Wizard #60: Tom Hart

August 1996 (on sale date: June 1996)

Wizard turned five years old with this issue, and, thankfully, “Palmer’s Picks” was not hijacked this month for some editorially-driven top 10 list or retrospective feature. It was business as usual for my column, so I was able to profile the wonderful cartooning of Tom Hart.

marvel comics' hulk by bart sears on the cover of wizar #60
Artist Bart Sears drew his seven hundred and twenty-third cover of Wizard with this shot of the Hulk for issue 60, the magazine’s fifth anniversary.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Hart’s first full-length comic Hutch Owen’s Working Hard might just be one of my favorite comic books of all time. It really is just perfect. A story about the corporatization of America that manages to be funny, insightful, bawdy, and poignant. It was relevant when it was first published in 1994 and, sadly, it still is today. If you haven’t read Hutch Owen’s Working Hard, go track down a copy right now!

I was wrapping up my final year of college when I put this “Picks” together, so I think I was in a little bit of a reflective mood when I interviewed Hart. Our discussion focused more on his process of making comics and the challenges of crafting a non-linear story, which led to some enlightening stuff, like his discovery of how useful a lightbox can be when revising a comic page, or his idea of eschewing sketches and character bios in favor of drawing actual comics as prep work to discover characters and story. It was clear that Hart was a cartoonist who had put a lot of thought into the hows and whys of the work he was making. He’s completed a number of great comics after this “Picks” was published, and he’s also applied all of his knowledge about the inner workings of comics as the founder of SAW, the Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, Florida.

The comics featured in the “Recommended Reading” section this month were both good ones. I covered Silly Daddy and creator Joe Chiappetta in more detail with a full-length “Palmer’s Picks” in Wizard #66. It’s interesting to note that the Top Shelf anthology was still a one-man outfit with Brett Warnock at the helm; he would join up with Chris Staros the following year to form the publishing company Top Shelf Productions. Also of note in the “Reading” sidebar: all of the websites and email addresses! From the purely stylistic side of things, it’s nice to see that in the years since the Internet has taken hold on society, you no longer need to explain what a website or email is. You can just write out a URL or email address without saying “Here is where you can contact someone by using electronic mail.” Now that’s progress!

Tom Hart shares the huge volume of preliminary notes, outlines, and drafts that went into making the classic Hutch Owen’s Working Hard.

palmer's picks from wizard the guide to comics #60 featuring tom hart's the sands

Palmer’s Picks

Hart at Work

By Tom Palmer Jr.

With so many comic creators weaving long and complex stories just to show off, it’s refreshing to read the work of Tom Hart. He’s able to create a multi-layered story that isn’t bogged down in corny plot devices or useless dialogue. His stories are told quietly and efficiently; you don’t realize the depth and thought behind them until you finish reading one. What might look like simple scribblings on the surface turns out to be a creation that will stay in your thoughts for a long time.

With each project he’s worked on, Hart has pushed himself to try longer and more complicated stories. After publishing a few short mini-comics in the early ’90s, Hart broke out in 1994 with Hutch Owen’s Working Hard, a full-length comic about a street poet and his struggles against the idiocy of corporate society. His next project, New Hat, broke from the linear storytelling of his previous book with a group of interlocking stories about a war-torn world of poets and exiled presidents.

His new series, The Sands, promises to be even more ambitious than his earlier work. Hart has planned out almost all of the particulars from beginning to end of its seven- or eight-issue run. Serializing a story is something new for Hart, and he admits he’s a little nervous. “It’s pretty weird. Originally, it was planned as an open-ended ongoing series, but I can’t seem to do anything that way. Everything I do has to have a beginning, middle and an end.”

The plot of The Sands is simple enough. It revolves around a man, Little Hawk Troy, and a woman, Margie Fennel, who move to a Middle Eastern desert. She’s there to study bugs, while he spends his days occupying himself in various ways. In his wanderings, he meets up with a young boy who happens to be king of the area they live in, as well as Sen, a mysterious, mystical man who makes his home on a river.

Hart is challenging himself with The Sands by trying new things as he pieces together all the different parts of a long narrative. “It’s an experiment in composition,” he explains. “It’s going to be in three separate parts, all of which are pretty different. The first will be a pretty basic story, but the next is going to be a tangent. It will involve Little Hawk and a musician character in a different setting. Then the final part will jump around rapidly to different scenes and times from the first part, but with various things we haven’t seen before and new revelations about the situations we’re seeing.”

Like New Hat, this series will present the reader with a few challenges. You may have to reread certain sequences to pick up details that eluded you the first time. But it’s all part of Hart’s big plan. “I want people to do a little work and pay attention. Maybe give in a little and realize that everything isn’t going to be laid out for them. It’s not going to be like a trolley ride; it’s more like putting a puzzle together. For people who are willing to put in the time, I hope it will be really entertaining for them. But I also hope that I don’t have too many pretensions about what I’m doing.”

Making a complicated, layered story takes a lot of planning and preliminary work. Before he started The Sands, Hart tried something new and didn’t bother with the typical character sketches and bio sheets. Instead, he just started drawing comic stories to work out the characters and settings. “A lot of times, the early work—where you’re just trying to understand what your idea is—comes from a lot of thinking or writing ideas out. This time I wanted to draw things in comic form instead. I just let my mind wander to different settings, characters and plots until eventually I settled down with the characters I felt closest to.”

Aside from trying different methods during the planning stages of The Sands, Hart is also exploring different ways of drawing and composing a comic book page. “This book is going to have a maximum of four panels on the page, and there’s going to be a lot of space around them.” Hart also recently bought a lightbox—a contraption that enables you to trace images—which helps when fine-tuning his final pages. “It’s easier to redraw things. If I have a panel finished but it’s not good enough, its not that laborious to draw it again. It used to be where I would just let a lot of bad panels go by, but now I’m finding myself pasting a lot of redrawn panels over other panels.”

All of this redrawing and rethinking is important to Hart because he’s experimenting with how sequences of panels can be repeated in different ways within a story. “There are certain panels whose repetition might change the meaning of things going on in the story. Things that appear can maybe appear again in a more fleshed-out form, or appear later as a fragment. Also, things change by where they’re placed in the storyline. Things don’t have to happen linearly, and once you break out of believing everything is about telling one simple story as clearly as possible, then you can start to see that things can be complex and challenging and puzzling. It’s more like a tapestry or a mosaic than a straightforward narrative.”

Hart is interested in breaking away from traditional storytelling, but he’s also careful to make sure his comics aren’t incoherent. “If I felt like this was the only thing motivating me, I could do really formalistic things and wind up with just gibberish, but I don’t want to do that. It’s just an effort to make things more challenging for myself and my readers. It’s also driven me to stay interested, open new doors and unlock new parts of my mind.”

While Hart is committed to exploring the technical side of composing comics, he also admits that he’s in it for the pure fun of drawing and telling stories. “I think a lot of it, for me, is devoting energy to understanding why comics moved me so much as a child. For that reason, I’m very happy to stick around with comics. They’ve certainly provided me with a whole lot of pleasure and enlightening moments throughout my whole life. I love making funny pictures, and I love making the pictures better and putting them together.”

Tom Palmer Jr. just escaped from college and desperately needs a day job. Please send all inquiries c/o Wizard: The Guide to Comics.

FYI: The first issue of The Sands is set for a June release from Black Eye Productions. The company also still has copies of Tom Hart’s earlier works, Hutch Owen’s Working Hard and New Hat. You can contact Black Eye at 5135 Parc Ave., Suite #5, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4G3. E-mail them at mail@blackeye.com and check out their Web site at http://www.blackeye.com.

Tom Hart’s Recommended Reading

Tom Hart says, “What excites me more than anything in comics is ambition, so I tend to enjoy the more ambitious stuff. But then again, there are ambitious things I don’t enjoy.” Some of the challenging comics that Hart does enjoy include: Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware, Chester Brown‘s Underwater, Jim and the new Frank series by Jim Woodring, Ghost Ship by Jon Lewis, Megan Kelso‘s Girlhero, and Joe Chiappetta’s Silly Daddy.

Recommended Reading

Top Shelf: This anthology offers a good sampling of the new breed of alternative cartoonists. So far, editor Brett Warnock has managed a nice mix of names you might have heard about like Tom Hart, Little Mister Man‘s James Kochalka, and King-Cat Comics mastermind John Porcellino. There’s also fresh new faces like Ulana Zahajkewycz, Gheena and Yikes! creator Steven Weissman. The third issue should be on sale in June, but if you can’t find a copy of Top Shelf, then contact Primal Groove Press at PO Box 15125, Portland, OR 97293-5125. E-mail them at bawarnock@aol.com. Individual issues are $5 postpaid, and be sure to ask for a copy of Primal Groove’s nifty catalog.

Silly Daddy: After creating an impressive autobiographical story in the initial issues of Silly Daddy, Joe Chiappetta has taken autobio comics to a new level. His new story, “A Death in the Family,” speculates on what life would be like for his family and friends in 2004. It’s interesting to see Chiappetta’s vision of the future (complete with barcode tattoos and hand-held, electronic comic books), but the thing that makes reading Silly Daddy worthwhile is his wonderfully expressive cartooning and laid-back sense of pacing and storytelling. Write to Joe right now for more information on Silly Daddy. He has recent issues available, as well as the trade paperback, Silly Daddy: The Long Goodbye, which collects the first seven-issue storyline. His address is 2209 Northgate Road, N. Riverside, IL 60546-1339. Or e-mail him at sillydaddy@redweb.com. And check out the Silly Daddy Web site at http://www.redweb.com/sillydaddy.

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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