Phil Hester is one of the comics industry's most successful creators. A veteran of over fifteen years in the business, he's written and/or illustrated for every major publisher (and quite a few independent ones) throughout his career. His current work includes The Black Terror for Dynamite's Project Superpowers and The Anchor for BOOM! Studios. Surfing the Bleed sat down with Phil this past week and here are the results. Enjoy!
Surfing the Bleed: Hey Phil. Welcome to Surfing the Bleed and thanks for taking the time to do this.
Phil Hester: It's my pleasure.
Surfing the Bleed: First off, could you give everyone a quick rundown of your educational background?
Phil Hester: I have a BFA from the University of Iowa with a major in drawing.
Surfing the Bleed: Over the years, was there a specific class or a specific teacher that really inspired you to continue to pursue art?
Phil Hester: I already considered myself a cartoonist when I entered college, so a lot of the learning I had to do there was actually unlearning. I had to dump a lot of the bad habits and short cuts I had developed while making mini comics in high school. The instructor most instrumental in that was the great Joe Patrick, who anyone attending art school at Iowa for the better part of four decades knows as a magnificent teacher. He taught me how to empty my cup a little to take in new information, but still keep what was essentially "me".
That said, I never had to be inspired to pursue art. It's something I would be doing with no training or no chance of financial gain. I do it because I love it. I do it for a living because a few people will pay to see it.
Surfing the Bleed: Did you always know that this is what you wanted to do? Do you remember a specific issue of a comic or a specific creator that sort of flipped a switch in your mind? Was there a moment where you said, "Hey, this is a career. I can do this for a living, I want to do this for a living?"
Phil Hester: Yeah, I think I was twelve or so and my comic book collection was something like 100 comics. I was starting to recognize recurring names in the credits of the books I liked and it dawned on me that these were real people and maybe I could be one of them someday. I was reading an issue of Iron Man that ended in the cliffhanger of Tony Stark being thrown from the deck of the helicarrier without his armor and I didn't have access to the next issue, so I wrote and drew my own rudimentary conclusion. It felt really good and really fun. I haven't stopped since.
Surfing the Bleed: You actually started working in comics when you were in college, correct? What was it like breaking in that young and what sort of projects were you getting starting out?
Phil Hester: I was at the very bottom rung of the ladder, but when you're a junior in college that feels pretty spectacular. I was making $35 a page, which seemed like a fortune to me. I was just so excited to do comics that I didn't care what kind of assignment I got. The work I did was pretty crappy, but at the time so many new indie publishers were starting up that artists were in short supply. I was lucky, I guess. Still, I worked pretty hard at getting work. I had a regimen of doing new samples every three months and sending them to literally every publisher silly enough to put their address in their book. I have to say I got a lot of great criticism through the mail that way from Eliot Brown, John Buscema, and Jim Shooter at Marvel and Mike Carlin at DC. Imagine that- they used to respond to cold submissions, even if you weren't any good!
Surfing the Bleed: You've worked for just about everybody in the industry over the years. Can you compare the experiences you've had working for various companies like Dark Horse, DC, Marvel? Was there any one company you enjoyed working for better than the others, or adversely, anywhere you never really felt comfortable?
Phil Hester: It's almost never a company-wide experience. It's usually the relationship you have with an editor. For example- I love working with Bob Schreck and I'll always look to work with him no matter where he is. We started at Dark Horse, then Oni, then DC, and I'm sure I'll do something for him at IDW someday. That's one of the big secrets of comics: People like to work with their friends. So, come on out and make some friends.
Surfing the Bleed: You worked as an artist on Swamp Thing for about 2 1/2 years when you were younger, working with some really talented writers along the way. Recently you've taken over as writer of the Black Terror for Dynamite's Project Superpowers line. Can you talk a bit about what it's like working on iconic characters such as that? Is it intimidating or does it just feel natural, and do you prefer working on something you've created yourself to something already established?
Phil Hester: Swamp Thing was very intimidating to me, but I think that's because I was in my mid twenties. Also, Swamp Thing is one of my absolute favorite characters, so it was like being called up to play for the big leagues right out of the box. Here I am on the same book as a lot of my heroes like Wein, Wrightson, Nino, Bissette, Veitch, Moore, etc. I'm not particularly fond of the work I did on the book, but it was such a thrill that I don't care. Stuart Moore took a chance on Mark (Millar) and me, and history has proven him a good judge of talent, at least in Mark's case.
As for Black Terror, it's more a knowledge of the character's long history than a personal attachment that makes it a daunting task. Now that I'm into the book I can say it's been nothing but fun. Black Terror is such an electric character that you can just start typing and interesting things will happen. And while it's fun to play with the icons of my youth, it will always be more satisfying to create my own characters. Why not try and send some new icons down stream to the next generation?
Surfing the Bleed: You're both an illustrator and a writer. Do you find that your experience as an illustrator makes it easier for you to write scripts for other artists? Does it ever frustrate you to see another artist's version of your script, do you ever look at it and think, "Man, that's really not what I was thinking?"
Phil Hester: I think it's made me both more sympathetic and more demanding. I have a really, really bad relationship with my own work. I find it hard to look at. But sometimes I see things an artist has done with my script that I think are nonsensical and gain a new appreciation for my own work, at least in the storytelling department. I've been on the other end of a bad script and try hard to never lay that on an artist. By bad I don't mean a bad story, but a story that's just no fun to draw. I try to balance every phone conversation with a fist fight, every talking heads page with an exciting splash. Look, if you're boring your artist, you're boring your readers.
As for technique, I don't take too many chances with the storytelling. On a lot of my scripts I actually thumbnail what I think the page should look like. Of course, the artist is free to change whatever they like, but it gives me a chance to just show them what I'm thinking, how I want the balloons placed, what kind of pace I'm trying to set, etc. When I'm working with an artist who doesn't want that level of direction I tend to use very sparse panel descriptions and let them run with it. Artists are frustrated writers and writers are frustrated artists, so you can trust most artists to compose panels that tell the story. I try to stay out of the way and let them do their thing.
Surfing the Bleed: Would you say you enjoy one more than the other? Now that you've got a lot of experience under your belt as a writer, do you find yourself preferring to take on projects that require your skills as a writer as opposed to an illustrator?
Phil Hester: Not to be glib, but writing is much easier, at least physically. Writing is mostly daydreaming followed by a few days of feverish typing. Drawing is more job like. You must be at the board every day and sometimes all day. I'd never give up drawing completely, though. Someday I'll find the perfect situation for me to write and draw the same project.
Surfing the Bleed: Speaking of current writing projects, you're into issue two of your new series for BOOM, The Anchor. I'm really enjoying the book so far, great stuff.
Phil Hester: That's great to hear. Thanks.
Surfing the Bleed: The Anchor has drawn a lot of comparison to books such as Eric Powell's The Goon and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. I personally feel like the book is referential of books like those, but is very original and fresh. Can you talk a bit about the process that went into creating the character and some of the creative influences you're drawing from for the book?
Phil Hester: I think those comparisons are mostly visual. Truth be told, Diamond asks us to describe new books in the context of existing books for retailers' sakes, and those are the books we picked. It has the same visual flair as those books, and deals with the same creepy, supernatural settings, but that's where the similarity ends. I think The Anchor is a more human character than Hellboy (I love Hellboy!) and has a deeper past to explore. And we're certainly not as funny as The Goon, nor trying to be. We're just trying to do an emotionally satisfying, high octane action book.
As far as influences, well, the two angels wrestling for my comic book writing soul are Alan Moore and Frank Miller, so I'm trying to combine Frank's sense of timing and action and letting the visual element carry the day with Alan's lyricism and deep concepts. Of course, I'm neither of those guys, so we'll see. Kirby is also my paragon, so I'm trying to cook up some mind bending ideas and characters that would be at home in OMAC or Fantastic Four.
Surfing the Bleed: How have you enjoyed the experience working for Boom Studios? Anybody who reads this blog knows I'm a big supporter of what they're doing. They've got a pretty incredible line-up of talent and some great books coming out right now. Are you pretty impressed that they've managed to build such a successful and acclaimed studio in such a short amount of time?
Phil Hester: They have the secret ingredient to success: They care. That's all it takes. Ross Richie is a hustler in the best, Stan Lee sense of the word. He is always looking for ways to grow not just his business, but comics in general. And having a legend like Mark Waid and smart people like Matt Gagnon on the editorial side is practically a guarantee that every BOOM! book will be a good read. Chip Mosher is continually looking for new ways to get our books in the hands of potential readers and works harder than any PR guy I've met in my two decades in this business. They have the same drive IDW has that has taken them from tiny start-up to major player in ten years. BOOM! is on track to do that in even less time, I think.
Also, they were the only publisher we showed The Anchor to who "got it" right away. They didn't ask for any crazy changes in story or personnel, as a lot of publishers did. Ross looked at it and said- "That's a good comic. Let's get it out there. What do you need to make that happen?" I can't tell you how rare it is to hear that in this business. If they'll have me I'll do books for them for the foreseeable future.
Surfing the Bleed: Well, this blog is about creating a reference for new creators trying to break into the business. Do you have any advice you can give young artists and writers out there who are trying to make their way in this business?
Phil Hester: Start now. Do not wait for permission to become a writer or artist, even from yourself. By that I mean, don't hold back until you think you're better at comics before making them. Just start. Nothing teaches like work, so assign yourself the work of a graphic novel today and complete it. When you're done you may not have a decent comic, but you will be a better comic book maker.
Also, the secret of making it in the comics business is persistence. If you can take criticism from both industry professionals and fans, and use that to better yourself, you'll make it. Just keep banging away until something gives. Never limit yourself in terms of what kind of assignments you'll take, or what kind of stories you want to do. You'll learn something from both the success and failures. Believe me, failure is sitting in my studio right now teaching me a ton.
Surfing the Bleed: A lot of my readers have families and a lot of them are trying to balance the life of provider and creator. The comics industry isn't always the most lucrative of businesses and I'm well aware it can be a struggle to make ends meet. Was there ever a time where you thought, "I don't know if can sustain this," ever a moment where you considered moving on and finding something more stable? Or have you been lucky enough that comics always provided a comfortable living?
Phil Hester: That' a great question because it happens to 99% of the people in this business. My crisis came more recently than you might think. Between Swamp Thing and Green Arrow I had a couple of years of doing animation and advertising work. I also worked for Kitchen Sink during that time. I had this almost impossibly bad string of luck in which Kitchen Sink went under owing me thousands and thousands of dollars while at the exact same time a mail room employee at Sony was stealing my animation paychecks and cashing them. So, I was flat broke and had two very young kids and was starting to peruse the want ads. But, I was never looking to replace my career. I was looking for the kind of job that would let me continue to make comics on the side. My wife and family have never been anything less than supportive, even in that awful year, and thankfully success with Green Arrow and The Coffin followed soon after.
What I'm saying is, everyone is going to have one of those crisis moments. If you truly love comics you can step back knowing you will come back and not swearing off the business or art form completely. If you don't love comics you probably won't make it through your first bad portfolio review. Maybe it's a sickness on my part. I know a lot of guys making way more in advertising than I ever could in comics, but they had to give up little chunks of their soul for that. Soul intact here. Being rich is a sick joke anyway, almost as miserable as being poor. Just try to get enough to cover your family's needs. Anything beyond that is gravy, and we all know what gravy does to your heart.
Surfing the Bleed: Well thanks again Phil for taking the time to do this interview. It's always nice to get the perspective of a creator with as much experience in the business as yourself. Best of luck going forward and keep up the great work!
Phil Hester: Thanks for having me. Great questions.