meet simon hanselmann, australia's only cross-dressing comic book writer
We caught up with Hanselmann to talk about how he's transmuting a shitty life into a glittering career.
Simon Hanselmann is an unlikely success story. His comic strip, Megg, Mogg & Owl borrows its central characters from the much loved children's books Meg & Mog, and reimagines them -- cat, witch, and owl -- pissing their life away in a Tasmanian small town with nothing to do except get wasted, fuck, play in occasional no-hoper bands, and slump into crippling depression. Largely drawn from Hanselmann's own life in a Tasmanian small town with nothing to do except get wasted, fuck, etc, the comic's combination of cruel, hilarious dialogue, uncomfortable honesty and lurid colors, has won fans worldwide. Its representation of the apathy and ennui of life stuck in the bottom end of society is as pin-point accurate as 90s slacker classics such as Clerks and Generation X. When revered publisher Fantagraphics released a collected edition of strips, the book entered the New York Times best seller list, went on to be reprinted three times, and has been translated into numerous languages.
All of this has come as something of a surprise to Hanselmann, who had been producing his tales largely for his own entertainment. Success, however, has done little to slow down his work rate. A new collection, Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam, is about to be released. Fans can expect more drug fueled hi-jinks and sharp jags of tragedy from Hanselmann's increasingly collapsing heroes. We caught up with Hanselmann to talk about how he's transmuting a shitty life into a glittering career.
When did you start writing MMO?
I first started it in the UK; I moved there with an ex-girlfriend in 2008 and I was living in Richmond Upon Thames. I'd been drawing a semi-serious small town drama Twin Peaks-y type comic. It was supposed to be 1000 pages long and I was quarter of the way through it and I got sick of it, so I started drawing these gag witch comics. I was aware of the Jan Pienkowski and Helen Nicoll childrens' book series Meg & Mog, so I just nicknamed my witch and cat Megg and Mogg. In hindsight this was a terrible idea 'cos now I worry about getting sued by the publishers, but the characters are stuck with those names now. I put the extra 'Gs' on the names for legal air-tighted-nesss
It really just happened by accident. I was taking a break from this more serious project and started doing these jokey roommate comics with the witch, cat, and owl, then I fell in love with them and stopped doing my big graphic novel. I moved a lot of the depressing autobiographical material from that into Megg & Mogg, so Megg & Mogg started being more about depression and drug use. I've been writing a thing called Megg's Coven, it's a big project, and very autobiographical about my mother's drug addiction which I've dealt with throughout my entire life -- things like putting her into rehab, and just growing older and not being able to change and being stuck in this drug world. I want Megg and Mogg to grow over a period of 30 years and these characters to grow up in real time somewhat. It's a way or processing my life and all these terrible calamities that have happened with my dysfunctional family. I fictionalize and therapize it through these comics.
So are the events in Amsterdam in the latest collection based on your own experiences?
A lot of the Amsterdam one is kinda fictionalized and mish-mashed, but it is in part based on a trip to Amsterdam I took with my ex-girlfriend. I can't write space operas, I don't know if I have that kind of imagination. It's the Larry David style of writing: carry a notebook and then jigsaw everything together into a workable narrative.
Does that mean people have to be careful what they say to you as it could easily end up in a comic?
I think a lot of people are flattered to be in it in the end, but some people would wanna watch themselves around me, I am recording their conversations in my mind. Some people haven't been so happy about it -- my ex-girlfriend isn't happy about bits of her being in [first collection] Megahex, we broke up after it was done. There are certain things that my friends have done that have made it in, but I've asked them 'can I use this anecdote' and they're usually OK with it.
The character Werewolf Jones has done everything from take a cheese grater to his genitals to use attempted rape as a birthday prank -- is that based on someone you know?
Hehe, I worry when I say it's autobiographical that people will think it's all me. Werewolf Jones is generally based on a group of reprobates from Hobart, Tasmania in the mid-00s noise music scene there -- a very drunken, bi-polar music scene in a very small town with lots of back stabbing weirdness.
There's so much tragedy in there -- there's one scene where Werewolf Jones tearfully announces he's going to kill himself.
*sigh* Yeah. Yeah that was based on my uncle who stayed with us for months and would just lay around naked playing Legend of Zelda. It was very sad. Werewolf Jones dies in 2017 -- I put it out on Tumblr, so now you can look at the character and know that he's not going to change. I think that colors everything we read with Werewolf Jones now, knowing that he's lurching towards that young demise.
Do you know how he's going to die?
Just of an overdose. A friend of mine just died of an overdose two months ago. Some of the characters are based on him. A lot of the early stuff -- the one where owl gets sexually assaulted for his birthday, that was Carl, that happened to Carl verbatim. Colin and Reggie did that to him for his birthday. That's what passed as a funny prank.
That's one of the funniest scenes I've ever read, mostly because it goes beyond comedy into something really horrible.
I don't think it's glamorizing rape culture, or that it's a rape joke -- it is a comedy strip but it's supposed to be a horrible black comedy. It raises questions about boundaries and sexual assault -- owl doesn't think it's a sexual assault, but it technically is -- it's a flaccid penis but he thought he was being assaulted, so psychologically, yes, he was raped. But anyway, that's what happened to my friend Carl and that's what Hobart was like. But yeah, fucking Carl died earlier in the year, and that's colored a lot of the stuff with Werewolf Jones dying. I'd never experienced a friend dying, but now I have, I'm sure I'll be able to pack more emotion into that storyline. So, silver linings with Carl dying there. It's going to help me write something. Thanks, Carl.
And who were Werewolf Jones's horrible children based on?
Those kids, Diesel and Jaxon, are based on junkie friends my mom had when I was growing up. They had children with these confectionary five o'clock shadows, and very low speech abilities, they'd just be grabbing at your crotch, screaming and defecating in the living room. Just out of control children. I've seen a lot of them in Tasmania, it's a very dark, horrible place.
So what was your route into turning all of this into a comic strip?
I've always been a horrible fuck up stoner and an unemployed loser, but I've always drawn. I've always had this work ethic, and this urge to create. I exaggerate the laziness with Megg & Mogg, I was never that lazy. I started reading comics very early on -- I started self-publishing when I was 8-years-old. I was a voracious comic reader; Tintin, Asterix, Garfield, I'd go to second hand shops and get whatever I could. Then I went through an X-Men, Marvel comics phase from 11-13, then when I was 14 I discovered Dan Clowes, Pete Bagge, Charles Burns, Raw Magazine and never looked back. It's like I've been frozen in time since 1995, and all I do is draw underground alternative comics.
And you're on the same publisher as Daniel Clowes now.
Yeah, I was hanging out with him in LA recently, it's weird. He's lovely. He's really fun to hang out with, I just like bitching about things with him and being assholes together. You just have to get over that initial 'you were my teenage idol' thing.
It must have been very weird to go from living in a dead end town in Tasmania to hitting the New York Times best seller list.
Yeah, the book's translated into 13 languages now, it's very odd. It happened very quickly. I had a MySpace years ago that I put some comics on but no one gave a shit about it, no one noticed. I was just making little zines and selling them at noise shows where I'd take my shirt off and shout and jump around and ponce about. I'd sell a few comics. By 2012 I was fucking sick of it, I was turning 30, I put a bunch of stuff on Tumblr, I uploaded 200 pages, I'd been drawing it for four years so it was pretty well developed. I put a graphic novels worth of shit on the internet, and within a month Fantagraphics, PictureBox, a bunch of publishers that I worshipped got in touch with me, even Nickelodeon. Very quickly, the French and Spanish guys were onto me. I think I was possibly in French and Spanish before English. But I've not stopped as well; it's my obsession. Before I had proper deadlines I was staying up all night making myself vomit by drinking too much Red Bull, just pounding out these comics for me cos I'd enjoy it. I think the consistency is the key to my success. A lot of people are doing short stories now, and I'm sticking with the same characters -- that's my sitcom influence, it's something you can tune into every week, or whenever the books come out. It's consistent, the characters are slowly growing and you get to know them. It's about the emotional investment.
You famously came out as a cross dresser in an interview with Comics Journal. What was the response to that?
I came out after years of keeping it to myself, of it boiling away inside my mind. I publicly came out, like 'fuck you all I'm a cross dresser!' I got hundreds of letters of support, and a couple of other people coming out to me that I knew which was a surprise. I got two death threats amongst all the well wishing, just like, 'fuck you, you should die you disgusting pervert' -- just bored kids, mid-western homophobes. It didn't scare me. I mean it's never nice to get death threats, but whatever.
The comic industry can be fairly conservative...
The mainstream comic world, people are talking about a lot of sexism in that industry, but the world of small independent 'zines I operate in has more of a progressive nature. My stuff does bleed out into the mainstream comic world, and has fans on 4Chan or Reddit, or dark net file sharers -- there's more people reading my stuff, and I want my stuff to be mainstream. So, y'know, you get a few death threats. People are dick heads and transphobic and blah blah blah. I still don't like to dress up in the streets cos you get yelled at, and it's like, 'well am I gonna get beaten to death today?' And I don't wanna use the men's toilets when I'm dressed up, but if I use the women's I'm gonna make people uncomfortable. Is Sarah Palin gonna come and arrest me? I'm more relaxed about it now -- I wasn't dressing up for the festivals cos you just get into boy mode, but then people are like, 'oh we're so sad you didn't dress up' and I'm like, 'fuck you! I don't have to do it! Stop expecting it!' But I got all fancied up in Denver a few weeks ago, I had the heels on and was clip clopping around in the snow. And I've got a gig in Portland next week I'm going to dress up for. I'm going to be doing a musical performance. I sing along with recordings of my dead band mate Carl. It's going to be very creepy and depressing.
Text Ian McQuaid