Junkie witches with over-sexed feline lovers and pastel-coloured vignettes don’t seem like natural vehicles for discussing the darkest sides of human behaviour, but they work pretty perfectly in the hands of Simon Hanselmann and Grant Gronewold. The two Melbourne-based comics artists have won a cult online following over the past seven years for their scathingly honest autobiographical works and they’re now on the cusp of turning their Tumblr celebrity into real fame.
Neither have had it easy. Simon was raised by a shop-lifting heroin addict (his words) and Grant suffers from cystic fibrosis, meaning he’s been in and out of hospital his entire life. But these brutal formative experiences are at the heart of their success; their ability to share their stories so candidly makes for incredibly compelling reading, and the commodification of their struggle is what makes them brilliant.
Simon is best known for the creation of Megg, Mogg and Owl, a series of comics documenting the lives of three junkie dropouts; a witch, a cat and an owl with massive legs. Their escapades range from the hilarious (Megg and Mogg breaking into a children’s beauty pageant in disguise to throw a cup of piss on a security guard) to the horrific (panel after panel of Megg being physically swamped by her crippling depression). Grant is harder to summarise as he works across a variety of media; creating comics, tattooing his illustrations using the traditional stick and poke technique, and maintaining a prolific music career all at once. “Grant’s a dabbler,” says Simon. “He dabbles between media and jumps around.”
“I can’t keep my focus. It’s annoying. I just get really distracted and I need to fulfil a bunch of different interests. But in another way I’m just desperate to make and create things because I find life kinda depressing.”
“I get lost in long-haul projects.”
“Yeah Simon’s really good at just knuckling down and doing something for ages. I’m so bad at that.”
“I can’t multi-task really. We’re opposites really. Like the odd couple.”
“I’m really messy…”
“…and I’m really clean. We’re extremes. It’s like that Paula Abdul song, Opposites Attract. Grant’s like that cartoon cat and I’m Paula Abdul.”
When we speak it’s immediately clear how close these guys are; they finish each other’s sentences (a side-effect from living together), share endless in-jokes and both take turns monologuing about subjects that get their goat; Grant in a high-speed, high-pitched American accent that sounds not unlike Thundercats’ Snarf (he meowed a few times during our conversation) and Simon in a lugubrious Aussie drawl. They’ve been friends for seven years, having met by chance one night in Tasmania.
“Grant was touring in 2007 and he came to Hobart and played a gig where I was running the door. I wasn’t going to bother going but I received a CD out of nowhere and heard Grant’s music and thought it sounded OK. Everything just came together after that; we met, we drank a lot of alcohol, we slow-danced and we instantly fell in friendship/love.”
“Simon gave me all his comics.”
“And you gave me your CDs.”
“Well, yeah but I didn’t want to give my CDs away because I needed to sell them to eat. I didn’t know how good Simon’s comics were back then so he had to actually buy my CDs.”
After that they toured Australia with their respective bands and shared a couple of art shows. At the time Grant was keeping scrapbooks full of sketches and ideas he’d compiled, mostly while in hospital. Simon encouraged him to put some narratives together and tell his stories through comics, which completely changed the way he worked. “I only started making good comics when I stayed at Simon’s and got to read his massive collection. Without him I’d still just be doing single image stuff. It’s kind of Simon’s fault.”
Now they live together permanently, workshopping storylines in each other’s rooms, drawing long into the night, and only occasionally leaving the house to get hold of cheap food and booze. It sounds a lot like the way Simon’s characters live, but they’ve got more focus than Megg and Mogg.
“We’ve got a good system going,” says Grant. “We’ll get stoned and talk about things, and Simon goes out and has adventures and puts up a billion little notes on the wall. Then every week he’ll pick one and try to hammer it out into a comic. We also have really fucked-up, wasted misadventures and then we draw on that. But we also just like getting high together and saying dumb shit that we take a lot of notes from. It’s a very mutual thing.”
“We’re writing partners,” adds Simon. “We go and have brunch together. We go to classy restaurants when we’re flush and have writers’ dinners. We’ve got a nice creative energy going now and there’s always something happening.”
Sharing their lives in this way means there’s a lot of crossover in terms of the themes they explore. Their characters too are all loosely based on one another, close friends and relatives, which becomes terrifying when you start following their storylines. At the trivial end of the spectrum there are prank scenes based on the pair’s taunting of Grant’s little brother – “There’s this one where they’re just lighting Owl on fire with a lighter and we used to do that to Tyler, just on his pants though. We’d spark it on him and say, ‘Tyler doesn’t like it when you light him on fire!’” – but there are genuinely shocking tales too.
Simon’s latest comic Megahex is a collection of Megg and Mogg stories he’s been building over five years. It contains some of his darkest work to date, tackling depression, self-harm, drug abuse and even rape, luring readers into a false sense of security with comedic exposition before rapidly changing pace with a bleak twist in the narrative. In an episode called Owl’s Birthday, Owl is drugged and lured to an empty room where he’s beaten and raped by his friends as a joke. Though the events are played out through a gang of illustrated anthropomorphic characters it still knocks the wind out of you, and discovering that these events are taken from life only compounds that discomfort.
“It’s pretty horrible, I know. I almost didn’t want to put it in the book, but it’s an important moment, why hide it? And also it actually happened to a close friend of mine on his birthday once. That’s the level of ‘crazy friendship pranks’ that people play on each other back home in Hobart.”
“It’s a really shocking Megg and Mogg comic,” says Grant, “because Owl is conditioned to feel so negative about himself that he just accepts what happened rather than pushing against the group. It shows how destroyed his spirit is and how awful the others are as people.” This is incredibly depressing, but playing out their experiences in their work acts as a coping mechanism for the pair, and as a means of externalising emotions that they still struggle to deal with.
“Yeah, my work keeps me from wanting to kill myself,” says Simon.
“We’ve always been pretty open about the fact we’ve both had difficult life circumstances,” says Grant, “and that we turned to art as a reprieve from it. For as long as I can remember I’ve been writing. I used to write books when I was ten and 11 – these 60-page novellas about characters I’d invented – and that was just to help me deal with hospital shit. Simon had a weird, fucked-up childhood too, and he started drawing comics when he was like eight years old and just immersed himself in that. I’ve always seen it as a form of coping. And I think that I have so many mediums because I have SO MUCH coping to do!”
It’s not just their work that’s informed by their personal struggles: Simon and Grant’s online presence is defined by a brutal honesty and almost daily updates on their mental and physical health. When we spoke Simon was taking a break from his therapist, while Grant had recently started to see his again. “We’re sad artists. We’re sad boys.” But whether they’re paying for professional help or not, they’re always going through some kind of therapy online.
Grant’s Tumblr, HTMLflowers, reads like a daily diary through which he bears his soul. It documents his struggles with cystic fibrosis, addresses criticism he receives from internet trolls and hosts eulogies for friends he’s lost along the way. At the time of writing he was dealing with the passing of a close friend and some serious abuse from a Tumblr user who accused him of lying about her death.
Simon’s also been through some harrowing personal experiences in the online public eye. In an interview on The Comics Journal in 2013 he came out as a transvestite, something he’d not yet told many of his close friends and family – in fact it wasn’t until a year later that his mum found out because of an article published in his hometown newspaper. But while it would be easy to resent these online platforms for the trouble they’ve caused them, Simon and Grant feel they owe a debt to Tumblr and its community for giving them a voice for their work.
“It’s weird because Tumblr has become my only reality,” says Simon, “and all of my confusing gender issues have become entwined with it – it’s blown the doors wide open on everything. But we still sit around looking at our notes and obsessing over how well we’re doing.”
“It actually gives us so much mobility,” says Grant. “It’s important to pay attention to it. I mean I wouldn’t like to align it to a business but that’s the best thing I can compare it to, because being online is part of our livelihood in a lot of ways. It’s branding. And my life has changed because of it. Before we had good blogs the struggle was so shit because we’re useless at publicity, we hate doing that, and we just want to be making work all the time. But now all it takes is like ten to 15 minutes to scan some things and put it online and you’re done. That’s your publicity and you don’t have to fuck around with all the other bullshit.”
That publicity has lifted them out of the Australian comics scene and onto the international stage. They’re now closely associated with some of the great names in alternative American comics, like Michael DeForge, Patrick Kyle and Sammy Harkham. Being taken seriously in the US is something they’re both grateful for, both because of the progression it offers and because they detest the Australian comics establishment.
“There was a big awards show over here a couple of months ago called The Ledger Awards. If you look it up on Wikipedia it’ll tell you that in 2006 the bronze medal for the best alternative graphic novel went to Garfield. Fucking Garfield got it! And then some teenage comics stuff got the silver. I guess Charles Burns didn’t do anything new that year. All of our critics are just daggy – it’s an Australian word, daggy. They’re all just out of touch because they’re an older generation of men.”
Although the establishment is stale and tired, they insist there’s a thriving comics scene in Melbourne offering more than the rosters of The Ledger Awards and The Australian Comics Journal. People like Katie Parrish, Lasha Tuschewski and Michael Hawkins are all worthy of international recognition, “but they don’t really pursue things abroad so they’re more or less just known here.”
The Australian comics scene can’t contain Simon and Grant anymore though. They’ve both got overseas deals for various books and travel frequently between Melbourne and the US. Grant is releasing a monograph with Space Face later in the year and Simon has just achieved his teen dream of publishing a graphic novel with Fantagraphics, a 200-page Megg and Mogg opus that demonstrates what a prolific artist he’s become. He’s also drawing regular comics for Vice, although he’s not convinced that’s making much of a difference to his profile.
“The Vice thing is nice and it pays my rent every month, but I don’t know if anyone actually reads the comics on there. That’s what the editor says sometimes I think. Or maybe it was someone else. Maybe my publicist says that. I guess they have a pretty big readership though. Maybe Rupert Murdoch is reading Megg and Mogg every week.”
“Haha, yeah, Rupert’s a big fan,” says Grant.
“He dropped by in the helicopter the other night and landed on the roof.”
“Come on boys, we’re going to a casino!”
“But we can’t get to the roof so we had to just shimmy down the drainpipe. He was keen though. He smoked a gravity bong with us and played Mario Kart for hours. That’s the truest thing I’ve said all interview!”
“I’m enjoying the Vice thing though.”
“It’s been really good for him, he’s been much happier. He doesn’t have to be on welfare anymore so that’s great for him.”
While success in the US seems inevitable – the wheels of large-scale publishing are already in motion – the boys remain humble about the work they’re producing. Simon is still sitting on over 1,000 pages of a comic he finished long before he’d conceived of Megg and Mogg, but the quality of it concerns him – a problem he has with the majority of his work. “I think there’s some really weak patches and some bad art. But I still hate all my work. I hate everything I do. I look through it and I’m like ‘Bleurgh! It needs to be a lot better. I rushed this.’”
Grant is similarly humble. “I’m barely established as a comic book artist but I’ve got a lot of projects that I’m working on and I want them to be good and put them all out properly. I take a lot of time with shit though and get distracted. I probably drink too much and play too much Mario Kart.”
“Yeah, we’re not doing well enough,” jokes Simon. “We have to be doing a lot better. Michael DeForge is out there vomiting from stress right now because he’s taken on too many projects and…”
“I bet he doesn’t even own a fucking Wii…” and they launch into another monologue.
If the pair of them are genuinely concerned about the standard of their work, they really ought not to be. Megahex is one of the most hotly anticipated Fantagraphics releases of the year and even has a glowing endorsement from the mighty Dan Clowes emblazoned on its cover. Grant is gaining increasing recognition for his music under the name Brother’s Hand Mirror and has plans for a couple more books before the year is out. They’re also plotting an animated television series together, although they’re still not convinced they’re ready for that kind of commitment, or even the additional human interaction.
“All I want to do is draw comics,” says Simon. “I hate doing real jobs, I hate going outside, I hate personal interactions and too much involvement with other people. It’s fucking disgusting. I just like comics.”