Originally Published September 30th 2009
Through the Eyes of the Creator: Interview with Howard Hardiman
By Gavin O'Reilly
From sign language interpreter, photographer, to comics artist, Gavin O'Reilly had the rare opportunity to talk to acclaimed web comics creator and published artist/author Howard Hardiman, the genius behind Cute But Sad Comics.
LF: When did you start in comics, and what inspired you to create, rather than just read?
HH: I started about two and a half years ago.I was working as a sign language interpreter and was doing it for ten years and was getting incredibly bored So, I started off doing little doodles on post-it notes, just little cartoons, then onto facebook.
One of my friends had a little stall at UK webcomic thing and said, you know, that they needed people and so I booked a stall there and realized I didn’t have anything to show! So I put all my post-it notes together and started doing little drawings of Badger. Then I broke both my arms and couldn’t work as an interpreter so was sat at home, bored an awful lot and then suddenly lots of Badger happened. With stories of Badger sitting in his flat at home, bored, I can’t imagine how it happened. (laughter)
LF: What is your most inspiring work in comics, and out of comics? Were you a comic book fan before?
HH: Oh yeah, totally. Most inspiring work? I like Pictures for sad children (for obvious similarity reasons) and I really like “A softer World”. So those sort of webcomics, but also things like Lizz Lunney‘s stuff, who does just really simple line drawings but they are just incredibly funny. Outside of comics? I don’t know, I know this is a real typical answer but everything really gets reflected. I spend a lot of time in art galleries, just wondering around. I think what I am looking for, is not for something to be painted brilliantly or technically brilliant work, I just want something that is in some way emotional, with an emotional response. I would go to the national portrait gallery and look at very technical well finished paintings and be a bit bored but take me to the Tate modern and I will happily spend hours staring at one wall. I am trying to find something that has me in, which I can relate to. So, generally speaking if it has animals in, I’m sold! If it’s sad, I’m sold. If it has sad animals in, I am SOLD! (laughter) On the sad animal thing I also love Melody Lee’s work, who does tpcat she does all of these sort of little philosophical comics where you’ve got field mice and hedgehogs and stuff sitting there and musing about how bad their sex life is and things. I have met her a few times and I am just in awe, I wish I had an ounce of that talent
LF: As an indie comic book creator, do you like superhero comics at all?
HH: Yes I do, I try to avoid the insane big summer events as they are generally quite hard to follow and they generally don’t make any sense. I do like (marvel’s) “Runaways”. I just really want to see how many good hats they can get Molly to wear. I also liked (marvel’s) “Young Avengers” until they started trying to make it tie too much into main continuity. I have been enjoying the (marvel’s) X-men stuff recently, and I’m enjoying the introduction of the dark reign stuff. The only thing I like in DC would be Superman having an emo day and things, those things I quite like.
My last cycle of regular collecting was Grant Morrison’s X-men. I get a bit annoyed when I pick up a generic comic and I don’t know what is going on and all the women in it are drawn in such a way that they all have the same face. It also annoys me when artists seem to forget the ethnicity of the characters. They had Surge in Young X-men who is Japanese, and then a little later on she’s not Japanese! They did that in Runaways as well with Nico. There is a fair few panels where they seem to forget that Victor is Spanish and I get him mixed up with Chase who is blond! This is quite worrying.
LF: What is your favourite comic at the moment, and of all time?
HH: I don’t know that I have a favourite comic at the moment, apart from maybe Runaways which I mentioned before and some Star Wars stuff,-Knights of the Old Republic. Of all time, I think the comic that had the biggest effect on me would be Laika, by Nick Abadzis because it’s not the only comic that made me cry, but it is the one that made me just not be able to do anything after ten minutes of reading it. You know what happens at the end of it, but how it gets there is done so well that when I saw him at an expo I went over just saying “your amazing, I don’t really know what to say now”. He was very nice, and very kind about my work. All of the things that have really moved me have been about animals being sad, like Maus, for a couple of the little philosophical points that were made. Some of the stuff about survival was really beautiful. I also really like Simone Lia's Fluffy, and I realized that she lived around the corner from me which was cool.
LF: Do you read or like manga or anime at-all?
HH: I find a lot of manga really confusing because I don’t know the conventions of it. I don’t understand why people go from looking normal to looking like children all of a sudden, just from a particular outburst or something. I just can’t tell what that means or what it means in their lives. There is some stuff that I have found really moving and beautiful, if you are going to make that distinction with manga, I read a beautiful book called "Blue" (by Kiriko Nananan) about a teenage girl falling in love with her classmate and how the two of them have this awkward romance- it is just beautifully paced, the opening scene setting is just five pages illustrating the town. I thought that was exquisite. I like some stuff but there is some stuff I just don’t get.
LF: Do you compare yourself to anything else that is out there at the moment? Do you see parallels in your work to anything existing?
HH: Yeah, I mean, I think that there are the sorts of comics/webcomics out there that I look at that make me think “God, I really want to do this”. Mainly fluffy, or that sort of area, you know, stories about animals. Then I hope that one day it will become a hugely popular and enormously profitable venture but in the meantime I am quite happy to just work at my desk (laughter)
LF: How long have you been running cutebutsad.co.uk, and how did it start/come about? (web or hard copy publishing first?)
HH: Uhm, I started off with the little photocopy zine and I was doing things online with a blog. But as I did more stuff like that I was told I should do a website, and I had a really patchy website for way too long, so some were on fabebook, some on blog, some on the website and but then I managed to convince one of my friends who is a proper web technical person to help me set up a proper site, and bullied him for about 6 months till he did it, spent most of our days wanting to kill each other and ourselves, and now I have a webcomic. (both “YAY!”)
LF: I am guessing that was a pretty big learning curve?
HH: Yeah, in terms of story-telling it was a learning curve but not like learning stuff like shipping methods (ergh…) and stuff I really don’t know. Then I had people telling me “you really need to sort out your official identity and branding and marketing” and I’m like “I don’t know…” I am just a guy who misses working with pencils and biros with post-it notes
LF: So when people are looking at your work and potential business I guess they want the full business plan…..
HH: Yeah, they instantly want to know my marketing strategy….
LF: And you are but one man…
LF: I think for those things you would just need to find someone your comfortable with and possibly employ or collaborate with them- marketing alone is an entire profession in itself!
HH: Yeah, I know. For a while I had a friend of mine that would come around and help me crochet and helped me sort through my accounts/making sure that invoices were paid. We were making little crochet pieces but realized that they took four hours to make and probably weren’t the most sensible thing to be making. I realized then that it was his organizational skills I was missing, and then he got a job and started doing coursework and then I suddenly lost track of all those things again. So I need to pull him in again.
LF: Do you have a preferred medium for comics? Do you think the web is the way forward? Or do you think there is room for both that and the printed?
HH: Yeah I think there is room for both. At the moment I think comics faces a real challenge as I think the economy slide has given publishing a whole new threshold, publishers are very nervous about taking out new work. Publishing is hard when you are printing stuff outside of the normal set readership of comics. I don’t know my readership demographic that well, but it doesn’t seem to be like, I don’t know.....
LF: the bulk of the previews catalogue…
HH: Exactly, it certainly isn’t among the superheroes
LF: I would imagine for your kind of work, that webcomics are probably a very good thing…
HH: Yeah, it is really god to keep the output going. The problems I have been having with publishers is they have been looking saying “yeah, we really, really like it but there is a recession on, we have got no money and we can’t even afford to publish the stuff we have got going on at the moment. The only thing we can do is wait, we really like your work but sorry”. I am trying to tell myself “yeah this is really good news because they have actually read it, and they have actually bothered to write back and have been really kind, and they want to do something with it but can’t afford it”. On the other hand I just think “Damn it, I just really want to break through that barrier” Maybe I just need to wait for the markets to go up again. In the meantime though I am quite happy to keep on with the webcomic, and get ready for my masters. In a way I don’t know how much my work is going to change over the next couple of years while I’m doing that. I would hate to commit to a huge two year project now, when in two years time my style and my outlook might be completely different than it is now.
LF: As a story vehicle, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of comics? (On your website it cites you going into comics as the photography you were doing lacked the narrative you were looking for)
HH: I think that one of the things I really like is that you have got the scope that you wouldn’t have if you were film-making, because you can draw anything you can think of (or you can try anyway!) but I really like having a lot of control over pace. You can show what can take two pages in a novel in one picture. I think the amount of space you give something, the amount of breathing room; can really help with the flow of the narrative. You can say a lot with very little. I tend to prefer it when comics hold back, I think there is always a temptation to try and show everything and every detail in comics, but I like giving a sense of what is going on, but you don’t have to see everything.
LF: Do you see any of your comic work ever being translated into another medium? If so, what? (film?)
HH: There is a film-maker I have been talking to who was asking whether or not we could do something with "Polaroid's from other lives". Which I am happy for, but I think if I was going to do something like that I would rather that it started as a film idea rather than coming from a comic because I think if it was a short film it would sound really pretentious, whereas if you are reading it in a comic for some reason you think it gives a lot more scope to the author to make grand statements (laughs). I do like the idea that several people have suggested of animation but I just don't know how you would make it slow enough, as it is so paced. I think it could be really boring in an animation.
LF: It might be that these translations to other media are something that you would also like to do retrospectively, as you are in the middle of them it would probably make it hard to move them now.
HH: Yeah, also with the "Polaroid's from other lives" I can only really make them every six months or so because they are really hard to do and they take a long time. They take a long time to draw, and a long time to brew. I am quite tempted to do something a little light again after the last one which was quite dark. So, I have been thinking about putting together another form of "My Tweaker Mum", which is a little strip comic about my Mum doing Meth amphetamines, which is funny and sad in places, funny enough. But you know, she is just such an addict, though my actual mother is not (laughter)
LF: Did that go down well? Mum, I made a comic about you.......
HH: My Mum kept getting messages and things on facebook saying "Oh, I'm really sorry to hear about your meth addiction" and she called me saying "I AM NOT ON CRYSTAL" (laughter) So yeah, I want to do something funny now, but I also have a plan of what I want to happen to Badger around Christmas time- it is a very cute thing.
LF: How did your collaboration with The Unbending Trees come about?
HH: They contacted me after reading my webcomic. I got a random message saying "I'm in a band would you like to do a collaboration thing?" and I was like " Ehm, I don't know....." but then they sent me their songs and told me a bit more about what they are doing. They are very big in Hungary, not so big here. I just really like the stuff that they make, it is very downbeat, very confessional.
LF: You say your work dovetails - do you believe this to be in the melancholy?
HH: Yeah, that's pretty much it.
LF: How was the gig?
HH: It was good yeah, it was very odd being name checked at the gig.
LF : Are you planning any more collaborations with The Unbending Trees?
HH: I think so; it is interesting to see just how those kind of collaborations work. The
vast majority of what I have been doing has been self initiated so it is kind of strange having a deadline however loose it is, so it would be kind of interesting to learn how that works.
LF: Anything else music related?
HH: There is another musician who I am working with and I have to put together character designs and concepts so he can put them past the label. It is terrifying, I don't draw people! With the work that he makes I really want to make it work, to go along with it but I think I feel much more self conscious about work like this. The fact somebody has to say "yes, I like this, this can be made" because I just make my pieces myself.
LF: How do you decide on formats for each project? You have quite a lot of variation in your output
HH: I think about the story first and then decide on format. But I think a lot of things will end up being A5 in size just because it is easier to get it printed that way. I am scared of working too big anyway, so I would rather make beautiful, small instances. As much as I want to tell the stories to as many people as I can, at the same time, the more people are looking at them the more self conscious I feel about it. Though, to stay true is more important, and being fine with one or more people not liking your work and not changing it just for that reason. To just say "Okay, you don't like sad comics, fair enough- why would you want to be made sad?" But some of us like to be sad. (laughter)
LF: You say on the website you have been experimenting with digital techniques to create your work- how are you finding it? Do you think you will stay more traditional or are you excited with the possibilities provided by digital tools?
HH: I am quite excited about them but there is a temptation to do pointless pretty things. When I first started learning illustrator I was like "Wow I can make a star with 72 points" but then realized I didn't know why I was making it. I do want to be able to use the technical tools, as before I had to rely on other people to help me prepare PDFs and things but now I know enough in InDesign to happily do that myself and I don't have to sit there and work through with somebody and direct them too much.
LF: Do you think this independence is benefiting the story?
HH: I think that it more helps me to do a lot of work a lot more quickly and if I make a mistake on paper, because of the processes, then I have to start the whole thing again. You can end up doing just as much in digital though. I think I will definitely continue with the digital thing but I think with me I will always want to make things look more natural.
LF: How have you found braking into the UK indie comic scene?
HH: I think when I first started I was intimidated by the scene and thought everyone else was really cool and I didn't have a clue, but I did make a lot of friends.
LF: Was there a lot of competitiveness, did you find it friendly or insular?
HH: I think I only found it insular in that the people who do it know each other and are friends, and if that is being a bit clicky then I guess it is, but not in a negative way. I have never encountered anyone there that I did not like. Apart from one time when I was at a stall and I think the person sat in the middle between me and someone I did like was on drugs, he was all over the shop. That was quite funny but he didn't really bond with anyone there, there is a time and a place- not now, not here (laughter) I do like seeing other peoples (from the scene) work developing.
LF: It sounds like you have been finding it quite supportive really...
HH: Yeah, it has been really supportive. I have been getting help from people like Phil who does "Ninja Bunny" and Julia Scheele who does "Powered by Robots", she does these really beautiful five panel kind of simple illustrations that are just heartbreaking. I find myself leaning more towards the people who are just about the reading experience and feeling, rather than books about giant monsters or robots taking over the world and things like that. Also a person I like is Timothy Winchester who does a really amazing comic called "People I know" and he really helped me get into it. He does stories like a little octopus girl at her first day in school getting bullied, getting upset and inking herself. Each time is a new set of characters, nice sad off centre things, I really like his work.
LF: Is this your full time profession? Or are you kind of mixing it in with other work at the moment?
HH: I am mixing it in at the moment, I am still doing bits and pieces of sign language interpreting and occasionally doing work with art galleries and things, you know odds and sods where I can. Now that I am going into the Masters it is all I am thinking about, and it is slowly taking over.
I went to the MCM expo and I was quite nervous thinking "God, it's going to be all teenage girls dressed as Pikachu" and it was, and I was terrified, but they all had lots of money and they all seemed to be open to picking up things they wouldn't normally. I kind of left the weekend having gone in thinking "Oh my god, cosplay is going to scare me" (it terrifies me), with enough money to get myself a graphics tablet, so it was good rather than going without food! It was terrifying going in there with my little prints, thinking I wasn't meant to be there with other exhibitors bringing in Lorries and things.
People have said to me that it will take at least three to four years before I come close to breaking even on publishing costs and things, but I think I am not making a hideous loss (thanks to teenage girls dressed a Pikachu)
LF: Yay for them!
HH: Yay for them, I don't mind them, they're great! So, I am hoping it will be (my full time profession), but I don't know how many people really make a full time living out of it.
LF: Well, what is next for Howard, and for cutebutsad/badger/polaroids from other lives?
HH: I am about to do a print version of the Badger webcomic so far, I think it would be easier for people to catch up and some people prefer to read the paper versions, and you can't really give someone a gift of a webcomic.
LF: That is one of the golden questions- how do you make money from a webcomic really?
HH: Well what is really nice is that there has been a lot of donation. I put a note saying I need money to go to college and if you give me ten pounds on the site you can be a cameo as one of the people in the background and on the street etc. and a few people donated straight away. What I thought was lovely is that someone wrote to me and said "Can I get a cameo appearance for my cat?" and I wrote back and said I wasn't sure how that would work as I haven't worked out the rules for other animals in Badgers world yet (apart from the goldfish) So he wrote back asking if I could get a plant or something for Badgers house instead, I said I could do that! (laughter)
It is interesting meeting people and talking to them at conventions because it feels like you have a shared friend, the only person we have in common. People are saying they are worried about what is going to happen to the fish. Really, what do you think is going to happen to his fish? Yeah, they know. It is a sad comic and fish found at fairgrounds don't last long, and he has a small tank. I don't know when I will have the guts to kill it.
The main thing about the webcomic is that it keeps me disciplined about drawing all the time so I can put up something each week, and it keeps a presence, and it is a way of letting people know when there is something new going on.
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