The Concepts Behind Bryan Hitch
Bryan Hitch has just spent the last fifty hours working. One could imagine his workspace looking like something of a frantic mess: spent pencils and pencil shavings lining the floor, scrap pages with scribbled layouts sprawled over a desk underneath stacks of art boards, one furiously worked over by a wired-eyed Hitch; his hand moving faster than the human eye can see, his tongue gripped at one side of his mouth by clenched teeth as he finishes the last details on a Captain America close-up.
From the lightness in his tone, though, that’s probably not the case. Hitch and crew have been making good time this go around, and they’re certain that everything’ll be banged out on schedule straight through the end of their run. Er, almost. “There'll be, um, possibly a few exceptions” Hitch admits with some embarassment.
“It’s a bit nuts, but we’re getting these twelve issues out at a better pace, no doubt about that.” He’s given himself a couple days to recharge, and after lunch it’ll be back to the grind. “This week, I worked from Monday early morning to midnight on Tuesday. Literally, I had ten pages of Ultimates to pencil and ink infour days, and then I did a cover in two and a half hours, pencils and inks too.
“I’m not quite sure how I did it. Nobody’s complaining about the quality yet,” he jokes. “I’m hoping they don’t look too closely.”
Above: Page 17 of the Colossus one-shot by Hitch.
This is not, by far, the fastest he’s worked. Back in 1997, Hitch pulled off four pages, pencils and inks, for Marvel’s one-shot Colossus in nine hours. “Paul Neary, he was inking a page himself right next to me, ‘cause we were working in the same room at the time, and he described it as ‘inhuman.’ He’s working his way through one page of inks, and I’ve still got these four pages; it’s about two o’clock at this point. And he said ‘You’ll never do it,’ ‘cause FedEx was coming to pick them up at eleven o’clock the next morning, and I somehow managed to do it. I still don’t know how, ‘cause they weren’t that crap.”
It also isn’t the longest he’s worked straight; Hitch goes on to reminisce about battle scars that go back even further. “I think the longest stint I did though was working at Marvel UK, working on the Mys-Tech Wars project when Paul Neary was in charge. There was an issue that needed to be done out-of-house quite quickly and I had gotten quite behind.”
Above: Page 12 of Mys-Tech Wars #1; Hitch's first crack at the Avengers.
(“The particular pattern to this tale,” Hitch sets up for us, “I’m sure it’s becoming familiar, is the bit of getting ‘quite behind’.”)
Hitch worked five days, from a Tuesday to a Saturday, with no sleep, on twenty-two pages. “People would just come in, prop me up, and give me coffee. I was jibbering and jittery; and then I’d gotten on a train to go and see my parents, promptly fell asleep, and when I got of the train vomited several times, which I’m told is a classic sign of exhaustion.
“But then it was off to the pub. I was younger then; I was only 23. I can’t do that now.” In his ‘older’ age, he's made more effort to take better care. “I took carefully controlled power naps to get through this last workload. A couple of days off and I feel great now; I’m just finishing another page, so everything’s going quite nicely.”
He’s had his hand at two of the biggest superhero teams in comic books and was integral in creating the third. From his career-defining work on The Authority, to the personal disappointment that was the JLA, to the massively popular Ultimates, and everything else that goes on in his head in between, Bryan Hitch makes the thoughts behind his work available and unplugged.
Throughout Hitch’s career, there are two constants fans have taken note of: one in the people that he regularly works with on the visual end of the craft, and the other in the dogged reputation he’s has gained for lateness.
As well-received as the first Ultimates series was, with all the push backs it experienced in solicitations, Hitch knows that by the tail end of the run “Everyone thought of me as an unreliable artist. I think it’s a reputation I’m working hard to recover. ‘Cause I think people still now see me as an unreliable artist.”
His work first gained popular recognition through his time with Warren Ellis, converting StormWatch into the highly successful Authority. People gave the artwork nothing but praise in its detail; on this project, no issues were raised due to lateness. “The Authority I proved some reliability on, simply because that’s the first time Wildstorm would have twelve consecutive issues of anything shipped on time. When I got to the halfway mark on that, I was comfortably working maybe four or five hours a day. Rachelle (Brissenden, original series editor) never looked at her schedule because the books just came in, fully inked, relentlessly, seven pages a week.”
Above: Cover to The Authority #11.
That year, Hitch even found time to fill in for an issue on two other books: Martian Manhunter #11 with writer John Ostrander, and WildCATS #5 with writers Scott Lobdell and Joe Casey “Which I thought was awful. It was an awful script and awful drawing job for myself; but they seemed to like it, which was such a surprise because I think I knocked out that issue in about a week.
“It was just not a really nice experience, but I had the discipline to get through it.”
With equal candidness, Hitch reveals: “I think the Justice League project was really kind of what threw me a loop.”
This would have been one of the most sensational jumps in comics art history: Hitch’s widescreen talents would go from defining one of the slickest new superhero teams to contributing on THE iconic superhero team. ‘Heaven’s Ladder’, an over-sized, 72-page comic, was Hitch’s first assignment on the JLA. The results are a visual wonder, but the aftermath left Hitch and inker Paul Neary drained in part from what Hitch so lovingly refers to as a ‘DC scheduling fuck-up.’
“I was in no fit shape to start the regular series by that point,” Hitch curses. “Mr. Dan Raspler, a father of many a DC scheduling fuck-ups – I didn’t get on with Dan at all. With ‘Heaven’s Ladder’, we had a great deal of enthusiasm for it as a project; we started out quite well when we were getting on contract to do this. At the time, I still had four or five issues of Authority left to do, so it’s gonna be four or five months before I could start it. But they started to schedule from the day of the contract.
“I pointed this out, and they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll correct it in-house and adjust the later delivery dates and the ship dates’, but they didn’t do that! So suddenly this book was five months late when I started it, and they’d already started advertising the book and soliciting it.”
And this was only half of the bad experience. “So of course it was going to take me another five months to draw it, ‘cause it was 72 pages of artwork which was 50% more work than normal since you drew the pages bigger – which inevitably DC didn’t pay us for: they paid us normal rates. Paul and I lost money doing it; we practically went bankrupt, because we were trying to do this good job and use the space on the pages better since they could be done larger. Otherwise, we could have just done a normal comic book: What was the point of the extra format?”
Above: Heaven's Ladder page 60.
The spotty mess behind the scenes of ‘Heaven’s Ladder’ had consequences that bled right into the next assignment on the monthly JLA. “We were completely broke, we were both burned out, and then suddenly we were already five months behind on the regular book as well!
“It was crazy, it was ludicrous, and it absolutely wasn’t my fault. I’ve had my share of disasters which have been my fault, but that wasn’t one of them, and so that, coupled with the problems that were at my door at the first volume of the Ultimates, meant that two projects in a row proved me unreliable again, after all the hard work I had put in to not being that way.”
The Ultimates experience was exponentially better to Hitch: despite the lateness that eventually plagued that book, Marvel was adamant in defending the completion of The Ultimates on Millar and Hitch’s terms. “The treatment Mark and I have had on The Ultimates has been unprecedented as far as Marvel’s concerned,” Hitch notes. “Not only with the delays, but also in the willingness to not have fill-in issues and just let the book ship as it’s shipped. On the first volume I think it was extraordinary.”
On The Ultimates project, practical obligations began to nudge their way into the artist’s schedule, and none of them things that can simply be placed on low priority. Hitch had a child with his fiancée, an event accompanied by two house moves and an office move. “Being a typical bloke, I’m very, very, very incapable of Multitasking. I can’t multitask at all, even if my life depended on it. I unitask marvelously, however; if you throw me something, though, I have to drop whatever I’m holding to catch it. This is the problem. And so the practicalities of life seemed to just cut down my work time in half.”
By issue five, the pulls and tugs of things outside his professional life began to take toll on the work’s pacing. Joe Quesada and Mark Millar spoke on the artist’s behalf, proceeding only with good intentions; inadvertently, though, it played a bit of a psychological game on Hitch, not unlike the kind experienced by boxers form the hype-speak in a pre-fight conference. “I bought into it,” he stresses. “The book had been very well-received, and Mark and Joe were saying the delays were due to quote/unquote work of that quality taking a long time.”
It was a plausible explanation, believed and appreciated when readers would open up the latest issue and find fierce levels of detail. Truth is, though, that the quality didn’t demand any special, extended hours for the pages at all: again, Hitch already proved himself to be a capable artist on Authority, both through quality and speed. In hindsight, by the time he was on The Ultimates he was actually capable of better – he simply wouldn’t let himself believe it. “I think I got stage fright, and thought I had to work an awful lot harder than I really had to. I was capable of doing better quality work faster, but I didn’t believe that I could do that, because I had begun to buy… into the lie, I suppose. This is not suggest that both MM and JQ were telling untruths; it was the absolute truth as they understood it, but my tardiness wasn’t caused by the work taking longer as much as my believing nothing good should come easily. It’s almost like I force myself to struggle.”
Hitch has always been very critical on his own work. The words of advice from Paul Neary to Hitch since back in their early days at Marvel UK were, “ ‘It’s not your highest standards that matter, it’s your lowest standards’, often because you have to work to them in a commercial field.” For Hitch, however, “my low standards are high… they’re almost as high as my highest standards, which makes it a bit more difficult to let the stuff go.
“I hate my work; I’m constantly disappointed with it and distressed by it, and it’s never as good as anybody else’s, and other people’s stuff looks like real comics and mine’s just pretend.
“I find sometimes that it’s very, very hard to put aside the ponsy artistic inclinations I suppose. You read the script, you see in your head what you want it to look like, and it’s this extraordinary, big budget, beautifully shot, extraordinary special effects, the most expensive movie ever made, assembling the best actors in it. And you always have to compromise on that, and what level you do that at depends on how fast you want to work, or how the book has to be delivered, et cetera et cetera. And sometimes, it’s very, very difficult to deal with the disappointment of never being able to achieve those high standards."
Above: Ultimates 1 #11 pages 20-21.
It’s common opinion for Hitch’s aesthetic to be regarded among the best in today’s ranks. Other respected talents such as Alex Ross and Neal Adams have gone on record complimenting Hitch’s work. On Hitch’s end, though, it’s of no consequence unless his own confidence is on-line. “You kinda have to psych yourself up to do it. If I looked at it practically, the book’s one of the top-selling books of the industry; it’s one of the highest-regarded books in the industry. I gather that a great number of my peers hold me in some regard, and that’s all wonderful and flattering. But it inevitably doesn’t mean anything against the idea that if I don’t believe it, then I can’t do it.
“I don’t think that saying ‘the quality of the work takes time’ was a deliberate lie, it was just that ‘Oh, Hitch is taking a long time to draw it because we want to make sure it looks good’; that wasn’t really the case, though, except that I began to believe it to be the case and had to work extra hard. Much harder than I need to at any rate. My wife actually wonders what it is about success that frightens me so much that I feel the need to compromise any success I achieve.
“All of these factors, the constant state of relative upheaval, meant I was never settled enough to make any progress, by which point everything’s in such chronic decline on the book schedule-wise that it was impossible to recover, and we just limped through to the end.” Fortunately, while there have been some minor stumbles, the outlook on Ultimates 2 promises to push this stigma into distant memory. “We took a couple of major hits. I moved offices just as I started issue five and for some reason it took far longer than it should have to finish. I caught up a little on six but then whilst pencilling seven, Paul’s mother suffered a series of major strokes from which she wasn’t expected to survive. He was constantly travelling back and forth to Wales, where she lives (kind of like Peru to Americans) and so I ended up inking issue six whilst he was away, which wasn’t a speedy process. Paul’s mother made a full and amazing recovery and he returned to ink the bulk of seven, thereby preventing total baldness setting in from tearing my own hair out; it’s hard enough doing an issue of Ultimates once without doing each one twice!
“I also got married in May, which took the best part of three weeks from the schedule, so I’ve been running a little to catch up and should do so by the time issue nine is finished. Ten through twelve absolutely have to come out four weeks or less apart, otherwise the whole set of issues will lose their impact; it’s important we get them out in that fashion even if we have to ship the previous three a little late to accommodate those final few.”
Hitch has learned that it’s best to stick working with those that know you best. There are only a few select people that Hitch prefers working with on the visual production line, and once the collaboration fits right, he makes an effort to keep with that formation as often as possible. “It’s become only a small group of people you’re willing to work with, because they deliver what you want; all of you are on the same page, and you’ve formed good relationships with them.”
Hitch has worked with Paul Neary the longest; he’s been a fan of Neary’s for even longer. Hitch favored the work of penciller Alan Davis during the time that Neary was inking his work. “As much as I did like Davis’ work before and did like it after, it was that period that definitely had an affect on me. The inking that I was aspiring to deliver on my own work when I was just starting out professionally was really Paul over Alan.”
Like many young artists, as a small kid Hitch would re-draw pieces that he liked. Among those was a cover Neary penciled for the Captain America UK weekly reprints back in the 70s. “I remember copying that cover many, many times, but I didn’t know Paul had drawn it; in fact, he’d been the one that told me. I was talking about some of those memories of Marvel UK in it’s earliest days, and he said, ‘Oh, I drew that cover’ ‘Oh, no shit! I was 8 years old.’
“I remind Paul daily: he’s been in comics longer than I’ve been alive, professionally.”
Their first collaboration took place when Neary was still editor at Marvel UK, on a cover for the 1992 Marvel UK series Dark Angel, later followed by a cover to the post-AoA/pre-Onslaught X-event X-Men Prime.
“I don’t think we worked on anything else at all until he left Marvel UK as editor. And then we hooked up together, ‘cause I had been working around the X-office for the best part of a year, and the promise of these extraordinary royalties were going around at the time was quite convincing. Unfortunately, his leaving UK coincided with the crash of the market, which meant that the royalties weren’t there anymore.
“But we’re still there, still working together.
“I always wanted Paul to ink my stuff. And even though it started out being because of the Alan Davis connection, the way we work together now is certainly different from that, because I’ve found my own voice and style, and it’s become more illustrative; Paul’s gone back to his roots at Warren Publishing and the kind of stuff he liked, like Wally Wood, Rudy Nebres, Alex Nino, even Carmine Infantino, whose own inking was far superior to that which he received at the hands of others. We’ve found that we’ve got a very different approach than he had with Alan. We spent a long time working together and have grown together.”
There’s only one other inker Hitch has worked with of which he makes note. “Andrew Currie’s done a nice job, considering he never inked anyone else before in his career; I’d work with Andrew again. Outside of that, nobody else is going to fit, really.”
Colorists Paul Mounts and Laura Martin DePuy have worked with Hitch since his art hit high-profile, playing no small part in the success of his pieces. Often, Hitch holds very specific intentions when it comes to color and lighting schemes, and the relationship he has with Mounts and DePuy allows them to be expressed. “I can just call them up, we’ll go through the stuff beforehand, and then they send it to me to go over before it goes into press. I get to both approve and talk over the stuff as it’s done, which means I’m happier because I know I’m getting much of what I want, though of course you there is plenty of room for their own unique contributions. And you’re able to jump ahead and foresee any problems by speaking to them up front and tell them what you’re aiming at, because they can’t read your mind, and you might be aiming for a particular mood: you can’t work independently; you have to communicate. The relationship is similar to that of Director and Cinematographer, I suppose.
Above: Intro to Ultimates Volume 2 - Ultimates 2 #1, page 1; pencils by Hitch with Neary's
inks (left), finished page colored by Laura Martin.
“So inevitably, you need a relationship. And once you’ve got those, of course you want to keep them, because it already sticks together.” DePuy is the current colorist on Hitch’s Ultimates 2 line; Mounts is coloring a bunch of Hitch’s other works, "stuff that’s not the Ultimates.”
On occasion, there will be pairings with writers and artists that hit a rare collaborative groove that even readers will take note of: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams (cited as one of Hitch’s favorites: “I think they were both barking mad, which was possibly what the connection was; just fabulous creative chemistry as Thomas also had with Buscema”), Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.
It’s obvious that the same groove is there between Hitch and Mark Millar. “It’s almost like knowing you’ve met a woman you’re gonna shag and marry, except in Mark’s case, I’m neither gonna marry him, nor shag him, ever, while I have strength enough to prevent it.
“Creatively, it’s a perfect marriage. It’s not like we don’t argue at times and don’t get pissed off at each other. It’s just a perfect creative marriage with Mark.”
The marriage analogy fits well when describing the way these two intermingle. “The emotions are so powerful that it swings both ways. It’s both euphoric on one side, and also, when you argue, it’s passionate disagreements. And you can ‘Oh, for fuck’s sakes, fuck you, fuck your family, fuck your vicar’, all this stuff; it’s shouting, a few hours of back and forth emails, and then we’re fine again the next day.
“I think you’ll see these great creative teams who had their energies there, and they clearly were friends, too, or became friends. I don’t think you can have a creative partnership like this without being friends, because I think a lot of what comes out isn’t just creative, it’s personal.
“It just works on every conceivable level. I wouldn’t have invited him to my wedding, otherwise. Our wedding, coincidentally, fell the day before his and his wife Gill’s wedding anniversary, so another kind of synchronicity.
“I’ve been drawing comics for about 18 years now,” Hitch counts. “1987 is when I first started. But I think I only really began to take it seriously after StormWatch.”
In 1997, moving to a new house and coming out of the tail end of a relationship, Hitch imposed a new chapter in his life, making a conscious effort to take his work to the next level. He placed more importance on the technical details of perspective and anatomy, and worked to develop a higher efficiency in his work ethic.
“Having never ever done a regular book, really, and certainly never one on time at that point, the idea of The Authority – a fresh start, a chance to do something impressive – seemed quite tempting. Living on my own, I thought it was a good chance to focus and just do it and see what happened, and not worry too much about being anal about the quality and letting pages go; you did a page every single day at least, and that was it.
“That’s why I think it really began my career, because everything came from that project, that decision. I’ve drawn comics for 18 years, but I’ve had a career that’s lasted so far for only seven.
“The rest of it was crap, anyway,” he jokes. “All of it should be burned – if people don’t mind passing off their collections, that is.”
In terms of a working relationship, the setup from StormWatch to The Authority couldn’t have been better for Hitch’s new resolve. Ellis’ writing already had a draw, and their intent to experiment with decompressed storytelling allowed Hitch to play with a widescreen, cinematic feel, a feel which would eventually become the earmark of Hitch’s visual voice.
Creatively, JLA was a different sort of learning experience. Hitch and Mark Waid got along great; initial discussions on where they were going to take the story were very promising, however the final result didn’t seem to mesh. “We’d both come at the idea from the ends of two different poles, and so there’d be no middle to meet in. It was just two different approaches not gelling. And while the work was okay, it didn’t get the ‘x-factor’, which generally elevates it beyond the sum of its parts.
“I think Mark Waid’s a great writer, and I love reading his stuff; I always pull it out in bundles and I sit and read it. If I was going to work with Mark again, I’d just basically want him to write a full script that I just illustrate, and not try and be involved with it because that was where the disappointment lay: in anticipating a certain result based on my own interpretations of our discussions rather than Waid’s.
Above: The JLA battle God: Heaven's Ladder, page 58-59.
“It’s disappointing because JLA was such a fun opportunity, and it seemed like I was being hired because of the nature of the big scale stuff I was capable of delivering, also with the fact that I could make the characters act. But I had trouble because they weren’t my characters and that was the oddity of it as well. The Authority were my characters. And The Ultimates, even though they exist as Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, they’re my versions of them; I could do what I want with them visually.
“That was where I struggled, in finding my flavor of those JLA characters and still keep them recognizably as they were. And I think that’s the problem; you can’t change them – the only ones you can change are the ones that don’t have their own books. So it ends up being Plastic Man’s JLA, and that’s not what I wanted to draw; that’s not what I felt I had to offer anyway.”
Despite the scheduling and payment conflicts, ‘Heaven’s Ladder’ had an appropriate fit for Hitch’s storytelling style. ‘Terror Incognita’, Waid and Hitch’s last stint on the JLA monthly, was a decent fit, but less effective to Hitch’s visual tastes; ‘Divided We Fall’ was not to Hitch’s sensibilities at all.
Above: JLA #52, page 6.
“On a book like JLA, I think you only have one option when you’re using the 'Big 7' characters, and that is to forget about their book’s continuity and their subplots and their characterization. They’re just the guys in the costume having big-budget battles every week.
“I thought we were missing opportunities where we could have delivered some incredibly large-scale action and some brilliant science fiction ideas, ‘cause Mark Waid is good at this stuff; as a science fiction writer, I think he’s fantastic. You just have to look at the ideas he got across in the Fantastic Four run he’s done. But on the JLA, it’s just the chance to do some great scale, big-budget, balls-to-the-wall action with some of the best high-concept ideas. Yet inevitably, it ended up being about secret identities and you can’t do anything with that anyway, just because you have no control over their individual books; it was a bit of a pointless exercise, really.”
Of all the writers Hitch has worked with, “The only two people I’ve worked with where I’d felt the ‘x-factor’ would have been Warren and Mark Millar. I’d work with Warren in a heartbeat anytime of the week. You just thought you could read each other’s minds. And especially with Millar, sometimes it feels like you do; there are times we’d call each other saying, ‘Look, I’ve had an idea about this issue and we need to go in this direction,’ and, literally, the other one was about to phone or email the other party with the same suggestion or idea. It’s uncanny half the time. Which is why I think the result is greater than the sum of its parts, ‘cause the work Mark and I do together is better than the work we do separately. And we feel that way, certainly.”
Millar may very well have known that there was potential for such a spark before he even began working with Hitch; taking notice of the work on The Authority, Millar would only work on (what was then) Ultimate Avengers on the condition that Hitch would be the one to draw it.
“When I first talked with Mark Millar about what became the Ultimates, it was immediate – from the minute we had the first conversation – that not only the project, but what we were capable of doing together was obvious to both of us. We spent almost the entire day on the telephone the first time we spoke, just discussing ideas for the characters for the stories - none of which we probably ended up using, but it was inevitable from that minute that I was gonna do the project because it just worked; it clicked, it was emotionally right. We just had a gut feeling.”
Fan reactions and sales figures proved to actually surpass their intuition: Miller’s return to Batman with DK2 debuted on the same month as The Ultimates #1, and Hitch and Millar knew the competition would prove tough to hold up against. In the end, however, “we actually recorded higher figures, which was surprising. We just didn’t really think it was gonna be that much of a success. The Avengers weren’t selling particularly well at that point, and to have an Avengers book selling out X-Men titles like Ultimate X-Men was just a shock to all of us. We knew it would be successful, being a part of the growing success in the Ultimate line, but we just didn’t think it would be that successful.
“That’s alchemy that was at work; that’s something you can’t predict, you can’t always rely upon.”
Typically Hitch begins his day with loads of coffee, breaking in a pencil onto art board by 9am. At six in the evening, “It’s home to play with the children and kiss them good night as required, before dinner and wine with my lovely wife, then it’s back to work for as long as is needed, should any pages need finishing.” As a work hound, whenever Hitch allows himself a break, he takes the effort to make the best of it, catching up on the latest books he’s been meaning to read; dabbling in writing that the world is yet to see; throwing huge dinner parties that go on for as long as he can hold off his urge to get back to the pencil and draw.
Hitch also plays the piano and is an avid fan of classical music. Live orchestra is another one of his favorite things to do, having just embarked on eighteen live concerts in London’s fabulous Royal Albert Hall over the summer season of Daily concerts; whenever he can’t attend, the music plays as he works.
So in constructing the scene of a Hitch working frantically, would Holtz’s Mars be in the CD player when drawing an alien invasion? “It’s actually not too far from that. It’s like I said, something has to feel right. And there are times when I need to keep calm when I’m drawing something frenetic, because otherwise I’m gonna explode, but a lot of the times it’s finding the right backing music to affect the emotional mood of what it is I’m drawing. If I don’t’ feel it, it won’t come out of the pencil.”
Music as a focal enhancement certainly coincides with the sensibilities of his approach to visual rendering. “Everything I draw is almost instinctual, rather than practical and learned. I think everything I do is virtually unconscious, and even though I can analyze it objectively with hindsight, it doesn’t happen that way when I’m working on it. You become completely immersed in it, and it becomes something not logical, something completely 'right-brained'. You lose all track of time, you can’t communicate, and you’re completely immersed in this semi-hypnotic state, where things just get all creative on yer ass. And the music fuels it enormously.”
Developing the composition of a piece, however, requires a different thought process; for Hitch, the approach is more of a logical, left-brain thing. “I can’t listen to anything when I’m doing layouts; that’s the thing you really have to figure through. What goes where, and how the storytelling works, and translating that script into a visual thing.
“One of the reasons why I don’t really want to do storyboards for movies for a long period of time is that I’d never get to listen to any music when I work. That storyboarding process, I think, would have to be really, really focused, using both sides of your brain then.
“But of comic pages, once the layout’s done - and there’s actually a relatively short time spent doing that - the music’s on, and it’s conducting with one hand and drawing with the other.”
Every single page of pencils that Hitch hands in is entirely his work. From the foreground characters, to the background cityscape, to the seventy or so extras in a crowd scene, every element is fully penciled by Hitch without an assistant’s aid. “There are times where god knows we wish we had an assistant,” Hitch sighs. “We could finish up that crowd scene, or draw the last thirty-five cars on the freeway."
As much as penciling is very much his thing, the tedious necessities in completing a visual idea can sometimes feel like a chore. “Just finishing can feel like hard work. And then it is then just a job; you have to get it done."
There’s a juggle between the excitement of creating something new versus getting the image finished. “I think I feel both sides of that, everyday. I mean, there are parts of working where you’ve done all the fun stuff on the page, and you’ve got the dogwork of just trying to get it finished. Little bits in the background involve some ruling up; you’ve had the idea, and now you have to see it through.”
Regardless of how much or how little effort is required to finish a page, in the end they’re all judged with the same weight. A scenario that plays itself out quite often when the creative team confers to finalize a book: “Going through the notes with the colorist, or going through the issue with Mark afterward, people they’ll often say ‘We really love that face’ or that figure there, but I thought ‘Well, I knocked that out, it was a hack-job’s worth of a second.’ But when I look at the way I’ve actually adjusted the lighting on the back and the musculature, nobody’s ever seen that before. ‘Yeah, it’s all right,’ is inevitably what they say. ‘But I like the face better.’
Above: Ultimates 1 #2, page 6. Excellent play on lighting in the last panel
on a good face. Everyone wins. :)
“What you like and what you intend no one ever really knows, I suppose.”
So what’s the difference between what Hitch conceives in his head versus what ends up on the page?
“Oh, I suppose what we’re seeing on the page is a crude version of what I’m seeing in my head. It’s more like a slightly out-of-focus Polaroid snapshot, rather than the fantastically photographed, using yourself, the director of photography, three cameramen, and a large budget intentions I start out with.
“That’s a very hard one to answer, because it ends up going around in circles in my head when I try and think about trying to answer it. I think it’s difficult to categorize in a few sentences. I mean, what I want people to do is believe, utterly, the story that we’re telling, and not go ‘But that’s silly.’ So there’s a sense of trying to make real the fantastical, historical, ‘current affairs la-la nutiness’ of that book – whatever kind of information you’re trying to get across, you have to try and make it believable.
“I don’t really see, say, The Ultimates as a comic any more than I see a movie as a movie; it’s just a story experience. You’re presenting a story and you have to get people to believe it and buy into the myth, the fantasy of it. It’s simply the method we choose to deliver it: comic books.
Above: Ultimates #1, page 26.
“We are trying to appeal to newer readers with this; the idea that anyone can pick up The Ultimates and enjoy them; if you’ve seen a movie, you’ll like the comic. Essentially, we try to make it real, because in my head it’s real: I can feel it, I can feel the characters’ emotions, and they’re very much alive as characters. So that must come across.
“But it comes down to the metaphysical things about the properties of posture, of expression, composition. Use of space within that composition. Light and Shadow. Rendering. Whether to use grey or not to use grey. How it applies when coloring’s put over the top of your rendering. What comes through in print – all these factors go into every single page.
“I think inevitably, it never comes across as well as you might want it to. It’s not like I sit down and I have a very clear image in my head of how I want it to be; it’s more like I’ve got half a feeling of how I want it to be. I’ve drawn pages that were perfectly okay, but then I’d say to Mark, ‘You know, that’s really not an Ultimates page. It doesn’t feel right. The composition doesn’t feel right.’ I’m not saying it’s a bad composition, it just doesn’t feel like it belongs on the Ultimates; it might be more of a Justice League page. It just has to feel right, and we know what feels right because we’re doing the job.
“I’ve had this brilliant experience; I’ve been working in the Doctor Who TV series for BBC – I was the conceptual artist on that. And one of the greatest things we got to do was redesigning the TARDIS set; that was great fun. With the production designers and producers and various others involved, we all ended up knowing instinctively how the thing had to feel – for everything, whatever we designed for the show. And it’s not so much even something we can talk about, but you just kind of know. There’s a tone that’s been set for the show, something that you almost couldn’t describe to anybody else, but you know that it’s gonna work or it’s not gonna work, and whether it fits or doesn’t fit, whether it’s a Star Trek or a Star Wars or a Doctor Who. Some of that stuff gets into the metaphysical.
“This is the difference between how I want the page to look, and how it’s ended up looking. It’s not that how it ends up looking is particularly bad, but sometimes it’s disappointing that you have to compromise on certain levels of quality that you feel you ought to be achieving. Again, that comes hand in hand with the desire to create. I don’t think what I’m producing is particularly bad at all, realistically; it’s just that I think I can do better and I always want to do better. And maybe it’s because at the end of a job I’m pig sick of it. I just want that buzz of the new job. Where the line between the imagination and the hard work is possibly where the loss occurs. And maybe it’s because you’ve become so sick of it, because it becomes such hard work, that it shows that it’s lacking something, or lacking the great drive.
“In the initial minutes of the idea, anything’s possible; the energy that you think that the scene should have, the way you possibly perceive the figures to be moving. Because we live in a world full of motion, and we’re used to seeing films which have things in motion, it’s often very disappointing where you can’t capture that motion in a single, static image, which is another thing you have to do for comics.
“You know, to be truthful, all the stuff I talk about, with the neuroses and being disappointed, if I step back from it for long enough, then go back and look at it, I can be much happier with what I’ve done because I don’t remember all the problems. ‘It’s okay. It’s good. It’s fine.’ Or I could have done that better, or that better, certainly, but what was I worried about?
“I do think I’ve been working myself too hard, unnecessarily, and struggling, when it shouldn’t really be a struggle – it is fun, it’s exciting and I can do it, so…
“Maybe you should just erase all that stuff I’ve gone about; the work’s fine, I’m getting it done; I’m reliable again. Hurrah.”
There are telltale signs that make a piece stand out as a Hitch piece: the way a cheek is rendered; the way the characters are made to stand; distinguishable elements that make up the charm of Hitch’s style.
“Style’s a weird thing, because I’ve spent a lot of time learning to draw the way I draw. Style is an inevitable by-product of learning to draw: it’s sort of your errors, really your style is. Whether it’s your shorthand or your interpretive errors of reality; whether you want to go as far into cartooning or even realistic illustration, style is your interpretation of the reality, filtered through what you’ve learned technically.”
Whether there will be an evolution in his work that would urge him to experiment with different styles, “I don’t know that I want to change my style, but I constantly want to learn more about how to do what I’m doing.
“As far as other mediums go,” Hitch offers, “it’s been so long since I’ve painted with any seriousness. And I’d give half my bow-tie collection – if I had one, that is – to direct movies.”
It’s a serious pursuit for Hitch: talk with him about feature directors and their styles and he’ll engage you intelligently; he definitely has his preferences and his reason for them. For instance, David Fincher: “One thing I love about Fincher’s stuff is that he composes the shots in the cameras so well; it’s so vivid and active and involved at the same time.
Above: Captain America saves soldiers from getting squished in
Ultimates 2 #5, page 14.
“There are people who are very, very good, but it’s all staged. It’s all happening on a stage, you’re sitting in the audience, and you’re watching it; it’s more like theatre than cinema. One of the great things about cinema is that you can put the camera right in the middle of what’s going on, anywhere in fact; you can put the viewer in a place where he’s not really viewing, but he’s participating.
Above: Developing the doubt: Thor talks to Volstagg, Ultimates 2 #1, pages 19-20.
“I think that’s true of comics, too. And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do, rather than have you watch it from a safe distance. There are times when you need to stage it, and you need to put the viewer back, but if you do that all the time, it becomes less effective and a routine.”
The widescreen, cinematic compositions that Hitch creates for the comic page definitely hint at a mode of thinking fit for motion pictures, a mode which is evident in his tastes. “So doing movies along the lines of David Fincher… or Ridley Scott, ‘cause he composes very well, but sometimes he loses the narrative, ‘cause he’s so busy composing the shots on screen. I would never go to a Ridley Scott film and think, ‘No, I wouldn’t put the camera there’, which in most others it’s something I think all too often. Much of cinema direction is pedestrian but occasionally it leaps out and captures you in all possible wide-eyed glory.
“Spielberg’s Terminal with Tom Hanks – I didn’t particularly enjoy the film, but I thought some of the camerawork and the use of the space was fantastic. I love drawing those big spaces in comics and peopling them with stuff going on. But that takes an incredible amount of time to do on the scale it was done on the film. But to be given that chance with the vast set that they built for the JFK terminal, and having all of those extras milling about and all of those places to put the camera, what an amazing thing that would be.
“So yeah, that’s where my head is all the time. One day I’ll direct a film. Wonder Woman 12 or the new Superman 8 or something.”
Working as concept artist on the latest Doctor Who series, Hitch has been provided the means of immersing himself in the details of the filmmaking process, most especially with a relation he’s developed with a director working at a nearby stage. “One of the things that really interested me about working at Doctor Who was Joss Whedon was doing Serenity as well at the time. He had given me the offer to spend as much time on the Serenity set as I’d wanted. And the Doctor Who thing, what I was gonna do there was spend as much time on set there when I wasn’t working at the design office. Neither of which happened, though; I was just too busy working, which is both frustrating and rewarding.”
Of course, Hitch isn’t planning on quitting the field he’s been working in since he was 16. Already, he and Millar have set the stage for their next collaboration, though when that falls is yet to be determined as both have plans elsewhere for the interim. That said, the alchemic feeling is already starting to make itself known on that, too. “There’s something that’s just right about it; the ideas are coming quick to both of us. It’s just beginning to feel that way, and Marvel feels that way, too. That one’s going to be huge – I think it’s gonna be one of Marvel’s biggest projects for a very, very long time. This is how we felt when we first spoke; this unbridled enthusiasm for the potential, for the possibilities.
“We know exactly what we’re doing next together, and we’re not telling anybody, just so’s you know.”
Special thanks to Rich DeDominicis for providing scans of Hitch & Neary's artwork. Rich sells original pieces at www.theartofcomics.com.