At one point the session’s chair, Paul Gravett, turned gravely to the audience, a look of warning in his eyes, ‘We’re a bunch of geeks up here on stage’. Did he think we hadn’t noticed? After all, we had come to a literary festival discussion about graphic novels featuring Kiwi cartoonists Dylan Horrocks and Roger Langridge. Comic book geeks was what we had come to see, and, blistering barnacles! (as they say in Tintin) we got what we wanted.
These geeks certainly know what they are talking about. Horrocks and Langridge are indisputably the best-known cartoonists out of New Zealand and between them and Paul Gravett, they know the history too. The audience was treated to an hour and more of yarns about New Zealand comics past and present and it was a sparking discussion.
In the beginning there was Eric Resetar. He was an Auckland schoolboy cartoonist in World War II, and, with Victoria Park humming with Captain-America deprived US GIs, he started a business complete with a New Zealand government paper ration and was the ‘ancestor of the small press’ in NZ comic publishing. With titles like An All Black on Mars, it’s no wonder that he did well.
Small presses and underground publishing are the story of comics in New Zealand and if you forge ahead to the 1980s, well, then there was the photocopier. Don’t laugh if you’re under 30 – this was revolutionary.
Having the means to make cheap paper copies allowed nascent cartoonists like Horrocks and Langridge to start guerrilla publishing. It was the beginning of the mini comic and the birth of Pickle by Horrocks and Art d’Ecco by Langridge. Both were published in Auckland University’s student magazine, Craccum, and self-photocopied editions, but of course these talented young kiwis wanted more and there were no opportunities for comic careers at home and, like so many like them, then and now, they left.
Horrocks spent his OE drawing Pickle and photocopying it in the London Waterstones where he worked and it was eventually picked up by a Canadian publisher. Langridge came to London with a stash of Art d’Ecco minis to show to publishers and Fantagraphics took them on in 1989.
It was from the mini comics that Horrocks’ first graphic novel evolved. Horrocks describes Pickle as being gradually taken over by Hicksville, and this graphic novel would secure Horrocks’ international reputation and push him into mainstream work – initially Batgirl for DC – but his time following the tired superhero mores of Batgirl was not a happy experience. ‘It was almost like I lost my faith in storytelling and art’.
For Langridge, an individual style of storytelling has led to hitting the comic big time. In 1999 he found that work had dried up, and so Fred the Clown was born. ‘Every good thing that had happened to me happened because of Fred the Clown’ and he describes the series as the work he goes back to ‘when I have lost my way’. Wry language, dark humour, slightly disquieting characterisation – it’s rich stuff. If what Langridge says about Fred is true, then that clown has a lot to answer for – a quick peek at the cartoonist’s résumé would even impress people who are not buffs.
Whether working for the mainstream or not, both cartoonists have individual voices and styles emerge in whatever they do, as the quick-fire career highlights slideshow narrated by Gravette revealed. Horrocks draws with elegant, cool lines which sometimes make his work elegiac (look at the series Atlas) while Langridge seems to gravitate towards a subversive vaudeville grotesque, which characterised Fred and which has made him the perfect artist for things like Popeye, Doctor Who, The Muppets and now Snarked, a comic for children based on characters in Alice through the Looking Glass. Langridge comments that his interaction with the mainstream ‘has always been fringe because my style isn’t mainstream’.
We were reminded in this session that it’s not just action heroes in this genre – it’s a narrative art form that individual style and approach define and redefine, and Horrocks and Langridge have barrels of originality between them.
Of course Horrocks’ graphic novels examine the genre more eloquently than anything. For a wry take on the formulaic nature of superhero comics look at ‘Chapter Two: Lady Night’ of his new graphic novel, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (Knockabout £14.99). It’s a satirical examination of fantasy and fulfilment in art and perhaps it best sums up the hour and a half (should have been an hour, but Cartoonist God Kings (read Sam Zabel for reference) do not follow schedules – but if they tell good stories, we don’t care) we spent with Horrocks and Langridge. It even has a chapter inspired by Resetar.
Sam Zabel is full of zeal and love … and cynicism of comics as a genre – and Horrocks and Langridge displayed plenty of all three at the event – but optimism too. And back in New Zealand, maybe three cartoonists earn a living from their work. It’s not many, but it’s a step up from none in the 1980s, and there is even an indie comic press, Pikitea.
So take us to the last page of Sam Zabel and what do we have? A hand, a pen, a blank page. Endless possibility.
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Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London