TOM HART'S WORKING HARD:

Selling Futures in Hope

Preface to the volume one of

Tom Hart's

COLLECTED HUTCH OWEN

(published by Top Shelf)

 

"People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth."

Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life.

The problem with Americans, Jean Giraud (Moebius) once complained, is that they have no politics.

Any foreigner who’s had a lot to do with America (and that’s most of us, as we emerge from the so-called ‘American Century’) knows what he means. It’s not that Americans have no interest in who’s president or what party dominates Congress (although that seems to be true of most, given voter turnout). What Giraud was talking about, I think, is the lack of political analysis, or even instincts, in American social, economic and even everyday life.

I remember seeing ‘Hype,’ Doug Pray’s excellent documentary about the Seattle music scene a few years back. Giraud’s comment kept coming back to me and I kept thinking: ‘God, if only more of those people had had some politics about the whole thing.’ The process they’d been put through by the corporate music/entertainment/hype machine seemed to have taken them largely by surprise - so it had chewed them up and spat them out before they’d even had the chance to try and work out what was going on. Afterwards, there was plenty of bitterness and bewildered hostility towards ‘the Man.’ But it was as if they were having to invent a vocabulary with which to understand what had happened; and the easiest vocabulary for them, as young Americans, to fall back on was that of the Individual being gobbled up by Big Business - or of an alternative counter-culture being co-opted by the corporate mainstream.

All of which is, on one level, quite accurate. But a while later, I saw an equally amazing film - Julien Temple’s ‘The Filth and the Fury’, an account of the Sex Pistols. Now, it’s pretty commonplace to point to the Seattle scene as having been America’s equivalent to England’s Punk explosion in the late 1970s. But what’s really interesting is the differences, which these two films illustrate beautifully. From the get-go, British Punk was political, in every meaningful sense of the world. The Sex Pistols were managed by Malcolm McLaren, an enthusiastic follower of the French Situationists, who - along with their graphic artist, Jamie Reid - covered their clothes, their posters and their lyrics with Situationist slogans from the 1968 Paris uprisising: ‘Demand the impossible,’ ‘Club Med: a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.’

For Johnny Rotten, the music business was as corrupt and - well - fucked up as the rest of cosy, oppressive, brain-dead 1970s Britain and the job of the Sex Pistols was to tear the whole fucking edifice down. No mercy, no compromise - and No Future. McLaren added his own paticular brand of sabotage, by infiltrating the music industry with record deal after record deal - all of which imploded in controversy as the band pushed the establishment past its limits. By exposing the hypocrisy of the ‘rock and roll’ establishment, they revealed the huge construction of lies that makes up modern capitalist society: what Guy Debord called ‘the Society of the Spectacle.’

Of course, even the Sex Pistols were defeated in the end (read pg. 34 of the first story in this book: ‘Punk Car - Get Angry For It’). The death of Sid Vicious was to Punk what Kurt Cobain’s was to the Seattle scene: a sign that the hoped-for revolution hadn’t come and now it was eating its own children.

But anyway, all this is a digression. What, you’re wondering, has all this to do with Tom Hart?

Okay, let’s start again. When I first met Tom, it was 1994 and he’d just brought out the first Xeric-funded edition of Hutch Owen’s Working Hard. I met him at the aptly-named San Diego Comic Con - a temple to the almighty Spectacle if ever there was one. Tucked away in a dark corner, away from the gigantic Marvel booth (full of loud tv screens), the Barbie Twins signing queues and the souped-up, mag-wheeled Spawnmobile, a small group of sweet, gentle geniuses sat at the small press tables. I’d come all the way from New Zealand to promote my comic book Pickle and was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the noise and, well, horror of it all. But these lovely people soon took me under their wing and showed me a good time. It soon became clear that most of them came from Seattle: Megan Kelso, Jon Lewis, Ed Brubaker, Jon Snyder, James Sturm, David Lasky and, of course, Tom Hart. I now realise that many of these guys weren’t Seattle born & bred, but had drifted there over the previous few years - drawn by the twin beacons of the Fantagraphics-centred comics scene and the more famous ‘Seattle scene.’

They were all (and are still) mighty fine cartoonists and I’ve followed their work enthusiastically since. But Tom is the one I’m writing about here, so back to Hutch Owen.

Before Hutch, most of Tom’s comics (so far as I could tell) had been lovely, lyrical little minicomics - full of poetry and whimsy, inspired by British cartoonist Glen Dakin and his idol, Finnish writer and cartoonist Tove Jansson (creator of the Moomins). But with Hutch Owen, Tom had taken a huge step in terms of ambition and scope. It was long, hilarious, beautifully drawn and - surprise - political! In light of the atmosphere in Seattle post-Nirvana, it’s not surprising that that politics was primarily an attack on the Man. But what saved it from being just another shallow sophomoric rebellion was, of course, the analysis.

‘Working Hard’ is an attack on the Spectacle. From the hilarious opening scene, in which Worner outlines a plan to market ‘Malcolm X’ merchandise (as Carver says ‘so long as no one gets hurt’) to the epilogue (which I won’t give away here, but when you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean), this is a story about the way corporate power co-opts rebellious counter-cultures and movements, rendering them harmless - all in the pursuit of profit.

But however the plot turns out, this is also an optimistic, joyful story - the satire is urgent and pleasurable. Hutch Owen really does represent an alternative to the bleak hegemony headed by Worner. He lives by an economy in which poetry is the most precious currency and love the commodity it buys. Hutch himself has opted out of the whole sick trip, living in a cabin in the woods and getting by on the pennies he earns from his self-published pamphlets (or zines). However Worner might try to crush Owen and his message, we can’t help feeling his victory will be hollow.

Back in 1994 this was such a breath of fresh air - and still is. Even alternative comics - though full of depth and poetry - are rarely openly political, in contrast to the Underground comix (dripping with anarchism, Maoism, feminism and, perhaps most convincingly, Crumb’s scathing but ideologically impure socialism). A few welcome exceptions like Rob Walton and Peter Kuper aside, the cartoonists of the 80s and 90s have tended to focus on the internal, personal and individual, rather than the social, political or - heavens help us - economic. In Tom Hart, we’re lucky to have a cartoonist who’s passionately interested in all of these things. Since the first Hutch Owen, Tom’s gone on to draw a number of books of extraordinary intelligence and subtlety: The Sands, Banks/Eubanks, New Hat - all of which break new ground formally and explore relationships and our internal lives. They’ve earned him a place alongside Chris Ware and Chester Brown as one of the most interesting cartoonists of our generation.

Thankfully, though, he has also continued to revisit Hutch Owen at fairly regular intervals - hence this very welcome collection. Reading them all together like this, it’s interesting to see how Tom’s analysis has extended in reach (looking at global capitalism in ‘Emerging Markets’) and depth (the complexity and ambivalence of the last two stories). It’s also interesting - if a little depressing - to see the change in tone. As we move through the late nineties in ‘Stocks are Surging!’ and ‘The Road to Self,’ we find a much less hopeful Hutch. it's as if things have passed him by and no-one's listening anymore. His friends are too busy surfing the net or spending money and even Hutch seems full of doubt now: ‘I’m broken down. I’ve been living under a bridge for two weeks - I’m soaked, I smell, I’m completely exhausted... All my books and things are smelly and mouldy - shaking people up just isn’t profitable anymore since the economy started ‘booming’. On top of that, now I’m saying things like ‘profitable.’ I can’t deny "reality" anymore - I need money...’

I asked Tom if this shift in tone was a response to the change in the political atmosphere in America during the economic ‘bubble’ of the late nineties. It reminded me of the comics I was doing here in New Zealand during the mid-80s when we experienced a similar share market boom as the result of financial deregulation. Back then the whole country seemed to have gone insane: obsessed with BMWs, yachts, champagne and futures markets. Any kind of alternative dissenting viewpoint was derided and mocked; literary journals began to publish essays arguing that the only meaningful test of an artistic work’s value was the one that could be measured in dollars. It was a stark illustration of Marx’s observation on the effect of Capitalism on cultural and ethical values: ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ Of course the party came to an abrupt end (as they always do) with the 1987 stock market crash, which hit New Zealand harder than most. Through the 1990s, while America was building its current head of steam, we were in the depths of recession, turning the political atmosphere nasty. By the end of that decade the battle lines had finally been redrawn and in 1999 we elected our first centre-left government since the seventies.

Tom agreed that the nineties had taken its toll on Hutch: ‘except that I really can't be sure of how much of the doubt and pessimism of the later two stories are attributable to the pornography of our recent boom years and how much of it is really attributable to my growing older and more complex myself- more able to see more of the whole picture. I doubt I can ever isolate those two explanations, actually. But I would say certainly that the drive to do more stories is fuelled by the former, for sure. The latter two were very urgent for me- this 4 or 5 years after the first one (the 2nd story being a sort of build up to that urgency again).’

In a sense this collection provides a chronological chart of the political atmosphere as it evolved during the 1990s - as viewed by our conscience, Hutch Owen. Note, however, that this is only ‘volume one’ of the Collected Hutch Owen - a fact that fills my heart with joy. It will be interesting to see, as the years progress and future stories are collected, where things will go from here. There are reasons to think the world has begun to turn once again: the Seattle WTO riots and subsequent high profile anti-capitalist demo's in Washington, Europe, Australia etc are just the most obvious signs of a growing breach in that stifling orthodoxy. I keep remembering an essay I once read from the very beginning of the sixties (reprinted in Carl Oglesby’s The New Left Reader, Grove Press, 1969) in which a left-wing American academic bemoaned the fact that the younger generation had no interest in politics or social justice and seemed obsessed only with getting good grades, a lucrative job and the latest hot consumer items. Little did he suspect what that same generation was about to do to the world.

As Tom explains, ‘I sometimes view it as a pleasant personal challenge to do more Hutch Owen stories throughout my life and hopefully to find myself, in the end, with the same exuberence and optimism that the first story had.’

For Tom’s sake - and ours - let us hope he succeeds.

 

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