In the world of alternative comics, the modern strip gets little appreciation, oft derided by artists’ whose own medium is regularly marginalized, like some bastardization of an art which has seen its zenith in the form of the graphic novel.
This is, let’s be perfectly honest, not a completely unfounded criticism. While some of the unparalleled masters of the genre toiled away on the pages of daily papers, few examples of worthy successors to strips like Krazy Kat, Thimble Theater, or Peanuts come to mind.
Weaned in the art of long-form books, artist and comics professor, Tom Hart, has become one of the few alternative cartoonists in recent memory to devote himself to the daily strip, with his series, Hutch Owen, the adventures of the titular counter-cultural anti-hero.
In the conclusion of our three-part interview with Hart, we discuss his primary format, and what it means to explore a character, five times a week.
When you killed Hutch Owen of in the first book [Working Hard], were you not expecting to do anything with him, beyond that?
No, never [laughs]. But you know, I was 22 when I did that. I was very iconoclastic—I just really wanted to upset the apple cart, any attempt that I could. And if it meant coming up with a really good character, and killing him off, so I couldn’t do any more stories about him, that was a really good goal for me. I just wanted to do what people weren’t expecting. And I remember, somewhere around that time, I was writing to James Kochalka a lot, because he had just started doing indie comics, and I remember giving him a hard time about doing continuing characters. “What are you doing with these characters? You have to start from scratch,” and he didn’t think I was right—long story short, he was right.
Would you advise newcomers to create a character that they can hold onto for a while?
I would go back to that thing I was saying about Kochalka. I think both methods are perfectly acceptable. There’s certainly something to be said about thinking news ideas all the way through, from beginning to end, and putting those on paper. But there’s also something to be said for bringing your old ideas to the page and adding to them. Ultimately, I realize that comic strips have nothing but a long history of continuing characters. Brilliant creators have carried characters throughout their whole lives, and have had some marvelous results. It’s really the opposite of what I was thinking. It’s not superficial to have these marvelous characters, if you treat them right—if you treat them as a life-long meditation, a tool for examining your world, in a particular way, then it can be as deep as any other art form.
So, to answer your question, would I advise students to do that, yes, I think so—but everyone’s different. Sometimes you want to push them out of one, if it’s too superficial a character—if it’s just a Wolverine rip-off, or a box with legs. Those are the two poles—actually, there’s a third pole, which I guess makes it a triangle. The third one is the manga one, which always involves some kind of an angel. There’s the kids who want to do the continuing character as part of a superhero team. There’s the kids who have characters that are really simplistic, that are name ‘Mr. Box,’ or something. Dan Clowes talked about that, in his “Modern Cartoonist” pamphlet, and he was right on. He sort of excoriated young cartoonists to not do that—to go deeper, if they’re going to invent characters, and I would argue that too. Then there’s the manga kids that always have a fallen angel, or something—always!
The idea to have something to return to is a tool. It helps you unlock some of the secrets of the universe, by applying this character to different situations. It helps you explore both your form and your world, but if it’s superficial, it’s not going to be that good. If you are going push them into a character, you want it to be deep enough, and you usually aren’t going to find a character like that, until they’re into their early-20s, that would be that interesting.
It’s seems—and this definitely seems the case with you and Hutch, and Kochalka exemplifies this perhaps more so than most—to be important to have a large piece of yourself in your lead character.
I think so. It might be my limited vision, but that seems right to me. You can even look at Woody Allen, who has constantly created the same character, over and over, who is largely a reflection of himself. Early on, when I decided to stick with Hutch Owen, I realize that not only is it cartoonists that are stuck with the same characters, but also novelists like John Updike, who has done numerous novels about Rabbit, and Vonnegut, who brings back Kilgore Trout, all of the time. There’s a real benefit to it. I had that same sort of self-deprecation that cartoonists often feel with other media. Those novelists’ characters are doing what you said—they’re largely reflective of their creators, a lot of the time. There’s something really profound in that.
We’re trained by the constant barrage of big movies to think of sequels as something that people do when they’ve run out of ideas.
Do you think there’s a Die Hard 4 right now, because the creators are really attached to that character?
Right, right. Well, I think someone is, somewhere. I heard someone recently talking about the mythology of the character. So maybe someone is. Maybe there’s some kind of blog of Diehard fans. But no, I definitely see your point, and I think it’s true. I’ve always bristled at the idea of doing something, merely because it was some kind of superficial reactions. I haven’t thought of that in a while, but I think some of my initial repulsion was in order to not seem like some of those people. You have to do what’s going to suit your work, and sometimes it has some similarities to some awful work.
Sure, and as readers, we have a tendency to become as attached, if not more attached to characters that writers are.
Right, right. And that’s what I find myself trying to figure out, a lot—how I might go about writing a decent sequel that would not be nearly a repetition to the original. You just want to stay alert that way.
And certainly some stories were meant to have sequels—Star Wars, The Godfather. Do you think it’s important to know where a character is going to be, several books from now?
Yeah, I do. Right now, and for a long time, Hutch Owen has been the best lens that I have, to examine my own position on this earth. So, as much as I’m interested in my own future, I’m also interested in what becomes of the character, and it’s never a direct correlation. Emotionally, I think it is, but not as far as situations. But I do think the character will reveal itself in certain ways, as I age. I’m interested in following him, and participating as much as I can participate in my own life, as well.