ReWind Vol 5: Hicksville
I thought with this ReWind it would be a good opportunity to revisit a New Zealand classic: Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville. This felt timely too as the cartoonist has just been nominated for an Eisner for his excellent Incomplete Works. Hicksville is where many people started falling in love with Horrocks’ work, and for those who haven’t read Horrocks yet this is the perfect place to start. Originally published in 1998, the above cover is from the 2010 edition which is also the one I am reading for this ReWind.
So up front, Hicksville is a town but it’s more than that, Hicksville is as much a sentiment as it is a physical place. Hicksville is where you feel at home, where you are safe, and where the most important things to you can rest undefiled… mostly. But I am getting ahead of myself already.
We begin in this edition with an introduction, an addition from the original printing, and it is a beautifully illustrated piece of biographic comic making. For those who haven’t read many comics outside of those containing supermen and barbarians a work like this should be able to push open that door of possibility for you of what comics are and can be. The introduction is warm and confessional in a way that acts as a nice tonal primer for the main work to follow.
So Hicksville, the story:
Leonard Betts, a comics journalist, makes a trip across the Atlantic to Hicksville New Zealand to look into the history of the unlikely rise of the most successful man ever in comics: Dick Burger, creator of Captain Tomorrow. However he is promptly met with a series of rebukes from most of the townsfolk regarding anything to do with Mr. Burger. Betts gets the distinct impression that Mr. Burger is not a popular man in his hometown. A hometown, by the way, that revolves completely around comics. The name ‘Dick Burger’ is quite telling up front, to be honest, of what to expect from the man but it’s also quite an apt description of a few people I know too…
“…Hicksville is as much a sentiment as it is a physical place…”
As Leonard’s investigation continues he comes to find that there is something special in the town, and in creation in general, and that Burger, after his own fame and fortune, desecrated this and now is an outcast in the only real place he can call home.
Some of the story, of the investigation and of the history of Mr. Burger, is told through the recollections of Sam Zabel, a rather lovable socially awkward cartoonist (is there any other kind really?). Zabel’s life has been chronicled in some of Horrocks other work (see Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen) too but this is a great introduction. Zabel is struggling with his muse and also with whether he can reconcile himself with putting out comics (a strip called ‘Pickle’) that he doesn’t like himself.
We also have the character of Grace, she is introduced as a bit of a snob I suppose but as we read on we find her story runs parallel with the main investigation in interesting ways… But more on Grace later.
So, we have a main mystery to solve: ‘Who is Dick Burger and why is he hated in Hicksville?’, but I find that the least interesting thing about Hicksville, and that’s a compliment. There is more to the story, to Hicksville, that this rather straightforward plot. This is where Hicksville is able to become more than a standard A to B, B to C work and it is its strength. One will likely telegraph the reveal towards the end and that’s fine, it doesn’t detract at all because the charm is not in the plot, it’s in the characters. A big theme is the struggle of identity and what happens when you allow others to control it or when you give it up for rewards, can you ever get it back?
But while I say all this I mustn’t neglect that fact that Hicksville is also a comic about comics, comic creators, and comic readers. It’s a letter to a lover you never end up posting, full of things you can’t take back. But Horrocks did post this one and we are all the better for it.
Hicksville focuses on the heart and the role that plays in stories, and what you get when you neglect it. This theme is played with in the contrasts between old and modern versions of its fictional superheroes ‘Lady Night’ and ‘Captain Tomorrow’ but also by the mystery comic strip that keeps popping into Leonard Betts’ life. The strip features three characters; the surveyor who charts the land, the captain who charts the skies, and the Maori chief who charts the soul. Something for the comic journalist to ponder perhaps?
Look, while I am being arty and probably way off the mark with my interpretations let me double down and not forget the pretty little interludes into existentialism, and ontological debates Hicksville contains. How Horrocks managed to add little snippets of philosophy without sounding or feeling like an entitled 1st Year I just don’t know. How he did this while keeping those plates of narrative, character, and interest still spinning also has me stumped, but he succeeded (there’s a nice little scene where foreign language, and not being able to understand it, is used as a metaphor for ideas one isn’t ready for, lovely).
What else is there in this deceptively dense little tome? Well, there is a rather scathing commentary on the comics industry. Horrocks takes us into the idea of the sacred and then of the profane, of the differences between stories done with love and stories done for it. Dick Burger, the man at the head of an empire of trash is surrounded by those who have to compromise in order just to survive and Horrocks gives us a picture of the kind of industry (and people) that this leaves us with.
We are taken through this world by Zabel and he becomes a moral compass for us. He doesn’t want any part of this big empire of chiseled (in pencil) abs and big busts he just wants to make comics that mean something to him. Zabel doesn’t want to be told what is ‘funny’ or what is cool. He gives us the little beacon of light we need, just like a little lighthouse on the edge of town.
“…Hicksville is a warm call to comics as an ideal and a bit of an angry snap at comics in reality…”
The discussion of the comics industry at large is one of the most lingering critiques that sticks with you here. The bloated celebrity filled parties, the vacuous, sycophantic entourages, urrggh! While the ‘comics world’ is overblown and exaggerated in Hicksville (comic creators are not the main attraction at big events like Comic Con in the real world sadly) it does highlight something we find with comics often; a heightened subjectivity where comics mean lots to the creators so they mean lots to the worlds they create. It’s a nice fantasy and one I am more than happy to indulge in.
I am probably sounding like a right twat here but there is something about Horrocks’ body of work, beyond the intellectualizing, that softens up even an old grump like me and makes me remember why I love comics in the first place. Horrocks’ work has a yearning, and comics, good comics, make you feel like you are at home not just the home you live in now but an ideal home, somewhere safe and supportive (Does the town of Hicksville feel familiar now?).
I must say I am rather surprised that Horrocks went on to get work with big companies like DC and Marvel after this volume as he seems to take a rather heavy swing at the mainstream industry presenting it as mostly filled with vapid, compromised, servile, hacks. That makes me chuckle, and I suppose that’s another victory because if presented differently that could easily make me cry 😉
But beyond the story a big stamp of originality to Hicksville is the art, and Horrocks’ art is fun. The black and white, sometimes contrasty, sometimes flat and open work, straddles lines of caricature and realism for figures and panels. Hands, especially closeups of them, feel real enough to touch yet often faces are cartoon-ish yet expressive and communicative. The presentation of rural NZ is gorgeous and perhaps the thing I like most about it. It’s homely and warm and done with affection whilst capturing something of the personality of rural Kiwi life and the isolation that is welcome and not frightening in these areas.
“…[Horrocks] seems to take a rather heavy swing at the mainstream industry presenting it as mostly filled with vapid, compromised, servile, hacks…”
As mentioned, the figure work can vary but there does seem to be a consistency with the character of Grace. Her pencils and inks, at least to me, seems more detailed, she seems more real and this makes her feel more vulnerable and three dimensional. Team this with her story, of leaving and returning to her hometown in order to find her herself, of still being a bit lost, is not a plot driver at all but is a nice contrast to Burger (She leaves a piece of herself at home and Burger takes a piece of home with him).
Grace’s story and her interaction with a host of characters here really elevates the commentary beyond that of just ‘having a go’ at systems that reward dis-ingenuousness. But it’s this interweaving of the art and the story that is so striking about Hicksville, attention has been paid to the craft beyond the normal expectation of just plastering in clever layouts, glossy colors, and action scenes. It’s hard to separate the art and writing as they are so closely woven together in Hicksville and that is unfortunately a rarity today.
So look let me take a breath, this ReWind has been all over the place I know that. It’s been the hardest to write of all the articles thus far perhaps because I just want to say so much about it (sometimes when you try to take something apart you have no idea quite how to reassemble it again). It’s a tribute to Horrocks’ work though that he packed Hicksville with so many little touches that mean so much.
In the end Hicksville is a warm call to comics as an ideal and a bit of an angry snap at comics in reality. Hicksville is the place characters, and we, can go to heal or to escape, its about finding out how to be ourselves and not being who others want us to be. Can it be coincidence that the light in the dark, the house that keeps men from crashing on the rocks is also a repository of great significance in the town? Maybe, but if we do decide to play a little game of metaphor with this charming tale then there are plenty lessons we can all teach ourselves.
Hicksville is a joy to read and revisit and perfect for when you need a pick me up: Pop into Hicksville it works like a charm, just like home.
PS: The term ‘hicksville’ where I live is rather derogatory, its used to describe a place out of touch, isolated and where nothing much ever happens. Sounds perfect to me.
Hicksville is available now pretty much everywhere you can get comics. It’s printed by the fantastic Drawn and Quarterly so support Horrocks and these publishers when you can and that way we will never (hopefully) run out of diverse and interesting works made with heart and just a little bit of bite.