Monday, May 18, 2009

Firing Off with Tim Hamilton

“Look, one of my favorite contemporary comic artists is Paul Pope, but I don’t want to look at his artwork,” the soft-spoken Tim Hamilton says. “I don’t want to read too many of his books. I hate him for that you know? I don’t hate him personally, but I hate that I can’t look at Paul Pope’s work.”
Tim laughs and backs up enough to explain.

“I’m a sponge for things I really like and I know I will end up emulating him on a subconscious level if I let myself collect his art. I see so many people out there now trying to emulate him as it is. I don’t want to end up like that. If you can do the amount of work that must be involved with making yourself draw just like Paul Pope, then I assume you could do the work involved with creating your own look or style. But maybe that’s just it. It does take a lot of work to create a look for yourself. It can be very hard work. So yeah, I have to ignore the comic book artists I love. I look at Edward Hopper, Japanese art, Art Chantry and so many others for my influences.”
Like the artist himself, his work is well studied and has a simplistic veneer that belies its complexity, a sum of several unlikely influences all conjoined to produce a distinctive unit. Just this August, his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s iconic novel Fahrenheit 451, a cautionary tale about book burning in a future America, hits bookshelves everywhere, while his online comic strip The Adventures of the Floating Elephant currently floats around on

“I never set out to be an ‘Adapter,’” Hamilton admits, also referring to his 2005 adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island. “Every artist wants to work on his or her own ideas. That’s why I put work up on Act-I-Vate among other places. Adapting a book is a job, but of course, with Fahrenheit, it was an unbelievably fantastic job. Once I was over the intimidation of adapting such a famous work of science fiction, I settled into the strange mindset I put myself in when adapting something as large as a novel.

“It’s kind of like a meditative puzzle for me. You see, when you do artwork, you can work on it all week and make it something fantastic, or work on it for an hour and it might not be quite so nice. Any other job, like anything involving say, mathematics, appears very relaxing to me: add up numbers and you have a right or wrong answer. It’s the same way with working out an adaptation; I need to fit the novel into a certain amount of pages, and take out what I can while making sure the story remains intact.
“It’s frustrating and involved creative choices, but at the same time, I’m reading this great book. I’m seeing things in it I wouldn’t if I were just reading it once. So that part of the job is completely different from the art and design in a way. When I get to the artwork stage, it is up to me to decide what layout, story telling or design works best. One could struggle over art thumbnails all week and feel you figured it all out until someone else looks at it and points out a better solution. So you realize, there is often more than just one right solution in art. Yes, most of the time there is the right answer, but likewise there are also many different versions of the wrong answer. It can make you nuts.”
Ray Bradbury’s work is no stranger to being adapted: his short stories were adapted regularly by E.C. Comics in the 1950s, frequently on radio shows like 1950’s X Minus One, and even on a television program in the 1980s. What makes Hamilton’s adaptation so distinct is that its dedication to design and visual approach is just as strong as loyalty to the source material. Hamilton says that the legendary Bradbury was there every step of the way.
“I understand his health isn’t the best,” Tim says of the author. “He’s in a wheelchair, but his mind is still there, and he has other people help him with projects like this. But he approved me as the artist, and my thumbnails and the script and art... There wasn’t much that went on that he objected to. His one request was that he didn’t want the graphic novel to look like the future of 2009. He wanted it to be the future of the 1950s. I myself feel like it’s a fable you could tell in any era and didn’t want it to look like some far-flung future either. It has the robot hound, which is a very futuristic element, but other wise it seems a very nondescript time period.

“Wanting that futuristic ‘50s look is why my art for this book is influenced greatly by Art Deco and Russian Revolutionary poster art. I had mood boards made up from illustration from the ‘50s and Art Deco from the ‘30s, which is what I looked at when I illustrated Fahrenheit. Is that retro future? I’m not sure.”
Bradbury’s “retro future” world, as translated through Hamilton’s artistic eye, is one of heavy and atmospheric black shapes, and a geometric splashes of color. Since it was a future viewed from the perspective of someone from the 1950s, Hamilton went back to the art of and preceding that era for his mood boards.
“Art Deco posters are often very bold, limited colors and large shapes,” Tim notes. “I wanted to do the entire book that way, with color and shapes, but I realized it would be impossibly time consuming to cut out these shapes in Photoshop. As it is, I erased much of the black line work where I could in that book. People, who saw the black line art for 451, before I scanned it and colored it, didn’t really understand what the book was going to look like once it was colored. My intern for one, who was working on the black and white art for months, saw the final art and said, ‘Oh! That’s what it looks like! I was wondering all this time.’”
Fahrenheit 451 will make its first print appearance in the pages of Playboy magazine, starting with the June 15th issue. Hugh Hefner’s pet mag first serialized the novel decades back and is continuing tradition with the graphic novel.
It’s fitting that Hamilton will erupt with an adaptation of Bradbury’s work: both are stylistic chameleons, able to work in a variety of genres with a strong inclination towards character.

“In a way, I’m a bigger fan of art history than I am of comics,” Tim admits. “Now, I don’t want to get hate mail from comic fans, because I do love comics! Maybe I should say, it’s a matter of what mood I’m in. I love old comics and the history involved with many of them. Maybe I’m a fan of art history in any form? Be it comics, paintings or music. I find I’m very interested in how something got to be the way it is and where it all started. I love finding lost or forgotten stuff.

“When I was younger (and I believe Bob Fingerman had this same experience. he stole my story!) around six or seven, I found these Peanuts and B.C. comic strip paperback collections sitting around my house. Left behind by my brothers I assume, they were old and yellowed…I felt I was the only one who knew of these old yellowed tales. I would study each page and became mesmerized by them. I loved them. Same with the Little Rascals, until I met other kids who knew of them, I thought they were my own private show. That show seemed so surreal to me at a time when I didn’t know what ‘surreal’ was. I was fascinated with the way the Rascals built rag tag cars and boats and all this stuff. It was like a kid’s fever dream at times. I don’t remember when I first started drawing, but all this stuff influenced me.
“I remember drawing bug characters, who drove old rag tag cars from the 1920’s, which were modeled after Peanuts and other Sunday comics. Little Rascals and Peanuts!… Then I discovered the 1960’s Spider-Man cartoon on TV, which I thought was fantastic and was only on a little while. That was my first introduction to super heroes. I didn’t really understand what a super hero was so I ended up having nightmares about the ‘Lizard’.
“I didn’t really see or read comic books of the superheroes persuasion until I was 11 or 12. The Sunday comics were my religion until I discovered superheroes as a teenager. I think that’s why the two things I enjoy doing are humorous work and more representational art. I always enjoy storytelling, whether it’s humorous or dramatic. I think it’s why (and I might step on toes by saying this) I became unhappy working on super hero comics in the early 90’s.”
Fresh out of a two-year illustration program in the late 1980s, Tim Hamilton landed his first gig drawing The Trouble with Girls, a satirical comic by writers Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs. As Jones landed at DC Comics in the early ‘90s, it gave Tim a chance to break in with drawing an occasional fill-in issue of a comic book, and led to him drawing superhero comics for a few other companies.
The comic book industry, in the early ‘90s, was fresh off the speculators’ craze of the ‘80s, and a time of successful comic book shops and a few upstart superhero companies. The ‘80s also had seen a black and white boom of independent companies producing non-superhero books like American Flagg!, Concrete, and Nexus – all work that Hamilton was enjoying, but unable to do something like as he geared up to draw a new issue of the superhero Hardcase for now-defunct publisher Malibu.
The California-based company had been producing their own line of superheroes as Malibu, and then became the publisher for independent company Image Comics, formed by ‘90s superstars and golden boys Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, and others. By the time Image had broken off as their own official publisher, Malibu had gained enough to start their own new imprint, the Ultraverse, and could afford top talent like Steve Gerber and George Perez.
Not more than a few years after their introduction, Malibu was bought out by Marvel Comics, mostly for their then state-of-the-art Photoshop-based coloring studio. Malibu’s Ultraverse limped along for a few years, crossing over with Marvel characters, and then died a too-slow death for a company that once had great potential.
Hamilton’s next stop was Defiant, comics writer and editor Jim Shooter’s unsuccessful venture into comics after his parting of ways with Valiant Comics. Drawing pages over layouts by artist David Lapham, Hamilton’s project never saw the light of day as Defiant folded. Tim went to Broadway Comics, Shooter’s next and final attempt that was a company owned by Broadway Entertainment and Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels. The three issues drawn by Tim were of a comic book with a tough cop protagonist who, when coming in contact with an idol, became the personification of goddess Diana. Even though that series never got printed before Broadway’s folding, Hamilton at least got inked by comics legend Dick Giordano.

“He’s very professional, [and a] very A-type personality,” Hamilton said of Shooter. “They gave me a fax machine so we could fax thumbnails back and forth from where I lived up-state in Ithaca. This was ’96 and not everybody had the Internet. It was a lot of work to draw over Jim’s thumbnails. I don’t’ know who did the thumbnails all the time, but Jim seemed to work on the story telling for months. I believe in clear storytelling too, but he took his obsession with it a bit far for my tastes. It was a comic by committee. I think I did just one issue and realized it would be a very difficult way to work, and that I would avoid that type of process in the future.”
With the comics industry dying by the mid ‘90s, and tired from drawing superheroes, Tim Hamilton re-assessed his life:
“In the back of my head I was thinking of what jobs I could get other than drawing super heroes, so I knew I was getting bored. No offense to anyone who can draw superheroes day in and day out. If you can do it, that’s great, but I started to notice that the scripts I was working on were the same script over and over. Every other issue, I’d get a page description that was like, “the biggest punch ever! The hero punches the bad guy and the panel borders shake!” I was getting tired of that and wanted a challenge. As it turns out, the change of career was forced on me, as the mid ‘90s was when the comic book bubble burst. Many artists found themselves out of work.
“Including me.”

The comics implosion of the ‘90s wasn’t too far removed from the crash of the ‘50s: because several small companies and extra titles from the larger ones had glutted the market, and because said market fell in under its own weight, several artists who were suddenly out of work either moved into other fields or on to other things. For Hamilton, it was a chance to step back and reassess his goals.
“I came to New York [City], took art classes and worked in graphic design, which wasn’t my dream job either, but it paid the bills,” Tim says. “I worked at a pharmaceutical advertising agency, and it was there I met Charlie Oar. He had this comic book convention at his loft in Greenpoint Brooklyn after 9-11, and collected donations for victims (as everyone was doing back then). I believe a convention was cancelled due to the attack, and that’s why he had it at his place. He invited me and I met any of the comic people here in Brooklyn. So I found this other world of New York’s ‘alternative’ comics.”
Soon after, in meeting up with more comics people, Tim Hamilton’s name somehow got to small publisher Moonstone, who approached Tim about resuscitating an old radio character, the detective Mr. Moto. Taking it under the condition that he can draw it however he wanted, Tim made Mr. Moto as a vehicle for experimentation, changing his style throughout the series and regaining his footing as a cartoonist. The style of Mr. Moto landed him the Treasure Island gig with late publisher Byron Preiss. Tim Hamilton had emerged, transformed into a cartoonist with a unique voice, metamorphosed from the superhero comics drone he’d felt like a decade earlier.

“With anything I’ve done after 1999, I’ve attempted to destroy how I used to draw in the ‘90s,” Tim reflects. “I deconstructed how I drew to the point that my art instructor here in New York was like “I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re going for something and I don’t know what it is!” I realized I was just destroying how I used to draw and really over doing it. But he (my art instructor) got me to rein it in, and I did pretty much create a new way of approaching my art after that…As far as art, and life in fact, goes we are all prisoners of our own minds. Who says I can’t draw a comic with magic markers and a crayon?”
The amazing thing about Tim Hamilton is that, possibly because of his quiet and unassuming nature, or maybe because of genuine sincerity, he never comes across as pretentious. While most artists love to name drop painters and talk out of their ass, Hamilton talks about Egon Schiele with the same enthusiasm as a Bill Sienkiewicz (he counts Elektra: Assassin as one of his inspirations) and always has a fine art book open on his art table.
With a distinctive voice as an illustrator, it was now Hamilton’s chance to learn how to speak as a full-blown storyteller. And that’s where his former job as a pet-sitter came in…

“I was an actual pet sitter at one time, when I was trying to segue between working in comics and going to school,” Tim reminisces of his token oddball job that served as the springboard for his weekly online strip. “Pet Sitter was my ‘underground comic’, if you will, and I wondered why I hadn’t done that sooner. It was a chance to do something in which every week I could see where the story would take me. I had a loose plan, but every week as the story progressed, my idea of what was going to happen changed. Stories change when the characters take over. I believe that’s how stories work best. Some people feel that you write a story with the ending in mind with all the plot points planned out. Then there are those who believe, as I do, that one starts a story and you just let the characters take over once they can (or do). When the characters really take over you don’t know where the story may end up going, and that’s what happened with Pet Sitter. Some of the supporting characters hijacked that comic and I let them. The Pet Sitter himself ended up being pushed to the background more so as I wrote it.
The Pet Sitter starts with a mild-mannered pet sitter for a dog that actually belongs to Kingpin-like super-villain Rank, who kills all around him with his body odor. But, as we learn, the pet sitter is actually a right-wing Christian superhero, who wears a costume made from his senile mother’s enchanted pubic hair that just happens to give him super powers.
Pet Sitter is an absurdist screwball comedy brought to sequential life. Think Bringing Up Baby with a nebbish pet sitter for Cary Grant, a fat closet homosexual mobster for Katharine Hepburn, a DOG for the leopard, and plenty of obscenities. With Hamilton’s spontaneous drawing style, it kinetically bounds through its story, relying heavily on the characters to see it through. According to Tim: “Writing that comic taught me a lot about writing.”

Hamilton continues to practice the writing end of things, while honing the visual, with his current online strip, The Adventures of the Floating Elephant. Elephant follows the plight of a teenager dealing with his crazy Great Uncle amidst a tempestuous storm. Oh, yeah, and thrown in is a low-budget flick about a floating elephant, the prop elephant itself, and a treasure chest of old film reels. The strip has a bit of a David Lynch by Tim Burton feel. Where Pet Sitter rambled on a bit, Elephant feels like it has a set ending that seems a bit more predestined.
But in terms of Hamilton’s destiny? It involves finishing up Floating Elephant later this year, and looking at a lot of fine art for his future projects.
“In a way, this way of working has destroyed some of the joy I got out of reading comics,” he admits. “That is, looking to art history for my inspiration rather than to comics themselves, you know what I mean?"

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