In Acrossing the Miles, The Beat’s intrepid Animal Crossing travel reporter Avery Kaplan will leave her home base on Dharma Island to soar across the Dodo skies and visit the finest creators in comics on their respective virtual islands. In today’s entry, it’s into the Crisis Zone as she visits Simon Hanselmann on the island of Tasmania!
On the afternoon of October 28th, 2020, I arrived on Tasmania, the Animal Crossing island of cartoonist Simon Hanselmann.
When I exited the Tasmania airport, Simon had just received some upsetting news.
“Actually, it’s one o’clock, I’m drinking,” Simon said. “I just found out Ward Zwart, a Belgian cartoonist friend of mine, passed away, so the European punk comics community is in mourning this morning. Aisha Franz, Anna Haifisch, Antoine Maillard, and the kuš people were all commiserating. I poured out a drink into the wet earth out by the bamboo bush in Ward’s honor.”
In spite of the loss, Simon was a warm and welcoming host. Given that I was wearing an outfit assembled from items obtained from Gullivarrr, the conversation quickly turned to the wayward seagull.
“It’s this weird split personality thing,” said Simon. “I read a theory that Gulliver is intentionally crashing on the island because he wants to be your friend. He keeps making up these stories… He’s just dressing up! He’s trying to be a different person, he’s trying on different personalities. He’s a deeply lonely individual… he’s just trying to make friends in the only way he knows how!”
But while Simon may find Gulliver’s plight sympathetic, the bird’s gifts can still be frustrating: “Last week, Gulliver, the regular vanilla Gulliver, gave me the ponytail wig, and I was incensed… I was very angry.”
Simon, who is originally from Tasmania, told me there was a particular reason the name “Tasmania” was chosen for the Animal Crossing island: “I wanted to call it ‘Stinktown,’ but I don’t think there was enough characters in the naming thing, so I had to settle. You know, what summons up something that sounds like ‘Stinktown’? Tasmania. A small island, full of strange reprobates.”
Close to the island entrance is a fake Gallant Statue, based on Michelangelo’s statue of David. Simon revealed that Grizzly the bear has a particular interest in the statue’s genitals: “He just… he stares at it. And they carry around a little magnifying glass sometimes, to look at bugs. But it’s funny when Grizzly is there, just, his eyes locked on the midsection of the statue, holding a magnifying glass.”
Naturally, we had to meet Tasmania’s most notable patron of the arts. Inside Grizzly’s house, Simon told me that the bear’s impeccable flannel top lead to a reticence to provide any new clothing – with the exception of some particular headgear.
“I gave him a little construction hat once,” Simon said. “So it’s in the corner, he put it aside, he doesn’t wear it. But for one day he did wear it, and he looked quite cute in his little construction hat. The other residents can all go to hell, it’s just Grizzly.”
Simon’s wife has had some complaints about the tight layout of Tasmania, but perhaps the island layout is echoed in Simon’s comics.
“I’m famous for my 12-grids,” Simon conceded. “I think all my books have predominantly used the 12-grid. I used to always use the 8-grid.”
Curious about the benefit of this rigid panel placement?
“Mostly it’s the pacing,” Simon told me. “I want my comics to sort of read like animation, just breathe, I’m not trying to distract anyone with dazzling panel layouts or anything tricky. Which I don’t object to, but…“
Simon had some insight into the oft-used 9-grid, as well: “Don’t like a 9-grid because all the panels look tall. 9-grid, people who use huge amounts of exposition and text, so you can have text up at the top and the bottom of the panel and have a central sort of image zone. “
At the center of Tasmania is a dirty city section, where the shops are located.
Also near the city center is a full arcade. Simon has been playing games in the Animal Crossing series since it arrived on the GameCube, when great lengths were necessary to obtain the minidisc.
“I didn’t pay my landlord the rent in real life so I could buy Animal Crossing,” Simon told me. “I was just like, fuck it. I was probably a bit drunk or something, I just decided, ‘Whatever, I’ll just buy Animal Crossing, and whatever happens with the rent, who cares?’”
Since then, Simon has played every entry in the series, including Happy Home Designer. But New Horizons was the first Animal Crossing game played by Simon’s wife.
“I forced my wife to play Animal Crossing at the start of the quarantine. She was really angry that I bought a Nintendo Switch Lite for her, before they got really rare, and a copy of Animal Crossing.”
But like so many other Animal Crossing skeptics, she found she couldn’t resist the allure: “She’s finally got into it, and adores it,” said Simon. “The perfect quarantine game!”
“Off to the left, you’ll find the turtle prison,” Simon said. “These reprobate turtles keep turning up on my beaches. They’re snapping at peoples’ bottoms, they’re tearing peoples’ pants off like an old Coppertone commercial. So yeah, they’ve been locked up.”
Elsewhere on Tasmania, Simon had Stonehenge on display, which was acquired in the early days of playing Animal Crossing.
“When Animal Crossing first hit in March, I was like, Animal Crossing crazy,” Simon recalled. “I was saying to Megg and Mogg fans online, ‘I’ll come to your island and I’ll draw digitally on your notice board if you give me a certain item.’ So I scammed Stonehenge from a fan!”
According to Simon, the acquisition was followed by regret. “At the time I didn’t know it was a Gulliver item, I feel really bad now. Because you know, they gave up their Stonehenge. I feel terrible. I wish I could track them down and say, ‘Look, take it back.’ I feel bad. But they did get a worthless digital drawing from me. I suppose that’s something.”
Somehow, I suspect the fan is perfectly satisfied with the drawing they recieved in the exchange.
Quarantined in the Bungeon
Simon said that in addition to Grizzly, there was one other type of animal resident necessary on the digital isle of Tasmania: some rabbits.
I had to ask Simon about the rescue rabbits, who it turns out, are under their own quarantine for RHDV (which was mentioned in the June 18th entry of Crisis Zone). The aggressive rabbit plague means that the rescue rabbits have been sequestered away in the “bungeon” (a portmanteau of “bunny dungeon”), the bunny-friendly basement of Simon’s house.
“Lincoln and Monty are my favorites,” Simon said. “They come upstairs every night and they romp around and do their little jumps and have some apple… Feeding the rabbits their oats and their hay, it’s a good sort of thing to ground you, to sort of keep you focused throughout the quarantine.”
While noting that the devastation caused by the pandemic has been awful, Simon remarked that the quarantine has been personally manageable.
“I’ve been sitting in rooms alone scratching at paper every day of my life for the last, you know, 25 years,” Simon said. “This is not hard for me. But I know it is hard for so many people, it’s a really weird time. We’re all doing what we can.”
Although skeptical about the concept in the past, Simon said that self-care was an important consideration while under quarantine.
“I used to make fun of self-care and stuff. But it really is so important just to take care of yourself,” Simon said. “Play the Animal Crossing, just try to unwind. Don’t feel guilty about it. I feel guilty sometimes. All this hardcore shit is going down, movements and pandemics, and you know, sitting around playing Animal Crossing and drawing these comics… People still need entertainment, people still need distractions, we still need to take care of ourselves and not be constantly mired in bad news. It’s a tough balance.”
Before the Crisis Zone
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear when comic conventions (or any traveling outside of Animal Crossing) will be safe and feasible once again. I asked Simon whether the break from conventions was inducing relief or nostalgia.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Simon. “It’s a bit of yes and no, Avery.”
Simon reflected that not having to engage in too much travel was a nice departure from the 2020 he had originally scheduled.
“When the quarantine hit, I was supposed to go off to Lucerne, Switzerland, and then Spain. I was going to go to Mallorca, it was going to be lovely, and then France, and all these other countries.” Simon sighed. “And it is exhausting! You find yourself in Colombia in the back of a cab just saying, ‘Ah, fuck, I’m wrecked – I was in Russia last week. Fucking hell!’ It’s been weirdly nice to just stay home.”
There was one convention Simon said had was particularly missed.
“Short Run, because that’s my favorite show – now my hometown show,” Simon said. “I think Kelly Froh and all the people who put it together do a bang-up job, and the new venue is incredible. That’s one where I can drag my life-sized mannequins down and really have a nice table. Table craft! I miss table craft, I really do. I always have props and try to make it an experience for people, when I can.”
Simon told me that missing out on cons wasn’t a problem financially.
“I go to CAKE in Chicago and I lose money on the flights and the Air B&B,” Simon said. “It’s great to hang out with people and go to cool after parties, but you’re sitting at a card table and losing money.”
That being said, Simon does miss the social aspects of conventions.
“It’s usually just the after parties that are the best thing; it’s just the camaraderie of talking to people and putting a face to a name,” said Simon. “I’ve met all my fuckin’ heroes at all these conventions. If we don’t go back to normal, that’s what I feel bad for young cartoonists who are getting in the game and have their heroes they want to meet. You can’t meet people anymore.”
Speaking of things that can’t be done during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: in summer 2019, Simon had an art exhibition, “Simon Hanselmann: Bad Gateway,” at the Bellevue Art Museum.
“The curator there, Ben Heywood, lovely gentleman, he was a fan of mine. He knew of my work,” said Simon. “I was like, ‘I want to make a shitty Disney World, and make rooms within rooms with light control, build a giant tree, you know, make this shit real.’ And yeah, they let me!”
At the time, Simon had just completed work on the graphic novel Bad Gateway, which totaled 3,764 hours of work.
“I went over there every day, directly after I finished Bad Gateway, which was a really lonely, grinding, horrible thing at the end,” Simon explained. “I was just alone, painting all day, 18 hours a day; it was depressing, it was grinding. And to go and work with a lovely team of people and do this problem solving like, ‘How are we going to do this.’ There was a water feature and stuff, we were like weighing down plants and waterproofing mannequins… all this crazy shit. It was lovely!”
In addition to multiple mannequin displays, all 3,764 hours of Simon’s work on Bad Gateway were arranged on the walls “like a tapestry,” allowing visitors to engage with it as a narrative, or to simply “appreciate it as a manic outpouring of work.”
Simon was quite pleased with reactions to the exhibition.
“All sorts of artistic wanking, people wrote wanky things about it. Stuff about the opioid epidemic,” Simon said. “You know, it actually made an impact on certain posh assholes. They got a bit of an empathetic link to this shit… It was a great fucking show. It’ll never happen again. I’m really glad I got to do it.”
Into the Crisis Zone
While many readers may have been introduced to Megg, Mogg, Owl, and the rest of the Crisis Zone cast through the ongoing Instagram comic, Simon has been working on the characters’ stories for years.
In the United States, their collected adventures have been published by Fantagraphics [recommended reading order: (1) One More Year; (2) Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam; (3) Megahex; (4) Bad Gateway; (5) Stems & Seeds]. The series has been published in 13 languages and was awarded Best Series as the 2018 Angouleme International Comics Festival.
In March of 2020, as the United States went into lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Simon took the established characters and dumped them into the same situation the rest of us found ourselves in the midst of.
“It’s a USO show,” Simon remarked. “It was me seeing the world go into quarantine and thinking, what can I offer? Entertainment!”
Beginning on March 13th, 2020, Simon has posted a new 10-panel entry nearly every single day, with the number of pages for Crisis Zone now totaling over 210.
“I always kind of wanted to do a webcomic like this – free entertainment, push myself to do this maximum amount of work every day that I can physically manage,” Simon told me. “So it is grueling still, but yeah, I don’t know, it’s entertainment and I’m just banging it out. It’s silly, it’s not canon, it’s all over the place, it’s just ripping on things. It’s just trying to entertain people – it’s not trying to be anything really, it’s running through lots of different pastiches and lots of news stories and lots of weird shit.”
Simon explained that the practical demands associated with producing so many panels of Crisis Zone have guided his daily schedule.
“I just get up in the morning and get cracking, it’s not really a routine,” said Simon. “You know, my wife works from home so she’s set up an office in the living room, and I’ve got my studio in the back of the house. I usually start my day by having a coffee and I play Animal Crossing for about 20 minutes and just force myself to write.”
The amount of time it takes to finish the work each day varies.
“One time I finished at two-thirty in the afternoon,” Simon said. “Sometimes I’m up ‘til one am, when my wife’s in bed. Sometimes it is just slow and hard and I don’t want to do it, and it’s really fuckin’ difficult, but I just push through and whenever it gets done, it gets done.”
While Simon had initially planned a brief run for Crisis Zone, things played out a little differently.
“I was going to only run it for about 30 days, but I kept having ideas about where it could go,” Simon revealed. “I don’t know what else I’d do at this point! Well, my next proper book, but anyway, I’m not in the mood for that.”
And there is certainly a demand for Crisis Zone.
“People were like, ‘You can’t stop! I can’t go to sleep – where’s the new Crisis Zone? Where is it?’ But I get the sense that people are enjoying it, and there’s a little bit of community around it. I feel honor-bound to supply it to people now.”
Does Simon have a planned end for Crisis Zone?
“I’ve got threads, I’ve got a rough end in mind, but things keep happening and changing,” Simon said. “You know, I’ve got to wrap it up soon, I’m locking in book contracts all around the world for it now. It is going to be a book. Originally it was going to be a 30 page ‘zine, but I just kept going, and now it’s probably going to be about 250 pages. Then I’ll be adding lots of pages and doing all sorts of stuff, like a full director’s commentary in the back – the overboard presentation.”
On top of all these bonuses, there will also be additional content in the story, as Instagram only allows Simon to post 10 out of the 12 panels that comprise each page of the comic. But there is one part of the printed Crisis Zone collection Simon isn’t looking forward to.
“I hate doing covers. I always leave them last. I detest them,” said Simon. “You have the option of working with a house designer, but I like to do it myself. You know, coming from self-publishing and ‘zine-making, I really like to have full control. And that is the magic of comics: the autonomy that you are afforded as an artist. You can control all aspects of the production.”
Crisis Zone’s captive audience
Simon has been quite pleased with the community that has arisen around Crisis Zone on Instagram.
“Sometimes we get like 600 comments,” Simon noted. “It’s good engagement, as they say in social media talk. You know, people are chatting, there’s a weird Megg and Mogg community.”
Crisis Zone has earned some high-profile praise, including a June 25th comment from Ed Piskor (which may be a worthy cover quote): “This is the Avengers comic I would read.”
“I tried to get on the Kayfabe during my digital book roll-out, but I think maybe they were busy. They said maybe in the future,” Simon recounted. “For years I’ve wanted to do a comics YouTube channel. I saw the rise of all these right-wing Republican YouTube channels to dominance and I thought, ‘when’s there gonna be a good, normal person comics channel?’ Jim Rugg and Ed are doing a good job. And Noah Van Scriver, I really like his interviews with different people.”
While we can be hopeful that we’ll be seeing Simon on YouTube, is there any chance that Megg and Mogg will be appearing on the boob tube? According to Simon, we’ll only be seeing an on-screen version of the characters if precisely the right circumstances are met.
“I turned down a thing this year. It got really deep,” Simon told me. “In Crisis Zone, as they were getting their Netflix series, I was turning down a pretty-far-into-development thing. It was basically a sure thing – there was a script. I just wasn’t feeling it. I got spooked and shut it down. I wasn’t happy with the scripts. They wouldn’t let me write it.”
Simon said that while no hard feelings were harbored toward the production company, it was impossible to agree to an adaptation that didn’t allow sufficient creative control.
“TV’s just so collaborative. There’s so many things that could go wrong,” Simon explained. “I don’t want the show to come out and just get cancelled after one season, and a million people would see it, and they’d all know Megg and Mogg as… that. And the books would always be secondary. So the only way the TV show is going to happen is just like really just like the books, but with sound and music, and that’s really hard to make happen in a Hollywood setting.”
Simon told me that this autonomy was a favorite aspect of being a cartoonist, and part of why a shift in mediums was unlikely.
“I just want to be a cartoonist,” Simon declared. “I’m not going to sellout. I’m not going to risk a product I’m unhappy with. It’s been quite a roller coaster, and I do feel like I’m turning down a lot of money, but… fuck it. I’m not desperate to go to the ball with the first boy to call me pretty. I’m playing hard to get. It has to be right, it has to be on my terms.”
Resetti’d back to Dharma Island
There are specific benefits to comics amid the current, COVID-19-riddled landscape.
“In a way, comics are somewhat recession-proof,” Simon reflected. “I’m chugging along, my book did well as ever. And I’m throwing out this free entertainment, just trying to entertain people. People are still making art as a coping mechanism and we’re trying for a little bit of distraction each day… And also a lot of tech people, nerdy tech people love comics, so they’ve got money. They’re still employed. One of our captive markets still has money to waste on inessential items like comics.”
And while we may not be able to convene in person, Simon notes that we have found ways to connect in spite of the requirements of social distancing.
“We’re managing with our Zooms and our Animal Crossings!” Simon declared. “You know, humans are resilient, and hopefully comics can be resilient – ”
Which was just about the time the game timed out and I snapped back to Dharma Island. Shortly after, I found plain-old vanilla Gulliver washed up on the Dharma shore. Certainly more disappointing that Gullivarrr, but hey – maybe he’s just looking for a friend.
Get ahold of Simon’s most recent book, Stems & Seeds, released in August 2020 and available now from all good booksellers and digital retailers. This collection of Megg & Mogg stories is wrapped in orange acetate, making it the “perfect, classy Paris Review toilet book.”