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Hicksville Review

By Dylan Horrocks (1998)
Drawn & Quarterly, 2001. 260 p., 6″ x 9″, $19.95.

Hicksville is a book that gets much praise from comics readers. On many levels it is rightfully deserved: it is a layered work with an excellent structure of stories within stories, the drawing is dynamic, and the story is engrossing (every time I’ve read it (three now), I’ve gone straight through without stopping for more than a coffee refill). On the other hand, it is very much a comic about comics and comic artists. The story is linked so much with comics, comics history, and the comics scene that I’m not sure someone who isn’t more personally involved in such will grasp the context of much of the story. While I–and most of those reading this, I’m sure–am interested in comics and know something about both the art and business of the medium, those not already interested in such may find themselves lost at sea in some of the storylines in the book. Horrocks, perhaps recognizing this issue, has provided a glossary in the back of the book that provides brief explanations of relevant people in the comics history (as well as some information on New Zealand and its history).

Hicksville is a story on many levels, held together mostly through the character of Leonard Batts, a comics journalist who travels to Hicksville, in the far reaches of New Zealand, to research for the biography of one Dick Burger (I think the name will clue you in that he’s not going to be the hero of the tale) who grew up there. Hicksville is a tiny place where almost everyone seems to read and respect comics. The library houses international comic books of various types and has a press in the back. It is a fantastical comic artist wish fulfillment that speaks to the desire of an artist to be free of the business and commerical side of art. When Batts discovers a treasure trove of rare and expensive comics in the Hicksville lending library, Mrs. Hicks, the proprietor, notes that in Hicksville they don’t pay attention to how much comics are worth. Later in the story, Sam Zabel, a young cartoonist from Hicksville, meets Lou Goldman, a (fictional) famous comic artist. Goldman tells Zabel that he thought Hicksville was a metaphor. As a place where art is freed from commerce, Hicksville can serve as a metaphor for the artist freed of commercial constraint and popular prejudice (in the case of comics at least). Here is a place where Picasso would actually make comics in honor of George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat, which the historical Picasso really did read and love), where the local cafe is called “The Rarebit Fiend” (after a Winsor McCay comic strip), and where once a year everyone dresses up as a comics character for the Hogan’s Alley party (Hogan’s Alley being the place where the Yellow Kid lived). Here is the place where the great comic artists of the past created the works they wanted to create, rather than working their whole lives on corporate owned properties.

As Leonard asks questions, we learn more about the stories of other denizens of Hicksville, including Sam Zabel, a mini-comics creator who provides a few of the comics within the comic, and Grace Pekapeka, a botanist who moves through the story as the one perhaps least involved with comics. We also learn why everyone in Hicksville seems to hate Dick Burger, a classic research mystery that is not the book’s strongest story. It serves to provide the narrative momentum which connects the other elements of the book together. Through this mystery, Horrocks weaves together Zabel’s struggle between his art and his need to make money, Grace’s return to Hicksville to deal with the two men she left behind, Batts education on the comics business, the secrets of Hicksville itself, and a treatise on comics and maps.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the multiple comics-within-the-comic read by different characters: Sam Zabel’s autobiographical mini-comics; Dick Burger’s superhero comics (and their classic precursors); and the mysterious pages of a comic about Captain Cook, a Maori native, and a cartographer in New Zealand. Narratively, Horrocks does an excellent job of weaving these stories into the larger tale. Some are parsed out a panel or two at a time (the Captain Cook story), others are only partially glimpsed (Burger’s superheroes), and some are included in their entirety (Zabel’s mini’s). The embedded comics are formally differentiated by the use of either a comic book page frame or the use of a white margin in contrast to the book’s black margins for the top level story (that is, the story of Batts and Hicksville).

Horrocks originally serialized Hicksville over the course of a few years. His art matured during this time, growing from a simple unvarying line to more dynamic brush work. The weight of the line and the use of spot blacks adds strength and weight to the drawings in the latter part of the book. Many of the earlier pages have a simple cartoony style to them that gives the story a levity that evaporates later in the book when the drawings become more dense and dark. I must make special mention of the landscape backgrounds which are simple yet wonderfully evocative, particularly the vast skies and large clouds looming over the distant hills of the New Zealand countryside. These clouds also serve to visually tie together the top level story in Hicksville with the story of Captain Cook.

The art style changes very little from the main comic to the comics within the comic. Zabel’s stories (which, among others, make a nearly 50 page sequence in the middle of the book) are pretty much identical to the rest of the story. While this originally bothered me, only with further rereadings did I began to identify the character of Zabel more and more with Horrocks. In this context (of which more later) the similarity of art does not concern me as much as it had. On the other hand, some of the other interior comics are not differentiated enough. The Dick Burger stories have a different style but it is amateurish in appearance and not believable as the mega-popular superhero style it represents. While Horrocks does contrast the story style of Burger’s superheroes with that of his precursors, the art does not offer that same contrast, in this case the glossy all-surface quality that pervades such work. It is, though, in one of these precursors that Horrocks offers one of the best variations on his style. On one page, Zabel shows another character the original version of one of Burger’s superheroes. It happens that this occurs within Zabel’s mini-comic, so it’s really a comic within a comic within a comic. The superhero portion, drawn with a thick line and feathered hatching, contrasts greatly with the simple line style that surrounds it in Zabel’s work. This contrast forces the sequence out of place. It forces the reader to consider this fragment against that of Burger’s adaption in the surrounding comic.

This constrast, this jarring element, is where collage and the embedded narrative gain their power. The separate yet joined nature of collaged work or the sequentially adjacent yet stylistically different nature of, for instance, a novel within a novel create a powerful tension that leads to closer comparison between the elements as one tries to fit them together. A recent comics example is the use of the comic book within the comic of Sturm and Davis’ Unstable Molecules (Marvel, 2003). R Sikoryak’s pastiche style greatly contrasts with Davis’ drawings, putting the internal comic stories on a different plane than the “real” story, forcing the reader to work a little harder to compare the embedded comic with the fictional story around it. In a similar way, the Captain Cook comic within Hicksville would, I think, benefit from this kind of contrast. While the Zabel stories, autobiographical in nature, exist in the same time and world as the story around it, the Captain Cook stories not only represent historical content but also exist (within the fictional world, that is) as drawings from the past. The visual sameness of them with the main story takes away from their unique nature in the book.

The layouts in the book are mostly traditional, 6 or 9 panel grids, varying sizes as necessary. Horrocks makes great use of the half or two-thirds page panel to showcase the landscapes. In chapter eight, for one long scene he switches to a steady 4 panel page. The scene is the Hogan’s Alley costume party on the beach at Hicksville. The larger less frequent panels change the whole pacing of the story, slow it down. It convincingly represents being at a party where individual moments stand out from the hum of the background. This scene is also a rising moment to the climactic discovery of a few of the ongoing mysteries in the book.

Two of the more interesting sequences involve discussions of maps. One character (who turns out to be “Dylan Horrocks”) talks to a comic artist from the imaginary country of Cornucopia. The Cornucopian artist consideres himself a cartographer and describes comics as maps plotting space and time. This exchange: “So it’s still a comic even with no pictures?” “Perhaps. It is still a map. Why not?” brings me back to the Pictureless Comics I wrote about, brought on originally by something Horrocks wrote. The embedded comic about Captain Cook and New Zealand also deals with the idea of maps and the shifting of space and time, though less explicitly in relation to comics. We can link these two together to consider comics as a map of spatial relations shifting in time. In many ways, comics (particularly ongoing ones) are at first a stable map of relations, but they undergo shifting of relations across time (originally a one- off character, Popeye completely took over Thimble Theater). On the other hand, some comics may stay much more stable, such as Krazy Kat, where the relations between the three protagonists remain clearly mapped. Similarly, in Hicksville itself we see the shifting relations of characters, particularly around the character of Grace. This concept could also be looked at formally with the juxtaposed panels representing shifting moments in time, mapping a story both chronologically and spatially.

One thing about Hicksville, that had me a little confused and which I’ve had changing opinions on with each reading, is the opening prologue. In it, “Dylan Horrocks” gets mail from Hicksville, including some of the comics about Captain Cook. Later (thanks to a reading of Horrocks’ Atlas #1 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2001)) we can identify “Horrocks” as the character who talks to the Cornucopian cartoonist, with Grace as his translator. This clearly inserts “Horrocks” into the story as not only an observer but a participant in the story, creating a tension between the real and fictional worlds. Hicksville was originally published in Horrocks’ comic Pickle. Within the story, Sam Zabel’s mini- comic is also called “Pickle”. This leads me to identify Zabel as a Horrocks stand-in, yet we also know Horrocks exists in the story under his own name. Zabel’s “Pickle” is an autobiographical comic, while Horrock’s Pickle is not (at least on the most obvious level). In a way he has stood the autobiographical comic of the time (notably Seth, Chester Brown, and Joe Matt) on its head, creating a clearly fictional story with himself as a character that frames a autobiographical story of a fictional character.

Having now read the book three times, I still find myself trying to unravel more of the secrets within. The push and pull between the various narrative levels of the story lend themselves to rereadings and continued pleasure from the book, as well as the connections between the book and the world outside it. For instance, after such an extended fiction on the business of comics and the relations between art and commerce, Horrocks went on to work for DC Comics writing Batgirl and Hunter: The Age of Magic.

Horrocks’ unfinished Atlas (#2 finally coming out in February) appears to be a sequel of sorts to Hicksville. It features both “Dylan Horrocks” and Leonard Batts as well as the Cornucopian cartoonist. I look forward to Horrocks continuing exploration of this world in other books and what will no doubt be more rereadings of this book.

Sample pages from the book can be found at Horrocks’ website.