Brian Hurtt’s past artistic credits include a short story in “Captain America” #50, a fill-in on “Gotham Central” #11, and of course his work for Oni Press on “Queen & Country” #5-7 and the miniseries “Queen & Country: Declassified,” “Three Strikes” and “Skinwalker.” He is currently hard at work penciling and inking “Hard Time” for the new DC Focus line. Despite his busy schedule, Brian was very eager and enthusiastic in helping me out with a little experiment for OYM.
One of my favorite things to do at comic book conventions is look through artists’ sketchbooks, especially those of my friends. I love flipping through those pages and pages of raw art and hearing what the artists have to say about what they drew, why they drew it, and even where they were when they were drawing. I wondered if there was somehow a way to translate this sharing of art and insight into a column.
So, I asked Brian to scan in some artwork from his sketchbook and then meet me online to talk about what he selected. You know, attempt a virtual version of going through someone’s sketchbook at a con. When he asked how many sketches or pages I wanted to use in this experiment, I simply said it was his call. About a week later, I was a sent a disc with close to seventy scanned in pages from about eleven different sketchbooks Brian had kept from the past ten years of so!
I hope you enjoy the result of our exchange of art and words, part interview with a rising star, part personal retrospective, part DVD commentary track with comic book art…
TORRES: That’s a lot of sketchbooks.
HURTT: Yeah, I’ve been pretty good about holding onto everything.
TORRES: That’s an average of one a year… but how much do you sketch, doodle, etc.? Everyday?
HURTT: Well, I used to take about six months to fill a sketchbook. Now I rarely use a sketchbook anymore. I mainly doodle on scraps of paper lying around.
TORRES: Do you keep those scraps?
HURTT: Unfortunately, I’m not very organized… I think I’ve been accidentally throwing out a lot.
TORRES: Throwing out?! Doesn’t looking back at what you’ve amassed make you regret throwing some stuff out? Or does the volume of sketchbooks have the opposite effect and you just wanna chuck it all?
HURTT: No, no. I love having all this work at my fingertips. But I think what happens is that when I sketch on scraps of paper they seem less consequential at the time and in the process of organizing they often get thrown out. I do regret it later.
TORRES: So, what went through your mind as you dug through your sketchbooks to look for stuff to share?
HURTT: There was a lot of cringing. I had mixed emotions actually. In some cases I was surprised at how bad I was in certain areas, but I was also kinda proud of what I had done in other areas. I miss the bursts of imagination I used to have. I could think of an idea and just run with it. Nowadays I have so little time for that. And when I do have time I find that I’m mentally wasted. What I like to do on my days off is go to a coffee house, put on my headphones, and just sort of free form associate for several hours…
TORRES: Can you be more specific about what made you cringe? What made you proud?
HURTT: Lots of things make me cringe. Mostly things to do with proportion and general drawing ability. The things I was proud of are the ideas themselves. I would look at a page from five or six years back and think that what was on it is still relevant to me now. There are ideas that I keep going back to… I say that I cringed a lot, but at the same time I would sometimes look at something from a certain era and expect it to be drawn worse than it is.
TORRES: I want to go back to some of these ideas you have in there but for now… Let’s talk about all the faces in these pages, something you see in a lot of guys’ sketchbooks. You mention sketching at a coffee shop, so are these people you come across or is it part of the free form and you just draw faces that pop into your head, or a little of both?
HURTT: I almost never draw people I see in public. I’m too aware that they may see me looking at them and I don’t want to be that creepy guy sitting in the corner. Sometimes I will look up and catch a glimpse of a certain aspect of someone – their hair style, their eyes, a profile – and then just run with it. For the most part, though, the faces I draw in my sketchbook are created from whole cloth.
TORRES: I figured as much, especially since Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Batman show up in some of those pages. And everyone knows they don’t live in St. Louis. Anyway, back when you were doodling Batman in your sketchbook, did you ever think you’d be working on a Bat-book? Or did you aspire to work for DC back then? Are interested in doing more superhero stuff?
HURTT: Everybody has Batman sketches in their books! Everyone. I would love to work on Batman and yes, when I was drawing him in my books I was, of course, dreaming of one day getting to draw an actual bat book. I would love to do some hardcore superhero stuff at some point but it’s not a prolonged career goal. I think I’d like to visit some of my childhood fanboy faves to get them out of my system. X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman are at the top of the list, of course.
TORRES: And is that Deathblow I see in there as well?
HURTT: That’s an example of something that would make me cringe. That’s not supposed to be Deathblow although he probably came out right around that time. This guy was more of a cross between Deathblow and Colossus. Cool, huh?
TORRES: Uh… yeah!
HURTT: I was seventeen when I drew that! Not really at the height of originality, is it? That was back in the day when all I’d draw were characters posing and trying to look cool.
TORRES: Honestly, I was surprised by what I found in your sketchbook. I’m not sure what I expected, but I suppose not so much “fantastic” material. This based, I guess, on the work you’ve had published, you know?
HURTT: I get that a lot actually. It’s funny, I think what’s happened is that I’ve been typecast! One project led to another and then to another without anybody really knowing what my real interests are. But, I have to say, that I have no regrets because working on these books has really forced me to grow as an artist. It’s much more challenging to try to sell an emotional moment on a page than it is to draw a horde of giant sea monkeys destroying a city.
TORRES: Ooh, but we’d all love to see giant sea monkeys. Let’s talk about some of the content then…
HURTT: Right on.
TORRES: I was surprised by the “whimsical” stuff, like that recurring turtle, and the robots drawn in a kind of Fleischer-esque cartoony style, also some of the funny monsters here and there. So, what’s up with that turtle?
HURTT: Ha! Jeez, I don’t know? I just think turtles are cool looking. Lately I’ve come to think I was just lifting it straight from “Neverending Story.” It’s funny the things you think are original and then it hits you one day that it’s a direct swipe from something else… that happens a lot.
TORRES: Yeah, but I actually love that turtle. Don’t know why. It’s just… cute. But you’ve also got some not-so-cute characters in there, some very Vertigo-esque creatures and nightmare-ish monsters. Where’s that stuff coming from? Were you hoping to do some horror comics?
HURTT: Y’know, for some reason or another I’ve always been drawn to that sort of thing. Even when I set out to do something very tame it ends up taking on a more sinister quality. Maybe that’s something for the therapist, huh?
TORRES: And to think I almost shared a hotel room with you once… I’m guessing you’re a big fan of horror and SF movies. Are these genres you’d like to explore in comic books?
HURTT: I’d love to! I was a big horror fan in junior high and I still like a quality sci-fi picture. I would love to explore those genres at some point but probably not in such a direct way. I would probably use elements of the genres, but I can’t imagine doing just a straight up zombie story or alien invasion without there being a strong human story up front with the other stuff kinda happening in the background. I think an example of that being done well is the zombie comic “The Walking Dead.”
TORRES: Some other recurring themes, if you will, that keep popping up in your sketches is period costuming, different eras evoked in the character design. Some “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” looking folks. Some stuff that looks like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie. Some children’s lit inspired characters. At least from my perspective. What would you say inspired those drawings?
HURTT: That’s been a thing with me for a while and I’m not sure where it originated. I do have a fondness for period films and I was brought up around a lot of “Masterpiece Theatre” during my influential childhood years. I remember being disappointed when I first saw the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics. Up until then I thought I might have a novel approach to something. I know that Mignola has also done a lot of this in his work and has been doing it for years – perhaps that was what had inspired me.
TORRES: And then there’s the sketch of the Road Warrior-looking dude.
HURTT: Yeah, kinda dirty, huh? There’s definitely some latent homosexual issues popping up in that drawing. I’m not sure where the direct idea came from – like a lot of things it probably just developed on the page. I do know that that was the second time I had drawn him. I had done I small sketch earlier in relation to a story idea and I decided to go back and flesh it out a little.
TORRES: I’m particularly fond of narrative paintings and one of the things I enjoyed about looking through your sketchbooks is the amount of story or potential story in a lot of the drawings. Do you have any aspirations to write your own stuff someday?
HURTT: Definitely. That is my ultimate goal. I work in comics because I want to tell stories. If I just wanted to draw I could probably have found another field that would have been more financially rewarding. Every time I sketch I’m thinking in terms of story. I might have a particular goal in mind or I might just start doodling and see what the images inspire in me.
TORRES: I’d like to talk about some more of the cool characters in here: Who are “Igor and Jake?” The “Black Devils?”
HURTT: I don’t want to get too specific about any of my ideas, but this is something that I abandoned a while back. At first it seemed too X-Files-ish, but years later, when I started watching “Angel,” I realized that there where too many similarities for me to pursue it. Let’s just say that the dark brooding one in the picture is the immortal son of a gypsy and a demon. And I came up with this back in ’94 originally. I got to work faster!
TORRES: Who or what is “Bojo?”
HURTT: Bojo was just an odd sounding name that I came up with. But I’ll say that that particular image comes from a time where there was a lot of recreational drug use goin’ on. Can you tell? Drawings from that time period always make me laugh at their obvious drug culture influence.
TORRES: I think more than any character in these books, the “knight” intrigued me most. Who is he? What’s the idea behind this if I may ask? I like the funky, ornate armor, and classic strongman look to his face…
HURTT: That is a character from another story that I keep going back to. It’s a big sprawling fantasy story that is kinda “Lord of the Rings” meets “City of Lost Children” meets “Clash of the Titans.” It’s one of these stories that is too big to really think about doing seriously but it’s still a lot of fun for me to go back and think about it and play in that world a bit.
TORRES: So, you really don’t want to talk about any of the other concepts and stories with the intriguing character designs and cool sounding titles like “Bam-Zoom Theatre? ”
HURTT: I’m always writing titles and such in my sketchbooks and half the time they don’t mean anything. In reference to your question, though, the words “Bam-Zoom Theatre” come up quite a bit in my books. It’s basically a fake name for my non-existent comic book company. Don’t all fanboys have one?
TORRES: I like how you spell theatre the right way. Now, if I may get a little armchair psychologist-like, you’ve mentioned having “mixed emotions” sorting through all these drawings, said you “miss the bursts of imagination” you used to have, and say that you’re “mentally wasted” a lot these days. Care to elaborate on any of that?
HURTT: I just meant that when I didn’t fill every waking hour working on comics – and I should say other people’s comics – I used to need to “vent” onto the page after a long day at my retail job. Nowadays, whenever I do find free time – very rarely – I’m just so exhausted from working at the drawing table that I feel blocked in a way. Part of that I’m sure comes from the pressure I feel in those moments to create something that is mine. I’ll more or less be sitting there saying to myself “All right, now come up with something really cool and original. Go!” And, of course, that never works. So I get more frustrated and end up drawing things that I already know – whether they be my own or Batman.
We then switched gears and our method of interview and discussion. From taking about things in general, we focus on pages that Brian is particularly proud of showing people as well as some pages he might prefer to quickly flip past. Then I asked him to help me provide a kind of “commentary track” like the type you find on DVDs. He started with some of his lesser favorite pages from earlier sketchbooks…
HURTT: Okay, this page was the first in a brand new sketchbook (1997). For some reason that’s always a daunting prospect. A blank page in a book of blank pages. So much possibility! Starting a new book somehow feels akin to moving to a new town. You feel like you have the opportunity to totally recreate yourself. This was one of the only times I have ever used a smaller sized sketchbook, approximately 5×8″. I don’t really dislike this page as a whole but it does represent the limits of my ability at the time. The heads are pretty lopsided and uneven. I’m not sure how much of this may be due to whatever position I may have been sitting at the time I drew this. It’s most likely I was slumped in chair at some coffee house with the tiny book resting on my lap. (How’s that for an excuse?) An interesting thing about this page is also the variance in styles I was experimenting with. That tells me I had very little focus on this page. Not that that’s a bad thing.
TORRES: Hey, this column is all about experimenting! And let’s continue this week’s experiment and look at another page…
HURTT: This is a page (1999) where I kind of like the thoughts that where behind the images – and, in fact, quite liked the page at the time – but I feel the drawings themselves are lacking. The figures are very stiff and, again with the disproportioned heads. It’s like I was always drawing from a world inhabited by first cousins.
TORRES: But there’s that turtle again, not to mention the period costumes. I’d like to see you eventually do this comic book with the people in Victorian garb riding giant turtles.
HURTT: Oooh, look! This page was actually drawn on my birthday (2000)! This page fell somewhere in the middle of about 15-20 pages of really creative stuff for me. I had basically started telling myself a story through images and one page led to another. While I like the stuff that these images are representing I have to say I’m not entirely happy with the drawings themselves. I like about half of them (I’ll let you guess which half). The main image that bugs me is the large one at the top center of the page. (Although, the one that might bother most people is the indiscreet tree-climbing naked man at the bottom right of the page.) His posture is very forced and unnatural. What probably happened was that I drew the hands holding the umbrella pole first and then tried to manipulate the anatomy to meet those ends. Never a good idea. And, again, the some oddly proportioned heads.
TORRES: Show me a page of stuff that you actually like then.
HURTT: This page comes from my most recent sketchbook and in many ways it is atypical of the way my sketchbooks appear nowadays. I rarely draw in a sketchbook anymore mainly for lack of time. When I do use my sketchbooks they tend to have just as much writing (often more) than images on any given page. And what images there are they’re usually just enough to give me a representation of an idea. The drawings are just a way of quickly jotting down an idea rather than writing it out longhand. On this page I’m still kind of doing that but the drawings are a little more fleshed out and what writing that is on the page is minimal and mainly snippets of dialogue. This page is really representative of my own personal shorthand. I look at it and I know the characters and I see images and scenes that have a history to only me if that makes sense. Anyway…
TORRES: Perfect sense. I have similar… notes? But, you know, it’s all stick people and talking smileys. Okay, how about one more page for the road?
HURTT: All right, this page is also one of my more recent ones. Like I said earlier, I rarely draw in my sketchbooks anymore unless I’m working out ideas. When I do feel like just doodling I tend to do it on typing paper in blue pencil. If I like the page I’ll hold onto it but very often the pages get misplaced or thrown away. I held onto this one because I kind of like some of the drawings and because one or two of the drawings actually represent new ideas for use in another story I’m playing around with. I always tend to have lots of story ideas that I’m working on at any given time. For me it’s really just play time. It’s what I like to do to occupy my time. My characters are like a basket full of dolls that I like to take out and play “let’s pretend” with. It’s more acceptable than me getting out my actual basket of dolls and playing with. I think people at the coffee shop would look at me funny if I did.
TORRES: But little would they know that they’re witnessing a creative genius at work on some future comic book masterpiece. Anyway, we’re out of time, so thanks for doing this little experiment with me, Brian. I found it quite insightful and a lot of fun. Hope you did, too.
HURTT: Thanks, J.
Next week: More artwork from more friends, including Mike Wieringo, Scott Morse, Mike Norton, Scott Chantler, Mike Hawthorne, and other guys not named Mike or Scott.
Meanwhile, drop by the OYM forum and let me know if enjoyed this column’s experiment with Brian Hurtt and whether or not I should attempt a similar column with other artists.
Thank you for your attention.