Dylan Horrocks' first major release since the globally acclaimed Hicksville has been 10 years in the writing.
Kiwi comic creator Dylan Horrocks' love of the medium was beaten to a pulp by Batgirl, but was sparked back into life through a trip into his own imaginary landscape.
Horrocks has just published his first major graphic novel in 16 years, after serialising it online for the past few years.
Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen, published by Victoria University Press, is a funny and thoughtful 220-page comic about entering fantasy worlds, the ennui of modern life, adventuring on Mars and a particular slice of NZ comic history.
Cover of Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen, published by Victoria University Press.
After garnering global acclaim for his Hicksville graphic novel in the 1990s, Horrocks started work on his new book a decade ago after a fairly miserable experience in the world of corporate superhero comics and originally published it as a webcomic before finishing it this year.
It has already been released in France, with forthcoming editions in the UK, US, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Poland and Russia.
Speaking to the Herald at his Maraetai home, Horrocks said his work writing the Batgirl comic for DC Comics in the early 2000s left him feeling like he had "lost his way into his own imaginary landscape".
"It did feel like I'd lost my voice, both my writing voice and my drawing voice. Partly because when I was writing for DC, it often felt like I was adopting a voice, and writing in someone else's."
While that experience almost killed his love of comics, it did lead to The Magic Pen. Struggling to get another long comic off the ground, Horrocks started using his website - hicksvillecomics.com - to publish individual pages and push himself to get something done. "I decided if I serialised them online, then every time I finish a page, I can post it to the website and it feels like I've really achieved something. Like I've actually published something new, and people can see it.
"On one level, I'm like the world's worst web cartoonist because I never planned it as a web comic or designed it as a web comic. There were long gaps where I didn't post a page for six months, and I was erratic. All the things that people say you must do, I did none of it." But it worked, and Horrocks completed his first long-form work in years, with the last few dozen pages produced in a frenzy of activity.
Horrocks used his own life-long love of fantasy and comics to drive the story of The Magic Pen, with a section of the book parodying the comics of cult creator Eric Resetar, who published his own crude science-fiction comics in New Zealand in the 1950s, with titles such as Crash O'Kane: An All Black On Mars.
Resetar languished in obscurity for much of his life until his work was rediscovered in the past decade, but the other comic that served as a major influence on The Magic Pen was even more obscure.
"When I was nine or 10, I spent a few months living in Bougainville with my mother, because she was a social anthropologist doing field work there, and we lived in a village in the bush for a while. And my Dad would send me a bundle of British comics every few weeks.
"But one time he sent me a comic he had actually drawn, and it was about a New Zealand farmer - a Fred Dagg type of character - finding himself in Berlin in 1944 and gatecrashing Hitler's bunker and beating up the Nazis, the whole time wise-cracking in New Zealand slang. And it was the most amazing comic."
Other sections of The Magic Pen feature more mature themes, as Horrocks examines the moral dimensions of our fantasies, and whether we should be responsible for them, while indulging in a few dreams of his own. He says this was another major driving force behind the book - to start a conversation about these issues and see where it goes.
"I think it is something that is talked about already, but often the conversation is less a conversation and more a repeated statement of a simple position that people have. It's a conversation that has always been going on and is still going on, it's just that I wanted to have it with myself about the particular aspects that I was interested in."
And Horrocks' own journey through the creation of The Magic Pen saw his love of the medium spark back into life. "In terms of writing and drawing comics, the last couple of years of working on The Magic Pen were the most fun I've had making comics ever. The physical process of drawing is so much more pleasurable for me now. Every part of it."
Horrocks says the whole medium is in a new golden age, particularly for female creators.
"I feel like this is a really good time to be involved in comics ... Parts of the industry are in terrible financial state, but there are so many new ways to get your comics out there. It's an amazing time to be making comics and there are so many amazing comics getting made. There has never been a better time to be a reader of comics."
• Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen is now available in New Zealand bookstores, and can also be read online at hicksvillecomics.com, although the online version will not be fully released until next year.