In March 2020, Simon Hanselmann published the first installment of the story that would become his new graphic novel, Crisis Zone, on Instagram. It was, as we now understand, a different time, although it still wasn’t entirely clear just how bad the pandemic would get.
The Tasmania, Australia-born cartoonist (and recent father) expected this early version of Crisis Zone to be a month-long daily webcomic chronicling the adventures of his beloved cast of damaged characters, in particular Meg, Mogg, Owl, and Werewolf Jones—a witch, her cat boyfriend, a mostly stable Owl roommate, and a drug-adled Werewolf, respectively. In reality, the strip’s run stretched until a week before Christmas of last year.
The work, now collected into the nearly 300-page Crisis Zone graphic novel, out now from Fantagraphics, won a 2021 Eisner award and perfectly exemplifies what has made Hanselmann a star in the alternative comics community. Somewhere between a blog and a daily comics strip, the book is wildly controversial, exceedingly risqué and – most importantly of all – deeply funny. It’s also (as with all of the cartoonist’s work) very much not for children.
Hanselmann's menagerie grapples with everything from the Covid pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests to OnlyFans and Tiger King. Crisis Zone is a product of its real-world moment in a way few other graphic novels can claim.
Publishers Weekly: Did you have an overarching sense of where you were going broadly with the story?
I was just sort of on the seat of my pants, really. Just flying about. When I started Crisis Zone, I was just like, “okay, I'm gonna do a webcomic, finally. Everyone’s trapped in their houses, free entertainment. I'm a wartime poet, U.S.O. show. Let’s entertain the troops, do it for the kids.” And I thought it'd be about 30 pages long, then the pandemic would wrap up and, I could get back to my normal work. But I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed all the feedback. People all over the world are loving it. It felt like I was doing a live TV show — something like SNL every day. It morphed as it went on.
How far ahead — if at all — were you thinking as you created each strip?
It sort of fluctuated. But generally, it was day to day. I didn’t want to have the stress every morning of battling through the writing, so I wrote it all in one go. But generally, I was pressed for time and I had to bang a strip out. And then the next installment was the next day’s problem.
It can be nerve-wracking, but there’s also something freeing in putting it into the world and not having a chance to second guess it.
It’s quite dangerous in a way, because it’s ill-formed ideas sometimes. I wasn’t shying away from controversy or censoring myself, so there were certain episodes that people were pissed off about. But you just have to keep moving on to the next day and not worry about it. I’m not someone who really worries about what people think or if people are going to cancel me. I’m self-employed and I was putting it out for free.
You’ve been open about how difficult your childhood was—genderfluid crossdresser from an early age, high school dropout, dysfunctional family. You also started making comics at a young age. Was there a sense of exorcising some of those demons by making comics?
I started doing comics when I was eight, so it was really just silly shit and funny animals. In high school I was reading cartoonists Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes and trying to ape that and do these transgressive, stupid stories. The personal shit came in when I was 15, 16, 17. It really became this sort of therapy thing. I started getting more into autobiography and stuff, and pretty soon, I realized that art was, you know, good for therapy.
In the process of collecting the strips and adding material, was there ever anything you wanted to go back and change or soften some of the edge?
No. Especially with the commentary—12 pages of insane, maniacal, handwritten commentary in back. I probably could have dulled some edges, but it was just kind of a maniac outpouring. I think I was flirting with cancelation in a way. I was kind of daring people. “Come at me. I don’t care.” I wanted to write what I wanted to write and have the freedom to make mistakes. It was my book. I don’t regret anything. If people want to disagree with me, fine. We can have a calm conversation. I’m sure that will happen [laughs].
So, the book collection is spicier than what was first published on Instagram?
Yeah. There are a few extra jokes — usually it’s the bottom two right panels on each page. Sometimes I slid them around different. There are a few extra jokes that are a bit spicy—too hot for Instagram. Nothing crazy. Some of the gender stuff. There are four trans characters in Crisis Zone, which I think were handled reasonably respectfully—I certainly wasn’t trying to punch down. It was just an exploration of my own gender stuff. Throughout the pandemic, I was dressed as a woman every day. The lockdown was the perfect time to transition, because you’re mostly locked in your house and can really explore yourself and don’t have the judgement of the outside world.
Is there a character you feel affinity with?
I found out my wife was pregnant in August, so I was thinking a lot about becoming a dad. I was writing a lot about Owl becoming a father figure and saying goodbye to his old life and trying to be responsible and stepping up, which everyone called him a cop out about. That kind of irritated me. So, I like Owl the most, but he was nuts, as well, threatening people with a knife and walking around in a Heisenberg hat. I wasn’t doing that.
What does that say about you that you relate to him the most? The level-headed one in this house full of weirdos?
He’s the most responsible. I aspire to be a more responsible person. I had a tough start to life and hung out with a lot of weirdos. I’ve always wanted to have a comfortable, warm home and now I have to provide a comfortable home to my child. So, yeah, Owl is the most relatable to me. The rest of them are my past and people I don’t want to be.
Would you say that art has saved your life?
Yeah. Quite literally. I’ve turned it into a career. I don’t know where I would be without it. I was very depressed before my career took off. I’ve not felt the need to be in therapy for eight years now, since I started making money out of comics. I can make a living. I don’t have to toil anymore. I was very unhappy in day jobs, because I have this drive to do comics all day. I think that was a lot of my problem. I need to make art to not lose my mind. Now that I’m doing whatever I want, I’m happy.