Sure, superhero comics are petty much the same exact formula (heroic paladin—> world-threatening calamity by a nefarious villain —> epic struggle/intergalactic fight scene —> happy ending [?]). But if you look in the right places — namely the realm of indie comics — you’ll find a whole universe of unique and impactful storytellers.
Case in point, HEK Studios, a fairly new-ish collaboration between Matt Kindt, Brian Hurt, and Marie Enger. The iconic trio are working together to produce a hardcover treasury project, complete with 100 pages of story and art, that can now be backed via Kickstarter. Need more proof of its potential awesomeness? It’s already been dubbed the brain-baby of the Twilight Zone and McSweeney’s.
With the Kickstarter kicking off Monday, I had the opportunity to speak to the three creators about their approach to experimental storytelling, their respective contributions, and just what the heck HEK might stand for if they had a cool acronym. Spoilers: you may be surprised. Or not.
AiPT!: After creating comic book stories for so many years, is it difficult or easy to think up new ways of telling stories?
Brian Hurt: I find that coming up with new stories isn’t that difficult–it’s coming up with new ways to tell a story that provides the real challenge. But that’s where all the fun is! That really is the most engaging part for me–the puzzle-solving aspect of creating comics. The more difficult the problem the more satisfying it is to “solve” it. Then it’s just up to the reader to gauge whether you were successful or not. And with this book and this format, I’m intentionally painting myself into corners to see how I might innovate a way out. It’s the most fun I can have making comics!
Marie Enger: Look. I’m the youth of the group! I have less years creating comics. Less years means less difficulty! I read a LOT, watch a lot of TV, movies, listen to a lot of podcasts and music…I’m constantly consuming new media. It’s impossible not to change your storytelling methods when new ways to tell stories keep popping up. I don’t think it’s difficult or easy…I think it’s unconscious.
Matt Kindt: I think the way I tell a story is just linked to what the story is. The content really dictates the delivery for me. I can only bend my art style so far – but within that, there is a lot of range. And as far as format and size and design. I feel like the best books are organic. There is a big, strange, world-building, bombastic kind of theme to this book so it needed to be bigger. We needed to have fold-out pages with giant spreads and we needed to have two crazy covers and paper-craft add-ons that actually tell more of the story. But it works both ways. I was trying to source a vendor to create some dry-transfer art so that there would be an interactive element that would just be fun – where you could create a scene with small images – more like an activity. But out of that, I had an idea to create a story that you read, and then go back through and add elements to change the meaning and the narrative – so you get two different stories and the way you change the story the second time – it becomes permanent – so you can never go back to that first reading. So sometimes, the story comes first, and other times, the way I want to tell a story gives me the idea for what the story is.
AiPT!: Is there a certain way you approach the page/story to find a new experimental angle?
MK: I’m using some different painting techniques and paper. Something I’ve been working on for a while – but never in a narrative. So this will be the first time I’m using these art techniques – which keeps me excited and interested. I feel like it’s easy for me to fall into a comfortable pattern and the art can become more like production – so I’m trying to re-invent it – and get back to more of my fine-art roots and treat each page and each panel and each story in a more painterly way.
BH: I’m doing a handful of stories for this book and my one dictate to myself is to not repeat styles. So I’m forcing myself to approach each story with a different aesthetic and different tools, be it digital, analog, or a mix of the two. I know that pushing myself in this way will only have me come out of this project as a better artist and that’s everything I could hope for!
ME: I’m still trying to get my speed up! I’m a fan of traditional panel styles and layouts…but…I think my style has been called “experimental” enough times in the past MONTH to say that I think that my style is my angle. I can’t draw round things – everything is an angle.
AiPT!: I can see HEK stands for the first letter of each of your last names, but if you were to give it a cool acronym of words to describe the studio what would they be?
ME: Oooo…Horrifically Engaging and Kool (with a K – that’s how you know it’s really cool right?) maybe?
MK: Hoo Ett all the Koffee?
BH: Had Enough Krap?
AiPT!: Brian, I’ve seen some folks cry out “dystopian storytelling has been done”, but what would you say to these folks?
BH: I’ve never really understood that sentiment when it comes to any genre or sub-genre. From a storytelling point of view, I don’t understand why anyone would want to put limits on what they will allow themselves to create. Besides, I think that “dystopian” is an umbrella that covers such broad territory, anything–from Akira, Judge Dredd, or V for Vendetta to Handmaid’s Tale or Man in the High Castle–that it would negate the telling of too many different kinds of stories. Particularly stories that examine the nightmare paths that our present day actions can take us down, whether that be political, sociological, or in the case of my story, scientific.
AiPT!: Matt, what is it about mech’s that is so alluring to you and to readers, do you think?
MK: I grew up with Voltron. So I think it’s a little bit of nostalgia and it’s kind of in your DNA if you grew up in the 80s or you’ve read any kind of manga. It’s really its own kind of sub-genre. I also love Astro Boy and all the gear and the cut-aways. But…as a grown-up and as a creator it never really appealed to me. What kind of story could I tell with mechs in it? It just seemed a little ridiculous to pair my story-sense and the kind of stories I like with that. But a buddy of mine LOVES giant robots. And I got to thinking, what kind of giant mech/robot story would I tell if someone made me? If I had to? And then it all just clicked. I just had to get away from the idea that the mechs are always fighting. Because they’re always fighting.
That wasn’t so interesting to me. But I was interested in what those mechs did after the fight? What do you do with all of these giant robot/mechs when there’s no more war? So it takes place after the “mech wars” and we see a few different ways the mechs are used. Some of the are used as mobile homes for displaced people…and they’re trekking across the US trying to find a place to settle down. Another one is used for deep-sea exploration…and another is just on fire-watch duty – putting out forest fires. So the stories are about that – but also about the people inside them. Plus a serial killer, war-time flashbacks, and a deep-sea adventure.
AiPT!: Marie, as the creator of the table-top RPG CASKET LAND, how is approaching the creation of a game different than a comic book?
ME: WOW. The only similarity is that both require art! With pre-made TTRPG models – even though you give the skeleton of a story, every story will be unpredictable and uncontrollable. I haven’t seen or personally run a Casket Land where people have chosen the same character class groups, attacked the big bad (the SAGE HEN) or treated the Guide NPC character LOAM the same (please, be nice to LOAM!). You give people a potential beginning, middle and end…but they are NEVER approached the same by people playing the game. You need to learn how to relinquish control – where as in a comic, you have complete control of the story from start to finish. My goal as a TTRPG creator is to give people a setting, rules, and something horrible to fight. With comics I’m telling a story.