By Nick Abadzis
It was never easy for Nick Abadzis’ angry little stick man in Deadline, the seminal comics and music mag of the late 80s and early 90s, perched as it was between the headline grabbing comics and the indie band de jour. The girl with the tank always got the headlines; bold, brassy and getting her tits out every chance she could, and then Phil Bond’s gorgeous Wired World got the fey, shoe-gazing indie kid vote (you should see pics of my stupid fringe – wonderful times).
So amongst all this, the darker, nastier, pensive, melancholy anger of Abadzis’ little stick man Hugo seemed rather out of place, a different prospect, it sat apart, and passed some folks by. But there were certainly enough of us out there who loved Abadzis’ Hugo Tate, and we’ve long maintained it was absolutely the BEST thing in Deadline. (Hell, some of us had the t-shirt).
Because whilst Deadline hit its highs early and then coasted down into obscurity and cancellation, whilst some strips burned fast and bright, some vanished outright, and the girl with the tank went global, Nick Abadzis’ little stick man with attitude developed and developed and developed, outgrew his humble single page origins, got form (but never a real face) and went on to take on the world (or at least a big part of the USA).
And now, thanks to this Blank Slate Books collection, this thing of beauty and wonder is at last available to all. Finally everyone has the chance to see a class cartoonist grow and develop his creation right in front of your eyes, going from raw and rough to polished and precise, brilliant and brutal faster than some of those indie bands of Deadline went from cover star to job centre.
(Strip 1 of this collection, the early stick man Tate suffering “Procrastination”)
Early strips deal with Hugo the stick man, lost, love-lorn, drunk, stupid, just a kid casting around for a life, drifting through 80s London. A little bit like Abadzis himself we thought, certainly a lot like us reading the strip.
And that was some of the sheer brilliance of Abadzis’ creation, it captured the essence of what it is to be 20, invincible, unstoppable, direction-less, angry, as you struggle out of childhood and find the world’s not quite up to scratch.
Later on, Hugo’s path is narrowed, a nightmarish American road trip sees the darkness truly descend, and Hugo’s journey of self-discovery becomes an brilliant, epic thing, his propensity for self-destruction comes bursting forth in something that is still, many years after first reading, absolutely visceral and utterly brutal.
But the brutality was there all along; just a few episodes in we have Bread and Liver where Abadzis turned his character’s anger, immaturity and teen angst to something far deeper and touching. It’s a tour de force in storytelling, three pages that describe two lives; father and son, and do it perfectly, as the two fail to understand each other one last time, reflecting on a life of missed opportunities, and ending with a quiet, hideously effective brutality immediately obvious on the turn of the page. Abadzis buries the knife and twists it hard.
(“Bread and Liver”- the earliest sign that Hugo Tate was much more than a comedy stick man)
The London tales that form Part 1 of the book detail Hugo’s drifting life, lost and angry even when surrounded by friends and family, everything and everyone managing to wind Hugo up, the shitty attitude just getting shittier, the blackness growing, descending, and threatening to overwhelm. Soon, one relationship later, all seems lost to Hugo, the only path left is flight, a temporary escape to older sister Edie in America.
And whilst the character develops, Abadzis allows the art to develop. Although it very quickly becomes quite obvious that Abadzis choses his style, rather than lacking the skills, and the stick man in his blank world gives way to something richer and fully formed, sumptuous art, Hugo the blank form against a rich social landscape, full of Yuppies, media types, trendy things with too much money and too little idea.
(Hugo’s descent in London near complete, his only option is to run Stateside.)
The second part of Hugo Tate, O’ America, is the story of Hugo’s flight to the USA, where he finds that the land of opportunity, like everything else in his life, fails to live up to his ideals. The grind of London life simply replaced by the feeling of being lost and alone in New York, surrounded once more by a cast of characters he despises.
Again faced with difficulties, Hugo runs once again, taking up the opportunity to drive cross country, with a casual acquaintance of dubious background. Poor Hugo, never catching a break, no matter what he does.
The archetypal road trip swiftly turns into a nightmare that Hunter S. Thompson would be proud to write and a fragile young man finds himself going straight over the edge of America, right in amongst all the weirdness, Fear and Loathing in America Tate style.
(Spoonhead. Hugo’s companion on a nightmare journey across America.)
O’ America starts slowly, with Hugo settling in amongst the New York crowd, but once he’s out on the road, it accelerates as fast as Hugo’s mind begins to lose its grip on reality. And as you watch Hugo’s blank face take on shocking form, eyes darker and deeper set, his fragile mental state expertly described in his increasingly dead eyes.
The feeling is one of losing control, falling through the chapters, falling with Hugo, it’s uncomfortable, it’s unsettling, but you, like Hugo, can’t escape, don’t want to escape, until the very end.
(Full immersion in the American nightmare, Hugo losing it somewhere way out West)
Reading Hugo Tate is not a comfortable experience, and it’s actually more disturbing and dark now, with more years under my belt. As a teen and 20-something reading Hugo I sympathised and empathised, but knew that I was indestructible anyway and Hugo’s darkness could never be mine.
Now, looking back, I wish I can see how true, albeit exaggerated the tales were, and wish I’d listened to the nagging voices a little more. Dark? Oh certainly. In fact, there’s moments in the road-trip where Abadzis takes us full on into incredibly difficult psychological horror, a near hallucinatory experience of a mind unravelling as the miles clock up.
(The evolution of a character near complete, the blank face makes a final, shocking appearance)
And the ending, oh, what an ending. Perfect. Abadzis planned at one point to give us a third chapter in Hugo’s life, but never quite managed to get around to it. Like him, I’m pleased we never got that finale, glad the cast are out there somewhere, living whatever lives we can imagine for them, and the ending here gives us every opportunity to speculate, as we leave them all; uncertain, poised, ready for who knows what, just as we all are, every single day.
Hugo Tate was always a favourite, and it’s a story that’s as important to 40-something me now as it was to the 20-something me then. Sometimes we can go back to the things we adored in our youth and rediscover them all over again, but it’s rare that we go back and find that there’s so much more to glean, and the work has improved beyond all imagining.
But Hugo Tate is that rarity. I beseech you, seek it out. A masterpiece.