Belief in Yesterdays: An Interview with Rian Hughes
By Michael Dooley April 8, 2008
Belief in Yesterdays: An Interview with Rian Hughes
By Michael Dooley April 8, 2008
Belief in Yesterdays: An Interview with Rian Hughes
By Michael Dooley April 8, 2008

While celebrated in the British design and comics press for decades, Rian Hughes has been generally overlooked by major U.S. publications. As the principal of Device, Hughes is a self-proclaimed “commercial artist.” He handles illustration, graphics and typography on posters, CDs, clothing and cartoons, as well as other projects for clients such as Virgin Airways, the BBC, Hasbro and the Cartoon Network. Hughes has been credited with doing more than anyone else to elevate the sophistication level of comic book design, and recently completed several makeovers for top comics companies. I sat down with Hughes on the eve of the international release of Yesterday's Tomorrows, a deluxe hardcover compendium of strips from his comics career's most accomplished phase to date, as he expounded upon the dynamics of comics, design and fine art.


Dooley: You're involved with all aspects of graphic design, from concept and layout to type design, hand lettering and finished art, in the tradition of the great European poster artists of the early 20th century. Was that a result of strategic career planning? 

Hughes: It's a result of caring what the finished product looks like, top to bottom.

When I first became aware of “graphic design” as a discipline—and I'm sure this is common—it wasn't apparent to me that, say, a record sleeve was the work of several different people with several skill sets. So I'd do it all myself. You are far more likely to get a cohesive “tone of voice” and a conceptual and aesthetic unity that way.

Vonnegut covers for Vintage Books.

It's also the result of too many experiences where an illustration I've done has been very poorly supported by the design and type of the in-house designer. On the upside, there are some very skilled practitioners with whom I'm happy to collaborate because I trust their skill and judgment.

It's also a return to the working methods of the people you alluded to—Jean Carlu, the Stenberg Brothers, E. McKnight Kauffer, Alphonse Mucha. All these people produced work that marries type, design and illustration successfully and for whom this broader skill set is at the core of their approach.

Dooley: What are the downsides of being a generalist rather than a specialist? 

Hughes: I can't think of any downsides. There will be a flow of work—one year it'll be advertising illustration that will come to the fore, the next book jackets, the next font design.

What has been termed my “lifestyle illustration” style has been so roundly ripped off—there are more than a dozen copyists in the Workbook and Contact this year—that the bottom has fallen out of the market. Too many people now chasing the same kind of work, fashions moving on, clients not knowing the copyists from the originators: all these conspire to make versatility almost a prerequisite of an ongoing career! If you're, say, a specialist in woodcuts of thatched cottages or watercolors of food, chances are you'll very quickly find that instead of carving a niche for yourself you've backed yourself into a corner.

“Bachelor Pad,” an example of Hughes's “lifestyle illustration” style.


It also comes from my training as a designer, first and foremost. The idea that the appearance should follow from the content, and so be unique and appropriate for each new commission, does not always fit with the idea that illustrators have one slowly evolving style that they apply to every job that comes their way.

Dooley: You've mentioned how you learned from Peter Saville's aesthetic of “conceptual purity” and how you adapted his sense of rigor, restraint and perfectionism in your detailing. 

Hughes: A Saville/Brett Wickens piece was always surprising, always different, always beautifully executed, always internally self-reflective, both conceptually and geometrically. He of course borrowed widely, but the lesson is still there.

Dooley: What other designers have you drawn inspiration from? 

Hughes: Other people who have been inspirational do tend to show more of a personal style, but still a broad style that comes from addressing the context. Clarity, bold use of geometry, unfussy layout: the Stenbergs again, A.M. Cassandre, Jan Tschichold, Frank Bellamy, Ron Turner, Hergé, Serge Clerc, Ever Meulen. Jack Kirby, of course, for his ability to fill three-dimensional space.

Dooley: You've bunched early design Modernists with sci-fi and ligne claire cartoonists. Do you distinguish between graphic designers and comics artists? 

Hughes: Well, I think there are commonalities that underlie all the people whose work I respond to. It's like looking into the same room through different windows. They all have a different take on the same thing: line, color, harmony, composition... the structural underpinnings. The big difference of course is that comics bring the fourth dimension to the fore, but I think that even a single image like a poster needs to be structured to take the flow of the eye across it into account, to telegraph the correct order in which to view the information or digest the image. A designed item that extends over more than one page or element, like a CD booklet or a magazine, has a structure very similar to a short comic strip, actually—a sequence of images that has a rhythm, a pattern, a flow that tells a “story.”

Dooley: You were part of the 1980s renaissance in which comic books began to demonstrate an awareness of graphic design and other outside influences. How did that coincide with your personal artistic growth? 

Hughes: I think it was a realization that comics were, in essence, just words and pictures.

The Europeans seemed to be producing work that, while not always rigorously written, was much broader in terms of styles and content than the material popular in the U.S.—and to a lesser extent the U.K.—market.

Coming from outside comics, from the broader design world, it's easy to see how comic book design is mired in cliché. It's a much more varied and exciting scene now, but back then bold and sharp work by people like Dean Motter and Richard Bruning was the exception.

It was also that, due to the close-knit comics social scene, I naturally was the “go-to” guy for a lot of comic publishers who needed a designer.

A page from “Dare” from Yesterday's Tomorrows.

Dooley: At 70-plus pages, “Dare” is the longest of the five stories in Yesterday's Tomorrows. Besides his origins back in 1950 as a naive, straight-arrow hero of a popular British sci-fi strip, what should American readers to know about Dan Dare before reading your book? 

Hughes: That he was originally drawn by Frank Hampson, who lost control of the copyright and in later life had to draw overhead projection slides for his local technical college to make ends meet. Hampson's story also feeds into our Dare story.

And that he was succeeded on the strip by Bellamy. Garth Ennis is currently producing a version for Virgin Comics. I think Hampson's shoes are some of the biggest to fill in British comics, so my tack was not to try and reproduce his style but to feed the strong design and styling sensibilities of the original through my own.

Dooley: You approach each story with its own distinct visual style: “The Lighted Cities,” the short opener written by Chris Reynolds, employs a flat, duotone scheme of mustard and black masses over a strict nine-panel, thick-border grid, while for “Goldfish,” a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler tale adapted by Tom De Haven, you use a looser line and typeset text and indicate scene changes through a series of a shifting tonal palettes. How did you arrive at these decisions? 

Hughes: I think this goes back to the design sensibilities I spoke about earlier. The style is to some extent dictated by the content. It also keeps it fresh and challenging for myself: new ideas, new approaches.

The U.S. method of using a different penciller, inker, colorist and letterer on the same strip unfortunately tends to homogenize work. I don't think the variations in style in Yesterday's Tomorrows would have been possible under that system.

“Really and Truly” is all Day-Glo purples and oranges; “Dare” is '50s pastels and kidney-shaped tables; “Goldfish” is two-tone, harshly lit noir interiors. Each is in the service of the strip.

Panels from “The Lighted Cities” (top) and “Goldfish”(above), published in Yesterday's Tomorrows .


Dooley: Your comics, fonts, logos and other graphics are often meant to evoke various past eras. How would you describe your style? 

Hughes: I would say I have a “contemporary” visual style.

It's not a purposeful revival; I'm not attempting to be “retro.” Certain aesthetic underpinnings that show themselves in certain historical movements, because they are universals, do show themselves again in my work—colors or shapes, for example—but I use them because they are relevant now and work on their own terms, not because they add a veneer of “style.” I think that everything has precedents; the important point is not to take a surface style as a precedent, but instead try to gain a structural understanding of the thought processes that ended up expressing themselves as that style. If bold graphic shapes and strong dynamic compositions are the things that hit you in the aesthetic heart, then you're going to prefer mid-century modern to Louis XIV.

Dooley: Yes, why the particular fondness for mid-century modern? 

Event announcement for Lifestyles 2000.

Hughes: I think mid-century modern architecture epitomizes the same clean lines, geometric clarity and boldness that appeals to me in the work of the artists I previously mentioned, just with the added third dimension.

It also helped that I grew up near the Hoover Building, Wallace Gilbert and Partners' masterpiece of Egyptian Deco. The modernism of these buildings is offset with a sense of play, something that is sometimes missing from the work of architects like Norman Foster, who is the architectural equivalent of a lumbering rock legend riffing on his old glories when he should have retired and passed the baton a long time ago.

No more humorless glass boxes, please. Let's have a return to style, detail, quirky individuality and elegance.

Dooley: How is cartooning typically viewed among your graphic designer peers? Have you encountered any snobbery? 

Hughes: Not at all. Most graphic designers are comics fans, and tend to think it's a more interesting area to work in than, say, corporate reports. Designers and illustrators and comics people tend to have pretty eclectic and wide ranging tastes, so are very inclusive in their worldviews. It's in the gallery world where we're all flying beneath the radar. Which is, of course, the most fun place to be, even if the potential financial rewards don't match up.

It's when “artists” like Glen Brown or Roy Lichtenstein begin appropriating illustrators and designers work, usually considering it to be mere cultural “clip art” which is there to be borrowed without permission or credit and ironically “elevated” by being hung on the white walls of a gallery that I have issues.

Lichtenstein is not as important as Kirby, in almost every sensible measure you can think of. Yet a Kirby is far cheaper than a Lichtenstein... which is great for savvy collectors!

Dooley: Well, it can be argued that, in painting, say, Image Duplicator, Lichtenstein wasn't merely re-presenting Kirby's X-Men art, he was engaging in several important creative acts, transforming not only the content but the context in highly complex ways. For starters, on the wall it works as a reflection on the act and art of vision. It's also confrontational, with its gigantic, menacing glare, and creates abstract ambiguities that engage the gallery goer's imagination in ways entirely different than an assembly line comics story... 

(Clockwise from top) Roy Lichtenstein's Image Duplicator; “Doom Patrol” panel, Bruno Premiani; and “X-Men” panel, Jack Kirby.

Hughes: I'm sure that's what the gallery guidebook would tell you, and of course those are all valid points to a greater or lesser degree. They still miss a vital point though, probably the most vital point.

You see, these kind of discussions always seem to pivot around what I think is this very common conflation; one best illustrated by something Savage Pencil, a music reviewer for the New Musical Express, once said to me—and I paraphrase here—“You can write the best review, you can place a song in context and tell people what it sounds like and why it's important; but it's still not the same experience as when the needle hits the vinyl.”

In other words, there are pleasures to be had from harmony and rhythm, from line and color, from “qualia” in and of themselves, that no amount of well-meaning contextural analysis will elucidate. This is why people create art and why people love art. This is also precisely what contemporary art often fails to engage with, and thus, as a consequence, why it often fails to engage its audience. People who disengage with contemporary art are often much more interested in contemporary music, precisely because it speaks to them in a much more direct fashion: “Fuck art, let's dance.”

Dooley: Do you really think it's valid to pass judgment on works of fine art simply by applying the standards of the very different mediums of comics and illustration? 

Hughes: By assuming there are in fact different standards, you fall into the trap of elevating one form over another. “Quality” should be able to be judged independent of presentation; putting a fancy frame—whether conceptual, academic or actual—around an uninteresting image does not make it better.

Of course, good art and good design and good illustration all have much more going on than just their formal attributes, but those formal attributes are the very vehicle through which everything else is expressed.

Dooley: Well, the story of fine art—in this case, Pop—is also the story of how the work reflects its time... 

Hughes: The 1950s and '60s, which is where modern commercialism began, is best summed up by packaging, comics, advertising, music, cartoons... all the stuff that provided Pop Art's inspiration. Pop Art didn't create that zeitgeist, it just rode in on its tails. Pop was a neat summation and distillation of forms and motifs from the newly vibrant commercial arena, and this is why it serves the art historian as a useful shorthand summary.

It'll be interesting in 50 years time to look back at our manga-infused contemporary landscape and see who is chosen to epitomize it. Will it be the not-so-versatile and somewhat derivative Takashi Murakami, whose work hangs in a gallery, or a commercial, creative, talented powerhouse like Masamune Shirow, who doesn't? I know where the smart art investor money is going.

Maybe Warhol and Lichtenstein were effectively saying, “Look at this stuff outside the gallery,” and in so doing, they passed the baton to designers and illustrators because they realized that's where the really interesting work was happening.

If we look at the years between then and now, it's fair to say that the work of “commercial artists”—say, the psychedelic Fillmore West posters, up through Jamie Reid and The Designers Republic to the present day—have much more clearly reflected their times and have pushed the visual experiment far further than the concurrent fine art world did. Maybe it's just that fine art went off to explore something else. That is, of course, its prerogative.

Dooley: And what are you exploring now? 

Hughes: Six books with Spice girl Geri Halliwell, due out this year. A book of my photographs, which has been mocked up and I have to get around to pitching at publishers. A children's book. A holiday. A constant flow of interesting and challenging work is all I need to keep me happy.

Dooley: It's been around 10 years since your last graphic narrative work. Any plans in that regard? 

Hughes: Yup, stay tuned. It won't be what you think.

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Michael Dooley is a History of Design, Comics, and Animation professor at Pasadena’s Art Center and Loyola Marymount University in L.A. He’s an author and since 1991 a Print Contributing Editor. He’s also the creative director of Michael Dooley Design.