Rian Hughes – Yesterday’s Tomorrows

Published On May 18, 2007 | By Kenny | Comics, Interviews

If you were a follower of British comics in the 80′s – that period when it seemed for the first time that the medium was becoming something that would be thought of by urban hipsters the same way as rock music – when magazines like Deadline, Revolver, Crisis and even old 2000AD were rampaging across newsagents shelves and genuinely feeling like the birth of something big – it was impossible to miss Rian Hughes. Rian was not just one of the most accomplished of the new British cartoonists but his style meant he was very close to the long lineage of ‘ligne clare’ artwork that had dominated Euro comics since Herge and Jacobs. His work appeared in books from Belgian publishers as well as in the UK small press – notably Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbuy’s Escape magazine – and right at the front of the new consumer mags like Revolver and Crisis.

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(an example of Rian’s artwork for Paul Gravett’s Escape Magazine #2)

As well as being a fine comics artist Rian was always involved in the development of typefaces and logos (at this point also this field was undergoing a huge spurt of creative growth with people like Neville Brody becoming feted for his magazine design) and advertising art which as he moved away from comics became his stock in trade through his company Device. Knockabout/Gosh are just about to release a wonderful compilation of much of Rian’s long form comics work under the title ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows‘ which features many long out of print classics including the eagerly awaited return to print of the update of classic UK comics character Dan Dare he did with Grant Morrison for Revolver. Rian took some time to sit and have a chat with us about comics and much more…..

YESTERDAYS

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(Cover art for the limited edition of Rian’s forthcoming collection “Yesterday’s Tomorrows)

FPI : Hi Rian, nice to see the new book collecting many of your comics about to come out. I got an advance from Tony and it is a fantastic thing – really makes you remember how creative that period in UK comics was. It doesn’t collect all your comic work tho’ does it?

RH : Hi Kenny. Thanks for the kind words. No, it doesn’t collect every strip – there are earlier strips from Escape and later ones from 2000AD that don’t feature. Maybe we’ll do a second volume, if the clamouring hordes clamour, or even if they just ask politely. That period was exciting for me because for the first time comics seemed to be becoming design-aware – they were absorbing influences from abroad, from outside comics, from popular culture in general. The hermetically-sealed stuffy Masonic secret society that had been the comics fraternity was going all punk on our asses. Much of this early promise faded to background static, but it was a time when everyone genuinely thought that anything might happen.

FPI : Can you take us back to where you started as a comics artist? Your first material was self published right? You were really part of the nascent UK small press comics scene – producing stuff like Zits. How had you come to comics yourself had you been a huge fan – what were your influences? It often seems to me you drew in a style which has links to Herge, Swarte, Challand and perhaps most noticeably Torres – did you know those guys back then?

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(the art of John M Burns from Countdown, one of Rian’s early inspirations)

RH : I read a UK comic called Countdown as a child, and was impressed by John M Burns‘ design and colour sense. He has to be one of the greatest comic artists of all time, and his work only gets better. I’m picking up his original art where I can. I also read reprints of Dell Hanna Barbera strips, and the Alan Class black and white reprints of the Kirby/Ditko monster-mystery and Charlton Mysterious Traveller material. That was really it – I didn’t read superhero comics, and in fact found them rather silly. This is when I was 8 or 9. I was later introduced to type design and graphic design via my father, an architect, who used Letraset on his plans. I drew my own fonts on small sheets of paper, and sent them to Letraset hoping they’d use them. They didn’t, of course, but when I was 15 they did spend a day showing me around the Letraset studio and demonstrating their font design process.

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(Rian’s very first comic from way back in 1971, showing, as he puts it, “a distinct Burns/Bellamy influence”; click for a larger image)

I also liked the work of Hipgnosis and Chris Foss, and a few years later when I was attending the graphic design degree course at the LCP I much admired the conceptual purity of Peter Saville‘s work for Factory and Ultravox. Saville has been an influence, not so much stylistically, as he didn’t employ a style as such, but conceptually – I try to incorporate every last element of a design into a larger rigourous conceptual whole. Saville taught me a perfectionist attention to details like grid layout and restricted type use that means I get cross when, for example, a barcode is printed a few millimeters too large or a font is stretched to fill a space in-house because of a last minute text change. I feel like I should point out here to potential art directors who might employ me that I’m not being difficult when I insist that you shouldn’t replace Helvetica with Univers and expect no-one to notice.

Saville was a judge for a sleeve design competition run at the LCP, my art college, and as I was one of the winners I collared him afterwards in the hope he’d give me a job once I’d graduated. He didn’t. He was very erudite and entertaining, however, memorably showing me proofs of “Power, Corruption and Lies” months before it’s release. His studio was in a 30′s industrial unit in Westbourne Park, coincidentally just above Knockabout’s. He suggested I drop in on them, which I did, and that’s how I met Tony and Carol Bennett, who 20 years later are publishing Yesterday’s Tomorrows, despite the fact I thought they were a pair of hippies.

At art school, two things happened that rekindled my interest in comics. One was seeing Serge Clerc‘s work in the NME, and through Paul Gravett being introduced to Chaland and Ever Meulen, and to a lesser extent Torres. It seemed to me that Clerc was someone who was successfully amalgamating Hanna Barbera simple linework with a modern hip design sensibility. Comics with style. The door opened on this new world of Belgian and French artists that seemed to be the freshest and most exciting material I’d seen in ages. The cross-hatched bubble-fingered work of cartoonists like Moscoso, Crumb and Shelton had never appealed to me on a gut level, and even though now I love their work and respect them for the geniuses that they are, it was the clean areas of black and white and asymmetric layouts that people like Clerc and Ever Meulen used that cut through all that extraneous detail and hit me in the aesthetic heart.

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(an original piece of art by Clerc from Rian’s collection, click for a larger image)

There’s a nice coda here – I met Clerc recently in his Pigalle apartment/studio. He was the perfect gentleman. His English isn’t great, but it’s far better than my French. He still had the original artwork for those illustrations I’d seen in NME aged 15-16. We spoke about his time at Metal Hurlant, about Chaland’s untimely death, about Sinatra and Debbie Harry, about modern comics and music, and about how his style had loosened up over the years. He pulled a copy of Escape issue 2 off his shelf, the one with my ship cover and “Dark Design” in; I hadn’t seen a copy of it in 20 years! Like every cultured Frenchman, however, Clerc makes an appalling cup of tea…

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(Harvey Eisenberg’s artwork from the old Tom and Jerry comics – the All Kinds of Stuff blog has a selection of scans to go along with this one)

The Hanna Barbera artists weren’t credited, but it was obvious that there was one artist who was head and shoulders above the others. I recently found out it was Harvey Eisenberg. He began with a light curvy line, but by the late 50′s and early 60′s was working in an angular dynamic style with low angles and beautifully spotted black areas. Bruce Timm and co are his modern counterparts. (good examples here, especially the ones further down: and career overview on this site) I’d love an Eisenberg original, but they rarely turn up. The Swarte/Chaland material took me back to Franquin and Herge (of course), and their beautiful simple layouts and focus on background and place, something that was not so prevalent in US comics.

I photocopied small runs of my mini-comic ZIT at college and sold them on Paul Gravett’s Fast Fiction stand. Paul used his Fast Fiction contacts to pull together his roster for Escape.

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(issues one, two and three of Rian’s self-published comic, ZIT, from 198; click for a larger image)

The second thing was seeing Frank Miller’s layouts and storytelling on Daredevil. It was at this point I started reading US comics for the first time. I also started reading 2000AD when Brian Bolland was drawing the Judge Death Lives story, around issue 220.

FPI : So at that time in the UK there wasn’t much of a scene – Paul and Peter had Escape going and there was a small press thing coalesing around that, Near Myths (which included early work by Grant Morrison as well as the first chapters of Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright) was coming out of Scotland and 2000AD was pretty much in it’s early heyday. Who did you know and how did you get to know them in the scene – did it seem like the orchestrated birth of a NEW UK comics or more like a chaotic punk-rock style – lets have a go philosophy?

RH : We were all too quiet and bookish to be loud chaotic punks, if truth be told. I think it was more the DIY ethic that we took and turned to our art. The Escape artists’ social scene centred on the Westminster Comic Marts: Peter and Paul at Escape, Eddie Campbell, whose work I love (he needs to start using letratone again, though!), Phil Elliott, Chris Long, Hunt Emerson and Tony and Carol Bennett at Knockabout, Woodrow Pheonix, Ed Hillier and many more. You’d spend the evening talking to Alan Moore about his new comics projects in the pub afterwards.

FPI : So once you were part of this growing comics scene your first work would have been where? – for Paul at Escape? That pre-dated the Magic Strip deal for Science Service, right?

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(receipt from June 1st, 1984 from Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbuy’s Fast Fiction to Rian for copies of ZIT; the wealthy life of the international artist and designer! Click for a larger image)

Yes. Those very early strips show Harvey Eisenberg’s influence, especially in the low angles. Magic Strip were interested in using English artists in their Atomium 58 collection. The Atomium is a carbon-molecule shaped building, the Belgian equivalent of the Skylon, built for a forward-looking trade and arts festival in ’58. Setting our story around the anniversary of the Festival of Britain, the UK equivalent from ’51, seemed a fitting idea.

FPI : So, how did Science Service come about? Magic Strip in Antwerp published it as part of their Atomium books range. How did you come to work on it with John Freeman? (who these days is involved in many facets of comic and magazine production as well as running the excellent Down the Tubes blog) and what led Magic Strip to approach you in the first place?

RH : I’d sent samples on spec to several European publishers like Futuropolis, Metal Hurlant and Magic Strip. John Freeman was introduced to me via Paul at Escape, who thought he may be a good fit for the kind of story I was intending to tell. I think in retrospect Escape was intending to publish and then sell our work abroad, but we accidentally circumvented that. The Pasamonik twins, who ran Magic Strip, invited me over to Belgium to discuss matters, and we did the Science Service for them. I recall hanging out in a modernist bar called The Archduke that looked like it came straight out of a Clerc drawing. Their intern then was Tierry Tinot, who went on to Fluide Glacial and Spirou.

FPI : After Science Service you went straight into Dare with Grant Morrison is that right? It was kinda of an auspicious debut for you as a comics artist – first professional work for a Belgian publishers (and published in 5 languages no less) and then straight into revamping, arguably, the UK comics most famous character. No struggling away for 10 years on some back up strips at ‘The Dandy’ for you – must have seemed as easy as falling of a log?

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(Rian’s early design for Dan Dare’s arch-enemy, the Mekon, before the Powers That Be requested it be altered to appear a little less phallic(specifically the upper centre prong protruding from his flying chair); click for a larger image)

RH : Looking back, it does seem fortuitous. I was also (and still am) doing illustration and design for mainstream advertising, book publishers, music companies and the like. I worked briefly as a designer at Smash Hits, Conde Nast and i-D magazine; an advertising agency; a record sleeve design outfit called Da Gama run by Tomato’s John Warwicker and film designer Al McDowell; another music design outfit called Mainartery, and a bunch of other companies. I was also doing freelance design work – logos, book covers, etc – first for Knockabout, then Nick Landau and Leigh Baulch at Titan, and this led naturally to meeting Steve Macmanus at 2000AD.

Fleetway were beginning to do graphic novels, so I showed him my design work, and included The Science Service more to indicate my enthusiasm for comics and help sell my design skills than from any hope that he’d ask me to draw any comics. I didn’t think I fitted the 2000AD mould at all, and had no expectations of drawing for them. He told me I should send a copy to this Scottish chap called Grant Morrison. Zenith had just started, the same year as the Science Service came out in Europe – 1987. Grant wrote back and asked if I’d like to get involved with Dare for this new comic, Revolver. I was scared shitless and overwhelmed with enthusiasm all at once, so of course I said yes.

FPI : After Dare you started to work also for 2000AD can you fill us in on the work you did there over the years?

RH : Dare was followed by my first work for 2000AD proper, Tales From Beyond Science. This strip featured a rotating roster of writers: Morrison, Mark Millar, Alan McKenzie and John Smith. This was me working through my Kirby/Ditko mystery monster fascination. Hilary Tremayne was our Mysterious Traveller stand-in, and these 5-page shorts had a great variety that made them very enjoyable to draw.

Next up was Really and Truly, in which Morrison allowed me to indulge my Hanna Barbera, Josie and the Pussycats fascination. I’d told Grant about an idea that myself and Steven Dalton, then a writer for the NME and now for The Times, Uncut and the like had pitched to then-Tharg Alan McKenzie. It was called “Kandy Krunch” – strapline: Shock Troops of Socialist Disco. You can see the original character presentation drawing on the Device site).

Our high-concept was that our heroine comes from a fictitious East European country who had just shaken off the shackles of communism – this being the early 90′s – and whose ruling party have decided that in order to beat the capitalist pigdogs of the West at their own game and save their flagging economy, they need a Five Year Plan for Disco – “This is the winter of our Disco-intent” – and recruit Kandi Krunch to head ther Eurodisco Superpower Supergroup – “From the factory floor to the dancefloor”. Kandi is an ex-cosmonaut, and has been circling the globe with Spotnik in the Mir spacestation listening to decadent Western pop tunes on the radio, so with her intimate knowledge of a killer hookline is ideally placed to front the band.

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(since we’re talking music, why not have a look at this example of Rian’s sleeve designs for some Madness records from 1988, co-designed with Dave Gibbons and a sleeve for General Kane, created while at Mainartery, 1986 – click for a larger image)

They enter Eurovision and win with a bigger margin than Abba. A legend is born, an economy saved, and a fashion sensation launched upon the world. Let’s just hope Kandi’s nemesis, General Bronski, and his old-guard hard-line comrades don’t scupper their plans… Alan turned this gem down, but history and Eurovision have proved us right, and I think the original concept is possibly more current than ever. Anyway, the general idea was filtered through the Morrison brain and emerged as Really and Truly as part of 2000AD’s Summer Offensive. Grant is very good at providing stories that fit my current interests exactly, and I very much miss working with him.

Though I continued to design logos, covers and graphic novels, mainly for DC, I stopped reading comics almost completely through the later 90′s. I also stopped drawing comics after finishing Robo Hunter in 1995, a character that I didn’t feel a great empathy with, and though Peter Hogan gave me some great opportunities to draw cool robots, it didn’t feel like it was a personal project the way the previous ones had. I’d also discovered the Mac, and was exploring how my graphic drawing approach might work with packages like Adobe Illustrator in the field of mainstream illustration. There are lots of examples on my site. I’d also begun digitising my custom fonts from Revolver and Speakeasy with Fontographer, and was releasing fonts first through FontShop and later via Device Fonts.

FPI : At this time the UK comics scene really kinda exploded in a huge wave of creativity – or certainly it felt that way from a retailers perspective. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland had kinda cracked the US (Alan’s Swamp Thing was a highpoint in DC’s then production and Brian was contributing to a few titles and doing a lot of covers), and whilst this is taken for granted now, it seemed a huge leap forward then. A whole cadre of talented individuals were coming forth yourself, Grant Morrison, Brendan McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, Brett Ewins, Jamie Hewlitt and more.

In the UK 2000AD was thriving and of the back of the success of Dark Knight and Watchmen everyone wanted comics and suddenly there were at least 3 mags hitting the shelves of WH Smith (the UK’s largest, massive, newsagents chain) aimed at the general teen/early twenties reader and based around comics. Deadline, Crisis and Revolver really seemed like something new at the time and you were right at the centre of those magazines, right? – you did design work for both Crisis and Revolver, didn’t you? What was your level of input and did you feel that this was going to be comics embraced by the UK mainstream like they never had before?

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(a smorgasbord of Rian’s work from the late 80s to early 90s; from left to right a set of free Crisis stickers, the re-imagined Dan Dare for the Thatcher era from Speakeasy which Rian had redesigned and an advert for the comic aimed at a mature readership, Revolver where Rian designed the mags look and all the advertising and marketing campaigns – click for a larger image)

RH : I designed both Crisis and Revolver, Speakeasy, and later Deadline, which at this point was being designed by Mark Cox. My main goal was to not make them look like comics in the traditional sense. If the content was fresh and new, the design had to be new too. My feeling was and still is that comics are a part of the broader arts and popular culture scene, and as such should evolve and change the way record and CD design changes. Comics looked the same as they did twenty or thirty years ago, especially in America. I wanted to apply a Saville conceptual cool to Crisis and a Smash Hits pop mentality to Revolver.

I’d already been doing this with the Titan Books covers where I could, notably with the UK Love and Rockets editions. Love and Rockets is amongst my all-time favourites, and the Hernandez’s deserved a much wider audience than they were getting. The US covers, though sporting beautifully drawn illustrations, had a clunky comic logo – “Love” in a girly script and “Rockets” in a chunky drop shadow – that had made me pass them by when they first came out. Here was my chance to do them justice. Titan were initially a bit sceptical, but very supportive when they were well received – the design of subsequent US and Penguin editions owe a lot to my versions.

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(Rian’s designs for Los Bros Hernandez’s Love & Rockets for Titan, 1987)

The design of Crisis took it’s cue from the main stories, Mills’ and Ezquerra’s Third World War and John Smith’s New Statesmen. I used a mix of camouflage, military stencilling, national flags and corporate logos as my inspiration. As the content of Crisis broadended, I redesigned it in a more magazine-like style to include inset illustrations down the left hand side and a more sophisticated spaced version of the original logo. I’d also customise the logo in an appropriate way – stained glass for Garth Ennis’ and Warren Pleece’s True Faith, or impaled on a blade, or distorted for a psychedelic Sean Phillips cover…

As to whether it’d all last… I think I had my suspicions. Fleetway seemed to be repackaging their material thinking the market would take anything in a graphic novel format. Unlike the editors, the sales force and even the higher-ups at Fleetway didn’t know good comics from bad, and so couldn’t point the retailers to the interesting stuff – a hot brand-new Simon Bisley Batman/Dredd book was given similar billing to a shoddily coloured Dredd reprint. Which, I’m embarrased to say, I designed. Titan had a better handle on the material. In the end, though, it is the writers and artists who count, not comics as a medium per se. There is nothing inherently good or bad about the form; just what certain artists and writers are capable of doing with it. I think a lot of new readers were simply disappointed with what they got.

FPI : The new comic magazines really seemed aimed at the same audience that might buy music papers like NME or style mags like ‘The Face’ or ‘ID’. Was that the intention? It certainly all got a bit ‘rock and roll’ around then. I remember signings by yourself and Brendan in Dublin and Jaime Hewlitt and Alan Bond in Cardiff that felt a little like rock stars signing in terms of the adulation. Did you feel any of that ‘vibe’ or were you just thinking it looks like there will be a great new comics scene for us all to work in?

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(1990, loitering with intent outside the Dublin Forbidden Planet – some of the styles modelled here are now back in fashion, kids! From left to right, Grant Morrison, Brendan McCarthy, Rian Hughes, Peter Hogan and Charles Shaar Murray)

RH : We were young, some of us younger, and so new to all this we simply thought it was just how it was supposed to be. I wasn’t sure what the “old” comic scene had been like, and so had no comparison. As to rock and roll… ask Grant to tell you the story of the chap who prostrated himself and kissed my shoes on stage at the ICA. Looking down, all I could see was his hairy arse poking out the top of his jeans. Scarily flattering, of course, especially for someone who thinks his work still has a way to go, but frankly we’d all prefer Latvian 6’6″ ubermodels. Just not going to happen. At least not until they start reading comics.

FPI : And then, almost as quickly as it exploded it subsided and went away – and whilst comics are again in the mainstream press and now fighting their way into ‘real’ bookstores it seems to me that huge excitement isn’t there anymore – everything perhaps seems a little to ‘mature’. The creativity levels have changed from being the first coming of new ideas and experiments to largely the finely honed work of practised artisans (that’s not to say there isn’t highly experimental work out there but little of it is making it into bookstores). I can imagine Skin being published now but not something like Skin being published that could shake things up as much as that did. Do you know what I mean? Do you feel it was a sudden golden summer – or is it just rose tinted specs down to nostalgia on my part?

RH : My feeling is that the early momentum was lost because, more generally, the quality and content was not of a high enough standard. A few exceptional books had generated a high profile, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule. There then followed a retrenchment typified by a collector’s superhero market and the busy garish Image style, which was in direct contrast to the clean graphic styles that I had admired. My guess is that it was the younger readers coming onto the scene who fuelled this, not the older readers who had been reading Watchmen and Dark Knight. I do think recently the market is much improved – the general standard is higher now, both in writing and drawing, and there’s a ready readership for the likes of Darwyn Cooke as well as Todd McFarlane. And manga, under the radar, have come out of nowhere to be huge sellers to a brand new demographic. Which is all for the good.

Coming soon: part 2 of the Rian Hughes interview where we will discuss fonts and logos, commercial illustration, if Rian will ever work in comics again and much more. Rian also kindly supplied us with a wealth of artistic material, more than could comfortably fit into this piece, so we’ve added them to a Flickr set here which you can browse and enjoy, taking in a wide variety of Rian’s art and design from across the years

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