Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Propaganda presents a fashionably late review for a style icon
by Rian Hughes
with Grant Morrison, Raymond Chandler, Tom DeHaven, John Freeman, Chris Reynolds.
Published by Knockabout/GOSH
Here’s a challenge for you; find me a more innovative and visually dynamic and impressive comic artist in Britain today than Rian Hughes. I know I couldn’t.
Of course, the big problem with Rian is that he’s just too good for comics. He’s so in demand as a graphic designer for the wider world that more often than not, you’ll see him described as Rian Hughes; graphic designer and illustrator. Which is why his actual comics have remained uncollected until this marvellous volume.
As a master designer he’s been responsible for some amazingly diverse projects. Odds are you’ve read at least something with Rian’s design work if you’ve been around comics for the last 20 years. Whether it’s his beautiful logos, his innovative lettering fonts or cover design work he’s certainly been around. But his work in recent years has been outside of comics. (And given the money in some of this work, for a lot less toil, we can hardly point a finger of blame now can we?) And amongst the work there are some very strange projects indeed:
(Invisibles #1, my favourite cover image ever, plus a logo – both by Hughes. Various typefaces and the Geri Halliwell children’s series. Connection – Rian Hughes’ gorgeous design and illustration work.)
Yesterday’s Tomorrows is the collection that we’ve been waiting for, featuring five complete Rian Hughes illustrated stories from ’87 to ’93, a period that was possibly Hughes’ most prolific in comics and certainly the last time he was actively involved in comics before the lure of the wider world stole him away from us. It ends with an exhaustive section of background and additional material from the time. This is an Artist’s book, celebrating the work of one of our best.
(The art cards included with the limited edition Yesterday’s Tomorrows exclusive to FPI. And a perfect illustration of the four of the five stories in the book)
The stories are:
The Lighted Cities, written by Chris Reynolds of Mauretania Comics fame.
A short piece and the least visually impressive with a sense that it’s paying service to Reynold’s own art style of a heavier line and thick blacks. It doesn’t really suit Hughes’ artwork, it’s too small, too domestic, too enclosed a tale, something which Hughes reflects in his art.
(Visions in mustard – Rian Hughes art from The Lighted Cities, written by Chris Reynolds.)
The Science Service, written by John Freeman.
But where the Lighted Cities failed, The Science Service succeeds. Using just a single colour of delicate jade green, Hughes lets his thin, precise lines describe this retro-futuristic tale of a future of lost promise. It’s all about lost opportunities and failed dreams of a gleaming futuristic paradise. The world is crumbling and the nation is barely clinging on to past glories. The Science Service, once the pinnacle of all that was grand and great is reduced to bowing to the corporation running the new festival of Britain. But Henry Van Goyen, ex-service, now reduced to toy consultancy, has realised that all is not well and the corporation’s latest facial modification product, Imagon, is being rushed out without consequence to the dangers that caused him to abandon his research into it many years ago. Van Goyen’s quest to expose the truth, his melancholy longing for glorious times gone by where the future was bright and full of hope and his subsequent loss of this idealistic fantasy effectively mirrors that of Hughes’ next major work; Dare. Indeed, Hughes’ has said that Van Goyen is practically a prototype Dan Dare.
(Rian Hughes art from The Science Service, written by John Freeman)
Dare, written by Grant Morrison
Grant Morrison’s anti-Thatcherite bleak tale of a future gone wrong, potential wasted and hopes and dreams vanished is my favourite of the comics in Yesterday’s Tomorrows. I’m a sucker for Grant Morrison on form and with the combination of classic Morrison and Rian Hughes’ art make this the main attraction here.
(Art from Dare’s first home: Revolver Magazine #1. Older, walking with a cane perhaps, but still the gleaming poster boy of England’s dreams)
A lesser artist may felt the temptation to swamp Dare in darkness to reflect the cynicism and melancholy of a world gone wrong, but not Hughes. His Dare is a technicolour explosion to perfectly capture the sense of wonder that Dare evokes, that lost dream of a future in the stars. The colour is always there, even in the darker moments, where Hughes’ colours become subtle and muted but no less effective.
(Hughes’ colours throughout Dare are perfect, whether the bright sunshine colours of past hopes or the muted tones of this reflective scene.)
Dare is the zenith of Hughes’ retro-futurist look, it’s his most angular, cutting edge and intricately art-deco work. After this point, Hughes’ art rounded out slightly, becoming more fluid, more organic and possibly reflecting his work in the world of design and illustration. But with Dare, every page has some glorious, super sci-fi touch, whether it’s the razor shape lines of the architecture or something as simple as the art-deco designs of the household appliances. Big or small scale, nothing in Dare is overlooked by Hughes.
(Rian Hughes’ art perfection – a 50s future dream home and some of the best interior design of the retro-future)
But it’s definitely not the Dan Dare of old. This was Morrison completely deconstructing the character and using him as an iconic figure of a better past to contrast against the future of dreams destroyed and a people subjugated. This is a Colonel Dare retired and at odds with the government of the day, tired, disillusioned and seemingly powerless to effect change. It’s a true melancholic’s comic. Dare is brought back by the government of the day, whose Prime Minister is obviously intended to be Margaret Thatcher. He’s a washed out ex-hero perhaps, but Dan Dare the brand still says patriotism, individual strength and the dream of a glittering modernist future in a Britain of broken dreams, lies and corruption. His England paradise is a wrecked dream, controlled by agents on Earth and an old familiar enemy from afar. The end is as downbeat and final as you could get. Like I said, it’s not an England to be saved, more an England to be wiped clean, a blank page if you will.
Goldfish, written by Raymond Chandler and adapted by Tom DeHaven
Goldfish is an adaptation of a 1936 Phillip Marlowe short story which, thankfully, Tom De Haven produces a good adaptation, capturing the noir feel of all the best Chandler tales. At this point Hughes’ art has developed a looser line, but over this he’s using a very limited colour palette that makes every page a masterpiece of design. To convey the noir feel of the tale, Hughes uses blocks of colour to produce shadows. It’s visually breathtaking.
Really & Truly, written by Grant Morrison
Part of 2000ADs Summer Offensive in 1993 when the comic was handed over to Grant, Mark Millar and John Smith to do with as they pleased. In amongst some rather mediocre stories, Really & Truly stood out as a light, throwaway, silly and downright trippy thing, but visually it was as stunning as anything Rian put his hand to, with a looser, cartoony style and a heavier line geared to reflect the playfulness of the tale.
Like I said, you shouldn’t really be all that concerned with the writing when you go and buy Yesterday’s Tomorrows. That the five stories are all at least good is merely a bonus. It’s the artist that the book is all about. Hughes’ art is an amazing meld of European clear lines (Serge Clerc & Yves Chaland are particularly influential) and a harsh, stylised designers eye.But in Yesterday’s Tomorrows we get a chance to analyse a particular period in his artsitic develpment and see a progression from a strict, harsh angularity that reaches it’s peak in the pages of Dare to a more cartooning based rounded feel that he uses to this day. Of course, whatever style he does, I hope you’ve read enough and seen enough to realise that Hughes’ art, no matter what style he’s working in is that rarest of things in comics; original and unique. There’s no-one who does this as well as Hughes, and that we’ve seemingly lost him to the world of design is a true shame.
Just a quick look at Rian Hughes’ Device Fonts website should have you falling in love with his work. As I said at the start I genuinely believe there’s not a more innovative, visually dynamic and impressive comic artist in Britain today and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a Rian Hughes piece that hasn’t been eye-catching and unique.
He truly is a classic of our times. And of Yesterday. And of Tomorrow.
(Just a couple of any number of Hughes’ illustration works available to look at on his website. I could have picked any of them and they’d be just as gorgeous)
After going out and buying Yesterday’s Tomorrows there are a few interviews & articles online you may wish to peruse:
The FPI blog published an exhaustive interview with Rian.
Newsarama interview about Yesterday’s Tomorrows.
Paul Gravett’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows article (actually the introduction to the book).
Typographica interview (design and fonts).
Rian Hughes Wikipedia entry.