Culture

As a gender-confused teen, Simon Hanselmann retreated to the world of art. Now, he’s on the brink of becoming a global comics superstar. By Ronnie Scott.

Comic relief for Megahex creator Simon Hanselmann

Comic book artist Simon Hanselmann.
Credit: CHRIS DIAZ

Every teenage artist in a town such as Launceston needs a gang of cool 21-year-olds living down the road. The ones Simon Hanselmann met introduced him to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and grunge – and to Fantagraphics Books, a comics publisher based in the United States.

At 32, in a shared apartment in Melbourne’s East Brunswick, Hanselmann still has the same poster from his youth on his wall. It reads “Everyone at Fantagraphics Books dances to a different beat” and shows fun little icons of the publisher’s artist roster dancing in dorky poses. Now, affixed to that poster is a picture he’s drawn himself, of Werewolf Jones, a supporting character in his collection, Megahex, a hardcover, full-colour volume Fantagraphics will publish later this month. Megahex is soaked in grunge aesthetics, Lynchian weirdness and stoner comedy. “I haven’t changed since I was 14,” Hanselmann says. The difference is, he’s poised to become Australia’s first global comics superstar.

The book is about Megg, a green-skinned witch; Mogg, her bad-ass familiar (“Let’s go drink and smoke ourselves into a Xanadu,” he says); and Owl, a needy womaniser who serves as their emotional punching bag. (Mogg is a black cat; Owl is literally a man-sized owl.) They are elastic archetypes, a “three-person couple”, a twentysomething share-house milieu. Their happiest times derive from those of the Launceston gang: “We were a very ‘sit around getting stoned watching TV and reading comics’ kind of crew,” Hanselmann says. In their darker hours, they reflect the artist’s Hobart years: “Much more squalid and dysfunctional in terms of antics.” 

Most often, Megahex cribs the rhythms of sitcoms such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons. “Comics is a cheap television studio for poor kids,” Hanselmann says. “Short-form pictographic storytelling.” Simpsons creator Matt Groening is a notable fan of his work.

Australian comics are some years into a renaissance. Allen & Unwin has been quietly printing ambitious work through the 2000s, including Nicki Greenberg’s Hamlet – an elaborate thesis that explores both Hamlet and the relationship between the double-page spread and the theatrical stage. Pat Grant’s Blue is an essential, incisive study of our handling (or lack thereof) of migrant cultures, while Sam Wallman’s strips and anthologies are deeply human responses to our class politics. Eddie Campbell, a Scottish artist who moved to Queensland in the 1980s, has built a consistently astounding ouevre over the past three decades. And in terms of World Fantasy, Hugo, and Astrid Lindgren awards, of course we have Shaun Tan.

Most comics that have gained traction with Australian mainstream audiences have a kind of literary pedigree that Megahex does not. Hanselmann works fluidly and comfortably within the conventions of pure comics. It’s a funny animal book that on the surface aims to amuse – then periodically disturbs that surface, pushing through strange, dark missives. Most chapters establish themselves like a newspaper strip, resetting the characters, and their universe, each time. They open with Megg and Mogg smoking, drinking, vegging on a filthy sofa. Some sequences could go head-to-head with any Judd Apatow comedy, as when Megg and Mogg break into a deli in the dead of night and accidentally steal 12 jars of pickled onions. But, like as not, the plot will then go somewhere that is both more weird and more warm. In that chapter, for instance, Megg freaks out about the theft: she decides she can’t do jail time, and they bury the stolen goods. When she and Mogg go to bed, still pink-eyed from weed, Mogg assures her: “Nothing’s going to happen… good night. I love you.” At such points, the story is more Raymond Carver than Beavis and Butt-head.

Glamorously housebound

“I’m sorry I’m not dressed up for you today,” he says. “People get disappointed.” 

I have met Hanselmann in the small bedroom that doubles as his studio. We are both sitting cross-legged on shag carpeting, shaded by a small mattress that’s been flipped against a wall of bookshelves packed with graphic anthologies, coded by colour and height. Hanselmann “came out” last year as a cross-dresser in an interview with The Comics Journal. “When I do Skype interviews and I’m just here like some sloppy guy, people are like, ‘Oh.’ ” Today, he is wearing a baggy red flannelette shirt, torn viciously at both elbows. He is prepping for a 20-state tour of the US, and his publicist has told him he must dress up for every leg. “I’m like, ‘Fuck, really?’ ” he says. “It’s kind of a personal thing that I grapple with.”

Before The Comics Journal interview, he was “going insane, in a relationship”. They went to couples therapy. “Then I had this big explosion of honesty,” he says. In the aftermath, Hanselmann began dressing up more often, in public. “Then I started getting catcalled, yelled at, stared at. And a friend of mine got beaten up outside a queer club in the city right in front of me. So I lost my confidence a bit.” Nowadays, he does this mostly at home: he is “glamorously housebound”. In the past, he has said he suffers from “gender confusion”. Is confusion still the right term? “There’s been a lot of staring in the mirror and just going, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’, not coming up with any solid answers,” he says. “It’s a minefield. I feel so bad for real women. And real trans people. Not that I’m not real, but I’m certainly – I don’t know. It’s a tough one. It’s a hotbed of emotions, and politics.” 

Much of his fear is a remnant from his teenage years in Launceston. Though it did, in the 1990s, have comics stores that stocked personal heroes such as the artists Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes, Hanselmann characterises it as “a horrible town”. “Super high crime rate. Bullies everywhere. Nothing for the youth to do. No infrastructure. Dog shit.” 

He wound up in Hobart, then in Melbourne, self-publishing comics at Sticky, the zine shop in the Degraves Subway that runs underneath Flinders Street. “I was working a bookstore job, vomiting in rubbish bins”, he says, exhausted from having stayed up all night drawing. “For no reason – just my own deadlines.” Eventually, he uploaded a few hundred pages to Tumblr, a microblogging site that makes it easy to like and share images. What happened next he describes with one word: “Boom.” All the bigger overseas publishers went after the book. Fantagraphics happened to ask first.

At the same time, he was made redundant from his bookstore job. Centrelink was challenging. “I was trying to explain to them – like, okay, the Fox network’s writing to me. I’ve gotta pitch to the Fox network. Here’s some money I got from a Spanish book deal.” Megg, Mogg and Owl strips have already been translated into Spanish, German and French volumes, with local artists lettering the strips in a facsimile of Hanselmann’s hand. “They were trying to get me to go to these job network meeting things, to retrain me. I was like: ‘The Fox network! There’s a lot of upward mobility with what I’m doing. I’m on the cusp of making it. Could you please listen to me?’” 

Financial planning

On July 21, Vice published a two-page Megg, Mogg and Owl comic called “Hot Shave”. It’s a gag strip, about Megg shaving her legs using a cigarette lighter (“There. Smooth as a creepy baby,” she says). 

American comic book artist Chris Ware once wrote that “comics aren’t exactly the most efficient or buoying of creative languages”, meaning that they are famously time-intensive to produce. Megahex was drawn piecemeal, from January 2009 to March 2014. The process behind “Hot Shave” was typical for Hanselmann. He had been generating TV pitches with his housemate Grant Gronewold, who also draws comics under the moniker HTML Flowers. “We sit around riffing a lot, writing down ideas.” 

In one such session, Hanselmann recalled a non-standard shaving method used by an old Hobart friend. He “liberated” it from the fund of cartoon pitches: “It was perfect for Megg.” So the phrase “Hot Shave” joined a constellation of scraps on a section of his crammed bedroom wall. He pulled it down and scripted it, working as fast as he could, then left the script aside for an hour before reassessing it. He learned this style – “just rip it out” – from watching Simpsons DVD commentaries. Scripts for that show are hacked out quickly, then endlessly revised. 

He roughed out the thumbnails, pencilled the pages, ruled them up, inked them, and then mixed his paints and coloured each panel by hand. He’s “obsessed with really smooth watercolours”, and it increasingly shows: “I’m putting dots on all the dresses, and shine marks on the eyeballs.” The panels do not look spontaneous. They look considered and superb. 

“Hot Shave” took 30 hours to produce and paid $200, which breaks down to less than $7 an hour. Like all artistic enterprises, the value of the work is triangulated through a complex equation that balances the publication’s credibility, its reach and the regularity of the work. Securing weekly strips from Vice is what allowed Hanselmann to get off Centrelink.

Hanselmann is good at making money from his work. “It’s really great to have the prestige of Fantagraphics, but I’ve got 12,000 Tumblr followers,” he says. Any time he posts a piece of original artwork, or a zine, it sells out within a week. “I had some guy give me a grand last week for a couple of pages,” he says. In this context, his work for The New York Times, Pitchfork and The Believer is a hobby.

He has plans to self-publish a long story called Drama Club, which is unrelated to Megg, Mogg and Owl. (Even his funny, bitchy, occasionally unfair online criticism column, “Truth Zone”, uses those characters as a mouthpiece.) “[Drama Club] involves The Simpsons and [writer and director] Todd Solondz,” he says. “It’s basically just redrawing Happiness but with The Simpsons characters, but then it breaks out of that and the town is putting on a play, so it’s affecting their lives. If I sell 200 $5 comics a month that’s $1000.”

“I need to break into this TV thing.” Increasingly, a form of tenure track for indie comics artists entails working for the Cartoon Network, or Nickelodeon, for which Hanselmann has been invited to do a board test. (Michael DeForge, the Canadian artist with whom he’s touring this year, is both a prolific comics-maker and a full-time artist for Adventure Time. “He’s stress-vomiting at the moment,” Hanselmann brightly explains.) If a pitch is picked up, or if Hanselmann is hired to work on an existing show, it would probably involve moving to Los Angeles. “You can do it over Skype, but they prefer you to be there.”

If his career trajectory has been atypical of the Australian zinester, it’s followed a path long trodden by artists in more established forms: small city to state capital to creative metropolis. For many such artists, here is where the road often forks – give up and get a salary or risk it all in LA or New York? 

“The wave is gonna crash at some point,” Hanselmann says, a thought that sounds nowhere near like it’s been generated on the fly. “I’m just trying to keep up the quality and keep up the pace. Hopefully I’ve got eight years in me, like The Simpsons, before there’s a backlash and people start hating me and saying I’ve lost it.” 

It’s impractical being away from the scene that has embraced his work. When Hanselmann goes to America, he doesn’t want to come back. “But I like my quiet room here,” he says. “I like Melbourne. My palettes, my cheap lamp, $10 Ikea table. I can’t work anywhere else.” Each day he wakes up, checks his emails, then moves his keyboard aside. He replaces it with a piece of paper and is good to go. “It’s sort of a shamanic practice. I like working in the middle of the night and early morning, because I feel there’s less kinetic energy outside. Everything’s quiet. It’s so simple.” He sighs. “It feels really dangerous. It’s nice.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Comic relief". Subscribe here.

Ronnie Scott
is the author of Salad Days and editor of The Best of The Lifted Brow.

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