Colorblind comics: Iowa’s Phil Hester takes on science, mythology, and world religion in ‘Mythic’

Phil Hester & John McCrea’s ‘Mythic’

Phil Hester is arguably the most prominent Iowan in comics.

Hester has written and drawn a wide array of titles since breaking into comics while still a student at the University of Iowa. His credits include acclaimed runs as the artist for Green Arrow with writers Kevin Smith and Brad Meltzer.

Hester’s current project is Mythic, an Image title he writes with art by John McCrea. Mythic images a world where all the mythical explanations for the operation of the universe are true. The first collected edition, which includes issues one through eight, is set for release on June 22.

Mythic is funny, action-packed and filled with gorgeously rendered mythological characters — some horrifying and some lovely. It’s a tale with philosophical foundation and a kinetic execution.

Tell me about the origins of Mythic. Did you and John McCrea come up with the idea and story direction together or did the idea originate with you (or him)? Mythic flips an old idea, suggesting that science — rather than religion — is an opiate for the masses. Was that the jumping off point for the whole series as you were first fleshing out the idea?

I had the idea for Mythic floating around in my head for a while now. I’ve always been a fan of mythology and folklore, and after consuming a metric ton of it, I wanted to showcase my take on a few favorites. Also, I really enjoyed studying world religions and secular philosophies. I guess, in the end, I find the world as we know it to be a pretty bewildering place, but that bewilderment doesn’t have to be dispiriting. In fact, I find it kind of fun. I’m glad I’ll never really figure anything out about life. That sounds dreadful.

So, Mythic was my attempt to represent that kind of joyful cacophony of competing world views that are buzzing around us all the time. It’s one thing to say, “This crazy idea is actually true,” but Mythic is saying, “All these crazy ideas are true — all at the same time. So how does that work on an everyday basis? Who keeps this cobbled-together jalopy of a cosmos running?”

I just like the idea of the stories humans tell themselves to get by, and I do consider science one of those stories. I mean, it’s based on observable, objective data, but there is so much we don’t know about existence that even the full breadth of human knowledge is little more than a fig leaf over our ignorance. I am totally, totally pro-science, but in keeping with the humanizing-with-humor theme of the book, I thought it would be fun to treat science as just another balm we use on our poor, tired old psyches. I hope the tone of the book is lovingly irreverent, and exempting science from that gentle chiding would be unfair. And so many fantasy books present magic as a kind of alternative avenue existing in the shadow of science, I thought it would be the ultimate “you know nothing” moment to say that science is actually the deviant avenue.

As for what kind of monsters, gods and myths wind up in the book, a lot of that is down to what John wants to draw, and who am I to argue with such results? He’s obviously got a gift for this kind of material and I’m not going to waste it.

One of the things that struck me right away is how quickly you manage to jump into the plot, using some cheeky, nigh-unto-fourth-wall-breaking exposition dialogue and an early and deep dive into the meat of the concept and plot. Did you set out to set a quick pace out of the gate, and, if so, what are the keys to pulling that off?

Yeah. Comics is a weird animal in that your audience is predisposed to strangeness. Comic book readers are used to college students who can walk on walls and warrior-princesses with invisible jets, so most fantastical things are the norm to them. If you’re going to roll out something crazy, it’s best to get right to it and stop wasting your reader’s time. Also, we now live in a world where insurance salespeople know who Thanos is. No more pussyfooting around!

Also, comic books both benefit and suffer from the serial format. While it’s operationally easier to tell your story in small chunks, readers tend to come and go pretty quickly between issues. Naturally, there is a huge drop off in readership between issues one and two of any series, so if you have a hook you want to land, it better be in issue one.

You, of course, have worn both the writer’s hat and the artist’s hat throughout your comics career. Which would you say comes more naturally to you? What’s different about your approach (or the collaborative process in general) when you’re writing vs. when you’re drawing?

I see writing and drawing as just different points on the same continuum of storytelling. I guess it’s like a sculptor who needs to carve out a figure from a solid block; writing is one chisel, art another, but I’m still just hewing a tale from the same block of raw imagination.

I will say that writing is certainly less physically taxing than drawing, so all my years of drawing have made me cognizant of when I’m asking a lot from my artist. I apologize to the artist in the script A LOT. I know firsthand how terrible it is to draw phone conversations or car chases. I try to reward required drudgery with show-off scenes later in the story. I’ve been there!

I was bred for comics. I always see each script I write as pictures — living on that storytelling continuum! I think in images, even when I’m hearing dialogue in my head. Sometimes I will go as far as to lay out an issue with simple drawings of each page that I will pass along to the artist as a guide, but most often I produce what looks a lot like a screenplay.

Specifically with Mythic, John and I work Marvel style, which means I hand him a plot with specific dialogue — almost like an audio play –let him lay out the actual scenes, then come back and tweak the dialogue to match the art. It’s more collaborative and more fun for John. We’re both old hands at comics, so our storytelling skills are well-oiled. Adjusting to each other’s improvisations is half the fun, like a jazz duo really clicking, I suppose.

You started working in comics while you were a student at the University of Iowa. Did your studies at the university contribute directly (or indirectly) to you work as a comics creator, either in terms of craft or in terms of themes you explore in your work?

Certainly. I have a drawing BFA and, as anyone who has one knows, that means countless hours of life drawing. Comics art is mostly figure drawing, so having a ready lexicon of self-generated figure drawing at your fingertips is essential. I can thank Prof. Joe Patrick for that.

Also, I came into art school with Frank Frazetta as my favorite painter and left with Mark Rothko as my favorite. All of the stuff I was exposed to by my sculpture, printmaking, art history and multimedia profs expanded what I thought not only art could be, but comic art specifically.

I still love Jack Kirby and Frank Miller like I did when I was thirteen, but after art school I was ready to absorb all the alternative voices and techniques coming onto the comics scene.

The first arc of Mythic ends with a tidy and satisfying conclusion while also charting a path forward. Is issue nine on its way soon? What are your long term goals for the series? How much of the arc of the story do you have mapped out?

Nowadays Image likes their ongoing books to come out as “seasons,” so once the trade collecting the first eight issue arc comes out, and John McCrea, our colorist Mike Spicer and letterer Willie Schubert catch their breath, we’ll get rolling on our next arc.

Issue nine will pick up where issue eight left off, with Nate now in charge of Mythic Lore Services, Inc. We’ll get to see how his mundane, human perspective both helps and hurts when it comes to running an organization dedicated to dealing with the impossible. We’ll also find out what happened to Killer of Enemies, learn the startling origin of the barely-seen Diana, join the hunt for Asha’s reincarnated spirit and see what married life is like for Waterson in Hell.

Rob Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 201.

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