Writer's Workshop/Artist's Alley Crossover: PHIL HESTER

Workshop/Alley Crossover: PHIL HESTER

We've checked out writers and we've checked out artists — but when it comes to Phil Hester, it's not so easy to categorize.

Having written books such as The Darkness, Days Missing and Vampirella and drawn books ranging from Green Arrow, Nightwing and The Irredeemable Ant-Man, Hester is our first candidate for a Newsrama column crossover for Writer's Workshop and Artist's Alley. We sat down with Hester and talked about why he chose to take both tracks, how he approaches characterization, and what writers and artists can do to help each other make the best books they can.

Art from Archaia's Days Missing.

Nrama: Phil, tell us a little bit about how you got started on your artistic career. What were the hurdles you had to get over in order to understand that this is what you wanted to do?

Phil Hester: I'm lucky in that I understood I wanted to make comics when I was about 12 years old. Trips to the newsstand were few and far between, so I would sometimes write and draw my own conclusions to cliffhanger comics from Marvel and DC. I also moved a lot, so I was perpetually the new kid. This led to a lot of alone time and I spent it writing and drawing. My parents were very supportive and never questioned my plans. I made regular art submissions through high school, went to college for an art degree, and finally got pro work while a sophomore. I use the word "pro" loosely.  

Nrama: Now, what's interesting about you is the fact that not only you draw, but you write, as well. Was this always a package deal for you?

Hester: Certainly. I see writing and art as different points on the same continuum of storytelling. When I write I'm visualizing, and when I draw I'm imagining subtext. They're inseparable activities to me. I always wrote and drew for myself and friends, and subsequently some publishers like Caliber let me do both. It's just that my skill set as an artist translated to commercial work sooner than my writing skills, so it seems like a recent turn for me to be scripting, but I've been doing it all along.

Nrama: Let's talk about influences for a little bit. Were there any particular artists, teachers, books, media, anything that really set you on what you see as your own particular artistic style?

Hester: I could give you the high minded answer or just tell the truth: my style is a mishmash of everything I saw at age ten that knocked me out. My whole artistic career has been my feeble attempt to reconcile the disparate styles of Bernie Wrightson, Jack Kirby, Joe Staton, Steve Ditko and Alex Toth. As I got older, maybe thirteen, I found myself drawn to artists who had bold storytelling styles; Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Miller, and Bernie Krigstein. I was also always drawn to oddness, so I clicked on Keith Giffen, Jose Munoz, Ramona Fradon, Pat Boyette, anything odd, really.

So whatever my style is, it's some diluted form of the tea brewed from the above styles. My holy trinity is probably Kirby, Miller, and Toth, with Krigstein and Eisner as major saints. So much storytelling to learn from those guys.

Nrama: As you've progressed over the years as an artist, how would you say your style has changed, if at all? Can you tell us a little bit about what you learned from your first professional work?

Hester: My very earliest stuff looked like a very limited Mike Ploog or Will Eisner, but as I got older it quickly became more high contrast and economical. I never lost my cartoony roots, though. I believe in reducing things to an almost icon-like state as images, making them read as symbols as much as renderings. I think too much noodling or superfluous detail would undermine whatever drawing strengths I may have. I actually own a page pencilled by Kirby and inked by Miller. That's what I hope to look like, realizing I'll never even get close.

My first pro work should not be sought out under any circumstances. I was nineteen. But I learned a ton right away. I always say nothing teaches like work and this gig proved that. When you draw for yourself you tend to play to your strengths, so at age nineteen I had drawn a ton of barbarians and monsters, but never a baby or a bridge. That first gig demanded I draw things I'd never even considered drawing before. Also, art school made me bust out of that cocoon of playing to my strengths.

Nrama: Getting down to the nitty-gritty here — can you talk a little bit about where you start when you're putting a page together? Is there anything you have to have to get yourself at a starting point? Can you walk us through a bit of how you approach a page?

Hester: Whether I write the book or not, I always print out the script and read through it while sketching in the margins, trying to jot down quick impressions or images I get while reading the story. When I write the story I'll usually have these images in mind before writing at all, but this helps to nail it all down. I then do very small thumbnails, like 2" x 3", with a brush pen, knocking in black spaces and judging compositions. It's easier to see a page flow when you're not worried about rendering on any level. When a page is that small everything on it is just a compositional element, a block of black or white, and you can better judge how the page is flowing.

From this point I'll either do a tighter, slightly bigger thumbnail, say 6" x 9", or go straight to penciling on the board with blue pencil. If I do the second thumbnail I'll blow it up to 10" x 15" and trace it on the lightbox on to the board. From here on out it's all just one long struggle to maintain the liveliness and compositional integrity of those earlier thumbnails. I am not a big fan of my own work, so my biggest struggle comes in simply letting the page go without destroying it in a fit of self doubt.

Nrama: What about when you're just scripting a story? For you, how do you go about characterization? To you, what do you have to know about a character in order to make them three-dimensional?

Hester: Well, look, I don't know if this is kosher or not, but I don't think human beings are that different from one another, despite how we may behave outwardly. I've never been a criminal, but I've had moments of anger or desperation in my past that I can recall and project when writing one. Everyone's been lonely, or in love, or afraid about their existence, or whatever. I think it's just a matter of being honest about your own feelings and being willing to share them in the form of a fictional character. If you think about why The Sopranos was so superb it comes down to honesty. The writers of that show eschewed any Hollywood tropes about how gangsters should behave and wrote the characters like real human beings who just happened to be gangsters. That's my goal.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of a comic book story I usually ruminate on it for a few days until I can find a hook, be it a line of dialogue or a startling image, that serves as an anchor for the rest of the story to orbit around. Sometimes that original nugget gets abandoned altogether, but it's the first grain of sand that the rest of the beach forms around.

Interior page from Days Missing.

Nrama: How about your artistic tools? What do you use when you're putting a page together, and what made you pick these specific tools? Do you go digital or hand-drawn, and why?

Hester: I'm pretty tactile, so going digital, at least for most of the drawing process, is hard for me to get into. I use Strathmore 300 to 500 series bristol, smooth finish, and draw with regular Dixon Ticonderoga #2 wooden school pencils. I will occasionally switch things up and use a Bruynzeel or Mars Lumograph F lead wooden pencil. I sometimes use a mechanical pencil with an F lead. I also lay out with a Staedtler non-photo blue pencil. On the rare occasion I ink, I use Raphael 8404 series sable brushes #2 or #4, a simple crow quill dip nib, and Higgins Black Magic ink.

I wound up using these tools after twenty plus years of trial and error. They work for me, but honestly, I would be happy drawing with crayons on grocery sacks, too.

Nrama: For you, what's the toughest thing about approaching a page? How do you overcome it?

Hester: As I said earlier, just keeping the energy of the original sketches alive throughout the drawing process. I always fight the instinct to make something "right" instead of fun. Trying to make drawings accurate to life can also kill them as cartoons, so I'm always looking for that balance.

There's a lot of talk about storytelling in comics, and you have the interesting perspective of having both written and drawn comics. Having worked both sides of the fence, how do you feel the writer and the artist can contribute?

As I said earlier, to me they are just different points in the same line. Both writer and artist must be committed to visual storytelling. For a writer that means sometimes stepping back and letting images convey the information alone, for an artist it means not diluting the information with pointless showboating. I have never felt a separation between those two tasks, so it seems very natural for me to do both, and I think all the cartoonists I admire most do both. That said, great partnership can call up different approaches from both writers and artist, forcing them to stretch in new ways.  

I guess what I'm saying is everyone should think: story first and imagery as its primary conveyance, with prose and dialogue as support or counterpoint to the imagery. Of course, that's not the only way, but it's the most satisfying for me.

Nrama: And touching upon that previous question as well — how should writers treat artists, in order to get the best possible work? And how should artists work with writers, in order to bring the story to the next level?

Hester: Having been both, I think writers should give their artist more leeway and trust as storytellers (depending on their skill set, of course). Sometimes I see scripts that are so overwritten they're almost insulting to the artist. It would be like a screenwriter choosing shots and lighting for a director. Trust the artist to bring some storytelling sensibilities to the table. Also, take it easy. Comics don't have a production budget like a film, but it does take a huge chunk out of the artist's life every time you ask him or her to draw the Notre Dame cathedral or a pirate ship battle. Reward them for drawing boring or hard pages with a some fun stuff.  

For artists, well, this may sound kind of elementary, but read the script carefully. I mean, really carefully. You'd be surprised at the number of plot points that sometimes vanish from a comic book story because the artist didn't catch it, didn't feel like drawing it, or simply couldn't get it across. Any penciller should feel free to play within the boundaries of a script, carving out cool storytelling riffs from the script, but they shouldn't undermine the story itself with digressions inspired by bravura or omissions inspired by lateness.

Nrama: Looking at your work on Dynamite's Green Hornet, you're doing stuff on layouts with Jonathan Lau. Can you walk us through a little bit about how you get your head around that, and what the back-and-forth is with you and Jonathan?

Hester: Actually I don't do those thumbnails after issue #5. What I did was take Kevin's screenplay and he and I sat down and hammered out where the issue breaks would be and what kind of imagery to showcase. We then adapted it by sending the screenplay back and forth, changing it from screenplay to comic book script. I then took the scripts and thumbnailed them as if I were the penciler, but taking special care to place word balloons and block panels so the characters would be in the proper speaking order in relation to the script. Kevin's work is very timing dependent, so it was important to get the dialogue flowing through the panels in a way that approximated the timing he would get through an actor's performance and the editing process. That's where Kevin's greatest strength is, I think, in that snappy dialogue, so we did our best to keep those rhythms alive.

Jonathan would then get the script and thumbnails and pencil the book. I tweak placements and sound effects to match those pencils an then Kevin makes a final pass, polishing dialogue, etc.

After #5 Jonathan got the hang of Kevin's rhythms, so we let him run with the actual storytelling and I stuck to facilitating Kevin's adaptation and making sure the art synched with the scripts we had worked out. I guess I'm more of a glorified, hands-on editor now.

Nrama: Finally, for those who are trying to work their way up the ladder to becoming writer/artist combos such as yourself, what do you feel they don't know that they need to?

Hester: Do not wait for anyone's permission to become a cartoonist. If you want to be one, you are one. Put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard and go. Nothing can teach you as much as working , so even if you're not a "pro," give yourself an assignment and stick to it. There's absolutely nothing between yourself and comics. Make them. If they're good people might pay you to do them, and let me tell you, that's pretty sweet.

  What's your favorite Phil Hester work?

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