Historically, comics have been the underdog when it comes to forms of artistic expression, often relegated to the fringes and deemed silly or childish. That's despite revolutionary and massively popular graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s holocaust survivor tale Maus (published throughout the '80s), Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis (2000), set in Iran after the Islamic revolution, and Alison Bechdel’s non-linear, tragicomic coming out story Fun Home (2006). But recently there have been some power moves going down in the world of comics that have little to do with superhero blockbusters: just this year Bechdel’s Fun Home was turned into a Broadway musical, and Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel The Diary Of A Teenage Girl was adapted into a brilliant film. Perhaps this wind-change is in part due to increasing interest in viewpoints from outside the box—something that cartoonists have always celebrated. Now we have a new star on the rise, quietly shifting the comic landscape.
His name is Simon Hanselmann, and through his drawings he deals with topics that the mainstream tends to sidestep, like depression, substance abuse, and gender confusion. The Tasmanian cartoonist started gaining attention when he began a weekly comic strip column for Vice online from his insane and brilliant Megg, Mogg, and Owl in 2012. The cartoons—which are loosely based on characters from a series of British children’s books called Meg and Mog—are about a stoner witch named Megg, her gross feline partner Mogg, their fucked up party pal Werewolf Jones, and Owl, the pushover they freeload off. (Vice’s art editor Nick Gazin recently wrote that “if you don't like Megg, Mogg, and Owl, then I hope you fucking die an idiot's death.”) Hanselmann’s comics address the dingiest crevices of the human experience—suburban ennui, body freakouts, and acid trips—but none of his characters are human, which just makes them that more relatable. And for all its absurdist, stoner tendencies, his work aims a magnifying glass at the anxieties, delusions, and often crippling self-doubt we all feel but rarely talk about.
Since leaving Vice this year, Hanselmann has published his third comic collection Worst Behaviour in May, created a spin-off book for Werewolf Jones, toured his works around the world, and is gearing up for the release of Megg & Mogg In Amsterdam in March 2016. In between trips to Colombia and Russia, Hanselmann took time to talk to The FADER about mental illness, art as therapy, and the strange, underrated power of the comic form.
“People who say they ‘don’t get’ comics are frankly just moronic. It’s very simple, people, it’s just cinema on paper.”—Simon Hanselmann
How did you get into comics?
SIMON HANSELMANN: I started reading comics when I was 5 or so. There was lots of European stuff in the school library (Asterix, Tin Tin, etc). Comics were everywhere in Tasmania in the '80s—I read a lot of Mad Magazine and Disney ducks. I had a brief dalliance with superhero garbage in the early '90s but then when I was 13 discovered Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge and have been gleefully locked into that alternative world ever since.
Your comics manage to pinpoint that inherently yucky aspect of human nature. Why the need to express that in comic book form? Why non-human creatures?
Everything is utterly pointless and futile. We should probably all just kill ourselves now and do the planet a favor. Unfortunately though, we're cursed with sentient sentimentality and rampant arrogance. Painful emotions, stupid love. Ugh, it's so hard to get out of bed in the morning and keep going. May as well just get drunk again and distract ourselves with some worthless task that will be inevitably reduced to dust and rendered completely redundant. YAY!
My comics are reality. I hate "nice" and "cute" comics and art—I think that that stuff comes from a place of sheltered privilege and denial. I use cartoonish creatures because it's easier for a reader to project themselves upon them. If you use set human characters they're too rigid, easier to disidentify with and potentially dislike. That's also why I use very simple fashion on the characters. Keep it simple. I can't read most "autobiographical" works because I just hate the person in them and their awful fashions. But perhaps I’m just a huge asshole (I am). I still feel gross, so gross, grosser. Big animated piece of meat, slowly rotting. Hideous stink factory breathing rancid gas into the artificial atmosphere of society.
“Megg’s Depression” is a strip that will make anyone who has or has had depression feel less alone. Is that an encouragement to continue to represent “mental illness” in your comics?
I'll continue to write about depression and mental illness. It's all I know. That strip was just what I was feeling at the time, a thick molasses of painful garbage water trapping me in one place. I couldn't move, I didn't want to move. I'm actually much happier now, three years later. It's nice to be "successful" with your art and I'm happily married. Life is still difficult though, still plenty of trash getting whipped in my face.
It's the process of creation that keeps me going. It's important to have something to focus on and lose yourself in. I'm able to completely block out reality when I'm working. I've had emails from people telling me that Megg & Mogg helped them through shit and is very important to them. I've also had emails from people telling me that Megg & Mogg made them feel absolutely disgusting and that I am an awful person.
“I hate ‘nice’ and ‘cute’ comics and art—I think that that stuff comes from a place of sheltered privilege and denial.”—Simon Hanselmann
Megg, Mogg, Owl, and Werewolf Jones are almost constantly smoking pot. Does pot help with depression and anxiety? Should it be legal?
Pot is wonderful. I don't use it anymore but back in the day it was very, very helpful with my anxiety. It's great for artists, wonderful for focus and idea generation (of course though, like many things, it does affect different people in different ways). It should definitely be legal, it's insane that alcohol is legal but pot is not. Compare a downtown bar district on a Friday night with a bunch of stoners hanging out at home on a Friday night.
You just put out a new mini comic, dedicated to your party animal character Werewolf Jones. What is it about? Why did you decide to give Werewolf Jones his own book?
Werewolf Jones is probably the most reprehensible and unlikable character of the bunch, so I do find it very amusing that he's somehow ended up with his own solo spin-off book. Basically, it's just fun to write for such a creep (and his awful children). I wrote the book with my best friend and writing partner, HTMLflowers. We both grew up with absent fathers and around a lot of substance abuse and we channeled all that stuff into it. WWJ just wants to be a "good dad" but he's a woefully deficient deadbeat. We already have another issue planned. We have a lot of material for it, sadly.
In 2013, you told The Comics Journal’s Sean T. Collins about the strip that foretells Werewolf Jones’ death, saying it was “a reminder to [your]self to change before it’s too late.” Two years later, there’s a Werewolf Jones mini comic. Has Werewolf Jones’ doomed storyline continued to be a reminder for you?
That WWJ death strip was based on a friend of my mother and she herself continues to deal with dependency issues, which I in turn have to witness and deal with. I'm still disgustingly unhealthy and lazy and prone to intoxication but I could be a hell of a lot worse. I've never stuck anything in my arm and I never will. I'm just trying to get all my work done and slowly try to get healthier and more sensible as my body begins to decay at an ever more rapid pace. One day at a time.
“All of my art is an ongoing therapy and meditation session with myself conducted by myself. It can totally put things in perspective. The world would be a much better place if everybody made art.”—Simon Hanselmann
What do you think the place of comics is in expressing heavier issues, like depression and gender politics? Are comics taken seriously enough yet?
Comics is no different to prose, cinema or music in that respect. It's all the same thing. It's very unfortunate that the bulk of society continues to stupidly perceive the form as some kind of juvenile container incapable of possessing a full range of thought. People who say they "don't get" comics are frankly just moronic. It's very simple, people, it's just cinema on paper. It was looking good for comics for a while with Maus and Jimmy Corrigan winning that Guardian award and Fun Home and the rest but then all those fucking Marvel movies took off and I think that's set the "cause" back a bit. I'm tired of the form being tarred by the juvenile power-fantasy brush.
You’ve spoken about not identifying with a gender, and your cartoons are sometimes political. Is there a message you want to communicate through your comics?
The gender divide is indeed completely ridiculous, I don't really see a difference between intelligent, enlightened women and men. There's a thing going on within comics at the moment where people are making clubs exclusively for female comics readers and making websites all about women who draw comics. It's great but also at the same time a little reductive. It's purporting to help women be respected and noticed but it's further segregating the genders. You go to SPX or TCAF or any of the more progressive comics festivals and it's not hard to notice that it's pretty evenly split, gender wise. All of the Ignatz awards this year went to female-identified cartoonists. The vast majority of my favourite artists are “female.” Macho shittiness may be a problem in the world of mainstream comics but I don't really see much of a problem in the "alternative" world. I think a lot of people are being overly political with this shit and we should just treat a comic as a comic and not judge it by which gender it was created by. Good comics are good comics.
I identify as a "flesh swaddled skeleton" (need to petition for that to be added as an option on Facebook, perhaps with an overly aggressive Tumblr that will use a vast array of confusing acronyms that actually just serve to alienate the "regular folk"). I think of Megg and Mogg as being "quietly political.” There's a trans character that is part of the friendship group but I try to keep it very low-key. That character is just "there." She is accepted and nobody has to shout about it, which is how it should be. (I know that it's not like that in real life and society has a looooooong way to go but yeah, "quietly political.") I find politics intensely boring. I dislike work that is merely trading in politics and attempting to get noticed solely based on that.
“You gotta find something that you like doing and that you find calming. Try not to take any shit. Try to find some glimmers of magic within the horror.”—Simon Hanselmann
What it is specifically about the comic form that works for you?
Comics is the best art form. Paintings are boring. Fonts are boring. Comics has pictures and fonts so it totally wins. Basically it's just filmmaking but it's really cheap and you don't have to put up with any other people or weather while you're making it. All of my art is an ongoing therapy and meditation session with myself conducted by myself. It can totally put things in perspective. The world would be a much better place if everybody made art.
Do you think comics have the power for change?
Of course they do. Unfortunately though, nobody really reads them. Most of the population is busy watching reruns of Two and a Half Men after their grindingly shitty days at their depressing, robotic jobs.
What do you think the future will look like? What is the future of comics?
The future could go either way. I'm hoping religion will slowly die off and people will become more tolerant and just shut the fuck up and go about their own things and let other people go about their things. Maybe it will get worse though. I really do think that currently 99.9% of the human race is utterly worthless. We're probably incapable of real change or ever getting along with one another. Who knows? I'll be dead and gone in the blink of an eye. What do I care?
The future of comics better not be digital bullshit. Hopefully people will continue to make beautiful physical objects and push the craft further. Some stronger writing would be nice. Style and substance. Stop holding back, you nerds. Get some fucking life experience.
I'm already living my ideal future, soon I'll be moving to Seattle to start building a home with my beautiful, amazing wife. We will eat delicious food and get drunk and make love and read comics until we die in each other’s arms.
Who are some dope cartoonists doing really great stuff right now that everyone should know about?
My favourite cartoonist is my best friend HTMLflowers. His Werewolf Jones stuff is the funniest shit I've read all year and his new project he's working on (No Visitors) is going to be fucking huge when it gets collected and drops next year or whenever. Other consistent favourites include Leon Sadler, Aisha Franz, Antoine Cosse, Maren Karlson, Booger Brie, Nacho Garcia, Olivier Schrauwen, Marie Jacotey, Conor Stechschulte, Decadence, Carlos Gonzalez, Aidan Koch, Noel Freibert... The best anthology this year was VOLCAN.
And finally, what advice might you have to a young person struggling with depression or anxiety? What about to an aspiring cartoonist?
You just gotta find something that you like doing and that you find calming. Try not to take any shit. Try to find some glimmers of magic within the horror. Comics-wise: go to art galleries, watch foreign cinema, look outside of comics for inspiration. Try to find a balance between living (collecting anecdotes) and hibernating away from everything so you can work. Comics are utterly grueling to make, it takes fucking forever. You need to enjoy making them for you primarily. It's very unlikely you'll actually make any money out of it. Some people do though. I spend $300 on t-shirts and get flown all over the world for free. Next year I might end up living in a ditch, though (with a few shifts at Whole Foods if I'm lucky). That's the magic of comics!