Practitioners 21: Bryan Hitch

Bryan Hitch is a Practitioner in the truest sense of the word. From small beginnings in an industry that offered a great deal of work opportunities, Hitch has continued a career for more than 25 years, across the two largest comic book companies in the world. Through dedication and a willingness to engage new techniques and styles he has moved well beyond the artist he was in the early eighties with Marvel UK. His work, most recently, has graced the pages of the most sought after popular comic book in the world and launched a new literary universe that only recently ran out of steam.

Bryan Hitch started work at Marvel UK where he started working on Transformers with Simon Furman. This was the very start of American comic companies making a play for UK markets, controlled in particular as they were by transforming toys and action man figures (a quantum leap from the interests of today). While his artwork is almost unrecognisable today compared to his then, the stylistic traits were there. Hitch focussed predominantly on the person framed in each panel and made everything else secondary. A convention he has maintained even now. He joined Simon Furman again on Deaths Head, kick-starting the short career of the cult icon that would revolutionise Marvel UK and British comics.

He crossed the Atlantic in the the late 80s, early nineties as one of the first to find a footing on books specifically printed for US consumption, working successfully for Marvel and DC (both bloated at the time by the sheer popularity of the art form. Marvel Uk continued to break boundaries in the UK and Hitch continued to work for both (with Geoff Senior on Hell’s Angel and Liam Sharp on the incredible Death’s Head II for which his artwork no longer matched – Liam Sharp’s sharper, more realistic and textured style winning out).

Joining Furman again on his run on She-Hulk (9-11, 13-20, 24-26) between 1989 and 1991, Furman, his artwork at the time matched the period perfectly, clear, crisp lines, curves in anatomy and physicality, a natural and light touch. But in built even then was a very tense need to detail. In an issue in which Deaths Head attacks She-Hulk (a reintroduction by Furman and the only way I’ve seen a copy as part of a Death’s Head anthology), Hitch offered clear, buoyant artwork but the backgrounds of New York City that it took place in were well realised. Lightly detailed in terms of material texture but all the line work was there, paired down slightly for the period they were being shown in.

For a UK artist he straddled the big three (Marvel, DC and Marvel UK) perfectly – offered Adventures of Superman, Geo-force and Team Titans by DC but predominantly working with Marvel on Sensational She-Hulk, Excalibur, a Colossus 1 shot, the Maxiseries ClanDestine. He struggled as an artist to move beyond his populist routes, pencilling Captain Planet and the Planeteers for 2 issues (released through Marvel).

But it was as the decade ended that Hitch began to reveal a new style. Taking his original compositions of central character, well realised in the centre of the panel that had gained him so many character based projects previously he applied greater knowledge of detail than had previously been seen from him. The characters became more realistically humanistic,. his portrayal of events more gutteral and well realised. There was a real-world naturalism that had been applied to his template of heroic stances and impactful and bold visual storytelling that was resonant in a way it perhaps hadn’t been before. Comic books themselves were changing in style and content. Pre-millenium, comics had represented a popular form, characterised by superannuated and simplistic visuals and outlook. Hitch had typified this style and added to it technical proficiency but he was about to come into his own.

With an America at war and a dismissive left wing (comic book reading public) reeling from a Republican move towards conflict against global protests and the spectre of America a credible target for overseas terrorist organisations the mood turned more fatalistic, darker and aware of the forces the world could impose on heroes that stood against it. Fire Fighters (embattled, bedraggled and rubble strewn) were the visual hero of the early naughties. Heros would have to reflect this change of ideology in all forms in order to resonate with the audience.

Bryan Hitch had just finished a very successful run on The Authority, a deliberately sardonic and irreverant response to the World of heroes, featuring characters that took heroing to the level they would be expected to in real life – and fighting incredibly insurmountable obstacles. While the rubble was not there yet, the aggressive and brutal nature of the book was beautifully realised in Hitch’s work. His characters now represented real people with real power. His enemies squatted and assaulted a world easily recognisable. Cars were of makes you could recognise. Cities were brick by brick, people’s fashions well recognised and effectively presented. Hitch had learned some tricks and ridden the wave of realism that was being recognised in comics with its collapse in the mid-nineties. While it hadn’t fully taken hold of the industry it clearly had very much presented itself to Hitch.

Between Hitch’s steady incline into a gritty and realistic artist, imbedding his previous lessons of heroic and comic character physicalisation and technical precision with texture, detail and stark realism and the world’s (specifically America’s) sudden decline into insecurity, uncertainty and a need to acknowledge the truth of things; stepped a Scotsman. A scotsman with a plan.

Mark Millar had taken over writing the Authority after Warren Ellis and had realised the ideals it started with even more vigour, aided ably by Frank Quitely. Millar was about to start a series of books known as the Ultimate titles; a modern re-representation of the heroes created by Marvel. Essentially an if-they-start-now scenario. Central to this was the Ultimates; this universes version of the Avengers, and Hitch was selected as artist.

Here, Hitch hit full speed and realised his potential to be a full-on bona fide comic book legend.

The visuals offered up by Ultimates are staggering. The only way they can be described effectively would be like this. An Alien armada is sitting above a military base in the American midwest. A man wrapped in a red and gold sports car chassis is pummelling one of them, a blonde goliath is propelled through one with his hammer, fighters fly between these ships firing at any target they can identify. One alien ship is crashing into another and the debris from this battle can be seen impacting on the ground. Someone (perhaps from a balloon) has taken a photo of this moment – in landscape – and run it through a ‘Poster Edges’ filter on Photoshop. And it is simultaneously at once incredibly awe inspiring, artistic and realistic and thoroughly engaging.

By mixing his changes in style rather than dismantling or discarding them as he went Hitch has developed into a comic artist unlike any other seen in the medium. His blend of realism and grit imbeds the gravity and power of his compositions with an almost hypnotic grip once engaged by it. The need to look further into the panels never overwhelms the reading of the book however as many highly detailed artists have done in the past, as the first lesson Hitch ever learned – that of centralising and depicting a clear and recognisable figure central to each and every panel as a point of focus has survived all he has added to it.

An incredible talent and a seasoned professional at the same time, realised fully in later career life through the willingness to learn and take on new techniques. You have your Quitelys and your Coipels who appear on the scene fully formed like they were birthed from some freakish artistic gene pool but Hitch is something quite different. Hitch was (and is) an artist worth waiting for.

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