Glamorously Housebound: An Interview with Simon Hanselmann

Talking with the Megahex author about reckoning with gender confusion, the influence of bad sitcoms, and the surprisingly popularity of his work in gay-unfriendly Russia.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

Illustration by Simon Hanselmann.

The premise of Simon Hanselmann’s Megg & Mogg is mostly contained in its title. Megg is a young witch, with green skin and a pointy hat, whose depression manifests as thick black slime; her feline familiar Mogg likes weird drugs and vicious pranks. They have a friend of sorts, this humanoid owl named Owl, and gleefully sabotage his anxious gestures towards romantic or professional normality. There are other characters, such as the fun-loving sociopath Werewolf Jones, but that codependent trio is what enables Hanselmann to make stoner gag comics about self-hatred, addiction, sexual confusion, and enervating poverty. It’s telling that his work first became prominent on Tumblr, where it could spread via intuitive recognition. Last year Fantagraphics published Megahex, the first print collection of the Megg & Mogg material. “Simon Hanselmann is the real deal, for sure,” Daniel Clowes’ blurb read. “I actually find his comics really depressing and thank God that I don’t ever have to hang out with anybody like that ever again.”

2014 was momentous for Hanselmann in other ways. He got married “to comics,” a.k.a. Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, wearing an opalescent dress at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland; then he wed his Fanta publicist Jacq Cohen for real. (Regardless of the setting, Hanselmann is often dolled up in beautiful femme looks.) During a spotlight panel at last month’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the very tall Australian mentioned future TV work and how he’d like to hire all his friends: “We’ll get chrome Segways in L.A.” Back home in Melbourne, Hanselmann excitedly told me—well, home for now, at least—he was going to be on some sort of live talk show with Alan Cumming. He can’t really discuss potential TV deals yet, but we talked about many other things. This interview has been edited and condensed, in part because someone began vacuuming the Toronto Reference Library midway through it.


Chris Randle: You're from Hobart, in Tasmania ...

Simon Hanselmann: Launceston, technically. My formative years were in Hobart—I always talk about Hobart more.

And Tasmania is one of the poorest and most remote parts of Australia, yes?

Yeah, Launceston has a very high crime rate. Unemployment. Lots of drugs. It's a bad town.

What was it like growing up there?

They decriminalized homosexuality in the 1990s, so for the first 11 years of my life it was illegal to be gay, and I had all these gender issues when I was, like, five. It was sporty and full of crime and my dad was a biker and my mum worked at horrible biker bars. I was exposed to a lot of unseemly shit. But magically, weirdly, my mum did a good job and protected me from a lot of the worst elements. I don't know how she did it—I just turned out to be a nerd and didn't fall in with the wrong crowds. I'd either not have any friends or just have a few nerdy friends, and I started making comics when I was eight. Lonely, it was a lonely thing. But there were lots of good comics shops. I just watched TV and bought lots of comics, and got into the alternative stuff when I was 13 or 14, just home alone drawing.

You self-published in high school, right?

Yeah, primary school. Grade three.

What was the reaction to that?

Not very good. I was just ripping off Mad magazine; I'd walk around trying to sell it to people for a dollar. I kind of dropped out of high school because my principal kept on saying, “You can't do this, you can't just go and print a magazine.”And I said, "Well, yeah you can, it's called a zine." And he said, "I can't just go and make the Riverside Gazette and hand it out," and I said, "Yeah, you fucking can, it's called a community newspaper you fucking boob." And all my art teachers were shit. I knew what I wanted to do and what was going to make me happy and I just dropped out.

How did you end up in Melbourne? You’re still there now, right?

Yeah, through Grant [Gronewold]. I was in Launceston, all my friends had moved to Melbourne, basically. It was far away for me, and I fell in with a crew of comics people in Hobart, like Michael Hawkins, who were doing an anthology. I started going down to Hobart—it was less scary than moving across the ocean to the mainland. I hung out there until it got boring and then I met Grant and we fell in love and started touring together and moved to a shed. I was waiting for the right support network. I was waiting for someone who I felt safe with to say, "Come with me, you can stay here." I moved to the UK soon after that for a while, came back. We've kept living together on and off.

Do you feel like the music and the comics that you do are related in any way?

I used to do a thing called Girl Mountain—I had a graphic novel teen drama called Girl Mountain, and I kind of pretend that the music thing Girl Mountain was me as the teenage character making bad teenage-poetry music. But for 10 years I've been in a band called Horse Mania. We're horrible. It's so different from comics. It's just horrible, vile, noisy, hour-and-a-half sets. We just test the patience of the audience, we get so fucked up. Just yelling at people. Very toxic in a way. It's mostly my friends' influence, I just sort of go along with the band.

One of the things I love about the Megg & Mogg comics is that there's a very small group of characters. And the pacing is deliberate: most of the panels are quite small and don't vary too much. It makes some of the stories feel almost claustrophobic, all of those characters being together. How did you develop them?

They came together quite easily. I just had these silly anecdotes. I'd been drawing the characters and they didn't really have names, and I was like, Oh, it's kind of like the Meg & Mog kids' books from the '70s, I'll call them Megg and Mogg with extra Gs. Grant and I fool around and tease his brother, and his brother sort of became the Owl character. It was sillier in the beginning—more Jackass-y, as people sometimes refer to it. I stopped doing my big dramatic graphic novel, and all of that sad stuff started seeping into Megg and Mogg. [As for] the pacing, I've been drawing comics for ... 26 years? Practice makes perfect. I think that's a problem with a lot of people, they're lazy and they don't want to draw a whole page of a single still shot. But to achieve the right pacing, the right timing, it's cinematic. You have to draw things out.

I've seen people complain, "Oh, it's just stoner comedy." But now a much broader chronology is opening up, so we see that Werewolf Jones, for example, has always been this totally toxic personality—like, "let's PARTY, guys," and then doing horrible things to people. And then you see deeper into the future that he's going to destroy himself [laughs].

Oh yeah, he doesn't change himself. And he's desperate for attention, he's broken and desperate. That's the sad thing, he never fixes himself. Which is something I worry about—with my mother, me, with drugs: at some point you either break or you change. That's what Megg & Mogg at its core is about: trying to change and being stuck in your patterns.

When did you decide to start working depression in there?

It was [after] about a year or so of doing Megg & Mogg. I think the first minicomic had a bunch of silly ones, pranky ones, like trying to sneak into the theatre and splashing urine on the security guard. Just silly stuff. Once I decided I really liked Megg and Mogg and I was going to quit the teen drama, all that sad mother stress and overthinking change and all that started to seep in. I was going to end it in 2010, [and] I was considering doing one really dark Requiem for a Dream-style ending one, just go super hard super fast, but then I left it for a while and wrote a few more things and it sort of came more into its own.

It's interesting to read, because—and I think this mirrors real-life social dynamics—the stuff with Owl that seems like silly pranks at first becomes much more disturbing and humiliating.

It's a lack of empathy on Megg and Mogg's part. And selfishness. They're such horrible characters, but they do maintain a certain level of charm, all four of them. It's like girls writing to serial killers in jail. I get letters from people who have crushes on Werewolf Jones. "I love Werewolf Jones, he's so cool, I want to date him!" And I say, "Really? Jesus." Werewolf Jones is based on lots of dudes from Hobart that ruin relationships and don't know how.

I also love the world of the strip—every store seems to be vaguely depressing, without very much on the shelves.

That's also a laziness thing [CR laughs]. Like the house, Owl's room, there are usually no posters on the walls, just a mattress and a desk. I'd really like to draw in lots more stuff, but drawing things over and over again, you've got to keep it simple.

[faux-portentously] It's the metaphor of a prison that he finds himself in.

Yeah, but it's also just kind of empty, they live in a horrible barren town. And it keeps the focus on them as well—they're not really seeing anything outside of their own needs.

I want to talk about makeup. I saw a photo of a friend wearing this NYX lipstick, and had to know, where did you get that, what brand is it, because I wanted to wear it to the TCAF after-party tonight.

You were wearing some nice makeup yesterday. I noticed you were wearing it, looking good.

Thank you! I think in the past few years there's definitely been more ... I don't know, daring with that kind of thing? In comics and also outside of comics? How did you first get into it?

Crossdressing and stuff? Ever since I was five I've always been confused about my gender, and I was in a very small homophobic town. I still stress about it. My mum had a mental breakdown two weeks ago, I'm so tired and so stressed, and I couldn't face dressing up this weekend. I brought all my stuff. I had to buy a new wig because I fucked my wig up in Spain. But ... I've always been into it, in secret for a long time. When I turned 30, my girlfriend didn't like it all, wouldn't let me wear skirts—I almost had a breakdown, just sort of lost it. And I came out in that Comics Journal interview and thought, fuck, I'm going to publicly...

Especially in Tasmania, there's so much shame put upon innocent queer thinking like that. I'm embarrassed that I'm still crippled by insecurities. I see people braver than me walking around. I'm still scared of getting stared at, yelled at in the streets. I'm quite shy. I come off as a gregarious douchebag, but it's compensating for being really fucking shy and really insecure. But yeah, I experimented over the years in my room, doing makeup and buying wigs in secret and buying skirts, and then finally had a big explosion of honesty about it. And now there's much less pressure on it, which is really nice, but then I mixed it up with publicity stuff, like, lots of glamorous selfies—

Yeah, do you now feel pressured or expected to do it?

Today, yesterday, numerous people said, "I'm so disappointed you aren't dressed up." And some were really nice, like, some nice young guy told me "thanks for all that, you really inspired me." And after the Comics Journal interview where I came out about it, I got like 300 supportive emails, and seven cartoonists I knew saying, "I'm into the same thing, I have similar issues."

Didn't you have a semi-serious theory in that interview that a bunch of cartoonists are …

Oh, I joke about Dan Clowes [CR laughs]. There are a few signs, like little bread crumbs I'd seen in his work, but I don't think so [laughs].

Well, you mentioned Gilbert Hernandez, and he actually has this porn comic called Birdland where everyone's gender changes supernaturally in the middle of the comic.

And [Michael] DeForge as well, with his "College Girl by Night" stuff.

And if you see photos of Gilbert Hernandez from the '80s, he looks like David Bowie. So glamorous.

Well, a lot of men want to be more feminine and express that side. I've grown up in bad places where it's not been ...

I think even in this particular subculture, medium, whatever comics is, there's often still—even if people aren't necessarily homophobic or anything—a uniform of, like, a hoodie, jeans ...

Well, it's undercover. That's why I'm wearing a hoodie and stuff now—I'm invisible and no one's going to look at me. Normally I like the attention, but I've been depressed and I couldn't do it this weekend. I felt like this was the disguise—me being dressed up is sort of me now. I have to get better at makeup. I feel like a teenage girl, I'm terrible.

You got married twice last year.

Yes, falsely to comics and then to a real human being.

How are things with comics?

Good. I'm here at TCAF, it's all working out. The book sold well. Comics and I are getting on. It's an open relationship, obviously [CR laughs]. It's a very healthy open relationship. And the real wedding—[Jacq] Cohen and I had known each other for two years, she'd been my publicist, and we had very flirty Skypes. We'd always been very open with each other, and before I went on the American tour [in 2014 with Michael DeForge and Patrick Kyle] I suspected something would happen—we'd been talking a lot—and then it did. Three months touring and a lot of time in Seattle. It was kind of crazily Romeo & Juliet, "let's get fucking married." She felt weird because she's always been queer, and now she's—you know, I'm a guy, but I'm dressed as a lady. And I've been trying to be more queer, and now [I'm] married to a lady. I don't know. We're a queer couple. We're all just swirling molecules [CR laughs]. But the long distance has been difficult, because I'm trying to get a visa—I'm trapped in Australia, she's in Seattle. Just waiting for that goddamn visa and racking up the Skype miles.

I love that Mould Map comic you did about the tension between being this agoraphobic person on a deadline, a freelancer, and wanting to be glamorous.

"Glamorously housebound," I call it. I'm too nervous to go to the 7-Eleven to get milk, because I think people will make sexual cracks at me, or someone yell at me from a car, so I just stay home. Glamorously housebound.

People can be so blithely cruel.

It really sucks. I wish I could be braver. Sometimes I am. There are high statistics of drug use and alcoholism in the trans community. I've researched all this stuff for so many years. I'll drink to cope and to feel more brave. Society is so annoying, I wish I could live in the future.

Do you want to do more autobio comics like that Mould Map one?

Yeah, I vaguely pitched a thing to Fantagraphics a while ago about me growing up with all this gender stuff. There's the character Booger [a swampy humanoid being from Megg & Mogg] I want to do more with—like in Life Zone, Booger is a guy back in the high school [sequences], it's very subtle, and then in the future in the same book Booger's a woman. I like that no one talks about it. Everyone just accepts it, and there's never a big deal made out of it, which is the way things should be.

I also want to ask you about TV, but you can't talk about TV. I guess a better question would be, do you know what kind of thing you want to do on TV?

I just want to do Megg & Mogg, basically. The show would be called Megahex, and it'd start out kind of silly. It'd be like the comics, a mix of silly bong-and-dick jokes with that sadness and addiction stuff and depression. I'd like the tone to vary. I just want it to be the comic but with sound and music, and be able to explore that extra facet. And to be able to write it and have someone else animate it—I'd love to focus on the writing for a while and not have to spend all the production time drawing.

I thought it was interesting that you mentioned Broad City [during the TCAF spotlight panel], because that show’s almost a classic comic-strip premise, these two strongly defined characters constantly bouncing off each other. And a lot of it is very physical comedy, too. The final episode of the first season is basically one long incredible comic set-piece inside the restaurant. I love that part where Ilana Glazer says, "I want to put my fist in his mouth, sexually."

They riff off each other so well. That show came along at just the right time, it's the best thing.

You mentioned watching tons of random TV—do you think the way you write is influenced by that?

Oh, I'm more influenced by television and sitcom and film writing than comics—comics as well, but mostly bad sitcoms. There's a lot to learn from that: when jokes will land, pacing.

Is there a specific Australian one?

Australia's pretty barren for comedy. I like a lot of British comedy, like Graham Linehan, The IT Crowd, and Black Books. I like Peep Show a lot. I like a Canadian sitcom called Twitch City, from the late '90s. That's one of my favourites.

Oh, I've never seen that, but Don McKellar shows up in everything here. I think the last British sitcom I got really into was The Mighty Boosh? Specifically the Howard character, who's a bit like Owl [in Megg & Mogg].

Yeah, that's the classic thing, the outgoing, crazy character and the uptight—electro versus jazz. In Australia you grow up with a lot of British comedy, all the American stuff and all the European stuff. I think my sensibility's a mix of everything. I'm surprised I'm popular in the U.S., because I think I can be dry sometimes. But also very crass. It's strange having so many translations, like Russia. I'm noticing all these Russian tweets about me. [But] the publisher there, they publish Marvel stuff, like Hawkeye, and the Adventure Time comics, and they're like, "Oh, we want to do Megg & Mogg." They want to do the Life Zone material, and that's like Werewolf Jones with butt plugs in the break room. Megg & Mogg's not super queer, but there's a queer aspect to it. I like to think the characters are kind of fluid.

There's a lot of sexual experimentation. And there's the amazing line in that one where somebody admonishes them, "Mainstream sexy, not ass play sexy."

I don't know how they're going to get away with that in Russia. Good luck, boys. I seem to have hit some kind of universal nerve—youth everywhere is the same, we're all inherently the same, we're just trying to cope and grow up.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.