Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
Created by: Dylan Horrocks
Published by: Fantagraphics
ISBN: 1606997904 (Amazon)
When I was in high school, I heard an older man recount a conversation he had while in seminary in his twenties. He vividly remembered speaking with a friend who was wracked with guilt and confessing sins. Possibly a common experience in so religious a setting as a seminary—a place intended to prepare young men for religious service. The curiosity was that this repentant man was broken up over and ashamed of sins he had committed in his dreams. The man telling the story was completely blown away by a person who would be so devastated by the actions of his subconscious self (as expressed in dreams) that he would feel the need to confess those actions.
The story stuck with the man I heard, and it was wild enough that it stuck with me as well. At the time, the whole idea seemed ludicrous. After all, we couldn’t possibly be held accountable for the murders, careless thefts, and sexual dalliances of our dream lives, could we? Fantasy is, after all, fantasy. Yet now, even those who lack any religious fervor are exploring the intersection of ethics and the imaginary. Are our fantasies harmless or do they encourage certain moral poisons to infect us? Are our fantasies merely products of the us who exists or do they encourage us to act on nascent sparks of interest?
One of the principal modern engagements in fantasy worlds, videogames, labours under near constant suspicion. Do violent games breed violent temperaments? Or do they merely exacerbate existent proclivities? Or do they do even that? What about the systemic sexism that expresses itself across videogames’ treatment and portrayal of their stand-ins for the female and the feminine? Does that speak to the broad social assumptions of the civilization? Does it encourage a particular way of viewing women? Does it encourage unhelpful sexual objectification and sexual alienation of the female?
The question of whether and to what degree we are responsible for our fantasies is a huge issue of the contemporary ethical landscape. We wonder what participation in fantasy says about the participant—and the power of what it says to the participant. We need to understand fantasy worlds and what they say about the real world, but we seem pretty torn between liberty and responsibility. We dismiss some concerns but highlight others.
In one sense, we’re pretty certain that fantasy doesn’t have to have any particular moral quality to it. If I’m playing Super Mario Brothers, I’m engaging in regular, careless-and-perhaps-malicious destruction of turtles by stomping them to death. But I believe deeply in not carelessly harming animals and would never stomp on a turtle in real life. So what kind of weight do we give the fantasy game violence in that case? Negligible moral weight probably.
But if I engage in preteen rape fantasies? Is that worrisome? Does that say something about me? We generally agree that it probably does. Obviously better to express in the fantasy than in the reality, but it still speaks (we think) to something broken within the fantasizer. (Pedophiles who do not act on their desires and fantasies are still—probably legitimately—seen as a major concern to the community around them.) And if I express those pre-teen rape fantasies through comics so that others can enjoy and take part in them, is that moral or responsible? Or is that a neutral non-malicious act, or is it rotten and soul-corrupting? By spreading my fantasies and sparking the fantasies of others, am I helping to forge a new framework for people? The hypothetical Me here (the Me that’s published these awful hypothetical comics) has in some sense challenged the notion that preteen girls aren’t to be objects of adult sexual fetishment. And so what are the repercussions of that challenge? Does the idea die with the fantasy or does it, like so many ideas, bear further fruit?
This is the world that Dylan Horrocks explores in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. He investigates fantasy as healthy release vs responsible fantasy vs focus on the “real” world. Horrocks highlights his purpose in two places early in the book: 1) in his dueling epigraphs, “In dreams begins responsibility” (Yeats) vs “Desire has no morality” (Hartley); 2) when Alice summarizes main character Sam’s subconsciously delivered speech as being concerned with “the pleasures and dangers of fantasy,” the purpose of stories, and whether art is a lie that conveys the truth or merely a lie. This is Horrocks’ fantasy playground, and though he doesn’t actually deliver to us anything like a conclusion, he does pack in enough bookclub’s grist for discussion to keep wheels spinning for a couple hours of heated argument.
While only a little more than 200 pages, Sam Zabel is a bit of sprawling adventure-by-way-of-tourism. Sam finds himself sucked into a comic drawn with the titular pen. And then into another and another and another. There’s a bit of plot and danger to move us from here to there near the climax, but largely the book is concerned with Sam and his interaction-with-slash-fear-of fantasy expression. The character is torn all over the place, enjoying and engaging in fantasy flight but then feeling bad and uncomfortable with aspects of it. He’s as confused and contradictory as our own society is—and while he comes to something of a conclusion for himself, it’s more an issue of what’s comfortable to him rather than the larger question of right and wrong.
Horrocks seems pretty well aware of his character’s hesitations and often interjects as the omniscient narrator with notes that Sam was supposed to have responded in a particular way but waffled, so the fantasy goes in a different direction. One moment of Sam putting significant effort into untangling the question of responsibility vs fantasy is rendered self-consciously suspect by the fact that it occurs in the midst of one of Sam’s own fantasies (as the fantasy is quick to point out to Sam).
It’s a curious book and I would have preferred Horrocks’ ending with less ambiguity (and maybe even coming down straight on the question), but like so much art, Sam Zabel is less Art As Statement than it is Art As Question or Art As Exploration. I largely found myself satisfied with Sam Zabel (though the tremendous amount of nudity11Really, what can you expect from a book that critiques male cartoonists’ fantasies by exploring visually their cartoon fantasies? made public reading in Starbucks a bit of a dicey affair). There is, however, a chief deficit when interacting with Sam Zabel's primary discussion.
It’s a problem similar to that proposed in Duncan the Wonder Dog. In Duncan, Adam Hines offers a fantastic tool for learning to empathize with animals—if a reader will allow themself to be convinced. Duncan's conceit is that all the animals in the world speak and can communicate with humans. Because of this we get a greater sense of their often tragic place in human society. It can be heart-wrenching book. The problem is that because animals don’t actually talk and we don’t really in real life see them able to conceive of their circumstances as sentient beings would, many of the situations feel contrived. So the argument loses its force.
The same is true of Sam’s moral rectitude when it comes to the cartoonists’ responsibility for their fantasy creations. He worries that because the magic pen made these comics come to life, the artist has a responsibility to these living things. He means for the argument to carry over, but it’s hard to buy it as there’s not really any actual tie between his argument and our real world. But maybe that’s part of Horrocks’ aim—maybe he intends to undermine his own point.22He does this overtly and with tongue in cheek at several points throughout the book. Because if one wishes to say that any fantasy creation has within it the same breath of life as those created by the magic pen, we run into the extremist argument33Extremist enough that I’m not sure anyone would actually make the argument. that all fantasy is real. Whether intentional or not, it kind of takes the wind a bit out of the sails and pushes the reader to take the stakes of the book with a little less gravity.
The other bit that probably did the least to win me was the dialogue, which sometimes felt like trading monologues devised from well-intentioned Tumblr posts. It’s never awful or even bad. It just never remotely approaches verisimilitude. I won’t ding the book for it though because I’m not even sure that realistic dialogue was ever meant to be on the table. There’s a little something nod-nod, wink-wink about even the “real world” segments of the book—stuff that makes you aware that you’re still reading fantasy—so the dialogue is probably just more of that fantasy bleeding through. It’s a smart book and deserves discussion. I’d highly recommend it to the book club set.
I waffled a bit on whether I thought this was Good or Okay. I’m still not sure that I got it quite right. Which may mean that it’s just Okay. But then maybe I’m undervaluing it. Whatever, the stars mean so little anyway. There are probably three kinds of people Sam Zabel is meant for: 1) those who have a community with whom to discuss the Idea books they run across; 2) those already invested in the book’s principle question regarding the nature and place of fantasy; and 3) those with a special interest in nude green women. And man, if all three of those describe you, consider this book a slice of your heaven.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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