Home > CR Interviews
CR Sunday Interview: Nick Abadzis
posted April 14, 2012
This Spring sees a new edition of Nick Abadzis
' alt-classic Deadline
serial Hugo Tate
, this time out from super-solid boutique publisher Blank Slate Books
. It's a good home for an intriguing comic. A slice of life story perhaps best known for the formal play embodied in the drawing style employed for its character designs, Hugo Tate
proves a fascinating window to the rapid growth in alt-comics' ambition and execution now almost a quarter century in the rear view mirror. One hopes this latest edition is the seminal one, or at least one that will stay in print for a while.
I spoke to Abadzis several years ago for his kids book Laika
, and I've long admired how he seems to get the most out of each project on his plate. I think he's a very, very good talker about comics in addition to being a fine cartoonist, so I jumped at a chance to discuss with him this first major work. This was conducted via e-mail; I tweaked a tiny bit for flow and clarity. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I want to ask a
Laika question to start things out. That book came out in 2007, but it has more of a presence in my mind than a lot of books that have come out since. It strikes me that you got pretty thoroughly involved with that one, that you were present through a pretty laborious research project right on through doing speech for publicity support. Is that a fair characterization? Do you think you maximize these experiences while you're going through them? What will you take away from
Yes, that's a fair characterization. Laika
started out as an idea for something fairly short that just grew the more I researched it. My ideas grew, the depth that went into the research grew as one piece of information led to another and I realized that to do it justice I'd really have to throw myself into it. It became a labor of love -- I always try to give my best to any story or creative project I take on, but Laika
was a giant sponge that just soaked up everything I could give, and still does, to a certain extent.
I still get asked a lot about that book -- it's one of First Second
's bestsellers, so I guess it's what I'm most known for here in the US. The making of it was completely immersive and although it was exhausting it was without doubt one of the best creative experiences of my life. It taught me a hell of a lot, stretched me and allowed me to put into effect many storytelling ideas that I'd had for years but never really had the canvas upon which to try them. I like that it's out there still finding readers. It feels like I did the job properly. I'm sure I won't be the last person to tell Laika's story -- even since the book's publication, so much new information has come to light. But, as a graphic novel, as a piece of thoroughly researched storytelling with its own sense of drama, I'm proud of it.
SPURGEON: When we talked five years or so ago, you mentioned a
Hugo Tate collection as a possible next project. How did that develop, then, from you deciding you wanted to maybe do it to having the book come out? Did you shop it around... ?
I did shop it around -- originally Dark Horse
were going to do it. I met Diana Schutz
in 2008 and she was enthusiastic but for one reason or another it got put to one side. I was grateful to Diana for being very honest and straightforward about the fact that, after the worldwide economic crisis, lots of potential projects were put to one side that they might have taken a punt on previously -- she didn't think she'd be able to get it off the ground in the current climate. After that, I offered it to several other publishers, all of whom were more interested in me doing new material for them, which is fair enough. I think Darryl Cunningham
suggested I ask Kenny Penman
of Blank Slate Books if he'd like to do it, or at least Darryl put the idea in my mind. I asked Kenny sometime in 2010 and he just understood what it was immediately and said yes straight away.
To give you a wider context -- after finishing Laika
, I got involved in doing a newspaper strip The Times
(UK) called The Trial of the Sober Dog
, which I'd envisaged as a more lightweight project, something I could do before my next book for First Second (originally Skin Trouble
and which I'm now calling Foreigners
as a working title). Sober Dog
nearly killed me -- The Times
asked for a "graphic novel," something with lots of text to not "frighten" their readers, then gave me two weeks' prep time! I flogged my guts out on it. That finished in 2009, then I got involved as a consultant in helping set up a children's weekly comic for David Fickling
, which eventually became The DFC
. It was funded by Random House
, who pulled the plug when the worldwide economic crisis hit, but it's since found private funding and been reincarnated as The Phoenix
, which is a nice turn of events. After the first version went down, everybody in publishing was broke including me so I took whatever editorial work I could and did that while I worked on Foreigners
is very loosely based on my dad's life and my wife's dad's life. My dad was an Alexandrian Greek who came to London in the mid-'50s to learn English. My wife's dad was a Jamaican whose first language was English, albeit spoken with an accent, so the book's broadly about migration, immigration and the hurdles people encounter when trying to integrate into a new society. I did a lot of research, interviewing family members and messing around with various ways of telling the story. I put it down and picked it up several times that year, and realized it was going to be something else I had to take time to do properly. It wasn't just several anecdotal stories I could string together, it was something I had to really nail the narrative structure for to make it accessible and involving for a reader.
All the while, there was the idea of moving to the USA, an idea my wife had mooted while I'd been over promoting Laika
, which had done really well internationally. It won an Eisner here and a bunch of other awards and nominations elsewhere, so if ever we were going make this move, now was the time. The idea of living somewhere else for a while, especially a creative hub like New York City, was incredibly appealing, so we put in for green card -- this would've been late 2007. Right after that international economic crisis, we discovered that we'd been given an open status -- basically an invitation to come and live in the USA as "an alien of extraordinary ability," but we had to do it within this time frame that US Immigration gives you. So much of 2009 was spent frantically making arrangements to move to New York, finding an apartment, finding a school for our young daughter, that sort of thing.
was there in the background all along, and I thought it might be a good project to do to bridge the gap between Laika
and whatever else I took on, because I didn't want to let the momentum I'd generated on Laika
to fall away. Foreigners
was proving to be trickier to tackle than I'd first thought, and I felt I needed to do it right, but I needed to be settled to do it. We officially moved to the USA at the beginning of 2010. Looking back, I don't know how we did it -- most people do it under the umbrella of a business or educational institution. We did it off our own back with far fewer resources. We were completely crazy.
One of the first things I did when I got here was fly to San Francisco and do a lecture at Stanford University
-- I was invited by Adam Johnson
who runs a graphic novel course for the English Department there. Adam had also been kind enough to arrange for me to do a second gig at Cal Poly
for a colleague of his. We drove down the Californian coast and during the trip, stopped off at an amazing beach looking out over the Pacific Ocean. It reminded me of that scene near the end of Hugo Tate
and I thought, "It really is time to do that book."
SPURGEON: I thought we might see a third
Hugo Tate book from you before we saw another collection, but a text piece in the new edition indicates we may never see that book. Is that where you're leaning now? You make the point that life is full of abrupt endings and people checking out, so it's not like the narrative thus far needs more chapters, but it also feels like you left a lot of material on the table, as it were. Is there an aspect you'd most regret not being able to explore?
I'd never say never. It's not a conclusive, "That'll never happen!" It's more a question of where it is in the queue -- I'm getting more and more aware that there is limited time in life to tackle all the ideas one has and turn them into books. That, and actually get paid enough for it to manage to scrape a living.
However, over the years I've often thought about those characters and I actually drew a little bit of new material for the book and revisited a couple of them. It was always my intention to give each of Hugo's three sidekicks in Book 1 (A London Sequence
) some stories of their own. Thanks to contractual disagreements at the time with Deadline
, I managed one each for Stan and Dorinda but not Jason so I added a few pages between Books 1 and 2 to address that.
Looking back over all my old notes for Hugo III
I don't think I had the same clarity of purpose that I did for Book 2 (O, America
). I was ambitious but I'd fulfilled a certain amount of what I'd wanted to do and I think I was afraid that I might not be doing Hugo III
for the right reasons. Plus I was going through a divorce -- I'd got married very young and extricating myself from that took up a lot of my emotional energy.
I do remember being amazed that publishers couldn't see the potential in it, though (I'm talking British publishers in the early '90s here), in comics generally. Everyone was talking about the "coming of the graphic novel" but what they were really talking about was Batman
reprints or new spins on the superhero. No one could see the talent that was right in front of them, being published regularly in Deadline
and elsewhere or doing their own mini-comics across the country. In that sense I was disappointed that it didn't go anywhere.
I do find myself wondering sometimes what would've happened if I'd continued to just build a whole world around those characters, post-Deadline
. My career's been jury-rigged around lots of different aspects of publishing, both behind and in front of the editorial desk and I don't regret anything as such. But sometimes I do find myself wishing that I'd found a publisher, early on, who'd believed in me and allowed me the sort of creative freedom that I saw other cartoonists abroad getting. But it didn't happen that way, and I'm a practical sort of bloke, so I just worked bloody hard and hoped that eventually something would occur, which it did.
SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about how the feature developed in
Deadline? Some of your writing on this is pretty coy. My hunch is that you were looking for work generally and that when this work was pulled out by the editors, what that means is this is the work they were most interested in publishing. Is that fair to say? What were your intentions going in?
Coy? As in reluctant to talk about it? Not really.
SPURGEON: Coy as in less than fully forthcoming. It's more that I'm perplexed by the tone with which some of the details of its initial publication have been communicated; I can't quite get at the reality of it.
The story of me sticking my head over the partition between my studio and Steve [Dillon]
and Brett [Ewins
]' is true. I had no idea that they were next door until the friends I shared my studio space with told me. Both studio mates knew Steve and Brett, so there was a sort of ready-made introduction there. It was incredible luck, but it wasn't as if we didn't have some kind of nominal connection, although up until that point I'd never met them.
I was looking for work, definitely, and I'd worked at Marvel UK
as an editor -- at that time, the youngest they'd ever had -- but I wanted to explore what comics could do. I was a member of this organization called The London Cartoon Centre which was a charity overseen by Dave Lloyd
, who'd always been very encouraging. I contributed to anthologies created there by a group of budding cartoonists (Sean Azzopardi
and Steve Marchant
amongst them) and I'd had a few humor strips published by Marvel UK -- I did the back-up feature in Thundercats
. I'd also self-published my own minis but I didn't really know how to get my work out there. I'd gone freelance from Marvel UK and was surviving on inking, coloring and lettering work for them and Fleetway
who published 2000AD
, where much of Steve and Brett's prior work was published.
Steve and Brett were the comics generation before mine, but still very young themselves, still wanting to make a noise and do something different and that's why they created Deadline
. I suppose when they saw this grimy child purporting to be a cartoonist looking down at them from the gap in the ceiling asking for an interview they took pity on me. I'd been searching for a direction and Deadline
came along at exactly the right time -- it really was amazingly fortuitous.
They looked at everything I had in my portfolio, most of which was not very run of the mill. I might've had some giant robots in there, some humor stuff but I didn't draw superheroes -- I didn't know how to. There was probably also a lot of horror in there, stuff with tube trains mutating into giant skulls -- that was one I remember. There were a few Hugo Tate
s (at that time the character was unnamed) but only one actual, finished strip, which is the one Brett and Steve chose. I can actually remember Brett peering at it closely and saying, "Yeah, we'll have this. Can you do us two or three pages like that every month?"
quickly became pretty successful -- to everyone's surprise I think, mine most of all. I think Brett conceived of it as an angry, punky/skin'ead kid back-up strip, something primarily pretty jokey whose style would both offset and complement the more obvious leads like Tank Girl
, Johnny Nemo
and Wired World
. I got a lot of encouragement from Steve Dillon to really stretch it though, especially after I delivered the fourth strip, "Bread and Liver." Steve really loved that one and wanted more in that vein, and that seemed to be where I was heading anyway so that's what I did.
After about the first year or so, Steve left Deadline
to retreat to Dublin because he was having problems with the taxman, and Brett took sole editorship. I missed Steve and shortly afterwards, Brett became ill and left too. I didn't know it at the time but I suppose he was suffering from the first signs of what would become his schizophrenia. I can remember us all going to Angouleme
in January 1991, which was a pretty insane trip -- lots of laughs, and the whole world of BD before us, but also Brett getting a bit intense. When Brett left it did feel a bit like the end of an era, because the whole thing up until then had been powered by his and Steve's manic energy. I missed their enthusiasm and belief that we could change the face of British comics.
's funder) then asked Dave Elliott
to take over as caretaker editor. I remember Dave being supportive but I don't think he'd dispute that he was, generally speaking, a mainstream guy, more interested in superheroes and SF than breaking new ground specifically. We'd been friends before he took over anyway and he liked Hugo Tate
and indeed all the other characters I did for the mag so things continued as normal.
After Dave left to set up Atomeka
, the UK's arm of Tundra*, Tom Astor asked me to be editor. This was when we were coming to some sort of agreement over a contract dispute (more on that later). I didn't believe I could be editor and do a decent job on Hugo Tate
at the same time and so I suggested Si Spencer
, a writer with whom I'd worked on a zine from out of Sheffield published by an old Forbidden Planet
cohort of mine, Adrian Dungworth
. Si took the job, spending two or three weeks every month down in London from Sheffield where he was based and I duly launched into what became O, America
, the second series of Hugo Tate
At that point, I was very determined to develop the strip. It seemed to have a real following so I wanted to do something that I felt to be worthy of the attention. I decided to focus on Hugo's misadventures in America -- I thought I'd save tying up the stuff with his London friends for later. I had a loose plan for an overall story arc, but otherwise it pretty much developed organically, from month to month. I think I took an issue's break here and there to do shorter, one-off strips because writing, drawing and lettering ten pages of fairly intense stuff every issue was quite exhausting.
SPURGEON: How much did
Hugo exist on a continuum with other comics? I know it's been compared to Eddie Campbell's work and to Jaime Hernandez's work, but were you actively looking at other cartoonist's material? Did you feel of a part with any other cartoonists?
Both Eddie Campbell and the Hernandez Brothers were huge inspirations. I'd discovered Eddie Campbell when I was working at Forbidden Planet in the late '80s, before I'd started working for Marvel UK. These were the Alec
/King Canute Crowd
pamphlets, these sort of A4 booklets with glossy one-color covers. Bacchus
came out not long after those -- devoured all that stuff.
Love and Rockets
I'd found a year or two earlier, on a trip to the USA. I was already reading them by the time I was working in FP anyway, so must've discovered them in '84 or '85. They made a massive impression on me. I still think that Jaime Hernandez portrays emotion better than almost anyone else in comics, and it's a cumulative effect, not something that's contained within a single drawing. It's as much contained in the gutters between panels and pages, in the areas and instances he chooses not to show as well as those he does. Gilbert [Hernandez]
did that too in a lot of his earlier work, especially Human Diastrophism
, which I think is still one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. It is an incredibly skilled, supremely nuanced ability, an understanding of pacing and timing coupled with a deep honesty and sense of observation. So it wasn't just the drawing skills I aspired to, but the unseen work, the choices made in what moments of time to show.
There was RAW
, too. One time when I was working in Forbidden Planet, Gary Panter
visited and I was the only person who knew who he was! I was blown away -- we got him to sign the two copies of Invasion of the Elvis Zombies
that we had in stock, one of which I took. He also did a drawing for me on the back of a Forbidden Planet flyer -- I still have that sketch. Mustn't forget the occasional publication of Weirdo
also, which you weren't supposed to like in the '80s if you had vaguely post-punk feminist politics. But I couldn't help liking it -- a bit of Crumb
or Dori Seda
now and then was a shot in the arm, hilariously off-color in the face of received wisdom. I loved that. When Peter Bagge
took over editorship of Weirdo
it became, to my mind, one of the best anthology comics ever published. There was also stuff around like Moebius
, Richard Corben
, Angus McKie
doing work for Metal Hurlant
or Heavy Metal
was at its zenith with artists like Mike McMahon
, Brendan McCarthy
, Carlos Ezquerra
and Ian Gibson
. And of course, Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins, who I didn't know yet -- all with scripts written by the likes of Pat Mills
, Pete Milligan
, Alan Moore
and [John] Wagner
and [Alan] Grant
Those were my inspirations. But these guys seemed a world away from where I was at that point -- they were the generation above me and many of them were glamorous foreigners in countries that had much more developed comic industries than the UK. It was a dream
to ever be as good as any of them were. I didn't think I'd ever be able to touch that world or that sort of ability. When I began working on Deadline
, there was this sort of incredible energy welling up, a desire to be as good as the dream. That I suppose, is what I was aiming at and is part of the reason why the look of Hugo Tate
changed as much as it did.
I think I still have a bit of that -- disbelief that I might actually be a decent cartoonist. It provokes me, even now. I think that's the British part of me, not the Greek. There's always a sneaking suspicion that you might actually be a bit shit. I'm experienced enough now to know that in fact, this small bit of dead fly in the ointment is sometimes what makes good drawing, what actually makes it fluid and alive. There needs to be a rough edge, a connection to something larger than itself to give it some soul.
, I met Glenn Dakin
, who is good friends with Eddie Campbell so it's weird maybe that I never met him then -- when did he leave for Australia? I've since met him, spent a couple of hilarious evenings with him in San Diego in 2008 and he did not disappoint. He should be recognized as a national treasure in the UK.
I'm not sure I answered your question precisely -- I suppose I didn't feel "part" of comics -- although there were people I knew, people I was meeting like Garth Ennis
, Dave Hine
, Warren Pleece
, Paul Peart-Smith
who would become peers, friends and fellow travelers from the UK scene.
SPURGEON: I read in an interview somewhere that you had art you had traded with a couple of the other
Deadline guys. Was there a culture surrounding that publication? Do you have fond memories of what they were trying to accomplish there? What happened to that kind of British comics publishing in the early-/mid-1990s? I get the sense the whole thing kind of crumbled a bit, but I'm not sure why and I'm not sure what it was like from a cartoonist's perspective.
I've got some Tank Girl
art from Jamie Hewlett
, a piece from Timulo
by Matt Brooker alias D'Israeli
, and several pieces by Ed Perryman
, who has since changed his name back to Bagwell. I'm not sure if anyone knew what they were trying to accomplish exactly, at least not initially. At the outset it was pretty shambolic -- just a common desire to make good comics, comics different to the ones already out there.
I remember weekends spent down in Worthing at Jamie Hewlett's house with Philip Bond
, Alan Martin
and Glyn Dillon
in attendance. They seemed to live in this suspended, endless summertime down there, while I was a London kid, somewhere between middle and working class. My mother is a real old Londoner and my Dad was a foreigner and I had a funny surname so I was never someone who "belonged" exactly. Worthing seemed to be in an alternative world to London, a very fertile one. I liked all those guys and was enormously impressed by their creative energy. In the greater sphere of early Deadline
, there was a sense of being the kids with Steve and Brett as your "comics dads." (I told Steve that recently and he laughed and protested that he's only a few years older than me, which is true. But back then a few years was a lot of experience and Steve had started early -- his output has always been prodigious, so he seemed to be a bit of a guru.)
In the first couple of years it was pretty chaotic -- you used to deliver your artwork and if you timed it for the right time of day, you'd get taken for a pint or three down the pub. Brett introduced me to Brendan McCarthy whose work I greatly admired and who it turned out lived up the road from me. He was very kind to me -- he used to give me weird little jobs on the side, mostly stuff he was doing for 2000AD
but also helping him do strange advertising jobs, like lettering strips about talking hamburgers for fast-food chains. I got my first-ever professional inking job from Brendan, who was very patient with me messing up the beautiful pencils he'd done for a text story for a 2000AD
annual. If you paid attention, those early days of Deadline
were a supremely fertile, anarchic university of comics.
Deadline hosted a few parties and you used to see Shaky Kane
, Yoann Chivard
(now tremendously successful in his native France), John McCrea
, Warren and Gary Pleece, Garth Ennis and anyone who was anyone who happened to be around. But Deadline
itself was a bit like a pop group -- a lot of young, highly creative egos getting along at first and then slowly starting to develop in their own directions, chafing at anything they saw as a constraint. There was always a bit of friction between Jamie and Matt Brooker, which grated a bit because I liked Matt and admired his work. Jamie was the undisputed star early on because of Tank Girl
but there was a hell of a lot of other good work happening. I loved Phil Bond's stuff -- I'm not sure he's ever been recognized for how good and ahead-of-its-time Wired World
was. It was tremendously whimsical and strange and anchored by the friendship between the two main characters, Pippa and Liz. He was as good at capturing the small nuances of interpersonal relationships as he was at portraying the fantastical situations they found themselves in. Glenn Dakin's Herriman-esque Temptation
remains one of my favorite strips ever. Shaky Kane used to channel the spirit of some parallel universe Kirby.
There were a lot of contributors who came along after the first wave who were also supremely talented: Rachael Ball
, Ed 'Ilya' Hillyer
, Glyn Dillon, Evan Dorkin
, Jonathan Edwards
, Chris Webster
, Jon Beeston
to name just a few. They even reprinted a lot of Jaime Hernandez' work from Love and Rockets
. I adored Rachael Ball's work. I think she's been unjustly forgotten. And why isn't Ed Hillyer an international star? Ed never made things easy for himself but what a talent. All these hugely inventive creators were left to languish when the bottom fell out of the British comics industry in the mid-'90s. It all seemed to dry up fairly suddenly and be replaced by licensed properties. That was partially due to the fluctuations of the American market, but partly due to publishers not really wanting to touch comics. Remember the CD-ROM revolution? We were all told the future of publishing was the CD-ROM. They pumped money into that.
I know that Deadline
certainly influenced the rest of comics publishing in the UK -- you wouldn't have had titles like Crisis
otherwise. But looking back I'm not sure it was ever sustainable for anyone who was doing the kind of thing that would be called "alternative" or "indie" these days. It only really kept going because Tom Astor put money into it. Mainstream British publishing itself simply wasn't ready to recognize what we now call the graphic novel as a form -- that would take another 15 to 20 years. Even now, you have to carve out your own niche.
SPURGEON: How self-aware was the
Hugo Tate work as you were doing it? I don't mean strictly in the "how much of that is you" sense, but more generally were you attempting to figure things out from your life on paper, trying to reflect experiences you had, or were you coming at more analytically, as a genre to be explored?
I wanted to make both the characters and the background detail seem authentic but I was also conscious that I was working in a medium that offered a lot of potential to tell stories in a way that hadn't necessarily been done before. I was trying to truthfully reflect the world as I knew it, get it down on paper, but there was the artifice of the main character with his Tintin
features or his "Charlie Brown head" as Steve Whitaker
once put it.
It's really difficult to backtrack your way through a creative project after the fact, even moreso with Hugo Tate
, which is nearly 20 years distant now. I think I was aware that I was reaching for something, I was trying my best to be reasonably original. The initial strips weren't penciled, they were just inked straight onto the page after I wrote them -- I'm not sure I even did thumbnails in those days; I just wrote out the dialog then put it straight down on the page in an effort to keep it fresh. After the third strip, I began writing them more carefully, structuring them. I started to pencil them, albeit loosely. I was learning, experimenting right there on the page.
I suppose by this point, there was an analytical elements to my thinking, yes, because any wilder ideas I got went into different, more fantastical strips, like Night of the Living Fish
or the Pleebus
strips. I kept Hugo
set in a recognizable world, even though he was still a stick-man. That seemed to be its strength, so I stuck with it.
SPURGEON: I'm guessing this is a question you probably answered a lot back then, but I bet a lot of people are coming at this work new. The stylistic choices. First, the fact that it was essentially stick-figure humor comics at first -- how much of that was a conscious choice on your part to do that kind of comics, and how much was that you were limited in terms of what you could portray on the page?
The original drawing style came about because I had very little confidence in my own abilities as an artist, even though I loved drawing. I didn't think I was any good, but I wanted to do comics. I invented Hugo
to free me from having to do intensely detailed art, which I thought was the norm for British comics. I look back at some of the other stuff I did at the time, and I don't know why I thought that, because I was nowhere near as bad as I thought I was, but there you are. You're seldom the best judge of your own work, especially at that age.
What I found by adopting that approach was that my drawing was fine and it didn't matter if it didn't look super-slick. It gave rise to this sort of free-form, dynamic expressionism which allowed me to gain confidence by concentrating on the storytelling. It allowed me to concentrate on what I was really interested in, the way of capturing a sense of time, the balance of the overall look of a page. And as the storytelling came together, the art became more detailed, although I don't think I ever lost the desire for an expressive line. In turn the tone of the strip changed -- it still had funny moments but I suppose the humor was darker and arose from situations the characters found themselves in rather than being specifically generated by the characters themselves.
SPURGEON: Second, the decision to keep Hugo featureless through most of the book may be the work's defining feature. It seems like you're going for a central metaphor of the unformed human being, but is there anything else in that conscious decision to keep him so roughly drawn?
I happened upon the metaphor. It wasn't deliberate at the outset, it was luck -- and I'm sure, a good degree of subconscious influence. I'd read a hell of a lot of Tintin
as a child, so that was all in my cartooning DNA. I was aware that the look of Hugo, his blankness, was something that was appealing. I was also aware of how Tintin
worked, that his tabula rasa
qualities play a big part in drawing the reader in, so there was a conscious element of messing around with those ideas.
Once I realized I could make something of it, once I'd taken the decision that everything around Hugo would slowly become more figurative, I ran with it and tried to tie things together as well as I could. You get a passing acknowledgement of how he "sees" his flatmate Rufus towards the end of A London Sequence
, which I hope sells why Rufus is drawn similarly to Hugo for almost all of his appearances; why Edie and Hugo's dad appear that way in the early strips. Later, as Edie assumes a more parental role, her appearance changes, but this seemed natural because by that point in the story Hugo was evolving, too.
I do remember conversations with Steve Dillon about this, especially when I began developing the supporting cast of characters. He noticed I was keeping Hugo "blank-faced" and encouraged it; he felt it was important. It seemed a way of channeling emotion, of conveying it in sincere terms. It was also Steve who helped me solve the problem of how Rufus appeared, of how to explain it when the rest of the drawing style around that character was becoming more sophisticated. Steve was a great mentor and we used to shoot these ideas around; I can recall being privy to a lot of his absolutely innate understanding of the mechanics of comic book storytelling.
Both Steve and Brett also really liked Mr. Pleebus
, which is the blank-faced comic character taken to an extreme -- he didn't even have language, only the word "Pleebus" or variations thereof. He first appeared as a doodle in one of Hugo's dreams and then spun off into his own strips, but for all that character's silliness, it was still me playing with the idea of the neutral personality, the invitation to the reader to play the part of the character.
SPURGEON: Third, you play around quite a bit with the more general look -- how much is stylized and how much is more rendered in a representational sense, for example. When are you most satisfied with the way Hugo looked? What worked best for the feature from your standpoint just in terms of basic visual approach?
I don't know if I was ever satisfied with it per se
. I rarely am satisfied with anything I do -- I get a bit restless and move on quickly after I finish a book. The evolution of the character's look, of the whole strip, is partially down to that restlessness. Back then, I can remember looking at a page I'd recently finished and just seeing mistakes, or things I'd do differently. I'm a lot more forgiving of myself these days, and have a lot more fun with it.
At the time, I definitely was on a trip to make Hugo's world convincing. I became a much more confident artist and storyteller during the run of the strip. If you'd have asked me that question back then, I'd have replied unequivocally that it would be the later pages of O, America
. I do still like those pages, although I wonder what the hell I was thinking with all the zip-a-tone. Zip-a-tone was sort of a Deadline
tradition -- Jamie, Philip and Matt used it to great effect and I remember someone giving me a huge wad of the stuff; all sorts of dot resolutions and patterns. I went overboard on using it for that second book, and it makes the art very much of its time.
Looking at it now, I feel the earlier work has a greater charm -- I can forgive my younger self for trying so hard, for attempting to overcome the limitations he thought he had. I like the looser lines.
SPURGEON: One thing that pops up in the story that I noticed this time around is how effectively you portray family relationships. There's a generosity there, an ease of being around siblings that you nail pretty hard. You don't always sees brothers and sister and mothers and fathers in these things, and in this one, the sisters are key people and the father is a huge driving force. Why show Hugo's family?
Seemed to be the natural thing to do. My own family is quite close-knit, on both English and Greek sides, so perhaps that's just how I perceive family. Bar one dream sequence, Hugo's mother is noticeably absent but she was due to turn up in Book 3. My family are my friends, so it seems natural enough to put something similar into the stories I tell. I mean, they drive me crazy sometimes, but aren't all families like that? You have a shorthand with them whereby you don't need to explain things, you can just sound off, which is the same as it is with friends who have known you for a very long time. These are important bonds -- your kinship with siblings are the longest relationships you'll have in your life, so they know parts of you no-one else does. I suppose I was just trying to convey that. Also, there are -- or were -- a lot of women in my family -- a lot of very strong Greek women, a lot of very strong English women. I suppose the sisters represent that presence in my own mind to a degree. My own father had to be a strong, very dynamic individual to stand out amongst all the womanhood.
SPURGEON: Another thing that struck me on this reading is the stuff right around Hugo's decision to go to America, where you switch off of Hugo and onto other characters. I'm not sure the soap opera elements are your most effective work, but I'm intrigued that you would kind of broaden things out a bit in terms of focus. Was that a conscious decision, to kind of look at Hugo through the eyes of some of the other characters or maybe simply expand the cast?
At the time, the plan was to broaden things generally so I could switch back and forth between the characters in the UK and Hugo in the USA. I ran into contract disagreements with Tom Astor (Deadline
's funder). He'd shackled all of the early Deadline
cartoonists to these draconian agreements that, as it was explained to me at the time, effectively meant he owned anything published by Deadline
and could exploit the characters as he saw fit. I spent a lot of time and most of the money I'd earned -- which was very little -- trying to extricate us all from those. At first, he refused to do anything about them, so I downed tools. That got a response as, happily for me, Tom wanted the character in the magazine so we began talking. It took a bit of time and a lot of negotiation to come to terms, so there was a break in publication. By that point, I'd abandoned the idea to showcase the characters left in the UK; as I mentioned earlier I thought I'd come back to them later. There never was a later.
SPURGEON: Two things that Garth Ennis wrote in his introduction intrigued me. The first is that he says the book was interesting to him despite it being about day-to-day existence; he cites your attention to story. Why do you think this work appeals to some folks that have no time for autobiographical or slice of life comics. Do you see your own work in that tradition, or also breaking from it?
It's not autobio, in the sense that it's not drawn directly from intimate events in my own life -- there's no diary aspect to it. But it is autobio in the sense that I believe all stories are about themes that deeply interest their authors. That's a cliché, sure, but it's about what level you turn the dial to, and if something comes across as truthful somehow, then you've succeeded in engaging your reader. I don't know how to classify Hugo Tate
, though. It's fiction. Fiction that I wove a lot of my personal world into, so in that sense, I lived it. I don't think I'm really interested in classifying it -- rites-of-passage tale? Stick-man road trip? Roger Sabin
called it "a road movie from Hell," which is a description I always liked.
I'm never sure where to place myself and am always a bit loath to do so. It feels presumptuous. Comes back to that sense of restlessness, of never belonging anywhere probably, something I don't mind at all now. I'm in a city of people made up mostly of immigrants now and that feels kind of familiar. I'm the one with a funny accent these days.
As for cartoonists I feel solidarity with, there are plenty whose work I like. There's a contingent of New York and UK comics people who I see a lot of on a social basis and I'm friendly with some west coast people I've seen at various shows over the years. I was and am an admirer of the late Dylan Williams
and his philosophy of comics, the way he sought out the oblique, the obscure, the personal.
There's another, higher tier of comics creators that I don't know personally or have met only briefly, cartoonists whose new work I'll just automatically look at because they're almost always up to something interesting: [Daniel] Clowes
, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Crumb, [Art] Spiegelman
, [Edmond] Baudoin
, [Jose] Munoz
, Nicolas de Crecy
, Joann Sfar
, Christophe Blain
, Posy Simmonds
, Chester Brown
, Manu Larcenet
, [Jean-Philippe] Stassen
, [Lewis] Trondheim
, Gary Panter, people like that.
I'm mostly amazed by anyone who picks up a pencil and draws for a living and keeps going, because for most of them, it isn't easy. There are a lot of bad comics though and these days I struggle on both sides of the divide between art and mainstream to find things that I find really deeply engaging. I hate to sound simplistic, but what it really comes down to is that there are good and bad comics, whatever philosophy their authors happen to choose to justify the existence of their work with. Generally, I find the indie/art end of things throws up more interesting work for my tastes, but I'm not going to look askance at something from the Euro or American mainstream just because it's mainstream. If you like it, you like it. There shouldn't be any guilty pleasures.
Is it different? Is it uniquely the voice of its author(s)? Does it engage me? I'll take a look. If I struggle with it yet there's something there that makes me want to struggle, I'll continue to bother. If it has pretty pictures but isn't interesting beyond that, if there isn't a further tier of something interesting below the surface, something inquisitive and curious-minded, I'll abandon it. Equally, if it gives the remotest whiff of tedium or assails me with some abrasive, supposedly intellectual content without the remotest hint of humor, it gets closed, never to be opened again. I'm a curmudgeon when it comes to reading comics these days. There's too much crappy work out there to bother wasting time with, and a lot of good stuff that I do want to read, so it becomes a sort of exercise of the instincts, sniffing out the superior work or the stuff with a higher likelihood to engage.
There is a lot of incredible talent working today and I do believe we are in a golden age of comics in some ways. It's such a pleasure to come across the work of a cartoonist I haven't encountered before and see with new eyes, their eyes. I get excited about that. Equally, seeing someone like Kevin Huizenga
evolve, or Nick Bertozzi
or Gabrielle Bell
-- exciting times. There's also the archaeology of comics, seeing stuff come to light that is little-known. At the moment I'm really looking forward to a collection called The Great Unwashed by Warren and Gary Pleece
, of all the strips they self-published in the late '80s and early '90s. Work from that "lost generation" of British '90s cartoonists is beginning to emerge in reprint form, and that's a trend that I hope continues.
SPURGEON: Ennis also praises the book's depiction of coming to America. It strikes me that you have this youthful protagonist and set him against two of the more ego-destroying place in the U.S. -- New York City and the desert. Was that intentional, to kind of put this character through his paces, or was it maybe more just looking for an interesting backdrop for what you wanted to have going on?
Yes, it was intentional. Back then I wanted to travel across America myself -- I wanted to make the trip Hugo makes in the book, but I couldn't afford to do it, or thought I couldn't, so I sent the character. I should've just got on a Greyhound bus and done it. I'd traveled to a few American cities back then and knew New York reasonably well -- I'd been coming here since the age of fifteen. My oldest friend is from here so I spent many summers here as a teen. I'd also been to New Orleans, Las Vegas, San Francisco, LA, San Diego and it was in visiting those places that I first conceived of a great American road trip in comic form.
I think the grand sweep of the west of the USA is much a part of European film and comics iconography as it is American. Westerns were a huge part of the Franco-Belgian comics output in the '60s and '70s. I'd read Lt. Blueberry
by Charlier and Jean (Moebius) Giraud and I was a big fan of road movies and road literature -- just the idea of getting lost, of being so anonymous in such a place was interesting to me. A lot of those French comics make something of the landscape -- Moebius in particular understood that landscape could be a presence in a book as much if not moreso than the characters themselves, which was the thinking behind the chapter in Hugo Tate
called "Sacred Ground."
New York was the obvious place to start if you were looking westwards from Europe, besides which I knew the city a bit. It's an amazing environment to draw, as are the mountains and the desert -- to a certain extent the story built itself. He's an unreliable narrator from the beginning and then that narration literally goes out of the window. You've got the unformed kid and the psychotic belly-acher driving across all of this -- who knew what would happen? Who would you meet -- who would you be? Who would you find there, even if you were looking to lose yourself? A faceless character could probably have found a multitude of new masks.
SPURGEON: Would you describe the ocean scene as an epiphany? I remember when I first read it I thought of it as just a moment of relief, but I wondered if you intended it as a major lifetime moment for Hugo, particularly in that you talked about maybe returning to that basic scene were you to do another book.
It's designed to be as open as possible. I don't remember devising it to be a moment of epiphany per se
, although I did describe it s that in the afterword. But a moment of relief, yes definitely. A moment of realization, possibly -- he realizes he's escaped, he's free. In that sense, I suppose he could realize he's liberated from a lot of things, untethered, free to go where he wants, be whoever he wants to be without anyone else's expectations placed upon him. I suppose in that sense, yeah, it could be an epiphany. But I do remember thinking that I should leave it as open to interpretation as possible, so the reader could take it however they liked.
The idea of going back to that scene for Hugo III
was because he would find he wasn't free; he'd been deeply affected and traumatized by his journey and it would take a while for him to get over it. He'd still be traveling but find himself metaphorically back on the beach, sometimes beyond, sometimes within Spoonhead's grasp. That would have been the major hurdle of the third book, one that he eventually leaves the USA to try to leave behind, first by going as far north as he could get, then traveling back to the UK. At that point, I was going to tie up the stuff with some of the characters back in London -- at which point Hugo would find that he was dreaming about America again, about being free. And this time, off he'd go, not to return to a beach, but to settle somewhere and pursue his creative dreams.
But I think I'd really just have been reiterating themes that I'd already dealt with fairly comprehensively in O, America
. It'd just be further variations on those first two stories, probably full of worthwhile character stuff and probably some unknowable happy accidents of storytelling that might've taken it off in a whole new direction. So maybe my worry of repeating myself is completely unfounded.
SPURGEON: One other element I think this book captures well is the spirit of the time, particularly the really queasy partying and indulgence that took place as we bounced out of the shadow of what seemed like imminent nuclear annihilation. Are there ways you think the book works as a document of its times? Is there anything in there that surprised you when you read it, maybe even some self-revelatory?
As regards the overall atmosphere of the times, I just reflected what I saw around me. As regards the central character, I tried to reflect how he might honestly respond to things; same for all the supporting players. With a large cast of characters, you feel like it's almost an acting job -- you're making your characters perform and sometimes you need a nuanced, subtle performance, sometimes something larger. Something about the performance of this book is very "early nineties" -- the hopes of the characters in there which were drawn very much from my social circle of the time.
Hugo Tate looks to my eyes almost like it was done by another person, but at the same time it's difficult to achieve a distance from it. It's a weird feeling. I can't remember doing a lot of it, although I certainly recall the effort that went into it. It looks and feels like it was done by some other version of me, someone very different from who I am now. But if I met this kid, I think I'd be encouraging him to draw more comics.
SPURGEON: How do you feel about the book's artistic legacy? Do you think it has one? Do you hope it has one? How would you have people receive this latest volume?
Well, since it was first serialized in Deadline
, and half of it came out in 1993 as O, America
, I've had more requests for a complete collection of Hugo Tate
than anything else I've ever done. So, now it's happening, that's an achievement. I'm really glad it's available again so that people who've read Laika
and liked that book can try this. It's very different from Laika
, but like that story, this book will also take them somewhere they might not otherwise go. I hope they get something out of it. Ultimately, it's all me.
* Woodrow Phoenix wrote in to correct something. "Atomeka Press was a joint venture between Elliott and Garry Leach. It wasn't anything to do with Tundra UK. It Dave Elliott did become Managing Editor of Tundra UK but that was a separate thing."
* Hugo Tate, Nick Abadzis, Blank Slate Books, hardcover, 192 pages, 9781906653262, 2012, £14.99
* black and white cover image for Hugo Tate
drawing done well after the book, I think
* a bit of The Trial Of The Sober Dog
* various pieces of art from Hugo Tate
, hopefully individually explained in context
* one final piece mini-sequence from Hugo Tate
that I just liked (below)