Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville (2010 ) is described in a review quoted on the back cover as ‘a sweetly told love letter to the comics medium.’ This is certainly true; the comic is immersed in the history of the medium, rich in intertextuality and comics lore. However, the comic is just as much about space and displacement as it is about comics.
The plot revolves around a journalist for Comics World who goes to a small town on the north coast of New Zealand to explore the back story of Dick Burger, the most famous comics writer/artist/producer of all time. He discovers in Hicksville a kind of bizarro-world, in which comics are the most-esteemed form of popular culture and everyone lives and breathes them the way the rest of the world idolizes Hollywood. The town even holds a library of the comics that should have been made, but were not (at least not in ‘our’ continuity): comics made by Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, as well as magna opera by well-known actual comics authors.
It is not surprising that this comics utopia is located in the most isolated place on earth. Its displacement from the ‘real world’ reflects the distance between the world as it is and the world as Hicksville would have it. Indeed, the term utopia in Greek is ambiguous in its translation – it can mean either ‘good place’ or ‘no place’, inserting displacement into the very structure of the word. Whatever utopia might be, it is definitively somewhere other than, and better than, ‘here’.
Hicksville also considers the role of spatiality in storytelling, but goes beyond the usual arguments about the fragmentation of space inherent to the medium of comics. Rather, in a two page sequence, Horrocks considers all forms of language and storytelling as maps. The scene is an interview by two Hickvilleans of Emil Kópen, the famed cartoonist and national treasure of the mythical Eastern European country of Cornucopia (the designation of this imagined country, which values comics enough to consider Kópen a treasure, as the ‘Horn of Plenty’ is itself another displacement of utopia). Initially the conversation revolves around the classic question of whether comics are primarily visual or textual (Varnum and Gibbons 2001).
But the conversation cuts right through this debate like Alexander through the Gordian knot – Kópen imagines sequential images, texts, or any form of narrative as maps, even referring to himself as a cartographer. Kópen says that all narratives are maps because they are ultimately about the spatial relationships among bodies. This is illustrated through a shift in perspective: in the first page Kópen is viewed head-on, including a picture of a classical angel figure in the background, which becomes the focal point of a whole panel as the conversation unfolds. Mysteriously the face of the angel morphs into a medieval princess; the turn of the page explains this shift via a perspectival change, in which Kópen is viewed from the side, revealing a new background for the otherwise static scene. The sequence foregrounds the necessary interpretive skill inherent to reading comics: the understanding of bodies’ orientation in space.
This new background carries the burden of expressing Kópen’s argument regarding the centrality of embodied spatiality to narrative. The medieval princess is shown to be one of a string of comics images portraying sensuality, connection, and the juxtaposition of bodies.
On this page, Kópen explains that there are two kinds of maps: those that portray spatial location, and those that locate things in time. These are expressions of two ways of considering space within comics, here shorthanded as Einsteinian and Bergsonian. Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson famously debated the nature of time, with Einstein arguing that space and time were interchangeable (as emphasized in his concept of time-space), and Bergson seeing them as independent and only ascribed a relationship after an event had occurred (Guerlac 2006).
Einstein was widely regarded as winning that debate, but recently philosophers have returned to the Bergsonian perspective to mine it for insight. For comics, the Einsteinian notion of time (or time-space) connects with the translation of space into time within frames. The Bergsonian perspective, by contrast, highlights the simultaneity of the entire comic, with all the panels co-existing in spatial proximity. Time is only introduced through the act of reading, in which a topology is established among the panels. The Bergsonian perspective’s paradoxical dualism of simultaneity (the materiality, or ‘thingness’, of the comic) and process (the performance of reading, which unfolds in unidirectional time) is neatly captured by the final sequence on the second page:
Grace: But a flame, even a touch, these are processes, not things.
Kópen: But behind such processes there is a stillness; and in that quiet exist spatial relationships which transcend time.
Together Kópen’s argument and the role of utopian distance in the story drive Hicksville’s overarching theme of displacement and yearning, that which propels not only the narratives of comics but also our own quests, like the main characters of Hicksville, for return to our loved ones, our homes, ourselves.
Guerlac, S. (2006). Thinking in Time: An introduction to Henri Bergson. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press)
Horrocks, D. (2010 ). Hicksville. (Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly)
Varnum, R., & Gibbons, C. (eds.). (2001) The Language of Comics: Word and image. (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi)