Eighteen years after Nick Abadzis completed his critically-acclaimed strip Hugo Tate in the pages of Deadline the comic’s six-year run is finally being collected by Blank Slate Books. Across the course of Hugo Tate the eponymous protagonist evolves from a stick-figure into a fully-realized character surrounded by a complex cast that captures the very essence of growing up in that period. Like the very best work of the Beats, Abadzis somehow collates everyday social experiences and downfalls into a body of work that transcends genre and culminates in a mind-bending road trip that perfectly depicts the aimless growing-pains of a generation. Hugo Tate contains a vital reading experience for anybody with even a passing interest in comics and it was our privilege at Starburst to have the opportunity to speak to the creator about his career.
Starburst: Enough time has probably passed now since you created Hugo Tate, can you tell me how much was autobiography and how much was fiction?
Nick Abadzis: The old adage that all stories are autobiographical comes to mind, but I won’t hide behind that one. Very few of the actual details in Hugo Tate are truly personal in that I lifted them directly from my own life, but an awful lot of the emotion, incidental stuff and circumstances behind them came from mine and my friends’ experiences. I knew people who had those details in their lives, so it all entered into the mix, the process of creating a believable world peopled by believable, recognizable characters.
I’ve received the impression over the years, that people would love it if I said, “Yes, everything that happened to Hugo happened to me – it’s all drawn directly from life.” I’ll say that, if you like but it isn’t true. Then again, is he a part of me? For sure, yes. And so are all the other characters, too. Is it about me? I’m as boring as the next bloke, so no. Hugo is as unreliable a narrator as any; he was a stick-man all right but he was simultaneously an everyman. His story was a rites-of-passage one, not by any means universal in how he experienced it, but hopefully universally understandable and explicable.
SB: At what point after you started work on Hugo Tate did it become apparent to you that this was a project you'd be able to really invest yourself in?
NA: The first strip in the book dates from 1985, although it didn’t see print until 1988 in Deadline. There were more prior to that one, and after, but until Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins commissioned me, they were all abandoned. That was the only early one I ever finished for some reason, so by default it became the first ever Hugo Tate strip. I had enough creativity and personal momentum to begin the things but not always the desire to finish them; I was experimenting. Being thrust into the spotlight meant that I had to give them endings, make them work in their own right.
I was fascinated by the potential of comics, and I wanted to tell a story that was as appealing to the reader as it was entertaining and educational for me to write and draw, something that seemed “real,” that was immersive. Hugo Tate was the first time I really tried to get to grips with the language of comics, to make it speak for me. To my surprise, I was reasonably fluent and I got better as I went along and quickly. I loved doing it, I was really hungry for it. Still am.
SB: How confident were you about the growth of your art as time progressed? Was it difficult allowing Hugo to mature the way that he did?
NA: It’s difficult to precisely trace your creative path back through a work you did long ago but I can remember that when I started out, I was not a confident artist. I do remember working very hard on the writing. Artwise, you knew you were going to be published alongside the likes of Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins, who were already heroes of mine from the pages of 2000 AD. You were published in the same pages as some hugely inventive cartoonists and it was pretty daunting company to be in.
Steve Dillon began calling Hugo Tate “the quiet heart of Deadline” whenever I’d bring a new strip in and giving me the fan mail that had started arriving. That was mind-blowing. At that point I cottoned on that it might actually be popular. Brett introduced me to Brendan McCarthy, who was very kind and tutored me in the true artist’s deity, the god of tea. “Drink the right tea, you’ll draw good pictures.” He was right. Those early days of Deadline were a fantastic, anarchic, fertile university of comics.
SB: How much of a setback was it for your career when the promising reception to O, America was undermined by problems with the publisher? Did that have a big impact on your direction?
NA: It did have an impact on my direction in that I began pursuing more traditional work as a comics writer. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think it was what I really wanted to do; I wanted to write and draw and attempt to do non-genre stories on a wider canvas. I should’ve probably continued doing Hugo Tate, but at the time I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. I’d developed serious RSI from doing lettering work for 2000 AD and Marvel UK to help support myself while doing Hugo and was told I had to give my hand time to heal. Writing seemed a way to stay in the game. My friend Garth Ennis was doing well as a writer for DC so it seemed feasible at the time, but looking back I think I was wrong – I was never happy if I wasn’t drawing as well as writing. I always did both at the same time; to concentrate on one seems like deliberately facing the world with one eye and one ear closed, half your sensory and perceptory equipment deliberately shut off.
SB: Can you give me a potted history of your work since Hugo Tate? Given how much we loved it where should we go for my next fix?
NA: Much of my work is out of print. LAIKA isn’t and soon, Hugo Tate won’t be either. LAIKA is probably the book that I’m best known for, at least in the USA and Europe. It’s a bestseller for its publisher First Second and won various storytelling awards around the world. But I have a fairly extensive back catalogue that’s never seen the light of reprint or collection. Between series of Hugo Tate, I drew a newspaper strip called Untitled Comics for the long-defunct Sunday Correspondent.
After Hugo Tate I wrote a horror mini-series for Marvel UK called Children of the Voyager which was drawn by Paul Johnson. My first foray into the US market proper was Millennium Fever drawn by Duncan Fegredo, now Mr Hellboy. I was also working for 2000 AD, then edited by Alan Mackenzie and John Tomlinson. I wrote various Vector 13s and another horror series called Darkness Visible illustrated by John Ridgway. All along the way, I contributed work to other mages – Revolver, Crisis and the like, and I still freelanced for Marvel UK.
In the mid-nineties when the bottom fell out of the UK market, I was offered the chance to write and draw some graphic novels for children. These became the Plebes Planet books. I illustrated a lot of children’s books, did a lot of work for the BBC and eventually found my way back into editing when I joined Eaglemoss Publications as a development editor.
SB: Is there anybody in particular that you think didn't find the audience that they deserved?
NA: In the UK? All of them. Everyone from Deadline, but I don’t think British Comics as a whole, the industry and the art form, are appreciated enough by their own country. The apathy of Britain and the supposed movers and shakers of culture in appreciating its talented artists, in comics and other fields, is staggering.
I think there’s a lost generation of alt-Brit cartoonists who really didn’t get the opportunities and acclaim they deserved. Top of the list, Rachael Ball and Ed “Ilya” Hillyer, superb, world-class cartoonists, both massively underrated. Ed never made things easy for himself but is criminally underexposed and undercelebrated. Glenn Dakin should be up there with George Herriman and maybe would be if he’d had the opportunity to continue with Temptation. There are so many others, too many to mention here. All the artists in Deadline should be bigger names than they are, and are not through no fault of their own. There are people like Paul Peart-Smith, Simon Gane, Si Fraser, Adrian Salmon, Warren Pleece, Gary Northfield, Kate Brown and many more, all the cartoonists featured in Nelson and more besides, who should be superstars. And there should be the infrastructure to support them, beginning at home, and there isn’t, at least not yet.
SB: If this collection of Hugo Tate is as successful as it deserves to be, should we finally expect more stories about Hugo's extended cast?
NA: The carefully-considered answer to that one is that I don’t know. While I’d be doubtful that Hugo himself would put in a major reappearance, I often have ideas for stories that tell Spoonhead’s continuing story, or Stan, Dorinda and Jason’s. What happened to them? I do have ideas and I’ve learned that you should never say never. I have various other projects I’m working on, one of which is another book for First Second, the publisher of LAIKA. But there are two other projects that will be put out by British publishers, one a collaboration with French writer David Camus, the other the continuation of Cora’s Breakfast for David Fickling’s Phoenix comic for kids. Beyond that, the way is open.
The Hugo Tate trade paperback is out now from Blank Slate Books.