This is the first part of a belated series of interviews with cartoonists working with Melbourne publisher Milk Shadow Books. If I can manage it they should all run over the course of June.
I first met Ben Hutchings almost a decade ago at a convention in Wellington where the artist's alley consisted of Ben, his esteemed colleague David Blumenstein and myself with a couple friends. It wasn't a great experience for us, it turned out all the hep comic cats in Wellington were attending a New Zealand comics weekend at a pub up the road. I always like talking to Ben, we share a bunch of similar experiences with comics in our formative years and I very much admire his passion for making comics.
MATT EMERY: What were the first comics you read? What were the comics that inspired you to make your own?
BEN HUTCHINGS: The first comics I read were all the old Whitman and Gold Key ones, who did lots of Disney and Richie Rich, Scooby Doo, all that stuff.
All the comics that used to have the ads for the X-Ray specs, and slim jims, and those bloody genuine flint arrowheads. Oh and ads for selling GRIT magazine. The ads were the most interesting things in them I think. They made you greedy with all the illustrations of great things you could buy. All kinds of weird food, practical jokes and toys. America seemed to have all the coolest stuff. The comic content of all of these was amazingly mediocre. They never made me smile or laugh. I still don't know why people fondly remember Scooby Doo, or any of that Hanna Barbera shite. They were soulless!
I was inspired to make my own comics when I discovered British humour comics. They had a lot more spirit and heart, and even though they were formulaic, I get the feeling they were done by people who cared about what they were doing. They were also strange because they used a lot of British colloquialisms and cultural details like bangers and mash!
Of course I was raised from birth with Tintin comics, but for some reason you never think of them as comics do ya. But needless to say I adored them, and still do.
EMERY: Where did you grow up? Were comics easily available to you? Where did you typically get them from?
HUTCHINGS: I was born in Moruya, NSW but grew up in Canberra. Every Saturday I'd ride my bike to the local newsagents. Aside from MAD or the Phantom, the selection of comics in newsagents was always erratic, so it was a bit exciting to see what would be there. If I ventured further out on my bike I might find a whole different bunch of titles in some more distant one! An odd Superman, or some weird Aussie comic, or maybe they'd have three different Archie titles instead of just one. It was always exciting to stumble across a newsagent I'd never been to before, and explore the comic section.
Second hand shops were, and still can be incredible places to discover hidden piles of old, obscure titles. These days they seem to have more comics than before, too. It's fun to scour the foreign sections for cheap manga, Chinese Tintins, Italian Mickey Mouses, or some risque European hard cover comics.
Once I discovered Impact Records in the city, saving up for trips there after school with my mate became my favourite ritual. We'd blow $40 on everything and anything, and as it grew dark outside we'd sit on the floor of the bus on the way home, amongst the legs of public servants, comparing our hauls for the day.
EMERY: Who were the first comic creators that you recognised by name or style?
HUTCHINGS: I reckon I got pretty good at recognising some of the artists who worked on Batman and Justice League in the 90s. I loved Adam Hughes, coz he was really good at clean, appealing faces. They didn't look like the typical rushed sort of thing, and the stories were pretty funny. I could also pick Brian Bolland pretty quickly.
EMERY: When did you first draw your own comics?
HUTCHINGS: I can't remember when I did my first comic - it must have been when I was 9 or 10. I was already drawing funny pictures but never in a sequential style. I think my first comic was about a legion of superheroes called "Mo". By Year 6 I had the patience to finish comics that lasted several pages. They were nearly always parodies. I found a big pile of them the other day! I have one called "Battyman" and I think I called the Joker "The Jokester" or something hilarious like that. It's interesting because I teach children cartooning now, and always remember myself having way more patience and care than they do, but nooooo.
EMERY: Was there a particular project where you felt you had established your own style? I always thought your work had a consistent tone of humour and I wondered if you felt there was a project where you consolidated your craft or style of drawing?
HUTCHINGS: I reckon Lesson Master was the comic that sums up my style! Very cartoony but with lots of detail. The people looked a little goofy but the environments and objects were usually pretty accurate. That's the style I feel most comfortable working in, and the most fun. But I never stick with one style and am always figuring out the best way to draw. For example in Iron Bard which I'm doing now, I am pushing the detail way more, and trying to find the perfect mix of funny/realistic to give to the characters. Even the shading techniques change throughout it coz I can't decide. On the other hand I'm posting a few webcomics now and then which have a deliberately inaccurate and loose style that I love doing. So really I don't feel like I've consolidated my style of drawing yet, even though I think most people can recognise my art when they see it.
EMERY: A while back you mentioned to me you’d like to attempt projects outside of the humour genre, have you made any progress with this idea?
HUTCHINGS: Not actively working on anything serious yet unless you count rough story outlines and scene thumbnails. It seems to get pushed back all the time. I have a number of serious ideas which I think would be great. Ideas like that are stressful because I know I can do funny joke comics, but I think telling a poignant story will really expose my shortcomings in that area. They could be ham-fisted, or shallow, or derivative or self indulgent or unoriginal without me knowing. I am not afraid of being insincere with them at least.