01 Jan
01Jan

I work in a library, so every lunchtime when I’m eating I read something from the stacks. For a couple of years Dylan Horrocks’ long-form comic Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen has eyed me from the shelves, demanding I make it one of my lunchtime companions. The volume knew that I like comics and knew that I like Dylan and therefore thought I should open it up.  But day after day I resisted, just knowing somehow I wouldn’t enjoy it.

Recently though, I had for lunch one day a kumara salad. It was delicious and made me feel brave and strong and open-minded and so finally I read Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. But my instincts were right. I didn’t enjoy it.

Simply put Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is the story of an artist guy having a mid-life crisis within the pages of a mystical sexy historical meta-comic book. He’s accompanied by some feminist-performing women and they’re on a quest for a magic pen.

My misgivings about the book can I think, be reduced to a single question, namely “where is the cock?” Yes, I can see the book comes from a good place and I can see that it is pretty and I can see the story is well-constructed and I can see that the drawn things look like the things they’re meant to look like, but in my opinion these qualities do not make up for the lack of dick. So I reiterate, “where is the cock?”

Of course, the lowest common denominator ratbag in me does love how cheeky this question is. And to ask it publicly brings me a mischievous joy. But I also ask it with a serious purpose, as a way of framing my response to the comic (and in this spirit I am going to avoid making obvious euphemistic ‘magic pen’ jokes even though every cell in my Viz-loving body screams for it).

The answer to the question, “in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen where is the cock?” is ‘nowhere’. It’s true that early in the book in one of the naked green women scenes there is a frame featuring a fleshy nub that may or may not be said cock. But the drawing is ambiguous and this, along with the panel’s singular status, adds up to token tackle. This image is the exception that proves the rule. For me it serves only to highlight the lack of dick in the rest of the story.

The absence of cock has various implications for the comic and as its reader, for me. The main ones I think, are as follows: first it undermines the book’s gender and fantasy themes; second it makes the book feel less honest; and third it stops me from having a good time when reading it.

Lack of cock’s impact on gender…

In Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen there is a lot of confident and obvious discussion by female characters about sexism in comics, gender stereotyping and the negative impacts this can have (yes, the characters are female but it’s still mansplaining if the author is a bloke). These characters however, are surrounded by the very same stereotypes they preach against.  Cock is omitted in the comic but conventionally attractive tits and minge are everywhere and it is all a bit too tasteful to be ironic. The book therefore becomes indistinguishable from what it purports to comment on. It shows us ‘how dudes see women in comics’ without disrupting the narrative. The result is frustratingly superficial, privileging (again) a male point of view and telling us nothing about what it's like to actually be on its receiving end. 

I would have liked this comic to try and subvert the male gaze, rather than just have ‘right-on’ characters talk about it. Some graphic cock might have achieved this.

… and fantasy

There’s a lot of different stuff relating to ‘fantasy’ in this comic but I’m going to talk specifically about the sexual fantasy component. As per the previous paragraph I am annoyed by Sam Zabel’s male-centric fantasy shagging depictions, but at a more basic level I am also bothered by the lack of explicit anatomy (i.e. cock) and action and bodily fluids. For me imaginary sex should not be polite or tasteful and I think the multiple partner and orgy-fantasies in the book mean that Sam Zabel agrees. I believe he wants to escape and to feel extreme things, but the sex as depicted is not extreme at all so his feelings of lust and shame seem out of proportion. The fucking is timid. 

My view is that if you’re going to draw an orgy, you should really draw an orgy! Show the cock and all the other lumpy bumpy hairy writhing bits of bodies, convince the reader of the deep breathing and the arching hips and the sweat and stickiness, and make them feel aroused or repulsed or envious or ashamed or unclean. 

It’s true I have never been to an orgy but I’m pretty sure they’re not meant to be boring.

Lack of cock feels less honest

Reviews by important comic types have made much of the autobiographical aspects of Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. That is the idea that Sam’s art, work and life-related anxieties, and his inner journey reflect in some way those of Dylan Horrocks himself. Dylan has been praised for this ‘brave and honest’ self-portrayal and nowhere have I heard him refute such confessional interpretations of the book.

If Sam is Dylan (and he probably is) then I understand how it might have been difficult for him to draw Sam’s cock. Had he done so he would have in essence, exposed himself to the world. As someone who has drawn her own bits in numerous comics I understand how uncomfortable this can be. Whenever I do it I feel a bit embarrassed and I weirdly conceitedly worry that people in real life are wondering if my vag looks like the one in the pictures. Sometimes though a comic just demands genitals in order to pack a punch, and when this happens I try to be truthful. I grit my teeth and I draw my cunt.

In my opinion Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen demands that Dylan draw his dick. In my comics the nudity imperative is related to shock and humour. In his book the imperative is related to physical and emotional vulnerability and experience, both symbolic and literal, and it is strong. Disappointingly this imperative is not acted upon. The lack of cock translates for me as a lack of truth.

Lack of cock ruins reading enjoyment

For all the reasons I’ve just discussed it really feels like there SHOULD be cock in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. That there isn’t weakens things at an ideas level but it is also a major practical distraction. For me reading the book became one long ridiculous search for cock, an obsessive scouring of each frame for shaft and balls. With each new page I was like “SURELY the missing cock will be on this one?” But it never was. And nothing else in the book quite compensated for its conspicuous absence. I felt perplexed through the whole thing.

Sam Zabel should’ve used that pen to draw himself a big old cock.

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