Behind the Cowl: David Hine
With 2010's Bulletproof Coffin and its successor Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred in 2012, David Hine received both critical and commercial recognition across the comics press for his avant-garde, creator-owned series. From reviews and interviews in The Comics Journal and Comics Alliance to Comic Book Resources and other outlets, Hine's vivid interpretation of the medium and its sordid history have been ripe for journalists seeking parallels with his own career in the industry. While many audiences know of Hine from his recent time on The Darkness with Jeremy Haun for TopCow or previous corporate work for DC Comics, Marvel, and many other publishers, few may realize his lengthy tenure in the business and multiple roles as an author, illustrator, and cartoonist. I had the fortune of discussing the craft of comics production with him as well as his creative process.
-- Nathan Wilson
While I know that you began your comics career as an illustrator on the adults only Knockabout book and the 2000AD Annual in 1981, can you tell me a little bit about your background? Had art always been your first passion, something you pursued as a child and teenager, something shaped and influenced by a supportive parent or teacher?
My first passion was definitely to write. I kept a diary, wrote short stories and dreamed of writing science fiction for a living. I was also into comics and drawing but the writing was the prime interest. My parents didn’t really think of creative arts as a ‘real’ job, but I was encouraged to write by a couple of English teachers at school, both of them big science fiction fans. They would leave their own copies of science-fiction novels on a shelf in one of the school rooms and we were encouraged to borrow them and bring them back when we’d read them.
I met several other science fiction and comic fans at school and we got into producing our own fanzines. When I was somewhere around 15 years old I got the bug to draw comics for a living after seeing the art of Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Steranko, then Richard Corben and Robert Crumb. I got absolutely no encouragement from anyone but my fellow comics fans. Teachers, parents, they all made a big deal about art not being a proper career and my headmaster made a real effort to deter me from going to art college. He actually told me that he was proud of the fact that no one had gone from that school into Art College in the past ten years. I never even mentioned comics specifically as a career choice. They would have had me committed. Even at art college the teachers despised comics as an art form. That lack of encouragement didn’t have the slightest effect on me. I just wanted to create comics and make enough money to have a roof over my head. No ambition beyond that.
Was it solely a love of comics art or did your tastes blend, say, the visuals and illustrations of album covers, commercial art, film, and the like?
Oh, I was into all kinds of art. I followed the underground press, particularly Oz magazine. The graphics and experiments with color printing impressed me a lot. Science-fiction and fantasy book jackets by Patrick Woodroffe, Frank Kelly Freas and Chris Foss. H.R. Giger’s work was amazing. I always watched a lot of movies and TV shows. Most of what I was into was science fiction or horror, or the hippy-trippy art movies like Mysteries of the Organism, I am Curious (Yellow) and Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. Essentially anything that my parents’ generation disapproved of. That’s why I got into punk in the late seventies too. I just liked to offend the general public by my very existence. I’m sure that was just a defense mechanism because I was actually quite shy and insecure.
When did you first begin reading comics and did you come into the medium solely by way of native British illustrators, European comics, or American comics? When did the artist stand out for you or when did you begin to recognize the cover or interior work was done by a specific individual?
I should revise what I said about everyone disapproving of comics. My maternal grandmother was always buying comics for my siblings and myself. She bought each of us a weekly comic, so we were reading Beano, Topper, Eagle and whatever girls’ comic my sister was into. I was particularly fond of Jackie, which was a mix of teen romance strips and pin-ups of boy bands like the Bay City Rollers and teenybop heart-throbs like David Cassidy and David Essex. Beano and Topper were humorous comics for kids. I grew out of them fairly quickly and they were replaced by Look and Learn, which ran The Trigan Empire among other strips. That was probably the first time I was really aware of the artist as an individual. I was also soon recognizing the work of Frank Bellamy in Eagle and TV 21.
My gran also used to buy me the black and white reprints of American horror and mystery comics from the fifties and early sixties. There were a number of titles published by Alan Class. You would get a big 68 pages for about one shilling – the equivalent of around ten cents. Those comics introduced me to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and I soon became aware of the newer American comics, which used to be imported fairly irregularly. You would have to check out all the newsagents (the British equivalent of drugstores) every week to see what had been delivered. It could be anything from the past two years that would turn up, so you would often have gaps in your collection.
Initially I was reading Spider-Man, Thor, and Fantastic Four. I remember the first time I saw Neal Adams work on the X-Men and Steranko on Nick Fury. These guys were bringing in all kinds of design elements that I had never seen in comics before. I found that very interesting. The next big thing for me was the underground scene from the USA. I was losing interest in comics a little by sixteen. They were starting to seem like kids’ stuff but the undergrounds, Corben, Bode, Crumb, Irons – all that over-the-top sex, drugs and violence was so irreverent and confrontational, it really pulled me back in and showed me what you could achieve through the comics medium.
I discovered the European scene through a shop called Forever People on a trip to Bristol. I picked up the first issue of Metal Hurlant and Druillet’s Lone Sloane. This was another revelation, particularly Moebius of course. I later lived in Paris for a while and became very influenced by artists like José Munoz, Tardi, Pratt, Comes and many others. The magazine, A Suivre was running genuine graphic novels as serials, as were Charlie and L’Echo des Savannes. They were way ahead of anything that the USA was producing and they inspired me to create Strange Embrace. That graphic novel really came almost entirely from the European influence. There’s very little of the British or American heritage in there.
As a child or teenager, were you writing your own stories or drawing your own comics, or did that come later? Did the art precede the writing or vice versa?
I guess, like most kids, I was always drawing, and I do have a strip I drew when I was about 8 years old, but that was a one-off. I really wanted to write prose. I still have a lot of the short stories I wrote in my early teens. They weren’t great but I guess they show some promise. I did actually submit one of them to a science-fiction magazine - I think it may have been New Worlds and I got a very nice letter back. It was a rejection but an encouraging one. I had the comics bug by then though. Once I decided on a career in comics, I knew I wanted to be a writer and artist, like Will Eisner and Robert Crumb and Vaugn Bode. I was probably too much of a control freak to collaborate.
In terms of professional training, did you pursue any academic studies for art or creative writing in college? If so, were these experiences liberating in confirming and shaping your love for art and writing or constraining and limiting? Was the work you produced solely comics, long form fiction, poster illustrations, etc?
I went to Art College for four years on a graphic design course. There weren’t many pure illustration courses around and I didn’t get into my first choice of college. I ended up in Exeter Art College on a brand new Graphics degree course. It wasn’t a great course and there was no one on the staff who had any interest in comics. I had to fight to be allowed to draw comics at all. I was always trying to answer a brief with graphic narratives that resembled comics and that really didn’t make me too popular. This was in the mid-seventies and Art Colleges were pushing theoretical art that supposedly tested the boundaries intellectually but didn’t place any importance on the technical skills of life drawing, perspective and drawing or painting techniques. We had a teacher who would make us draw a figure over and over on a sheet of paper until every part of the surface was covered with lines. He wouldn’t even look at it until it was a mess of graphite with nothing discernible of a human figure in there at all. We had a teacher who painted nothing but pure white canvasses, another who painted brown canvasses. I thought they were a waste of space. I’m actually quite into experimental and performance art, but you have to have a rational thought process at work, and I do strongly believe that you should learn basic art techniques before you start to experiment and reject traditional methods. But this was a period when Art Colleges had been overrun by teachers who had been students of the sixties - mostly the ones with no talent who couldn’t make it as artists in their own right.
Having said that, college was a liberating experience. I was away from home for the first time and able to pursue whatever interests I wanted. The actual college work only took up a few hours out of the week so the rest of the time I was reading comics, taking photographs, listening to punk music, producing fanzines and generally having the time of my life. You have to remember that this is back when you could go to college for nothing. I was even given a grant that paid me enough to live on. My parents probably wouldn’t have allowed me to go to college at all if things were the way they are now, with massive college fees and almost nothing in the way of grants.
In the course of my research, I know you first met Shaky Kane in relation to the British punk scene of the late 1970s and a project you were developing entitled Joe Public Comics. First, what role did music play in defining your approach to writing and art? Second, what is the origin of Joe Public Comics and was this your first professional work?
Joe Public Comics was far from being professional work, by any definition. I had worked on a few fanzines with friends at school, which were produced on the school’s spirit duplicator, an incredibly primitive form of mechanical copying where the originals had to be drawn or typed onto waxed paper and the printing was in horrible smelly purple ink. At Art College I had access to an offset litho printer in the college’s printing department. I persuaded the Head of Graphics to let me use the press and with the help of the technician I turned out two fanzines, Primal Scream and Joe Public Comics. I wrote and drew most of the material for these. Primal Scream had contributions from four friends and fellow students. I photographed the art, made the plates, ran the printing press, put the copies together by hand, bound and trimmed them. I completed every part of the print and production process, which was a great experience. I was rubbish at selling and distribution though. I printed 200 copies and most of them ended up being recycled.
By the time I did Joe Public Comics I was living in a house with Shaky. We met at a punk club or a bar somewhere in Exeter. Shaky probably remembers the details better than me. When a room went free in the house where I was living, I invited him to move in. We shared similar tastes in just about everything – music, art, literature, comics and pop culture in general. I asked him to do a strip for my second publishing venture and he came up with Hitler on Ice. My own work on the comic was utterly forgettable, but Shaky’s strip already displayed many of the elements that he would return to over and over again. Insects, televisions, strange pop culture artifacts drawn in a strangely mechanical style reminiscent of Warhol.
There was a constant soundtrack of punk to our lives at that time. I had gotten into Patti Smith in a big way, then The New York Dolls and The Ramones. When British punk came along with The Damned, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, I cut my hair, dyed it, ripped up my clothes and started wearing makeup. Punk took over my life.
My last self-published effort was Spit in the Sky, which was a punk fanzine, with reviews, interviews and a short story about a guy who impregnates himself and then changes gender in order to give birth. I did all the illustration myself on that one, and produced it in a deliberately shoddy way. Photocopiers were getting better by this time and it was a lot quicker to go to the Copy Shop than to go through the whole business of making plates and printing on the offset litho press.
Although far more common today, books and lessons on creating comics, specifically the craft behind scriptwriting, learning the geography of page composition, the rhythms and beats, and the relationship between panels had to be scarce when you first began. Can you tell me how you learned this craft? Did the pursuit of art give you greater insight into scriptwriting or did they develop alongside each other?
There was very little in the way of academic works on comics. There was Alan Aldridge’s Penguin Book of Comics, which was essentially a broad survey of the history of comics and Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium by Reitberger and Fuchs. I did a thesis on comics for my degree and was marked down for not listing enough sources. I only had those two! Most of the thesis came off the top of my head. I had absorbed so many comics by this time that I instinctively knew how they worked and when I wrote the thesis I found I could analyze the way comic pages worked, drawing on that experience. When I was creating comics I was simultaneously thinking in words and images. The stories played out like movies in my head, but I also knew how to pace and layout a page. The storytelling has never been a problem. It was always the physical drawing that I struggled with. I don’t have the natural facility to draw that I see in other artists. Drawing was a means to an end – to tell the story. I don’t get much pleasure from the physical process of drawing.
For many years I spent most of my time fighting to improve my drawing and I really neglected the writing because it came naturally. Looking back it’s obvious I should have dropped the drawing and concentrated on writing. I would have had a very different career path if I’d given up pushing the art back in the 1980’s and worked harder at the craft of writing.
What about in terms of developing another writer's script? I imagine transforming a script into a visual narrative has to be daunting in some ways.
I worked on scripts by John Wagner and Mark Millar among others. They were very easy to interpret. Both writers know what to put in a script to tell you exactly what they’re after. I did work with several writers who didn’t really get it at all. I guess because I was always a B-list artist at best, I was often teamed with people who were making early attempts at writing comics. There would be the perennial problems of asking for several distinct and separate actions within one panel, five hundred words of dialogue and captions on a page, that kind of thing. Or no information at all. A character would be introduced who was no more than a name. On at least one occasion I wasn’t sure of the gender. I would just ask permission from the editor to re-write those scripts so that they did work. It sounds bad now. I would be shocked if an artist started messing around like that with my scripts, but I never heard any complaints. The thing is that a real pro like John Wagner will provide you with a totally flawless script where you have no need to change anything.
For your first commercial work, how did your assignments as a penciller and inker with Knockabout Comics and the 2000AD Annual in 1981 come about? Were you sending submissions, attending conventions and doing portfolio reviews?
I was certainly going to the one annual convention that was held in London, but it was tough. I was still living in Exeter and had no money at all to travel back and forth to London. No fax machines in those days and obviously no internet, so you either posted photocopied samples or turned up in person. I think the 2000AD Annual was my first job and was a case of being literally in the right place at the right time. I phoned the 2000AD office and made an appointment to see the editor. It was for a Friday afternoon. I spent every penny I had on a day return train ticket to London. I was on the dole at the time and living in the most abject poverty. I probably had no more than a pound or two left when I arrived in London. I went to the office, which was in the enormous King’s Reach Tower, home of IPC Publishing. The receptionist told me that everyone had gone out to lunch. I sat in the reception area and waited. And waited... In the end she confided that as it was a Friday they probably wouldn’t come back from lunch at all. Real Madmen stuff. She told me to come back on Monday. I was desperate. I had to get the train back to Exeter and there was no way I could make the journey again for months. Finally a couple of the staff did show up, though not the editor. I think it was Robin Smith who finally had a look at my art. He wasn’t too encouraging and I was on my way out of the office, feeling pretty dejected. Alan Grant was sitting at a desk talking on the phone and he stopped me, literally as I was walking out of the door. An artist had just called to say he couldn’t do a job for the annual. Alan called me over and asked to look at my portfolio. He flicked through it and handed me the script, told me to bring the art in within the month.
I think I met Tony Bennett, the publisher of Knockabout, at the various conventions and Comic Marts I went to. I was squatting in Brixton by the end of 1980 so I could drop in to see editors more easily. Tony was great. Although Knockabout was a humor comic, he let me do these incredibly angst-ridden and depressive stories about suicide and civil unrest. The second story was co-written by my partner, Vikki, and was about the Brixton riots. After that I think Hunt Emerson, who was co-editing the comic, pointed out that my work really wasn’t appropriate. I don’t hold that against him at all because he was absolutely right.
During this period of the early 1980s, were you solely involved in comics illustration or were you also producing for other mediums?
I was doing quite a lot of illustration work for various magazines. I was ludicrously unprofessional. Living in a squat, I had no telephone. I would make calls to editors from a public call box at regular intervals to see if there was any work for me, and I’m sure a lot of them got quite irritated with me but the art editor at New Musical Express was incredibly tolerant and accommodating. I would do a drawing that had the most tenuous link to music you could imagine and deliver it personally to him. He would find some way to get it into the paper and pay me something like £70. Those jobs literally kept me from starving. Once I was living in a house with a telephone I could expand to other magazine work. By 1984 I was doing enough work to come off the dole. There were masses of new magazines to cater for the new home computer phenomenon. I did a lot of work for them, as well as educational strips for Oxford University Press, illustrations for lifestyle magazines, some of them quite upmarket, like Vanity Fair.
In 1984, you began ink work for Warrior comics on issue #25 and then on #26. First, as your previous work had been as both a penciller and inker, was it at all strange to be inking another artist's work? Did you have to alter your approach? Second, as the book was an anthology and these specific issues contained stories by either Alan Moore--"Valerie"--from V for Vendetta or Grant Morrison--"The Liberators"--did this experience give you greater insight and access to the British comics community?
Dez Skinn, editor of Warrior, had seen my work for Knockabout and liked my ink style more than the drawing. I enjoyed the work. For me, the struggle was always with the pencils, the limited facility for drawing figures. Inking was the part that was pure enjoyment. I didn't really change my inking methods. Dez was after the slick brushwork I was using on my own strips. I simply applied that to other people's pencils. Pencils were usually very tight, so the artist's own style would still show through, but I can also identify my own work even after all these years.
I don't know that working for Warrior gave me greater access to the comics community. It was always very open. You went to conventions and you could walk up to Alan Moore or anyone else and chat to them. I used to belong to the Society of Strip Illustrators and you would bump into just about everyone at the monthly meetings. The British comics industry was always very open and egalitarian at a social level and still is. Probably too open for some of the editors. There used to be a rule that you didn't show 2000AD editors your portfolio in a bar. It was a case of "You can buy me a drink, but if you want to show me your work, come to the office."
Following Warrior, your next assignments were inking gigs for Marvel UK titles Spider-Man and Zoids and The Transformers. How did the relationship with Marvel UK begin? As you were now working with a publisher with ties with the U.S. industry, did the experience differ at all from your earlier endeavors? Did it teach you anything about the industry or medium that perhaps you did not know beforehand?
Marvel UK was producing a lot of titles back then and they needed to keep the art flowing. I'm not sure who was the first person to contact me. I think it may have been Richard Starkings. He would have brought me in to ink Kev Hopgood on Zoids. I knew Kev from the Society of Strip Illustrators so he may have suggested me to Richard. Once I started there I had all the inking work I could handle. Richard knew he could count on me. Pencilers often brought the work in at the last minute and it would be up to me to meet ridiculous deadlines. I would often work two or three days with just a couple of hours sleep each night, often no sleep at all on a Thursday, so that I could deliver the pages by Friday afternoon. I'd arrive at the office feeling like a zombie, hang out there until the end of the day, then head to the pub with whoever was around. There were always freelancers delivering art on a Friday so it was a good day to meet up with people and have a few drinks.
I guess I learned that once you have a foot in the door, the two things that count most are to always meet that deadline and to develop a personal relationship with fellow professionals. The quality of work is important of course, but you do have to keep your face out there. In the days before internet, that meant physically meeting and talking to people. The social life is one of the most uniquely pleasant aspects of the comics business.
Was there a community atmosphere between writers and artists or did the number of available publishing outlets foster a fiercer sense of competition and negate such camaraderie?
There was probably competition between publishers to grab the best talent available. I know Marvel UK lost some people to 2000AD and at one stage I did jump ship myself. I was in the middle of inking The Sleaze Brothers, by Andy Lanning and John Carnell, with Richard editing, when I was offered the chance to produce full art for Fleetway's Crisis. That was an offer I couldn't refuse. It didn't have too much effect on the community atmosphere though and I never really felt any rivalry with other artists. There was plenty of work to go round at the time and we were all just pleased to see friends being successful.
Were you also developing "Martin" for Revolver at the same time as the 2000AD cover work? I noticed that with "Martin," you share the issue byline with Garth Ennis, Mark Millar, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Coulthard, aka Shaky Kane. Although you did separate strips, was this the first time you'd worked together since Joe Public Comics?
Revolver was edited by Peter Hogan and he was bringing in all kinds of people that he enjoyed working with. I don't think I met up with Shaky very much at that period. He was living outside of London and didn't get out to many of the social events. We kind of led parallel lives, often working for the same publications, but not meeting. "Martin" was an important piece for me. I had never really had a distinctive art style. I was always playing around with different techniques of drawing and painting. When I did the “Tiananmen Square” two-parter for Crisis I was following the vogue begun by Simon Bisley, for mixed media. Acrylics, gouache, inks, pen, pencils, markers, then splattering the art with toothbrush spray. It was fun but messy and horrible. Other times I was using watercolors and later I used early versions of Photoshop. Really just trying anything. And I never had enough confidence in my own drawing skills so I would look at other people's work, use photographs, occasionally swipe a pose if I just couldn't get it right.
Then I went on holiday, staying in an old farmhouse in the Cevennes region of France. The farmhouse and land belonged to the family of my partner's sister-in-law. It was traditional stone-built and hadn't been renovated or updated for about forty years, so there was no TV, no modern conveniences, and it was in a small isolated village. I felt cut off from the modern world and that inspired me to start working on a story. I set myself some rules. Each day I would draw three or four panels. Each panel would fill a single page in an A5 sketchbook. I would use only pencil and marker pen. I had no reference whatsoever, so I would have no influence on my drawing. I was about to find out what my 'style' actually was. Also I would force myself not to think ahead in the story beyond the next panel. I focused my mind on the single image I was working on and only allow myself to imagine the single panel that would follow it. "Martin" was the result. It was loosely based on an incident from my own life, when I moved into a room where a convicted 'terrorist' had been living. He was a sad individual who had been tailing left wing politicians with the intent of assassinating them. The room was as he left it when he was arrested. Along one wall there were dozens of bottles filled with urine and a written record of the daily condition of his bladder and bowel movements. I kind of did a riff on what might have been going through this guy's head. It broke all the rules I had imagined you should have for writing and drawing. No plot breakdown, no sketching and roughing out pages, no research. I found it incredibly liberating and it led ultimately to Strange Embrace. Also, surprisingly, it was published in Revolver and I was well paid for it.
I noticed a lot of your collaborations during this time were with a writer named Myra Hancock both at 2000AD and beyond as you did both cover and interior artwork. As you were developing your own writing projects, the next being 1991's "Worms" in Crisis #62, what did you learn about scriptwriting from her that helped you as a writer?
To be honest I don't think I really learned too much from Myra's script work on those projects. If there was ever a creator who should have been left to follow her own muse, it was Myra. She used to produce these amazing anecdotal mini-comics that she wrote and drew, then sold from a tray slung around her neck in Camden Market. 2000AD editor Alan McKenzie was trying to get a woman's voice into the comic and he hired her to write "Tao De Moto" and we also worked on "Sticky Fingers" for Crisis, but I always felt that Myra was a square peg that everyone was trying to fit into a round hole. We got on really well, but I think she would have been so much better just doing those personal stories in her own inimitable style. She really didn't have much interest in traditional plotting and long-term story telling and that's not a criticism by any means. There just wasn't a place in a commercial Fleetway comic for what she was about, which was empathizing with real people in the real world and putting down her interactions and relationships in words and images. Having said that, it was a noble effort on Alan's part.
Actually, was "Worms" the next project you wrote and drew or did "Up on the Roof" in Crisis #51 precede that? I ask because online bibliographies neglect "Up on the Roof," but my hardcover of Strange Embrace includes the strip.
“Up on the Roof” preceded “Worms” by a couple of months. This was the period where everything felt like a dry run for Strange Embrace. Both "Worms" and "Up on the Roof" were drawn in my new style, and I was trying to pursue a storytelling style that got into the heads of outsider characters. I don't know that my work was all that popular with the readers, who were mostly looking for something more like 2000AD. My work was determinedly non-commercial and non-mainstream by this time.
By the time Strange Embrace appears in 1993, you say you'd been working on the idea for at least fifteen years, had taken a year off to complete it (1992?), and that aspects of the series had been broached in your "Sticky Fingers" strip. First, what finally brought it all together in 1993? When did the idea first germinate for you and what, during those fifteen years, shaped and developed the concept into what readers first experienced in 1993?
All the time I was doing commercial illustration, inking and various jobs for 2000AD, I was making notes and sketches for the 'real' work. I always considered the paying jobs literally as a day job, which in retrospect was a big mistake because it would take so much of my energy that the last thing I wanted to do in my spare time was to do more drawing. The personal work just wasn't progressing and I was seeing the years slipping away. Sure it was cool to be making a living in comics, but it might have been more constructive to have a day job stacking shelves. Something that would drive me to be creative when I wasn't working. In the end I was getting depressed at the thought of cranking out second-rate hack work for the rest of my life. This was in 1992. I had made enough money to build up savings to survive for a year. My partner had a decent job, and our expenses were minimal. I decided to take a year off, doing nothing but work on the graphic novel that had been gestating for all those years. I had been making notes on plot and characters since about 1978. Not a lot of work. I think I had been in fear of the project. I kept telling myself I wasn't ready. I really didn't want to screw it up.
It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I think the next 18 months have to be the most creatively enjoyable of my life. All I did for 6 months was write. I approached the script like a screenplay. I was the artist, so I wasn't wasting time on panel descriptions. It was all about plotting and dialogue and pacing. I wrote and re-wrote, over and over, sitting in my writing room, chain smoking and drinking heavily. There are writers who drink and others who would never think of touching booze while they are working. I used to start work late in the day and write into the small hours, with the whisky bottle next to me. It really freed up the thought process. I would write until about 3am when I would pretty much be too drunk to carry on. The next day I would spend sober daylight hours cleaning up the work. Some of it was rubbish and with a clear head it was no problem dumping it. But a lot of it wouldn't have come out the way it did without the booze. I still do it occasionally when I feel the writing is getting into a rut as long as I know I'll have time to re-write in the clear light of day. I don't recommend drinking when you're working to deadline and never when you're drawing.
Strange Embrace remains the most personal and satisfying of the comics I've created. It's the one time I've focused on a single project for an extended period, totally immersing myself in it. It's also the comic that got me all the other work, though at the time it seemed like it had made no impression at all.
Following Strange Embrace, you still did inking work for pencillers such as Bryan Hitch and Salvador Larroca through Marvel UK, covers for 2000AD, and began writing strips as well such as "Mambo" and "Future Shocks." Since you still maintained both a writing and illustrating career up to 1996, were you hoping to continue with both or break away and pursue only one?
When Tundra first published Strange Embrace I thought it would be the beginning of a career as an auteur. I was soon disabused of that notion. The comic didn't sell, and in the days before internet, there was no way to get feedback, so apart from a couple of print reviews I didn't even know if people liked it. By this time, my partner and I had bought a house and there was a mortgage to pay, so I reluctantly went back to whatever paying work I could get hold of. There was a brief ray of hope when it looked like Marvel UK would let me do a follow-up to Strange Embrace as a creator-owned book. Hard to believe now, but the UK Marvel office was doing so well for a few years that editor-in-chief Paul Neary was given something close to carte-blanche for a while. I wrote and penciled the first issue before the axe fell. Sales of the UK comics dropped off. The creator-owned books were canceled and I was back to inking and odd jobs.
From 1996 through the American release of Strange Embrace in 2003, the comics bibliography is absent. Were you still writing and illustrating during this period beyond comics?
In 1995 Vikki and I became parents. Our son, Alex, was born and I was having to spend a lot of time on child care and housework. It became impossible to work the 60 or 80-hour weeks that professional comic work requires. I realized that when I did commercial illustration I was being paid twice the money for half the hours, so I packed in comics and chased editorial and advertising jobs. I spent the next 8 years doing that. The money was good, the hours were short, but it was boring as hell. I cut myself off totally from the comics world, never going to conventions and rarely seeing fellow professionals, apart from a few friends. I only realized how much I missed comics when I came back. I did write a novel during that period, and of course found that it's as tough to break into book publishing as it is to break into comics. I had some initial interest from a couple of agents but it came to nothing and I'm afraid I'm easily discouraged. I've since plundered parts of the novel for various comic scripts, so it wasn't all wasted.
2004 witnessed your "break" into American comics with Marvel's X-Men Unlimited #2 followed by the District X series. First, did these projects come about because of publishing Strange Embrace stateside, your association with Marvel UK? Since Mike Marts is the commonality between the two X books, did he seek you out?
I owe my new career entirely to two people. Firstly to Richard Starkings for making that phone call and offering to publish Strange Embrace, and then through his generous and persistent promotion of the book, which led to Joe Quesada reading it. In 2003 Richard invited me to my first San Diego comics convention and I was overwhelmed by the number of people he introduced me to. He was also handing out free copies of Strange Embrace to a select group of people. I later found out that one of those was Joe Quesada. Like me and most of the people I know, Joe has a pile of books 'to read' beside his bed and Strange Embrace languished there for some months, until the New York blackout, when the electricity failed and the city was plunged into darkness. Joe's family was out of town and with no TV, radio or music, there wasn't much else to do but light up a few candles and settle down to dig into that stack of books. By chance he picked up my graphic novel. I don't know whether it was the candle-light that did it, but a couple of days later he e-mailed me with an offer to write for Marvel.
The majority of this early Marvel work, including Daredevil Redemption transpire in the Marvel Knights imprint, one designed to give greater creator freedoms. Looking back, do you think this was a valid introduction to the American comics industry because it allowed you a greater freedom to play with such company toys in a less restrictive manner (if that's actually possible), or somewhat misleading about the work for hire culture of Big 2 publishing?
Ironically I wasn't that interested in working for Marvel or superhero comics and I said as much to Joe, but this was a period where he was actively trying to widen the creative input by bringing in writers from theatre, film and TV, and novelists. People who may have been fans of Marvel comics when they were younger but had worked outside of the field. So he was very open to my doing something that wasn't all spandex and fist-fights. The first thing I pitched was the Daredevil Redemption series. I didn't know anything about the Marvel Knights imprint. It may have been mentioned to me, but I really wasn't familiar with the workings of Marvel at all. I discussed the project with Axel Alonso and a couple of other people on a conference call. The conference call was something new for me to and I found it a bit disconcerting. I'm not sure what kind of impression I made but Axel passed on the editing of the book to Jenny Lee, who was one of his group of editors. She was absolutely brilliant as an editor. Very sharp, very encouraging and very demanding in the sense that she wanted me to justify everything decision I made and that really forced me to think through why I was approaching each scene in the way I did. I always felt like I had to have my wits about me with Jenny. Usually I could justify what I was doing and if I could then she was very supportive. I had pitched the story as a Matt Murdock vehicle and I actually didn't want Daredevil to appear in costume at all, but in the end I compromised by having him make occasional appearances and that actually served the story well in the end, because it highlighted the fact that you can't solve real world problems with vigilantes in costume hitting people. The message of the book was that the American justice system is deeply flawed and fundamentally unjust. I think that came across very well and I was very pleased with the result.
Although the Daredevil series was my first pitch, I started work first on the District X book. Joe gave Mike Marts, the X-book group editor, his copy of Strange Embrace to read and Mike liked it enough to offer me this new X-book they had planned. It was a mutant book without costumed heroes, a police procedural set in an area of New York known as Mutant Town. It was a very loose brief and I was given totally free rein to come up with brand new characters. I didn't know much about the X-Men so I asked if I could do the series without ever using existing characters and I was told yes except that I should probably use Bishop from the X-Men.
I had a lot of creative freedom on both these books and neither of them had much to do with the superhero genre. One was a courtroom thriller and the other a crime thriller with science-fiction elements. In a sense it was misleading because I assumed I would be able to carry on writing this kind of material for Marvel. In fact every subsequent book I worked on seemed to take me deeper into the established Marvel Universe and there was increasing pressure to include specific characters and situations, to have more action scenes and to reduce the emphasis on subplots and minor characters. That came to a peak with Civil War: X-Men, where the demands of the crossover event kept over-riding the demands of the story. The plot was constantly being changed as I wrote even though I had submitted a detailed synopsis. A lot of the subplots were truncated, abandoned or left hanging and some of the key character development scenes were dropped to make room for action scenes featuring the new Sentinels. Then as I was writing the final book I was asked to change the plot to include Tony Stark, who would come in during the last episode to save the day. Apparently there was a need to balance things between the Tony Stark and Captain America camps of Civil War. Tony Stark needed a strong positive role so he didn't look like the bad guy. I had built a story that didn't even have Iron Man appearing in the final episode, so that was really shoe-horned in and made the plotting appear very messy and confused. There was a point where I asked to be taken off the book, simply because I didn't feel that I was the person to be writing this kind of thing. Mike persuaded me to stick with it, but I wasn't happy with the outcome and I'm sure a lot of the readers felt the same way.
Following Civil War I made a request to be moved onto the more marginal books, in preference to the central titles that involved so much juggling to keep in line with all the other related books. My concern has always been to tell a good story and I felt that the needs of the characters (in the sense of Marvel properties) always seemed to take precedence over story. If this had been my first experience with Marvel I don't think I would have lasted long. As it was, I did manage to produce some decent books while I was there and gained the exposure and experience that led to everything else I've done in the past 8 years. The final series I did for Marvel was Spider-Man Noir, which was from a concept by Fabrice Sapolsky. Being set within the Noir family of books gave us a great opportunity to re-imagine the Spider-Man character and ended up being one of the best things I did for them. It was good to go out on a high note.
From 2004 to 2008, you spent considerable time at Marvel with few experiences on Spawn for Image. What did these four years teach you about not only the craft behind writing and producing comics, but also the culture and atmosphere of the American industry?
I learned a lot about the discipline of writing to deadline, of writing story arcs that spanned half a dozen issues or more and of crafting individual episodes that drove the story forward, developed character and had the requisite building of tension towards cliffhanger and climax that are very much part of commercial comics storytelling. I also learned that mainstream comics are centered on the editorial office and that to a great extent, the writer and artist are hired hands who are there to use their skills to fulfill the vision of those editors. There is definitely a hierarchy where a few key A-list writers can also push forward their own vision, but there's a real danger for new and lower echelon writers to be regarded as parts of a production line. You meet the deadlines, you don't make waves and you'll do well but you will find the process creatively frustrating.
Also, when it comes down to it, the bottom line is, of course, the sales figures, and that's no big surprise. It's a business, it's about making money and it's about preserving the commercial viability of the properties. If you really want some kind of creative independence you will have to go to the smaller independent publishers and be prepared to risk financial insecurity.
By 2008, you made the transition to the Bat universe of DC Comics with Joker's Asylum followed by Faces of Evil: Deathstroke, both Marts endeavors? Was he the catalyst behind this move or were you seeking new professional opportunities?
I never really chased work at either Marvel or DC. Editors came to me and asked me to pitch for books. The only thing I ever pitched uninvited was the Spider-Man Noir series. I did also put my name forward to Will Dennis when I heard that Andy Diggle was coming off Swamp Thing, but I never heard back. Mike Marts was always incredibly supportive and when he moved to DC he offered me a couple of things. There was a Two-face one-shot and then the Arkham Asylum books, the short run on Detective, the Batman and Robin one-shot and the Batman and Detective annuals. There's also another Batman one-shot lurking around somewhere that was never published.
Thinking back, there was one other book I pitched. I was talking to Doug Braithwaite about how much we loved the work of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow book back in the 70's and we heard that there was a possibility of getting an arc of The Brave and The Bold. I pitched the story to editor, Joey Cavalieri, which ran in The Brave and The Bold 19 - 22. Later Joey gave me The Spirit monthly, so I guess he liked the result.
Since then, you've worked pretty much all over the map with licensed projects such as Days Missing or FVZA, company projects like Spider-Man Noir, The Spirit, and a host of Batman-related titles, and, most recently, your creator-owned Bulletproof Coffin. Looking back over your lengthy canon of work, what do you consider your best work and why?
Without a doubt the best work is the creator-owned work that was written without any editorial input. Strange Embrace is closest to my heart because I wrote and drew it. It was a real labor of love that took 2 years out of my life and I'm still very proud of it.
Then The Bulletproof Coffin. That's a perfect example of a real collaboration between artist and writer. Shaky Kane and myself have been totally on the same wavelength for the duration of the two series we've done. We managed to push the envelope a bit creatively, and we did it without alienating our audience. I think we successfully bridged the gap between highbrow and lowbrow comics. It's art for art's sake and still a lot of fun.
Of the commercial work for the Big Two, Daredevil: Redemption was probably the most uncompromising and successful. It worked because at the time I hadn't figured out what the rules were. I think I was given more leeway because I was new to the game. I don't think Redemption would have happened a year later.
Right now both The Man Who Laughs with Mark Stafford and of Storm Dogs, my Image book with Doug Braithwaite, are enormously rewarding and produced as genuine collaborations, free from editorial influence, and all the better for it.
With all of your "free time," do you still enjoy reading comics? Can you divorce yourself from viewing them as an insider who knows the craft and simply enjoy them as comics?
I do still enjoy reading comics, though there aren't that many American comics that I enjoy without reservation. I like to be surprised and delighted by comics and that is more likely to happen with work that comes from outside of the English speaking world. Some recent and all fairly brilliant I've read are Baru's La Piscine de Micheville, Thierry Murat's Les Larmes de L'Assassin, Guy Delisle's Chroniques de Jerusalem, Loustal and Dennis Lehane's Coronado, Pedrosa's Portugal, and Boucq and Jodorowsky's Bouncer. I really enjoyed R. Dilles and G. LaPadula Le Jardin D'Hiver, Jorge Gonzalez's Bandoneon, and Nicolas de Crecy's Celestial Bibendum. I'm looking forward to reading Charles Burns' The Hive, which I just picked up here at NYCC.
While writing and art are very personal endeavors, do you have a community of peers to discuss scripts and art with other creators, or are those closely guarded secrets?
I don't discuss my own scripts that much with other writers. Really I just talk to the artist I'm working with, particularly on the creator-owned projects. So I talk a lot with Shaky Kane, Doug Braithwaite and Mark Stafford. With other writers and artists I tend to talk in general terms about writing and drawing. I'm a bit resistant to discussing my current work because I have a stubborn belief that you should come up with your own solutions. It really is a very solitary occupation and that suits me. But there is a great community of creators in the comics world and I do enjoy meeting up with other pros and ranting, whining or generally raving about what I love best. Recently I did a podcast with Shaky Kane for Kieron Gillen, who is making a big effort to get writers and artists to discuss the creative process on his Decompressed podcast. We talked about our working 'methods' on the cut-up issue of The Bulletproof Coffin. That was a lot of fun.
Are there any writers (comics and beyond) who inspire you to be better and why? What do you look for in a good comic and what entertains you? Do you see yourself trying to bring any of this into you own work? Or, do you pull inspiration from other mediums entirely?
Will Eisner was a huge influence. The way he combined words and imagery to tell wonderful stories in a very small number of pages. Most of the Spirit stories only ran to seven pages and every one is a masterclass in storytelling discipline. It's something I tried very hard to reproduce in the one-shot issues of The Spirit I wrote for DC. Of course I had a very generous 20 pages to play with and I still didn't come close to Eisner, but it was a great experience and one of the most intimidating jobs I've done because there is such a legacy with The Spirit.
Other big influences were Munoz and Sampayo on Alack Sinner, Comes, particularly Silence, Tardi, Loustal's work with the writer Paringaux, Hugo Pratt of course. European creators always seemed to take work more seriously as an art form. I couldn't imagine any of those people allowing a single page to go to print unless they were happy that they had produced it to the best of their ability.
When I came back to American comics after a break of almost ten years during which time I didn't read any mainstream book, Brian Bendis was a revelation. His work on Powers and Daredevil was brilliant - the plot, the characterization and above all the dialogue. I had never seen that kind of naturalistic speech in comics before. He was bringing in the style of dialogue you normally only hear in the theatre or some of the more character-based movies. His run on Todd McFarlane's Sam and Twitch is one of the most under-appreciated comics of that period. I absolutely love those books. I truly wish Bendis would dump superheroes and spend more time on crime drama.
Outside of comics my favorite writers are William Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka. Some heavy duty literary names in there, but I don't find them hard going at all. Every one of them gave me that jolt of experiencing something new and compelling - a new way of seeing the world. I've just re-read Kerouac's On The Road. There's such a fire in that book.
When you were producing so many titles at once for various publishers, especially Detective Comics alongside Bulletproof Coffin, how do you juggle and manage these projects? Do you have a "big plan" you're steadily moving toward that allows you to shift back and forth between the books? Do you have to adopt a different persona when writing them?
There is no career plan. I have a ludicrously scattergun approach to the projects I take on. I have very eclectic tastes, so I find all kinds of projects interesting. I don't have a conscious plan but there are certain themes that interest me and I find projects bleeding into one another, scenes or pieces of dialogue mirroring something I may be doing on a completely different book. I used to worry about that but now I find the process fascinating and just go with the flow. It comes to a head with The Bulletproof Coffin of course. That's where all the ideas come together, the boundaries between genres and between fiction and reality break down completely.
I'm usually working on anything up to half-a-dozen different projects at once, some at planning stage and some at final production, where it's a case of tweaking the final script or correcting lettering to go to print. I guess my persona does change. Today, for instance, I was working on a final draft of letters for the first issue of Storm Dogs, which is a science-fiction crime story set in the far future, where the art, by Doug Braithwaite, is realistic and we are literally creating the history, science and culture of an alien world. Then I went back to The Man Who Laughs, an adaptation of the novel by Victor Hugo, set in the 17th and 18th centuries, where I had to research Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration and track down reference for the court of Queen Anne. The whole tone and style is completely different and the art by Mark Stafford is much less realistic, a very expressionistic style with its roots in cartooning and caricature.
Working on so many projects creates a lot of pressure and sometimes my head is in a spin, but I do find it stimulating. I hope it stops me from getting too comfortable with my work, keeps it edgy.
Do you find that you have a set "David Hine" structure to a script or do you tweak the approach to specific artists involved? For example, does your approach differ between Shaky Kane and Jeremy Haun?
The structure of the scripts is much the same. I do very tight breakdowns, lots of description and suggestions for camera angles, long shot or close-up, that kind of thing. I also try to let the artist know what is going on inside the heads of the protagonists. I know some writers don't bother with that, but I do feel strongly that if the artist has a good idea of the conflicting emotions that the characters are experiencing, it will affect the body language and facial expressions, and should even influence lighting and 'camera angles', just as the best cinema visually expresses emotion through atmosphere. Jeremy Haun is particularly good at that. Great acting in his art. He also knows that he can ignore my suggestions when he can see a better way to tell the story.
The tone of the descriptive part of the script is very different for each artist though, depending on how well I know them, just as your conversational tone changes when you talk to a new acquaintance or an old friend. The hardest scripts to write are those for an artist I have never met and may be working with for the first time, perhaps someone who has English as a second language. I always find myself waiting for the first pages with some trepidation. Currently I've been working with Georges Duarte on Crossed for Avatar. He was a completely unknown quantity for me, and the first script was written without even knowing who would draw the book, so it was quite formally written, maybe a little pedantic in the descriptions. As it turns out, I was absolutely knocked out with the pages when they came in and I've started to relax because I know what he's capable of now. I can play to his strengths a little more. Recently, we have lost Georges from the book, so the following issue, written with Georges in mind, has been illustrated by German Erramouspe. This is a perfect example of the day-to-day problems of getting a book into print. There are always unforeseeable elements coming into play.
The scripts for Shaky are sometimes a lot looser. The cut-up issue of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred was very haphazard. I had notebooks where I would sketch ideas for images, then send the descriptions off in batches of half-a-dozen at a time. I also invited Shaky to come up with some images of his own - random ideas - so about ten or a dozen of the eighty-four panels were entirely his ideas. Sometimes I would give him very detailed descriptions, sometime just a few words, like "Elvis sitting on the toilet contemplating a glowing model of an Easter Island head." We talked on the phone about that issue a lot, just batting crazy ideas back and forth. He had no idea what words I was going to put on them and neither of us knew what the order of images would be. Other issues, like the last one, “Hole”, was a very formally structured script, because it was based on a story I had written many years ago, originally as a novel, so I had a very precise idea of how it should look. But there are always lots of in-jokes in the scripts, lots of banter in the panel descriptions. I allow for unexpected random elements because that's part of the appeal of Shaky's work.
I know that writers produce in moments of inspiration, panic at an impending deadline, or via a strict work routine and schedule. Can you tell me about your process? Does it vary depending on if the project is Bulletproof Coffin versus The Darkness versus a corporate brand? Do you find yourself being more or less disciplined at this stage in your career?
I am not disciplined in the sense of working to a regular routine. I hate routine. I need to be constantly stimulated, constantly under some kind of pressure. The last time I worked to any kind of regular schedule was actually way back when I did Strange Embrace. Because I was working on a single project for so long I settled into a regular routine of writing for half-a-dozen hours a day. It was enjoyable because it was open-ended. No fixed deadline for script. Then I produced 3 pages of art every week until it was done. Rock solid. But that was a book I was totally obsessed with and immersed in completely. Now I work differently every day. I work in every room in the house, the bedroom, lounge, kitchen. I have a writing studio where I have all my reference books, an art studio where I have an iMac computer with a big screen. Most of the writing is done on a battered old Macbook Pro, where the letters are now completely worn off the keys, or on my iPad. I take that everywhere with me, so I can work on the train, in cafés. I do a lot of thinking in the gym and make sure I always have a pen and notebook with me. Sometimes I write in Moleskin notebooks, or on yellow pads. I switch from pencil to a beautiful Mont Blanc fountain pen that Vikki gave me. Sometimes I sketch out pages on layout pads, writing in balloons and captions, then transcribe that with descriptions of the panels. I usually draw the pages in some form, even it it's only scribbled thumbnails that no one else could decipher, but the artist rarely sees them, except when there's a very specific visual effect I'm after that is difficult to put across in words.
I do try very hard to keep to deadlines. When I worked for Marvel and DC that would mean no holidays. The first year I worked regularly for Marvel I made it very clear that I needed approval for script outlines in plenty of time so I could have two weeks free for my holiday. Approval for two books came the day before I left for holiday. Deadline on both was the last day of the holiday. That year I spent every morning of the holiday working in my hotel room while my partner and son hit the beach. That's par for the course. Over the past nine years I don't think I've ever missed a deadline for a publisher, though occasionally I'll ask for a few extra days. There's usually a week or so leeway built in.
Recently I have found myself supplying batches of script to an artist, rather than the full script, and I know artists hate that. But I do give them a tight breakdown of the whole book so they know where the story is going ahead of time. The worst is to leave an artist waiting for script. If they are committed to one project then no script means no money coming in, so I'm very aware of that.
Right now I have a lot of deadline pressure and there have been disruptions with personal life. Family illness and things of that kind are unpredictable and have to take precedence over the work. What I want to avoid at all costs is turning in a rushed job that I'm not happy with, just to meet deadline. That's something I've never done and I hope I never will.
You mention deadline panic and that can certainly be a creative stimulus. There are many times when I sit down with an apparently impossible deadline and I stare at the blank screen thinking "What do I do if nothing comes?" There is a fear that whatever source the ideas come from, may simply dry up. It's scary and exciting. It gets the adrenalin flowing. And it always does come. There's a moment when everything comes together and the story starts to write itself, the characters find their voice. It's impossible to explain or quantify the process. There's a magical element to it and it's very addictive. I can't turn off for very long. I need to get back to the keyboard and start tapping away. Having said that, there are times when I hate it. I want to do anything but write. It can be quite a painful, almost masochistic activity. The real pleasure for me is not so much 'writing' as 'having written.' Hitting the 'Send' button is the moment of sweet relief.
Are there any books or moments in your career that you can point to as key efforts on your behalf to do something truly original or special with the craft that either paid off or didn't pan out as you had planned? What have you taken away from these experiences? How has it shaped your outlook and approach to the medium?
The first time I really felt I'd made a breakthrough was with “Martin”, where I did force myself to draw and think spontaneously. I discovered how to express myself in a way that was unique to me. Up until then I guess I was just channeling the work of other people. Then Strange Embrace of course. That still rates as the best realized comic I've created. More recently The Bulletproof Coffin, where, again I think Shaky and I achieved something unique, pushed the boundaries of the medium a bit.
I guess I've learned a couple of things. Firstly that those times where I did pursue the creative urges to the limit have been by far the most rewarding experiences of my life, in creative if not in financial terms. I've also learned that the more you deviate from the pedestrian clichéd forms, the less likely you are to find a wide audience. I'm lucky that I am able to write commercial work as well. The great thing is that all the lessons I've learned from the more personal and experimental work, I can bring to the commercial work. It's all a learning process and the more you can expand your knowledge of the mechanics of comics, the better the work becomes.
Reflecting on your career, where do you feel you still need to go as a writer? How do you challenge yourself to be better, to improve?
I still need to bring all the elements of the various styles of writing together somehow. My career does feel fractured. Ideally I want to work on projects where I can really do something original that also speaks to a wide audience. To that end I'm currently concentrating on my third creator-owned project for Image. Storm Dogs is a science-fiction noir, combining two of my favorite genres, and is an attempt to produce a commercial book that doesn't compromise on quality, that is strong on theme and character and above all, doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. I've never worked on an ongoing creator-owned project before, or on a commercial book without editorial control of some kind. I've been really lucky to get Doug Braithwaite on board as artist and co-creator. We're both coming into the project with similar intentions. Doug has had a successful career working on big projects for Marvel and DC under contract. Justice was one of the biggest selling American comic books of this century and he's also worked on Wolverine, the Punisher and Thor in Journey Into Mystery. We both have plenty of experience of working on these kind of established characters and now we're getting the chance to use those skills to do something unique and creatively satisfying. This is a long-term world-building project for us, and a huge investment in terms of time and effort. Image is the publisher that is doing most to give creators the chance to prove themselves, whether you are a new talent or established professional.
For the stories that you've invested a lot a personal time into or that are your favorites, what do you want readers to take away? Is it something about an emotional connection with the reader?
You've answered your own question. Yes, indeed, it is that connection you get when you are delivering work that you are passionate about. When I wrote Strange Embrace and The Bulletproof Coffin, when I'm writing Storm Dogs, there is no compromise. This is the best work I am capable of and I hope that the readers feel that passion. Whether they like or hate the result, there should be no doubt in their minds that the work is honest and from the heart.
David Hine can be found on the internet at his website Waiting for Trade or on Twitter.