The highlight of Simon Hanselmann’s morning is feeding his rescue rabbits fresh hay and giving them the attention they need. Throughout the day, he’ll head to the basement to pet and talk to them. The artist says caring for them makes him feel like a farmer. Fostering rabbits is a passion he and his wife of five years, Jacq, both share. Looking after the fluffy animals is a welcome reprieve from the stress and strain of being a cartoonist. His star in the alternative comics genre is steadily rising. When he’s not tending to his furry pets, Hanselmann is creating new scenes for Megg, a green-skinned witch; her boyfriend Mogg, a small gray cat; Owl, a humanoid bird and a host of other characters, who appear in the New York Times bestselling graphic novel series “Megg, Mogg & Owl.”
“I like just drawing comics alone at home, like I’ve always done. I like the autonomy in comics because you can do whatever you want,” Hanselmann said. “It’s not beholden to censorship.”
Audiences unfamiliar with his work can now see three-dimensional versions of his characters in “Bad Gateway,” a new exhibition at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM). It’s the first time he’s showing his work in a museum. The title is also the name of his latest book, set for release in late July through Fantagraphics Books, a local publisher housed on Lake City Way. The novel picks up where the last one ended, Owl has moved out and Megg is talking with Mogg about not having enough rent money. This is in part because they’ve been spending more than they’ve allotted for marijuana. The characters are flawed and organization is not their strongest skill.
“It’s not a hopeful book. I mean, the characters are — they’re not doing well,” Hanselmann said. “Hopefully, in the future, maybe they’ll sort out their problems but, it’s this journey to figuring that out.”
The characters are reflective of a life Hanselmann is familiar with. The artist was born and raised in Launceston, Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia. His mother is addicted to heroin and has abused drugs his entire life. He lived with her and his schizophrenic grandmother. Hanselmann said his mother was able to hide her struggles well until he was about 9 or 10. His home life was chaotic at times, and at one point he was strip-searched by police during a raid at their home. His graphic novels serve as a way to process the pitfalls of addiction and the challenging relationship with his mother.
“I love her. I know what a good woman she is, what she did for me, and I know innately she’s just such a beautiful person,” Hanselmann said. “But she’s just trapped in this spiral of depression and just, like, bad circumstance, and so it’s completely heartbreaking.”
Despite the heavy subject matter, Hanselmann’s fans have told him his series has helped them get through difficult times. It’s something he understands because comics did the same thing for him. At signings he works to connect with his audience and doesn’t shy away from perusing reviews on Goodreads. His work has also attracted the attention of content producers in Hollywood. He recently signed a shopping agreement with a production company based in Los Angeles. It’s a bit surreal for the cartoonist since he grew up far away from the entertainment industry.
Hanselmann doesn’t get too wrapped in labels, but he describes himself as genderqueer. Wrestling with identity issues while growing up on an isolated island was onerous. He was coming of age in the days before the internet and had little access to information about others like him. The artist said even wearing a scarf would provoke abuse. He dropped out of school at 15 years old.
“It’s really hard to live around that environment and live with the secret. I was 30 when I opened up to friends,” Hanselmann said. “I always told partners about it and sometimes they reacted really badly and sometimes they reacted OK. But then you could sense that they were uncomfortable with it.”
He likes to get glammed up for festivals and his fans have come to expect it. On the day of the media tour for “Bad Gateway,” he donned a long wig over his short dark curls, green sweater, black skirt, patterned panty hose and tall heels.
Art has always been his escape and after years of work others began to notice him. He printed “Megg, Mogg & Owl” zines, then started the Tumblr blog “Girl Mountain” in 2009. In 2012, VICE published one of his cartoons and two years later he began appearing regularly on the website. By 2015, he had an art dealer and traveled to 10 countries that year. He was finally earning a living through a medium he was obsessed with. Soon he connected with Fantagraphics and a childhood dream came true. He’d been a fan since the ’90s because they published the types of offbeat comics he was into.
“I idolized them for like two decades and I’d never dare to send anything to them,” Hanselmann said. “They came to me and you know, I flipped out.”
The BAM exhibition is a bit of a full-circle moment. He’s gone from having a Fantagraphics poster on the wall of his childhood bedroom to displaying the same memento in the vignette titled “MEGG’S SLOW MORNING” at BAM. Megg’s bedroom is a literal mess. The carpet is peppered with various stains, clothes are strewn about and a single slice of leftover pizza sits in the box. The clutter is arresting. In the installation Megg lies in bed as “sentient meat, pounded by waves of futility, unable to move.”
This may not sound like artistry but BAM Curator Benedict Heywood is asking visitors to push past the viewpoint of art as a medium of contemplation and go deeper. He also judges art by what dialogue it sparks, “I would urge people if they come up the stairs and see someone’s messy bedroom, I would say OK why is this not my bedroom? Why do I not live like this? Who lives like this? And begin to have that conversation.”
Hanselmann’s less-than-perfect characters are brought to life in four vignettes at BAM that the artist built. Both men hope people will move beyond the clutter in the characters’ living spaces and recognize his skills. Visitors will also have the opportunity to read all of “Bad Gateway.” Hanselmann spent more than 3,700 hours over the course of a year creating his third book. The pages are roughly sketched first, inked over, then colored in with a combination of watercolor, gouache and imported food coloring.
Heywood described himself as an unabashed fan of Hanselmann. He considers Hanselmann’s work to be at the intersection of the three elements highlighted in exhibitions at BAM: art, craft and design. He also points to Hanselmann’s skills and the cartoonist’s ability to create empathy for his characters — in spite of their imperfections. The artist understands the value of empathy because of his mother.
“I want to support her. She needs someone in her corner. Everyone who is going through these like drug problems and addictions, they need someone in their corner no matter how many times they fuck up,” Hanselmann said. “They need love. They need to feel that there’s hope. They can’t just be abandoned.”
While there are no picturesque landscapes in “Bad Gateway,” Hanselmann offers readers something equally compelling: Well-executed characters who are dealing with universal issues.
None of us are perfect and some have to take each day as it comes.
WHAT: “Bad Gateway”
WHEN: Runs until Aug. 11
WHERE: Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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