Last month, I interviewed graphic novelist Nick Abadzis for IdeasMag, picking his brains as a long-serving comics stalwart, in conjunction with the release of the collected Hugo Tate. Originally printed in Deadline - the 90s Brit-comics Bible which is now the subject of reverent, nostalgic whispers from older readers - Hugo Tate has, fortunately, now been rescued from oblivion by Blank Slate Books.
I've witnessed the power of Abadzis' comics before. Laika, his 2007 graphic novel about the Soviet space dog, is a deeply moving work. So much so that it can reduce a grown man to tears within ten pages, eliciting open sobbing on a London Overground train.
Laika should top any comic fan's list of must-reads, but reading Hugo Tate is quite a revelation. As the pages fly by, not only does the writer-artist grow in confidence - maturing from short strips and dramatic sketches to full-blown, dreamlike narratives that span the American continent - but the lead character himself, the eponymous Hugo, fleshes out as his personality develops. When we meet him, he's a mere stick-man; when we leave him, he's so much more.
Unfortunately, the article at IdeasMag had to be trimmed down to fit editorial guidelines, but here is the interview in full.
What first inspired you to start making comics?
I first made comics as a kid, imitating the funnies I found in humour comics like The Dandy and The Beano. Tintin and Asterix were also really big influences - Herge's work blew my mind when I first discovered it. Charles M. Schulz was also a big early inspiration - I loved Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Did you study art or illustration? Did that inform your style at all?
I did an art foundation course at Chelsea School of Art but didn't go on to do a BA because after that year I still hadn't figured out whether I wanted to do fine art or illustration. I took a year out, travelled a bit then found myself rediscovering comics. That really sealed it - I'd had my calling.
What artists inspired you to at the beginning?
Apart from those mentioned above, there were others like Dudley D. Watkins, Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, John M. Burns, Ron Embleton, Mike Noble, Martin Asbury, Harry North and many other stalwarts of British comics publishing. I was also a big fan of European comics and the likes of Uderzo, Morris, Moebius, Phillipe Driulliet. Later came American artists like Robert Crumb, The Hernandez Brothers, Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes... many others.
What was your first big break, and how did that come about?
I was working in the original Forbidden Planet on Denmark Street in central London and a friend told me there was a job going as a colour separator at Marvel Comics UK (back when Marvel had a UK office). He arranged for a friend of his who worked there to view my portfolio and I managed to talk my way into that colour separating job. This was in the days when everything was done by hand, the old four-colour method - very laborious! But comics is a labour-intensive business. I learned how to colour pages by that method and soon worked my way into editorial. Marvel UK was a good university of comics - you learned things a particular way but it was all useful stuff. It gave me confidence to pursue my own direction, which I did after about a year and a half of working there.
At what point did comics become a concrete, sustainable career for you?
Ha! I'm not sure it ever has - I've always supplemented my comics career with other work, as an editor, illustrator, newspaper cartoonist, magazine developer - the secret to my longevity has been diversification.
A lot of older artists and writers talk about the early 90s - with the British invasion of American comics, and UK publications such as Deadline - as a sort of heyday for British comics. Is that just nostalgia talking, or was it as full of opportunity as they say? What do you think was so special about that period?
Probably a bit of all those things. When I was given the opportunity to experiment with my own characters and get paid for it (albeit not much) on Deadline I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I'm not sure it translated into great success for me personally but it did at least give me a history and a small, solid fanbase and reputation, something I'm eternally grateful for. In that sense, it was a great time - there was room for experimentation. I think a few writers got really lucky and rightly capitalised on the perception that they were part of some Brit wave of talent, but there were just as many writer/artists for whom it wasn't quite so easy.
When the bottom fell out of the UK comic market in the mid-90s, many of those very talented people were forced into career paths such as games development or similar. They were tough times and any of those Brit creators who are still around and making comics are doing so because they really, really love comics - the language, the medium and the industry.
Now, there are new publishers and a new generation of artists forging their own creative paths. You've worked with a handful of them, from the DFC to First Second and Blank Slate. How has the landscape changed, in your eyes?
I'm very pleased to see that there are now comics for younger readers again. I think good comics for children are very important as they're the next generation of fans who may grow into adulthood appreciating the medium so giving them quality storytelling when they're young is key to that. I applaud any publisher who understands and nourishes that. But comics really is much more than an entertainment medium now - it is a language and a swiftly evolving one. Every time you turn on a smartphone or computer, you're faced with something approximating comics iconography - it's all linked, all the different facets of design and comics grammar are feeding into the way we interact with the world through e-media these days. Exciting times.
You've worked on very different projects over the years, from serialised narratives to graphic novels. How does your creative process work? Does it differ, depending on the format?
It does - I tend to approach every project that comes my way differently, whether it's a commission or something that I've brought to a publisher. How does it work? I don't know. There's a lot of strugle after the initial burn of an idea, a lot of sweat and a long period shaping the structure and shape of the story. I do a lot of thumbnails before I even think of doing finished art.
How is creating all-ages or children-focussed comics (Cora's Breakfast, Laika) different from more adult-oriented work like Hugo Tate or Sober Dog?
Younger readers will let you know very quickly if they're bored by the story you're telling them so it's worth giving it plenty of twists and turns. But really, it's the same for adults - you have to engage your reader whatever age they are, and hook them into the story so they can't put it down. So, not a lot of difference, really.
You recently moved to the USA. A lot of your work has not only been informed or influenced by American culture (O America), but some of it has been published by American publishers, too. Do you think that British comics artists should look Stateswards (as opposed to, say, inwards or Europewards)?
I think British creators should look to wherever the work is coming from, because they've got to be survivors. Being a comics creator can be a tough old game. Of course, it's so much the better if the work is being offered by British publishers, and we currently have a disparate and thriving scene here which is fantastic to see. Personally, I'm a pragmatic sort of bloke, and I don't like to have all my eggs in one basket so I don't think there's anything wrong with working for more than one publisher, here in the UK or abroad.
There's also much discussion about what to call comics, and the term 'graphic novel' seems to have been adopted as a way of smuggling comics into more literary contexts. What's your take on this? Is it just a name, or is it just another form of stigma?
I'm not sure who originally coined the term 'Graphic Novel' but it seems to be used a lot by the book trade to describe long comics, be they documentaries, memoir, fiction or whatever. It's a clunky term and I don't like it much - especially when it's prefixed by the word 'literary' - I've heard my own work described as 'literary graphic novels'. They're visual narratives, fusions of words and pictures that are utterly immersive when they're doing their jobs properly. But in all honesty, I don't spend much time thinking about it - I think about the storytelling and whether it's working or not, whether it's going to hook a reader in. That's what's most important.
Do you think the surge of interest in superhero movies benefits comics at large?
I think it's part of it, yeah, part of the appeal in a general way - but in truth it's an offshoot, more an occurrence of merchandising than of comics per se. Comics as a cultural and linguistic phenomenon doesn't need to be justified by that - that is just one indication of comics' influence and colonisation of other areas of culture. I love movies, but when I'm watching a movie I don't necessarily want it to look or be like a comic - I'm looking for a different kind of experience. I don't think making those movies will necessarily bring a new readership to comics, it's just a success of marketing those particular characters.
What will bring new readers to comics is good new comics, new directions, new evolutions of the form and sophistication of storytelling. It can be an incredibly expressive, personal method of telling stories, of exploring the human experience, so why be limited to one particular genre? It isn't, so I would advise anyone interested in good storytelling to look further afield than mainstream comics. There is some incredible work around these days, coming not only from the UK but from Europe, the Americas and Japan. All these countries have their own mainstream comics and also their own independent sectors where all manner of experimentation goes on, be it online, self-published or curated by small publishers still in love with the print medium. It's here that you'll find the genuine vanguard of comics, not on cinema screens.
What advice would you give to young artists and illustrators interested in making their own comics?
Never give up. Follow your own instincts, your own voice and get your vision out there.
Visit Nick's site here. The Hugo Tate collection is available at all good comics shops, but you can also order direct from publisher Blank Slate Books here.