Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks Review


Cartoonist Sam Zabel is burned out on comics. Suffering from anhedonia (the absence of pleasure, of joy), he sets aside his indie book Pickle for writing the banal superhero Lady Night for Eternal Comics, hacking out scripts he hates to earn a living. Then one day he discovers a forgotten New Zealand cartoonist, Evan Rice, and his comic The King of Mars. Opening the pages, he sneezes, opens his eyes and… he’s inside the comic’s world! So begins Sam’s fantastical odyssey through sequential art… 

Dylan Horrocks’ Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is the timely exploration of women in comics, particularly with how they were and are represented. In a positive development, more women today are reading comics than ever before, the numbers growing with each passing year, which is starting to be reflected in Marvel and DC’s focus on bringing female (along with non-white) characters and creators to the fore. 

The question posed in Horrocks’ book is whether we are morally responsible for our fantasies. Sure, the idea of fantasy is just that: a fantasy, and it’s there to be enjoyed for what it is, not picked apart. But someone’s idea of fantasy is often not someone else’s, ie. violently assaulting women. More to the point, do cartoonists have a responsibility in how they portray women? Comics do shape and form part of the wider culture, especially given the immense popularity of comic book movies - if women are drawn as “generic erotic playthings for men to use and abuse as they wish”, shouldn’t that change to improve the culture? 

A lot of that criticism is levelled at Golden Age comics from the ‘50s which had no qualms in denigrating women. Which isn’t to say all creators have necessarily lascivious intentions - the joy of creation is expounded upon, something Sam is missing, but other comics creators, like Evan Rice, possess when making their comics. For them, comics are an escape and thoughts of sexism, etc. don’t come into it but can be a subconscious byproduct. 

Horrocks also romanticises the simplicity and relative innocence of superhero comics from that era. Through the Lady Night character, he talks about his dislike of how modern superheroes have become too dark and gritty, oversexed, rebooted and redesigned far too many times (it’s worth noting Horrocks wrote a run on Batgirl for DC roughly ten years ago, his only superhero work-for-hire to date). 

These are points of view I fully agree with but I still thought the book ended up being a tad too preachy in its points, the story and its characters becoming secondary to the message. That and the unoriginal Edgar Rice Burroughs-ness of the Mars story made it a little dull to read. Sam’s arc was also a bit too neat and unconvincingly underwritten in its resolution too - that whistle-stop tour/celebration of the medium was a little heavy-handed. Also, the ending about the magic pen itself is very, very cheesy in an after-school special way even though it fits in with the overall theme of the book and Horrocks is clearly being very earnest. 

I really liked the art. The clean lines and the black dotted eyes reminded me of Tintin (one of Herge’s books also appears in a panel), and I liked how he illustrated in a Golden Age facsimile when it came to those pages. The colours are mostly very bright, imaginative and appealing too. If it wasn’t for all the bewbs (the green women of Venus - because women are from Venus, men are from Mars - are all topless), I’d say it looks like a very kid-friendly comic! 

Dylan Horrocks’ Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is a decent comic that I wanted to like more because of what it was aiming for but only felt ambivalent about because of its uninspired over-reliance on well-established genres to tell its story. Necessary, yes, but not very compelling either. It’s a fine comic though, thoughtful and drawn really well. The indie crowd will read this but it should really be superhero readers - and creators - who pick this one up.

Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen

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