Brian Hurtt is a sequential art machine. You can tell just by talking comics with him — as you see him pour over books, you can see him breaking down every page, absorbing what works, and leaving the rest.
Hurtt is a funny guy, but he's also intense about his craft — and when it comes to The Sixth Gun, that intensity shows. Clarity of panels, character design, visual storytelling — there are a lot of moving parts to sequential art, and we sat down with Hurtt to bring his method to you in the tenth installment of Artist's Alley.
Newsarama: Brian, just to kick this off — how did you wind up getting your start in this industry? How did you decide that comics were what you wanted to do for a living?
Brian Hurtt: For me, it really was the classic combination of right place, right time. With a little bit of hard work thrown in the mix. I had reached a point in my life where it was like, “Now or never” and I buckled down and started working on my portfolio in earnest. I'd thrown together a few samples, about 3-5 pages each, to highlight different genres. I remember I had a Star Wars sample, a Batman sample and a Queen & Country sample.
The first two were sequences that I just came up with on my own, while the Q&C pages I was lucky enough to work on a script. My friend Christine Norrie was, at the time, doing some work for Oni (Hopeless Savages) and was able to get me script pages from an unpublished issue to work on. And, by the way, for folks starting out, I highly recommend tracking down script pages to work from. Editors love to see how you work from a script and it also goes a long way to breaking you out of your comfort zone and maybe even away from some bad storytelling habits.
Anyway, so I had this portfolio and I took it with me to Wizard World Chicago. I hauled it around and I did everything I could to show it to different editors. One of my portfolio reviews happened to be at Oni. They seemed to like what I was doing but didn't have anything for me at the moment. I went home pretty encouraged but empty-handed. A couple weeks later, I got a call from Oni — they were in a bit of a jam. They were falling behind on Q&C and really needed an artist, like yesterday. Turns out the pages I'd done samples for were for the issue they needed someone to start on. I guess they thought, “Well, this guy has already penciled six pages — let's get him!”
Nrama: Were there any big "a-ha" moments that you learned that you think shifted your artistic skills to the next level? What made you decide that your work was ready for the prime time?
Hurtt: Was my art ready for prime time? No. Not at all. This kind of picks up on my breaking in story. At that show I had shown my portfolio to a couple other editors who had been very encouraging but also very direct in their critiques. They basically told me that I wasn't quite there yet but if I kept at it I'd be working in comics in a year or so. So what ended up happening was that Oni found themselves in a position where they really needed someone ASAP and I was kind of thrown into the deep end without my water wings and just had to either learn to swim or drown.
And, really, there is no better experience for drawing comics than to actually draw comics. So Oni really gave me the opportunity to find my feet and learn my craft. I followed that three-issue run with three more projects for Oni: Skinwalker, Queen & Country: Declassified and Three Strikes. With every single one of those I was given a lot of rope to experiment and learn and figure out what worked for me. Really, it's one of the reasons I love working with Oni — I feel like I can constantly approach projects differently and push myself in different directions. There's a lot of trust there.
As far as “a-ha” moments go, I guess I never really had one. It's always been a process of dozens of small discoveries. If I had to nail down something that helped me come into my own more, it wouldn't be so much a moment, but a period in time. It was when I started on Q&C: Declassified and decided I wanted to ink myself. Before getting into comics I had just assumed I would pencil. I'd never thought of inking myself — it seemed way too daunting. But after having a few people ink me I felt that my intent, or vision, wasn't reaching the page. It wasn't that the inks were bad, it was just that the art was of two voices not one and I also came to the conclusion that I wasn't a good penciler. So yeah, that first arc where I was inking was a little rough — I was definitely learning as I went, but it was invaluable in helping me figure out who I was as an artist.
Nrama: When you're reading a script, what are some of the sorts of things you're looking for to create a really evocative image? Is it a matter of theme, character, action, reaction — what's the "hook" for you; that you can spin into something really cool?
Hurtt: It's a little bit of everything really. I've been pretty blessed to work with some great writer's but the one who is the best fit for me so far has been Cullen Bunn. When I read his scripts, it's less a blueprint for a story and more a story in it's own right. Something I can get caught up in when reading. So in that way, it's like any well told story — it takes no effort to try and build images in your mind, I just let the story take me away and the images just present themselves. Whether it's something in the drama of the moment, the things said and unsaid, or it's a great set piece or bit of action. It can really be anything, and with Cullen's scripts I tend to not have to try and imagine how I would depict something, each scene just leaps into my mind's eye. If that makes any sense.
Nrama: In fact, bouncing off that last question a bit, can you walk us through how you end up attacking a page, from blank page to final product?
Hurtt: The first thing that happens is that I sit and read the script — usually, the first pass is as I open it on my computer (I'm too impatient to wait). If some imagery leaps immediately to my mind, and I'm afraid I'll lose it, I'll quickly grab some scrap paper and make a really quick sketch. A lot of times I'm reading these scripts months in advance of me actually drawing them so after that first read I save it and don't break it out until I'm gearing up to draw it. When the time comes, I then print up the script and sit in a comfy chair with a pencil and read through it again. At this point, I'm kind of rediscovering the script and I'm making sketches of images that jump out to me and making notes about any questions I might have, etc. This stage is less problem-solving than figuring out what some of the key images might be, whether it's a big crazy action panel or a look that one character is going to give another.
The next step is where all the heavy thinking goes on. This is the thumbnailing stage (I do my thumbnails at 3”x4.5”). At this point I'm taking all those images I have in my notes and I'm trying to make them fit on the page with the other panels, make the read well as a whole and also figure out where the balloon placement is. The hardest thing is having to give up on an image I have in my mind because it just won't work on the page as a whole. That happens at least once an issue and it always sucks when you come to the realization that you can't make it work. On the other hand, sometimes the page dictates a certain type if layout and compositions come to you that you might not have come up with otherwise. I always think of doing the thumbnails and layouts as choreography and it's just about the most important process of drawing a comic. Of course, it's all for nothing if the execution sucks. Inversely, if your layouts suck then who cares about execution.
Next step is pencils. I work on 11”x14” Bristol board and the copy area is around 8”x13”. I just put the thumbnails at the top of the desk and begin penciling directly on the board with a slightly dull pencil (F lead). This part is all about getting the placement, the proportions and the shapes right. I'm really getting down most the relevant info here. Then once I've done this I go back over the page with a .5 mm mechanical pencil tweaking and tightening up everything. I try to solve all my problems in the pencils — make sure that the drawing is 100% complete before moving on to inks. I've found that I don't improvise particularly well when inking. If I leave something vague and figure I'll take care of it in inks I usually end up screwing it up.
So, anyway, once I've done tightening the pages up in pencil, it's on to inks. At this point it's all downhill. Really, as time consuming as it is it's the most enjoyable part of the comic. There really isn't much thinking involved, I can just relax and do the work. In the case of The Sixth Gun I'm inking the book with a variety of pens (before Sixth Gun my inks were done 100% with a #2 round sable brush). I've recently discovered these Japanese Zebra brush pens that I absolutely love. I start with these and do a lot of the thicker lines and more organic materials (hair, clothing, etc.). Then I go in with a variety of Pigma Microns (01, 02 sometimes 005) and Faber-Castell PITT pens (XS, S, F and sometimes M). I use these to fill out the detail work — usually it's faces, hands, furniture, etc.
After that it's just a matter of scanning and processing the pages. Sometimes I see things, mistakes that I'll correct in Photoshop: a wonky looking eye, or messed up line work. That's it! Turn it in and let Bill Crabtree (our colorist) make it look prettier than it is.
Nrama: One thing I've really noticed about your work is that you really can pack in the panels, but keep a real sense of clarity in the page. For you, how do you balance those two extremes, of being clear with what you're showing, and still showing a lot?
Hurtt: I don't know that I've ever really intellectualized it. It's more like a mantra that I've always kept in the forefront of my mind. It's all about the storytelling and I'm not doing a good job if it's not clear what I'm showing you. So I've always striven to make my art as clear and readable as possible. As long as I'm focused on what is important in any said panel then I think it'll be clear to the reader. There are probably a lot of subconscious tricks I use to do this but I honestly don't know what that is.
Nrama: And now, the question I've really wanted to ask you about: design. You've got a real knack for making sure every character looks different, and I wanted to ask how you approach designing each character, and what you're looking for to make everyone unique and even utilitarian to the story.
Hurtt: Well, if the character has a strong identity from the start in the script it's a little easier. That is, usually once I hear their voice I can almost see them. But, quite often I'm designing characters before they've had much “screen time” and sometimes before the script is even written. The first thing I ask myself is “What is it that the look of this character should say to the reader?” Is it menace, duplicity, innocence? Figuring out what that is can take me a long way to knowing how they'll look. Other than there isn't really any one approach I take to character designs.
One thing I try to keep at the forefront of my mind is contrast. Contrast between opposing characters — if ones skinny, make the other one stocky, if ones got dark hair give the other light hair, one with a broad nose the other with a hook nose, and so on. Contrast is also good in terms of character. It's fun to also take the expectations that people will have of a certain kind of character and play against that. Another thing I thing of is shapes and features. I start with the shape of the head, is it a block, a circle, an oval, an upside-down egg? And then, like Mr. Potato Head I start attaching different kinds of features. A variety of noses—broad, long, hooked, skinny, bulbous; ears — jughead, flat to the head, long floppy ears; mouths, eyes, and so on.
I then apply this same type of approach to the body types. Something else I do is to sometimes think of the characters in terms of animals. There have been characters that I think of as cat-like, others like an ox, or a dog. Two characters recently have had lion-like characteristics. You could even say that Missy Hume has the qualities of a praying mantis — angular, large eyes.
And sometimes it's as simple as doing a sketch of some random character that looks cool and then shoehorning him into the book.
Nrama: Perhaps bouncing off that last question a bit, is the idea of character expressiveness, and overall emotional impact. For you, how do you go about making sure that the character's feelings are displayed both in their faces, their body language, or even through the scene as a whole?
Hurtt: That's one of those things that I find really important but that I don't think through too much. It sounds goofy, but I often feel like an actor when drawing characters. I try to feel what they're feeling and then let that inform the drawing or the scene. I try to put myself in the moment. My hope is that if the art conforms to the way I “feel it” then the reader will also feel it. I know that sounds crazy but that's how I approach it.
Nrama: Something that seems to be a catchall phrase for comics is the idea of "visual storytelling." But everyone I think has a different meaning as to what that is. So for you, what do you think visual storytelling is, and how do you approach that for your work?
Hurtt: I have a pretty simple approach. Visual storytelling should be sequential art that a reader could follow even without the words. The emotions, the atmosphere and story should be clear and stand on it's own as a story. I remember that before issue #1 of The Sixth Gun had come out, I got a call from Cory Casoni, Oni's Director of Marketing. He had not seen the script but he had his hands on the finished art for the book. He said that he wanted to try and tell me the story as he understood it from just the art. He then proceeded to tell me the story of the entire first issue page by page. Without the dialogue he was able to nail down the story. I was impressed and also encouraged that I had done my job well. The only thing he wasn't exactly sure of was Drake's motivations and that was my favorite part because that was exactly how I intended to present him visually.
Nrama: Now, having gone to a comic book shop with you, I know you are methodical when it comes to looking at other people's artwork. For you, what are you looking for, and what lessons have you brought away from that sort of intense analysis to your own work?
Hurtt: I love clarity of storytelling, and straightforward panel construction. There's also the undefinable quality of the artist's voice. I look for someone who has their own way of expressing things. Just a few of my favorite artists are Guy Davis, Sam Hiti, Christophe Blain, and Jeff Smith and then of course some old school masters like Toth, Herge and Canniff. Something I also admire is consistency. I feel like that's something I struggle with still. There are a number of artists who might not knock your socks off or grab you by the throat but their art is very clear, consistent and stay out of the way of the story. As I say that, I think that last point may be the most important job of an artist and the thing that I admire the most. Don't show off. Stay out of the way of the story. But always service the story.
Nrama: Just as far as a day-to-day element, what do you to do keep improving your work, and what do you do to keep yourself inspired?
Hurtt: I draw every day. But I don't do enough to challenge myself and to really workout some of my other creative muscles. I really have no time for keeping a sketchbook anymore, anytime I'm drawing it's for the book. I don't even generally have time to do a lot of character design work or designing environments — 80-90% of that happens on the page as I'm drawing it.
As for inspiration, I get that from all kinds of places. Other comics, novels, music, movies, television — I mean really anywhere. I sometimes worried that I can get too easily inspired and excited about things. It can be distracting to the work at hand — always daydreaming about the next project. I've got a shelf with notebooks filled with that kind of stuff. No, the hardest part is staying focused and inspired for the work in front of you. I'm particularly blessed that right now I'm working on a book that never bores me with a writer and collaborator that I love working with.
Nrama: Over the course of your career, what do you think the smartest thing you've ever done was... and what do you think has been your biggest mistake?
Hurtt: I don't focus on mistakes and tend not to even think of them in those terms. There are things we can learn from and everything I've done has led me to here. And I'm very happy with were I'm at now.
The smartest thing I've ever done? Let's not give me too much credit. I'd say the most fortunate thing I did was, after the cancellation of DC's Hard Time, instead of knocking on doors looking for more work, I used that moment as an opportunity to work with Cullen on The Damned. Without breaking away from work-for-hire jobs at that point I never would have found myself here working on The Sixth Gun. It hasn't been easy, but I don't regret it.
Nrama: Finally, for those who are trying to crack in the industry as an artist, what do you think people should know about this business that they don't?
Hurtt: That it's a business. So many people come to it as fans (and you should be) but they don't treat it as a job. They don't bring the work ethic. You've got to be on time, responsive to editors, easy to work with and you've got to have drive. It's much harder work than you might suspect. I don't know anyone who got into this and found that the amount of work met their expectations. As much work as you think it is, it'll be more. And you have to love it. If you don't love it, you'll burn out early.
Look, if I wanted to make money drawing pictures, the last profession I'd recommend pursuing is comics. Hours to dollars, you're better off anywhere else. But if you're like me, it's in your blood and you can't see any other way about it. I gotta draw comics. I love it. I have to. It's what carries me through the tough times making comics. A comic friend of mine has a theory that as important as talent is, it's the determination and perseverance that get's you through. Do you have what it takes to stick with it when it's really fucking hard. It's kind of like “last guy standing.” Keep your head down, work hard and you'll outlast those with less resolve.
One last thing I tell anyone who's trying to break into comics is to make a comic. You'll learn so much about what you're made of, if it's right for you, and what the job entails. Make a comic and you've proven that you've got the love and drive to see something through. And there's no better feeling than holding that first book, totally completed, in your hands.Click here for more of Newsarama's process pieces!