Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Magic Pen

Only in fantasy: the horny green harem from Venus
I've a review of Dylan Horrocks's marvellous graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen in The Age and Herald. In 'Magic Pen delivers a graphic masterpiece', I discuss fantasy, art and their sometimes troubling pairing. A sample:
Horrocks' protagonist, Sam Zabel, is a fantasy merchant: selling superhero stories to Eternal, a big publisher. His heroine, Lady Night, is torn right from the Freudian guidebook: seemingly tough and smart, but basically an empty sexual plaything. "You can hurt me, torture me," she explains to her creator in a dream, "f--- me with your words." Sam is unhappy and unproductive. He spends days staring at the screen, and hours downloading high-resolution paintings such as John William Godward's A Quiet Pet: utopias within which his mind finds asylum. In short: more fantasy, this time of "a world of perfect grace and languor". When he returns from his reveries, the deadlines remain. 
Sam is saved from ennui, not by some neat reclamation of facts, but by a more articulate, ambivalent fantasy. He finds himself inside the pages of an old New Zealand comic, The King of Mars, feted as "the cartoonist god king" by a horny green harem from Venus. Sam refuses their ministrations – preferring to fantasise about them – and escapes to real life. He soon enters more stories, joined by 'zine maker Alice, and Japanese character Miki Roketto. Each comic, he learns, was written by the titular pen: a plot device for Scheherazade stories within stories, but also a neat symbol of creative imagination. 
What follows is an intelligent, moving and quietly funny study in fancy: from orgiastic monks and nuns in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript, to Rupert Bear-ish talking animals in postcards sent by a German soldier in World War II. Horrocks pokes gentle fun at superhero tropes, while the most unsettling and unsparing chapter is on Miki, whose origins in hentai pornography reveal the nasty side of made-to-order wish fulfilment.

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