Square-jawed heroes are the stuff of comic books, so it’s quite surreal to meet comic book artist (and designer, illustrator, animator and type designer) Rian Hughes and find he bears a striking resemblance to arguably his most famous character, Dan Dare, Frank Hampson’s iconic 1950s creation which Hughes and writer Grant Morrison brought back from retirement to offer a scathing critique of Thatcherism in 1980s Britain. Hughes’s appropriation of the hopefully optimistic, but sadly anachronistic, Dare appeared in Revolver magazine in 1990, but this month reappears in a glorious new collection of comic work by Hughes, in which he has taken previously published stories and retouched and re-lettered them.
This brings us to another similarity between Hughes and Dare: just as the fictional hero spent a period of retirement from his comic book activities, so did Hughes, for some 13 years, concentrating instead on design work for Eurostar, Penguin Books, the BBC and dozens of record labels and publishing houses. He also illustrated hundreds of books, greetings cards and magazines, created fonts for his own foundry – Device Fonts – and animated films and title sequences for Virgin Atlantic, Ogilvy & Mather and The Cartoon Network, among others.
All bear the signature Hughes styling – bold graphic shapes with hints of retro 1960s futurism and eye-popping colour in a vector graphics-based style that has been termed ‘sans ligne’ (referencing the French style of line drawing ‘ligne clair’, pioneered by Tintin creator Hergé), thanks to its use of shapes and colour rather than line to convey expression and meaning. Yet, within these distinct graphic parameters lies a vast range of styles and techniques, all fuelled by Hughes’s ability over nearly 30 years to switch effortlessly from one discipline to another, although it was photography he studied originally. ‘I did do graphic design at the London College of Printing,’ he recalls, ‘but I majored in photography because it was something I didn’t know how to do, and it gave me access to equipment I couldn’t access on my own,’ he explains.
This desire to do something outside his knowledge drives Hughes’s work at every level. ‘You learn about life by being put into situations you’re unfamiliar with, and you do the same with design,’ he says simply. The fact that he’s sometimes thwarted in his ambition to always be learning and exploring – or to be able to develop and use different tones of voice – by clients asking him to work on just one element of a project when he would like to tackle it all, is partly what has led Hughes back to comics. ‘Sometimes, clients don’t realise you can bring these different skills to a project – type, illustration, design – and that it’s a holistic, image-making process,’ he says. ‘It’s created a desire to be more authorial about my work.’
Design, in particular of books and albums, affords Hughes more autonomy and authority than illustration, but he loves having the ability to work across disciplines. ‘Unless you’re a very versatile illustrator, you’re in danger of just being a stylist. Design is a broader church. But working on both – and on a new font, or a new piece of animation, or a new colour palette for a comic strip – teaches you intellectual rigour, keeps you engaging with the process,’ he enthuses. He compares himself to a Venn diagram – ‘I love being a mixture of all these things,’ he says.
So it was perhaps inevitable that Hughes would bring comic drawing back into his oeuvre, and a number of factors have brought him back to this first love. ‘I like the fact that there’s no mediation, and have found a huge pleasure in rediscovering the old-school tools and techniques of brush and ink,’ he says. But the most pleasure has come from being able to right wrongs – somewhat fittingly. ‘The tool I didn’t have in 1990 was the Mac. With it, I’ve been able to bring all the disparate threads together,’ he explains. The outcome is a piece of work that ultimately exemplifies Hughes’s ambitions for the future, namely, to ‘bring all the things I’ve learned, the breadth of expression, together’.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Rian Hughes is published this month by Knockabout Comics, priced £25