bit of a prude, but Horrocks ain’t. It’s all part of his rock-and-roll comics fantasy. How much of this fantasy is an exercise in artistic masturbation or love is up for debate. Sam is not the hero or even a hero in this own comic.
For all the boobs and the far fewer balls (or for that matter, cocks) there is also some heavy handed moralism and finger-pointing afoot in this comic. Whenever the situation offers up some old-timey misogyny Sam is quick to point it out and put it into perspective and the target of his shaming is often a fictional character. What? Who are these soliloquies for, exactly? My own naïveté aside, my guess is Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen finds much more resonance in the DIY, indie comics and zine crowd than among the ‘Sam Zabel’s of mainstream comics’ who keep stockholders in that Avengers and Batman money. So who’s the audience for all these high minded morals about responsible fantasy-making? Sam’s reluctance to act (like ever) — at one point during the climactic showdown with the evil fanboy Akio, Alice tells Sam “For God’s sake – you’re hopeless” — reflects Horrocks own foot-dragging (?) to go further than to tell everyone else how they’re doing (or did) it wrong and make a difference himself.
Is it enough that, in the end, Sam (and Horrocks) pass the baton (or pen so to speak) to the next generation and expect that they will be respectful and practice safe cartooning? And what does this sort of buck (or pen) passing say about Horrocks himself?
Daniel Elkin: “Safe cartooning”? “High minded morals about responsible fantasy-making”? “Wet sandwiches”? Are we even talking about the same comic, Silva? And Sacks, that whole bit about being “a void at the center of his own story”? I dunno…
See, I guess I have the disadvantage benefit of having never read Hicksville, so I am a neophyte in the temple Horrocks and, having no predetermined need to genuflect, perhaps it keeps my knees clean. What this means is my preconceived notions about this book were basically non-existent; I had heard a few people say they liked the book, but had little to go on otherwise. You two, you done gots them dirty knees, and with those come your expectations. I separate the art from the artist that much more easily, as I know nothing of the artist to begin with.
Fresh eyes for a work that tries really, really hard.
Yoda said, “Do or not do… there is no try.”
With Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, Horrocks does not do.
After reading through this book, what I’m left with is Sam’s statement at the Literature in the 21st Century conference, “Is art a lie that tells the truth, or is it simply a lie?”
Fuuuuuck. Is this some sort of pseudo-profound philosophical statement that is the eventual unfortunate result of the proliferation of quotation memes on Facebook and Tumblr? It strikes me as the biggest red herring to actual thought I’ve ever been served. And I have a huge appetite for sea food, by cracky.
See, I’m wrapping up teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with my High School seniors right now. We’ve been looking at the novel through a number of different critical lenses, but the one that has been garnering the most interesting class discussions is seeing the book as an exploration of the creative process itself. We’ve been talking about both the responsibilities of the artist to his/her art and audience, as well as the idea that all acts are artistic expressions on some level. But what really has been gaining the most traction are the discussions about artistic expression as a human drive, just as survival and procreation are drives – the concept of documenting and sharing individual experience is a selfish act as much as it is a communal act. Frankenstein allows for this sort of discussion by giving just enough to allow us, the readers, to come to that place on our own. Sure, Frankenstein is histrionic and affected at times, but thematically, it never becomes ham-handed.
Not so for the subject of this review.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen wants to be more than the sum of its parts. It wants to make some sort of Capital “S” Statement about art and artists and the concept of being “morally responsible for our fantasies.” But the work is self-indulgent at the same time as it is pandering.
Horrocks is a master baker, insomuch as he is trying to have his cake and eat it too.
Which kind of pisses me off. “The symbolic journey of Sam Zabel,” as Sacks put it, is redolent with all the pulsing penis posturing of male power/rape fantasies wrapped up in the Saran Wrap of the penis pounding of political correctness and then labeled for sale with New Age Clap Trap about “The dream of story” and the empowerment of finding your fucking bliss.
It’s infuriating to me. It’s like the Clinton Presidency of Comic Creating – so concerned with the polling of opinion that it ends up being so devoid of any authenticity that, of course, it needs to insert a cigar into the snatch of an available intern and then make the case that a blowjob isn’t sex.
Sure, Horrocks, I’ll give you “Not all dreams are dreams of liberation, pleasure, or joy.” Sure, sometimes people dream up some pretty horrific shit full of bile and pettiness and cruelty, but at least they come from the single space of the individual. It’s like the great American philosopher Walter Sobchak once said, “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
Is this really the work of “a cartoonist’s cartoonist” or is this book so emotionally dead at its center that it is the perfect artistic statement for a culture that values the vapid self-help philosophy of Rhonda Byrne and Jaden Smith and Duck Dynasty?
I fear it is the latter and that as consumers of mass media we’ve had our apperceptions and cerebrations so ground down that we now mistake pap for profundity and clap our hands together and jump up and down squealing when we are pandered to.
Alex Lu: Yes, Daniel. Preach.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen isn’t bad, per se. Dylan Horrocks sets out to tell the story of a sadsack artist suffering from depression who meets a girl who changes his life forever, and he does so successfully. The art is beautiful, and Horrocks does a wonderful job of rendering all the worlds Sam Zabel moves through as he journeys to “get his groove back.”
Still, tell me if you’ve heard that story pitch before.
Personally, I’m not very critical of stories retreading old premises. They work for a reason. However, I believe that when writers do move through explored territory, they should do so in the aim of contributing something new to the conversation. That is where Horrocks ultimately fails.
Like you, Daniel, I’ve never had the pleasure of reading a Horrocks comic. My first instinct isn’t to compare this book to Hicksville, but rather to another recent book with equitable clout and premise: Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. David Smith is just as much, if not more of a sad sack artist than Sam is. In addition, Meg, the woman that pulls David back from the brink like Miki saves Sam, literally descends from the sky as an angel. Both of these books are driven by a magical artistic symbol, and both are preachy in their attempt to make large, sweeping statements about art. Both books are imperfect in their need to beat the reader over the head with a message, but The Sculptor shines because it makes the path to the message interesting. Let’s compare:
In The Sculptor, the characters have layers. David isn’t just an artist who’s down on his luck. He’s a man with no family who lives in New York, a place where he is surrounded by people but still feels alone. At the same time, in moments that are contradictory yet completely understandable, he can find himself surrounded by a wide circle of friends who legitimately care about his well-being and even inspire joy from within him. McCloud really shows the reader how amazing David can be when he’s inspired, and how desperate he can get when things go wrong. Meg isn’t just David’s love interest. She’s a character with plenty of deep-seated emotional issues who hides her sadness behind a veneer of selflessness. She’s passionate, driven, and independent. Even if the reader doesn’t really buy into the frankly muddled message about art and life that McCloud expresses by the end of the graphic novel, that’s okay, because the reader cares about the characters.
Conversely, after spending fourteen chapters with Sam Zabel, the reader still has no idea who this man is. Yes, he has thoughts about the nature of art, the treatment of women, and the less than perfect tendencies of the mainstream comics industry. Sam is dissatisfied with his work on Lady Night because he thinks its vapid, but his personal book Pickle is good because the stories are “honest, and real and playful and…”. That is all the reader ever hears about the book. Pickle is art because of course it is. Who knows what Sam is expressing through his work? The reader knows that Sam is an artist, but he never feels like a full person.
Miki and Alice are equally one dimensional. Alice is little more than a fangirl and a mouthpiece for social justice issues. Miki is a walking bit of metafiction that argues that the mistreatment of women in comics affects the development of its readers in the real world, who in turn perpetuate further mistreatment of women in comics as they grow up to become writers. All the characters in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen are clearly mouthpieces for Horrocks, and as well intentioned as his messages may be, none of them add anything new to the societal discourse surrounding issues of art, comics, or gender equality. Horrocks simply cautions readers to be careful as they grow up and make their way into the comics industry and the real world, like a parent reminding his or her children to take their lunch money to school for the hundredth time. Worst of all, if one ignores the messages Horrocks puts in his characters’ mouths, they all fall flat with less dimension than the pages they exist in.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is a work that remains so absorbed in the righteousness of its own messages that it fails to view the landscape around it. This book might have been revelatory in the 1990s as a pre-Internet era light designed to guide mainstream comics out of the Dark Age. In 2015, Sam Zabel is screaming into an echoing chamber.
Sacks: I get impatient reading a semi-autobiographical creative work by a talented cartoonist that essentially is about how his life (or the life of his seeming autobiographical stand-in) is frustrating. He has a nice middle class life, secure with a loving, smart wife and kids who love him but Sam Zabel still feels his ennui, and we never are allowed to go deeper into his life to see him in three dimensions.
Since we’re playing this game of comparing Sam Zabel to other books, I’ll compare it to a book about middle-age ennui that I thought was much more successful, Genius by Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen. That book, while not as indulgent in its celebration of comic-book styling, feels more honest and effective in its portrayal of ennui – which comes from the more three-dimensional characters it portrays. Seagle and Kristiansen show (rather than tell) readers the weaknesses at the center of protagonist Ted Halket’s life. He’s the tragic hero of his own story, a kind of scientific-minded Willy Loman, and his troubled relationships with the world around him come from his own weaknesses.
Apples and oranges, I know; after all, one book takes place in the real world and has imaginative interludes and the other… umm… takes place in the real world and has imaginative interludes. Hmm, these Fuji apples are delicious and I’m not sure I see any oranges here. In Zabel, we get an indulgent dreamscape with strangely idealized females of all sorts that leads to a rather hackneyed conclusion (really, “the true magic isn’t in the pen, it’s in you?” That’s Wizard of Oz stuff).
Now that I think about it, the treatment of women in the book is all kinds of strange. We get a manic pixie dream girl, a perfect wife (who never bugs Sam about his ennui … for SIX YEARS? Doesn’t such a smart woman pay attention to the man who shares her bed and helps raise her children?), a hip geek girl, those green-skinned naked harem girls; we even get a heroine who is the maternal voice of wisdom. None of these women come close to having a life on the page – which, oddly enough, makes me think Sam Zabel’s problems may actually come from inside himself and a stunted level of immaturity in his attitude towards women reflected in this story.
Honestly the more I think about this book the more I dislike it. Nice coloring on the book though and the designs are attractive. I wanted so much to love this book, but life is full of disappointments.
Silva: O.K. so Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen doesn’t stand up to interrogation, at least, our interrogation.
Jason, like you, I wanted to love this comic more than I did. I’ll still take a comic by Dylan Horrocks over the majority of what washes up on the shores of my LCS most Wednesdays because, at least, Horrocks wants to say something about a medium I love even if it comes off here as tepid at best.
Elkin, read Hicksville and get back to me. And don’t think I’ll forget about your swipe at my ‘dirty knees.’
Alex, although the praise for McCloud’s The Sculptor has been positive, I heard a dissenting opinion on NPR from Petra Mayer and Glen Weldon that shares many of your (and our) disappointments with SZatMP. Curious both these books came out simultaneously, handle similar subjects about how art is defined (commercially and personally) and, at least for some, have trouble separating the art from the artist. Much like us, Mayer and Weldon spend less than half of their segment on The Sculptor talking about comics they like more than The Sculptor.
In the end, the literal last page, turns Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen from hand-wringing to optimism. Oh, what can one say that hasn’t been said about ‘the blank page.’
For a comic about comics, Horrocks never shows the reader the comics Sam or Alice have created. Alice’s ‘Wonderland’ web-comic gets a gloss of blanks and Sam’s ‘Lady Night’ gives the reader a look at the sausage factory of creation, but that’s it, his Pickle (prevalent in Hicksville) is absent here. On Sam’s end, this lack of work can be put off to his depression. But why should Horrocks let Alice’s work suffer the same fate? In either case, seeing the work (probably) isn’t the point which brings us to the last page.
Comics thrill and disappoint in equal measure, it’s the blessing and the curse of serialized storytelling. To the delight of pessimists and optimists alike, the final page of Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen provides no closure to Sam’s story. Call it an authorial cop-out to leave the last page blank in some sort of ‘only-time-will-tell’ cliché and maybe you three grumps would say as much. I look at it as the page being half-full, it is a two-page splash, after all. What Horrocks says by saying nothing says everything.
Despite its creators, cultural relevance or its bottom line, comics endure. Who can say better than that?
Elkin: Wait, you mean that I can say everything by saying nothing? That was an option? Why am I even writing this then? Seriously, my next review is going to be a blank page also. I’ll let my audience form the opinions they want and I’ll still get the credit for my fabulous insight and acumen.
Because that works, right?
I’m sorry, Silva, I’m just not buying this at all. I will be that grump with the clean knees and call a cop-out when I see one. If at the end of this book Sam Zabel is indeed reinvigorated and revitalized and infused once more with the spirit of creativity, then why can’t we just get that comic instead? I’d be way more interested in reading it! Why do we have to slog and suffer through his journey there when we could reap the rewards of his destination?
Has it come to this? Really? Are we all Emerson’s children? Have we really bought into that whole “Life is a journey, not a destination” platitude in order to mollify the horrors of our lives now that we live in a world with absence of a “God’s Plan” duvet we can wrap ourselves in the cold, cold night? Is this our reward for becoming so damn sophisticated?
After all, there’s a certain irony in the fact that self-help stories are based on someone else’s experience, not yours.
Maybe I’m just a tired old man, but I find little value in listening to someone tell me about their hard won journey to their own sense of self. There is as much drudgery as there is selfishness inherent in sharing that tale. I’d much rather enjoy the conversation of the actualized individual than the wayward son that carries on.
Like Sacks, the more I think about this book the more I dislike it. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen indulges the worst fantasies we harbor and fosters our greatest delusions. It’s certainly not the comic we want, but for fuck’s sake, is it really the one we deserve?
Lu: Daniel, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I think your argument makes it seems like this problem is systemic within the comics canon, where I feel like it’s mostly endemic to a certain genre of comics, of which Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is the most egregiously flat.
More importantly, I feel like there is a way to do this kind of story well. Books like Sam Zabel and The Sculptor fit the Hero’s Journey story archetype, and at their best, inspire us to pursue the lives we want to lead. These books and other “self-help” books like them aren’t strategy guides for life, but spring boards from which a reader can gather the courage to dive into a world where purpose is defined by the self rather than some divine plan.
No character in stories is ever fully self-actualized, just as no real person is. Even classic literary adventurers like Odysseus and Sun Wukong have plenty of personal fears and desires. There’s an argument to be made that the protagonists in comics and other storytelling mediums have become less epic and more pathetic in nature. However, even the most pathetic character’s story can be compelling. Look at Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. By the end of that tome, Jimmy is still a terribly inept individual, but the circumstances surrounding his life are so interesting that it’s hard to not enjoy the reading experience, even if the reader is simultaneously disgusted by the actions and fantasies of the main character. I honestly do believe that life is a journey, and that any story, as long as it is told right, is a story worth telling.
In conceit, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is a fine story. It has an interesting concept and a lot to say about the nature of media and its influence on the people who consume and create it. Ultimately, this book’s problem is that it doesn’t know how to grab the reader’s empathy, and it so desperately wants it. Horrocks is convinced that his protagonists are saints, and his writing portrays them as such. They all share socially acceptable beliefs for the contemporary political climate, but Horrocks has his characters present these ideas as though they’re revolutionary.
Worse yet, Sam, Miki, and Alice don’t have any real character flaws to ground the social commentary, so they end up coming off as two dimensional mouthpieces rather than real people. To Horrocks credit, each of these characters are given backstories that allows the reader to understand why they would have their specific beliefs, but no one is perfect. Characters feel real because readers can identify with them, warts and all. Yes, Sam is depressed, but depression isn’t a character flaw. It doesn’t make him a worse person. In The Sculptor, the characters inspire the reader’s empathy because McCloud isn’t afraid to give them flaws. David is a great artist and generally a decent person, but he’s also incredibly selfish. Yet, despite that understanding, the reader continues to root for him. Horrocks’ characterization in this book ultimately comes off as tepid and stale, as though he were afraid that undermining his protagonists’ goodness would somehow invalidate the messages he wanted them to espouse.
We’ve talked a lot about the blank page and what it means. In my opinion, had Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen been executed with more fully realized characters, or at least a more active protagonist, the page would represent life as a blank canvas filled with infinite possibilities. As trite as it is, it’s a message that works. Unfortunately, Dylan Horrocks casts Sam as an observer in his own story of self-actualization and flattens all the other characters so much that they look more like Tumblr blogs than real people. There’s no subtlety and no doubt in the righteousness of Horrocks’ message. He is convinced that his pro-feminism, anti-objectification rhetoric is revolutionary, but that revolution began on the internet more than a decade ago. Sam Zabel isn’t bad. It’s something worse.