Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks
I am giving Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks my highest recommendation with one qualification: Unless you are easily offended by depictions of male sexual fantasies — even those written and depicted in order to critique those fantasies — then you should read this book. Without a doubt, Dylan Horrocks has written and drawn a five-star graphic novel. The book offers various answers to this question: What is the nature of fantasy? In doing so, Horrocks considers fantasy from a variety of angles, so the book is not solely about sex.
The story is about a fictional comic book author Sam Zabel and his travels inside the worlds of various comic books. In the real world, Sam is suffering from anhedonia, a word he hears and realizes describes all-too-accurately his situation since he has an “absence of pleasure or joy” in his life. Struggling with writing because his own lack of passion is reflected in his work, Sam finds himself accepting an invitation to a conference on twentieth-century literature. While there, he meets a young woman, a lively feminist, who does have a passion for living. Horrocks avoids the cliché of having them form a romantic relationship. Instead, this young woman is accidentally the cause of Sam’s entering into the world of an old comic book and meeting Miki, a young girl who saves Sam and helps him travel from one comic book to another.
Miki eventually takes Sam to meet Mr. Rice, a comic book artist from the past who wrote science fiction comics about Mars (with lots of virgin aliens). Mr. Rice is the one who tells the story about the Magic Pen. Rice, a bit out-of-date in his views on women, has much to learn about current feminism, and he ends up in a situation where our young feminist has to give him a history lesson about women’s rights and respecting women as equals. There is much humor in the book, without a doubt! But at its heart, the book deals seriously with the topic of fantasy, and in doing so, it takes us on trips with Sam not merely to worlds created by the Western male imagination (Pirate-Ruled Seas, Outer-Space, Etc.), but also to fictional spaces dreamed up by the Eastern male imagination: At one point, our main characters end up in a work of Hentai (Japanese pornography for men).
The serious point Horrocks is making about fantasy is best summarized by a female superhero in a comic who tells Sam that not all fantasies are innocuous: “There is a dark side to fantasy, Sam Zabel. Not all dreams are dreams of liberation, pleasure or joy. There are fantasies of purification, destruction, hatred, revenge.” To me, this line is essential to understanding the main themes of the graphic novel, and Horrocks’ argument, though not simplistic in its presentation, might be best summarized in this way: Fantasy is complex and must be looked at closely and in context to understand the wider ethical implications of its creation, circulation, and viewing. Horrocks even has scenes in his own work that will lead some to believe that his use of male fantasy is not acceptable even when used to critique it. It’s sort of like asking whether an action film — such as John Woo’s Face-Off — can ever fully critique the genre of action films without being a hypocritical artistic statement.
So, if you like your SFF to help you escape such real-world thoughts, this book isn’t for you. But I suspect that the majority of real SFF readers—despite their popular depiction by those who are not SFF readers—do like to think about the nature of fantasy (and science fiction and fiction in general) from a meta-fictional and ethical standpoint.
As much as I’ve dwelled on the intellectual side of this book, it’s a fun, funny read. It’s not dry at all. In one of my favorite scenes, the female superhero in Sam’s own book complains to him about his writing: “This is crap,” she tells him. He responds that he is uninspired but knows that great literary comics are possible; he cites as evidence the authors Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. I love her response to our depressed writer: “Honey — I hate to break the news — but you ain’t no Alan Moore.” It gets even funnier — and more bizarre — a few panels later when he’s seduced by her. The secret to her success? “I’m a fantasy,” she tells him; “Men want me.”
In the end, both men and women will want this book, I think. It’s a savvy feminist critique of comic books with a fun storyline, imaginative events, memorable dialogue, and beautiful art with multiple styles as we travel from one comic book to the next. I particularly like the coloring in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. I’ll include some pictures so you can see how different it looks from a mainstream comic book. It certainly doesn’t look like it fits the house style of a DC or Marvel (is Image also starting to have an unstated house style?). If this book sound even slightly appealing to you, get a copy while you’re thinking about it (or check it out at a lower price as a digital book on Comixology). You’ll enjoy Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen more than once.