Phil Hester sits down with the Outhouse to discuss writing, his current series and what it's like working with Kevin Smith!
What does it take to be successful in one's craft? It cannot be simply in our genes, or a simple test would be the sole determinant of our fates. This means there has to be something else that differentiates those who will approach greatness. To determine what that is, it is imperative to seek sage advice from those who have already achieved that success. For that, there are none better than Phil Hester, who has experienced the long road to stardom and has become one of the busiest writers in comics. Currently, he supplies his prose to The Darkness (Top Cow), Days Missing (Archaia), The Bionic Man (with Kevin Smith for Dynamite), and, "a few other secret projects I can't leak just yet." Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get to Mr. Hester to put down his pen for a moment, take a break, and talk with me about his process, projects, and why he loves what he does. Class is now in session.
Mr. Hester's love of comics started at a very young age. "[I] read anything I could get my hands on. I subscribed to a bunch of Marvel comics, especially Frank Miller's Daredevil, which is probably one of the comics that pushed me into becoming a writer and artist." Once bitten by the comic bug, it entered his bloodstream and never let go. When asked what comics he still reads today, he replied, "Too many! I suppose my favorite is Hellboy, but I'm more likely to follow creators than characters."
Perhaps it was this fervor for creating comics that enabled him to endure the long march from fan to well-known creator. Hester's big break into the industry came from, "...mail submissions! Back in the 80s most companies had submissions editors who would look at cold mail submissions. Luckily, I was attempting to break in during the black and white explosion of the mid-80s, so even as bad as I was at nineteen, I was good enough to get work at the smaller publishers. It's been one rung at a time up the ladder since then." So, for you aspiring creators out there, one key to success is patience.
In time, his journey as creator would see him collaborate with Kevin Smith on the very well received Green Arrow storyline called "Quiver" which returned Oliver Queen to the DC universe. The series first issue would debut at number six on Diamond's top 300 sales chart. For this series, Hester's role would be that of an artist, but for their next (The Bionic Man), Hester would collaborate with Smith as a writer. So how do two writers work together without throwing fists? According to Hester, easily. "[Kevin Smith] is great, very generous and open. On this project, I adapt Kevin's existing screenplay to a comics format and make any needed changes to properly describe the action. Kevin gives me notes that I incorporate then Kevin makes a final pass before we go to press."
Another title of Hester's that received rave reviews was Days Missing which led to a sequel, Days Missing: Kestus. This series is published by Archaia Entertainment in conjunction with Roddenberry Productions. The story of Days Missing follows a mysterious character who refers to himself as, "The Steward". His self-appointed mission is to secretly shepherd the progress of humanity, while protecting us from ourselves. What drew Mr. Hester to the series? "I love Dr. Who, but maybe since I was raised on superheroes, always wished he could take a more direct or action-oriented course when faced with certain dangers. By that I mean, I admire cerebral heroes, but a cerebral hero who also bloodied noses appealed to me. The Steward seems to be that perfect blend of abstracted, almost alien intellect and a passionate physicality. He's like The Watcher who chooses to interfere every time." The trick to writing a character who possesses these particular facets is in making him relatable to his readers. Hester skillfully overcomes this by, "On some levels he's so emotional as to almost seem immature. I mean, he's eons old, but hasn't experienced many of the basic emotions most humans do by 20 or 30. He's never been in love (until Kestus), never fathered children etc. He's deeply lonely and just as confused about his origins as we all are. I think those vulnerabilities are what make him interesting and relatable." It is a balancing act that tests the creative dexterity of a writer.
In The Steward's second series, Kestus, the reader is introduced to a character, Kestus, who is every bit his equal, his nemesis, and his love interest. She really represents the alternative approach to wielding the type of responsibility that The Steward possesses. While she cannot fold time like The Steward, Kestus is an immortal, which is presumably the reason behind her different perspective on humanity. So will the first character introduced into the series that can seriously challenge its star return in a future series? "Hmmm. Not sure I can answer that one." While Mr. Hester remains cagey on that regard, what he is more than willing to reveal is that the next series will contain, "LOT more action. We see The Steward in open conflict for the first time, no longer able to conceal his mission from humanity. It's gonna be apocalyptic."
Mr. Hester is also busily generating scripts for Top Cow's long running series, "The Darkness", which is six issues away from its 100th. The Darkness is about an ex-hitman named Jackie Estacado, who first debuted way back in Witchblade #10 in 1996. Hester came aboard in the series' 65th issue, which was also a relaunch. This means, the character of The Darkness was already well-established by the time he came aboard. So how does a writer pay homage to established continuity, while simultaneously blazing a fresh trail to excite new readers and re-invite the old? "I was lucky to have Rob Levin as an editor and Filip Sablik as publisher. They trusted me to take some chances with a well-established character and try to stake out some new territory for him. I tried to respect what came before while still pushing him into situations we hadn't seen before in the book. I hope I had some success there. I know it's certainly been a lot of fun for me."
The key to accomplishing the task of reestablishing a known character is to truly understand what makes that character tick. In reality, people are built upon an infinite complexity of character-something fictional characters often will fall far short of reflecting. For instance, Estacado, as an ex-mob hitman, and possessed by an entity called "The Darkness" was often portrayed as entirely self-centered, ruthless, and one-dimensional. Hester sought to add complexities to his protagonist. "Nasty people do good things all the time, just like good people slipping up and doing evil from time to time. He is selfish and venal, but he also has intense loyalty, especially to family. In fact, the whole crux of my last year on the book is The Darkness' disappointment in Jackie's momentary forays into moral behavior. They want an evil wielder and he's just not cutting it there. He's more Han Solo than Hitler, and to The Darkness, that's a big disappointment."
This begs the question, how much of what Jackie has done is due to the influence of "The Darkness?" "That's always a question. How much of the evil that he's done came from him, and how much came from The Darkness? That's a tough question to live with every day, and a big reason for Jackie's final confrontation with The Darkness." This confrontation is at the center of the storm that is issue 100. "We'll see the return of a lot of familiar faces, hopefully in ways that will surprise long time readers. The last six issues of the run are like nothing ever seen in the book before. It gets a little meta, but the requisite amount of blood flows to sate devoted Darkness fans. I know a lot of comics' hype promises "things will never be the same again," but with both The Darkness and Artifacts, Top Cow is putting their money where their mouth is."
There is often a trend in Hester's work with series such as "Anchor", "Days Missing", and "The Darkness" which centers on existential questions. "I suppose I'm drawn to that sort of existential stuff. I blame Jim Starlin's Warlock for poisoning my youth! Actually, I think this kind of stories can more easily touch the larger themes in our lives. They're almost like parables in which death, time, and divinity are personified by the characters in the stories. At least that's what I'm hoping for." In other words, big ideas often can act as a spring board for combating the bigger questions of our lives. Comics are uniquely position as almost a monthly reflection upon us and the society we live in. They are our mythology. And like Prometheus Bound, and The Iliad, comics are really about us as people.
With the bell having rung, and the class come to a close, what parting advice does Mr. Hester have for aspiring writers? "Start now. Either draw your own stories or find an artist to become partners with and start producing. Don't wait for any sort of official recognition before creating your comic. Nothing will teach you more about honing your talent than actually just doing it, so do it! Throw it on the web, throw it away, whatever-- just make it."
Written or Contributed by: Jeff Haas, Outhouse Contributor