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Rian Hughes:

Yesterday's Tomorrows

Somehow word got out that French artist Serge Clerc was among the hordes of pros and fans milling around the London Comics Convention in September 1982. I’d seen photos of him and soon spotted him in his smart raincoat. Peter Stanbury and I jumped at the chance to meet the NME‘s master stylist of rock chic and and as it turned out interview him for the first issue of our anthology Escape. Over tea and biscuits, Clerc chatted, drew us his defective detectives Phil Perfect and Sam Bronx, and showed us some of his purchases, coveted Sixties American comic books, so much cheaper than in France, before tearing off in his plain Ford Escort to catch the ferry from Dover back to Paris.


Blondie & Carmel by Serge Clerc

Among the Frenchman’s growing band of British admirers was Rian Hughes, 15 going on 16 when Clerc’s weekly drawings began gracing the newsprint of the New Musical Express. For Rian those drawings had "the angularity of the classic Hanna Barbera style mixed in with a (then) modern sensibility" to form "the perfect confluence of graphic design and illustration". I first noticed Clerc’s influence on Rian’s own first comics while working as a Submissions Co-Ordinator trying to cope with the tide of contributions pouring in daily for pssst! magazine. A couple of pieces by him had been earmarked for upcoming issues, which never saw print because pssst! promptly folded. Their loss was our gain and Rian debuted instead in Escape #1 in 1983 with his diminutive Norm, followed by the wraparound cover and the wordless three-pager Selectivision, perfect thematically and graphically for Peter to convert into red-and-green 3D in #2.


Freddy Lombard by Yves Chaland

It was while we were preparing Escape‘s debut that Rian dropped by our Munster Road bedsit and studio and I showed him a lot more comics and graphics I’d collected in the Franco-Belgian ‘Style Atome’ by Clerc, Yves Chaland, Ever Meulen and others. For him these current bande dessinée albums were treasures, every bit as precious and influential on Rian as those old American comics were on Serge. Their impact was profund. Rian recalls, "It was their clean areas of black and white and asymmetric layouts that cut through all extraneous detail and hit me in the aesthetic heart."


Read Yourself Raw by Ever Meulen

Prior to this epiphany, Rian had grown up immersed in an eclectic visual culture: board games, comics, TV title sequences, bubblegum cards, children’s books by Scarry and Seuss, the composition and colours of English comic artist John M Burns (especially in Countdown), Hanna Barbera comics and animation, Letraset sheets and catalogues, Barney Bubbles sleeves. Out of his joy for all these stimuli and for the new discoveries from across the Channel emerged Rian’s distinctive approach, an attempt not so much to revive some retro style, but to bring fresh design sensibilities into comics.

By this time, cheap photocopying and the bi-monthly Fast Fiction stalls at London’s Westminster Central Hall Comic Marts had sparked a self-publishing explosion and Rian joined in. "The do-it-yourself ethic meant that it was easy and fast to get those little comics out, sell them, and then you’d be onto the next one. It was a great way to polish your skills and try out formats and styles." Finding work while still studying at the London College of Printing, he used his mini-comics as calling cards and out of one stint as a designer on Smash Hits came the offer to draw Geoff the Cat for the launching Just 17. Rian was on his way to making a living doing what he loves best.

Though he wrote almost all of his earliest strips, he admits to enjoying drawing more. So when it comes to visualising other people’s scripts, "the trick is to find a suitable collaborator who can work with you and articulate your concerns and ideas. The enjoyment comes from seeing someone who is very good at their art polish an idea and present it in a well-explored and structured fashion." Grant Morrison has been one of Rian’s principal writer-partners, notably on their provocative reworking of Dan Dare for the anthology Revolver. Anyone coming to this iconic character faces Frank Hampson‘s considerable legacy. "Hampson’s artistic boots are the biggest in British comics to stand in. I was not going to try and emulate his style, but try and marry the content and design-awareness of Hampson’s vision with my own approach. I was grateful to be able to play with these classic toys."


Dan Dare by Rian Hughes

While Dare can be seen as one of Grant Morrison’s important anti-Thatcher works, alongside St Swithin’s Day and The New Adventures Of Hitler, politics and protest were less important to Rian than telling a solid, well-articulated story. "I was more interested in using Dan as a symbol of an outdated optimism that seemed sadly lacking in those grey pre-Apple Mac, pre-Internet days. Science was no longer our friend, the space race had ended in a flag-waving nationalistic fiasco, people were becoming cynical and the grand visions of Dare’s world seemed to be out of step with the reality of the late 70s and early 80s." A similar melancholic glimpse into the future is offered by the earlier Science Service, created with writer John Freeman for the prestigious Atomium Collection from Belgian publishers Magic Strip. As Rian points out, "Van Goyen in the Science Service represents the same loss of idealism. He’s almost a proto-Dare."


Marlowe: Goldfish by Rian Hughes

Adapting another famous fictional figure into comics, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, in the noir classic Goldfish, represented a change of step for Rian. Teamed with pioneering publisher Byron Preiss and author Tom DeHaven, Rian tapped into the graphic framing, shadows and angles of the movie versions of Chandler’s stories and adopted a much looser, brushier style expanding onto larger A2 boards. In those pre-Photoshop days, "I copied the linework onto several different coloured sheets of paper, then cut these up into bold shapes and overlaid them to give the suggestion of shadows and light. Knowing La Jolla and LA now, it’s hard to square the sunlit streets with the moody alleys of my Marlowe memories. Maybe Chandler was drawing on his time in London?"


Logos by Rian Hughes

Over the years Rian has brought a great deal to comics beyond the sharp panels and pages of his strips, through his signature typography and design. Outside comics, his “sans ligne” vector illustration (a term coined by Will Kane with a nod to “Ligne Claire”) has been hugely influential. He’s been away exploring these and other fields but hopefully it won’t be long before he’s producing new forms of comics again, perhaps a dream project to which he could bring a variety of styles and approaches. “I have some ideas that deal with the Modernist mindset in the arts and architecture; it’d be a hybrid comic/design project. I’d like to try and bring what I’ve learned in the last ten years to bear on comics. I’ve been off on a wide and interesting arc that seems to be bringing me back home.”

As part of this "coming back home", he recently visited his hero, Serge Clerc, in his studio. "Serge was the perfect gentleman. Like all Frenchmen, he can’t make a cup of tea and his English isn’t great, but it’s far better than my French. He still had the original artwork for those illustrations I’d seen in NME. We spoke about his time at Métal Hurlant, about Chaland’s untimely death, about Sinatra and Debbie Harry, about modern comics and music, and about how his style had loosened up over the years. Then he pulled a copy of Escape #2 he’d kept off his shelf. I hadn’t seen a copy in twenty years. As he showed it to me, I felt a circle had somehow been closed." Welcome back to comics, Rian, to your home, first and forever, and to many more tomorrows and yesterdays to come.

Posted: June 10, 2007

This article first appeared as the introduction to Yesterday’s Tomorrows, the collection of Rian’s comics work from the 1980s and 1990s published by Knockabout Gosh in July 2007.

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1995-2005