Talking comics with someone like Tom Hart is always a pleasure. Not only does the artist have a firmer than usual grasp on his own work, he can also approach it from an academic standpoint afforded him, thanks to the time he spends teaching the form to students at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts.
In terms of audience reception, this can either make for an incredibly fascinating or dull interview, depending on what you’re looking for. The second part of our second interview with Hart goes rather in depth, discussing Hart’s process when creating his daily strip, Hutch Owen, versus some of his longer work—and be forewarned, it’s a trend that only deepens in part three. Lots of talk about character development, pacing, and boring stuff like that ensues.
If your eyes are already glazing over, now would be a good time to scroll down the the next story. If that wasn’t enough to deter you, however, then by all means, read on.
How long is an average Hutch Owen story arc?
I did one that was months and months long, but the longest one I did for the paper was a couple of weeks. I’m doing one now that’s vaguely one long storyline that I think will be at least a month and a half—but I’m sort of weary of that. I’ve got this idea in my mind where I want every strip to be exciting, visually, even from a few feet away, and if I get too deep into a story, it might just be talking [laughs]. This is all a balancing act, which is why it’s so fun, figuring out what’s gonna work with certain rythms and for certain audiences.
What constitutes the length of a storyline? The number of gags you think you can squeeze out of it?
No. I still write story ideas the way that I’ve always written them, which is to plot out the length of the action, and then certain beats in that outline might garner two to four strips, or it might just be one. You figure out the right number, and then you structure it rhythmically, afterwards. And I’d also like every one of those beats to be as long as possible, mostly because, after studying some really great comic strips after a while, like Little Abner or Annie, I discovered that they’d delay things constantly. They’d constantly be going for the same beat or same idea, but never really getting there. There’s no real straight answer to that. You really have to play at it.
So then, each individual strip doesn’t necessarily have to advance the storyline?
Not advance, but serve the storyline.
If you laid them all end-to-end, do you feel like you would be getting the full life of this character? It seems almost impossible to have a character in a strip mature the same way that it might in a graphic novel.
Yeah—interesting—actually, I haven’t thought of the word ‘mature’ in a while [laughs]. One of the real reasons I decided to do the daily thing was that I felt like I didn’t give my characters enough breadth. They weren’t large enough—they didn’t have a large enough tapestry of things they respond to or ways of responding or things they even do. One of the main reasons I wanted to do this in comic strip form was to throw lots of ideas quickly at the characters and expand them that way. What I’m really trying to do is expand their breadth—how much I know about them. But it may not have given them much of a chance to actually change on the page.
Because they only have three or four panels in which to respond.
Right, right. More often than not, that’s the problem with an on-going strip. Even if it’s as great as Thimble Theater, the characters don’t evolve—they evolve a little, as the cartoonist matures, but they don’t change in dramatic ways. But that’s cool—that’s fine for me, for now.
So, really, the reason you started the strip was so that you could file away the characters’ attributes for a longer-form piece.
Yeah, that’s true. And I don’t know what that longer form piece will be.
So you see Hutch continuing with you, beyond whenever his daily strip might end?
I think so, sure. The truth is that he’s changed the most, though I’m not sure that a lot of people have noticed. I even think he’s evolved in a dramatic way, as a result of conflict and stuff like that. But I don’t know what I’m going to do in the long term. There are certainly times where I get bored with him, but I also see him serving a long-term goal. I have all of these books stored away with different characters, but I realize that the ideas are better when I make them Hutch Owen ideas, so I wind up going back to him.
How would you describe Hutch at the beginning of the strip, versus how he is now?
For the beginning, I’d go back to the first strip I did, Hutch Owen’s Working Hard [reprinted here, in all of its humble glory–ed.], in ’93, ’94, and even that—this is very solipsistic, because I have this personal mythology in my head, and I’m not sure if anyone cares. It’s not necessarily all on the page. He does die in that book, and I see that as a final, joyful end to a very long career that would have involved a lot of downtime, as well as a lot of leaping and yelling and ranting.
So, ultimately, I think there’s a large character in that that has a lifeline, where from adolescence on—where the adolescence is very reckless, very self-satisfying, and very loud—to times of contemplation, to times of despair, to times of folly. I don’t think he has a mid-life crisis, but that kind of stuff. I think he has a long term life. The other characters don’t necessarily, but that’s okay. I tried a couple of times—other stories have hinted at other characters’ depth. I think, when I did Banks/Eubanks, that was the most notable version of that, where I just tried to give it enough of a before and after story, where it could evoke an entire character.
Ultimately, right now, I’m playing with a comic strip, because it lets me develop Hutch in that way that I was describing, and it also lets me shine a light on all of the other characters, and respond to a lot of idea that I had in my head, when they come my way. There’s a nimbleness that doing a comic strip allows me to have that working longer form never did. That’s the main reason that I’m happy with the form. I can respond quickly to things I think are urgent—and I don’t mean that in a societal way—I don’t mean as things are in the news. I mean as things cross my consciousness, in some manner, I can deal with it in some way.
In the past, when I’d do a longer story, most of my stories would involve two ideas matched together, and I’d have one idea and another idea, and I’d note them both in my sketchbook and then cram them together. Then I’d write a 30 or 40 or 50 page story on it, and it would take me six or seven months to draw, and all that time, I’m dying to try new things. The comic strip allows me to do that. It doesn’t allow me to be very deep, and that’s okay. That’s something I’ll get back to, at some point. Right now, I’m much more interested in being fast and improvising a little—letting myself change quickly.
[Continued in Part Three.]