Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tom Hart from Hutch Owen to Saying Everything

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“We thought we’d invented comics,” Tom Hart reflects on his Seattle days in the early ‘90s, while sitting in a Brooklyn cafe. “There were at least five or six of us and we were really proud of ourselves. We were in our early twenties, and were trying to make comics that felt like art and stories that weren’t steeped in the history of comics. Peter Bagge, who was in Seattle and friendly with us all, for example is definitely steeped in the history of comics, coming out of R. Crumb and Weirdo. We were coming up and just wanted to tell “regular” stories, with no historical precedent in comics, though there were a few others doing that before us, like Dan Clowes and Chester Brown.

“We felt like we were the ones who were really doing it, and had ideas for tons of stories that we wanted to tell. We had stories we wanted to tell, and the past didn’t matter. We were influenced by the past, but weren’t reacting to it.”

A few significant going-ons in the life of one Tom Hart, cartoonist: he’s turned forty on the day of our interview, he’s about to become a father, and his new online strip, Barney Banks, has just launched online at ACT-I-VATE. An accomplished cartoonist at a young age, Hart was part of the Seattle scene of the early ‘90s, and also one of the first cartoonists savvy enough to tap into the Internet’s potential for online distribution.

“I moved out [to Seattle] and turned 21 a few days after I got there,” Tom says over his coffee and croissant. “I had done a few comics here and there that were just simple one pagers. I was good friends with Jon Lewis, who did True Swamp, which is a great unsung book. In the early ‘90s, he got a few issues out that were really amazing. He has this incredible imagination, and created this whole mythology around these salamanders and animals. It had a pretty good audience, but he worked slowly and maybe didn’t do them fast enough…

“I was really good friends with Jon and we hung out in Seattle. We both moved to Seattle, because Fantagraphics was there, as well as Peter Bagge and Jim Woodring – we decided to go where the comics were. Ed Brubaker and a few others were there.

“Me and Jon got friendly and started to make something, and then Ed came onto the scene a few months later. At some point, Ed came up, with his over-sized personality. The day he came up from San Diego (where he had been living), he arrived at a party at someone’s house, and wound up getting drunk and insulting somebody. We were instantly like ‘Oh, Ed, come and be our friend!’”

After building a respectable body of work as an indy cartoonist and writer including The Fall with artist Jason Lutes, Brubaker later made the shift to mainstream superhero comics, gaining his most recent acclaim for Captain America, and Daredevil for Marvel.

“Anyway, me, Ed, and Jon were always hanging out. We were under the mentorship of Ed who, although he was only a few years older, had already done a few comics, like Lowlife #1 or #2 by then. He had all sorts of working knowledge of finishing a 32-page book, and a little bit about publishing. I think he’d been working with Caliber, and so he mentored Jon and I. It took a while for Jon and I to realize that some of Ed’s ideas were good and worth knowing, while some were just crazy:

“Ed told Jon ‘Never to draw a full moon, because a full moon just looks like an orange in the sky, so always draw a moon like a crescent shape.’ I think a full moon is sometimes a good thing to draw. I really miss Ed. We were all really good friends. Jon was more innately creative than I was and, at that age, had already produced more work than I had. But Ed really sort of tutored both of us. Jon was smarter and more creative, but I had a fire Jon never had: once I got started, I never stopped.”

“Jon , Dave Lasky, Ed, Megan Kelso, Jason Lutes, and Jason Sturm and I got together all the time and talked about comics, and dissected each other’s comics. We were all constantly challenging each other: it was competitive in a really friendly way.
At that time, McCloud’s Understanding Comics had just come out, so we were on fire with thinking about comics. Right around that time, the Xeric Foundation had started, and we all had to have an award. We seemed to have Scott McCloud’s implicit approval- he liked us all. In the early ‘90s, at some San Diego Con, he pulled us all aside and had a meeting with us and we played Five Card Nancy. It was great. We felt like we were doing important things, and I think we were, in a way…”

One of the first times we meet Hutch Owen, it’s in a junkyard. It’s 1994, and he’s pissing on the billboard of a corporation slapping the Malcolm X “X” on everything. Hutch is the “Street Pole Dissident” who quotes Hamlet and is the arch-enemy of the local insensitive corporate mogul.

“I did a four-page comic where I imagined myself – inspired by Juliet Doucet and her ‘autobiography in imagined situations’ – had everything gone wrong (and it looked like it would), in the future I’d be this homeless guy living in an alleyway who would be fed by my ex-girlfriend who would come by now and then (she was very kind-hearted),” Tom reveals of Hutch’s first appearance in his mini-comic Love Looks Left. “After I did that, something clicked and I realized that it could be fiction, and I kept doing it as a character. Then I asked ‘If this is a fictional character, then what else can happen to him?’ I was consumed by filling up a notebook of what the character was about. At some point I hit on other characters related to him, and the story started to form in my head, and I took tons and tons of notes.

“Again, to bring Jon back into it: I was very inspired by True Swamp #2. #1 had been really tight, it was about something that happened with this frog, and it was very high concept, like Secret of N.I.M.H. in a way, where a character goes out of it’s comfort zone, comes back with a tale to tell. When Jon did #2, it really rambled. It was in three different settings. The characters meet, talk, move here, talk, and then some shit happens. That was the story. I’d seen that type of structure before, but perhaps being so close through my friend Jon, I went ‘Oh, you can have ideas and there can be a lot of talking, it doesn’t have to be about plot so much.’ The plot was about them going here, then going over here.

“At that point, I realized I could use the ideas in my head, because I was in my early 20s and full of political ideas about society, I was angry at what I thought was an ineffectual society. When I realized that could be part of the comic that could come out in conversation and action that was when I started to fill my notebook with stuff. It took a while, but got whittled down to the first comic, and as I said, we were all consumed with getting a Xeric grant, so I applied when the deadline came around.”

Hart won the 1993 Xeric Grant for the first issue of Hutch Owen’s Working Hard, and started a long-running on and off relationship with the character. After killing the character off at the end of Working Hard, Tom tried his hand at a few other projects, even creating a cipher of Hutch named Pitch Unger, but finally succumbing to Hutch’s inevitable return.

“At some point, I realized, that maybe comic strips are a good form, and I wondered if I could do that? I contacted Shannon Garrity who was online and doing comic strips that I found very funny, and I collaborated with her. I asked her to teach me how to do it, by having her write something for me to draw, so that I could get that rhythm. Then, I started doing Hutch Owen as a comic strip, which I think really worked well, for about a year and a half, mostly online. I was ready to give up on that because I’d finished a long story that I was really happy with it. Then, the opportunity came to run it in the Metro in New York and Boston. I had a friend of a friend of a friend at the paper, and contacted the editor and he was interested. I got into the Metro, and that ran for another year and a half.

“The point is being that I spent five years doing comic strips, which is a weird medium. I’d spent years before that developing longer stories, and what comic strips allowed me to do was to be nimble, have an idea, and deal with it in a week before going into the next idea, and not having to worry about the long-term repercussions or how things were affecting characters. In playing around with ideas, it allowed me to interact with my characters more frequently and more deeply. You’d get two or three ideas, put them down, and work them into a long story that after half a year, would be done. But at the same time, I had all these other ideas that weren’t being utilized.”

Where Hutch came of age in the Clinton years, wary of corporate interference with government, it was prior to Enron and the oil run Bush administration. The irony of Hart’s own comix progeny maintaining his relevance over ten years later doesn’t escape him.

“It’s funny that I did that in the Clinton years,” Tom laughs. “There were still big corporations running things, and it was very easy to see and frustrating. Weirdly, I’m frustrated now because the things I caught back then about money, how it seemed abstract and and how you can’t remove people from the equations and how the stock market works just doesn’t make sense. I eventually grew out of that in my later twenties and thirties and believed ‘Oh, those people know what they’re doing.’ I had had a simplistic view of how money works, but now I think I was right in my early twenties; now that the stock market has crashed, I was right in thinking that you can’t treat money like it’s a bunch of abstractions.

“But anyway, I am frustrated that character has appeared to be right about the world, and I think that he’s there to react to the world. I haven’t drawn him in a while, but I think he’d be mad like I am, in that he’s been talking about this in years and nobody’s listening. You can repeat yourself forever, and no one’s paying attention. Who listens to a hobo, anyway? I don’t know what’s up with him right now, but he would be very frustrated with the fact that he was right, everyone else was wrong, and no one was listening. Sometimes I’m burnt out on that character and don’t want to involve him, since he does need society to tell an effective story and I’m burned out on society.”

“The funny thing is, comparing what we were doing back [in the ‘90s], to what is going on now, it wasn’t that long ago, but comparing the difference in what people that age then were doing compared to people that age now. It’s completely different. People hit the ground running at the age of twenty, and are coming up with things our brains hadn’t even wrapped around then.”

Tom Hart has taught cartooning at the School of Visual Arts for the past several years, encountering a new breed of cartoonists that transcend his generation on an abstract level.

“I think that people are building off of what’s already there,” Hart states. “Now, at age fourteen, you can get Blankets out of the library; there are so many precedents that have been set now. In the early ‘90s, the only graphic novels worth reading were Will Eisner’s, Cerebus, Dark Knight [Returns], Watchmen, and Maus, and now you have huge libraries full of important graphic novels. I think their neurons are ready to make big or ambitious stories, they’ve ingested so many.”

In the span of time between the early ‘90s and today, the graphic novel has become more of a presence in mainstream bookstores and libraries. The proliferation of experimental graphic novels, as well as the accessibility of them, has raised a new generation of cartoonists ready and willing to experiment with the form.

“Well every kid is different,” Tom says of his students. “I had Dash Shaw in my class, and he wanted to approach these things formally and experimentally, but most of them want to learn storytelling and want to decode things that inspired them when they were in their teens. Anyway, my sole context is really knowing a lot of twenty year-olds, but not paying attention to what the twenty-five year olds and up are doing.”

How to Say Everything is Tom’s new book on cartooning, still in development by the teacher/cartoonist (he was proofing a dummy copy with a ball point pen when I caught up with him). While there have been several how-to books on comics, Everything focuses on the brainstorming aspect of cartooning, and taking a more naturalistic approach, eschewing intense plotting, thumbnails and scripting for starting with an idea and growing a comic from there.

“I remember being a young creator, when I knew I wanted to make stuff but didn’t know what those stories were,” Tom recalls. “Jon Lewis was a guy who has story ideas all of the time, and I never had that. I always had this desire to make stories, but they were never in there. It was always really hard to not know how to do it: you have this desire to make comics, but you don’t know where to start. That was me, and it’s basically a book for my younger self. I think a lot of people are like that – I don’t think everybody is like that (Jon Lewis would probably never have needed this book) – but it is intimidating to believe that because you don’t have all the answers in your head, that you can’t even start. I don’t believe that at all.”

Most importantly, How to Say Everything makes cartooning fun, devoid of clunky devices and lessons, it makes coming up with a cartoon a step-by-step game of sorts.

“None of the other books out there spoke to me as a creator, regarding how to go from step one to step two. The sad thing is that the book is challenging people to do something very hard (and the 24 hour comic does this, too), and that is to look at your creativity and skills very objectively. My book is also how to just recognize what’s already going on in your head with your imagination, worries, and concerns. Maybe it’s not for everybody, but I do think it’s necessary. If you’ve got the courage to really dedicate yourself to really telling a story, I think the place to start is with listening to yourself.”

Despite his modesty, Hart was ahead of his time when, in the early 2000s, he started serializer.net, one of the first online comics forums.

“I’ve always been very egalitarian,” he admits. “I want people to make things and for that stuff to be seen. When the Internet started, I realized there was a whole distribution network that can exist, and anybody can get something out there. I always wanted to be an editor, or an aggregator. So I wanted to find talent, and find people who would want to have their work out there.

“I did it, but I think at the time – there was a small audience, and we were doing good work – but the people who really read comics online were really geeky people who spent too much time on computers. Ours wasn’t really like that. We like the digital creation part of it, but also the digital distribution, but I think it was too arty farty for a lot. Look at Kramer’s Ergot, which is arty farty as hell, but it’s paper and it’s big and it’s about your hands and how it relates to your body. I think the arty farty audience is there, just not really online yet. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t pay that much attention to the web, frankly. It still feels like the artier audience is more interested in tactile things right now.”

Serializer featured content from acclaimed cartoonists like Sam Henderson, Lauren Weinstein, and James Kolchalka. The online world has evolved at a crazy pace since Serializer’s salad days, with everything from updated blogging software to social networking and media sites.

Hart most recently made the move over to the newer kid on the online comics block, ACT-I-VATE, for his online strip Barney Banks. While Banks is told in strip-like installments, it’s actually more of Tom building towards a long-form comics project. Barney Banks actually came about due, in part, to the failure to sell his strip Ali’s House.

“After Hutch stopped running in the Metro, I made one last stop at making a commercial strip,” Tom says: “I contacted a friend of mine, Margo, and collaborated on a strip that was very mainstream, and that we sold to King Features. Places like King Features, and the syndicates that run strips to the newspapers, get thousands of strips a year and pick maybe three. There’s a very small success rate compared to what they can take.

“Typically for me, this happened right at the time when the newspapers went really down. We knew newspapers were dying, and we’ve seen it for years, but then last fall the stock market crashed and newspapers started going. All the newspapers were either merging with newspapers or going online, so the challenge was getting newspapers. They weren’t able to do that, and my editor said that they weren’t able to launch a single comic strip this year. That’s not the case, usually, because they can find enough papers to sell them to.”

The failure of the economy to help out the creator galvanized Hart to return to full control of his comics distribution with his next project.

“That sealed the casket on comic strips, and I was done with comic strips then. It was a five-year experiment that gave me a lot of pleasure, taught me a lot about creating ideas and working quickly, but then I said ‘I have to do another long form book.’ I had tons of other ideas, and had gotten to the point where I was used to the spontaneity, because so much of that was required in comic strips. I decided to work on it as quickly as I can, since I’m having a baby in November, but using as much craft as I can and as consciously as I can. I’ll put it out there fast, make it a good book. It’s a reaction to being used to doing comic strips, and instead doing something quickly that works in the long form.”

Barney Banks opens with the title’s hero storming out of the Arby’s he works at, oblivious to his off-panel bosses “You’re fired!” Barney proclaims his elemental nature and soon starts…flying? Barney awakens in a camp in the woods, grounded and apparently humbled as he is introduced to a world of kids playing video games amidst nature. Where Barney has the piss and vinegar of Hutch, his world is prettier and more fully rendered, Hart’s ink line more refined and lush while still maintaining the spontaneity that comes with his earlier work.

“I’ve always been very hyperactive when it comes to creating,” Tom admits. “Comic strips make you hyperactive, because there’s this constant deadline- so I decided to let that hyperactivity help shape the book, too. I’m constantly generating, but hopefully slowly reacting. I figured out the page shape and size and, within a week, had about ten pages and there was no going back.”

Read Barney Banks at ACT-I-VATE.