Conversing on Comics with Rian Hughes

Comics are more than just drawing pretty pictures and great muscled physiques. They're about telling a story, through sequences of images but also through the image itself. And British artist Rian Hughes has spent years figuring out how to tell a story, in sequential art as well as in standalone images, package designs and even fonts.

After bursting onto the comics scene as an artist in Escape and 2000AD, Hughes expanded his skills to become a designer and illustrator for comics in England, Europe and the United States. He went on to design a number of logos and mastheads for DC Comics, Marvel and Valiant, and his work on Wildcats 3.0 and Invincible Iron Man proved to be high-water marks for comic book covers. Image and Knockabout Books recently began reprinting some of Hughes' early comics work, and this summer will see the release of an artbook chronicling his portraits taken from London's underworld burlesque scene.

For this week's "Conversing on Comics," I spoke with Hughes about his forthcoming art book and other upcoming projects, and received a look at his past work, including a never-before-seen set of designs he created for Invincible Iron Man.

Chris Arrant: What are you working on today?

Rian Hughes: Today, like most days, I jump between several jobs in different stages of completion. So on my desk now I have:

  • '50s lifestyle book. This has been delayed for a few years, but is now back on track. I've been adding some last minute credit corrections, but I'm sure I'll still miss something obvious.
  • Font releases. There's a batch of fonts that I've been working on for the last year or so (I usually aim to release one major batch a year, but pressure of time means there's a big backlog, so I'm testing and polishing. I have around 12 in the final stages.
  • Logo designs. There are a couple of new Valiant titles in the planning stages, which I am duty-bound not to name.
  • Checking proofs on another book.

Didn’t I hear once you were writing something for DC on your own, or am I dreaming?

No, you weren't dreaming. There are some hints online somewhere -- someone took some photos of a slide I showed at the Dublin Morrison con, for example. I'm not allowed to say more ...

Nothing at all?

No, nothing.

Just last month we had a surprising cover in comic stories – you illustrating a variant cover for Happy #3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first time you’ve done a cover in some time. How’d you get re-involved with Grant to do this?

Yes, it is a long time since I last drew a comic book cover, though I do design them all the time. I should draw more of them -- publishers, drop me a line! I'm not avoiding drawing comics, it's just that on the illustration front, non-comic clients seem to call more often. Grant Morrison and I regularly talk about collaborating every few years or so, and then it stalls for some reason or another. But that hopefully is all changing, with a new animation project and another digital project that will do things no-one's ever seen before. We have big ideas.

Why do you think you and Grant get along so well?

I'll attempt to fall out with him now, just for you. I guess we've known each other for 20-plus years, which is a frightening thought. You get to the point in this industry where it all feels like a bunch of old friends shooting the breeze  ...

Could this perhaps be a portent of you doing more comics work, not just designs and logos?

I hope so! The Soho Dives, Soho Divas book that's due out this summer is all-new material, and though not a comic is a collection of themed illustrations, so I'm getting close.

Speaking of that, can you lead is down the path that took you to doing Soho Dives, Soho Divas?

For the past few years I've been attending a life-drawing class in Soho, where all the models are burlesque artistes. This began simply as an exercise to keep the skill set sharp, but at some point I collated the best ones into a small sketchbook that Eric Stephenson at Image saw, and that's how the book happened. With the availability of nice production values, I added lots of new graphic and illustrative material in all kinds of experimental styles alongside the original pencil sketches. It developed organically from there.

 Last year you did a full work-up logos and mastheads for Valiant’s return to comics. I’ve read you didn’t have any real connection to the previous material Valiant did, but how was it for you to come in and pretty much design the whole company’s new brand?

Valiant was a very interesting and creatively fulfilling proposition. Often, much of the cover "furniture" already exists, so you're working with some preexisting logos or branding that have been designed by someone else, but Valiant was a blank slate. That enabled us to create a very cohesive look across all the books, to link them together stylistically. I hope a Valiant comic is easily recognizable because of this.

I confess I wasn't that familiar with the characters. When the original Valiant was at its peak, I was going through one of those periods when I wasn't reading many comics. So I'm more familiar with these modern, retooled, rebooted versions. You don't need to know anything about the originals, though, to follow the new incarnations. There is some great solid storytelling and art on show -- go pick them up!

Going over to another superhero series, I hold your work with Salvador Larroca on those six Invincible Iron Man covers a few years back as one of the best things on comic shelves in some time. I even read how the variant covers with your design sold better than the other editions. What was it like fitting into Marvel, which has its own in-house design team and style?

It was surprisingly easy. In the case of the Invincible Iron Man covers, I had the support of Matt Fraction, the writer, who had asked Marvel to get me involved in the first place. They were supportive of what we came up with, and I think they felt that as they had split runs with alternative covers that were very much standard fare, that if they didn't sell and buyers hated them that it wouldn't be a disaster. In the event, they sold far better. Score one for innovation! Matt's following story arc was to have a second run of covers designed my myself, but only the first (Issue 25) appeared, though several had been designed as roughs. At that point, the movie was about to come out, and I think they didn't want to confuse people.

[caption id="attachment_147239" align="aligncenter" width="601"]

Hughes & Salvador Larroca's covers to Invincible Iron Man #20 - #24.[/caption]

Can you share some of those Invincible Iron Man roughs that never saw the light of day?

I think so.  These were the roughs I worked up for Marvel and Salvador for Matt Fraction's second arc. As it turned out, only the first was used before the covers reverted to the standard "comic" style. Here's how it would have panned out otherwise.

As I said at the time:

"The concept here was to show the 'reassembled' Iron Man. So we have a gleaming, Stark Industries showroom-fresh Iron Man, all reflective curves and gorgeous chrome, evoking some kind of high-end supercar brochure from Porsche or Ferrari."

A contrast to the "Stark: Disassembled" storyline previously. Salvador again came through in spades with his finished art.

A side note for design geeks: I redesigned Marvel's barcode box with these and the previous "Stark Disassembled" issues. I used one fonts in two weights at two sizes, rather than the previous multiple fonts in multiple sizes and three alignments – up, down, across, plus one letter-spaced for good measure. Design geek that I am, I couldn't face using the bar code box as it was.

It saved 20 percent on the area of art covered up. Unfortunately, though I supplied every version needed for variants, horizontal boxes and vertical boxes as a master document, it wasn't followed through very well, and we now have a kind of watered-down, inelegant version, where nothing aligns neatly. I hear you say: "It's the bar code box! There are more important things to design!" and yes, you are probably right, but I'm a perfectionist like that, and getting these things to look neat and consistent should be no more difficult to achieve than ugly randomness. It's all in the tiny details.

Tiny details can add up to be something big. Could you see yourself doing a more long-term commitment designing covers for a superhero book, given the right specifications?

I'm always open to interesting propositions. Often, I just respond to requests that come my way and have the potential to be creatively exciting.

Getting into design and you as a reader – when you go into the comic shop, what designs stick out to you good or bad?

Generally, rather than specifically, unfortunately there is a lot of nicely executed art that ends up looking, en masse, quite samey. The covers that stand out are those that are completely different. Many of the smaller, what we used to call "independent" publishers put out some beautifully designed books, with real attention to print craft and typography. I'm usually drawn to the covers that promise something new and exciting, that display a design sensibility that is aware of the broader history of art and design -- and culture in general, for that matter -- not just the history of comic book design.

If there’s one thing you could wipe from the toolkit of comic design, what would it be – and why?

Few designers working in comics seem to know what a page grid is. Or when one font in two weights instead of five fonts in 10 sizes will do. I'd send them off for a crash course in logical, rational, consistent, modernist typography, and disable their Photoshop drop-shadow and chrome-effect filters.

Some of your most memorable work to me as been you looking back at earlier styles and trends and harnessing it to your own ends. When you’re out looking for something to inspire you – or just window-shopping – what types of places or things to you go to to get your mind going?

It's a cliché, but the internet is a great resource. It's also globalized inspiration, so you are exposed to work you'd never have seen before - and inversely, people who would never have seen your work before now can.

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