This collection of work from acclaimed New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks goes as far back as 1986, and it compiles a trajectory that makes a lot of sense. Incomplete Works from Alternative Comics reveals that Horrocks’ earliest creations were is that of a cartoonist who starts out well-realized and with an enticing depth, and who manages to build from there.
Horrocks’ earlier stories read more like poetry, though they are narrative, though they don’t necessarily dispense with narrative. They do exude some form of wandering loneliness, in many places featuring Horrocks measuring his feelings against the environment around him, whether it’s his local nightlife or a more rural landscape by day.
It’s in the third story, also called “Incomplete Works,” that we see this tone come together with form familiar to current readers of Horrocks. In it, a cartoonist — Sam Zabel, from Horrocks’ recent book — is compelled to work on a certain comic, while others attempt to crowd out the preferred work, and fellow cartoonists suggest Zabel does otherwise. It’s delivered in with the same language as the previous poetry, but with more a deadpan humor and an awareness of comics genres that has become so evident in his work.
“The Last Fox Story” takes the poetic and autobiographical feeling of the previous stories and puts it into something nearer a storybook format, ironically focusing on Horrocks’ relationship with comics in all aspects. Though the presentation is anything but comics, the narrative focuses in on fears and anxiety involved in creating and consuming comics, thus building on “Incomplete Works,” but addressing it in a direct way.
As Horrocks’ work continues, he finds a balance for poetry and comics, weaving in narratives that allow for the opaqueness of his words but are brought out in his visual work. His love of the comics form reaches peak with the revisionist history of “Captain Cook’s Comic Cuts,” a hilarious essay that retraces Captain James Cook’s unknown side-work as a cartoonist during his years exploring.
Juxtapose that with “There Are No Words In My Mouth,” a short piece that lets his visuals handle the poetry in its stark portrayal of the life of one Holocaust victim, using the comics form, including the concept of page layouts and word balloons, as making a point about the grief infused in the work. Between the two, Horrocks’ versatility as a cartoonist are well-covered.
Horrocks also looks at detachment from art, the condition where one can yearn to express oneself, but become bogged down in the systems of delivery. “The Physics Engine” follows a game designer who sets out to create a whole new world and begins to consult with other designers while doing so. It’s an examination of creativity, but specifically from the vantage point of not being able to give yourself to it.
For a more academic yet personal examination of his relationship with comics, there’s an appreciation of eccentric New Zealand cartoonist which Barry Linton, which most interestingly features a visit to his studio, which reveals a pile of new, unpublished work and a form of creative purity that does not include publishing as a crucial part of the comics-making process. That’s interesting in context of Horrocks’ other meditations on the form, which would seem to include the publishing part as crucial, but always acknowledge a private aspect that not everyone can access.
Horrocks revisits this idea in his “Cartoonist’s Diary,” which mixes his own work and accounts of his dreams with encounters with the work of obscure cartoonists and the revelation that the world is filled with undiscoverable comics.
The collection is filled with small bits and bobs that serve to flesh it out. Any given work alone is nice enough work, but their interest lies in their connection with other works by Horrocks.
If you’ve never encountered Horrocks before, this probably isn’t the place to start — the recent Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen or Hicksville are both excellent books and are surely better for that purpose. If you are already a fan, though, this is an enlightening and delicious compliment to those that reveals the way his brain works and builds up to the larger stories he tells.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.