Cartoonist Simon Hanselmann Revisits the “Minimum-Security Torture Chamber” of High School in One More Year

Comics Features Simon Hanselmann
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Cartoonist Simon Hanselmann Revisits the &#8220;Minimum-Security Torture Chamber&#8221; of High School in <i>One More Year</i>

A little more than a year has passed since Simon Hanselmann released his hardbound compilation (Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam) from publisher Fantagraphics. Paste interviewed him then, addressing his caustic, abusive ensemble of millennial burn-outs—Megg, Mogg and Owl. With most authors, that’s not a huge gap, and doing another interview within that short a timespan may seem unproductive, yielding the same answers from 2016. The Tasmania-born Hanselmann, however, rarely seems at a loss for words. And although his new book, One More Year, could be dismissed as rehashing the “same old garbage” (his words), that would be a mistake. His work allows him to transcend the kind of meme culture that often celebrates his work. His characters are horrible in many ways—physically and emotionally sad and violent—but they are always worth reading. He asked me to make him cry with my questions, and I didn’t manage to do that (I don’t think; we were exchanging emails), but we did talk about his high school years, his love of print and how to survive in the modern age.
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Paste: The title of this book comes from the section that’s a flashback to Megg, Mogg, Owl and Werewolf Jones’ high school years. What were those years like for you? I know you dropped out, but what was high school like before that? Would you go to a reunion?

Simon Hanselmann: No, I would never consider a reunion, ha ha. I was pretty mercilessly bullied in high school. There was a group of mean boys who took delight in spitting on me. My back would literally be covered in phlegm. Once I was dragged through the mud by my legs, and even the teachers just stood around chuckling it up. My attendance record was very spotty. My ma would drop me off at the gate and I’d just walk back into town and lurk around (sweatily buying illicit lingerie in quiet department stores), or if my ma was at work I could sneak back into our house and draw all day. And yeah, I got in a lot of trouble for selling zines at school, so I just dropped out. I knew what I wanted to be doing, I knew what would make me happy in life.

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One More Year Cover Art by Simon Hanselmann

Paste: How much trouble could one get in for selling zines?

Hanselmann: This was when I was 13, 14, 15. There was a lot of sex and carnage and uninformed small-town racism in my early zines. They couldn’t really threaten me with suspension because I barely attended. They sent letters of concern to my blissed-out-on-morphine mother. I recall once the principal trying to convince me that self-publishing was illegal, but I called total bullshit on that. I kept selling them and they kept busting me. I guess I only ever turned up to hawk zines. Then I figured out you could sell them to record stores, so I dropped out.

Paste: Did you participate in zine culture other than making your own and selling them to people? (i.e., did you exchange zines with others via mail?) Do you feel like zines are making a comeback?

Hanselmann: I buy a lot of zines at festivals and from people’s web shops. Too many. Zines never went away, and there’s all sorts of crazy format experimentation going on: receipt rolls, pop-up origami, gigantism, balsa wood. People are still super high on the risograph. Currently I probably make the bulk of my income from zines. I print ‘em; I advertise ‘em; I ship ‘em out; I make 100 percent of the profits. If I were to rely purely on what I make from my English-language trade releases, I would be living in a men’s shelter right now (if I could find an available spot at one).

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One More Year Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann

Paste: What do you think about most art/entertainment set in high school? Does any of it feel real or accurate?

Hanselmann: Yeah, most of it. Especially something like Freaks and Geeks. Schools really are just minimum-security torture chambers if you’re in any way different or don’t want to follow an academic path. I’m staunchly in favor of self-education or “hippie schools.”

Paste: The title seems purposefully ambiguous, one you can read with joy (“Yay! One more awesome year is coming up/in the books”), with misery (“Ugh, one more year to go. I don’t know if I can make it.”), with resignation (“Buck up, dude. There’s only one more year left.”) or just as a statement of fact. Did you intend these as multiple readings?

Hanselmann: To me, it means “one more year until I finally stop fucking around and start to take these characters’ lives forward,” “one more year of the same old garbage,” “one more year until Werewolf Jones dies of an overdose and the shit really hits the fan.” I originally proffered up that title under duress, for some catalogue copy. I initially hated it, but now I quite like it.

Paste: “Same old garbage” is a little harsh. I get why you’d say that, but I also think there’s character growth in this book and the last one. Is that coincidental? If you want to move on, why not just go ahead and move on rather than staying with the older arcs?

Hanselmann: Yeah, I just like to be self-flagellating. There’s growth in the last two expansion campaigns for sure, deeper relationship stuff, expanding borders. I actually did start doing Megg’s Coven in 2012. It was serialized for four chapters in a Melbourne comics newspaper. I can’t remember why I quit doing it or slowed down on it in that form. I’m glad I did though. It wasn’t ready yet. But yeah, moving on with it is going to be hard. I’m shaking up the status quo and moving into very different territories, plus it’s totally going to break my mother’s heart. I’m not quite sure that she’s ready for a brutally honest, unflinching portrayal of our relationship throughout the years. Mostly I just want to do this thing right. It’s not something I could serialize on Vice for instance. I wanted to get started on Megg’s Coven last year, but then Alvin Buenaventura committed suicide whilst owing me $10,000. I thought my rent was paid up for the year…I had to go back to Vice for a bit to pay the bills. Decided to keep it simple, burn off all the old scripts that had been laying about. But yeah, it’s time now (almost).

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One More Year Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann

Paste: What’s your general take on the passage of time at this point in your life? What about in the past?

Hanselmann: It’s too depressing to think about. A dreamlike blur of missed opportunities and impending doom. Barreling through a tunnel at high velocity toward a woodchipper, periodic weeping.

Paste: One of my favorite scenes in the book is Megg dressing up and putting on her makeup. It feels like she’s armoring herself and giving into conventions about female beauty and self-presentation at the same time. What are your feelings on makeup? Do you like putting it on? What did you use to paint on your freckles in your author photo?

Hanselmann: Yeah, I like makeup. It’s fun to paint your face up like the pretty ladies in the magazines. I’m very bad at it though. If anything, I feel I’ve gotten worse at applying makeup. It is indeed a nice barrier shield from reality sometimes. It makes me feel like a different person. But yeah, it’s very difficult. I’m always fucking up my eyeliner in hotel bathrooms minutes before i’m due on the con floor. I’ve started dressing up at cons less and less. I kinda just like to slop around these days, unnoticed, put my headphones on and lurk outside, smoking by the dumpsters. (It’s an old eye pencil I use for the freckles. It’s funny when people sometimes think they’re real freckles. Maybe I’m better at makeup than I think? Or maybe some people are just a little bit stupid? Probably the latter.)

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Paste: There’s probably not a huge overlap between people who know a lot about indie comics and people who know enough about makeup to recognize fake freckles. But maybe I stereotype!

Hanselmann: Some of the comics fan community could certainly benefit from some foundation and cover-up. Take that, nerds. Fuck your Big Bang Theory normalization.

Paste: What are the letters going down vertically on either side of the cover? I assumed (like an idiot) they were Hebrew, but I just Google image searched and they don’t seem to be. Chinese?

Hanselmann: I think Japanese. I can’t remember. I was high, awkwardly googling fonts in a mad panic.

Paste: Tell me more about the cover design. I like that fancy foil! I feel like there’s all kind of significance in each of its elements, but maybe it’s just that it looks cool.

Hanselmann: It’s based on a piece by Awazu Kiyoshi. I pretty much just ripped it off, an “homage” (I perhaps don’t have an original bone in my body). I had a couple of days to throw the cover together. I was already a few weeks late handing the book in. I always do the covers last, and I find it the most stressful part of the whole ordeal. There were all sorts of other plans that were rapidly scrapped. I was designing around my requested foil element and that informed the process. There were limitations to what I could do with the foil. I originally envisioned a lot more foil, like a whole night sky of foil. There was a lot of discussion in the office about the front barcode. I almost didn’t get away with that. But, yeah, my main goal was just to make a really fucking in-your-face cover that might warrant a double take in the bookstore. Also a lot of material in this book is previously published, out-of-print work that non-mass-market fans will already have. I needed a way to “trick” more attentive fans into needing this book. “Ooh, shiny, pretty.” Also it renders the digital version a useless piece of shit. Buy books! Books are still cool!

Paste: This one? Did you pick it just for its visual impact or maybe also for its content? (e.g., “Awazu’s work also incorporates historic symbols appropriated from Japanese visual culture. In Flower Hall, which promotes a play dramatizing the Onin War, Awazu turned to Japanese art history. The imagery of the Buddhist demigod is based on the late 12th century Hell of Excrement scroll, one in a series that portrays the various levels of hell.” I feel like “Hell of Excrement” could be the title of a Megg & Mogg story.)

Hanselmann: Yeah, that’s the one. I just thought it was awesome. Happy accident on the hell of excrement! I should pretend that that was on purpose…

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One More Year Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann

Paste: Do you think Awazu’s incorporation of the past through its powerful mythology is something that strikes a particular chord with you?

Hanselmann: I just like the pretty colors (sound of bong ripping).

Paste: For someone who’s pretty active on Twitter, you’re kind of a proud Luddite, right? Last time we chatted, you were saying Wacom tablets and the like make you want to throw up. In what areas do you engage with digital technology? Do you listen to LPs?

Hanselmann: Ha ha, I feel very inactive on Twitter. I don’t really engage with anybody on there. Last week I tried to write to some “critic” who’d totally missed the point of something, and it turned into a total shit storm. Never, never again. Everybody I know seems to hate Twitter and wants to get off of it. I can’t stand Facebook either. It seems to predominately just be a bunch of horrible whining and embarrassing airing of personal shit. I save that stuff for my comics.

In regards to digital technology, I’m on board with Soundcloud and Spotify and Netflix and Hulu, and I just bought a Nintendo Switch for long plane rides and chose the all-download option. I grew up poor and was never really around computers for a long time and am slow to adopt, but I’m getting there. I still fucking hate Wacom tablets though, still don’t use Photoshop. I see it as cheating. That said, I really enjoy certain digital works. I loved Jaakko Pallasvuo’s new book that he drew entirely on his iPad. Most digital work is just ugly though. It can be used gracefully, but most people using those tools are styleless.

Paste: Comics still feel like an area where physical books are necessary (with some exceptions) because of the ways in which materials and design, including page size, affect the reading experience—even more so than with more traditional art books. How much do you think about design in that way when you’re making comics?

Hanselmann: The internet is just a means of cold content distribution to me. I only think in terms of “paper sandwiches” (books). I’m pretty cavalier and simple with my design though. I just let things fall together within my limited palette. I’d like to get crazier with stuff. It depends what Fantagraphics will let me get away with. They let me have holofoil for the new one, so maybe for the next one I can get my music chip. I really liked the last Mould Map. It had like laser-cut cover shells and a black rubber X-band thing. It felt like an alien artifact. Digital is so lame in the face of something like that.

Paste: As you move backwards in time in these books, it’s producing a kind of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal effect, where what we know to be true now sometimes just makes the past sadder. Is that play an influence? Or the Seinfeld episode based on it?

Hanselmann: I am an uncultured slob and have only seen the Seinfeld version. I agree that yes, if you are paying attention and piecing things together there’s a definite sense of horror at watching, say, Werewolf Jones’ last year of being alive. He’s trying. He wants to not be a loser, but he can’t help but fuck up spectacularly. He’s almost at the end of the tunnel with the woodchipper. It’s horrible to watch. The next series of books will take things forward into the future, but I’ll still be exploring the past… I’m very excited about moving Megg and Mogg forward next year (after I indulge in making a bunch of weird zines).

Paste: How do you feel about water parks (the comic “Heat Wave,” in this compilation, takes place in one)?

Hanselmann: I rather enjoy them. I haven’t been in a long time, but I have fond memories of Gold Coast Seaworld and a Balinese ‘90s water park. I’m somewhat weird about my body post-adolescence so I don’t know if I could do it now. I saw a water park episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia recently that was very similar in parts to the new water park episode in One More Year. I drew the comic long before the Sunny episode aired, but the book comes out after. One shot in them is like exactly the same. Ugh. At least it proved to me that I am probably capable of being a writer on a sitcom in its waning years. I am proud to be a hack of average yet adequate abilities. “Going through the motions since 2008.”

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One More Year Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann

Paste: Any art historical references in these splash pages? I couldn’t put my finger on any, but they sure are beautiful. You seem to put a lot of emotional energy into those drawings in particular.

Hanselmann: I just flipped through the book and shockingly, no. I actually seem to have not ripped anything off for any of those. The spread that closes the book is fairly emotional for me. It’s where HTMLflowers and I spent one of our last days in Melbourne before I moved to the US. I’d pencilled up the rough for the painting early last year, and then my friend Karl’s body was found near there shortly after. Also one of the trees is badly rendered and it bothers me…

Paste: When did you draw most of these stories? Do you think the current atmosphere of political chaos and explicit cruelty is affecting your work? Or is it just confirming feelings and impulses you already had?

Hanselmann: About a quarter of the book is some old, out-of-print 2013 stories. Then there’s all the stuff I did for Vice last year (most likely my final run of those). The last, long story in there was a book that Alvin put out in early 2015. After he died (and left no will), his family took control of all his shit and they tried to sell all the remaining books to Fantagraphics. It would’ve been cheaper to just reprint a new edition so we passed on the deal. I heard the remaining books would be pulped or sit in a storage container, so I decided to color the material and include it in One More Year. Alvin’s death fucked me up, and it was nice to color the book we’d put out together. I’d originally wanted it to be full color but ran out of time. In the meantime, all the Alvin books started popping up on Amazon and in every fucking comics shop. I’m kind of pissed off about it. I’m not seeing any royalties on those editions. I estimate there were probably around 5,000 copies left of the run, and they appear to be sold out now. I actually messaged a few stores asking them not to buy them. I was worried it would lessen the specialness of the new color edition. But whatever. There’s nothing I can do about it. The rest of One More Year is 52 pages of new material I drew in late 2016. They were drawn from pretty old scripts, though.

I’m mostly concerned with my own personal horrors, and I wasn’t too surprised when Trump won. I called it before Michael Moore. America is a terrifying, decaying shit hole. My curated Tumblr feed does not reflect reality in the least. I’m an immigrant living in America, so I try to keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to get deported. I’m just watching it all burn down from my little studio; trying to stay focused on work and family, staying alive. That’s where Megg and Mogg’s headed: ruminations on family and addiction, trying to change personally. I’m very excited about injecting a new sense of forward momentum into Megg and Mogg. The year is up. Time to change.

Paste: I’m a little nervous to draw a Candide parallel after your “uncultured slob” comment, but I have to use my literature degree for something. The tl;dr would be: optimism, followed by pages and pages of disillusionment, concluding in the philosophy that you have to cultivate your own garden. That sounds a bit like what you’re saying, both about your own life and about Megg and Mogg. Comments?

Hanselmann: I have actually read Candide (the edition with the Chris Ware cover). I enjoyed it (especially the comics on the covers). Seemingly by coincidence, once again Megg and Mogg has come across as literary or “self-aware.” Purely accidental. In the future, I shall have to pretend I knew what I was doing all along and reference Voltaire as an influence instead of The Simpsons and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

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One More Year Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann

Paste: To be fair, I’m sure both The Simpsons and Sabrina have incorporated a lot of cultural references from the Western canon. (Maybe a little less so with Sabrina.) I guess what I’m getting at is that I feel like you have the same kind of dark, but not nihilistic, worldview as Voltaire. Does that seem accurate?

Hanselmann: Yeah, I guess so. Existence/nature is horribly, punishingly indifferent to our cultivated whims. Everything we do is utterly pointless in the face of time and the universe. In the meantime though i’m going to try my fucking darndest to keep things comfortable for myself and the people I care about (fucking crippling empathy). It’s all about distracting yourself. Try not to think about the day you switch off and everything you’ve ever done is rendered pointless.

I mean like you could effect mass positive change within society and that’s fabulous, but still, the human race is racing towards extinction/erasure. How long until everything we are as a species is dust? We may as well just be rolling around in the mud, fucking and punching each other. But hey, “golden age of television,” right?

Paste: Do you consider making comics a kind of therapy?

Hanselmann: Yeah, I’ve said that before, and it still holds true. Filtering horrible events through my work seems to lessen their effects in reality, neuters them. I also enjoy getting lost in the process. All the bullshit I’m dealing with melts away when I’m lost in “the zone.” It can be dangerous, though. I get very obsessive, very antisocial, and it’s not healthy to be sitting in a dark room on the floor for upwards of 30 hours at a time. Nothing else really makes me happy, though. I feel like I’m wasting time if I’m not working on something. Gotta keep the roof over my head, gotta pay for my ma’s methadone, gotta keep moving.

Paste: Apparently comics therapy is a real thing that DARPA is researching.

Hanselmann: Jesus. Well, I can’t wait for all of those damaged soldier graphic novels to start polluting the GN section at Barnes and Noble.

Paste: Wrapping up. Anything else you want to say?

Hanselmann: I’m running for president in 2020.

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