I sat down with Simon Hanselmann at the Small Press Expo this year in North Bethesda, Maryland to talk about Bad Gateway, his latest graphic novel. Published by Fantagraphics earlier this year, Bad Gateway advances the plot of his Megg and Mogg comics past the events that appear in his first graphic novel Megahex. It’s a harder book to stomach than anything that’s come before. It’s darker and more honest. It’s also his most accomplished storytelling yet. Hanselmann and I had a wide-ranging conversation about his comics, his past, and his plans for the series.
Today is also the first day of public fundraising for Fieldmouse Press, the 501(c)(3) charity nonprofit I help run. Fieldmouse Press will launch its first project on January 1st, 2020, called SOLRAD. SOLRAD will be a comics journalism hub focused on the comics arts, and will be the new home for my writing, among a slate of diverse, insightful writers. If you enjoy this interview, or the other writing on Sequential State, please pledge your support. All donations are tax-deductible.
Alex Hoffman (AH): When was the last time you were at SPX? Was it two years ago?
Simon Hanselmann (SH): Yeah, in 2017. For One More Year.
AH: I guess that’s a good place to start, if any. One More Year is kind of like the end of the original Megg & Mogg trilogy. It sets up Bad Gateway in a way, doesn’t it?
SH: Sort of, It’s all out of order. I’m like George R.R. Martin, I’m behind on everything. In the strip Werewolf Jones dies in 2017, and now it’s almost 2020. He’s still alive. Probably still will be for two more books. It takes longer to paint, and I’m just behind. But yeah, I guess it’s a trilogy. I’d suggest people probably read One More Year first, then Amsterdam, then Megahex. At the end of Megahex Owl moves out and the events of those three books are all concurrent. I’ve said before that they’re expansion campaigns, and if you like Megahex, try the other books. They all add more backstory. And right now, it’s all come to a head in Bad Gateway.
AH: Bad Gateway is noticeably different as a book than the previous three; it’s in a bigger format, more “Euro size.” Is that a decision you made early in the process of making this book?
SH: Yeah it was pretty early. I wanted to differentiate it from the older books. And I liked my European editions and the larger size. Maybe I felt more confident in my artwork. I tend to think things look better reduced a little bit. But there’s a school of thought that the size it’s made is perfect. And it is printed the size it was drawn. Which kind of makes it like an artist’s edition as well, a 2-for-1 kind of package. Because I don’t do any computer manipulation at all. The pages look almost exactly the same. The paper textures are scrubbed off a bit and cleaned up by the production staff at Fantagraphics. So yeah, it kind of functions as an artist’s edition.
AH: It’s a beautiful edition, the black gilding. It’s clearly a very nice production.
SH: I was happy with it. They let me have foil and a sticker. The new print buyer [at Fantagraphics] is amazing. She saved a lot of money on the book. She’s found some great deals and I was allowed to play with it a bit more. I’m always suggesting crazy ideas. I wanted to have the musical birthday card technology.
AH: Oh, yeah! *Alex laughs*
SH: So you open it and certain musical passage plays and there are sounds. But it was too expensive. I’ve always wanted to play with acetate. I’m trying to get some orange acetate [for the next book].
AH: I want to go back to your 2017 interview with Dan Nadel at TCJ. At the time you told him that you think all your work is terrible. I wanted to ask if that’s still the case. Do you still think of your work as terrible?
SH: Yeah, I think so. I’m very critical of my work, I don’t think it’s the best. I think it’s passible. And I like it enough to keep doing it. Most artists I think must look at their work and just see the mistakes. And hopefully readers breeze through it, can decipher the panels easily, process it, and enjoy reading it. But yeah, I see all the mistakes because I stare at it every day. It’s painful to look at, and it’s not what I want it to be. I’m not a natural artist. I don’t think I have any inherent skill.
SH: I just I like to write little stories. I used to do these little puppet shows as a kid and little video stop motion things. The writing is my favorite part of Megg and Mogg. They’re theatrical animal characters on the stage, shooting blinds back and forth and reacting and that’s the process I enjoy. I think I would probably thrive in a TV writers’ room with a brain trust. Like HTMLflowers (Grant Jonathon) does a lot of writing with me. We bounce ideas back and forth. We get each other, we have the same energy.
But yeah, Bad Gateway. I got it done. 2764 hours.
AH: You kept track.
SH: I don’t know why I started doing that.
AH: Just kind of a check mark, I guess? Or a tally?
SH: Yeah. I wanted to do that for a while, to just sit down and work on the thing. I wanted to start this story earlier but I didn’t want to do it on Vice because I didn’t want to serialize it.
AH: Right, because you would have had to.
SH: I didn’t want to have to make these concise bite-sized self-contained shorts that also add neatly to a greater whole. That’s very difficult to do.
SH: I just wanted to sit down and do it as one big movie, one big project. [Daniel] Clowes had done that with Patience and I was jealous of Dan because he gets to take his time. “Patience.” I’d never had that option in the past.
I went back to Vice because Alvin [Buenaventura] died owing me $10,000. I was like “Fuck, I have to go back to Vice.” Vice was great for my career. It got me off welfare. As you know, Nick Gazin gets a lot of flack, but he did get a lot of good cartoonists on there. I think he did a lot of good. He got a lot of people paid.
AH: Yeah, that’s a fair point.
SH: With all the old alt-weeklies gone, and printing dead, there’s not many avenues out there. Nick Gazin got me off welfare. And he had Anya Davidson, Anna Haifisch, etc. That’s where The Artist came from. Vice Comics was great.
AH: That “vertical,” or whatever you want to call it, paid a lot of good cartoonists good money. Nick is his own story, we don’t have to talk about him.
SH: That list was shit. He should have put some women on the list!
SH: He published Leslie Stein on [Vice] he should have put her book on there!
AH: Right! Right.
SH: He goofed. It wasn’t malicious or anything on his part but-
AH: -maybe he smoked a little too much weed and wrote the list at the last second.
SH: I don’t think he smoked any weed! And his apartment is super clean. I stayed at Nick’s once and expected it to be filthy but he’s got a cat, lonely man with a cat, and it was impeccably clean and it smelled amazing.
AH: That’s not what I expected.
SH:No, he defies expectations when you least expect it.
AH: Going back to this idea of not thinking of yourself as a spectacular artist. Do you feel in a certain way that your work is outsider art? Does that even make sense?
SH: Yeah, I mean, it does in a way. I mean, I grew up in Tasmania, I started making zines when I was eight years old without any prompting, without ever having seen a zine before. My friend would bootleg little drawings and try and sell them and then we were like, “Oh, we can make something on these. We can make comics.” And I’m still doing the same thing. I’m still making zines and doing all these different deals with different publishers around the world, but it’s independent, I retain all the rights and I still run my own shit. So it’s still outsider art, really. I’m still making little Xerox pamphlets.
SH: You know, it’s become a thing now. I mean, I’m growing as a brand, frankly.
AH: Yeah, you can tell.
SH: I’m talking to TV people and stuff. And I’m trying to churn the work out try and keep the quality there. And yeah, grow the characters and make a point about addiction and shit. “Life.”
AH: You talk about how you want the art to be passable, as it as though it’s just a vehicle for the story. And to a certain extent it is, but I think one of the things that I noticed with the new book is how Bad Gateway is by far your most technically proficient work. The paintings at the beginning and the end are breathtaking.
SH: I liked them when I did them but now I hate them.
AH: Yeah? Why?
SH: I think my paintings are staid. My painting hasn’t evolved. I feel like I did better paintings, or they had a better effect back in 2000. It’s stuff you’ve never seen before. But it’s fine. I’m just critical. I think that’s healthy. I mean, sometimes I read [my work] and I’m like, “that’s a good one.” And I love the characters. But sometimes I’m just like, “ugh.” And I honestly don’t stress about it too much because it’s about the writing for me. It’s about getting it done. So I work a lot and I put a lot into it. And I leave the mistakes in.
AH: Well the techniques and materials you’re using, they don’t really allow for you to cover things up, right? You’re using food coloring, watercolor-
SH: Yeah, food color, watercolor, and gouache. I pencil the page, I ink it with Micron-type pens; it’s a Unipin, a different type. Less slippery. Then I rub the pencils out and color. So I can’t use any white corrective fluids. They’ll soak up the pigment or any other color layer, so I just have to live with all mistakes.Which makes it dangerous. It’s always like a walk on the wild side with every panel. I can, and usually do, fuck it up. So it teaches you to live with your mistakes and just move on to the next thing.
AH: I’m not trying to diagnose you, but it seems to me that you have kind of an obsessive quality about the way you make art.
SH: Oh absolutely. I am an obsessive. It’s kind of sick.
AH: So if you had you had the option to go back and fix things, then you might spend hundreds of hours just trying to revise it, to make it perfect.
SH: My greatest wish is that I could freeze time. So I could just make these things where I want them to be. Get them perfect, use the most dramatic lighting possible, just get better and learn. But what’s the fucking point? The nihilist to me is like it’s all going to landfill in the future. I’ll be dead. Who gives a fuck?
SH: It’s just fun. That’s fun. Now it’s me and Grant, we have fun writing the strip and make a bit of scratch from it. And we meet a lot of nice people through it. And it has a therapeutic outlet. It’s life and it’s all I’ve ever known.
AH: But I mean, you can be a nihilist and you can say “Ah, who gives a shit, because everybody’s gonna die.” But actually, you change people in the moment.
SH: Well that’s always my follow up. We’re living now. And what we need to do is take care of our friends and families and make everything as sweet as we can right now. Make things comfortable for people. Have a nice time and be nice to each other. But in the back of your mind…
AH: And that’s a that’s an impulse you kind of fight against in Bad Gateway a little bit, isn’t it?
SH: How so?
AH: One of the things I think is fascinating about Bad Gateway, is that while it is nihilistic and depressing, it’s written in a way that shows the humanity of the characters. You’re saying things in ways that you’ve never said them before. And in that sense, I think Bad Gateway is your most honest piece of work to date.
SH: Yes, it’s more dramatic than the other stuff. I’ve tried to write a more cohesive story and try to make people feel these feelings. Eleanor Davis was just saying on our panel that [when she is making art] she is trying to take a feeling that she felt and convey that to the reader. Make the reader feel that feeling. Find the best way to do that. It was beautiful. That’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to take these fucked up moments and present them in this way that’s cathartic for me and put a few jokes in it too.
AH: Yeah, and I mean you’re going to put in the bong rips or whatever. But then you’ve got those moments – like I specifically think of a couple of moments in the book where Werewolf Jones is trying to live his life and hold down a job and not get high.
SH: Yeah he has a sober phase.
AH: Yeah. And in that moment, something clicks.Throughout Megg, Mogg, and Owl, he’s a chaos agent and comes in and he like, fucks everything up.
SH: Yeah, he’s a mess.
AH: And in that moment, you don’t let the reader have the satisfaction of saying, “Oh, this guy’s just just a complete and utter fuckup all the time. He’s just a plot device. He’s just a thing.” In that moment, you show Werewolf Jones as this human person dealing with some really fucked up shit. And he’s not perfect but he’s trying to live his life.
SH: In the previous trilogy, he expressed two instances of empathy. Two rare instances. So it’s there, he’s a human being. He’s based on numerous people I’ve known, horrible parts of myself, impulses. He’s the id, the id unleashed.
SH: Someone in Seattle wrote a great piece for The Stranger about Werewolf Jones and how he can guide you with how far people can go. How long you keep people in your life before you cast them away and say, “That’s too much.” It was speaking to rehabilitation, the prison system, second chances, cancel culture, all that shit and I found that interesting.
He’s this unchecked omnisexual force of nature. He is fucking up but he’s human. People see themselves in him. People come up to me with Werewolf Jones tattoos. People of all types like Werewolf Jones. But my wife fucking hates him. She’s revolted by him. She can’t wait for him to die. But I love him, and people like him. He’s going through some shit and he’s heading towards an early death, and it’s very sad that he doesn’t change.
AH: Yeah it is.
SH: You know, Megg, I think there’s hope for her. As a character that people have grown to feel for or love. People tell me that they do love her. People want her to get out of it. I feel like in a way there’s [a blurring of] perception now, like what’s the difference between fictional characters and people that we know, especially online people? We grow attached to these characters. I’ve been doing this like 11 years now. People fucking love these characters. So I hope Megg can get out of it. Werewolf Jones doesn’t. I’m excited to show you in the future. Owl trying, being away with a whole new group of friends. But we’ll see his downfall.
AH: There’s something really fascinating about the construction of knowing that Werewolf Jones will die. There’s almost a fatality to the character – not in the way that he acts, but our perceptions of his actions throughout the book. We see things spiral downward in Bad Gateway we see what could possibly be his death-
SH: Yeah, the fakeout! I knew the hardcores would all be like, “Ah, this is it!” But no, he’s back up, more stuff!
AH: And he screams! He rages out of the house. But that moment feels predestined, and it feels like you spend the book waiting for that moment when it’s going to happen.
SH: I think people are expecting it. And, I mean, it’s 2019. I did that other “Christmas 2019” strip that kind of changed things and no one commented. I thought maybe some nerds on Reddit or something would say, “Look, he’s changed it.” Because in the original “Christmas 2017,” Werewolf Jones dies of an overdose at Booger’s house. In the newer comic it is mentioned that he’s found under a bridge. A friend of mine died, my bandmate, he passed away and that’s how he was found. So now I want to write about that. He was one of my best friends and so I think I wanted to change it [the WWJ death] a bit. The original strip was based on a friend of my mother’s that wanted to stay at our house and then had an overdose at someone else’s house. My mother had a lot of guilt about it I wanted to harness that kind of thing, write about that. The car and bridge stuff makes it a bit more personal.
I think people were expecting to happen but I faked them out.
AH: I think this is where we start to get into your relationship with your mom, in a more real way. You’ve referenced this in the past and it’s come up in interviews in the past.
SH: I’m too open.
AH: If you were open before, now you’re like open heart surgery – you’re a chest cracked open.
SH: I haven’t shown her this book. I put this off for a long time. This book is basically Megg’s Coven, what I’ve been promising for years and what I started in 2012. I was serializing it in a friend’s newsprint thing, I did four chapters of it, but it’s different now. Then I put it off for a long time because of the Vice stuff and I because I knew it would really hurt my mother. I think maybe I was waiting for her to pass. Just a few months ago she had an overdose. I was just about to get on a plane to go to Spain and found out, and I was like, “Oh my God.” Then I flew for 26 hours and traveled door-to-door to a TV studio and was put on Spanish TV. So I ended up talking about it during the interview, and made a lot of jokes as well, dark jokes about my mother.
And she makes dark jokes too; she’s a funny lady. She’s a smart, caring lady and she’s always dealt with this stuff with humor. but yeah, I grew up around junkies, junkie folk and you see them destroy themselves. You also see the way the drug and alcohol system works [in Tasmania]. I want to write about the system and stuff like that, how they process these people because I’ve tried to sue the Department of Health and Human Services for care for my mother and to get her into rehab. Sometimes it seems like all the drug and alcohol workers there are desensitized, like the people who put bullets into cows’ brains are desensitized.
*Hanselmann sighs* I’m getting upset.
AH: But in a way this is emblematic of the way that you and Grant Jonathon (HTMLflowers) have a sort of symbiosis. You see in his work grappling with healthcare as a human right.
SH: His chronic illness.
AH: And the desensitized healthcare worker and the crux of his work, that healthcare for pay is eugenics.
SH: And he’s exploring family stuff now too. What his mother did, moving the family from Chicago to Melbourne, her sacrifices and the guilt they share.
SH: Between my mother and I, there is just so much guilt and so much manipulation going on. On the parent’s part. Not on purpose I think. Grant and I just get each other. I don’t know. We’re very different in so many ways, but also just like brothers. Best friends for 12-13 years.
AH: You can kind of see some of that coming out in Chrome Halo, his album, when was that 2017, 2018?
SH: Yeah, I think so. He got nominated for the Australian Music Awards for that. Most of those songs are about Becky and Oscar [Key Sung] and I was quite jealous. I was like, “Where is my song? Where’s the song about our friendship?” Because he’s written all these songs about friendship, about Oscar his bandmate in that project. I know for a fact that we’re better friends. So It’s a bit frustrating. He did write a song for me once though when I moved to London in 2008. He wrote a very sad ballad about riding his bike alone at night and how all my shit was gone. He sat alone in my empty room. It’s a beautiful song.
I’m concerned about his health. We just talked the other day. He’s trying to get his lung transplant.
SH: He’s gotta stop doing that party boy stuff. He’s depressed and they won’t give him legal weed. He just wants to draw his comics and he works too hard and he parties too hard.
AH: That’s a link too, isn’t it? The way you both work yourselves too hard.
SH: Oh yeah, to the bone!
AH: Didn’t you say somewhere that you were working 16-hour days?
SH: Yeah. For the first seven months of last year I did eight hours a day. Jacq would go to work in the morning so I was working office hours. She’d get home, I was being a normal human being, we’d have dinner, we’d watch TV, we’d tend to our pets, do family business. Have a nice time. But the last five months I came up on the deadline and thought, “shit.” I crunched the numbers and thought I was going to do okay. I didn’t travel that year, just went to Italy for a week, was full time working on the book. But the deadline was looming. So in that five months I started putting in like 16-18 hour days nonstop. It was hard for Jacq you know?
AH: Yeah, absolutely.
SH: It was hard to be a present spouse. But she also works for my publisher so at the same time she’s like, “I know you have to finish and we don’t want to fuck up the book.” It was rough going and the material was difficult as well. I found out my dad was dying throughout the course of doing the book. Dying of cancer. I still don’t talk to him, we haven’t talked for years. He’s a dicey, weird guy.
At the same time, the house that I draw in Bad Gateway was demolished as well, the house I draw when I go back to the origin of Megg and her mother. That house was the gateway in the title, it’s a reference to gateway drugs. It’s funny, my grandmother was born in that house. It used to be a maternity hospital and then it was converted into flats. I lived there when I was a baby. We moved away, but we moved back in my teenage years. My cats are buried there. It was demolished at the same time I was building this recreation of it from photos and memory. Trying to put things back together, like that’s where mother’s jewelry box was and that’s where this little ceramic hippo was that I made in school. I was trying to remember all these little details and at the same time it was being demolished. It’s some heavy stuff.
AH: It’s the impermanence of time, right? Everything, moves forward. Everything.
SH: It’s the kind of artsy wanky bullshit I like to think about.
SH: I’m a depressive person. But I’m very happy now. I don’t need therapy anymore, or at least I don’t feel the need for it. I found great friends, great love, and success with this Megg and Mogg thing and I find that very fulfilling. I think my problem in the past was I just wanted everyone to fuck off and leave me alone. So I could just work on these comics. I have to work on these things.
AH: Kind of therapeutic right?
SH: It is completely. I say that all the time, art therapy. I don’t give a shit about all the stuff I just love doing it. Obviously I love making money so I can buy my mother groceries, survive in a Seattle that’s being choked by Amazon.
SH: It’s not the Seattle that I heard about. So I make no bones about enjoying making money from this. I like that I can sell things online and have it in 15 languages and travel to festivals and have a great time with it. Success is great. And you try not to let it get to your head.
I was talking to Dan Nadel in that interview you mentioned, going on about all this travel and hardcore shit. And he’s like, “It’s just comics. What are you talking about? You sound like an idiot.” But think about it like this – you grew up really poor in these weird environments. And suddenly you’re getting a ton of fucking money, thousands of dollars. Grant and I were going out and buying new shoes every day, gold chains and other stupid shit. Blowing money like crazy and get flown all over the world.
AH: Tell me more about that.
SH: In 2015 I did something like 10 countries. It was really fucking rock and roll, really fucking hardcore. And I had just gotten married. Jacq and I were kept apart. And like, it was a crazy fucking year, a real mind fuck. It was as rock and roll as you can get in comics. I guess it’s better than being mopey out at the festival, hiding behind your mustache and saying, “Aww, I can’t sell any books! No one cares about my old autobiographical ramblings.” It’s better than that.
AH: Could talk about the idea of making your comics into a brand? You’re making these mini comics in high demand, short runs. You’re printing them, you’re painting a little bit on by hand, maybe, and then selling them online in a “catch it if you can” sort of way. And if you don’t, you don’t.
SH: It’s like a Supreme drop. I follow that model [from the fashion industry].
AH: So that’s where that comes from?
SH: And also I like the rarity of it, It harkens back to when I used to go to record fairs and I find like a 7-inch or something that I’d been searching for all year, pre-eBay. There are no computers, you’re at the bottom of the earth, and at the record fair you find that rare thing. It’s got a B-side on it, you love that band! You love them! You found this fucking B-side that you heard about from a friend of a friend, and no one had a cassette. It was special when we used to go out looking for shit. And I like digital fine. I used to put stuff online all the time. But I like creating these ephemeral objects.
AH: Yeah, they are like that.
SH: You know, Frank Santoro got in trouble at CXC selling people’s mini comics at inflated prices.
SH: I mean, I think they banned [from the show] and I just disagree. People were like, “Just give them to some kids or something.” But I like that he’s attaching value to our stuff. Someone has to!
SH: I see great artists like Gabriel Bell selling sketches for like $20 online. I’ve decided I’m playing the gallery market. I mean, my shit sells for like three grand a page, like five grand for a painting. I’m selling to heiresses, French women in hexagonal glasses. But I say that we put in so much work [as cartoonists] and we need to value ourselves. People can pay $10 for a coffee or beer, they can pay $10 for something. I busted my fucking ass on this thing, I put a lot into it, I worked until my thumbs were bleeding. And people say, “Well, it’s just a 32-page pamphlet.” But people charge like 30-50 bucks for a print! My zine has 32 pages, with 12 images on every page. That’s so many prints, you do the math! Why do people not respect a collection of images in that form? So I charge 10 bucks for a zine. And people complain, they tell me, “that’s too much.” No, it’s not.
AH: If it sells, it’s not too much.
SH: It’s weird, there’s this dichotomy. Like, I hate myself and I hate my work and I’m very critical. But also with the business, I’m like, no, no, no, these objects have value. You go to zine fairs and so many people want to give you their books for free and it’s like, no, let me pay you money, spread it around. Value yourself.
AH: Right? And perhaps this comes from a mentality of scarcity? Growing up in the 80s where you couldn’t get work easily. And you grew up in Tasmania, so it’s like you really couldn’t get shit-
SH: But we had shit!
AH: Really? That’s wild, I couldn’t get anything.
SH: But also the Internet has made everything so available, and there’s so much that’s available that you don’t know what to get.
AH: Right, that’s a great point.
SH: Back in the old days, Clowes and Bagg were selling like 200,000 copies or something like that. Some crazy astronomical number. Their floppies! Yeah, getting comics at record stores and head shops. People needed content. And more people we’re reading comics, I think. And now even after the graphic novel boom, The Guardian Book Award, The Booker Prize, the ubiquitousness of the Marvel films, now that graphic novels are cool, it still seems like alt comics were selling more back in the late 90s. I found everything in Tasmania, European comics, British comics, American comics. I was 13 years old buying Hate and Eightball off the shelves. That doesn’t happen anymore.
AH: But you had to go and find the thing back then – you had to find it, and then buy it. Then the internet comes along and dramatically changes everything. But you’ve decided to go back to that scarcity model.
SH: Yeah. There are downsides. It is frustrating because I see people selling copies on eBay for $100 and I’ve had to cut people off. They’re buying 20 copies and I’m suspicious that they’ve got that many friends [that want the book]. They’re not just pooling together for the shipping costs.
SH: They’re just buying and hawking them, and that’s not cool. I’m actually going to collect all that stuff next year. I’m doing a collection of 350 pages of the zines and the odds and ends [link]. So it will be accessible – which destroys my whole 7-inch scarcity thing, but there will be things left out. The covers won’t be in there, a lot of highlights and the handmade aspect will be missing, but the bulk of the stuff will be there.
AH: Will that be out from Fantagraphics as well?
SH: Yeah. I figure it’s a good strategy to have a midyear book in between Bad Gateway and Megg’s Coven, just to remind people that Megg and Mogg still exists. In this Netflix kind of culture where we stream and demand constant entertainment, who’s got the time to wait two years for book? I don’t want them to forget about me.
AH: It’s fascinating that we have this binge and purge kind of media landscape. It seems to me that’s not a way that comics can exist, really.
SH: No, not for a single creator or for alt comics. People have to be patient. You have to be part of the scene and follow people. I’ll always be there for the next Charles Burns book, you know, the next thing from whatever artist that I loved as a youth. The stuff that you really connect with, you’ll generally always stick with it. There are bands that I think are awful now but out of duty or something I still listen to them sometimes. They feel like old friends, although they embarrass me now, but I still want to know what they’re up to.
AH: But it’s like human connection right? Circling back around to what we were discussing earlier, we create these connections with people even if we don’t know them very well, but if their work speaks to us in ways-
SH: We project onto them. But they become the soundtracks of our lives. There are so many comics from my youth that mean so much to me, that really inform my idea of relationships and politics. I was probably too young to be reading a lot of stuff. I was 13 and reading Clowes and Julie Doucet.
AH: Maybe that is too young? But I don’t actually think so. It seems to me that the media landscape has gotten harsher, that the internet makes it easier for teens to see really heinous things.
SH: Yeah, and honestly, I was smoking weed at eight years old and grew up around all these hardcore fucking people, criminals and whatever, so reading a Julie Doucet comic is probably pretty low on the list of harmful things you can get into. *laughs*
AH: One thing I’ve wanted to ask about the zines you make – do you feel that in those comics, you could be more open? Or even, maybe more vulnerable because they had a limited audience?
SH: I mean, you’re a lot freer in that arena. I made a “Me Too” joke in one of them last year. I thought it was a positive joke. I didn’t think it was really making fun of women. I was making fun of men kind of like, you know, Owl being an overly nervous man who is like, “What am I going to do now? This is ruining dating!” But people could interpret it as me making fun of the whole movement, which I support. The movement is great as a whole, especially outing predators.
SH: But yeah, fuck it I went there, I made this “Me Too” joke and I allowed myself to riff on that moment, and that’s dangerous these days. All this Chappelle controversy recently. There have been a lot of good discussions recently about comedy. It’s interesting. I consider myself a comedy writer.
SH: But yeah, I allow myself a bit of freedom in the zines. I figure it’s a core audience, and they’ll probably get what I’m going for and realize I’m not alt-right. Someone called me that online, [a person] I thought would have known better. But things are more and more political. I hate having to discuss politics all the time, but these are politically charged times. It comes up quite easily.
AH: Do you think that the Internet has made satire and sarcasm less effective?
SH: It’s changing language and things are evolving, and they’re evolving rapidly. And it’s like preservatives, or vaping; we’re not sure what they’re doing to the human body. What is all this information doing? You know, this constant pipeline of information, I read that some scientists think that it’s affecting empathy in young children. That the barrage of information led to them not grasping full concepts of things. I don’t know.
AH: In some ways that pipeline is an addiction, right? Let’s go ahead and move that direction. We’re all addicted, right? To our phones-
SH: It’s fun! It’s like Star Trek, it’s fun! *laughs*
AH: And some of its more benign, and some of its not. And you’ve got very young people, toddlers, glued to cell phones-
SH: But who knows, maybe it’s good, maybe this will end up making people smart and full of knowledge and they’ll figure things out.
On a serious and controversial note, the saddest thing about cell phone culture is toilet books.
AH: Yeah? *laughs*
SH: It’s true! They’re going away! No one reads books in the toilet any more. Everyone just looks at their phone.
AH: Yeah, that’s true!
SH: So many great little Peanuts paperbacks. Classic toilet books. I had a copy of Archie when I was young, called “A Date with Archie” and I changed the name to “A Shit with Archie.” I still love that joke. I think we need to get books back into toilets. I sign a lot of toilet books. It’s heartening. I look at the books at my signings and I can see flecks of urine on the books. Honestly it warms my heart.
AH: I think there is something to said about a book that’s so unputdownable that you have to take it into the bathroom with you. If something ends up in the bathroom, that means you’re in a place where you want to be alone with it, where no one else can bother you. That’s something that’s really kind of special.
SH: And you can always look at other people’s toilet books. I visited Anne Simon’s house in Paris a few months ago and she had an amazing collection of toilet books and small sculptures. She’s still doing that. It was beautiful.
AH: Her work is something else.
SH: She’s great. Yeah. I met her years ago, I think in 2014. Her and the Misma gang, got to hang out with them and Jacq. She’s great, it’s so nice to see her work translated.
AH: I’ve read other interviews where you say that you’re thinking that Bad Gateway is the beginning of a series.
SH: Yeah, Bad Gateway is the first of five books.
AH: What are your expectations, personally, from all of this? Where do you think you’re going to be when you’re done with book five?
SH: I’m going to be a millionaire. *laughs*
AH: Awesome. *laughs*
SH: It’s the American dream. A foreigner living the American dream. You can really make it in this shithole! *Alex & Simon laugh*
To be serious, I want to be satisfied with the work most of all. I want to do work I’m happy with. I’ve done a TV option thing, turned a lot of networks down, and I’m trying to be really careful. But I’m working with some people on the TV side, and it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten [to having a Megg & Mogg show]. I’ve actually signed something and I’m allowing shit to happen. I’m tough with that shit. But if that happens, I’m hoping that would do well. Or it could go down in flames, whatever. I’m not throwing my hat in the ring completely. If a TV show happens, I’m not going to be there every day, I’m going to trust someone else to do it.
I’m a cartoonist, I live that. I want to stay at home with my wife and my pets and do my work. That is what fulfills me, that’s my niche, that’s everything to me. I just want the books to be good. I don’t know, I want to cement my place or whatever. Continue my “lavish lifestyle” and take care of my family. I want to buy my mother a house before she fucking dies, and make her happy and proud.
As for the comics, I’ve got everything all planned out in my mind, and I have copious notes. The next book I’m really excited to start. I’m breaking it all apart and then I’m going to put it all back together again. It’s going to be different. I’m going to process a bunch of shit, talk about a bunch of shit. I’m enjoying these characters.
AH: And you’ve got a comic in an issue of Playboy coming out?
SH: Yeah, that issue is out now, I did a Little Annie Fanny-style sort of quest for pleasure. I’m not sure if they’ve had a trans model in Playboy yet, but I’ve gotten Booger in there, and Megg with her hairy legs. It’s pretty forward thinking.
AH: Well, for Playboy.
SH: I don’t know, Playboy seems kind of cool now. They’ve rebranded, it’s a deluxe quarterly, all shiny and no ads. And they’ve let me do this sort of gross, kind of sexy comic. So that’s something.
SH: But ultimately forging ahead, trying to clear my plate of this freelance stuff so I can just hunker down and write this book. I just want to get cracking. And I’m going to put it out as zines.
AH: Okay, that’s different.
SH: I experimented with doing Bad Gateway in one go, just hiding away, not traveling, doing it as one book, and I didn’t like that. Tying it back into the Netflix thing, I want to have the dopamine hit for the fans.
SH: Every two months, like 30 pages, just the black and white skeleton stuff before I color, but you get all the chapters and there are gonna be bonus strips. I want to pay young cartoonists $300 bucks a page for backup features, like the old Peter Bagge Hate mags. So you know, feature young artists I like, and get them in the back. Try to get readers to go see their work and go buy their book on Etsy. Put in a letters page.
SH: I want it to be fun. Pump those zines out every two months, and that will pay my rent and my immigration bills. And pay for my rabbits’ medicine, because my rabbits are very sick and need a lot of medicine. Buy my mom some groceries and buy myself some new shoes.
AH: There you go.
SH: I gotta treat myself!
AH: But you’re right, there is something to be said about the dopamine hit of having something out constantly.
SH: Right! Whenever a musician you like puts out a new album, it’s exciting, whenever a new book comes out, it’s exciting. And if you like something and you’re passionate about it, you don’t want to be waiting forever. But sometimes the wait is amazing. For my next book, Megg’s Coven, I’m going to do a full nine month press cycle. Not just three months before it comes out. Hit libraries, do a proper thing. I want to experiment with that. I’ve seen recently with some albums that they hype them up for a longer time than usual and then when they come out it’s at the height of excitement. You’re counting down, you really want to hear the album, you’re excited when it finally comes.
But on the other hand, it’s over in an hour and then you just want that next hit.
AH: Yeah, that’s a good point.
SH: To an extent I miss the floppies of yore. I grew up in the 90s, pre-internet, VHS, cassettes, you know, voraciously looking for content and learned to find it in comic books. I miss that. Bring it back!
I’m always telling young cartoonists to just go this BigCartel route, and a lot of people are, I’m not the first to do it. It’s a great way to interact with fans and directly deal with people and cut out the middleman. I still have to pay the BigCartel fee or whatever, and pay to mail it to them. But generally you’re bypassing everything. Get yourself a BigCartel and a stamps.com account. My wife and I run it together. And it’s a little mom and pop kind of business. It feels honest.
AH: And this is a way to stay connected with the larger world without having to put everything you’re doing on the internet.
SH: Yeah. It’s just a nice little industry. It feels like the barter system in a way. Like making this thing is what I have to contribute to society. I’m a jester, and I have these little comedic booklets that might make you feel something. And if you enjoy them, you can buy them. And I can I buy other people’s books and other people’s artisanal crafts and we’re all kind of supporting each other and building new fans. And for some reason, people that don’t make comics come into comics. There used to be a sense that at comic shows, it was all just cartoonists buying each other’s books-
AH: Just the same $20 moving around-
SH: *laughs* yeah, that same $20 just fluttering around the room. You could mark the bill and find it again later in the day. But people like Raina Telgemeier are bringing a whole new generation into comics. She’s selling the most books, and bringing all these young women into comics who will make comics, and buy comics, or grow up and maybe buy comics for their kids. And not just Raina’s comics, maybe Julie Doucet! Or, oh, Anna Haifisch, these seem funny. And maybe some old classics, Like Danny Clowes or maybe some Hanselmann, maybe some old man Hanselmann once the kids are a bit older. Or, you know, maybe they’ve had a sibling who went through a horrible drug addiction, and they’ll empathize with the characters and maybe learn how to deal with that kind of behavior.
AH: Life lessons from Megg and Mogg.
SH: I do think that Megg and Mogg can be instructional, in a way. Like what not to do as a father with Werewolf Jones-
AH: Yeah, like don’t put your baby in a birdcage?
SH: *laughs* Yeah-
AH: *laughs* Yeah, don’t do that.
SH: I did a show at Bellevue recently and I had to explain it to the docents, who are mostly 60s-aged white women. Not all, but most. And here I am with all these fucking mannequins and puppets lying about and Cheeto wrappers and comics on the wall. Comics! So I had to explain it in the context of the opioid crisis. This is how some peoples’ lives look, this is how some people live in depression. And a lot of them had family members that are going through depression, or drugs and stuff. At the start the curator asked, “Do you empathize with these characters? Or are you revolted by this?” and pretty much all of them said that they were revolted. But by the end, we’d all been through this hard, smart journey, and they really did empathize with the characters. The docents were all really nice. They fell in love with the show. They did a really great job talking to the public and breaking it down. It was a journey for all of us.
AH: One of the things that this conversation has brought up is that, while the work of Megg and Mogg is dark, funny but dark, you ultimately seem like an optimist.
SH: Yeah? I guess I do see the glass half full in some ways. I love life-
AH: And even to an extent, you’re tough on yourself because you want yourself to do better.
SH: Yeah, pretty much.
AH: Because you have a vision of what you are capable of.
SH: I just want it to be good and enjoy making it good. And I like competition with people. I like having friendly rivalries and it’s fun to try and impress people, make your friends laugh.
SH: That’s what it always was growing up. There were no “readers.” Your readers were your friends and contemporaries who were doing the same thing. You tried to make each other laugh and impress each other. I’m still just trying to do that, honestly. All my work has been for me and my friends really, and readers become friends. I’ve met a lot of lovely people on the road. And people have been saying all sorts of things to me at signings recently, like in France people were making me cry, giving me the most personal letters about how my work helped them process the darkness of parents dying, or sexual assault, and how Megg & Mogg was so positive for them.
AH: To some degree that’s nice to hear but also it’s a heavy burden, isn’t it?
SH: I know it can be off putting for a lot of people and a lot of people like to avoid that kind of stuff.
AH: It’s scary, right?
SH: A lot of people like to revel in the comics and I think they can learn from them. But I keep coming back to these beautiful compliments from people. It’s hard to reckon with that, with all this self-hatred. I used to just be self-deprecating, telling people that all of it stinks. And I’ve still been doing that this week. “It’s terrible, look at all the mistakes in there!” But I’m trying to be more open to the voices of others, to recognize them and tell them that what they say means a lot. To tell them thank you. I know what that was like. When I was young I idolized a musician. And I wrote to them and it meant so much to me. But it’s so hard as an insecure human to recognize someone thinking that you’re cool, or that you make something that matters. It’s hard to hear someone say that meeting you made their day. I hear people say that, and I still want to say, “Really? I’m inside my mind. I look in the mirror at me every day. I hate myself.”
AH: I understand that really intimately, that feeling of self-hate, of poor self-image. But in another way, you can see yourself through these comments and letters. They let you see something of yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t see.
When I read Megg and Mogg I see parts of myself that I don’t see anywhere else. And I can understand why people react in the way that they do, because it’s visceral, and when things go bad, it’s like “Oh my God.”
SH: But to me, a lot of this is normal.
SH: Yeah, I said to my wife, “Look, this is normal!” and she said, “No, it’s not normal. It’s really sad!” And she had it tough as well growing up, but a lot of people have it worse, and this is sadly normal for a lot of people.
Ultimately I consider myself lucky. I grew up in the Western world and in Tasmania. I had good welfare in Australia. I have been lucky enough to ply my craft. I’m a fucking cartoonist flying around the world, I’m the luckiest motherfucker! I’m a king. On the scale of how badly things could be, I’m doing so well.
AH: It’s pretty remarkable isn’t it? That comics has brought you here?
SH: I count my blessings every day. I do work hard for it. But I fear it could crumble anytime. That I’ll say something, or get in trouble. Or that my work will start to suck, or that people will change and not want to read it anymore. Because that happens, I’ve seen it happen to other artists.
I I feel like a lifer at this point. I’ve been self publishing zines since I was eight years old in 1989. And I’m really unhealthy workaholic. So I really don’t think I’m going anywhere. If people want to read it, they can, and hopefully I can maintain at least a few fans and get by. Or get a real job I guess. I don’t have any computer skills, I dropped out of high school, and I’ve got a history of anxiety, depression, and self-inflicted abuse. I’ve maintained jobs in the past, but I’m not good at them. I’m selfish in a way. I just want to draw these comics. In this society, in this time, I think it is a little selfish that I’ve chosen to draw comic books. It’s not the most noble virtuous thing. I’m not really contributing to society-
SH: I’m a jester, I’m an entertainer-
AH: I’m going to push back against that, pretty heavily. What does the world look like if you aren’t there to make people laugh? Or to bring context to the darkness of peoples’ experiences and lives? That’s very valuable to a lot of your readers.
SH: I guess when I think about my personal relationship with art, yes it is very valuable to me. So yes, I’m contributing to that, I guess. I love art, art has saved my life and given me something to believe in. And it’s given me an outlet, and to most artists I know. I’m always turning to my mother and saying that she needs an outlet, whether it be ceramics or painting or anything really. But it’s hard for some people start late and people try something once and give up. My mother wanted to be a singer and a poet, but she gave it up and feels like it’s too late to start. It’s so therapeutic. I wish she would just stop sitting in the darkness taking drugs and really do something.
AH: Yeah. Yeah, I hear that.
SH: Yeah, you need to find your little niche.
AH: You need to find that thing let lets you bring your humanity out.
SH: And even if it does seem pointless against the void of time, who cares? It will make you happy now.
AH: And that’s enough. That’s good enough.
SH: Yeah, it is.
Thanks to Simon for sitting down to talk with me, and to Jacq Cohen, who set up the interview and provided image and other support for this interview. And again, please check out Fieldmouse Press and our fundraising page. Thanks!