by Dylan Horrocks
Drawn & Quarterly
A decade or so after it’s initial publication, this second printing of Horrocks’ Hicksville proves that it really was a graphic novel ahead of it’s time. Were it published today, I like to imagine that it would be talked of alongside Clowes and Ware, heralded by the Guardian and beloved by the literati set, with Jonathan Cape tripping over themselves in the UK to get the rights.
Or, equally possible, it might be one of those that’s just a little too rooted in comic nostalgia to ever really make it up there with Clowes and Ware. Because Hicksville’s story of the little town, “hidden at the bottom of the world” where “the locals are friendly, and everyone loves comics” may just be a little too concerned with the world of comics to really, truly breakout. But for anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of comics it’s something truly spectacular.
(From Horrocks’ introduction to Hicksville – a beautiful, heartfelt evocation of what comics mean to him, past and present. From Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
It all starts off with a new 13 page introduction by Horrocks (done, as all the best introductions by comic artists are, in comic form) that manages with just those few pages to be one of the best pieces of autobiographical comics I’ve read in a long time.
Dealing wistfully and affectionately with his own comic reading past and the difficulties he’s had in comics since finishing Hicksville, it’s nostalgic, melancholic and gently beautiful.
(Also from Horrocks’ introduction (told you I liked it) – where it went wrong, where comics managed to break Dylan’s heart. From Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, published by Drawn & Quarterly.)
Although the excellence of the introduction, coupled with the beautiful, smooth and clear line of his 2010 artwork does mean it’s a little jarring to plunge straight into the story with his rather rougher, but no less enjoyable (give it a moment for your eyes and brain to adjust) artwork and story from 1998.
It’s something Horrocks touches on himself in his introduction:
“I still wince at a lot of the drawing… And I have to fight the urge to redo the whole book from scratch.”
Hicksville is all about comics, about how they make us feel, us fans, us students of the form. They will, as he quotes Kirby right at the start: “… break your heart“.
And Horrocks uses Hicksville to illustrate everything he feels so passionately about comics. It’s perfectly paced, emotional, nostalgic, magical and a great, great graphic novel.
Hicksville is a most peculiar comics loving town, where most of its inhabitants are near evangelical about comics as an artistic medium, where the postman discusses his love of the mini-comics of Ed Pinsent and Chris Reynolds and the bookshop and lending library, run by kindly old Mrs Hicks, stocks everything from obscure undergrounds from as far afield as Mongolia and Finland alongside multiple copies of every copy of Action Comics from issue 1.
And they’re all treated the same – everything in Hicksville is about celebrating comics the medium without any contamination from comics the industry.
(Hicksville’s bookshop and lending library – a magical place, where the most valuable comics in the world sit alongside obscure alternative zines – and both are beloved by Hicksville’s comic loving residents. From Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, published by Drawn & Quarterly.)
Into Hicksville walks Leonard Batts, journalist for “Comics World” magazine, with an idea to investigate Hicksville’s most famous son; Dick Burger, multi-millionaire comic creator and the most powerful man in the comics industry with his Captain Tomorrow series.
But Burger left Hicksville just as he found his first brush with success – and he didn’t leave on best terms with the population of this very special little town – something Batts quickly discovers as he starts researching his new book on Burger:
(Leonard meets Grace. And quickly finds out how little regard she, like the rest of Hicksville, has for Dick Burger. His investigation into the reasons for this enmity provide the narrative structure through Dylan Horrocks’ Hickville.)
The thing is, when Batts went out to Burger’s pallatial LA home he found the multi-millionaire comic maker just as resolutely tight-lipped and reluctant almost to the point of antagonism to talk about Hicksville as the town was about Burger.
Something is obviously going on, and through Batts we’re on our journey to find out what. This journey takes us back to LA, to see Hicksville’s autobiographical mini comicker Sam Zabel trying to get his break in LA (a break we get to see go very wrong in Pickle – the mini comic within the Hicksville pages). It takes us into New Zealand myth, with the mysterious Kupe and a library that is simply Tapu (sacred) and Taonga (treasure) to the Maori ancestors.
But it’s quite obvious from Horrocks’ tale, building up to a fine emotional crescendo, that the sacred treasure is comics themselves, comics the artform, comics as expression.
And between Batts’ investigation into the secret that links Burger and Hicksville and Horrocks’ use of the dichotomy between the commercial success of Burger and the artistic dream of a pure comics medium represented by Hicksvillle we achieve something quite magnificent.
Some may describe it (and The Comics Journal did) as a “love letter to the comics medium”. But it’s analysis of the medium, the inescapable triumph of commerce over art seen in the success of Burger over the isolationist stance of the independent loving Hicksville-ians doesn’t seem that tender a piece to me. This is Horrocks using his fiction to imagine what might have been, what could have been in a more artistically aligned world. And he’s not shy in naming names and putting his case that something went very wrong with the artform a long time gone.
It may have passed the Guardianista crowd by, but don’t, whatever you do, make the same mistake. Hicksville is staggeringly good, a perfect exploration of all that is right, and much that is wrong, with this beautiful, unique medium.