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Megahex’s Simon Hanselmann on comics, cross-dressing, and getting high

The cartoonist traces the steps that lead to a banner year

Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

Australian cartoonist Simon Hanselmann is one of the most fascinating creators in contemporary comics, using the wide reach of online distribution to build a huge following for his twisted, hilarious, and gorgeous webcomics through social media. Born in conservative Tasmania to a drug-addicted mother, Hanselmann found comfort in pop culture and art, and his seminal work Megg, Mogg, And Owl (serialized weekly on Vice) is directly influenced by one of those childhood escapes: the cat-and-witch duo Meg and Mog. A hardcover collection of classic and never-before-seen Megg, Mogg, And Owl strips is being published in this month’s Megahex from Fantagraphics, and as part of the publicity campaign, a public wedding ceremony was held at this year’s Small Press Expo, uniting comic books and Hanselmann (dressed in drag) in marriage.

First memory

Simon Hanselmann: That’s a tough one. I was trying to think about that the other day. I think it had something to do with a swimming pool, like a kiddie pool. Just being aware of grass and water. It’s not very exciting. Just a general sense of the world coming together and recognizing colors.

The A.V. Club: What was your upbringing like as a child?

SH: Well, I was raised by my bar-working mother. My biker father left her, and she raised me on her own while doing a lot of drugs. But she did a pretty good job among all of the chaos. I could go really dark with this right now. I’ll try to keep it vaguely light and breezy, I guess. I was a lonely, weird kid obsessed with comics. There were a lot of good comics around in Tasmania, and I just hid away and did comics.

First comic read

SH: The first comic I ever read was a Spider-Man comic that had Doctor Octopus in it. And I found it strangely sexual. I found all the costumes rather erotic. There was definitely a sexual component to it. But I was mostly a Disney Ducks guy and Mad Magazine and Lucky Luke and Tintin and all that stuff. And then I got into superhero comics again for a short time during the big Image Comics boom, like when Wizard [Magazine] first came out. The first one was sexy Spider-Man. And yeah, it was highly eroticvery erotically charged.

AVC: What made you want to read more comics?

SH: I’ve been self-publishing comics since I was 8. It just happened. I just hooked on to them and never gave up on them. Loneliness. They were everywhere in Tasmania. We really had access to everything. It’s not like that anymore. Tasmania is in a big economic crisis, and you can’t find good comics. But back in the day, we had all the European stuff, all the underground stuff, all the superhero stuff. It was everywhere. There wasn’t much else to do, so I became a pop culture nerd and—all the TV shows, all the comics—just a lifelong love affair. I can’t explain the magic of comics. I just love them.

First comic made

SH: It was called “Spies,” and it was just a direct rip-off of “Spy Vs. Spy” from Mad. I’d actually tear pages out of Mad magazines and print actual Antonio Prohias “Spy Vs. Spy,” with about two-thirds my content—horrible imitations. And I used to put free gifts on the cover, like a Garfield Band-Aid free gift, and I’d wander the school playgrounds trying to sell them to people. They were quite terrible. And then I started doing funny animal stuff on my own. And then in high school, I started doing sexy stuff like boners and people running over old ladies in monster trucks, and all that fun, teenage stuff.

First exposure to Meg and Mog

SH: I grew up on those kids books about Meg and Mog, and they’re an early-learning kind of thing. So my mom always—despite being a hardcore junkie and regularly passing out in the bathroom, overdosing—bought me a lot of books. There were always a lot of books. She did try and shield me from a lot of the creepier elements that were around at the time. I always really loved those Meg and Mog books and Jan Pienkowski’s illustrations. I started drawing Megg & Mogg when I moved to the U.K. in the same area that Jan Pienkowski lived and worked on his Meg and Mog. I had no idea at the time that he had lived there. It was a strange coincidence. It was some kind of magic in the air.

AVC: And what incited the creation of your Megg, Mogg, & Owl?

SH: Complete accident. I was working on a big teen-drama thing. I was drawing witches for some reason, and then I just remembered the kid’s books. I call it a “stoned collage.” I just wanted to do a fun, breezy joke comic, and it just kind of happened. I never intended it to be my breakthrough work. I quit doing the teen drama and started putting all the depressing addiction-based stuff into Megg & Mogg, and it became less about pranks and silliness and more about sadness and attempts to change. So it was really just a happy accident.

There are a lot of correlations between me and Seth Cohen from The O.C. Eric Reynolds is my editor—Seth Cohen had a meeting with Eric Reynolds in The O.C., and Jacq Cohen is my publicist. When I was younger, a lot of people told me I looked like Adam Brody. “Oh my God, you look so much like Seth Cohen from The O.C.” And I was like, “Yeah, I draw comics as well.” And people would just swoon and were like, “Wow.” So it’s all fate-based, and there’s some kind of amazing magic going on. Everything’s come together.

AVC: And what is the status of that big teen-drama graphic novel?

SH: Oh, I detest it. It was a valuable learning experience of what not to do. It’s sitting in a drawer. I was going to put it online, but no. I just don’t want people to see it. And I like the fact that I’m withholding it from people because a lot of people write to me and are like, “I really want to read it.” No, no. I think about three people have read the whole thing. People have read like the first 64 pages; it’s 180 pages. I just never show them to people. I just started getting too excited by Megg & Mogg and going out. You’ll never get to see it, Oliver. I will never show you, unless you come to my house, then maybe you can have a browse, if you can read it in the bath.

AVC: That’s all right. I have a lot of things to read.

SH: Yeah, me too. I don’t have time to read books anymore. But I just watch reality television and read The A.V. Club. I read the reviews of TV shows. I don’t actually watch them.

First TV show followed religiously

SH: [The Mysterious] Cities Of Gold? Remember that old ’80s anime? A bunch of kids. Belle And Sebastian as well. We had fake French anime and old Astro Boy. Predominantly, The Mysterious Cities Of Gold. Religiously, every morning I would watch that. In 1998, we had the bicentennial in Australia, and we all got medallions at school and everyone was just pumped because we were like, “Oh my God, medallions, just like the City Of Gold.” But then they were actually quite boring medallions, and we were all quite crestfallen. I loved that stuff. And there was an old Wizard Of Oz anime as well that I religiously followed.

AVC: You’ve said in the past that you’d love to see Megg, Mogg & Owl as a TV show. Why do you want to see it make that jump into another medium?

SH: Well, I’m just obsessed with TV. I spend a lot of time at home. I watch TV while I draw. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that. But now I’m realizing that I don’t because it seems really difficult, and I don’t like collaborating with people that much. But I’ll do it. I’ve had lots of networks write to me and are kind of interested, but it’s all fallen through. But I want it to be live action. And I’ve said before, I want Lindsay Lohan to play Megg. That would be perfect. That’s my dream. Mostly I just want the money. Comics is paying okay at the moment, but TV—that’s real money. You cannot starve and have a house.

AVC: You’ve just got to slog through a lot to get to the point where you can make a living in TV. There’s a lot of steps to get through, which seems like a lot of work.

SH: I’ve kind of conquered comics now. I’ve had to up my game and I’m breaking it and just smashing it out, so what am I going to do next? I guess I’ll try and climb TV Mountain. And then after that, I’ll try and get a rap career going or become a fine-art installation artist and have shows at Tate Modern or something. And then maybe space travel or who knows. The world is my oyster right now, Oliver.

First artist that made him want to make art

SH: I really liked Richard Scarry when I was younger. I still really like his watercolors and stuff. I started self-publishing the comic stuff really early, so I guess it was in Mad and Disney Ducks as well—all these comics swirling around me. I don’t know if there’s one in particular—just all these kids’ books, all this European stuff. It’s too hard to pick one artist, though. I find it hard to pick single favorites. When somebody asks, “What’s your favorite movie?” I just freak out. There’s too many movies. There’s too many artists. I can’t pick one. They’re all fabulous.

First moment of personal triumph

SH: I had a very triumphant weekend this weekend. I just got married to comics. That was pretty triumphant. Dropping out of high school was a pretty big moment. I decided to screw this and go ahead with comics. It took me 15 years, and I got the Fantagraphics deal. That was a big one. I was pretty depressed as a kid. I guess I didn’t feel very triumphant for a lot of my childhood, but currently, as I said, it’s just totally breaking. I’ve been falling sleep in the hotel room all weekend and just grinning. It’s just like, wow, my life is a dream at the moment. I guess I’ve not felt quite triumphant until now. This is my triumph year.

First experience with depression

SH: Pretty early on. My mom taught me about all that drug business when I was 9 years old. She was like, “Okay, he’s 9 years old, he’s old enough to know that I’m a big junkie and that’s why I’ve been faking out in the bathroom.” And soon after that, I had a bad time in high school. I got bullied a lot. I had put quite a lot of weight on. People would spit on me at school. There were a lot of bullies that would just spit all over me. I think when I was about 14, I started going to therapy for depression and stuff. So I put everything into the comics, and that’s my art therapy. But I’m up and down, pretty early on, I’d say from 10 onward.

First time getting high

SH: Okay, that’s a story. My best friend from when I was 10—who served jail time for manslaughter. I think he’s out now. We’ve not been in contact for a long time. I was at his birthday party when I was 10. His parents went out and left a posse of 10-year-olds in the house and left bongs everywhere. So we were curious 10-year-olds and tried to clumsily smoke all these bongs that were lying around. I kind of flipped out. I was hearing voices all night, and it was a very odd experience. Everybody was trying to sleep, and apparently I was screaming at all of these fantasy voices and telling everybody to shut up.

Someone tried to break into the house as well. It was a very frightful night. There were all these 10-year-olds walking around with knives out in the backyard. Yeah, Tasmania was a weird scene. Pretty classy stuff. I smoked pot when I was 13 or something after that, but it didn’t do anything. It was just like,“Oh, I smoked some pot and nothing really happened.” And then I started smoking it seriously when I was like 15 or something. I smoked every day up until like now, but I’m quite high-functioning and it helps with the long hours of drawing. I try and quit every now and then and quit for six-month periods. Just like, this isn’t healthy. I need to stop doing this to my body. There will be adverse effects. But I’m doing okay. I’m a real success story. A beautiful swan that’s just unfurled his wings and flown into the sky and just shooting through the ozone layers.

First breakup

SH: There’s been a lot of those. The early ones are pretty boring. Just standard awkward girlfriends. I lost my virginity when I was 19 to a friend’s sister. I got my heart broken a lot. I think I was very tame and eager to please people and always getting screwed over. I had a big breakup recently that’s been quite difficult, but I had a four-year relationship and then a five-year relationship, and always just jumping into relationships. But at the moment I feel very comfortable being single, and for the first time in my life, I’m comfortable with myself and am just—like, I married comics. I’m very into my work. That’s my main thing. I’m enjoying the freedom at the moment. But those early breakups were quite standard, just getting dumped and crying it out. And then more serious relationships and more serious breakups with couple’s counseling and trying to deal with it in an adult fashion, and not really succeeding.

AVC: You’ve mentioned a couple times marrying comics, which just happened in a formal ceremony after the Ignatz Awards at this year’s Small Press Expo. What incited that event?

SH: I thought of it as a joke, a fun publicity event. I think it was half very serious—me proclaiming that I’m so serious about what I’m doing right now and I will never stop, and I think it was an amazingly sleazy publicity event. I made out with [Fantagraphics co-founder] Gary Groth, which was incredibly romantic. And I had the Illuminati roll up behind me—Annie Koyama and Mike DeForge, Sean T. Collins, Julia Gfrörer—beautiful friends there to support me.

But the main thing was the kiss with Gary Groth. Everyone was like, “What was the kiss like? What does he taste like?” And I keep saying, “Cinnamon, canker sores, halibut, and a dash of pineapple.” A lot of tongue. He was quite into it. He was like a quarterback perched at the bottom of the stage. People had to hold him back several times because he just really came to get up there.

It may have been nerves. I was looking pretty good. I was all made up. I think he was kind of impressed and like, “Okay, I want to do this now.” Yeah, we really went for it. It was about 30 seconds. That was my direction to him. It went at least 20 to 30 seconds. It has to get a little bit awkward, and there’s got to be a lot of tongue. “Just think of it as an acting gig, Gary.” And he really delivered. It was quite passionate, and I’d probably kiss him again, but just in a friendly capacity, really. If we’re both drunk at a party or something, it’ll probably happen again. But we’ll see.

AVC: I wish I was there.

SH: It was a beautiful affair. And then there was no knife for the cake. I decorated a cake with Megg and Mogg on it. And I just started grabbing it with my hands and just slopping big, disgusting chunks of cake on plates and forcing them on to people in the crowd. And that was a nice spectacle as well. I really did just put on a lot of pageantry and spectacle in this weekend. And that’s what I like to do. I like to go the extra mile and really dazzle people. I was giving out free money as well. Megahex sold out, and I’m just like, “Okay, give me a bunch of singles. I’m going to start turning George Washingtons into Megg.” Washington has very indistinct features, and he very easily transforms into Megg. They’re dollars. They looked really good, and people were very excited about getting free money.

First backlash to a piece of his work

SH: High school, definitely. I had a lot of trouble in high school, as I mentioned—boners and “old ladies in monster trucks” comics. My principal would drag me into the office and say, “You cannot do this. You cannot just print up booklets of your things and distribute them.” His example was I can’t just print up my own newspaper and distribute it. And I was like, ”Well, yeah you can. It’s called self-publishing. They’re called zines. There are local newspaper and local street presses. What the hell are you talking about?” Then I dropped out after that.

I was like, this is ridiculous. I just want to draw comics. I hate school. I can self-educate myself. And there were a few backlashes since then. I get stuck in some beefs occasionally, but I’m never really serious about them. I just like teasing people and causing a bit of trouble occasionally. It’s always kind of tongue-in-cheek. And people often take it very seriously and think I’m hurt or something. Yeah, no. I’m quite thick-skinned, really. I think my largest backlash is to come. I’ll probably do something in a year or so, something’s on the brew, for sure.

AVC: As a critic yourself, what are your personal opinions on criticism?

SH: Well, I think you need to make it fun. It’s best if there’s anthropomorphic animals and bomb jokes. I think there needs to be more bomb jokes in criticism. I just don’t take it too seriously. I got accused of being a bad critic and just flippant—I wasn’t a real critic. I got stuck in this mode of being a critic, like I’m a self-proclaimed critic and people are sending me books. In “Truth Zone,” it sort of became like The Simpsons in the end. People were getting super excited to be in it. It’d become their Facebook picture for a month. And it was like, “Oh my god, I was in ‘Truth Zone’!”

There started to be a lot of pressure associated with it, and it started to get very complex. And I was writing overly complicated things. Yeah, I’m a terrible critic. I don’t know what I’m doing—just venomous opinions. I think there needs to be more venom. In Australia in particular, it’s a very all-inclusive, pat-on-the-back kind of thing. It’s very broadly uncritical. I think there needs to be more venom, predominantly, like classic Comics Journalbitchy old Gary Groth. Everyone’s always trying to be too nice now. They like all the twee kids at SPX. I like mean work. I think the best work is made by horribly anxious, depressed people. All of my favorite artists are kind of tortured fuck-ups. I’m not very eloquent when it comes to talking about criticism. I don’t think I’m a good critic. I just like what I like. And I vehemently detest what I detest.

AVC: That makes all of your criticism really fun to read.

SH: Yeah, I was holding back as well. I could have been a lot meaner. It was a weird position to be in—in my burgeoning career, trying to skirt this line of being really sassy and offensive to certain people but not trying to sink my career. Also there was a lot of love and truth. I was very passionate about things I love and promoting things. For a while, I was running Hansel Management. I’ve gotten quite a few people book deals. I’ve written to publishers of mine, not Fantagraphics, like small publishers and complained to them. “You have no women on your roster. What the fuck are you doing?”

One of my publishers made quite a bit of money out of my book and said, “You’re paying for everything this year.” And I was: “Well, okay. You can print this book, a book of my friend’s, you can print this.” I’m trying to hook up people. Like Eminem, when he got big and he got D12 together and got all these old buddies back and stuff. I’m trying to do like a D12 thing and get all these deserving people that are flying under the radar more exposure. I enjoy that. I really enjoy being in a position where I can champion certain works and get people noticed. And it’s a good feeling.

First time exhibiting in an art show

SH: I did stuff in primary school, or elementary school as you call it. When I was in Hobart in the mid-2000s, I started exhibiting. I was part of this collective of comic artists, and we’d do a lot of local shows and stuff. But I had my first solo show in 2007 in Hobart. I had a residency in an old abandoned meat packing plant—a butcher. I hung out there and made a bunch of life-sized cardboard dolls, with pneumatic air pumps in them, so they’d look like floating eyeballs and covered the roof with this big tree canopy and made it like a big life-sized cabin. And that was a pretty good show.

My best friend, HTML Flowers, was there. We played a bunch of music, and then we had a foursome in the park with these two girls we were seeing at the time. That got really messy, but it was a great time. I had my first international show in Madrid last year, again, with HTML Flowers. He’s my flat mate best friend/kind of boyfriend, but it’s a non-sexual kind of relationship. We’ve jerked each other off in a hot tub before. We’ll make out occasionally, but we don’t want to fuck things up too bad. We see other people but we’re a powerhouse creative partnership. And our Madrid show went great. It was quite popular. I’m really big in Madrid.

AVC: How does it feel to see your work gathering a larger audience?

SH: Incredibly surreal. It’s great, obviously. It’s weird being watched by so many people, but I still have complete autonomy. Fantagraphics has been wonderful. It’s quite hands-off editing. There’s some guidance there, but they let you do what you want and trust me to do it. And yeah, it’s really weird. It’s happened so quickly. I’d been toiling in obscurity for years and years, then suddenly everything blew up. And when I put stuff on Tumblr, within two months, I had like three major North American publishers that I’d idolized for years all wanting to do the book. “Truth Zone” blew up, and it’s been an absolute rollercoaster ride. And this weekend has just been ridiculous. I feel like a Disney princess, just the luckiest girl in the world. I’m fearing a backlash or just hitting some sort of plateau or a feeling, but I’ve got years’ worth of material written. It takes me a while to get stuff done because of my watercolors and my obsessiveness with over-detailing things. But yeah, I have a lot of solid material to come.

First time cross-dressing

SH: I think when I was like 2 or something. My aunt and my mother dressed me up in all of my aunt’s underwear and threw balled-up socks at me. Apparently I got a boner during that. That’s a weird thing to do. Let’s dress the baby up in women’s lingerie, and throw balled-up stockings at him. I don’t know if that’s what warped me or whatever. I was cross-dressing when I was 5. I’ve always just been ridiculously drawn to femininity and women’s clothes. I think it got lumped in with sexual stuff, like during my sexual awakening in my teens. All of that’s gotten mixed in with that. It’s a strange beast, but yeah, just forever.

It was hard in Tasmania because it’s a very big homophobic, jockish culture. High crime rate. Just years of having all these elicit stashes of women’s clothes. My mom got busted for dealing drugs in the mid-’90s, and the police just busted into the house. I was sitting around, smoking pocket bongs, watching Conan O’Brien. And suddenly all these police were in my room strip-searching me and going through my cupboards. They found my stash of women’s underwear and stockings and dresses. “Oh are these trophies, are they?” And I was like, “Yeah...” and just embarrassed. Then they just left the shit all over my bed. I was like, “Fuck, my mom will see it.”

My mom was quite homophobic and slurry. She only just found out last month when my hometown newspaper ran a story on me and printed some beautiful, very glamorous photos of me. She’s actually been quite cool about it, which is nice. I’ve had a lot of ex-girlfriends who have not been supportive of cross-dressing. “I don’t want you wearing a skirt around the house. It makes me uncomfortable.” Predominantly, I think because I have amazing legs and I just make people jealous. Beautiful, wide spider legs that just make women incredibly jealous. Yeah, I looked amazing at SPX. I had people hitting on me left, right, and center, and I was just like, no thank you. “No, no, no, please don’t touch me. I’m here for business.”

AVC: Has cross-dressing influenced how you handle gender in your work?

SH: People say that I write female characters well or something, but I’m really just writing myself. I identify as a flesh-swaddled skeleton. I really don’t see huge divides between genders. Yeah, I know I flip between genders. That’s definitely impacted my writing. I don’t know in what way, really. I find it hard to be critical about my own work; it all just kind of happens. And then years later, I’ll see a lot of, “Oh, I was working through this.” The Girl Mountain graphic novel—the character in that was a transvestite, but I never got around to all that stuff. It was such a long story. I finished a quarter of it. And there’s Booger, the gender-illusionist bogeyman character in Megg & Mogg. That’s a tough question, Oliver. You are asking me the tough questions.

First exposure to RuPaul’s Drag Race

SH: I was living in the U.K. at the time and it was on E4. As soon as it came out, I was seeing ads. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s like fucking Project Runway or Next Top Model with drag queens. Oh my God.” And I just devoured it. I love RuPaul’s Drag Race. Most people get together and watch the Super Bowl or something, but my friends and I get together and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s great. Just from the get-go, I was there. I was there on the ground floor. There’s all these bandwagon-jumpers jumping on to RuPaul’s Drag Race. But I was there on the ground floor. I met Sharon Needles as well. I saw Sharon Needles perform live in Melbourne with Alaska, and it was a good show. Sharon went down on Alaska onstage. That was pretty amazing. And then I ended up backstage. I looked pretty good, I guess, so I just sashayed backstage past security and ended up smoking pot with Sharon and Alaska in the toilet. Sharon kept calling me Karen, so I was Karen for a while, but I don’t really like that name. I just sauntered in with drag elites.

AVC: And you were in drag at that time?

SH: Oh yeah. It was one of my first times going out to the city in drag because I am quite shy, and just growing up in a very small town. And recently in Melbourne, a friend of mine—we were at a queer club all dressed up, and my friend just got the shit beaten out of him. My trans friend. It was kind of frightening, and it sent me off into another self-doubt kind of period. And I was like, “I don’t like to go outside. I don’t like getting stared at.” I don’t pass or whatever. Not that I really want to. But just the shyness. I ingratiated myself with Sharon Needles somehow. It was a good night.

First publishing contract

SH: Beautiful Fantagraphics, those sweethearts at Fantagraphics. They were the first to ask. Jacq Cohen, the publicist, contacted me and fought for me. And they were like, “Yeah, okay, he looks pretty good. You’re a smart lady, Jacq Cohen. We’ll trust you.” I had a lot of other offers from PictureBox and some other publishers. But Fantagraphics asked first, and I love them. I’ve always fucking loved Fantagraphics, and it’s like an actual teen dream come true. It’s like a Sony recording contract or something to me. It’s this be-all and end-all. And I’ve had a few other little small press things, but Fantagraphics is my number one. I want them to be my publisher for life. This is a lifelong romance. I hope so. And they seem to like me. Gary kissed me and stuff. He was like, “Yeah, I’ll kiss him.”

I’m looking forward to going to the offices and hanging out at Fantagraphics because I might get to go shooting with Gary Groth, and l’ll eat some of his trademark chocolate sundaes that he loves to eat. He has a real sweet tooth. He’s a very sweet man. And that’s it. I don’t want anymore publishing contracts, just Fantagraphics, except for international stuff. I do have German, Italian, Spanish and French book deals, but I run them all through Fantagraphics. “I just got this call. You’re my number one, should I do this?” They know what they’re doing.

They’ve been in the business a long time, publishing the world’s greatest cartoonists. I love that arrogance. I love that arrogant boast, and now I am officially apparently one of the world’s greatest cartoonists. It’s like me, Charles Schulz, Dan Clowes, Robert Crumb. I was hanging out with Charles Burns all weekend. He was really friendly, and I’d just be walking around and he’s like, “Hey, Simon. Come and meet Lynda Barry.” And he kept on coming up and talking to me, and I feel like we’re friends now. But it’s really hard because I read Black Hole all through my teen years and idolized it. Now I’m suddenly hanging with all these guys on a personal level. And my fannishness is dissipating, I guess. Oh, they’re fallible human beings. It’s crazy.