Simon Hanselmann moved from Melbourne, Australia, to a little house on Beacon Hill three months ago, and he hasn't really left it since. He's seen the inside of Fantagraphics (the English-language publishers of his latest collection of comics, Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam) and the interiors of a few local restaurants, but not much else. Mostly he's been drinking an obscene amount of Red Bull, smoking lots of pot, fixing busted pipes in his basement, fostering six adorable rescue rabbits, and trying to be a present spouse, all while putting in 18-hour days creating some of the most ambitious and flat-out entertaining comics being written right now.
Hanselmann will present an exhibition of his latest drawings on Saturday, April 23.
On a rainy day last week, Hanselmann graciously welcomed me into his home, offered me a glass of water, gave me a tour of his studio, and agreed to sit down for an interview. As we started to settle in, he apologized for not being dressed like a woman.
Hanselmann said he's been cross-dressing since he was 5, and, though cross-dressing is a deep part of his identity, he admits it helps with marketing his work. Most of the events he did while promoting his 2014 book Megahex, he was dressed as a woman. He didn't want to get all dolled up today, he said, because he'd been busy trying to get his house in order after hosting a bunch of friends. Plus, "women don't wear dresses all the time," he said. Sometimes they just wear pajamas and an oversize mesh shirt.
Hanselmann is a self-described open book about personal issues, and he talks quickly, drawing from a deep and wide well of cultural references—everything from late-19th-century Norwegian literary fiction to Netflix shows to obscure German art comics.
I asked him how his year was going, and he said he'd been through some shit. He said he'd just gone through the "horrendously horrible" and lengthy visa process. Hanselmann was in a noise-music band called Horse Mania ("Horrible name," he said), but two weeks after Hanselmann got to Seattle, his bandmate of 10 years died. His art dealer, Alvin Buenaventura, died two weeks after that. "It's been a weird fucking time," he said.
He continued: "And my mom's got cancer. She told me a week before I moved. She's like, 'Don't feel guilty—don't stress about moving away.' But she clearly wants me to come back. I've just buried myself in work."
Hanselmann grew up Launceston, Tasmania, a cold and rainy seaport he describes as a "cultureless shithole," a maze of unemployment, heroin, meth, and depression. The kind of place where the only thing to do is leave. He said a lot of his friends are in prison or have died of overdoses, and that his bandmate was found OD'd beside a creek.
According to Hanselmann, his dad rode with a motorcycle gang called Satan's Riders and his mom dealt drugs when he was young. But Hanselmann isn't, at least apparently, too shaken up by his upbringing. "I'm glad I grew up in a weird state full of dog-fuckers and horrible junkies and eyeball injectors," he said. "I have years of material for Megg and Mogg," he said, referring to his popular comic series that stars a druggy and depressed witch (Megg) who's in a relationship with her inscrutable but loyal cat (Mogg).
Hanselmann started self-publishing zines when he was 8 years old. In Tasmania, there was a government office that was legally obliged to offer its citizens free faxes, photocopies, and water—and he and his friends would go there and print thick books on different-colored cheap copy paper on the government's dime.
In his early 20s, he ran around in the aforementioned noise band, Horse Mania, which consisted of him and his friend, the late Karl von Bamberger. "We were known as the worst noise band in Tasmania," he said. "We'd play two-hour gigs and refuse to leave the stage. We'd take a lot of pills and drink, so we'd be fucked—we did actually vomit in bags onstage once—but we kept going. It was just for us, really, and a dedicated following of people who liked our fucked-up, performative, don't-give-a-shit band."
Hanselmann would try to sell his Megg and Mogg zines at his shows, but nobody bought them. In 2012, he was turning 30 and he was sick of nobody knowing who he was, so he dumped 200 pages of Megg and Mogg comics on Tumblr. A month later, he had Fantagraphics, PictureBox, Koyama Press, and publishers from all over Europe making inquiries. Nickelodeon offered him a storyboarding gig, he said. "It blew up real fucking fast."
In 2014, Fantagraphics published Megahex, a graphic novel that included many of the comics he published on Tumblr, plus a bunch of other stuff that fleshes out the narrative. It went on to be a New York Times best seller that has been translated into Spanish, French, Russian, and several other languages. He's been nominated for a couple Ignatz Awards and the prestigious Angouleme prize, which he said doesn't seem so prestigious anymore given the controversy surrounding last year's event. (Basically what happened is that none of the 30 people up for the award were women.)
In any case, the teen from Tasmania who grew up, he said, with junkies crawling up his mother's stairs in search of a fix is now considered to be one of the world's most compelling comics artists and is currently in talks with major networks about turning his life's work into a television show. "The teenage Tasmanian me is doing fucking cartwheels," he said.
Megg and Mogg is essentially structured like a sitcom, so it would easily adapt to the small screen if it weren't for the endless images of drug use and the many depictions of nonstandard sex acts. An oversize owl named Owl is the working-stiff straight man, Megg and Mogg are the two sympathetic losers he comes home to, and Werewolf Jones is a drug-soaked Kramer figure who brings the high jinks. Most of Werewolf Jones's high jinks involve lots of cocaine, funny felt hats, and casually receiving blowjobs from vampires.
Like Megahex, the new collection, Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam, is so propulsive and funny and real-feeling that even the most shocking antics don't evidence a comic writer who's trying too hard. The jokes involve lots of drugs, but they're not stoner jokes. The humor is a combo of dry wit and turnt-up Simpsons chicanery, all tempered with large doses of gloom. A cat jonesing for a rim job from a witch makes perfect sense in this world—and ends up serving as a weirdly poignant metaphor that describes the sacrifices couples have to make in order to maintain healthy relationships. If you loved Megahex, the new collection fills out the narrative between Megg and Mogg a little more, and in doing so doesn't disappoint at all. More of the same sick/depressing/touching/beautiful stuff.
One danger: You can get so caught up in the storytelling that it's easy to breeze past Hanselmann's intricate drawings. They are so precise and consistent that you'd be forgiven for thinking he spends hours on Photoshop cleaning up his lines. He doesn't. He pencils with cheap pencil, inks with "Mitsubishi Uni pens" he's been using for years, and paints them up with a special brand of food coloring he imports from Australia. He mixes the colors on small plates, sits at a squat desk, and just plows through page after page.
In his studio, he handed me a few sheets of finished original pages from a new Megg and Mogg book he'd been working on. He peeled the pages off a tall stack he keeps in a cubbyhole next to his desk.
I inspected the coloring of the panels, noticed for the first time the complex details on the shitty wallpaper, realized how many strands of hair Megg has (so many!), saw the dishes piled up near the sink and a bowl perfectly specked with gloop. I remembered the crinkled cigarette butts from the splash page on the inside flap of Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam, the expressionistically wobbled world visible through the glass of empty bottles, the book of matches with two sticks ripped out.
Hanselmann broke my reverie: "I sell pages for $1,500. You're holding three grand worth of artwork there." I immediately put the suddenly $3,000 worth of art back on the stack as carefully as I could. I was getting my greasy fingers all over his retirement plan.
Drawing comics is Hanselmann's only job. He's does a weekly Megg and Mogg strip for Vice, sells his original artwork (which he's had to navigate himself since Buenaventura's death), and tries to publish lots of books. He's famous in the comics world, but he's still hustling.
"I think of it like a sport, like the Olympics," he said. "Every time I want to watch Better Call Saul or something, I think, 'NO. Don't watch it. Michael DeForge is working right now! Right this second! It's 4 a.m. and you know he's fucking working.' So you gotta keep pushing, even though you don't want to."
Though Hanselmann's hard work has been widely praised—he points out the Paris Review blurb on the back of his book—some critics, mostly on Tumblr and Twitter and underground podcasts, find parts of his work offensive. "My stuff pushes buttons sometimes," he said, mentioning a strip in Megahex in which Megg, Mogg, and Werewolf Jones sexually assault Owl.
"But I'm not trying to be a total provocateur," he said. "I'm just talking about things. My work gets a bit Todd Solondz-y." Such experiments ask a lot of an audience sensitive to the way certain language and images can perpetuate systems of oppression. But Hanselmann's abrasive way of opening up channels of empathy seems just as valid as those who want to control and reduce various forms of oppression by creating safe spaces and taking care not to offend people. Art that reveals addicts, murderers, and the severely mentally ill as human beings offers others a way to figure out how much and what to trust in those kinds of people, which is valuable work in a society that seems to prefer incarceration to rehabilitation.
All of Hanselmann's characters, he said, are composites of people he knows from real life and stuff he's seen. Most of the material comes from the Tasmanian noise-music scene in the mid-2000s, but a lot of it comes from his childhood.
"I've seen my mom and her friends go on and off the methadone program for years," he said. "My mom was one of the first people who went through injection trials, a methadone program in the early 1990s. She's been on the program ever since. Her friends—I remember once they found a bottle of methadone mixed with orange juice behind a heater. They were like, 'Oh my god! Some methadone, I forgot!' Then they proceeded to shoot up rotten orange juice from behind a heater with the methadone in it—I think they did it between their toes or in their eyeball because they'd blown out their arm veins," he said.
On the mom front, things don't seem to be getting that much better for Hanselmann. "I had a very dysfunctional Christmas this year," he said. "My mom and I just didn't get along. We were both stressed out. At one point, she exploded and started throwing all the food. There was all this flour around the kitchen. She just left me for eight hours. I hadn't eaten anything. I cleaned up everything, cleaned up the house, sat on the couch. She was hanging out with her junkie buddies. But I wrote it all down—this is all great stuff for Megg's Coven!" he said, referring to his next project. "This bit's really depressing—ooooh yeah."
Hanselmann envisions Megg's Coven as a huge and ambitious comic that will tell the story of Megg changing, trying to kick her drug habit, dealing with her depression, and attempting to navigate the madness of the health-care system. It will take a lot of work, he said.
But Hanselmann is not shy about work. "I love collapsing," he said, "my body racked with pain, my ankles sore, my hand red raw. I feel like a beast, a prowling beast. And I'm always chasing that feeling."
He might be a beast in the studio, but among fans, he's warm and inviting. He said he always makes it a point to sign every book in the room. And when he reads from the book in public, he plays the part of Megg and selects audience members to play the other characters, so it's kind of like a big happy family thing.
At his reading at Fantagraphics on April 23, Hanselmann will perform a song with his dead bandmate, Karl von Bamberger. In order to do that, he'll play keyboard and sing along to a recording of von Bamberger's voice. "It's like Karl's dead but he's trapped inside of an iPod, and he's phoning in his performance from the netherworld," he said.
The whole night won't be all in memoriam, though. Hanselmann plans to make a little mock-up of Megg and Mogg's coffee table, complete with a dirty ashtray, a bong, and a couple cans of Red Bull "for a bit of extra pizzazz," he said. "I'd like to coat the floor in [Red Bull cans] so you'd have to wade through trash to get to the reading, but Occupational Safety and Health won't let me, you know. It's unsafe."