Simon Hanselmann just got back from Comic-Con. “It was like Fyre festival,” he says, with a delivery that—like his work—is simultaneously deadpan and hilarious. Was there a shit cheese salad? Ja Rule? “Oh yeah,” he replies. “Ja Rule runs Comic-Con now.”
Tasmania-born, Seattle-based Hanselmann has made a career out of his particular brand of surrealist, sharp-witted humor; augmented with a darkness that draws from his own deeply personal experiences, but which has clearly touched a helluva lot of people. Best known for his Megg, Mogg and Owl comics, his work has now been translated into 14 languages, and frequently elicits profoundly emotional responses in his readers.
His most recent book in the series, Bad Gateway, was published by Fantagraphics earlier this month, and sees those characters (sans-Owl, for the most part, who’s been replaced by the far more negative presence of Werewolf Jones, a dog-shaped, drug-addled, child-neglecting Bad Influence) spiral deeper into their already familiar drug use, mental illness, relationship struggles, and general chaotic life-choices.
We spoke with Hanselmann about the struggles of writing about dark, very personal issues through comics; how the hell he managed to create the book in just a year (i.e working for 3,764 hours on it); what’s next for Megg and co.; and more.
When you do events like Comic-Con, do you see a particular type of person who’s into the Megg, Mogg and Owl series? Did you have any Megg cosplayers this time?
In the past I’ve seen some great Meggs, and even a Booger [an occasional lover of Megg’s who Hanselmann has described as a “gender-illusionist bogeyman”]. One girl dressed as Megg this year, in the Placebo singlet, but she’d not greened up. [Fan-wise] it seems to go all over the demographics: there are older gentleman, young women, punks, surfers, skaters…
What do you think it is about the series that’s had such huge appeal? It’s a pretty big deal to have it translated into so many languages, and to cross so many people like that.
As an artist, I’m so close to it, so it’s hard for me to say. But it’s the honesty, maybe. I’m writing honestly about being young and depressed and stuck in these drug bubbles. I don’t hold back, and people connect with that—they know the characters, or they know someone like Werewolf Jones in real life. It’s difficult for me to have such praise or honesty laid on me; I’ve had to get better at taking compliments. I’m full of self doubt—I hate my work! [laughs]
I’ve just spent three months doing a promotional tour in Europe and people have given me letters with the most hardcore stuff. One person wrote that their mother had died the week before, and they had gender issues, and that it had helped them with all these issues and reignited their love for comics again. It was hugely moving. I’ve also felt like a sex therapist at times; I was at this party in Madrid and there was this guy detailing all his sexual foibles to me… I was like, “I’m not a sex therapist!”
“I’m writing honestly about being young and depressed and stuck in these drug bubbles. I don’t hold back, and people connect with that”
It can’t be easy though, writing about these sort of things from such a personal place. [Hanselmann’s mother is addicted to heroin; his grandmother has serious mental health issues; and he grew up in a chaotic environment, to put it mildly].
It’s definitely art therapy, it can be quite cathartic. But [Megg, Mogg and Owl] is really a comedy at heart. Writing Bad Gateway started about my mother and stuff—I’d started the thread of the story six years ago, and it was hard. I was living in the UK at the time and visited home and my mother and grandmother had fallen much further than I thought they would. It was really hard to process. It was horrible.
How do you find it processing the really difficult stuff through comics?
It’s a gift I’ve been given. Whenever I talk to my mother and hear these horrible squalid anecdotes, it’s hard to hear, but I’m also always writing them down. Turning it into fiction distances it in a way, so it feels less painful filtering it through these characters. It just changes it.
What does your mom think of your work?
For years she told me she thought my work was dog shit but now she likes Megg and Mogg, she’s read the first two books and was like, “I get it now! It’s just The Simpsons with more drugs!” I’ve not sent her the last two as it gets into territory that could see her looking into the mirror and dealing with what she’s done to herself, and to me—she’s not capable of dealing with that right now. I know she’s got wind of Bad Gateway but I don’t want to show it to her. I put it off for so long as I knew it was going to break her heart. But she’s hurt me too. It’s gotta be done.
“I haven’t felt like I’ve needed to go to therapy since I’ve been making money from comics. I just wanted people to fuck off and leave me alone—I find it so rewarding and immersive to work on it”
Some of the funniest parts for me in Bad Gateway were the scenes with the therapist, who talks about being really hungover and changing her tampon in her car and stuff. Is it true she’s based on one of your therapists?
I think I made most of that up, I’d exhausted a lot of my bad therapist anecdotes. But one tried to give me a flyer for her one-woman show once. I haven’t been to therapy for about five years now, I’ve not felt like I have to go since I’ve been making money from comics. I just wanted people to fuck off and leave me alone—I find it so rewarding and immersive to work on it, so I don’t need it anymore.
It’s a soft reboot in a way and it’s setting things up for a new thread. I’ve got about five books of material for this thread and there’ll be more after that—I’ve thought very far into the future. This is the gateway into the next era: it’s showing how things used to be—a “gateway drug” or whatever you want to say. Everything’s broken: Owl’s gone, Werewolf Jones’s family will invade the house and turn up in the next book. Megg’s stuck; there’s a crisis with her mother and she’s dealing with this stuff and looking at her own life. At the end she’s coming out of the well—it’s a riff on that famous painting that you often see doing the rounds on Tumblr—and she’s looking at her own life and what her mother’s done to herself. A lot of it is about what it means to change: we’ve previously seen Werewolf Jones die of an overdose [in a 2013 comic]. He doesn’t deal with change…
Something that’s striking about your work is how it depicts drug use in a brutal and honest way. That’s pretty rare in art—so many “drug references” are so far from realistic or even accurate in the mechanics of it all. You’d spoken to us before about losing a friend to drugs, so I guess that sort of presentation must be important to you.
Some people say “I really identify with the characters,” but that’s very sad if they do. I lost a bunch of friends in 2016, but the original Werewolf Jones dying comic was based on a friend of my mother’s dying; then in 2016, my bandmate of 10 years [Carl] died, then my art dealer committed suicide. It definitely makes [the comics] a lot more personal. The Drone story I did about Megg and Werewolf Jones playing music after he died was a way to honor Carl.
“When I wake up I feel like a newborn—I have to acclimatize to reality—but after 20 hours it’s fluid, like automatic drawing when my brain and hand are in sync, so going to sleep is like giving in.”
Losing a friend is fucking horrible. Do you still play music?
I occasionally play gigs as my old band, I have his backing tracks on an iPod but it’s brutal. Not long after the first few gigs one year at Comic-Con a psychic came up and said “your friend Carl doesn’t like being trapped in an iPod.” I thought they’d read an interview or something but they hadn’t, and anyway they totally invalidated themselves at the end. I kind of wanted to tell them to beat it, but they bought $80 worth of stuff.
Ha! How did you get through making Bad Gateway in such a short time? I’m no math expert, but it works out at more than a year of working 11 hours every single day. How did you do it?
I was working 16-hour days for the last five months of 2018, which was grueling. I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I’m 37 now, so my youthful energy is diminishing. Trying to be in a relationship is barely workable. I need to tone it down, but I get obsessed—I used to work like 40 hours and get this runner’s high and then sleep like 20 hours and do it again. When I wake up I feel like a newborn—I have to acclimatize to reality—but after 20 hours it’s fluid, like automatic drawing when my brain and hand are in sync, so going to sleep is like giving in.
“I often feel like I’m stealing people’s souls: if you’re my friend, be careful around me because I’ll be writing things down.”
A lot of the dialogue in the book felt like stuff I’d definitely heard people say in real life, like when Booger says to Megg “You’ve never seen one of my performances, have you?” Or when Mogg’s on the phone asking his dad for rent money and says he’s getting back into his music. How much of the wording do you take from what you hear?
Quite a lot. I often feel like I’m stealing people’s souls: if you’re my friend, be careful around me because I’ll be writing things down. It’s weird, a lot of the dialogue was made up and I felt insecure about the relationship stuff—I didn’t know if it was good enough or clichéd. Bad Gateway’s not as funny as previous books.
“There’s a danger in sentiment and being attached to objects that don’t really mean anything. It’s about that, and the sadness of addiction.”
Why do you think that is?
A lot of the narrative is true: I did sell my roller blades for drug money [as Megg does in Bad Gateway] and my stuffed animals—that was me, and it haunts me to this day. It’s heartbreaking; it’s horrible. But you become attached to inanimate objects, and there’s a danger in sentiment and being attached to objects that don’t really mean anything. It’s about that, and the sadness of addiction.
If this is the first in a series of five, which you’ve said will get darker, what can we expect from the next ones? Are we seeing the characters grow older, and that’s why things start to get more bleak?
They’re going to be serialized as much shorter zines—I want that dopamine hit for fans every two months rather than waiting two years for a book. [Narrative-wise] it will get much worse. My wife cried [reading Bad Gateway], but this isn’t that bad—wait for the next one. That’s life as a drug addict. The disease lottery comes into play and reality starts to creep in. It’s a natural progression: they can’t be silly and frivolous forever, Megg has to realize this isn’t sustainable.