Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

March 1-7 is Will Eisner Week, and to celebrate this year I read a book I have been meaning to read for a while now.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen stars the protagonist of Hicksville, though I think the character is being used in the way as Jason Shiga uses Jimmy Yee, namely as a durable character type. In this book, Sam is also a stand-in for the author, who has toiled for large superhero comics publishers and been wrung dry creatively. At the beginning of this book Sam has lost his inspiration and is falling in a depression (or he has fallen into depression and lost his inspiration) and fallen into a state where he feels no pleasure, called anhedonia.
After giving an academic talk, he ends up in a book store, finds an old comic book, and finds himself transported into its pages. After getting his bearings in a fictional world where virile Martian men chase after and kidnap green-skinned Venusian women, he also meets up with a couple of other characters. One is a real woman, Alice, who makes webcomics and is a fan of his, and the other is Miki, a rocket-booted manga-inspired character who has lots of gadgets and comic books. Together, they traverse a number of fictional worlds, trying to make sense of things and also procure the magic pen, which makes it possible to create comics people can enter.

Certainly, this book is ambitious, and attempts to be several things: It is an exploration of self, desire, and fantasy. It is also an essay about fantasy and what it means and if it should reflect a set of morals. It is also a look at some of the more sexist and misogynistic aspects of the comics industry and also a look forward to what it might be. It is also one cartoonist reflecting on his career. With so much going on, I still felt that the narrative thread held well and that the more academic/critical aspects were well argued. I am not sure it everything the author intended it to be, but it is one heck of a read, an adventure and essay all in one. Additionally, I felt the ending was very powerful and moving (even if it was a bit predictable).

This book's creator Dylan Horrocks is a native New Zealand comics artist best known for his very well received and celebrated graphic novel Hicksville. He has also written for DC on books like Batgirl and Hunter: The Age of Magic. Horrocks publishes most of his new work on his own site, Hicksville Comics. He speaks extensively about his work on this Sam Zabel book in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book have been very critical of it, though they also recognize much potential and artistry. Publishers Weekly summed up, "There’s plenty of inside-comic analysis here... But it’s also a bracing reflection on the dangers of wish fulfillment and the question of whether artists are 'morally responsible for our fantasies.'” Tom Murphy concluded that "it’s slightly unfortunate that its creator’s undoubted sincerity doesn’t translate more smoothly into a more satisfying blend of story and theme." You can also see the wide range of pro and con reviews in this group blog at Comics Bulletin (for the record, personally, I felt I most agreed with Keith Silva).

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen was published by Fantagraphics, and they have an excerpt and more information available here. This book features nudity, sexual situations, and profanity, so it is recommended for readers mature enough to handle those things.

Happy Will Eisner Week, everyone! Go read a graphic novel or two!!!

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