CEDAR FALLS | Phil Hester scratched out some crude doodles of Humpty Dumpty tumbling off a ledge as he spoke in familiar, conspiratorial tones to a cluster of his fans gathered in the University of Northern Iowa’s Rod Library over the brisk spring weekend.
It’s hard to believe those same hands have expertly piloted the Batman through the shadows of Gotham, penciled Swamp Thing amongst his stygian fens, and invented the madcap stretching weirdness of The Wretch.
A born and raised citizen of Iowa, Hester has been writing and drawing comics for the better part of the last two decades. Since graduating from the University of Iowa, his work has left indelible marks on the Marvel and DC comic universes alike.
In 1997, he was nominated for the Eisner Award, the comic book world’s most prestigious accolade. In 2010, a movie was produced about his comic creation, “Firebreather.”
Throughout his career, Hester has worked alongside some of the giants of the industry: Kevin Smith, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and Robert Kirkman, creator of the "Walking Dead” comics upon which the popular television series is based.
"If you go back 20 years, Brian Michael Bendis and I were sitting in a crappy hotel room in Chicago talking about our crappy Caliber comics,” Hester reminisced to his fans during the mini Comic-Con at Rod Library on Saturday. “Now he runs Marvel.”
Charming, funny, and kind, Hester shared a little piece of his world with his fans as he sifted through piles of original works and talked about how to tell stories using pictures.
With a few taps on a crease worn super-panel shining with raw ebon ink, he discussed how readers experience comics and the craft that goes into shaping that experience.
Pointing at a thumbnailed storyboard, blue traceries evident among the handwritten script notes, he explained his creative process, how he personally prefers using the Harvey Kurtzman method of graphical writing, even when he’s collaborating with other artists.
To Hester, collaboration is the key, what makes the comic creating experience worthwhile and rewarding.
“What I think you’re looking for in a collaborator is a partner, someone who can work with you throughout your entire career,” he said.
Collaborators like Mike Huddleston, who did the art for Hester’s "The Coffin”-- and is teaming up with him again for a new project that Hester would not reveal -- or Michael Broussard, penciler for Hester’s run on Top Cow’s "The Darkness”, a series about a demonic contract killer that has since been made into a successful video game.
As much as he lives and breathes comics, Hester is troubled by the industry’s future, which, like many others, is struggling to adjust to an increasingly digital world.
Online platforms like Comixology allow readers to consume comics via downloadable apps on their tablets and smartphones. But the pages as they were originally drawn inevitably get chopped up into smaller chunks to fit the formatting limitations of such devices, something that Hester finds disheartening.
"The page is the meta-panel and when you see a page, subconsciously you’re seeing it all at once, if only just for a split second,” he said. “And the page has a character.”
Chopping those individual pages up into individual panels diminishes that character, Hester thinks.
Another development in recent years has been to convert graphic novels into motion comics, an awkward video medium that’s not quite comic book and not quite animation.
“I am so against those,” Hester said. “They are basically just bad animation.”
Loaded up with sound effects, voice acting, and characters that don’t move so much as slide sluggishly across the page, motion comics are another of the industry’s experimental forays into digital production that Hester can’t help but oppose.
“I know I’m Don Quixote on this. I know I’m going to lose this battle,” Hester said. “The way comics are as is, without animation, is this sort of perfect middle-ground between cinema and the reading experience. It’s intimate like reading a novel, but it’s big like a film. And it’s a film you control the pace of. In motion comics you don’t, and they’re cheating with sound and stuff like that. But using those limitations forces us to be creative.”
It’s that kind of creativity that Hester encourages in his fans, who populated the halls of Rod Library during UNI’s mini Comic-Con over the weekend.
Apart from Hester, the free event featured several seminars, a Magic the Gathering tournament, an artist’s alley, a costume contest, and a comics trivia competition. The event was sponsored by Limited Edition Comics in Cedar Falls, The Core Comics and Games shop, IDW Publishing, Moonstone Books, and Oni Press.