Friday, 14 August 2015

Dylan Horrocks and the aesthetic of incompleteness

Full title: Incomplete Works
Author: Dylan Horrocks
Genre: Comic strips
Attributes: 192 pages, paperback
Publisher: Victoria University Press (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

What’s left after an artist has published everything deemed publishable? This is the question that imposes itself in relation to Dylan Horrocks’ collection, Incomplete Works. The volume is an anthology of things scattered about, of morsels almost forgotten. The detail is important because these pieces (not debris, not rubbles, not wasted effort) draw attention to the importance of remainders. The things left behind gain a voice of their own by means of such exercises in remembering.
The mood is often gloomy in the earlier comics. They occupy themselves with the sad figure of a cartoonist away from home (living in London but dreaming always of New Zealand), whose art struggles to take shape and who lives through bouts of almost-depressive writer’s blocks
"When night came the moon hung like a ball of antarctic ice, reminding me of home."
There’s rarely a happy moment in these pieces, dark and inundated by shadows, with characters resembling the author’s physiognomy and with the tools of his trade looming like self-harming weapons:
“The long afternoons wear on; work slows. Inspiration is not forthcoming. Dates and deadlines evaporate. Where does it all go – all the wasted time, the infertile hours? How does a week become a day, an hour… ?”
And to explain, there’s a simple definition to be read, the kind of thing capable of making one turn one’s back to London in order to have one’s eyes facing distant home, lost somewhere in the opposite hemisphere (of the world, of the brain?):
“Nostalgia is simply memory detached from time – moments from the past turned into lazy eternities… […] Trying to catch up… and failing. Only the past is free of that constant queasy sense of time-driven guilt.”
There’s a lot of existentialist angst in these first cartoons, in the vein just exemplified above. Not unlike the tone of voice that comes from any immigrant who’s ever put his ache into words.
The mood is forced on by the sounds of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, with its provoking silences, its obsessive returns upon the central theme, its sense of being on the way of saying more.

Dylan Horrocks. Source: Victoria University Press
Some of Horrocks’ strips read like that. They are multi-themed because they are fragments. They’ve been collected from an unstated portfolio that contains failed projects, minute exercises, topical gigs, miscellaneous jobs. Put together as such, they draw a familiar kind of itinerary, an autobiography in comic strips that needed to be gathered in one place in order to be remembered as a whole.
The scope of the collection is ample. Chronologically, it covers a period of just over a quarter century (26 years, to be more precise, i.e. 1986 to 2012). Generically and thematically, it moves from memoir-style reflections to dream-like formations that tap into the fantastic and the other-worldly, and from contemporary one-page photographic records to sketches of historical events.
The autobiographical pieces stand out for that unique quality ordinary readers look after when reading artists’ memoirs: their access to secrets of the trade, to biographical details. That’s how a piece like “The Last Fox Story” (of 1990) becomes of interest. The longest of the pieces in the collection, it tells, in single-panel drawings, the story of Horrocks’ stay in London and his artistic tribulations. It is a series of sketches, plans, reproductions, and sometimes text-only descriptions of his struggle to make it through.
There’s a description attached in the Notes section at the end of the book, which is worth quoting in full, so as to let clarification materialize out of the author’s own words:
“THE LAST FOX STORY (1990): mostly drawn in ballpoint on memo paper and first published as a 104-page A6 mini-comic, printed on the office photocopier at Waterstone’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London (where I was working at the time). I began writing it for the final issue of Fox Comics (sadly never published), in which contributors were invited to tell stories about their own relationship with comics.”
That describes it pretty well. The piece moves elegantly from crude notations to reflections on home and distance, with the occasional despair that comes to irk an artist who hasn’t been allowed to roam the stratospheres of art:
“I am in London, alone & without much money. I am to become a professional cartoonist, but so far no-one seems able to understand my work.”
Of course, Dylan Horrocks has moved away from that. Or so it seems from the rest of the comic strips, where he exercises confidence and where he takes up vast projects without thinking twice, in spite of the fact that some of them showed slim chances of success to start with. Throughout his career but mostly in the latest years, Horrocks has also shown more than an artist’s interest in comics. He teaches art and he researches art. As it becomes apparent through some of the pieces in the collection, he’s worked on several projects dealing with the history of New Zealand or the history of New Zealand comics. Such is the case of his study of Barry Linton (“To the I-Land”), his references to Eric Resetar, a pioneer of New Zealand comics, or the allusions (comical or serious) to Captain James Cook’s travels of discovery in the eighteenth century, which led to the discovery of what is now New Zealand.
To end with, one must know that Dylan Horrocks is not just a local champion. He has featured on the world scene of his art in various ways. “A Cartoonist’s Diary,” the last piece in the book, was serialized in 2012 on The Comics Journal. His own website appears to be a hit too. He has been a constant presence at conventions and conferences, has contributed to collections, has given public lectures, and has been massively promoting the art that’s been keeping him busy for so long. All this makes the volume so much more interesting, especially to those who are trying their hand at the art of drawing. They will learn from Horrocks, and they will find solace, if needed.