Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Dylan Horrocks talk about the digital distribution of his comics and working for the man. By the end of it, my brain was a little bigger.

It’s always nice when smart people say smart things about their smart work and I always liked Horrocks’ comics. I still have several issues of Pickle that I bought from the University of Otago bookstore for three dollars sometime in the nineties. And Hicksville is a stunning slice of pure comic that has more emotional resonance than a thousand superhero comics, while still celebrating the power of all the wonderful, wonderful comics that were ever dreamed. And all those lost masterpieces, and what they brought out in people.

I’ve never really heard many comic writers or artists talk about their work in person, probably because I live a million miles away from the rest of the world. I only went to my first comic convention last year and I’m thirty-fucking-four.

The internet has made it so much easier to catch up on conversations with comic creators, with great transcripts of interviews and the move towards more video. This one is a two-edged sword, as video interviews can shatter finely tuned perceptions of what creators are actually like. It can actually be pretty demoralising to find that somebody you always thought as pretty fucking cool is a complete fucking dork.

And this perception gets a lot more skewed when it comes to bloggers and other internet personalities, especially when they take to the podcast. I wish many of them would just step away from the mike, because with the distance from the written word eroded by instant voice recognition, it can get a whole lot painful. (Although I’m now completely fucking jealous of Tucker Stone, now that he has turned out to be just as funny on video as he is in print. Motherfucker.)

However, all this didn’t mean shit when I saw Horrocks speak, because he was genuinely amusing, perceptive, bloody smart and super cool.

The first thing I liked about hearing Horrocks talk was that for such a slight guy, he has a booming and massively infectious laugh. Although he is painfully self-deprecating, he can be quite emotionally open, from laughing about the Warners office building, which was just a bit too much for a boy from Aotearoa, to admitting that the cover to the second issue of Batgirl that had his name on it nearly made him cry.

This genuine openness meant the lucky few who had shown up to him speak felt his disappointment when he told us about the moment he realised he wouldn’t be working with the Barbara Gordon character, all groovy boots and stunning red hair, when he accepted the assignment to write the Batgirl comic.

But while it was fascinating to hear about what the writers of the Batman comics wear on their feet, it was even more interesting to hear Horrocks talk about the digital distribution issues that comics need to deal with soon.

As somebody who has dabbled in corporate-owned comics while slicing out his own unique and highly respectable corner of the medium, Horrocks’ main point seems to be that it’s pointless to fight the zeitgeist. People who try to do that get crushed beneath the wheels of  history.

Horrocks delighted in pointing out that there was opposition to recorded music, as performers thought it would kill their touring livelihood, as well as hesitation against the move towards home movie viewing that was sparked by the video recorder. Go back far enough, and you’ll probably find some monks moaning about that bloody new-fangled printing press putting them out of business.

Horrocks argued that anybody who has tried to halt history has been doomed to failure, and there is no reason why this isn’t happening again in the current transition.

The most refreshing thing about Horrocks’ attitude was his sheer wicked glee at seeing his work distributed on the internet, blown away that somebody would care enough about the things he created to bother doing that.

Hicksville has been a huge success for Horrocks, translated into a dozen languages and published around the world. But he still faces the massive problem of getting his work out there. He has worked with reasonably sized comics companies that have seen his work get into the hand of thousands of readers, something that he is truly grateful for.

And yet, if the difference between self publishing mini comics and publication through an established company is a readership of thousands, what does digital distribution offer?

Even with that success Hicksville has had, the one thing that Horrocks has created that was seen by far more people was one little cartoon he did on a piece of New Zealand copyright legislation. This legislation was spectacularly vague and could have resulted in real harm, until the government bowed to pressure from a wide variety of sources and pulled it.

During the backlash against the proposed moves, Horrocks was asked to produce a small cartoon on the subject, which he duly did and released out into the world.

You can see it here. Go have a look. It won’t hurt you.

That cartoon was picked up by a number of local political and technological sites, but Horrocks was also astonished to see it adorn the front page of The Pirate Bay.

As the biggest torrent site on the net, The Pirate Bay attracts millions of people looking for easy downloads, almost all of whom were exposed to Horrocks’ cartoon. For somebody who was still stapling his own comics together a decade or so ago, this kind of exposure was unprecedented.

The fact that it was The Pirate Bay that gave Horrocks more eyes on his work than ever before is pretty ironic, considering that site has been held up as the poster boy for internet evil, offering illegal downloads that harm the copyright owner, who then claims the artist is the ultimate victim.

Horrocks is one creator who doesn’t seem to have been harmed too much by the site. He even seemed quite chuffed to have a set of his Hunter: The Age of Magic comics available for download, if only because it meant he didn¹t have to disappoint people who asked them where they could read it. With no chance of a reprint and the individual issues lost in a thousand discount bins, now he can just throw them a link. It can be painful to have written a comic that people who want to read it can not read.

So Horrocks has put his money where his mouth is and started putting stuff up on the web. It gives him a greater exposure and is a surprisingly good motivator to get something done every day. To read his work on a daily basis gets a little hard to follow sometimes, but who has a right to complain when there is this much free comic coming so regularly? I’ll still buy the collected edition, because I’m not a cock, and after the painful wait for Atlas #2, it’s just bloody lovely to see new and regular stuff from the artist.

Seriously, don’t be a dick. Go have a look. It won’t hurt you and may be rewarding. If you haven’t read Horrocks’ comics, spend the fucking money and catch up, because he’s really that good.

And he’s bloody entertaining. The rest of the talk at the Auckland City Central Library a few weeks back was just stuffed with good anecdote and love for comics.

He talked about the danger of quoting Spice Girls songs, (despite the solid footing of fair usage) and the difficlty of being the writer of a Batman comic who still has a hard time finding a Bat-costume for his kid.

Still, Horrocks made a bit of money with his brief sojourns into mainstream comics and came up with a couple of nice moments, so it wasn’t a complete loss. At least the man was always acutely aware of the fact he was working for a corporation and that this means covers and ad placement might not always been to tastes, and could sometimes cross the line into completely offensive.

But he still recognized his place as a cog in a massive media machine, just there to service the brand in a corporation that is bigger than anything, and kept his eye on the prize of his own marvellous cartooning.

This has turned into a Dylan Horrocks love-a-thon, and I’m cool with that. This is a good place to stop, with five other things I learned from listening to Dylan Horrocks talk about comics:

* The impact in a powerpoint shift from covers to Horrocks’ DC work to his own, marvellously crude Pickle cover can be fucking stunning.

* Let the man write and draw a Barbara Gordon Batgirl comic. I would buy it, and so would all my friends.  

* We’re all sick of the cliché where anybody in a wheelchair in a comic or cartoon is a goddamn computer expert

* I don’t know shit about NZ comics.

* But I always fucking knew Scott McCloud was wrong about fucking micropayments.


Zom said...

Not actually very keen on the cartoon that ran on Pirate Bay. There is a big difference between all those other technologies and the Internet, namely that it does hold the power to radically undermine the music and film and television industries. In fact some would argue that the music industry *has* been radically undermined.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not down with the scaremongers, and frankly I'd like to see a lot of the prevailing consumerist structures undermined, but I think we should be honest about the potential of this technology.

The real issue, right now, is that copyright laws are in need of immediate revision. They are completely unfit for purpose in our current environment.

Nice overview of the situation here: http://www.philosophytalk.org/pastShows/CopyrightWars.html

Jesse Farrell said...

Aw, cut McCloud some slack on micropayments. At least he proposed- and even tried to implement- a solution to the problem of online creators getting paid for their work. Sure, he was wrong on that one, but he was right about plenty of other stuff.

I love this site, by the way.

Bob Temuka said...

Oh yeah, Horrocks also made the point that McCloud is usually more right than wrong, and probably gets more out of people arguing the finer points with him than he does from his actual point.

I was just happy because I remember seeing the thing about micropayments when I read Reading Comics for the first time and thinking that there was no way in hell it was ever going to fly, and it's always nice when other smart people tell me I was right all along.

Especially when I'm usually horribly, horribly wrong about things like this.

Zom: Yeah, the cartoon does put forward a simplistic argument, but it's just a cartoon that makes a couple of nice little points, and I always have a total hard-on for cartoons like that. Again, Horrocks was quite open about the fact that it is a massively complex issue that a little one-pager could never fully articulate, but it's just a nice little slice of the overall argument.

Plus, I just really dig the way Horrocks draws fat businessmen.