Many comic books are fantasies, filled with feats and adventures that ordinary people wish they could pull off. But some of those fantasies can also invoke sex and violence in ways that make folks feel icky. And if you're an artist turning out those stories, what happens when you're burnt out doing the thing you used to love? Should you give up?
That's the problem facing a middle-aged cartoonist in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, a graphic novel that came out late last year in the U.S. from Fantagraphics. The titular character of Dylan Horrocks' most recent opus is a creator who's in a rut. After making a splash with more acclaimed, critical-darling early work, Sam's fallen into a unfulfilling routine of banging out scripts for a generically shallow superhero character called Lady Night. He's missing a deadline, stuck for inspiration and, basically, nothing feels good anymore. Lady Night chafes at his stewardship and even calls him a hack.
Like the pages Sam used to turn out, the original versions of Lady Night were more tonally textured and interesting. But the passage of time and the real world creeps into both realms, turning Lady Night into a sexed-up lesser version of herself and Sam into a family man hamstrung by doubt. After accepting an invitation to speak at an academic conference, he stumbles into discovering the existence of the Magic Pen, which has let generations of artists escape into their own creations. One breath from an actual human onto these special comics and the person in question gets whisked away into their panels. From there, he clumsily embarks on an adventure through the worlds of a bunch of forgotten comics, where the creations have taken on lives of their own.
Horrocks does a great job at channeling the weirdo charms of works from unheralded comics' Golden and Silver Ages, which themselves might have been deemed 'hack' work fit only for making ends meet. But he's using their offbeat rhythms and hoary old tropes to illuminate how fandoms' engagements with comics creativity has changed, too. When Sam winds up on a Mars populated with submissive Venusian damsels — product of an older 1950s creator named Evan Rice — he doesn't happily jump into the orgy that they want to happen. He's tempted, yeah, but mostly feels weird about being inside a fantasy that isn't his.
Magic Pen is about the uses of fantasy and the reality of having to engage with the creepier aspects of a nerd culture that's evolved over decades. One of the ideas that the book floats is that the power of fan interpretation and reclamation can create wayward, unintended lives for characters meant to fulfil barely sublimated fetishes. When he creates a stereotypically unsavory subtext for the origins of manga heroine Miki, Horrocks has her redemption happen at the hands on another, younger cartoonist named Alice who, basically, doesn't have time for hentai tentacle-rape bullshit.
It's the passion that Alice has for Miki, fan-fic and deconstructing icky tropes that points the way towards Sam's eventual creative salvation. These are all the possible journeys that love for a creation can send you on. There's the official/canonical story-path, sure, but parallel excursions are just as good or even better for those willing to imagine them. Yes, some of them will be pervy and gross. But even those mean something to someone. And, if slimy re-interpretations make their way to people who don't want them, they too have the power to reject or reshape them. When Sam first meets Miki, she's his guide through imaginary worlds that she wasn't made for, creating a smaller, more intimate sort of genre crossover. Horrocks himself breaks the fourth wall in reverse a few times, telling the reader what's supposed to happen in a few scenes. And in those moments, too, you can see the characters not quite easily fitting into the roles they were intended to play.
Creating comics or any kind of art/entertainment can be a lonely endeavour. It's work done in private, where one tries to cater both to the mysterious whims of a fickle public and their own urgent inspirations. A creator only knows if something succeeds once it's in someone's hands and, even then, there's no guarantee that feedback makes its way back to the place of origin. But, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen shows that when the loop of creation to appreciation is complete — and better still if the creative energy spins out on its own unpredictable orbit — that the relationship between audience and artist carries its own sort of eldritch power.