“Whatever The Image Is, It’s Gotta Fit”: An Interview With Hurk

Hurk makes fun comics, funny and weird madcap stories. Comics that constantly play with the form, but without even a hint of pretension. Around 2010 there seemed to be a shift in the UK indie comics scene, a leveling up in production values and a focus on strong, art school design sensibility. Illustration collectives were popping up left right and center, all putting out beautiful little books, but often style over substance was the flavor of the day. Hurk stood out from the crowd, however, as his comics were the complete package, lovely looking tactile books and good stories. Once only available at East London comics fairs and a few UK comic shops, his work is now able to reach a wider audience thanks to Avery Hill who have just put out his newest book Jinx Freeze. I caught up with him to get some insight into this new book and his unique style of story telling. -Joe Decie

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Joe Decie: Can you talk me through the book, an elevator pitch for the people at home.

Hurk: So Jinx Freeze isn't the easiest book to pitch but I suppose, in essence, it’s a weird sort of crime caper/heist type story set in a place called 'The Riviera' with a cast of 100. The book's constructed from a lot of different story segments with a main narrative connecting them, albeit, to varying degrees. That's a real boring pitch but honestly, it's not a boring book!

Yeah crime caper is exactly what I’d written down in my notes.

I was originally working on another graphic novel, but I felt I couldn't properly focus on it because I had this bunch of unfinished stories, about a dozen or more, some were just title panels and some were half a page but, anyway, they were just bugging me. I got it into my head that I had to either finish them or just burn them all so that I could get on with the next thing(?!). I don't know why as I've always got different projects on the go and half finished things knocking about, but these had become an obstacle for some reason.

So these pages were the seeds of what became Jinx Freeze. I started going through my sketchbooks and mined stuff I could use to try and finish these stories. Apart from drawing, I sometimes use my sketchbooks to write down random shit like bits of overheard conversations, bad poems, childhood memories, dreams I've had and remembered, stupid phrases and stuff like that. It’s not usually what I'd write into my comics but incorporating these bits and pieces into the fragments of pages I had, started to breath a bit of life into them and it all started to flow and fall into place. So the writing for me was an experimental exercise and also like an exorcism of ideas - I just tried to throw everything I had into the entry hatch of the big comics machine and weirdly it all kind of connected and a story came out the other end.

I think this approach really works, for instance the mastheads introducing new characters or story developments, it brings a lot of fun to it. They remind me of pulp covers from the Fifties.

Yeah, it was the starting off with a bunch of title pages that made me take that approach and continue it throughout. Instead of just cutting to a different scene or group of characters, I introduced each change with a new title page. Because of this it might look a bit like an anthology at first but it's just the whole story is broken up into little episodes. Title pages and covers are the fun stuff - everyone making comics likes that bit the most, right? Everything else is just a... long... hard... ssslog.

I always leave the covers until last. It’s the high pressure item, make or break. It’s a real skill to be able to distill a story down to a single enticing image. You recently did a book just of covers, right? Manga inspired?

Yeah, mangled manga - ‘Mangla’. I went off on one, drawing imaginary Japanese comics magazine covers. I like the look of the Kanji and the way they are sometimes awkwardly translated to English. I thought up titles and used Google translate so they were bound to be muddled up anyway. I did about 25 of them so thought I’d just make a little book out of them. When I came to do the contents page I found I’d lost my notes on the titles so I had to try and remember/guess them but I think that added to it! Apart from a few books that Breakdown Press have put out of old Garo stuff, I’ve barely dipped the tip of my little toe into manga really, I’ve never known where to start. Hopefully Mangla is respectful though, despite my lack of knowledge. People seemed to like it and it was a lot less work than comics - maybe that’s the way to go, just covers.

You’ve a real stylistic approach and a strong sense of design, but not just exclusively with your cover work, across all of your artistic practice. Every page of Jinx holds together as a complete piece. Is that by design?

Yeah definitely (and thanks!). I put a lot of effort into the page design and composition. It's one of the things about making comics I find most enjoyable, structuring the panels and balancing the page and colors. As the reader is always going to see two pages at once (except at the beginning and end of a book) I try and work on the panel layout as a two page spread, so I look at two pages as one page really and make the two sides complement each other. With Jinx Freeze especially, I aimed to make most pages react with the opposite pages - with the panel layouts mirroring each other, lines continuing across both pages or working off of each other in some way. It's probably the wrong way but I'm giving the panel layout priority over the images. Whatever the image is, it's gotta fit in that place in the composition - even if it's a whacking great building that could do with stretching out over the page. That's how I do it anyway, and I try to make it work - it’s not perfect yet but I'm still learning and trying to get it to look perfect to me.

Like the Poet in Jinx Freeze says (misquoting his comix friend Crash Bellenderson who had himself quoted Seth) "Poetry + graphic design ÷ sense x a lifetime - friends = Comics"

You say that you’re still learning, this is interesting to me. I still feel like I’m just starting out, getting to grips with things, but we’re not new to this.

Yeah I know what you mean but I think it’s a constant learning path, learning and developing. I’m gonna sound pretentious now and drop the A-bomb. The ‘Art’ word! But Comics is one of the most complex arts I can think of, honestly. When I say that, the voice in my head - or the little red, horned geezer on my right shoulder (Devils are always on the right) says “Oh shut up! It’s just comics!” and I sort of agree but I recognize that (in the UK at least), that’s what we have been brought up to believe.

Now things are much better but when I was growing up, it was almost impossible to get away with or justify drawing comics in school art class or on any course at college or university (am I wrong? I’m sure that’s how it was?)… so I went to art college but I’ve never studied comics or even illustration.

I’ve taught myself how to draw comics from drawing comics, and reading things (and looking at comics!) here and there and taking some of that on board. Which is why I see it as a continual learning journey - I couldn’t possibly say I know everything already and if I did, I would sound a bit of a dick.

Even if somebody gained a Phd in sequential illustration or a black belt in the mystic 9th art it would be natural that they continued to learn new things they thought they already knew or had never occurred to them as they continued their practice.

I first became aware of your work maybe ten years ago as part of the Fancy Butcher collective. Back then most of us were doing shoddy black and white photocopied comics and you lot were coming out with these beautiful screen printed books. The production value and design quality of your stuff was on another level, for that time. What was the deal with Fancy Butcher?

That was 'Static Revolter' - I found some copies of those a few weeks ago. Issue 2 (of 3 in all) was exactly 10 years ago. Fancy Butcher started off as a name under which Kevin Ward and I would collaborate. Those books did look nice and I have to give all the credit to Kevin - he's an amazing illustrator and has an expert eye for design and color and all the printy, tactile aspects of putting books together. We got really into the screen printing at that point, I think we had seen Le Dernier Cri using screen printing in comics. Fancy Butcher naturally expanded to include our comics-making friends Tanya Meditzky and Tobias Tak, so there was four of us who all shared the same sense of humor. We (and most likely, me the most) never found it that comfortable sitting behind tables at comics events and I couldn't shake off the anxiety, but I still had fun when I was sitting with the others drawing exquisite corpses and thinking up plans. The great Tobi Tak passed away in 2020 which was devastating for everybody who knew him and also a massive loss to the world of comics. You probably won't meet anyone who drew so prolifically (and beautifully) and put so much hard work and love into their comics as he did. I think the big work he had just finished 'The Dreammaker' (De Droommaker) is being published in Dutch around now by Concerto Books so hopefully that will come out in English too at some point. Everyone should take a look at his work.

Kevin, Tanya and I are still collaborating as Fancy Butcher, it's a bit sporadic as Kevin's in Spain, Tanya's up North and I'm Down South but we've got stuff in the works - comics, board games etc. I've been doing a back and forth, page each 'jam' type comic with Tanya that's about 60 pages long so far. We are aiming for 200 pages. Plus a musical, an audio book and a radio play...?

Going back to what you were saying about battling the demons on your shoulder over the pretensions of the art world etc. This is something you deal with in Jinx… a whole host of art world characters… poets and comics critics and gallery owners all get a ribbing.

I don't go really deep on any of it but it just happened that there was a lot of opportunity as the story played out, to have a little pop here and there at various things. This is the second book I've stuck in a pub called 'The Queen's Arse' as a mark of disrespect to the monarchy. This will be my trademark going forward - look out for it!

The middle class media types, art gallery curators and the made-it-big street artist are all easy targets - it's a well worn path to make fun of that world, and easy to do when you are an outsider to it all. Because I'm outside of that world - except for when I go to see an exhibition - those characters might be nothing more than stereotypes really, but there you go. There are some aspects of the poet or the comics guy (as well as other characters) - how they act or what they say - that are as much a dig at myself as anyone else.

We’ll save that for your therapy session, the outsider artist self flagellating though their work. Can I ask about your influences?

The first comics I read were the typical British comics like Beano, Whizzer and Chips, Whoopee, Monster Fun, Nutty and all that stuff. The very first comic I remember that made me really take notice of the actual art and how good it was, was an Asterix book (drawn by Uderzo) although I didn't read a lot of Asterix. My dad's cousin gave me a carrier bag full of old Marvel comics from the 60s/70s (I don't have them anymore) which I got well into, but I lost interest in that stuff later. Thinking about it now, that may be because all the superhero stuff I saw after that was not Jack Kirby? I got into Mad magazine when I was about 10 - I loved all the artists in that - Antonio Prohias, Don Martin, Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Sergio Aragones, Paul Porges etc.

I guess I was about 15 or 16 when I discovered the comic Weirdo and other stuff by Crumb and then other underground comics like the Freak Brothers as well as what Hunt Emerson was doing. This was the first time I could definitely say I was influenced by particular artists inasmuch as I very much tried to emulate their styles. I was trying to go for something like Gilbert Shelton, Robert Armstrong, Crumb and occasionally Vaughn Bode and maybe later on something that looked like Eightball. If I look at the remaining fragments of art I have from when I was 18, I'd say it was certainly in a knock-off Kaz style more than anything else. There are a lot of artists that I am influenced by now in terms of the tone or feeling but I think I settled on how I draw when I was in my 30s and I haven't tried to rip-off anyone else since my teenage years.

Away from comics, I was well into hip hop from my mid teens so I'd have to say that culture, graffiti etc. was an influence on my work back then, but I think that is something that I have filtered out over the years. Graphic design and art in general, particularly pop artists like Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Tadinori Yokoo - people like that have probably made an impression on what I try to do.

I work in quite a graphic drawing style and I suppose it’s probably informed by all of the above as far as composition and coloring and lettering go. I'm one of those comics-makers that think they are like a director making little flat, static, paper films so I don't know if certain movie genres or maybe people like Roger Corman, William Castle, John Waters or Akira Kurasawa have influenced my work in some way. Certainly the latter was an expert at composition - I've spent a lot of time mesmerized by the way he moves the actors around the scene and composes the frame - putting them against certain shaped backgrounds or props in the foreground. Very similar to the way we try to draw a good comics panel. He would have made a great cartoonist.

Makes a lot of sense to me what you say about seeing yourself as a director, your work is very cinematic. As a reader it really feels like stumbling across an old black and white gangster film that's half way through, not quite sure what's going on. I mean that in a good way. 

Ha, I like that. I'll take that in a good way!

I think there's a real British sensibility to your books, perhaps it’s the humor, daftness, the little jokey self depreciation.

That has been pointed out to me before and I'm sort of glad that comes through in my work. A lot of the time I like to set my stories (like in Jinx Freeze) in places that are non specific. They are vaguely British but not necessarily Britain, or they are a mixture of England and somewhere else in a parallel universe. I like the settings in JG Ballard's short stories where you are not really sure where they are supposed to be or what place they are based on. It could feel a bit like LA or North Africa or somewhere in Asia and the characters have names that you couldn't be certain where they come from or what accent they have when they speak English. At the same time the stories do feel quite British.

With the humor, I mean I'm a fan of surreal humor but I don't see it as unique to here really. You know, we live on a pretty demented island these days and, for me, there's not a lot to be proud of, but I do consciously reference British things as that's what I know best. We are all bound to do that aren't we? People in other places might not get certain references but that's always the way. You know in Public Enemy's track 'Don't Believe The Hype' when Flav says "no you can't have it back, silly rabbit!" I listened to that album a lot and always thought that was a really weird and weak name to call some one. A 'silly rabbit'?! 30 years later I find out it's a reference to a TV commercial for a breakfast cereal I've never heard of. So we are used to consuming a lot of American media with a lot of stuff going over our heads but not affecting the enjoyment. Ha - that's me trying to pitch my work internationally and saying it IS sort of British but you will still like it!

They'll like it because it's British, other-worldly, different. I always enjoy those transatlantic differences, the missed cultural references etc. There's a certain wonder to it. Like the adverts and the mail order things you'd see in the back of old US comics for products that were completely alien to us over here.

I think I probably spent more time fantasizing over the products in those ads than reading the stories. X-ray specs, life-size monster ghosts, 200 toy soldiers and all that. The Shitplank intro segment in Jinx Freeze is an obvious homage to the Charles Atlas 'weakling at the beach' ad.

I see that sensibility reflected in your work, there's a level of retrofuturism, a nod to the comics of old and a familiarity that's just nicely off kilter.

And that seems like a good spot to finish on, thanks Hurk. 

Thanks Joe.