We Need to Talk About Simon Hanselmann's Megg, Mogg & Owl
The Helsinki Comics Festival brought together thousands of comics enthusiasts to Kansalaistori in Helsinki in early September. One of the guests of honor was Simon Hanselmann, a Tasmanian cartoonist currently living in Seattle. His New York Times best-selling Megg Mogg & Owl comicsfollow the wacky adventures of the titular characters, a witch, a cat, and, well, an owl. Let's clarify our working definition of “wacky” right away: the adventures of Megg, Mogg, and Owl are wacky as in drug-addled, gonzo, beautifully artistic, and heartbreaking. There's severe depression, witch/cat sexytimes, crushing disenfranchisment, bodily fluids in inconvenient places, abusive behavior toward those one loves most, and other such features you'd expect from a brightly colored comic with anthropomorphic animals. Throw in the antics of Werewolf Jones and you have fun for the whole family!
Let me rephrase: Hanselmann's work really isn't fun for the whole family.
In his GoH interview at the Comics Festival, Hanselmann talked at length about the inspiration for his characters – undoubtedly a topic that comes up in most of his interviews. For one, Hanselmann recognizes blown-out aspects of his personality in each. Owl strives to follow societal norms, Megg acts out the melancholic passivity associated with depression, Mogg mostly appears as a hedonistic stoner, while WW Jones is an erratic and destructive character (with the occasional bout of golden-heartedness).
While Megg, Mogg & Owl is filled with dark humor and more than zany episodes, another explanation of Hanselmann's casts all the action through a more serious lense. Many of the incidents and patterns of behavior his characters get into are based on his own life experiences, growing up among addicts and people suffering from mental health problems.
As a result of this mix of influences for his stories, many of Hanselmann's plotlines and events could be construed as offensive, but a layer of ugly realism permeates his work. Speaking of a controversial episode where Owl is drugged and sexually abused by his friends, Hanselmann frames it as an opener to a discussion about abusive behavior in general.
In addition to the content that is ripe for analysis, Megg, Mogg & Owl is a beautiful exercise in comic art. Hanselmann obviously labors over his panels, coloring with both watercolor and colored pencils and manages to make pages packed with as many as thirty panels work with his attention to detail and understanding of storytelling through panel transitions. The same goes for his covers and spreads which would be amazing to see as art prints.
Hanselmann's episodes of violence, madness, and phlegm do not seem gratuitious, but appear as an emergent part of an overall theme of the daily struggles of those othered and disenfranchised. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hanselmann receives grateful feedback from people struggling with issues of mental health and substance abuse. In all its terrible comicality, Megg, Mogg & Owl manages to address the complexities of such issues in a way that can definitely be remedial.
According to Hanselmann, there are ongoing talks about adapting his work for TV, but so far nothing has materialized. The TV connection also suggests a companion piece to Megg, Mogg & Owl, namely the Netflix original Bojack Horseman, which also addresses addiction and abuse through animal characters and humor. But what separates Hanselmann's work is its concentration not on the well-to-do druggies of Hollywood, a topic that has had plently of attention in various media since time immemorial, but on lives that are not tinted with cash-green and angeldust-white. In this way, Megg, Mogg & Owl aligns itself among works like Trainspotting, subscribing to a gritty, even realist take on painful stories of pained individuals, but always through the peculiar dark of humor. What follows is that, despite all their wrongdoings and failures, Hanselmann's characters give a many-faceted, humane face to addiction, self-doubt, and depression.
Simon Hanselmann at Fantagraphics: http://www.fantagraphics.com/artists/simon-hanselmann/
Megg, Mogg & Owl at Vice: http://www.vice.com/tag/Simon%20Hanselmann