Practitioners 21: Bryan Hitch

Bryan Hitch is a Practitioner in the truest sense of the word. From small beginnings in an industry that offered a great deal of work opportunities, Hitch has continued a career for more than 25 years, across the two largest comic book companies in the world. Through dedication and a willingness to engage new techniques and styles he has moved well beyond the artist he was in the early eighties with Marvel UK. His work, most recently, has graced the pages of the most sought after popular comic book in the world and launched a new literary universe that only recently ran out of steam.

Bryan Hitch started work at Marvel UK where he started working on Transformers with Simon Furman. This was the very start of American comic companies making a play for UK markets, controlled in particular as they were by transforming toys and action man figures (a quantum leap from the interests of today). While his artwork is almost unrecognisable today compared to his then, the stylistic traits were there. Hitch focussed predominantly on the person framed in each panel and made everything else secondary. A convention he has maintained even now. He joined Simon Furman again on Deaths Head, kick-starting the short career of the cult icon that would revolutionise Marvel UK and British comics.

He crossed the Atlantic in the the late 80s, early nineties as one of the first to find a footing on books specifically printed for US consumption, working successfully for Marvel and DC (both bloated at the time by the sheer popularity of the art form. Marvel Uk continued to break boundaries in the UK and Hitch continued to work for both (with Geoff Senior on Hell’s Angel and Liam Sharp on the incredible Death’s Head II for which his artwork no longer matched – Liam Sharp’s sharper, more realistic and textured style winning out).

Joining Furman again on his run on She-Hulk (9-11, 13-20, 24-26) between 1989 and 1991, Furman, his artwork at the time matched the period perfectly, clear, crisp lines, curves in anatomy and physicality, a natural and light touch. But in built even then was a very tense need to detail. In an issue in which Deaths Head attacks She-Hulk (a reintroduction by Furman and the only way I’ve seen a copy as part of a Death’s Head anthology), Hitch offered clear, buoyant artwork but the backgrounds of New York City that it took place in were well realised. Lightly detailed in terms of material texture but all the line work was there, paired down slightly for the period they were being shown in.

For a UK artist he straddled the big three (Marvel, DC and Marvel UK) perfectly – offered Adventures of Superman, Geo-force and Team Titans by DC but predominantly working with Marvel on Sensational She-Hulk, Excalibur, a Colossus 1 shot, the Maxiseries ClanDestine. He struggled as an artist to move beyond his populist routes, pencilling Captain Planet and the Planeteers for 2 issues (released through Marvel).

But it was as the decade ended that Hitch began to reveal a new style. Taking his original compositions of central character, well realised in the centre of the panel that had gained him so many character based projects previously he applied greater knowledge of detail than had previously been seen from him. The characters became more realistically humanistic,. his portrayal of events more gutteral and well realised. There was a real-world naturalism that had been applied to his template of heroic stances and impactful and bold visual storytelling that was resonant in a way it perhaps hadn’t been before. Comic books themselves were changing in style and content. Pre-millenium, comics had represented a popular form, characterised by superannuated and simplistic visuals and outlook. Hitch had typified this style and added to it technical proficiency but he was about to come into his own.

With an America at war and a dismissive left wing (comic book reading public) reeling from a Republican move towards conflict against global protests and the spectre of America a credible target for overseas terrorist organisations the mood turned more fatalistic, darker and aware of the forces the world could impose on heroes that stood against it. Fire Fighters (embattled, bedraggled and rubble strewn) were the visual hero of the early naughties. Heros would have to reflect this change of ideology in all forms in order to resonate with the audience.

Bryan Hitch had just finished a very successful run on The Authority, a deliberately sardonic and irreverant response to the World of heroes, featuring characters that took heroing to the level they would be expected to in real life – and fighting incredibly insurmountable obstacles. While the rubble was not there yet, the aggressive and brutal nature of the book was beautifully realised in Hitch’s work. His characters now represented real people with real power. His enemies squatted and assaulted a world easily recognisable. Cars were of makes you could recognise. Cities were brick by brick, people’s fashions well recognised and effectively presented. Hitch had learned some tricks and ridden the wave of realism that was being recognised in comics with its collapse in the mid-nineties. While it hadn’t fully taken hold of the industry it clearly had very much presented itself to Hitch.

Between Hitch’s steady incline into a gritty and realistic artist, imbedding his previous lessons of heroic and comic character physicalisation and technical precision with texture, detail and stark realism and the world’s (specifically America’s) sudden decline into insecurity, uncertainty and a need to acknowledge the truth of things; stepped a Scotsman. A scotsman with a plan.

Mark Millar had taken over writing the Authority after Warren Ellis and had realised the ideals it started with even more vigour, aided ably by Frank Quitely. Millar was about to start a series of books known as the Ultimate titles; a modern re-representation of the heroes created by Marvel. Essentially an if-they-start-now scenario. Central to this was the Ultimates; this universes version of the Avengers, and Hitch was selected as artist.

Here, Hitch hit full speed and realised his potential to be a full-on bona fide comic book legend.

The visuals offered up by Ultimates are staggering. The only way they can be described effectively would be like this. An Alien armada is sitting above a military base in the American midwest. A man wrapped in a red and gold sports car chassis is pummelling one of them, a blonde goliath is propelled through one with his hammer, fighters fly between these ships firing at any target they can identify. One alien ship is crashing into another and the debris from this battle can be seen impacting on the ground. Someone (perhaps from a balloon) has taken a photo of this moment – in landscape – and run it through a ‘Poster Edges’ filter on Photoshop. And it is simultaneously at once incredibly awe inspiring, artistic and realistic and thoroughly engaging.

By mixing his changes in style rather than dismantling or discarding them as he went Hitch has developed into a comic artist unlike any other seen in the medium. His blend of realism and grit imbeds the gravity and power of his compositions with an almost hypnotic grip once engaged by it. The need to look further into the panels never overwhelms the reading of the book however as many highly detailed artists have done in the past, as the first lesson Hitch ever learned – that of centralising and depicting a clear and recognisable figure central to each and every panel as a point of focus has survived all he has added to it.

An incredible talent and a seasoned professional at the same time, realised fully in later career life through the willingness to learn and take on new techniques. You have your Quitelys and your Coipels who appear on the scene fully formed like they were birthed from some freakish artistic gene pool but Hitch is something quite different. Hitch was (and is) an artist worth waiting for.

</a

Advertisements

Practitioners 13: Liam Sharp

Liam Sharp has tackled X-Men, Hulk, Spider-man, Venom, Man Thing (for Marvel) Superman and Batman (for DC) and Spawn: Dark Ages for Todd McFarlane.

Sharp, more famous than near any other to come out of the early ’90s Brit invasion with Marvel UK took to the heights very early in his career, riding on top of an enormous success with Deaths Head II. Easily the best in his class on the original Death’s Head he was the obvious choice for the character. He met with success perhaps too soon – elevating him more quickly perhaps than he was comfortable with – leaving him scolded slightly by the industry he had been raised up by. From this Sharp has rebuilt an independent comics career and now uses his distinctive and enthralling illustrative style to bring clarity to popular culture – looking like Gods, facing demonic adversaries and carrying massive guns.

Born in Derby in 1968, Liam Sharp is one of the foremost names to come out of Marvel UK, arguably the most noteworthy at its peak – as primary artist on Deaths Head 2 – where he made his name. Having cut his teeth on the original Deaths Head series under Simon Furman, he was handed the artist position on its follow-up Deaths Head II. This suited Sharp as he created a skull faced blue goliath, cable dreadlocks and metal codpiece firmly secured.

To see it for the first time was rock and roll in comic form reborn; reminiscent of Bisley at his best with both the Kubert brothers (of X-Men fame) rolled in. A seven and a half foot time travelling cyborg with a right arm of liquid metal that could form into three weapon functions (blade, claw, crazy ass space cannon) and 100 disparate personalities. The counterparts of Marvel UK; Dark Angel, Digitek, Warheads etc while popular were just trying to keep up. This in no small part was due to Liam Sharp’s stunning artwork.

Sharp’s painted cover for Overkill and Deaths Head 2 and the comic strip that went with it (serialised in both Deaths Head 2 and Overkill in the 90s) features some of the best realisations of the X-men to ever be put to print – possibly the best outside the title itself. His rendering of Cyclops (broad, handsome, powerful) Wolverine (short, sinewy, rough) Beast (bestial, wild) and Psylocke (beautiful and oddly passive) standing abreast his central character and Puck made the two less established transatlantic cousins indiscernible in design and realisation next to the world’s most famous X-Team.

Whereas a panel by almost any other artist carries you to the next; a Liam Sharp panel pacifies you and forces you to stray about the page irrespective of where the next speech bubble is. Muscles burst with potential; on Male and female characters alike. Its Conan sensibilities with every panel; whether in the pages of X-Men (Sharp was responsible for X-Men issues leading into the Age of Apocalypse) or Gears of War (based on the X-Box game).

His women are undeniably pneumatic, irresistable to an artist so adept with Human anatomy. Testament (2006-2008 with Dennis Rushkoff) illustrates clearly that Sharp has a clear sense of proportion when needed – however for his most distinctive and popular work he simply switches it off. He extends the anatomy and physiology to a logical conclusion. Although his characters exceed usual shape there is a plausibility to their shape – never completely extending their forms beyond the edges of potential Human growth. His men are Conan by default, his women are Red Sonja.

His female characters would be perfect examples of Good girl art but there’s none of the accessibility that is prevalent in that form of art. There is an innate and overpowering sexuality in the characters and yet its not a lingering one. Its not porn – most obviously as his men are as perfect specimens of the form as his women. Sharp’s point? Maybe that you can draw any physical shapes – why linger on imperfection. Why not present God-like perfection every time?

It was on Incredible Hulk, arguably the pinnacle of his career up until this point – joining a title made legendary by Peter David, its resident writer. It would have seemed the perfect choice given the shape of the title character however it wasn’t to be the match made in heaven that was anticipated and the run was short lived. Upon joining, Sharp spoke to Peter David about his likes and dislikes in drawing. He explained he disliked drawing cars and buildings and that a character he really liked was Man-thing. And Lo, the introductory piece saw Hulk in the Florida Everglades facing Man-thing (generating an indelible cover of the two facing each other in the swampland that epitomised Sharp’s styling and illustrative roots). Banner’s job however was as a mechanic, creating a need to draw cars and buildings immediately in a part of the world unfamiliar with Sharp. It became clear that it was going to be a struggle and that Sharp was perhaps unprepared for the expectations placed on a comic book artist. In a title like Hulk, after the central character, it would be impossible not to build the infrastructure around him continuously and it was clearly representing a challenge to the new artist. Peter David had reservations – uncertain that his writing matched Sharp’s artwork – but a letter to Bobby Chase from the inker on Hulk put paid to Sharp’s position with the book. Unable to find an alternative artist at such short notice, Sharp had to complete a further two issues – depicting the Abomination (happily another goliath) – though an exhausting experience knowing that his run had ended. The cover of Hulk 427 saw Sharp offered a Man-thing series with Marc DeMatties.

Given more creative opportunities with DeMatties Sharp felt more comfortable however the Man-thing series ran only for 12 issues. From his monumental beginnings with Marvel UK he was finding the world of commercial comic books more competitive and demanding than anticipated.

Undeterred, in 2004, Sharp started his own independent publishing company, Mam Tor publishing with wife Christina McCormack and published the artbook Sharpenings: The Art of Liam Sharp. The company launched Mam Tor: Event Horizon, featuring art by Glenn Fabry, Brian Holguin, Ashley Wood and Simon Bisley among others.

Becoming penciller for controversial Testament series with DC Vertigo with writer Frank Tieri he then went on to Gears of War – a title perfectly suited in style, design and content for an artist of Sharp’s capabilities and talent. Big men, big guns, big scope, desolate environments and blood thirsty action.

In September 2008 he was offered an exclusive deal with DC.

Sharp is an unnatural talent with a clear idea of how things should be done. He has found a niche and is recognised for it. If you want a mountainside gun fight between heavily armed death faced doom bringers, a hard bitten cannon wielding bodybuilder and a chewed off beauty queen from Caveman Monthly go see Liam Sharp. If one of Liam Sharp’s characters hits you, you’ll know about it. If you see one of his pages – you’ll be hard pressed to remember it.

If you think this blog has been too long – screw you. Liam Sharp was the reason I picked up Overkill at 13 and the reason I’m doing what I do now. Those looking for realism in their comic books aren’t the only ones reading them. Those looking for the raw, aggressive and visceral presented like it was standing in the room, are fans of Liam Sharp.