Interview: Phil Hester On His Unorthodox Journey Into Comics

Phil Hester was born in eastern Iowa, an area where he continues to live with his wife and children. He began working in comics while attending the University of...

The Coffin Cover

Phil Hester was born in eastern Iowa, an area where he continues to live with his wife and children. He began working in comics while attending the University of Iowa, where he graduated from with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and minors in sculpture and painting. Since this humble origin, he has become an Eisner Award-nominated artist who has penciled for Swamp Thing, Brave New World, Flinch, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, Clerks: The Lost Scene, The Crow: Waking Nightmares, The Wretch (nominated for the 1997 Eisner Award for Best New Series), Aliens: Purge, and Green Arrow. More than just an artist he wrote what is quite possibly my favorite (and quite possibly the most underrated) indie book of all time, The Coffin.

While on Green Arrow, Hester co-created Mia Dearden and Onomatopoeia with writer Kevin Smith, as well as Constantine Drakon with writer Judd Winick. He also co-created Uncle Slam and Firedog with his Green Arrow collaborator, artist Ande Parks. He is currently in the process of introducing a new El Diablo to the DC/Vertigo Universe.

Nicholas Yanes: I rarely hear of people breaking into the comic book industry who have not spent the majority of their careers in New York or California. How did you first break into the comic book industry? Do you think it’s easier for creators that can draw to get a job than it is for people who can only write?

Phil Hester: I was lucky to break in during the black and white/indie explosion of the mid 1980’s. There were so many startup companies then that anyone who could draw on any level could get work. I barely qualified, but found myself drawing comics on work I had submitted while a sophomore in college. Marvel and DC were also more receptive to cold submissions those days, too. Many editors, including Mike Carlin, Archie Goodwin, and Jim Shooter actually took time out of their impossible schedules to write and send thoughtful critiques of the xeroxed pencil submissions I was sending in on a quarterly clip since high school graduation. I don’t know if that still goes on these days. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

Even then, the best way to find work was to hit the convention scene with your portfolio grafted to your arm. To this day I have never seen a panel at San Diego or Chicago because in the past I was always in portfolio review lines. I never felt I was at a huge disadvantage in Iowa because I always made that pilgrimage to Chicago and got to see editors face to face. Face time goes a long way.

I don’t envy writers trying to break in. It’s probably four times as hard for them as for an artist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard editors tell writers standing in those same portfolio review lines that they simply can’t read comic book scripts on the spot. With an artist you know within the first thirty seconds if he or she can draw comics. With writers you have to find a quiet moment to read an entire script, and as anyone who’s been to a comic book convention knows, quiet moments are rare.

That’s why I always advise young writers to find an artist to collaborate with. An editor can take a look at a self-published mini and get some idea of your writing skill more readily than from a raw script. Also, those artists you collaborate with will rise up through the ranks with you and be your contemporaries for the length of your career. One last note- nothing proves to an editor or publisher your desire to work in comics better than producing a finished work. Don’t wait for someone to tell you you’re allowed to make comics, just make them. Prove you should be here.

Yanes: The Coffin is quite possibly my favorite comic book. Are there any plans to do a sequel?

Hester: I’m happy to hear that. Thanks. No sequel is imminent. I’m a sucker for relatively happy endings, so I’d like to leave Ashar and family alone for now. Mike and I have several pitches in the works with similar themes, though, and I hope you find them as enjoyable if and when they hit the stands.

Yanes: On this note, are there any plans to turn The Coffin into a movie or TV miniseries?

Hester: James Cameron’s production company optioned it many years ago and has the rights pretty much forever. It was intended to be a feature directed by Guillermo Del Toro, but he got busy with these other little side projects like The Hobbit and Hellboy. As I understand it, Guillermo wrote a treatment, but that’s as far as he got. That said, it’s still with Lightstorm, and there’s some hope that one of their younger directors will give it a go someday.

Yanes: Another one of your titles that I love, but that I think is under appreciated is The Atheist. What was the inspiration for this title? Also, considering that African Americans are usually depicted as being overly religious in popular culture, are you trying to make a statement with Antoine Sharp?

Hester: I’m glad you liked it. I really wasn’t trying to make any sort of statement about either African-Americans or folks with an atheistic world view, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when some readers took it that way. I just wanted to do a story about someone with a fiercely skeptical, finely honed mind running coming up against a genuinely supernatural threat. That conflict is where the fun is. I got some well reasoned letters from atheists who bemoaned the fact that their world view was tacked on to a horror comic and I wound up agreeing with them. I don’t share their philosophy, but certainly didn’t want to demean it in any way, so I changed the title to Antoine Sharpe.

Antoine is black for the same reason Ashar from The Coffin is middle eastern or Cole from Deep Sleeper is African-American – there are already plenty of white people in comics.

Yanes: You’ve been able to work with writers like Kevin Smith and Judd Winick. What’s it like working with such respected and talented writers?

Hester: I’m spoiled! It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned quite a bit. I mean, I’d have to be pretty slow not to pick up a few hints about writing comics after years of looking at scripts from Kevin, Judd, Brad Meltzer, Brain Bendis, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Robert Kirkman, etc.

Yanes: For the several television shows that reach the 100th or 200th episode milestone, those specific episode are usually designed to reflect on the shows entire history. With your 300th issue coming up, do you have any spectacular plans? For instance, have you considered tapping into your sculpture background by making a comic book that has to be folded into a sculpture in order for the story to be read?

Hester: I wish I had that ambition. I think my 300th has come and gone without my knowing. The closest I got to incorporating my sculpture background (which was really more an environmental installation/performance art deal) in my comics was when I was doing lots of mixed media shorts stories for Taboo and the like that featured little puppets and collages that I created with xerography.

Yanes: There is a perception that the center of America’s comic book universe is in New York. Do you feel that by living in Iowa you are missing out on important developments?

Hester: Just the social networking thing, but I’m okay with that. I hear news a day or two late, but the distance let’s me breathe a little. I don’t lose sleep worrying about office politics or gossip. Iowa provides a certain pace that allows me to stop, find a quiet moment, and daydream.

Yanes: In the past few years there has been an explosion in the numbers of academics studying comic books. What are your thoughts on people analyzing every book you’ve ever had a part in creating?

Hester: Have at it! Tell me if you find anything, folks.

The Darkness AccursedYanes: There have recently been a lot of reports about comic book companies and related businesses letting go of a lot of their employees, and doing other types of cutbacks. How do you think the comic book industry might be different once the economy gets better?

Hester: Comics are a strange animal. The larger economy isn’t really a reliable indicator of what will go on here. I honestly have no idea what will happen. All I can do is quote Joe Kubert who said, in 1993 mind you, that he’d been through the death of comics six times. As long as artists and writers find this the most amenable, accessible art form to express themselves with comics will keep chugging along.

Yanes: What are the projects that you are working on that you want your fans to keep an eye out for?

Hester: Oh, gosh. Well, I’m writing Firebreather (soon to be seen on Cartoon Network) and Golly for Image. I write The Darkness for Top Cow. I just finished a Vampirella mini for her 40th anniversary, and landed a gig I’m not sure I can talk about yet with Wildstorm. I’m writing a creator owned book at Boom called The Anchor. I’m also drawing a few issues of The Darkness (#80-81).

Yanes: Finally, if you wanted your fans to add false information to one Wikipedia entry, what entry and what information would you want added?

Hester: I’d love to read a wiki about the sequel to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly that exists only in my mind. It was produced for television in the mid seventies and featured Ernie Borgnine as Tuco, Paul Lynde as Angel Eyes, James Franciscus as Blondie, and featured a soundtrack by ELO.

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  • Nicholas Yanes is a comic book academic who has written two theses focused on graphic literature: “X-Men as a Reflection of Civil Rights in America” and “Graphic Imagery – Jewish American Comic Book Creators’ Depictions of Class, Race, and Patriotism.” Additionally, he was privileged enough to create and teach “American Comic Book History”; a junior level course in the American Studies Program at Florida State University. His first publication is the essay, “The Super Patriot: World War II Warriors and the Birth of Captain America,” and will be published in Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero: Critical Essays. He is currently working on two projects: 1) Editing an essay that has been accepted for publication in an anthology – this essay looks at African Religion in mainstream American Comic Books, 2) Putting together a collection of essays that look at Obama in Popular Culture:

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