This is excerpted from The Comics Journal #304.
*Full disclosure: Gary Groth is Simon Hanselmann's publisher, as well as the publisher of The Comics Journal and tcj.com.
GARY GROTH: Bad Gateway is relentless. Did it feel relentless when you were conceiving it, writing it, drawing it — the whole process of producing it? Did you feel a weight that you hadn’t felt with previous books?
SIMON HANSELMANN: When I started this thread of stories about Megg’s mother back in 2012, I did cry while writing it. When I was thumbnailing it out. When I got back from London I hadn’t seen my mother or grandmother for years, and I went down and visited them. And it was fucked. It was just like … I’d been off having a nice time hanging out with normal, civilized people, and then I just went back to this den of schizophrenic junkies. It was really fucking upsetting. I just went to my old bedroom and wept. I was like, “Jesus fucking Christ!”
So writing about that and processing that was difficult, but it’s like art therapy. It helps you to work through that and distance yourself. Once you turn it into fiction, you can look at it from different angles, and it becomes less oppressive and fucked up. Less real. I feel the book starts out very silly. I’ve sort of done the same thing as the previous books. It starts out a bit light and silly, there’s dick jokes, but by the end, it progressively gets more and more horrible and emotional and deeply depressing. [Laughs.]
It just spirals.
That’s my trick, I think. I lure them in with the jokes and the Jackass-style slapstick, and then I hit them with the pathos and the bleak and utter squalor.
Well, you did say (I don’t know when you said this), “I drew four pages of Megg’s Coven in 2012 or so, and it was actually quite difficult. It was some very difficult material for me. I think I cried on one of the read-throughs.” And you attributed that to the traumatic nature of the material. But you didn’t have that problem with Gateway. Is that because you think you processed a lot of that stuff, had some distance from it?
The material wasn’t as rough on me. It was the tame beginnings.
It’s pretty rough. You have a high threshold!
The stuff I was upset about was my grandmother telling me she’d been raped in her kitchen. And my mother was in the kitchen shooting up. I was just stuck there with my grandmother telling me she’d been raped in the butt and how she didn’t like it. “Not even a little finger, Simon, I don’t even want a little finger up there. They raped me in my bum in the kitchen last night.” It actually was the ghost man, the man in the painting. My grandmother for a while was wearing 14 wristwatches, seven on each arm, and three pairs of sunglasses. She was losing her fucking mind. So, with my mother shooting up and my grandmother telling me that, it was … And I feel for these women, I empathize for them. These are lovely women. They’ve just been dealt bad mental hands and become drug addicts. I’m writing about that. But the stuff in Bad Gateway, the drug bust, the pee bottles, that’s something I’ve been meaning to draw for years. I’ve always wanted to draw a comic about the drug bust with the piss bottles.
And that again is based on personal experience because you witnessed your mother being busted when you were 17, right?
Younger. I was 15 or something. Maybe 17, I don’t know. They strip-searched me. The best bit of that that I couldn’t put in the comic —
Why didn’t you? When they saw you … Oh, obviously, you couldn’t put it in because it wouldn’t quite work.
They found all my women’s clothes. The guy was like, “Are these trophies, mate?” I was like, “What does that mean?”
I hope you said yes.
I did. I figured out what that meant, and I was like, “Aww, yeah. Yeah, mate. Trophies. Yes, I collect woman’s underwear after I fuck them, and I keep them and sniff them.” I couldn’t put that in because it doesn’t work. But that was a good bit. I could always have Booger get busted in the future. Their mother is also an addict, and they get busted and that happens.
There’s a lot of pain in the book.
Pain, yeah. It’s a depressing book. [Laughs.]
And I assume a lot of that pain was your pain.
Was it painful to revisit it and write about your own experiences?
Yeah, it was a bit. [Laughs.] I finished writing it the day of my mother’s birthday, February 28, and started drawing it. I felt weird about that because I know this book is going to really upset her. So, I was feeling emotional about that. It was kind of creepy. I had to call her on her birthday, and she was having a really depressing, horrible birthday. I often find dates throughout all my work. I don’t believe in astrology or numerology, but I notice weird things and numbers and dates sync up and it seems just weird. A few things like that. My dad got sick throughout the production of the book. I found out that he was dying of cancer towards the end of the book. All this weird family shit.
My mom was going in and out of the hospital at certain points throughout writing chapters and her house was demolished. In the flashback where Megg’s back in the ’90s at her house, that house was demolished while I was drawing the book — when I was penciling that story. So I was creating this mental version of my teenage bedroom that had just been demolished and doesn’t exist anymore that I didn’t get to say goodbye to. Semantic shit. It wasn’t overly distressing, but a few things like that, it just feels kind of weird. I remember yeah, the first stab at this material in 2012, I broke down crying. I was writing about my mother and my grandmother, stuff that’ll happen in the next book, but yeah, it was really hard. I was too close to it. I had gotten back from London and visited my mother and grandmother and it was fucking horrifying. I wasn’t used to it anymore. I’d been off working real jobs and going to gentlemen’s clubs. [Laughter.] Having a nice time in Piccadilly Circus and it was all pretty fucking normal. I was widening my horizon and getting out into the real world and then went back to the squalor of Tasmania and these small people consumed by drugs and schizophrenia. It was horrible. I tried to write about it a few months later and it really was quite difficult. But since then I’ve become numb to it. I’ve been kicking these stories around for years and planning Megg’s Coven and this whole new movement of Megg and Mogg. When the time came it was like, “Let’s just get it done.” It’s going to really hurt my mom. I don’t want to send this book to her.
Do you think it will?
Oh yeah. I didn’t even send her One More Year, the previous book, because of the story where Megg and Werewolf Jones are doing their music thing and it’s Mother’s Day. Megg can’t contact her mother, and she’s all paranoid and does some methadone or something that her mother’s on — which is a true story, sadly. [Laughs.] But, yeah, the mother’s calling up, asking her for money, and Megg’s like, “Ugh.” I didn’t want to send that to my mum. I didn’t want her to know that I do get pissed off when she asks for money too often. Obviously, she knows, but she’s sensitive. I help her out a lot, and I don’t want her to know that sometimes I’m frustrated. I do vocalize that to her sometimes, but it’s upsetting for her. She’s already in such a bleak fucking black hole, I don’t want to add to it.
Your depiction of Megg’s mother in the book was not cruel.
No, it’s a human portrayal. I have a lot of respect for my mother and what she’s done. It’s just the passage of time in the book … But at the end of the book, it’s not nice.
My mother’s not going to read that. “You look nice, Simon. You look great.” And then in the thought bubbles, “Oh, you’re terrible, Mother. What happened to you?” She knows that she’s been ravaged by all these drugs and by time. But she doesn’t want to think about it. She still looks in the mirror and expects to see her 30-year-old self.
Did you own Gretskys?
I did. Yeah, I had some Gretskys.
Did know who Wayne Gretsky was? Did you follow sports?
I was briefly interested in roller hockey and, by default, ice hockey as a kid. I went through a baseball phase when I was a kid. We all played softball in school. I got vaguely interested in baseball. I think I went through a gridiron phase. I was never really into sports, though.
Did the skates have as much meaning to you as they did for Megg?
Yeah, they did. Because I did sell them years later and felt really guilty about it. Just like in the comic, sold ’em for drug money. That was a little different though, in reality. I think I was 9, and we had a track meeting at school. I was begging my mum for these shoes. “Everyone’s got new shoes and my shoes are shit. I want the fancy shoes, Mother.” And she bought them for me. She told me 20 years later how difficult that was because I wouldn’t shut the fuck up about it. We were broke, and she needed the money for drugs, but she valiantly went without drugs and bought me those shoes. I was like, “You’re a saint, Mother. You’re a saint! You went without drugs for your child. Good for you.”
That is the ultimate sacrifice.
In the comics, it got all mixed-up.
You conflated the two, that’s all.
Yeah, yeah. That’s what you do as a writer. You just take little disparate chunks of sadness and grift them together. And Megg’s moaning about selling all the stuffed animals. That was something that happened when I was 15. “I don’t need all these stinking, fruity stuffed animals.” Then years later, I was like, “I loved those stuffed animals when I was a kid. My German grandma gave me one of those, and she’s dead now.” And just thinking about them … Just thinking about someone not appreciating them and using them as rags. Just destroying them and putting them in trash bags. That’s like attachment to physical things, though, which is really unhealthy.
My mother has a thing with baked beans. When she opens a can of beans, she can’t leave a single bean in there. “All the beans need to be together!” She’s anthropomorphized the fucking clothes pegs too. “They all have to be rotated. If one of the clothes pegs doesn’t get a go …” It’s this unhealthy attachment. I’ve picked up some of that. I do get very sentimental about childhood bullshit. All that kind of stuff. Selling stuff is sad. That’s just inherently sad. Growing up and selling your beloved childhood stuffed animals for drug money is horrible.
It plays nicely against Megg’s usual cynicism.
Yeah, Megg’s a huge cunt. She’s horrible. But she can’t help it. It’s showing the genesis of what she is. I don’t think that I’m as bad as Megg. [Laughter.] I said all this stuff is autobiographical — it is, but it isn’t. You make things into fiction.