People like Scott McCloud and media outlets like Time Magazine have the tendency to say a lot of nice things about Tom Hart. And why the hell not? His flagship series, Hutch Owen, has quickly grown into one of the most popular underground strips around, since the artist first starting self-publishing the series in 1993. The daily strip, following the adventures of a schlubby countercultural vagabond in a world run by corporate greed (thank god it’s only fiction, huh?), has built itself a massive following, thanks to syndication in New York and Boston’s Metro daily, and a towering online presence.
When not drawing his own books, Hart helps run the ridiculously awesome Serializer, and teachs comic courses at New York’s School for the Visual Arts. Suffice to say, the artist can be a bit difficult to get a hold of, at times—when we did finally manage to get Hart on the phone, he was attending a comics conference in Gainesville, Florida, and was kind enough postpone eating, in order to give us the first part of our interview.
You’re at a conference right now?
Yeah, it’s at Gainesville, Florida, and it’s a comic—it’s not like a con, it’s an academic conference. It’s not people selling comics, it’s more reading papers, and things like that. I was speaking there, and we stuck around to do some workshops about comics in libraries and schools.
It seems that that’s something that wouldn’t have been imaginable, ten or 20 years ago. That’s a fairly recent phenomenon, isn’t it?
Yeah, I think so. Down in Gainesville, we have at least one guy, in the English department, named Don Ault, and he’s been teaching various comics for a long time, and he helped to build a comics department in the English studies department.
Where do you think the turning point occurred that allowed for comics to be viewed as potential academic fodder?
I don’t know [laughs]. I think people have sort of thumbed around it for quite a while. Back ten or 15 years ago, people like Bart Beaty, and other people were writing papers about this a lot, but it does seem to be a lot more common now.
It has to have a lot to do with the success of the underground books from people like Crumb to Spiegelman and Clowes.
Yeah, I think it’s stuff like Dan Clowes and Maus that really pushed that to the front. Now it’s really easy to go to your library or bookstore and find a handful of things to write about, if you’re a grad student. Maybe you want to write about Joe Sacco’s journalism—there’s an easy way to approach it.
Do you see a lot of people at these conferences giving talks on superhero books?
There’s some of that, sure. It’s sort of another part of the comics world, to academics. Some people want to write about patriotism in Captain America, or something like that. I would say that—judging from the schedule, as I saw it laid out—very few of them are about action-adventure, but certainly some of them are.
You’ve done some comic teaching yourself. Is it more toward the theory side of things, or are you teaching kids to actually draw books?
It’s hands on. I teach at the cartooning department at the School of Visual Arts. It’s an art school, and students want to learn more of the visual side of things and storytelling. I would say that I don’t teach drawing, because I’m still a student of drawing, myself. Drawing is not something I’m particularly brilliant at—I’m just pretty good at it, I guess…What I do teach is storytelling, and the best way to tackle problems that kids are confronted with, when telling stories. It might be as complex as tone and mood, or it might be more like pacing or the way things are shot. It’s all storytelling. How to approach a scene, continuity—stuff like that. We talk about drawing a lot, but it’s not the focus. They have plenty of drawing classes they can take.
Your best known series, Hutch Owen, tends more towards the light hearted side of things. Do you find yourself naturally tending toward more humorous storytelling?
Well, I guess there are a couple of ways to answer that. One is that, when I was starting out, I was always perching on real, real seriousness, but I found that I had a limited palate, when it came to drawing. I drew in a more lighthearted, underground style, and I couldn’t shake that. That’s just the way I drew. I found that it kept me sort of honest, or at least kept me lighthearted. No matter how serious my ideas were, I was forcing myself to find humor in things. Since then, yeah, I’ve been more lighthearted, but it sort of ebbs and flows, but I suppose I ultimately have a zen outlook on things, where I always find some absurdity or humor in a situation.
Hutch Owen is quite often a lighthearted approach to some very serious topics.
Yeah. You know, ultimately, I have a sense of perspective about socio-political issues, where I find them extremely frustration, but I ultimately find some sort of humor in them. That’s where I begin.
[Continued in Part Two].