NYCC Interview – Comics Artist ADAM HUGHES

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The first day of New York Comic Con 2014, I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Adam Hughes, and talking about comics, sexism in the industry, and his tips for creating art like his beautiful covers:

Geek League of America: You do a lot of cover work, and I was wondering what the situation is with editorial mandates and covers. How much does the art change from the thumbnails you do to the final pictures?

Adam Hughes: Well, it can change quite a bit these days because I don’t do as tight thumbnails as I used to when I…when I was “a kid,” you know? So now,  I work with a lot of people who trust me, I think, and they know that the final work isn’t going to be reflected in the sketch. Because I really feel like, the older I get, the less energy I have to waste on fruitless endeavors and putting all the work into the prelim exhausts me. I need to leave something fun for the final. So, there’s quite a bit of change.

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GLA: Absolutely. I was also wondering what inspired you to really get into art, and specifically the photo-realistic covers that you do?

AH: Well, my original inspiration was I just loved comics. I loved superheroes, I loved cartoons and toys, and I never really had an idea that I was going to do anything else for a living. It was arrogance, it was, “well, this is the only thing I’m good at, obviously I’m going to do it for a living.”

As for my current, sort of naturalistic style, I just, for the last, I don’t know, ten or twelve years, I’ve really been into classical, America illustration. Guys like Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle, Dean Cornwell, and I wanted to work in that sort of idiom. And, who knows, next year, I could just decide to be a wacky, sort of Chuck Jones dynamic cartoonist, but, like, right now I’m really interested in that sort of classical illustration, and, you know, that’s where the, my desire to do that type of realistic material comes from.

GLA: Now, do you us models when you draw, or is it more of a freehand kind of thing?

AH: It’s both. I work with anything and anyone that can help me get the illustration that I want. So I can freehand it, but if I sit there and go “I really need to see the way the east light hits a blondes’ hair from behind,” I get a blonde person to come in and sit there when the light’s coming in. Or if I need…I just did my last ever Fairest cover, and it has, you know, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, she’s in a garden and pumpkins invaded our garden at home and so I was like “oh there are amazing pumpkins in our garden that I did not ask for, I’m going to draw them in this cover. So, it’s like, whatever falls in front of my eyes, I’d like to try to use for a comic book cover, or any illustration.

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GLA: Excellent. So, you used to do some interiors, now you’re almost exclusively covers, but what was your last experience doing interiors like (which I believe was in Harley Quinn #0 for one page)?

AH: That was just, I had no idea what Jimmy and Amanda wanted, they just said “draw whatever you like, and we’re gonna make it work,” so I was actually, my last experience doing interiors was a state of bafflement.

GLA: One of the biggest things you’re known for is designing pin-up poses, and kind of getting that classic pin-up and superhero poses. How do you balance that beautiful aesthetic with the muscles? I think Power Girl is one of the most iconic ones I can think of, where she looks formidable, but also sexy.

AH: That’s just what I like. I like strong women, both character-wise and physically. It’s something I happen to find attractive. There’s many things that I like, but that’s one of them, and I’m fortunate to be working in a genre or an industry where that makes sense. It’s okay to have an athletic or muscular female character, like Power Girl or She-Hulk. I just did a Wonder Woman commission for a guy, and I made Wonder Woman kinda buff, and he didn’t complain. I though, “eh, it kinda looks neat when she’s that powerful.”

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GLA: Absolutely. I was wondering, with the internet being more and more prevalent and fans being more verbal, how do you handle the outcries of sexism? When you see other cover artists in similar situations, what’s your initial reaction?

AH: Well, you know, my initial reaction is to keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to get embroiled in any internet debates, because nine times out of ten, they’re never level-headed and nobody ever listens to each other. They just yell at each other louder and louder and louder and, of the few times I’ve been involved in them, they’ve been time vampires. I’ve lost entire days to arguing with somebody, and that doesn’t matter. I feel bad when the controversy is someone taking something out of context, someone being offended by something that isn’t really, in my opinion, or the opinion of my wife or other artists, offensive. But I also can understand the point of view of the people who feel very strongly about the issues, and I try to get people to, if they try to involve me…first off, any cries of sexism or stuff like that, they never actually make it to me.

People, either most people don’t feel that way about my work, or the ones that do, don’t get past my wife, or that standard thing where people will say something crummy on the internet unless they know you’re listening, and then, all of a sudden, they’re like “oh my god, I love your work, I love your last movie, blah blah blah.” It’s like, “wow, you were calling me a four letter word three seconds ago.” And, you know, I never used to police myself, I just drew what I liked. The reason why I don’t do a lot of nudes isn’t because I was trying to be, you know, an upright citizen, it’s just like, I’m from the old school, where I think a hint of suggestions is sexier than actual, you know, a cold gynecological exam. It’s terrifying, you know?

Now, because of the current, you know, we’re in an era where, hopefully, people who have not been given chances to work in industries, people who have been prejudiced against because of their gender or because of their race or anything, religion, I’m really glad that those walls are coming down, because I truly believe everybody should be given the exact same chance. I truly believe that everybody, that the best jobs should go to the most talented people, and that’s it. And that’s the length and breath of my argument, and when we get into minutia, when we get into other stuff, I go “look, some people are very conscious and some people are, they’re bringing some of their own baggage to it,a nd, you know, you’re wearing the hat of a cause, but you’re bringing your own luggage to the table, and I’m going “you should take the hat off when you bring your luggage.” Because, you know, people have been doing that since the dawn of communication.

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I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t been accused of, you know, sexism or treating female characters poorly all that much in a career that’s going on 30 years. Most people, most feminists that come up to me talk to me about it. They go, “look, I’m not very fond of the way that female characters are portrayed in the comics industry, but there’s something  about your work that I like, where it’s not offensive.” And I take that as a compliment, because I’m not trying to offend anyone, and my bottom line is, when I draw Catwoman or Wonder Woman or whoever, I’m not trying to draw just a set of physical features to arouse someone, I’m drawing a character. I think of them as people, and they have feelings, and they’re emoting through their body language, they just happen to be very beautiful people. And, you know, that’s as far as I take it, and that’s as far as I go on the subject.

GLA: And I definitely feel like you and other artists, like maybe Kevin Maguire, Amanda Conner, you all draw very voluptuous women, but they have facial expressions and characters that come through in each picture, and that’s really why I think your art stands out among a lot.

AH: And I appreciate that. And, you know, it’s like voluptuous is just one aspect of glamor. I’ve had people come up to me, and they just focus on the breasts of the character, and I’ll be like, “you know, I spent ten minutes drawing those breasts, but I spent three days drawing the city behind it. I think you’re much more interested in these breasts than I ever was. And it’s just something that goes on, but as long as, you know, the most important thing is the story, the most important aspect of the story is the characters. As long as you’ve got that first, and people can tell that, I think that your intelligent people who aren’t knee-jerk responders to the things that, you know, my least favorite people in the world are the ones who go around in their little patrol cars, looking for trouble. ‘Cause if you’re looking for trouble, you’re going to find it anywhere it’s not. People who understand context and understand intent, and they filter each incident through that are the people who I really love and respect because, across the board, whether it’s issues that we’re having with feminism, race, and religion, the only way we’re all going to get along in the end is if everybody on both sides, or on three sides, or on seven sides of an issue go “let’s all keep cool heads, let’s all try some decaf, and get to the bottom of something that makes everybody better people.”

GLA: Absolutely. What is your favorite run of comics? It could be a newspaper strip, a story, a single issue.

AH: My favorite? My favorite, god, it’s got to be the…I love Hellboy to death, but my….which we’re still in the middle of, because they’re still doing it. It’s got to be Hellboy. I was going to go with like, the Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four, but I will say that if I had to take comics with me to that little desert island, I would take every Mike Mignola Hellboy with me.

GLA: Excellent. What’s one of your covers that you think is the most memorable, or the one you’re most proud of?

AH: Uh, most memorable is probably one that alarmed the most people, so I shouldn’t go there… What was the second part of your question?

GLA: The one that you’re most proud of.

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AH: That’s tough, because I hate almost all of them. One of the ones I hate the least is the Legion of Superheroes cover with Supergirl riding on the meteor because I’m a big fan of people looking at a piece of artwork or a poster or a photograph or whatever, and they notice things in stages. In art, it’s called the “initial read,” followed by the “secondary read” and then the “tertiary read.” You know, what do you notice first, what do you notice second, what do you notice third, and I love that I pulled of this sort of, like, old style Gil Elvgren cute Supergirl pin-up type thing and then it’s only after a moment that you realize she’s on a meteor riding into Earth’s gravity. You think she’s sitting on rocks by the ocean, and I was so happy with every aspect of that. it’s one of the few pieces that, if I opened it up in Photoshop, I wouldn’t go in and start messing with it. So I’ll say that one is one of my favorites.

GLA: What particular tools of the trade would you suggest to artists starting out?

AH: First off, your eyes. The most important thing an artist can do is always, and this goes for writers or any creative people, is to remain observant. Specifically, it pertains to me working with models or working with the pumpkins in my backyard, but it’s all…looking at people and understanding the way people move and the way people bend and squash and stretch and the way light hits their hair and the way the clothing folds…you know, the folds in their clothing work. Excuse me, it’s already Thursday and I’m exhausted.  Or looking at the way a sad person sits on a park bench, you know. Observation is as important to any artist as his or her pencil or paintbrush.

GLA: Excellent. And, finally, what is your favorite character to draw at the moment?

AH: Well, it’s been Catwoman for so many years, but I just got to draw my first ever Captain America cover and, I’m 47, but 9-year-old Adam was so happy, he was doing  victory laps around inside of me. So I would really like to do some more Captain America right now.

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Don’t feel like reading the interview? The podcast recording of my chat with Adam Hughes is over at the Acts of Geek Network. Stay tuned for more NYCC 2014 interviews!

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About Author

Ellie Hillis

Ellie Hillis is a Heroine Addict…which is to say she loves super heroines. A comic historian and an aspiring author, Ellie wrote her thesis on the endurance of superheroines in comics, and has been published in Capes, Cowls & Villains Foul and the Gallery of Evil, both published by Spectrum Games. When she’s not reading, writing, or drawing comics, she’s probably watching television comedies, making costumes, listening to nerdcore, or analyzing popular culture.