The indie comics world is full of weird, life-affirming success stories. Few other categories within the entertainment industry nourish so many workaholic weirdos who actually manage to make a living doing what they love. Simon Hanselmann is exactly that sort of unicorn: a high school drop-out from Tasmania who’s become a New York Times-bestselling comics writer/artist, projecting his own deeply disturbing, hilarious vision of millennial ennui. His strip Megg Mogg Owl runs regularly on Vice and has been collected in two hardcover compilations so far, the most recent of which is Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories), published by Fantagraphics. Although it’s full of drug-based cruel humor, Hanselmann’s vision of three roommates—a witch, her boyfriend cat and an uptight owl the pair torment—moves beyond shallow 420 jokes to something more like a bildungsroman. The author captures the window of being young and stupid, only capable of escaping from one’s head through drug use.
Hanselmann, who recently moved to Seattle, put up with us through a series of email exchanges to discuss his hatred of computer coloring, where he bought his dress to get married to comics a couple of years ago, jumping the shark and his terrible eating habits.
Paste: So did you always envision yourself as Charles Schulz, making a long-running, somewhat philosophical comic strip with the same cast of characters and succeeding wildly at it? Is that a weird analogy?
Simon Hanselmann: I’ve always been drawn to trying to do long-running character stuff. In high school I had a whole cast of funny animal characters, then I had a crude sort of Tintin rip-off thing (similar to how Megg & Mogg is vaguely based on the British children’s books). Both of those character groups existed for long stretches of time. I enjoy the repetition. I read a lot of Garfield and Asterix and other serialized stuff growing up. I really want Megg & Mogg to be like Gasoline Alley or Doonesbury and go on for years and years, and you see the characters age and change. I have roughly the next five years’ trajectory mapped out for them. Starting to get further and further into what could happen. Will mostly just be waiting and watching, taking notes. Collecting experiences. I have a bunch of non-Megg & Mogg stuff I would like to do, but for now I’m very happy drawing endless Megg & Mogg. It feels very comfortable, and I have a lot of affection for the characters.
Paste: You seem to have tapped into something with Megg & Mogg. People dress up as the characters and get tattoos and otherwise show their devotion. What is it about this strip at this time?
Hanselmann: Yeah, it’s pretty weird to turn up to Moscow Comic-Con and be put up on a giant stage with a giant Megg lit up behind me, and then have a fight break out in my signing line there. I think it’s in 13 languages now… I think Megg & Mogg is fairly straightforward and “honest,” and I try to make it very real in its pacing. I strive for fluid readability. I don’t know, it’s very surreal to me that it’s gotten this recognition. I’m very critical of my work, and I’m just writing about my friends. I think a big part of the success it’s seen is just my consistency in getting it out. I’m a disgusting workaholic. I’m only happy when I’m getting tons of work done. No ceilings.
Paste: How do you keep it going? I’m actually impressed that you do. I am a mean and skeptical person, and I didn’t think I was going to like the first collection at all, but then I did, very much. So, instead of being generous and assuming I would love Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam (and Other Stories), I was nervous and worried about you getting into a rut. So: how do you keep things interesting when you don’t have all that many pieces to shift around?
Hanselmann: I’m constantly paranoid that I’ve “jumped the shark” and it’s all over. I have piles and piles of future script outlines though, still holding onto a ton of good stuff, still getting new ideas. There’s a whole movement I’m planning where the tone will shift pretty heavily, and it’ll be much heavier and push things forward. I’m a little nervous about doing that and smashing apart the current dynamic, but it has to be done. It has to move forward and mature. Can’t keep dicking around; gotta grow up. But yeah, bottom line, I’m still having fun, I love Megg & Mogg, and I give a shit about comics as a medium. Hopefully that comes off to my readers.
Paste: What do you think has changed about the strip since it started? I feel like you spend more time on your scenery and on the panel composition than at the beginning (which was more talking heads and sitting on the couch). Are there artistic goals you set out to achieve with it?
Hanselmann: I’m spending way too much time on detailing all the bushes and making the bottles on the coffee table sparkle in the light. I need to strip it down perhaps and focus more on the scripts, but really I just want to make it fancier and fancier. I want dramatic mood lighting. It’s so laborious, though. I tend to not think about layouts or anything. I just go in hard on the grid. It’s all about the pacing. Fancy layouts just get in the way of storytelling. Has it changed at all since 2008? I think maybe it just looks a little less like a goofy Fort Thunder rip-off and a bit more respectable and its own thing. I try pretty hard with my craft. It pisses me off when people dismiss the art. It’s fucking fiddly, time-sensitive stuff. My initial goal with Megg & Mogg was to make a “sitcom in comic form.” My goal now is to keep it running forever and beat every other cartoonist out there.
Paste: What’s your actual drawing set-up? Wacom? Pen? Computer coloring? Watercolor? Cat on lap? Red Bull?
Hanselmann: Ugh, Wacom. I just vomited in my mouth a little. Computers never touch my pages. What you see on the page in the book is what the page looks like in real life. I use watercolors and food coloring, some gouache. I’ve worked the same way since 1989. Cheap coffee table, cheap lamp, cheap paints, put the TV on and get to work. I really hate shitty-looking computer coloring. It looks so generic and soulless to me. Michael DeForge is one of the very few people who works digitally whose work I can stand. It just seems like cheating to me. It’s too easy, too fast. I like sweating over and onto my pages. I like the physical object of the page. I like the danger. If I make a mistake on the page, it’s very difficult to fix. And yeah, I drink a ton of Red Bull. I really need to stop drinking it.
Paste: Wait, food coloring? How the hell does that work? And why?
Hanselmann: In the mid 2000s, I was doing a lot of gig posters in Tasmania in our sloppy noise and punk scenes. I used to hand-color a lot of my posters, and one time I was out of yellow watercolor and used the food color from the pantry. I never went back. It’s great stuff, just this certain brand, Queen. I could never find a good strong yellow watercolor anyway. The yellows are always weird. And the blues a bit. So yeah, I use a lot of food color. It seems to last well and retains its brightness. It’s very good for making smooth fields of color. The best.
Paste: Is it the same coffee table as since 1989?
Hanselmann: No, I’ve had many tables. I actually just drew all hunched up on the floor until I was 26. Now I buy cheap Ikea coffee tables. Have gone through a few. I lay a blanket on the hardwood floor and have a small cushion for my bottom. Sometimes my ankles look really scary. Big joints, red and bulgy, from being smashed against the floor all day. Maybe one day in the future I’ll actually sit (or stand) at a desk like an actual healthy adult? Probably not likely. I like the floor. I’m floor trash.
Paste: What do you watch on TV while you work?
Hanselmann: All sorts of stuff. Usually bad sitcoms so I can’t get too distracted. It all becomes a blur. Recently I was watching a ton of Frasier. I’m obsessed with The Amazing Race. I’ve seen all of it. All of the foreign versions also. I want to go on it, but I’m scared of having to eat deep-fried spiders or 100-year-old eggs. Last year I travelled to 10 countries, so that kind of was like my version of The Amazing Race… But the food was generally nice.
Paste: Frasier because Seattle? Or just: it’s in syndication and it’s far enough down the list for you to have gotten to it finally? Live TV or Netflix and the like?
Hanselmann: Yeah, i’ve been making a lot of Frasier jokes since I moved to Seattle. I’ve seen it all before years ago, so it’s not too distracting. I’m enjoying having Netflix and Hulu. It’s perfect for me. They have a lot of British stuff on there, which is good. All of my favorite TV shows are British: Black Books, Peep Show, Ideal, Nighty Night.
Paste: So you’re mostly scared of the horrible things you’d have to eat on The Amazing Race? What about jumping from really high places?
Hanselmann: I also don’t like heights. And I can’t drive. And I’m colorblind and have flat feet. They probably wouldn’t take me.
Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann
Paste: Tell me about your eating habits? Do they mirror those of your characters? What’s your convenience store go-to?
Megg & Mogg is depressingly autobiographical. HTMLflowers and I lived right across from a 7-11 for a good while, and I basically lived off of it. The hot dogs, the canned chili, the dried-up old meat pies. Endless banana bread. Endless Red Bull. Large classic at 4 A.M. Up all night and all day, never seeing sunlight. A disgusting workaholic. As long as the work’s getting done, fuck everything else. For being 34 years old, I scrub up remarkably well. Really probably should not.
Paste: I’m going to make a leap here and assume you identify with Megg the most, but is everyone in the strip a facet of you? Do you go through stretches of anhedonia the way she does? The way you portray that feeling (or lack of feeling, really) seems to me to make those parts of the strip the saddest, especially because of what otherwise seems to be your appetite for culture and experience.
Hanselmann: I’m all the characters in a way. They all represent different warring bits of my personality, but they’re composites of a lot of friends and relatives, really. I generally feel quite cold as a person. Everything just happens around me, and I try to cope with it.
Paste: I think my take on the first compilation was, “Oh, thank god I am old and I don’t have to think about roommates or dating or any of that horrible stuff.” Is that where you are now? Thirty-four can be pretty responsible or it can be a last hurrah of youth or it can still be raging every night. So which 34 are you?
Hanselmann: I’m married, my wife and I live in a big house with a basement and we just bought a car together. I’m feeling reasonably “adulty.” I still feel like a completely immature child, though, and have trouble getting through the day if there’s too much to do that isn’t drawing or looking at comic books… All I want to do is draw or look at comic books. But yeah, I’m well past the horrible sharehouse lifestyle. My ideal Friday night is watching TV with my wife on the couch and drawing. Still get pretty fucked up regularly though. Probably should be doing that less. Starting to slightly feel my age physically… Fuck.
Paste: Whose work do you like, digitally colored or not?
Hanselmann: Comics-wise? A bunch of weird shit… I like what Breakdown Press is putting out. Marie Jacotey is amazing. I like anything Leon Sadler does. Aisha Franz is great. Jaakko Pallasvuo’s new book Retreat is awesome. All sorts of stuff. Currently though all I really give a shit about is my stuff and HTMLflowers, my best friend/writing partner’s stuff. His new series, No Visitors, is the best thing in comics right now. It’s debuting on our tour over the next few weeks. We’re on a hot streak right now. Small-town high school dropouts made good. We’re taking over altcomics. Paul Pope 2016.
Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann
Paste: Let’s talk a little about the (original) Meg and Mog books. What did you encounter first: the books or the animated series? Is the connection entirely superficial (names; witch cat owl) or there is more there?
Hanselmann: I learned to read on the books in the mid ‘80s. I wasn’t aware that there was a cartoon version until 2010 or something. I hear that Avril Lavigne does the voice of Meg in the Canadian version. But yeah, it’s very superficial. In no way is it intended by me to be a pastiche or a gritty reboot or anything. It just is what it is… It was an accident. I really like those books though. I love Jan Pienkowski’s drawings.
Paste: All of Pienkowski’s drawings [because he did a lot besides Meg and Mog] or just some? Do you think it’s the bright colors or the stripped-down shapes or something else that attracts you?
Hanselmann: I like his fairy tale silhouette stuff too. His Meg and Mog stuff basically just looks like a Michael DeForge Patreon comic.
Paste: What are your influences outside of comics? Pre-Raphaelite painting? David Foster Wallace?
Hanselmann: Outside of comics I generally just watch TV. I used to read more. I really like Knut Hamsun. I’ll look at art and stuff but less and less. I just draw Megg & Mogg and watch TV and buy clothes.
Paste: Where did you get your wedding dress when you married comics? Do you like shopping?
Hanselmann: Me and HTMLflowers got day drunk and went to the “wedding district” in Melbourne. The lady told me the dress was $8,000 reduced to $400 because of some rips and stains. I probably got ripped off, but I was in a rush before the tour and just paid the $400. It did the job. Was very awkward riding home on a bicycle, drunk, with a heavy wedding dress. I do like shopping. I like online shopping a lot. I like fancy boutiques. I like shoe stores. Going to the mall on Saturday. Currently super pissed off at this boutique in Italy that fucked me on this amazing dress. They sent the wrong item and lost the original dress. It was the best dress in the world. I am heartbroken. It was $800 down to $136, such a bargain… Sigh.
Paste: Filth is a major theme in the strip, and I can’t figure out if you’re kind of okay with a mess or secretly OCD about it or what? There is evidence for both.
Hanselmann: I’m an Owl. I can’t stand filth. I’m excessively fussy and uptight about my studio and living room. HTMLflowers is staying with us right now. We used to live together, and it was hard sometimes. He’s the total opposite of me. A real trash pig. Filth everywhere. Disorganized chaos. Probably something to do with his shitty chronic illness. He can’t make time for order.
Paste: Poor Owl. I know he’s a douchebag, but I really thought he’d gotten out, and then… No.
Hanselmann: There’s a tiny note in the front of Amsterdam that says “all of these episodes take place during Megahex; I didn’t make it clear enough perhaps… There’s a chronology forming and the point where Owl moves out of the house at the end of Megahex is the most recent point we’ve seen in the story of Megg, Mogg and Owl. The point of Amsterdam is just to show how dysfunctional Megg & Mogg’s relationship is the whole time. Currently I’m just working in the established timeline/dynamic, but soon I’ll begin Megg’s Coven, which is the book where Owl is out on his own and Megg has to deal with a life-changing family crisis and Werewolf Jones falls down into a deep hole and doesn’t come out of it.
Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam Interior Art by Simon Hanselmann
Paste: Yes, the timeline makes sense. I missed the note. I should know better and bother to read all the front matter. Now I feel better. But I have this hunch that things aren’t just going to improve magically for Owl.
Hanselmann: No, things won’t be great for Owl after he leaves, at least not for a while. He has no idea what he’s doing and being alone won’t help… Actually, well, he won’t be alone. There’s somebody with him in the future… Ugh, I really want to draw Megg’s Coven. I wish I could just draw that book right now. Wish I was a millionaire. Wish my house wasn’t falling apart. Wish I was Dan Clowes.
Paste: Do you think Dan Clowes ever wishes he was you?
Hanselmann: Endlessly, I imagine. I have a thick, lustrous head of hair with only minimal dandruff.
Paste: So you live in the United States now. What’s that like? I mean, I’ve lived here my whole life, and it still strikes me as a really weird place. What are the biggest differences you encounter between it and Australia?
Hanselmann: I kind of barely leave the house so nothing much has changed. Australia is fairly Americanized anyway. I was in Portland last week and just felt like I was in Melbourne. But yeah, I’ve been here in Seattle three months. In that time two close friends of mine have died and some hardcore family shit’s gone down. All I’ve been doing is throwing myself into work and marriage. I pretend my house is a spaceship and I’m marooned inside it, floating through nothingness.
Paste: The time of year that you’ve been in Seattle is a pretty depressing one, too. You can go pick berries in a few months! How much time do you spend at the Fantagraphics bookstore?
Hanselmann: No berry picking for me probably. My whole year is planned out, a minefield of hard deadlines. I enjoyed the rain here all winter. I’m used to it: Tasmania is rainy, Melbourne is rainy. Keeps me trapped in my little pleasure jail. I’ve been to a few events at the Fanta Bookstore. It’s okay there… Did you mean the Fanta office? I hang out in the office quite a bit. I like writing there (and getting fucked up on the porch). I have a little desk down the back in the design department. I’m typing this from there right now. Everybody is hard at work on exciting new comics! So much dirty industry gossip, guns everywhere, dogs running around, peanut shells covering the floors, overflowing spittoons. Jason T. Miles is showing everybody his YouTube sandwich videos…