An Excerpt from The Comics Journal #309: Fair Warning – Hyena Hell

Hyena Hell’s jocular (and jock-ular) energy, coupled with her fierce inquiry as to how, why and what works, makes her a great instructor, as shown in SAW (Sequential Artist Workshop) videos she’s conducted with cartoonist Josh Bayer, her teaching and relationship partner. True to her DIY roots, Hell is a prolific cartoonist and self-publisher (Horror Vacui Press) - so much so that she has full minicomics she hasn’t even been able to release yet, in addition to the three installments of her Demon series in as many years (Demon: Bloodlust is coming out after this issue has gone to press), a fourth in progress, as well as contributions to anthologies, sketchbook collections and other work. Graciously, Hell granted an hour of her time to talk to the Journal about getting kicked out of the church, self-editing and more.


KRISTY VALENTI: Let me start with bodies because one thing I really like about your work is the sense of swagger and movement that your characters have. And you said you were a jock.

HYENA HELL: I did. I played sports my whole life. It’s not a very punk thing and it’s not a very nerdy thing. That makes me an outlier in the comics-making world. But I played soccer and softball and I taught swimming lessons and was a lifeguard. And now I run and lift weights and I just love being active. And I do have that aggressive competitiveness, although I’m mostly just competitive against myself. I’m not sure how much that informs the way I draw though, because it took me a really long time to be able to figure out how to do movement and how to do action and how to portray that in comics.

I’ve seen you work standing up and sitting down, so I was also interested in how your drawing is connected to your body and your movement.

I had a really bad back injury and so had real trouble with that on and off for 10 years. And then one day it just became permanent. I have a chronic pain condition. My whole life and the way I draw and the way I see everything revolves around accommodating that, because sitting in chairs is really painful for me. Any leaning over - it’s constant mindfulness about my body and my posture.

I think when you come from more of a fine-art training—and I say that very loosely, I didn’t think I’ve had more than one or two drawing classes in my life—but drawing anatomy, you’re drawing a still figure and you’re focusing on getting the anatomy right. And that doesn’t translate to comics whatsoever. And so, always on my [Jack] Kirby platform, but I think that’s where I learned how to draw bodies in motion, is studying his stuff.

That’s just something I keep returning to in your work. There’s a real joy of movement. That’s rare. A lot of stuff gets really mannered.


And your work is not mannered. There’s an outward energy and a movement. You’re really good at backgrounds, so it gives people a sense of place and moving in a space.

I’m glad to hear that comes across. Movement is something that I feel I’ve only recently gotten any handle on, so I’m pleased to hear that I have a handle on it.

I was noticing your backgrounds because it’s not as… considered, maybe, in contemporary comics.

I love backgrounds so much. I remember reading Transmetropolitan when I was in high school. Darick Robertson was the artist for most of that series’ run. In the same vein of a Dave Gibbons for Watchmen, where you’ve got these incredibly weird worlds, with all these little contextual clues and details and there’d be gags going on in the background that had nothing to do with anything but were just fun to see and gave the environments more of a living, breathing, city-type of atmosphere.

I’m really detail-oriented. I almost have obsessive compulsive tendencies. If you believe it or not, I actually have to show restraint in my backgrounds. They’re not as detailed as I would have them if I had all the time in the world to draw this or that panel.

One of Hyena Hell’s detailed backgrounds from Demons: To Earth and Back, 2021.

A good comic has the exact detail - everything you need to know.

Definitely. I think in writing and drawing both, and this is something that I think about looking at Jack Kirby comics, telling the exact right amount to serve the narrative. If something doesn’t serve the narrative in some way, I have to ask myself. “OK. I wanna put in this cute dialogue or I wanna put in this scene where this happens.” Well, is that just self-indulgent—I really wanna draw this—is it really serving the narrative in some way? And so, what I’ll do is I’ll end up editing out half of what I write or sketch. And then once I do that, if it hurts me really bad not to put something unnecessary in, “All right. You can do it.” Cut it all out but the bare bones, what you need.

You don’t hear writer-artists talk about editing themselves.

I think sometimes people don’t realize that they can or that they might need to. And if you’re most of us in indie comics where you’re working start-to-finish, it’s all your own product, unless you’re in a community where you’re peer editing or passing scripts or artwork around. Or unless you’re in a structured  classroom or workshop setting, you don’t get that feedback. Making comics involves being isolated in your own bubble for months or years at a time just in your head, pushing this out onto paper. It just takes so long, I don’t think there are any cartoonists that would say, “Oh, no, comics aren’t time consuming. They will totally not swallow your life.” I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I think it’s hard sometimes to try to read your comic as somebody who doesn’t care about it. If it’s the first time that anybody’s picked up my comic. They don’t know me. They don’t know my work. They don’t know these characters. There’s nothing to endear them to this story.

I edit comics and that’s what I try to do for the people I edit. I’m just a reader, and this is where I was confused. You’re very good at articulating it and I feel for a lot of artists it’s more instinctual. You’re able to distance yourself.

I don’t think intellectual is the right word. Something else. I can get obtuse and abstract. And again: it’s a problem of always interfacing with media—art, stories, comics, etc.—seeing everything in this very analytical objective way, needing to break these things down to see the structures and systems used to build them.

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Read the full interview in The Comics Journal #309.