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Still Working Hard: Catching Up With Cartoonist Tom Hart
posted December 19, 2004

imageTen years ago, my first in Seattle, I came across Tom Hart through his Xeric-winning graphic novella Hutch Owen's Working Hard, a comedy of attitudes set in a cartoon collision of outsider and corporate cultures. This quickly sent me scurrying for his mini-comics like Love Looks Left. Hart had a very expressive, very loose cartooning style that could almost be called crude by some, but what really hit me at first was the writing. Hart has a real playwright's knack for dialogue; his words gather and dam up and then pour out in lovely, memorable turns of phrase. It also seemed to be writing completely divorced from the various pulp or mainstream writing traditions on which the alternative giants drew -- Tom may say how impressed he is by how much emerging cartoonists now diverge from what he and his numerous peers (Megan Kelso, Thor Jensen, James Sturm, Jon Lewis, Dave Lasky, about three times as many others) accomplished back then, but if you read comics back then you know how startling these comics seemed at the time.

Even better, they're still good, and Tom's comics output since, which he says has now settled into a kind of on-line serialization followed by print collection pattern, remains as enjoyable to read and as evocative of a certain hopeful way of looking at life that has been transformed but not thwarted in the intervening years. As he says below, the New York City-based Hart is a teacher, and edits the alt-comics flavored on-line anthology, which in addition to his own comics output I think puts Tom in a pretty interesting position to comment about comics right now.

Tom Hart's latest Hutch Owen book, Unmarketable, is out any second now if not already from Top Shelf. Bother your comic book retailer.

TOM SPURGEON: I always get confused by what people are doing when they split their time between on-line and printed comics. Can you talk about your last couple and next couple of projects regardless of medium of origin?

imageTOM HART: I'm thinking of most work as winding up in both places, usually with the original work appearing on the web and then being collected in print.

Trunktown, for instance, was a six-month daily project online that is slated to appear in print from Alternative Comics as soon as I can get the files in order, prepare the package, etc.

Hutch Owen: Public Relations, which ran on has just been printed in the second Hutch Owen collection, Unmarketable. I just received copies of that yesterday. I made a few significant changes to art in that piece here and there.

I'm now doing Hutch Owen as a daily and sometimes weekly strip. I'm concentrating on-line because I believe more in the distribution methods there, but ultimately I just wanted to explore the form more. I intend to print them at some point, but haven't given much thought to it yet.

My ideal situation is for this Hutch to be the daily strip of record for the "opinionati." I just made that term up -- does it exist?

SPURGEON: If it didn't, it does now.

HART: We'll see if I can get it in front of the number of eyeballs I want. I will continue this so long as it viable. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to do a daily strip but I think it is the right format for Hutch right now. I am finally able to hit all the ideas I have at a steady clip, and not labor in a long-form story format through ideas that excited me months or a years ago.

And of course I edit, which excites me only as an online venture and I am not interested at all in where any of the work winds up in print, or when.

SPURGEON: With one foot here, one foot there, do you still feel connected to a comics community? Is that even important for you now? Was it ever?

HART: I'll admit to being a social animal, and one who has a strong need for a physical community. I think I feel most connected to the cartoonists I know here in New York City, and to a lesser degree, the vast collection of people doing similar work and who I run into across the country at cons, signings, etc. On-line, I admit to not feeling quite a part of the community as I'd like. This is emotional, not a statement on the status of or accessibility of online comics communities. I think I'm just more physical. I don't like to spend a lot of time online; I'd rather be drawing or talking face to face. A damn fine state of affairs for an online editor to be saying, huh?

SPURGEON: Speaking of face to face, are you still teaching? Has the give and take of teaching, and simply thinking in that way, had an effect on your making art?

I teach an awful lot, and I love it. In the beginning, I taught the few things I knew about making things, the creative process, cartooning as personal expression, writing, etc. Wanting to round out what I had to offer as much as possible, I've been studying all the aspects of the craft I brazenly avoided in the past: anatomy, light & dark, lettering, visual clarity, history. Teaching has forced me to be a better cartoonist than I was allowing myself to be. I think the dailies are indicative of the improvements I've made as a craftperson over the years, though I still get a little lazy.

SPURGEON: My take on the various on-line efforts is that there seems to be a plateau these things reach where they remain sort of promising, but not quite runaway numbers, not yet raking in the big bucks. Do you agree? Why haven't we had that first breakthrough work yet? Or have we?

HART: I'm sure you're well aware of the centric strips that do extremely well: PVP, Penny Arcade, Sluggy Freelance, etc. All these strips do very very well online. Add to that Homestar Runner -- which is flash -- Goats, Achewood and you begin to see a few strips that do very very well without catering to the same market, though I'll use Thor Jensen's term in saying the latter all have a sort of gleeful anarchy about them.

I would venture the opinion that PVP makes bucks that could almost be called "big." It certainly has high numbers. Are these breakthrough works? Or do we need to point to the success of something more substantive as Nowhere Girl -- offered for free but enormously viral and popular -- as a real breakthrough work because it reflects more serious ambitions?

Is American Elf a breakthrough work? I would offer it is. I think on most levels, it can be, though it hasn't exactly broken through to mainstream culture. Whenever that happens on the web, the content involved is usually pretty dismal.

I think breakthrough works exist. Though you are right that few of these are on the mainstream's radar. It will take a larger cultural shift, one that blogs represented in 2004, for instance, to create the breakthrough technology and breakthrough cultural appreciation we need for that.

SPURGEON: I hate to put you in Scott McCloud's role, but do you have any guesses as to what those breakthroughs technologies might look like?

HART: Ah who are we kidding -- comics in the mainstream? Unless advertisers or other business communities start utilizing comics more -- witness Ron Rege and Tylenol -- then the technology won't matter, and comics will always be a minor blip. I probably should have emphasized the cultural appreciation over the technological "breakthrough."

What are the non-superhero "breakout works" in print? Bone? Sandman? A Sandman could breakthrough online, specifically because but it would appeal to the audiences already actively seeking entertainment there.

As for technology, I guess I was talking about the usual micropayments, etcetera. Bitpass is wonderful, but hasn't hit a tipping point or I haven't seen it yet. But I think it's more about the content.

How's that for a complete refutation of my previous answer?

SPURGEON: Not bad... Now, is the Hutch Owen character still a comfortable fit? Is he as good a vehicle for you as he once was?

imageHART: Mostly, yes. There's no question that I am more satisfied with my work when I populate it with characters I already have some familiarity with. When I came to understand that, I focused on Hutch much more. As time has passed and I've had the smarts to populate his world even more, Hutch as a main character has dropped significantly to the background. I see him as the straight man these days. The quiet one. So the Hutch world is a comfortable fit, but as an engine for driving ideas and telling stories, these days I am much more interested in Dennis Worner, the CEO, and especially Blumer, the hopelessly inept crackpot. The two of them represent a dynamic I am more interested in at the moment: the seller and the susceptible/damaged.

SPURGEON: What is it exactly about that seller/susceptible dynamic that interests you?

HART: I'm ashamed to admit how susceptible to commercials, salesmanship, and marketing I am. If I'm having a bad day, the first thing I want to do is run to Barnes and Noble and buy a new book. And let's bring it back to question one because after all, marketers are mostly selling community. I die to run to some tech store and buy something that will put me in the technocratic class. I wish I was even a quarter as happy as these children they put in Aldo shoe ads. I want their pleasure! I want to join; I want to belong. Recognizing how much strength it takes to deter this part of our culture that feeds our alienation, weaknesses and insecurities motivates me to examine these characters. More importantly, I'm interested in the damage that not having any other easy way to sort out these issues causes.

SPURGEON: You seem to have picked up on the rhythms and approaches available to a strip cartoonist -- how is that very basic issue of format changed the way you approach certain comics?

HART: Being raised almost solely on strip comics, I feel in my element to finally learn these rhythms -- thanks to Shaenon Garrity for holding my hand-- and tools, though I worry that writing punchlines is becoming too reflexive; I don't ever want to be in a situation where the path to the punchline trumps other ideas. I worry about that a lot, actually and am trying to counter it in my notebooks.

The main thing that this rhythm has given me is the chance to hit all the ideas I want to as fast as possible. Ideas and images and reflections that emerge all have a place now, whereas in longer form works, they didn't. I wouldn't allow myself to be discursive, and focusing on one or two ideas meant a year would go by in this weird culture and I would have no place to investigate or explore it. In the strips, I can spend a week on looking at some notion or other, than move on the following week. It's extremely exciting.

SPURGEON: Is there anyone out there in comics, print or on-line, you feel we should be genuinely excited about?

HART: I think I'm going through a typical mid-30s craft person phase, in that I am focusing as much as possible on history. What I don't know about Harold Gray's work kills me. The amount of Thimble Theatre I still haven't read is ridiculous. And I still find Pogo a completely uncomfortable read. So I am spending a lot of time reading classic work.

I'm still a big fan of the small Japanese underground, most exemplified in the past by Garo and currently by AXE.

I reread Marc Bell's book when Highwater folded and forgot how brilliant it was. Ron Rege is amazing.

I think Vanessa Davis's diary comics are terrific, and I am trying to get her to contribute to serializer. Gabrielle Bell is wonderful. I like all the typical "new cartoonists" in print: Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilson, Sammy Harkham. All these guys and their respective "posses" are pretty great.

Dash Shaw is a great young artist who's so intelligent it's frightening.

I don't know if it's my prejudice towards print, but I find web-only cartoonists slightly less ambitious in their dreams. Daniel Merlin Goodbrey is an exception, and the guy who did the bendy toys obviously too. But I may be wrong; perhaps I'm not bringing the same frame of mind to the screen that I bring to the web when I browse around. And I'm also due for a big session of looking around at what young artists are out there, cause right now, the web is the only place to find them, and there are always new pockets of extreme talent popping up. I owe it to those talents to go searching around a bit more, but I have neglected that side of things for a while I'm afraid.

SPURGEON: It's been ten years since the class of 1994 emerged, you and your Seattle friends and same-age confreres. How do you look upon your peer group and what they've accomplished since 1994? Has anyone surprised?

HART: I think my first observation is the crew that came 8 years later -- isn't that the accepted cycle these days? The Kramer's Ergot/Holy Consumption, etcetera, cartoonists that arose in 2002 devastate me. What idiots we were in 1994. God bless these cartoonists who are really motivated by imagery. We thought everything was about telling big stories. They're right and we're wrong.

Unfortunately, self-deprecating aside, I don't have a lot to add. I'm pleased as punch with Berlin when it comes out, and Megan Kelso gets better and better. Who else is still working a lot? I'm reminded that Paul Pope is of that same era, though emerged younger. I think Paul is a tremendous cartoonist and God bless him for staying prolific. James Sturm also is the same age but emerged younger than we did, and of course he is doing very interesting things. How many others are really plugging away? I'm not sure. I admire Ed Brubaker for hitting his stride creatively. He clearly is doing just what he wants to be doing.

This interview was conducted by e-mail with some slight tweaking to make it read in more conversational fashion. All of the art is Mr. Hart's.