Apologies if I’m a little late to the party with this one. Hugo Tate, written and illustrated by Nick Abadzis is graphic novel composed of a collection of strips for created for Deadline Magazine, a rare example of late 80’s/early 90’s comic book counter-culture in the UK. (Deadline featured strips by many artists and writers from 2000AD, along with music and pop culture articles, and even spawned future collaborations between Jamie Hewlett and Albarn). Not savvy enough at the time, I don’t think I ever saw a copy. Although I’m wishing now that I had. It’s quite inspired of Blank Slate to have collated the Hugo Tate strips, and it would be great if they decided to bring other lost gems of British indie comics publishing to light in this way. (You know, for those like me who missed it the first time around.)
Hugo Tate caught my interest for a number of reasons; firstly I’m always attracted to comics created by an author/illustrator, especially those of a personal nature. Hugo Tate certainly begins like a work based in autobiography, concerned with our young slacker Hugo and his post-teenage direction-less drinking ways, desperate to get his shit together against a background of a fractured family. When his sister moves to New York he’s inspired to follow in her wake. However, rather than wallow in tales of an Englishman abroad the comic soon finds Hugo on a road trip from hell, (that he eventually escapes). Therein lie some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read in comics, largely because you can really put yourself in Hugo’s place.
One of the great strengths of this book is Hugo’s relatable-ness. I believe this is due, in no small part, to the way that he is drawn. You see, while everyone around him is sketched in detail, Hugo starts of life as a stick man, gradually gaining features until he’s almost a regular guy but with an ‘acid house’ smilie face and a haircut. I know, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. In fact Scott McCloud makes a case for just why this should be in ‘understanding comics’ to paraphrase; ‘by stripping down an image to its essence, an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic representation can’t. when you look at a photo or a realistic drawing of a face you see it as the face of another. But in the simplified face of a cartoon you see yourself’. Simplistic faces become our own avatar in comic literature, we relate to Hugo because he is us.
There was always the implication that Hugo would grow towards ‘realistic’ representation as he matured and gained understanding of himself and the world. But in Abadzis’ own musings on the future of the character in the notes and extras at the end of the book he describes being torn; not just on how to give consistency to a character that would now look radically different but also on how “ drawing Hugo as a figuratively ‘real’ character would have robbed him of that abstract cartooniness that made him definitively ‘Hugo’. The metaphor was Hugo’s strength- and if he was now bereft of it, would he become just another boring kitchen- sink comic character?” It would have been interesting to see just how Hugo would have turned out.
Some readers will be irritated that the story just ‘ends’, interrupted by the fragile nature of the UK comics industry. Hugo never gets a resolution, (I wondered ‘is he even ok?’), or a redemption, as the character’s own angst seems to imply that he needs one, needs to know he’s a better person. But this doesn’t bother me, many of my favourite stories are cut short – meaning in some way that they’ve never truly ended. Our formative years are expressive and transient. Comics are the ideal medium for giving us a glimpse of a story, the path open, it’s up to you to imagine the rest. What is also remarkable about this book is how many different comic illustration styles and storytelling conventions are used, and yet they never stop feeling like part of the whole. Look close and you’ll see references to Eisner, Herge, Schultz, Herriman and others I’m sure I’ve missed. Abadzis is clearly a lover of comics in all their forms, and as such a man after my own heart. File Hugo Tate under ‘comics that stretch the medium’.