AN INTERVIEW WITH DYLAN HORROCKS
Dylan Horrocks is the 2018 writer in residence at the IIML. Dylan is a prolific cartoonist who is best known for his Hicksville and Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen graphic novels, as well as his work for DC comics (Batgirl, Hunter: the Age of Magic). He has published a wide array of comic strips, comic books, and short stories, and his works have won multiple awards. On Goodreads, user Miguenium said about Hicksville: “Excelente comic… grandes tributos a toda la historia del cómic y su industria.”
Dylan is also a fan of tabletop role-playing games, in which players pretend to be imaginary characters in an imaginary world, guided by a Game Master who controls and often builds this world. As somebody who played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in the library at lunchtime throughout high school, I jumped at the chance to interview him. On a balmy October afternoon in his office, we talked about paracosms, looking up movie plots on Wikipedia, and New Year’s resolutions.
How has this year’s writer in residence experience been here at the IIML?
It’s been great. It’s really nice working in this room surrounded by workshops going on and people writing and thinking about writing and talking about writing. I mean, every so often in the kitchen I’ll get into a conversation with someone about what I’m working on or they’re working on. But somehow, it’s just actually the vibe. I can hear the workshops going on in the other side of the room. I can’t hear what anyone’s saying but it feels like working in this very industrious space.
What is the project you’re working on?
It’s a graphic novel. Maybe graphic novel is not quite the right term because it’s my first non-fiction comic, a book-length comic. It’s about Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy role-playing games. I haven’t said in public yet exactly what it’s about, but the central focus is on worldbuilding, the way role-playing games provide a new way to experience imaginary worlds and fictional realities, and the sheer obsessive lengths that people go to build these imaginary worlds for role-playing games and then living in them for years and years as characters and as game-masters.
But it’s focused on a particular person, so it’s also a biography, and it’s been really fascinating to dig deep into someone else’s life and try to find a way to explore and convey the long journey of one person’s life from childhood. It’s been extremely interesting but also very challenging. It really takes me into new territory.
So you’re trying to strike a balance between describing a person’s life and how that’s influenced the work, and also describing the work?
I’m probably mostly focused on the work as a kind of case study in worldbuilding and role-playing games. I’m focusing on the role that work has played in their lives and I’m also using it as an opportunity to explore the history of role-playing games and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, as a cultural phenomenon as much as anything.
It’s an interesting topic, because these imaginary worlds have affected so many people’s lives — they kind of hop from head to head all over the world and end up becoming almost real.
I mean, it’s had a huge impact on the lives of many people who play the games. I’ve been playing role-playing games since 1980 when I was 13 and I still play them. And in fact I still play them often with the same people I was playing with in 1980. So the group of us have watched each other’s lives unfold and we’ve grown up and got older and built careers and families and there have been divorces and remarriages and multiple kids — and we’ve shared that with each other, but we’ve also shared all these fictional lives together, too. Imaginary lives. We’ve had crazy experiences together that are entirely in our heads. And that’s been part of what has bonded us. It’s a really interesting relationship to have with someone.
So the games have affected millions of people who’ve played them, and many people who play them have played them obsessively for decades. But also, D&D and other role-playing games have affected everyone, whether people know it or not, because they’ve had an enormous impact on the culture. Video games, for example, wouldn’t exist in the same way today if it hadn’t been for the emergence of RPGs. The language of them. The structure of them. The way most video games are organised as not just a story but a fictional place, an environment which is then explored by the player, and out of that exploration emerges a different kind of narrative or fictional experience. And it’s interactive but it’s also exploratory and it’s often spatial. I think of the creative work involved in designing a video game but also very much a role-playing game is very much designing an environment, designing a space. It’s like building a playground or garden which the user comes along and explores. And in the process of exploring it they have experiences.
So to me, the essence role-playing game is often — usually, not always, it has become very diverse in the last 20 years especially — the creation of a space and environment, a world with its own rules of physics and so on, which can be entered and interacted with in a way that generates experiences. It’s like a machine for generating experiences rather than simply a linear story that you start at one end and observe until the end.
All of that was done by D&D before it was done by video games. Most of the early video games designers, and many of today’s video game designers, were heavily influenced by tabletop role-playing games. I feel like the impact of this has spread across not only video games, which is the most obvious successor, but across every field in literature and field and TV and so on. I see echoes of role-playing games all through the culture.
Do you prefer to be the Dungeon Master or a player?
I enjoy both running a game and playing but I think my deepest passion is running a game. And it’s not so much as running a game as building the world. I’m an obsessive world-builder. Even when I haven’t been running a game for years, I’m always building worlds for a game. There was a game I ran in the 1980s and 90s for years with the same group and I still pull that world out and update it although we haven’t played it for years and years. I figure one day we might return to it. I’ve never stopped thinking about it.
And I think that’s my deepest pleasure from role-playing games — the way a world in the game takes on a life of its own that extends beyond even the gaming sessions. One of the big pleasures for me is sitting in a cafe over lunch and pulling out my notebooks for my game worlds and working out a family somewhere, or a community, or perhaps a little more information about a religious cult or a political movement. That’s the greatest pleasure for me.
You can do that when you’re writing a fantasy novel, and I do, but its different when you’re doing it for a game because it’s not driven by the needs of a plot. As a writer and as a reader plot for me is the least interesting part of any fiction. I’m far more interested in kind of immersing myself in a fictional reality and then finding ways in which the fictional world resonates with my own obsessions or interests.
That’s why before I go to a movie — and my friends always laugh at me for this — I tend to look up the movie online and read all the spoilers before I go. Because I’m not terribly interested in sitting there on the edge of my seat worrying what’s going to happen. I find that stressful, it’s not pleasurable. But once I know what’s going to happen I can relax about that. What I’m interested in is having an interesting experience, a rich experience, it might be a visual experience, it might be particular moments or images, and also the emotional landscape of the film. But really, plot… I just couldn’t care less! And I’m often like that with novels too. I want to know what happens at the end so I can just relax and enjoy being immersed in it.
Let’s say you’re a writer who is writing a fantasy work, and you build the world first. During the process of writing, you realise you need to make a change to the world you’ve already built to help the narrative along. Does that feel like a hideous betrayal?
Sometimes it does. I do find it stressful to make a change because all the years of running role-playing games, I don’t like retroactively changing something that happens. I want the world to have its own integrity. There’s a phrase that James Kochalka, a cartoonist from America, uses in a comic about comics called The Horrible Truth About Comics. He’s describing experiencing a work of art and he says, when you encounter a powerful work of art the world around you falls away and it’s like you step inside the world of a work of art. The phrase he uses is: You are alive in a living world. To me that is the best description I can think of for my experience of a role-playing game.
So the player is alive in that world, they have their own character, they are immersed in it, experiencing it, interacting with it, changing it. But also the world itself is a living world. It’s not just a backdrop or a setting. You have a sense that, whatever your character does, there is a whole world out there unfolding around you and it’s not static, it’s not going to sit there and wait for you to come along and open that door. If you take two years to open that door, things have moved on! Things have changed!
We’ve run games where the actions of the players have changed the political or religious landscape of the world significantly. And the really fun thing isn’t playing out the battle where the king is slain. The really fun part is — what are the consequences of that? How do we see the world deal with the fact that that king is now dead, who is going to position themselves and what is going to shift? How does the culture change over time?
I love that feeling of only having a certain amount of control over the world. The player’s actions affect it, and also the internal logic of the world itself will determine what happens. So I don’t want to be this kind of all-powerful godlike creator who tweaks what’s happening in the world purely because I want the story to go a particular way. I want to be forced to obey the logic of the world itself. Having said that, I’m not always consistent. When I am running a game I do sometimes introduce something purely because — this will really shake things up, this will be interesting.
And the other thing, something that’s not often talked about with role-playing games and worldbuilding in general — which is kind of my biggest obsession with it — is that worldbuilding isn’t just about creating a nice backdrop. Worldbuilding is an art form and every imaginary world will contain themes and subtexts and emotional resonance and aesthetic decisions that drive how it feels and its emotional landscape. Middle Earth is elegiac; it’s a beautiful but quite melancholy world, in the Third Age, in which all that’s magical and beautiful about the world is on its way out. And that affects everything about the setting. Which means that the stories you tell in that setting — they can go in any direction you like, but there’s always going to be that somewhere in the background.
That was really a roundabout answer to your question! When I’m writing straight fiction rather than running a game, I do try to kind of follow the inherent structure, let the structure of the world stand, not change it for the sake of the story. I do force myself sometimes to change it, but it does always feel a bit like a breach of contract. But I guess again I’m not so driven by plot. The purpose of telling a story for me is not to hit the plot points that I initially set out to hit, because those plot points were only there because there was a particular moment or image or feeling that I wanted to explore, and there are always many ways to do that. So I build my stories more around sort of images and experiences rather than actions.
But the other thing is that, whatever I’m writing — even if it’s autobiography, I occasionally do that sort of thing — I am conscious that I am building a world. I feel like all fiction is worldbuilding whether we are aware of it or not. The most realist kitchen-sink novel still takes place in a fictional world. The author might feel like they’re writing about the real world but they’re writing about the artificially-constructed model of the real world that exists in their head for the purposes of that story. And the rules of physics will be subtly different, the way people behave will be subtly different. I don’t think it’s really possible to exactly reproduce the real world in a story. Instead we do construct these artificial models of it in our heads.
And it’s very obvious if you read a lot of genre fiction — what we call genre fiction — so if you read a thriller or a murder mystery or a romance novel, often you are very conscious the world is not unfolding as it does in real life. But I feel the same is absolutely true as well in literary fiction and all those genres that we prefer not to call genres. Again, things are unfolding according to laws that are more to do with the expectations of story, and the aesthetic motivations of the author and the emotional motivations of the author, than they are by the rules that actually govern our real world.
So in a way I feel like that those issues are relevant to any kind of literature as they are to fantasy or role-playing games.
I recently learn a great word, paracosm [a detailed imaginary world the creator has a deep relationship with]. Like, Emily and Anne Brontë’s Gondal, or Gerald Murnane, this Australian novelist who is obsessed with horse racing — he’s made up this world where there are two countries around where Australia and New Zealand would be, who are also obsessed with horse racing, have horse races all the time, and he’s got folders full of jockey names, jockey colours, race results…
I love that shit.
It’s so good.
I mean — doll’s houses are paracosms. Model railways are paracosms. We’re doing it all the time. I feel like it’s something almost kind of intrinsic to humans, to the extent that we are natural storytellers. Various people have said that humans are innately storytelling animals. I’d argue surely we’re equally worldbuilding animals. That’s just another way of looking at what we’re constantly doing in the way that we make sense of the world.
There’s something to me about making up a world, not for the purposes of writing a work of fiction about it or even sharing it with a friend, but making it up just for yourself and keeping it as a completely private thing. Something inherently special, possibly because a lot of work goes into it without a tangible external reward. You do this stuff, right?
I’ve got a folder of them! I’ve got a folder called ‘worlds’. Sometimes I think, hmm, I might use this somewhere but actually I probably won’t. So there are a few I’ve made up just for the pleasure of making them up.
They’re all variations on the same thing. All my fictional worlds are sort of entangled with each other. It’s all one big paracosm, I guess. But the Magic Pen actually started out as a daydream that I would indulge in when I was waiting to go to sleep or driving somewhere to pick up the shopping. At the time I was writing monthly comics for DC and trying to work on my own books as well, and I was a little overwhelmed with story writing. You know, I was writing stories, I was having to do little three-act dramas every month. And I just started constructing for myself a kind of idle daydream. And I remember consciously saying to myself: I will not use this for a story. I am just doing this for the pleasure of daydreaming cause I need something that’s not work to do with my head. Inevitably it did turn into a story.
But it changed in the process. The original version of that daydream is not really in the Magic Pen. It just led to it. There’s a number that I have now — again, its what I think about when I’m waiting to go to sleep.
So what’s it like now — you’re writing a work in which, presumably, the only imaginary world in it is not yours?
You know, that’s a whole other thing. When I was writing for DC that’s exactly where I found myself. Especially when I wrote Batgirl for a while, because I was suddenly deeply immersed in Gotham City, which must be one of the darkest dystopian settings in comics. It’s a horrible vision of the dark side of American cities. It did my head in. I ended up writing stories for Batgirl about that, about Gotham City as a dystopia and residents of Gotham City trying to reinvent it and reimagine it as a utopia instead.
I did one story where Batgirl encounters a homeless guy who spends his time drawing on the streets in chalk. She can’t make sense of these apparently meaningless lines and shapes that he’s drawing all over the streets and footpaths. And Batman explains to her — he’s drawing a map. He spends his time drawing a map in 1:1 scale of Gotham City, but it’s the Gotham City inside his head, the one which is a perfect city, a utopia. And my feeling is, he was doing that to try to replace the dark and horrible existing city he was living in with the one inside his head. And in a way that’s what I wanted to do to. It was kind of a cry for help.
Spending all my time in someone else’s imaginary landscape — which a lot of people love, I mean a lot of people love Gotham City, and they love the sort of violence, machismo — to me it really was a nightmare. I hated it. So I spend a lot of time pretty miserable.
There have been a whole bunch of dystopian dark and gritty reboots of things recently.
It’s been one of the big things that happened to comics in the 1980s and 90s and early 2000s. And I feel like we’re still in that phase with comic books, with American mainstream comics. It’s an oversimplification, but I date it from the mid-1980s when Alan Moore wrote Watchmen… in fact, before then, when he started writing Swamp Thing. That was his first mainstream American comic book, shifting over from his career in England. He was writing Swamp Thing and Frank Miller was doing Daredevil at the time and then Miller did Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore wrote Watchmen. And the impact of all of that, what both of them were doing, was to launch kind of this dark gritty rethink of the DC Universe and Marvel Universe.
When I was writing for Vertigo, I wrote Hunter: the Age of Magic, which was a reboot of the Books of Magic, a Neil Gaiman thing he did in the late 80s, I think. I wanted to set some of it in a setting called Gemworld, which was created for a comic series called Amethyst in the 1980s. Amethyst was an attempt to do a comic aimed at young girls, which DC was really neglecting horribly at the time. It was written, of course, by men. It was about a girl in our world who finds her way into this fantasy world which is called the Gemworld and everything is defined by different gemstones, and it was kind of cheesy and twee but also lovely and sweet, and I just loved the idea of taking that world and using that as a setting for a fantasy world that my character was visiting. Partly because I didn’t want to make up a whole new world, because I knew the copyright would be held by DC! If I’m going to make up a whole world I want to be able to play in it. So I thought I’d use Gemworld and kind of enrich it for myself.
So that meant I had to sit down and read all the old Gemworld comics. A very kind fan in Auckland loaned me her full set of the Gemworld comics so I sat down and read them all. I was having such a good time, it was just so fun and good natured and sweet, and then there was a certain point where it suddenly changed. I worked out the dates and I realised it was after Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of those crossover events. It was all happening at precisely the point Swamp Thing had become the comic everyone was talking about. Suddenly everything got really dark. And Gemworld was just completely fucked up. They destroyed that comic completely in like 2 issues! The main character comes back from Gemworld, finds that her father is having an affair and is involved with something nasty, and everyone is being cruel and horrible, and then they’re back on Gemworld and everything’s dying… it’s like, guys, way to piss in the drinking pool. It was horrible. It didn’t last much longer. I think it was a last ditch attempt to increase the readership.
But to me that set the template for much of what had happened since. Comic after comic, they would reinvent it as the darkest nastiest version of itself. In a way it seems to me like it was partly a response to what Alan Moore and Frank Miller were doing, but in a much deeper way I feel like it was a betrayal of what Alan Moore at least was trying to do, because he almost never, once or twice but almost never, did dark and gritty for its own sake. He didn’t do it because it was cool. He was just trying to tell stories in a more grown-up way. And sometimes he would tell them in a lovely wistful sweet grown-up way. When Watchmen came out he thought that was going to finish off superheroes forever. He was like, let’s just dismantle the genre. Instead it revived it. I remember reading an interview with him a few years later in which he was absolutely horrified that to a lot of comic fans their favourite character from Watchmen was Rorschach. They thought he was so cool. Alan Moore had always seen Rorschach as this awful, awful character. He’s a right wing libertarian wingnut. He’s like 4chan with extreme violence. He was horrified that all these fanboys thought Rorschach was cool. And it’s because the dark and gritty made it seem kind of ‘cool’ and that’s never what Alan Moore was trying to do.
I was never a fan of superhero comics, anyway. I only read them occasionally when some particular creators I was interested in were working on them, but that really put me off. So it was really strange to find myself many years later writing them. Not a happy experience in some ways.
To finish up, I’m going to ask a question I nicked from Tim Ferriss. Don’t tell anyone at Turbine. In the last five years, what new belief, habit or behaviour has most improved your life?
In, I think it was 2013, I made my last ever New Years resolution. And it was: eat more cake. Because I was tired of making resolutions I couldn’t live up to, and I thought I think I can manage that one. And it was really good! Ever since then I’ve been eating more cake and, ever since I moved to Wellington, eating more gelato.
But the following year I gave up resolutions entirely and instead, each year, I chose a theme to explore for that year. And the first one I chose — I think 2014 — was my year of belief. I thought: my whole life I’ve been an atheist, but I’ve been a bit jealous of my friends who did have a religious life, so I’m going to try it. I spent the year trying out all sorts of religious practice. I went to church quite a few times, I tried multiple different kinds of church. I joined a Druid study group. I joined a Zen meditation group. I read loads of all kinds of books from Christian texts to Buddhist stuff to the opposite, I read atheist tracts, and also books on what is belief and how do we know what is true. All sorts of things. A book by a New Zealand ghost hunter who is based in Wellington. And I also interviewed people, I set up a blog and invited people to write anonymously their answers to six questions about their relationship with spirituality and belief. And it completely transformed by understanding of religious belief and of religious practice.
And I came out of it, at the end of it — and one day I might write about this, so in a way this is a spoiler, I’m ruining the whole thing, but in the spirit of the fact that I love spoilers — by the end of the year, after really genuinely trying to believe all sorts of stuff that I’d previously never been able to, my beliefs hadn’t changed at all. I had returned to seeing the world exactly the way I always had. But I now felt like I had a spiritual relationship with what I saw as reality and I had a spiritual practice as well. And it really changed how I view a lot of things, even though I still don’t believe in God or spirits or an afterlife or anything like that. But I do believe that the universe, as it is, the concrete universe as we best understand it through contemporary physics, is itself an extraordinary thing. I even had deeply spiritual experiences through the course of the year, while meditating or praying or what have you. But they felt like a profound visceral experience of what I do see as reality, which is that the universe is this one thing and we are just as much part of this one thing as anything else. To really experience that, to really feel it and know it properly, I have to say it was like a religious revelation. Even thought it was something I intellectually thought was probably true, to experience what that means — that was really profound . And it really has changed my relationship with mortality and everything.
Yeah. It was really fun, actually. It was my best themed year. I’ve done other ones ever since, I’ve had a thing every year, but none of them have matched that. It was extraordinary.
What’s this year’s theme?
This year is the year of place. A lot of my writing is about place and of course I’m writing about worldbuilding. But last years was a good one, that was nostalgia. I indulged shamelessly in nostalgia — I watched dozens and dozens of films but my rule of thumb was, I would watch films that were older than me. And I watched a lot of TV shows I watched as a kid and all sorts of things. And it was enormously pleasurable. But also incredibly interesting. And I read Svetlana Boym’s book The Future of Nostalgia. That was a good one. I feel like I’m still in that one, too.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERS
Andrei Seleznev is a Russian-Australian writer and longtime role-playing enthusiast who completed his MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2018. His work has appeared in Overland, Andromeda Spaceways, and various other publications.