One day Rory Regan arrived at his father’s pawnshop to find his dad and three of his dad’s friends tortured and on the brink of death. Regan rushed to their aide, but was electrocuted and knocked out by a wire used to torture the men. When he came to, his father and the friends were dead, and the murderers were gone. Regan discovered that the electric shock had transferred the powers of the deceased men to him. He now had great strength, agility and fighting skills. Regan—donning a patchwork costume of stitched together rags—swore to protect his neighborhood from evildoers like the ones who killed his father. Ragman was born.
Iowa-based comic book artist and writer Phil Hester, 45, has never been assigned to work with Ragman. Hester has worked with many of the big names—Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Wonder Woman, just to name a few—but “The Tatterdemalion of Justice” eludes him.
“He’s a creepy and weird superhero, but that’s where my taste kind of bends,” explained Hester while drawing Batman at his drafting table.
Hester’s studio is a room inside his house in North English, Iowa (Pop: 990)—a 50 minute drive west of Iowa City. A town small enough to make cell phone signals vanish, small enough to confuse the all-seeing eye of Google Maps.
Piles of sketches are everywhere in Hester’s studio. At the top of one stack of papers, a large sketch of an enraged, snot-nosed Hulk glares at the room’s occupants. Bookcases stuffed with comic books line the opposite wall. A Spider-Man lunch box, a plastic Batman cup and a wide array of superhero action figures also sit atop and within the bookcases—if you look closely you can also spot a few awards.
Hester’s interest in comics started at age ten. “That’s when I really got into comics as a reader,” said Hester. “I sort of never grew out of that.”
He always enjoyed drawing, and when he turned 12 he realized that creating comics was a feasible career path.
“I can tell you the comic book issue that really made me want to become a comic book artist,” said Hester. “There was this storyline in Iron Man, and it ended on a cliffhanger where Tony Stark, [the man behind the Iron Man mask], got pushed off the Helicarrier, [a fictional aircraft], without his armor on.” Hester couldn’t wait for the next issue’s release, so he created and illustrated his own ending to the comic.
In high school, Hester would send samples of his work into Marvel and DC Comics every six months. “I was so clueless,” he said. None of his high-school work was picked up. Fortunately, back then even the major comic corporations were gracious about writing back, and they offered Hester critiques and comments on some of his early drawings.
Hester’s big break in the industry came in 1990, when he was 23. An editor at Marvel offered Hester an assignment to illustrate a comic about the popular antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner. “When I got that, I walked into my day job and quit,” said Hester. “I gave them my two weeks, and I was like ‘I’m working for Marvel now! Good bye!’” Hester didn’t work for Marvel again until he was in his 30s.
He quickly realized it was possible to go months without getting a single assignment. “I went back to the day job and asked for it back,,” said Hester. “Thankfully, the [comic book] job I got after that was a regular assignment, so then I actually quit.” Since then, Hester has only worked as a comic book artist. At the time of this writing, he’s been published more than 300 times.
From 2000-2004, Hester illustrated one of DC Comics’ oldest heroes, the aptly named green-clad archer, Green Arrow, first created in 1941. This project established Hester’s name in the industry, and also gave him the opportunity to help create new characters for the DC universe.
One of these characters, Mia Dearden, took over the role as Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy. Dearden is recognized as one of the few comic book heroes who are HIV-positive, stemming from a history of abuse and child prostitution. He also helped create the villain Onomatopoeia, who voices the sound of his actions. IGN comic book reviewer Daniel Crown called Onomatopoeia “one of the coolest new villains of the decade” in 2008.
Hester doesn’t mind it too much when other artists take over the characters he created: “You have to let them go. It’s like keeping track of old girlfriends. You can’t really do that, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
One relationship Hester would like to rekindle is with Swamp Thing—DC’s slimy hero who can inhabit any vegetable matter and use it to create a body for himself. Hester had the opportunity to illustrate Swamp Thing at the beginning of his career. However, Hester doesn’t feel like he did a good job.
“It was like playing for your favorite team,” said Hester. “It was like being the worst Chicago Cub. It’s like ‘Wow, I’m playing for the Cubs! I’m stinking it up, but at least I’m playing for the Cubs.’
“I’d love to go back to [Swamp Thing] now that I’m decent,” he said. “Twenty years later I would like to show them that I don’t suck as hard as I did when I was 26.”
In addition to his writing and illustrating for the major comic companies, Hester has also worked on many independent projects. He enjoys the freedom of the independent comics, but thinks they aren’t feasible as a sole source of income. “I have to supplement my independent work with mainstream work,” said Hester. “That’s my day job. My day job is drawing Batman so I can write and draw indie stuff.”
Even if he is less enthused about working on mainstream comics, Hester is still clearly a fanboy. “I never get too jaded like ‘Oh, here’s another day of drawing comics’,” said Hester. “To me it’s exciting. Like, what I’m doing right now; I’m excited to draw Batman.”
Michael Gallagher is a freelance journalist in the Iowa City area. His work has appeared in The Gazette, Iowa Watch, Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Grinnell Herald-Register.