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A Conversation with Simon Hanselmann

Simon Hanselmann is the prolific artist behind the sensational Megg and Mogg. The series has taken off, with much of his work now translated into French and Spanish, and more languages under way. His recently released collection, Megahex (Fantagraphics), contains new material that brings us deeper into the emotional life of each of his characters. “Jobs,” a story from last November’s Life Zone (Space Face Books), is nominated for SPX’s Ignatz Award, in the category of Outstanding Story. Our conversation took place just a few hours after the nominations had been announced, and we were both a little giddy. Simon appeared all dolled-up to talk to me over Skype. TCJ has already done its share of mining his background and influences (both are required reading), so I was asked to catch up with what’s going on now, and what’s on the horizon. We spoke about his upcoming US book tour with Michael DeForge and Patrick Kyle, musical projects, the State of Drag in 2014, and past and future work.

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Simon Hanselmann: Here it’s just 10 o’clock at night, so I was looking at the SPX page, seeing if there were any updates. Clicked on the Ignatz, “Oh my god, it’s here!”

It was 5 or 6 in the morning US time. They put it up really early, with no fanfare. I was scrolling down, “Ohhh, am I on there?” and then, “Yes!” I’ve got to stay positive and if I lose, it’s cool, because then I don’t have to carry a brick around on tour.

Sophie Yanow: If you guys get pulled over, they’re gonna be like, “What’s this brick about?”

“Well, it’s an award,” and they’re like, “That’s not fooling anyone. No such award would give you a brick.” It is a bit strange that it’s a brick. You’d think they’d have a little mouse. Like an actual little Ignatz mouse.

Do you already have one?

No, I was nominated last year for my big broadsheet [St. Owl’s Bay, Floating World], but I lost to Ethan Rilly. I thought I was going to win. Everyone was telling me, “You’re so gonna win, it’s so in the bag.”

I was riding my bike the day of the announcement and I rode past a big pile of bricks, and I was like, “Oh it’s a sign! A big pile of bricks!” But then I lost and I was crestfallen. But you get over it. Because I did really want to win. I mean honestly, of course you want to win! But actually I don’t really care this time, and this is the second time. I think the cool thing is just getting nominated, just getting past the judges. And then whatever happens at the show with the public, you know, it turns into a high school popularity contest.

I guess it’s just everybody voting? I’ve never been to SPX.

Me either. Are you going?

Yeah, I’ll be there.

Cool. See you there. It’s gonna be cool. Yeah, there’s a prom! And I’m having my ridiculous fake wedding there.

Oh right, the prom! When is the prom?

I don’t know if it’s the Saturday or the Sunday but there’s some chocolate fountain, and the Ignatz. It’s gonna be crazy.

What is this wedding you’re doing?

I was joking about having a fake wedding, and then Cohen at Fantagraphics got really excited about it and said, “We’ll do it, it’ll be real.” It’s a publicity stunt, basically. I’m going to buy a wedding dress. Grant and I have to get drunk and go to the wedding dress strip and buy a wedding dress. I’m worried about how much it’s going to cost. It’s a fake wedding; DeForge is my best man. It was going to be officiated by Gary Groth, but I think Chris Mautner is doing it now, from Comic Book Resources. There’s going to be cake, balloons, I’m getting married to comics. It’s going to be a beautiful, emotional, symbolic kind of tribute to my love of the craft. I’m kind of nervous about it now, because I kind of have to write it, like it’s a comedy bit in a way. And it’s very heartfelt in a way. I’m kind of a bit crazy. It will have meaning to me, but it’s just kind of a lark as well. I’m going to do a talk at Parsons, I’ve got my list of all the stuff I have to do, I’m going to do Gridlords.

Yeah, Gridlords is fun.

I think DeForge has organized like ten gigs, playing music. I’ve got so much to do in three and a half weeks, and I’m trying to get 8 weeks ahead on Vice, and I’m going stir crazy in this little prison cell of my own making.

Are you going to be playing those shows too?

Yeah, I’m doing all of them. I play music, I’m terrible.

I listened to it, I liked it. I like noisy stuff.

Yeah, I mean, I hang around with people in bands and that make music, so I just try and do it. When I lived in the UK I did a lot of gigs. I played the Big Chill, a big weird festival. There’s like Glastonbury, and the Big Chill. Somehow I ended up playing there with Lily Allen and Kelis. It was weird, and I played a lot of gigs, but they were terrible. Sometimes people wouldn’t want to pay me, like I’d hang around and be like, “C’mon, I want my hundred pounds. AHEM. You heard my MySpace, you heard what I sounded like, you knew what you were in for.” I’m nervous about it because I haven’t played gigs for a long time. My old band got back together recently. But we just get really drunk and it’s very shambolic. And it’s kind of mean as well. Horse Mania, my band, is weird. My friend Karl Von Bamberger is weird. It’s very confronting and really tests the audience. So I don’t know how it’ll go with Creep Highway. Yeah, people are mean in Australia. People like mean stuff.

sh_megahex40

Megahex, page 40

What’s the name of the project that you’re playing as?

It’ll be Girl Mountain, just my old solo thing. I’ll be doing a smattering of new Horse Mania material, my side band. And classic Girl Mountain hits. From all the years, the iPod backing, abrasive stuff, the keyboard drone stuff, and a little bit of guitar. And lots of jokes. Lots of jokes and rambling. And I’ll be really drunk for all the shows.

Sounds like quite a performance.

Yeah, I usually just put on a show and just caper about. It’s anti-performance in a way. I don’t really care how it goes. I’m not really invested in the music thing, it’s just fun. I like playing gigs.

It’s nice to have something that you’re not focused on creating a product out of.

Yeah, there’s no ambition at all. It’s just fun. Comics I’m serious about. I try and push it. Gotta win those awards.

Yeah, make the money.

You know, Sophie, fellow awards nominee. You know.

Are you planning to do the tour in drag?

Well, yeah, probably. You know, I guess I’m not going to travel like this because it’s kind of a hassle. And uh, just getting stared at relentlessly. I’m just shy really. I’ll get drunk and probably dress up for most of the occasions. Cohen has gently intimated, as a publicist, I think she’s like, “Dress up!” but you know, I’ll be nervous about it. It was really nerve-racking doing this at CAB, because this is a thing now. People are disappointed if I don’t, and they expect it in a way, the pageantry. It’s kind of hard to travel with all this stuff in my bag. Coming over to the States I got grilled at every security checkpoint, “What’s all this stuff?” Nervously explaining all these wigs and everything. It just makes me shy and nervous. It’s annoying that I am shy and nervous about it. I’m bad enough on the streets regularly. I’m still feeling it all out. But I’m going to try and dress up.

How do you feel about it being tied into your professional identity?

It’s weird that I feel like I have to now. Because I haven’t been recently. I’ve gone to Adelaide and Darwin, these writers’ festivals recently, and I didn’t there, and I felt like I should, I wanted to just like, “Fuck it!” Just do it, just put on a show, woo! Be glamorous. But I’m just too nervous. [laughter] Yeah. It goes up and down, my confidence. I drink a lot and stuff. It helps the confidence sometimes. Drink when I go out. It’s going to be interesting, we’ll see how I go on these tours. It seems easy to say, “Yeah, I’ll dress up before all these events,” but there’s all the travel involved. Maybe I can get dressed up in the back of the comic shops? But that just feels like a defeat. I’ve just got to work on my confidence. It doesn’t help being trapped in this room all the time. I go up and down with social skills. When I got back from New York, I felt so confident, and I didn’t want the feeling to go away. I was talking to my therapist about it. I stopped seeing the therapist now. He was terrible.

It seemed like there was a really big outpouring of support after the first interview.

Oh, it was crazy, like 200 emails or something and a bunch of guys came out to me, other cartoonists that I kind of knew, like, “Oh I’ve got similar problems!” Like wow, a bunch of scaredy cats like me. Yeah it was great, only two death threats. That was pretty good. Pretty good strike rate.

So your Fantagraphics book is out, but it seems like you’re totally maintaining momentum with the Vice stuff.

I’ve got a list of stuff, and I’ve got a minicomic I’m going to do, I’m going to do this thing called Drama Club, it’s this new thing. I’m trying to keep stuff out. Megg’s Coven is the official followup to Megahex, but I don’t know when I’m going to get to that, because I had at the end that Owl moves out, so Megg’s Coven officially continues that story, and all of that new stuff that was in Megahex was scripted from 2011 or something, so it was kind of outdated and I was a bit “Errr” about it. I’m years ahead in the writing, and it takes longer to draw it. I’m loitering around with the Vice stuff just before Owl’s moved out. Soon I’m going to have to start talking about the convoluted chronology and stuff.

I was wondering about how that is going to collect, what’s going to be canon, if you’re going to have to retcon anything?

I think of it all as one big thing, like it’s one big art piece and it’s all kind of growing. I’m doing something new, and [another new] thing will probably be set in 1998, just after Megg is out of college. I’m going to start jumping around in time a bit. It’s sort of all about just revealing information, and each bit just kind of builds. In the Vice stuff I had alluded to relationship troubles between Megg and Mogg, and that there was some light cheating occurring at one point, and I think it all just affects the rest of the material and just adds and builds.

When I saw Owl leaving in Megahex, it sort of seemed like one of these characters asserting boundaries is causing a ripple effect in some way.

Yeah. I wanted that ending and I wanted Owl to do something and stand up against their bullshit. Chronology be damned. It was a Ghost World ending is what it was. Owl just does an Enid and just gets on the bus and just leaves. That’s kind of funny that it’s ripped off from Ghost World inadvertently. And it’s a pretty cheesy ending as well, but, it’s cheesy sometimes.

But we all know that the story continues.

Yeah, well you know all the Megg’s Coven stuff. I started doing Megg’s Coven but I’m going to restart it.

An excerpt from Megg's Coven, originally serialized in DAILIES (Secret Army)

An excerpt from Megg’s Coven, originally serialized in DAILIES (Silent Army)

I saw the ones that you posted on your tumblr.

Yeah, that was just for a magazine and then I decided to stop serializing it in that magazine. I want to do it more like a movie, I don’t want to do it in segmented chunks. I’m trying to figure out how. I’d like to just drop it as one big book, but it’s probably going to be like 400 pages. It’s a thing that could get really sprawling. So I think I’ll have to do it in four chapters of 60 pages or 100 pages, and try to get that done yearly. But like I said, I’ve got all these other books I want to do.

It sounds like everything’s more or less scripted, but when you’re putting something out in one venue or another, would you say, “Okay, I’m not going to put Megg’s Coven on Vice.”

Oh, no, Megg’s Coven. No. That’s the prestige picture at the moment. That’s my A-Material, you know, my big fancy graphic novel thing. And then there’s all the other stories just floating around. The Vice stuff, I have a wall of vague little ideas and then there’s the sheet of longer ideas, and then Megg’s Coven. But that’s all about my mom and stuff, it’s Megg going back and staying with her mom. My mom’s sick again and just really fucked at the moment, and it’s this ongoing thing. It’s all about addiction and my own addiction and weaknesses. Just generally the family. It’s more of a serious family piece, it’ll be funny as well because Mogg and Werewolf Jones will be on their own while Megg’s away. There’ll be stuff with Owl living on his own. It gets kind of soapie. I’m excited about it. God knows when that will come out, but in the meantime there’s a steady stream of other crap.

Is there a reason why Girl Mountain didn’t end up going up on What Things Do?

Yeah, Jordan [Crane] and I just haven’t talked. I don’t know, he’s bad at emailing, I’m bad at emailing, it just never happened, I think I’ve pretty much just decided I don’t want it out. I just don’t want to release it. I hate it. There’s no point really. I was going to do all these heavy edits on it and try and cut bits out and make it work for What Things Do. It would have been quite a bit of work to reformat it and cut it down into little chunks and so I’m just full steam ahead with Megg and Mogg. There’s other things I’d rather do than focus on Girl Mountain. And now I’m thinking I’m just picking away at the carcass of Girl Mountain and using that for Megg and Mogg. You know, little bits I can use for Vice. Because I’m desperate for ideas! I’ve got all these places I’ve got to do Megg and Mogg and I don’t want it to get really shit. So I’m desperate for ideas, and just salvaging things from wherever I can. It’s not all gold. I did something for the Pitchfork Review, the second issue, and I kind of knew it sucked, it was pretty uneven. It had its merits but I just knew it didn’t work. It did and it didn’t. It served its purpose but it was just off.

So with the other stuff that you’re working on, is it mostly Megg and Mogg stories, or is there more stuff like your Mould Map piece, which I loved, which seemed pretty autobiographical?

Yeah, that was like weird dreamy auto-bio. They sort of told me what to do, they gave me pretty strong art direction and said they wanted me to kind of write about that kind of stuff. So I sent them that and they accepted it, the roughs, and I went with it, but it was a weird place. I felt kind of uncomfortable with it, because it was very personal. That’s one that I find it hard to look at. I always read in interviews with like Clowes and people, like, “Oh I can’t look at [my work],” and I’m like, “What?” I can read Megg and Mogg infinitely and it doesn’t make me cringe usually. Sometimes it does, but generally I just like it and enjoy it. But that Mould Map piece just really does make me feel like, “Ahhh… I’ve bared too much of my soul.” Kind of melodramatic. It was such bad poetry. It was supposed to be like a really heartfelt pretentious teenage blog entry in a way. I think I nailed that.

Hanselmann's spread in Mould Map 3 (Landfill Editions)

Hanselmann’s spread in Mould Map 3 (Landfill Editions)

I think you nailed that. “Five year plans.”

I don’t know if I’ll do anymore stuff like that. I’m doing this weird Simpson-y thing, I’ve had this plan for ages. I really like Todd Solondz a lot, the director, I wanted to redraw Happiness but with the Simpsons characters for some reason. I got really obsessed with doing that. Now I want to do that, but it’s kind of like Synecdoche, New York, that Charlie Kaufman movie. Someone pointed that out afterwards. But, all the characters in the town are putting on that play, so sometimes it goes out of the play and you see what’s happening in the real town, like I’ll actually have to write my own story of what’s happening in the town while they’re putting on the play of Todd Solondz’ Happiness. And it’ll all get really dark and really bleak, and kind of horrible. Kind of horrible on two levels. And it’s like an art thing as well, it’s like a thesis of Megg and Mogg. It’s like a more extreme version of taking these children’s characters and pairing it with challenging material. It’s called Drama Club. It’s really wanky kind of art-based late night mental stuff.

I’m going to start doing it as really badly drawn shitty minicomics on yellow paper, and sell them on the internet, and there are maybe like 24 or 30 or 40 of them. I’ll just do it in chunks. However long it takes me to adapt the movie and do all this other stuff within the town. And hopefully it’ll be good, I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to do something different. But it’s such a boring different thing to do. There’s all my literary adaptations that I want to do, my Knut Hamson adaptation that I’d love to do, and this Fiddler’s Green thing that I did do 50 pages of a few years ago, but don’t show anyone. It’s about a bunch of sailors out in the middle of the ocean and they go into this mental realm of their own making. It’s a short story from the 60s, I’m obsessed with it. Yeah, mostly just Megg and Mogg for now. I like Megg and Mogg, I like the repetition. I just don’t like drawing anything else. I mean I get bored of Megg and Mogg as well, sometimes, but mostly, blech, drawing other things is tedious.

Or uncomfortable?

Yeah. It’s just, I don’t know how to draw in a way outside of drawing Megg and Mogg. I guess I’m not very designy, I’m full jealous of people like Michael DeForge who are all fancy with lettering and design minded guys and gals that have done all this cool fantasy stuff. My stuff’s pretty boring really. It’s just the same characters in these boring Simpson-y kind of backgrounds. It’s quite vanilla. But also the value of it is just this repetition, and the same characters week after week, what are they up to now? It’s a sitcom.

Megahex, page 190

Megahex, page 190

They are are slowly changing, it seems.

Yeah, well that’s the thing. They’re growing up. It used to be more offensive as well. There’s a horrible one where they put all the stuff on Owl’s bedroom walls, that I’ve just gotten rid of. I still don’t think it was inherently making fun of rape, I don’t know if you know the strip in question.

I’m not sure.

There’s all these rape puns, like movie puns, they put them on Owl’s wall and stuff. I don’t even like talking about it. There’s too much of a hotbed of controversy. I just got rid of it. I don’t want to defend rape humor. I mean there’s the episode as well where they, you know, do that to Owl. It’s actually something that happened to a friend of mine, my bandmate Karl, in Horse Mania, it happened to him on his birthday. It’s just me stealing stories from the scene. But that’s just what happened in Hobart, I mean Hobart was like that. That was the idea of a “humorous prank,” like you know, it was weird alcoholic oddballs pretend to rape their friend on his birthday. Yeah, I feel uncomfortable about some of that material, you know, “edgy” material. I’m just kind of out of it all the time, I’m just plowing through this stuff, sometimes I just don’t have a think about it. I’m not trying to offend people or shock anyone, or be funny with it.

That’s kind of a hard thing when you’re doing a so-called comedy series.

Yeah, it’s not always a comedy though. I find it interesting, there’s a lot of 4chan threads talking about me and lots of different, odd opinions on 4chan, which I don’t even understand, I don’t know what goes on on 4chan, it’s just this confusing modern contraption. They all talk about me on there, there’s the YouTube comment level of activity sometimes. They make me think about it in different ways. They love all those, you know, “Where’s the classic rape joke one?” They love it. That level of fandom is a bit disconcerting. [The comics] are mostly just supposed to be depressing and horrible and just illustrating this horrible behavior between this horrible group and friendship dynamics.

When I read the story about Owl and the “birthday assault,” let’s say, I had to put it down for a bit. But I felt a good resolution in Owl asserting those boundaries.

Yeah. It’s challenging. It’s horrible. But that’s what it was like in Hobart, you know, that’s what happened to my friend Karl, he came round afterwards after it happened. He still hangs out with those guys. One of the people who did that to him just came out to Melbourne last week. He was like, “Oh, the cowboy’s coming over!” All excited. “Oh great, the cowboy!” He’s the horrible feet guy as well, at the party when they have the horrible feet contest, and Werewolf Jones just has these disgusting feet. That was the same guy that was involved in the birthday thing. Just the most disgusting feet. And he was waving that whipper-snapper around really drunk in the back yard. Just dangerous. Bad scene. I don’t know what the guy is doing that Werewolf Jones is kind of based on, with all of the crazy party stuff, I’ve got no idea what happened to that guy. I feel weird about it. I didn’t know whether to put that stuff in the book, like the birthday one with Owl, I didn’t want to totally censor that stuff but I kind of figure it’s part of the series that happened, it’s like an incident in real life. This shit happened, but can they move past it? They are growing, they are changing. This shit happened. It’s weird, it’s weird defending that stuff, trying to justify it. I don’t know if I’m adding to the problem. Sometimes you’re skirting boundaries, and I don’t want to be Dane Cook.

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7 Responses to A Conversation with Simon Hanselmann

  1. Simon’s work makes me feel disgusting like I need a shower, and enlightened at the same time. I’m amazed that he can bring 110% effort to every comic he does.

    Wish I was articulate enough to describe the genius I see in his pacing. This guy is on some Watchmen level pacing, but more dynamic in moving his subjects through space and time. I don’t know if “dynamic” is the right word because I feel like the pacing unfolds “tenderly?” Even when something outrageous happens, the events seem so fluid. There’s no sense of “BAM! You’re here now!” It’s like his comics are 100 yards long and you walk those 100 yards casually while nursing your favorite beer on a breezy fall day in your favorite hoodie.

  2. Ok so maybe comparing Simon’s pacing to Jaime Hernandez’s pacing instead of Watchmen is more relevant. You are on for the panel-to-panel ride. Not the important-plot-points-and-hooks ride. Simon’s panel-to-panel ride is like playing 9 holes of golf pleasantly buzzed with your best buddy.

  3. BVS says:

    I had wondered what had happened to the Owl’s bedroom story, it’s a favorite of mine and I had showed it off to a few people who hadn’t heard of Simon. they all laffed too. one of the most enduring things for me about comics is this kind of element of “I don’t actually know exactly what I’m doing, maybe this isn’t OK or is a bad idea but I just did it anyways, we’ll see” for me there’s a difference between that with an uncertain appropriateness and stuff done for pure shock value. I see the former in crumb, ed the happy clown, even manara’s bergman books. I guess those are enduring artists people also accuse of being misogynist. maybe sometimes work is misogynist yet still great comics.

  4. Eric Reynolds says:

    I have a good story about traveling with an Ignatz. In 2001, SPX was cancelled due to 9/11. In 2002, I went to SPX and Fanta won a couple of Ignatz Awards. The organizers didn’t get the plates for the awards printed in time, so the award was literally a red brick with a nondescript wood base. I was flying home to Seattle via National (Reagan) airport in DC with two of these.

    This was almost a year to the day after 9/11. I went thru airport security and was immediately sequestered into a holding cell. I was interviewed individually by representatives of the airline I was flying on (American), airport representatives, and TSA. All three had to sign off on letting me thru, with the bricks. This whole process took a little under an hour, I would say. The question, of course, was whether the bricks were weapons that should be allowed in the cabin (in hindsight, I should have checked them, but I am pretty sure I was trying to not check anything).

    Eventually, they let me go, and the only reason they did, I think, was because my excuse was just too absurd to be untrue. I explained how these were awards for comics, referencing Krazy Kat, explaining the love triangle between KK, Ignatz, and Officer Pup. Eventually they just said, OK. happy travels.

  5. Chris Mautner says:

    Small correction: As much as I would love to be the one officiating at Simon’s wedding, it will, in fact, be Michael David Thomas doing the honors.

  6. Pingback: SPX ’14 party poop: this is the year of the Prom and the Wedding — The Beat

  7. Dan Ammon says:

    I’m almost done with Megahex and I LOVE IT! Cannot wait for Megg’s Coven and the rest of Simon’s work. Keep on keeping on, Simon!

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