Nick Abadzis is one of those creators for whom I’ve held a torch for a really long time. And sure, if you’re an American comic book fan like me (or have kids who love to read, like mine), there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Abadzis’ work yourself. With children’s titles like Pigs Might Fly, The Amazing Mr. Pleebus, or the out-of-this-world graphic novel about the eponymous dog, Laika; along with more adult titles such as Doctor Who from Titan Comics, it’s easy to pick Abadzis out as one of those creators that make you go “Oh! That guy! I like his stuff!”
But while his American titles are ones to be lauded for their fun and light-hearted joy, the earliest parts of his career are ones that are seldom talked about, and woefully underappreciated. I’m talking specifically, of course, about Hugo Tate.
Running for almost six years in Deadline — a British anthology magazine that saw the birth of Hugo Tate, Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, and the careers of several other beloved creators including Glyn Dillon and Phillip Bond — Hugo Tate started as the stick-figure protagonist that gave life to the sardonic mindset of the Generation X crowd. Evolving into something bigger and more poignant, Hugo has been called “Britain’s Love and Rockets”, and all manner of genius throughout the critics circles.
To me, however, Hugo Tate played a massive part in understanding a very odd part of the divide between my teens and early twenties. So obviously, I had to email Abadzis and ask if I could pick his brain about the bizarre, disturbing, and ambitious undertaking that was Hugo Tate — only to find out that Hugo himself had plenty to say about the matter as well…
Chloe Maveal: Before we get to Hugo, let’s do a little bit of a lead-up to this pivotal portion of your career. 1987 was around the time you managed to snag the title of youngest ever editor over at Marvel Comics UK, so other than making the rest of us feel woefully under accomplished by comparison, how did you manage to end up there at such a young age?
Nick Abadzis: I don’t think it was ever an “official” title or anything — I was just told that I was, at that time, the youngest person ever to make the title of editor at Marvel, UK or U.S. Steve Cook – -now art director for DC Comics — amongst many other creative hats that he wears — got me in.
After a Foundation course in Art, I’d taken a year out because I didn’t know whether I wanted to do a BA in Fine Art, Graphic Design or Illustration, which, back then, were really the only three main choices available to you at British art schools. That year turned into two, the tail end of which I worked at the original Forbidden Planet [famous comics store] in London. I was dithering — I had qualifications in Theatre Studies, Arts and English — but the only thing I could think of that melded all my interests was comics or set design, and I had no idea how to get into either, but working in a big London comics shop seemed to be the best way to get some insight into that industry.
Pretty sure it was Garry Leach who told me Marvel UK were always looking for people and then gave me Steve Cook’s name. Garry was a regular customer and pro who was — and is — always very encouraging of upcoming talents; so I sent my resume to Steve Cook to enquire what jobs were going. I had a pop-up 3D resume which impressed Steve so I got invited in. He looked at my portfolio, recommended me to Richard Starkings and Jenny O’Connor, the group editors at Marvel UK, and I got a job as “colour separator”.
This was pre-computers, pre-digital — comic pages were colored via a laborious mechanical process involving a black- and-white lineart plate and nine cel layers of different percentages of cyan, magenta and yellow (hence “four-color comics”). You basically slaved in the col(o)ur separation room, checking over freelancer’s color separations and doing emergency repair work, making sure every page was ready to go to the printer.
In terms of training, it was starting at the very bottom of the ladder, but it was great, because via this process you comprehended how color mixing worked, how printing worked and the sorts of production glitches that could happen.
I was good at the job, and fast, and they realized pretty quickly that my time might be better spent in another department, so they promoted me to be Steve White’s assistant editor. (The name ”Steve” seems to be quite lucky for me.) These days, Steve White is one of the most experienced editors of British comics there is, as well as an enormously accomplished Natural History artist in his own right, but back then he’d only recently been promoted to the position of fully-fledged editor too, so although further advanced than me, he was also still learning.
We had a hoot working together – we are still good friends. There were a lot of people in that building who were learning about comics and publishing generally, writers like Simon Furman, future industry stalwarts like Rich Starkings and many others who have gone on to other areas of publishing. Many freelancers. too, people like Dave Hine and Liam Sharp.
The place was like a sort of university of comics, albeit mainstream comics created the Marvel way. British comics were weekly back then, not monthly, so it was a real treadmill with very little room for error – you really hit the ground running.
Maveal: What sort of titles were you editing at the time?
Abadzis: When I was working for Steve in the department Richard Starkings presided over, it was all the “Boys” titles, mainly licensed TV tie-ins like Thundercats, Transformers, Action Force (AKA G.I. Joe) and others I’ve probably forgotten. They needed someone in the “Younger Titles” dept. and I think the first title I had actual sole charge of was Muppet Babies, which came out monthly or every two weeks. It was essentially a reprint title, so you were basically putting it together from printing film that was sent over from the Marvel offices in New York along with some newly-generated material, text stories, puzzles and coloring pages and stuff like that to pad the title out to 24 pages.
That went well, so they also gave me another, better-selling title in the shape of Care Bears which came out weekly, plus a bunch of special projects and hardback “annuals” like Count Duckula, which was a popular British animated show back then. I still laugh about that, but Care Bears was cool because I got to commission original comic strips, text stories and really learn what it meant to turn around a 24-page comic every week.
There wasn’t enough reprint material from the US, so we had to generate all our own original pages — including comic strips. I also snagged a regular freelance job drawing a back-up strip on Thundercats, a little half-page comedy thing called One Cat and His Cod, which was my first professionally published work.
What I really wanted to work on was the title Steve Cook and Gary Knight designed, Doctor Who Magazine, because I was a massive Doctor Who fan. Alas, I never got near it.
Maveal: Do you think that the editing gig was a step in favor of dismissing wanting to go the mainstream route with comics?
Abadzis: I think learning to be an editor was an incredibly valuable thing for me; it would stand me in extremely good stead later in my career. It still does now: after the first burst of inspiration and splurge of noting down ideas, writing and visual storytelling of any kind is nothing if not judicious self-editing; restructuring, learning to cohere it all so you can communicate it effectively. Learning to trust your instincts and apply your creative intuition in a controlled way — and sometimes an uncontrolled way — is about the most worthwhile thing a storyteller can know. I think I knew going in that it was a stepping stone of sorts but I don’t say that to dismiss it or mainstream comics in any way. It taught me so much. If you could stand the heat of that “kitchen,” you could adapt to any publishing environment, and later I did – but it was Marvel UK that gave me the confidence to be able to do that. At that stage, mainstream comics were very much a part of my upbringing and love of the medium but I’d also been exposed to other kinds of comics so was aware that, as a language, it was very rapidly evolving and I had ambitions in that direction.
I was born in Sweden, spent summers in Greece, and lived three- and-a-half years in Switzerland in my early teens. My dad was Greek, married my mother who was from south London, and they were really kind of European and cosmopolitan in their outlook. Because of that, and all that early movement between London and mainland Europe, along with all the homegrown British comics and American imports, I’d also been brought up on a lot of European comics, too – a lot of Franco-Belgian bande dessinées, some German kids’ comics like Zack Parade too.
For those reasons, I’d always had it in my head that mainstream comics weren’t the only possibility. A lot of groundbreaking comics had been made in France and Belgium in the early 70s; a lot of British creators were making their experimental mark in the US mainstream, Love & Rockets had been going a few years by then – I discovered that around 1985, maybe ‘86. By the time I joined Marvel, I’d also been a longtime reader of 2000 AD which was published across town by Fleetway and which was at a creative peak in the mid-80s.
This was the landscape at the time: you’d be reading dodgy translations (from French) of strips by Moebius and Phillipe Druillet in Heavy Metal, [Chris] Claremont’s X-Men and anything Fantagraphics put out. There was Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s Escape magazine, there was the Fast Fiction crowd, there was Eddie Campbell doing Alec, there was Spiegelman and Mouly’s RAW which you had to go down to the [Institute of Contemporary Arts] on The Mall to find. For me, it was all comics, all possible directions to go in and I drank it all in.
Maveal: Following up on Marvel UK, you started contributing comics to the legendary magazine Deadline. What made you make the shift from editor to freelance cartoonist to begin with?
Abadzis: After about a year-and-half at Marvel UK I decided to go freelance. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller of some kind; I wanted to make my own comics and I had a little more experience now. I wasn’t a very confident artist, but I knew I was a decent writer. I knew I’d be able to get freelance work from Marvel UK and it seemed like the right time to make a go of it, to pursue that dream of becoming a cartoonist. Steve Cook and John Tomlinson were leaving Marvel at the same time, so we rented a studio (AKA a tiny cubicle) in a building not far from London Bridge, close to Fleetway.
We shared contacts and you could pick up lettering and coloring gigs from Fleetway which, with the similar kinds of jobs I was doing for Marvel UK, was a living of sorts, just enough to pay the rent and begin to support explorations into other areas of publishing that might viably want the services of someone like me.
The plan was to approach newspapers or magazines that might want illustrations or a gag strip of some kind, but then, by sheer luck Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins moved into the next cubicle to us. Steve Cook suggested I should show them my portfolio because they were starting up a new comics and music magazine so I stood up on my desk and literally just stuck my head over the cubicle partition to see, and they were sitting there having a cup of tea. I introduced myself and I think they thought this was really funny – I can still see them looking up at me, like “WTF?” and laughing – and they invited me in immediately to have a look at my stuff.
It was a case of the “Lucky Steves” again. I really was in the right place at the right time, because that portfolio was all over the place. I didn’t have any one style and I don’t think I really comprehended back then that having a wide range of styles can be more of a hindrance than a boon, because people can’t identify you as easily. I was lucky that I was showing my work to two experienced comic artists who could see past the youthful clutter and figure out if there was anything appealing there, anything they could use for their new mag.
Turns out there was: at the back of that portfolio were a bunch of half-finished strips featuring a nameless stickman who I’d invented to liberate myself from having to draw figuratively – most of them were just scrawled straight down onto the page, just stream-of-consciousness stuff, no pencils or planning, just self-expression. Brett lingered over that and showed it to Steve and they said, “Yeah, we’ll have this.” They wanted two to three pages a month, at fifty quid a page. It doesn’t seem like much now, and it wasn’t really much back then in contemporary industry terms, but to be paid to write and draw your own comic character was an incredibly lucky position to be in.
Maveal: Since we’re talking about Deadline, let’s go ahead and dive into Hugo Tate. Hugo originally started out as a grumbly stick figure and more of a stand-in for the everyman that you could use as a vehicle for your humor. But where exactly did the idea for Hugo come from?
Abadzis: The name “Hugo Tate” arrived in a dream after Steve and Brett asked me for a title for the strip, but I’d been experimenting with the idea of drawing a loose stickman for a while. I was too hung up on trying to draw “properly” – making it slick, professional-looking – but I’d also been doing these weird little personal strips which were just drawn straight down on the paper, no penciling, just stream- of-consciousness. Most of them were left unfinished, but the first Hugo strip to appear in Deadline was created that way – that was the two-pager Brett noticed: “Hugo Tate – he’s a pillar of hate!” Essentially, he was invented to free me up from the need to be professional, as I perceived it then.
Hugo Tate: He stole everything from me.
Maveal: Oh. Well, hello Hugo. Nice of you to join us.
Abadzis: You’ll have to forgive Hugo — he thinks he’s real.
Tate: Hugo Tate is based upon a real person — me. I told you my life story up to that point, and then you used it in your comic strips.
Abadzis: Which is true, to a certain extent. If a character arrives fully-formed, you have to listen. But we’ll come to that.
Maveal: Fair enough. So Nick, at what point did you look at the Hugo pages you were publishing in Deadline and go “Oh. Well this is something I have to do long term. This is it.”?
Abadzis: For the few months, there was never a “plan” of any sort – I just did the strips and delivered them to the Deadline offices. I was really surprised when fan mail started coming in. Steve told me that Hugo Tate was one of the most popular strips in the mag, and when you were being featured alongside all these artists who could really draw, that felt… unexpected. Steve in particular was very encouraging – he really felt that that Deadline needed something like Hugo. With his support and mentorship — which did include some drinks down the pub — I just carried on.
Tate: I’m only just learning this now, years – decades – later. You never shared any fan mail with me! I never met any of the people mentioned here. I’m pretty sure they didn’t know I existed — the real me, that is.
Maveal: There’s something about Hugo Tate that speaks to the angst and confusion of being in one’s early twenties. Did you intentionally set out to make something that was so empathetic?
Abadzis: I really was just following my muse. I’m not sure you can set an intention to be deliberately empathetic – I mean, of course, you want to communicate, you want to engage a reader’s emotions, but sometimes you aim for ambiguity or some other quality. I was taking elements from my own life, from the experience of my friends and putting it down on paper, fictionalizing it. I don’t mean I was taking specific incidents and weaving stories from them or around them; it was more about a mood, the sense of being young and in London at that time. If a sense of empathy for a reader arises from that, then I’d guess it comes as much from the atmosphere I was aiming for as anything – that sense of disorientation and internal turmoil you can get at that age, especially in a big city. You think everyone around you knows more than you do, but no- one’s got a clue.
Tate: That’s true enough, if filtered through his “Abadzisms”. Here’s how all this got started: I once met him in a pub after a bad day and shared some of my everyday woes and fears for the future with him. (Don’t forget; this was still Thatcher’s Britain at the time.) He seemed sympathetic and was kind enough to listen – but you should never offload personal stuff onto a writer. They’ll use it as raw material. Can’t trust ‘em. Anyway, I wanted to be a writer and it was hard to know how to get started.
Unlike Abadzis, I have a university education and a degree in English, but even with that, it was hard to break into the kind of circles where you could find regular employment. You’d pick up bits and pieces but you really had to know the right people and there were a lot of closed doors. I was amazed to find that Abadzis, once he got started on that strip, was doing quite well, marrying his words with pictures. I’ll confess, I didn’t really understand comics then, and I don’t really get them now, though I concede they’ve had a massive effect on TV and movie culture.
That end of media was the direction I wanted to go in, and at the back of my mind, when I left the UK for the USA, I thought I might find a way of making a living through writing here, where there seems to be more opportunity for it; less gatekeeping.
Abadzis: You told me you wanted to write novels and short stories.
Tate: Yeah, I wanted to be a jobbing writer, but that included finding the kind of work that would support those sorts of ventures too. I was very restless. Still am. Back then I wanted to be like William Boyd, who split his career between journalism, literary author, screenwriter and script doctor.
Abadzis: Which is what you have become – a very successful script doctor, I might add.
Maveal: Really? I had no idea!
Tate: Sssshhh. Is that a compliment? Good grief!
Abadzis: I’ve never had anything but admiration for you, Hugo.
Maveal: Do you feel like writing — let’s say on behalf of — Hugo was the vehicle you needed to find your voice as a writer?
Abadzis: Yeah, sure. I was extremely lucky that I had a) a character that caught on, that readers of the mag liked and responded to; b) a particularly supportive editor who gave me the room to experiment and evolve, and c) a lot of ideas and rapidly evolving creative ambitions. It started as comedy and developed very quickly into something more dramatic that could accommodate a lot of other elements too. There was an aspect of self-exorcism to it.
There was room for it all – humor, post-teen depression, finding your way in the world, explorations of friendships, familial relationships, existential nausea. I’ve been asked if Hugo’s surname was a joke about the Tate Gallery, Britain’s most famous and esteemed art institution, a stickman with the artist family name imaginable. I’d like to say yes, but truthfully, that was a complete accident.
Tate: Look, let’s get it out there: “Hugo Tate” is a pseudonym. Yes, he invented that name, but Abadzis would hate the world to know that his character is originally based upon a real person. Granted, there’s been a lot of divergence between his character and the real me since I inspired his creation, but, Nick, you have to admit, without me there would have been no strip. It was thanks to me and the occurrences in my life that I shared with you that gave you a lot of dramatic material.
I’m a writer and storyteller myself; I know what it’s like. Anything is inspiration. But I resent the idea that “Hugo Tate” is solely the creation of Nick Abadzis. I demand recognition!
Maveal: Well then I’m extra glad I invited you to join the interview. You can get that recognition now.
Abadzis: Tell us your real name then, and the specific incidents that I apparently ’stole” from you – even though you gave men full license and permission to be “inspired” by them! Happy to clear it up.
Tate: Can’t do that. Too many other vested interests.
Abadzis: Case closed, then.
Maveal: What other ideas had you presented to Deadline in your initial pitching along with Hugo Tate? Can you imagine your career if those had been accepted as well as — or instead of — Hugo’s story?
Abadzis: I can’t really remember what else was in that portfolio — probably a lot of half-baked sci-fi ideas and some surreal “funnies.” Eric the Lighthouse was definitely in there and all sorts of other short strips with daft characters like that. All those ideas sort of splurged out when I took a holiday from Hugo one issue and did a strip called “Night of the Living Fish” instead. Mr. Pleebus made his second appearance there as a background character in the pub where the fish-puking contest takes place (he’d arrived first in one of Hugo’s dream sequences).
This was the freedom of that first year on Deadline — you’d take a doodle that appeared in the background of an earlier strip and promote it to a position of prominence in a following one and just have fun with it. I have no idea where Mr. Pleebus came from, but he was also one of those characters that, as one-note as he was at first, suggested a background story. He has appeared in every sequential narrative I’ve ever committed to print since. I always find a place for him to make a cameo.
Brett loved this particular strip – after I delivered that, he’d often greet me with the words, “I am truly surreal now!” (Which is a line spoken by the villain of the piece, Poostrami the Surreal). I think if I’d pursued that more absurd, comedic side of things, my career might’ve turned out very differently. Well, I suppose I did do that for a while, in the form of the Pleebus Planet all-ages graphic novels, but I could easily have gone all out and just pursued a very surreal line of humor. I think what kept me from doing that, with Hugo, was an interest in story, in the discipline of developing characters and themes. I was greedy and very curious, I wanted to explore it all.
Tate: This also is all new to me. The dream sequences are all from Abadzis’ subconscious, not mine. I’m not as messed up as he obviously is.
Maveal: The art in Hugo Tate: O America is really spectacular and manages to tell the unsaid parts of the story all on it’s own. Hugo literally goes from being a disgruntled stick figure to being a fully-fleshed human being over the course of the series. Did the art unfold as the story did intentionally or was Hugo’s growth something that organically mirrored your own growth as an artist and storyteller?
Thank you. As mentioned, I started out very uncertain of my own art style(s) – I knew what I could ‘see’ in my head but at first, didn’t really have the confidence in my own technical abilities to make it happen on the page. That changed quite quickly, partially due to Steve’s encouragement, partially just because I was focusing on the story itself and what I wanted to do and say with it and not my own insecurities.
As an artist, especially in comics where you need to be adept in so many different fields to really make a comic page work, you have to “get out of your own way.” This was something I’d already achieved as a writer, but it was in having confidence as a writer that sucked the drawing forward and, I felt, put it on a par with the writing.
With regard to the succession of “Lucky Steves,” I also had a friend called Steve Whitaker (known for being a colorist on the DC version of V For Vendetta) who was also a great influence, and encouraged me to “put yourself down on paper” (as he put it. We colored Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s New Adventures of Hitler for Crisis together).
Steve “Whitko” was a hugely accomplished artist and cartoonist in his own right and, like Steve Dillon, was an incredibly generous kind of character, who always reiterated that point to me: stay out of your own way. Let the story through. I think it’s one of the most important things you can learn about making comics. It’s not about you; it’s about what you’re allowing to come through on the page.
Tate: I hated the way he drew me as a stickman — a stickman who evolved. I’m tall, but otherwise he captured nothing of me. I contend that his depiction of me is filtered via his own bizarre way of seeing the world, just liberally sprinkled with elements of my personality and temperament.
Abadzis: It’s fair to say there’s a good deal of me in that character too, although I am not tall. That said, you did used to have a jacket like the one I often drew you wearing — a jacket that you later gave to me.
Tate: Right, okay, yes that’s true. I gave it to you before I left, but you drew me wearing it in that whole U.S. road trip bit. It was a bit moth-eaten. I was hoping the moths would colonise your wardrobe.
Abadzis: They didn’t. I used mothballs. Your spiked hairstyle that evolved into a fair, floppy West Coast look was also pretty accurate.
Tate: I didn’t remember it that way at all. Guess we’ll just have to agree to differ.