Hildafolk, the first comic book by cartoonist and illustrator Luke Pearson, published in 2010 through the small British publisher Nowbrow Press, was a surprising success. Its protagonist, a little girl who lives very naturally in a world full of trolls, giants and other fantasy creatures, doesn’t have to go on a classic hero’s journey but rather has some accidental, very charming little adventures which appeal to readers of all ages. This debut was followed by a series of hardcover books with two volumes so far. Aside from Hilda, Pearson draws illustrations for magazines and short comics for various anthologies, and in 2011 Nobroiw published Everything We Miss, a dark story about relationships, loneliness and loss.
When German publisher Reprodukt published the first Hilda album in German in spring 2013, it earned much praise from critics. In summer 2013, Luke Pearson visitied some events in Germany like the Comicfestival in Munich, where we met him for an interview. Björn Wederhake (BW) and Thomas Kögel (TK) talked with Luke not only about Hilda and her world, but also about his other work, vinyl toys and his fear of „being found out“.
[Hier geht’s zur deutschen Version!]
BW: How many interviews did you already give this weekend?
Luke Pearson: Not many. Only two.
BW: Did you have a chance to enjoy the weekend and see some of the sights? I heard you were very jetlagged when you came over here.
LP: I wasn’t really jetlagged. I jetlagged myself. I mean, my flight was only two hours long. I just didn’t sleep very well. And I haven’t seen that much. I’ve pretty much just been stuck in these buildings and it’s been raining.
TK: Sorry for the weather.
LP: I feel like it’s my fault. I brought it with me.
BW: We thought: “British.” So you’d feel like home with a little bit of rain.
LP: Yeah, yeah.
TK: So, it hasn’t been too much stress for you. Are you going to be happy if it’s over?
LP: No, no. It’s been really good. All the signings have been kind of fun. Probably busier than any other place I’ve been. And I’ve definitely signed more books than I have at other festivals, I’d say. It’s been really nice. I’ve enjoyed it.
TK: And you have other dates in Germany in the next few days or months, I heard?
LP: Yeah, I’m here for two weeks overall, more or less. I’m going to Frankfurt after this, then Berlin, briefly. And then I’m going to Oslo for OCX festival there and I’m going there with Nobrow. And then I’m coming back for an event at the Literaturhaus in Hamburg with Ulf K. And that’s it. Then I’m going home, finally. It’s kind of a long trip, the longest trip I’ve done related to comics.
BW: Did you expect this when you started drawing and started doing comics, that this would all of a sudden be your lifestyle? For three weeks, you don’t see the cities, you’re just going through the motions.
LP: No, not at all. It’s been really cool. It’s kind of the last thing I expected to come out of doing comics to be honest. It’s probably the only chance I’ve had to go to different places and, yeah, that’s interesting. If I get the chance to go somewhere off the back of comics, then I try and take it. I mean, I really should be at home, doing work. I’m horrifically behind on a number of things, but … whatever. Like, I’ve never been to Germany before and I like to see all these cities and who knows when I’m getting the next chance.
TK: You mentioned Nobrow already. That’s your publisher in England. How did you come together and how did all these projects come along?
LP: Well, I discovered them while I was was studying illustration. And they held an illustration competition at some point, I think while I was in my last year. And that was just the kind of thing I was doing at that time, just entering competitions. Like, I wasn’t getting work, I was just looking for any excuse to do stuff, so I entered it and they kind of contacted me immediately after that. So, I guess they’d looked at my blog and I’d done some comics that I’d put online but I hadn’t self-published anything yet. And they were just starting their 17 x 23 series which is what Hildafolk is a part of. I think they’d done a couple of titles in that format previously. So I was basically given that format and I just had to come up with something to do for it. And Hilda wasn’t a fleshed out character but she was kind of a character I’d designed and drawn a few times and I’d had a really vague idea of the world that she lived in.
I kind of needed to come up with something quickly, basically, and I guess she was probably just lying around. Maybe I’d just been thinking about that picture recently, so I just sort of sent in this one picture. I said “maybe this?” and they gave me some other ideas as well, so I kind of left it to them at that point. But they were into that. So I did that and then, kind of quite soon afterwards, I did Everything We Miss. Maybe half a year afterwards? Because they were quite accomodating and keen on me doing something else. And at that point I made a point that I wanted to do a more adult book. Because the tone and voice that I’m using in Everything We Miss is kind of the place I felt like I was at that time, that was the kind of comics I expected to be making at that time. Because Hilda was almost a surprise to me. I didn’t really see myself as doing children’s comics or all ages comics at that point in time. I was maybe interested in it, but that wasn’t necessarily what I was mostly thinking about.
BW: Basically, when your Hilda comics get reviewed, it’s like: “Kids will like it, but adults will too.” But when I read Hildafolk, I felt like: I’m not sure if I would give this to a kid. When I read this, I felt like there is also a lot of bleakness in Hildafolk, when I think of the woodman and what he says. I felt like this is beautiful, but it’s also quite depressing in a way. [LP laughs] Maybe melancholia is the term I would use.
LP: Yeah, I guess that was kind of conscious. I wasn’t really thinking that I wanted it to be bleak, but I wanted it to be … I’m not sure what the word is… like “dry” or like “matter of fact”. Like, I knew I wanted to kind of populate it with these fantasy elements, but she should kind of take everything in her stride. She doesn’t react in awe or particularly surprised to the stuff that’s happening. And I wanted it all to be kind of quiet and maybe a little bit melancholy.
BW: You said, you’ve got the world of Hildafolk pretty much in your head. Why did you choose this setting, his kind of pseudo-Scandinavian, “Peer Gynt”-ian place?
LP: Well, it’s just something I was interested in at the time. The seeds were planted in a project I did at university where we were asked to illustrate a map of a country. We were given a country and I was given Iceland, I think. And as a result of that I started reading up about Icelandic folklore. And I was already kind of loosely interested in that stuff. I just really liked the kind of vibe I was getting from that, about these little people who live alongside people in a kind of everyday way. I don’t know, that stuff was just in my head and I was reading up a lot about it and lots of the stuff in Hilda’s world is kind of drawn from that, but at the same time also mixed up with stuff I just made up, so it’s not a direct translation. But it is of the primary, heavy influence. The elves are pretty much lifted straight from that. And obviously visually, I was trying to capture the feeling that I got from reading those stories.
And I think, one of the reasons why Hildafolk is kind of melancholy or something to that effect is because I wanted to try and replicate the tone of those folk tales. Because they were kind of like oral folk tales that were just passed down and weren’t written, or they were written in a very plain language that’s really straightforward and not really descriptive. And they’re really short as well. They’ll just basically list these events, these crazy, surreal events but in an almost disinterested way. And they tell a story and then it just ends abruptly. Hildafolk had an even abrupter ending. I mean, it’s quite short anyway, so it was always going to be a brief comic. But I think I ended it even more abruptly in the first draft. But we decided to make it a little bit more exciting. At the start, there wasn’t any kind of threat from the Troll at all. It just kind of ended.
BW: Is this matter-of-fact, this dryness also the reason why you chose such a muted palette colourwise?
LP: I don’t know if it’s connected to that. I think, it’s just something that I’ve done. For some reason that’s just how I colour. That seems to be my thing, you know? I’m not entirely sure where that comes from.
BW: But you’re not interested in something where you’d be saying: “Let’s go completely the other way. Let’s work with popping colours”?
LP: Not really. When I’m colouring I don’t even really think of this as muted. I felt like Hilda was quite a colourful comic. I intentionally wanted to use a kind of limited palette. I don’t know, I don’t like a lot of full colour comic books. They just don’t interest me aesthetically if they use colours too thoughtlessly or something. I just like it to look like it’ll make sense. And that seems to have resulted in a way that’s kind of muted.
BW: We know Hildafolk is this format, because that’s how Nobrow works with this series. Now, if you take a look at the formats that you use: Why do you use them and is there any format where you say, I’d like to experiment with that a bit? Like, if you take a look at Chris Ware who goes completely bonkers with formats? Are these formats specifically chosen? Are there complete ideas behind that or is it like “okay, Hilda and the Midnight Giant is also for kids, so let’s do it a bit bigger” and Everything We Miss is just a standard format?
LP: Everything We Miss is another standard format, basically. Like at that time, Nobrow were doing a little series of books that would fit together. And they kind of gave me a choice. I didn’t really know what I was gonna do next and they just suggested a few things and I liked the idea of doing something that was about that size. They had done a couple of others that would fit, that had basically exactly the same dimensions. So that really was just the reason, which is not really interesting.
But the Hilda books? I guess partially, it’s bigger because it’s for kids. I just felt nostalgic for this album size. At that point I knew that I wanted to do a series. The first book was never intended necessarily to be part of a series. It might have been at the back of my mind that it was kind of a pilot or something. I was thinking back to reading Tintin and Asterix when I was a kid and I liked the idea of just playing to that tradition, you know? I think, if I was a French cartoonist or something I wouldn’t have been as interested in doing that because when you see those in a shop there, they disappear among all those other albums. They completely fit in. But it felt like in the UK it was an interesting thing to do because you usually don’t get those apart from in the European Imports section. So that does actually stand out. So that is why I wanted to do that.
BW: You said you felt nostalgic about Tintin and Asterix. So is that where you’re coming from comics-wise?
LP: Partially. I feel like I come from a fairly … I don’t know. I come from all over the place, really, as most people probably do. But Asterix is probably one of my earliest comics memories. My uncle had a big bookshelf, I think he probably had all of them. And I’d read those before I was old enough to really understand what they were and I’m sure they played a big part in my development somehow. I was thinking about those a lot when I was thinking about the panel structure and the layouts of these comics. Which is interesting, because they are very traditional comics.
But you mentioned Chris Ware and it feels weird to me, because that kind of thing is exactly what I was thinking about doing and hoping to do and kind of was doing with my other work prior to this, with my one-off comics and stuff in anthologies. And I still kind of experiment like that in those places. It’s almost by accident that I ended up doing these comics and I’m really relishing making them quite traditional, you know? But it’s interesting that just before this I was talking to Nobrow about a really big book that I wanted to do … like a one-man anthology kind of thing. Loads of different, massive pages with complicated, crazy layouts. That’s what I wanted to do. And I possibly still want to do, it just happened that I got started with this and now I’m into this and I want to see it through to a certain point.
BW: Who are your inspirations? Because, now we mentioned Chris Ware. When I took a look at this page [from Everything We Miss], I felt like there’s a lot of Chris Ware in there and some other pages, I felt like there’s a bit of James Kochalka in there. Who are the people that influence your style?
LP: I don’t know, lots of people. Chris Ware definitely, he’s always in there a little bit. I always end up listing off the same people when I answer this question, even if I haven’t been thinking about them that much lately. I always say Chris Ware and then … and I don’t know how big of an influence he actually is now, but he always is kind of there.
But, yeah. Kochalka. I would never think to say that, but definitely. Like, I used to read American Elf every day for quite a few years. So, yeah, he influenced me quite a bit. And Kevin Huizenga, I feel that he’s a big influence on the look of Everything We Miss.
TK: Yeah, you’re right. The faces look very similar.
LP: … and all the guys on the What Things Do site. Jordan Crane is probably a big influence as well. But I feel like my influences are different from book to book. Obviously, I feel like these guys don’t particulary apply when I’m doing Hilda, at all. Maybe a little bit, sort of subconsciously. But I’m kind of drawing off a different pool of stuff there. Quite a different tradition of cartooning, maybe.
BW: You said when you did Everything We Miss, that it was actually more what you wanted to do, because you felt this was in you at that time. So, what is the reason for Everything We Miss? Because this is really dark, so what’s the place that came from?
LP: In a big way, I think the place that came from is the place of having just done Hildafolk and wanting to prove some kind of a point [laughs]. It’s darker than … like, my head wasn’t in a particularly … I wasn’t having a breakdown or anything. I’m thinking people assume that it’s very autobiographical and it’s not particularly. It is as much as kind of anything is, but not directly. So, I wasn’t in a particularly unpleasant place at all. In fact, I was in a really good place when I was drawing it. When I made it, I maybe had the one of the best and nicest experiences I’ve had in drawing anything, way more pleasant and easy-going than drawing a Hilda book. She’s weird.
BW: Can you imagine doing something that’s played completely straight? Because even in here, you’ve got those little magical moments, you’ve got the funny moments, you’ve got the creatures that throw the asteroids. I was thinking about how to call this. Is this already Magical Realism or something else?
BW: So, can you imagine going to a book where you say: Okay, I’ll leave all those cute elements or all those weird elements out and I’m going to tell a straight story?
LP: Yeah, I can. I’d like to. I think, to be honest, the reason I haven’t is … it just honestly comes from my insecurities as a writer, maybe? Like, I think I use those elements as a crutch, maybe? For a straight, real life story it’s really gotta stand up to scrutiny. I mean, anything should, but if you throw some mysterious elements in there, it just adds another layer of interest. It’s probably a little bit where it comes from.
But that’s not really why that [fantastic] stuff is in Everything We Miss, because obviously that stuff is a big part of the book, you know? And I just like that stuff. It’s interesting to draw and it seemed right for that.
But yeah, I would like to do something straight at some point. And my next book, my next adult book — whatever that may be — may be that. But I haven’t settled on what that’s going to be, apparently.
BW: Do you want to feel in control with your comics? Because you’re writing and drawing them or can you also imagine writing a book for somebody else or drawing a story that somebody else sends you and says “I think you would be the right artist for this”.
LP: Hm. I think I like to be in control, to be honest. There’s been a couple of times where I’ve been close to drawing someone else’s story. But ultimately, I’m not particularly interested in that. I’d be interested in doing that in short bursts for maybe a four page comic or something. That’s actually something I’d be really interested in. And I have done that in fact. Like, I did a comic with Philippa Rice, who’s my girlfriend now. That was actually a fun experience, doing that. But for a whole book, I wouldn’t be interested. It wouldn’t feel like my thing. It’d feel like too much work and too much time to put into something that wasn’t mine. That I wouldn’t necessarily feel particularly connected to or proud of.
As far as writing goes: Potentially, I’d be interested in that but I really don’t see myself as a particularly good writer at this point. Like, maybe in the future if I felt more confident at that. But I always feel like that’s the weakest part of my work and that bothers me. That’s the part I worry most about, I think. So, yeah. I wouldn’t have the nerve to ask someone to draw my stories.
TK: If you say you want to improve in writing, do you read literature about writing? Books about script-writing or something like that? Or does it have to evolve naturally?
LP: I haven’t really, to be honest. No. I am reading a book at the minute about film directing. I don’t have any particular aspirations to be a director. But I do sort of have in the back that it’s got quite a lot about story structure and I’m thinking about it like that. And I’m gleaning some stuff from it. But that’s closely connected to Hilda, because I want those books to be quite tight, complete storylines and to be quite coherent and for everything to be rounded up. I want them to be quite controlled like that.
Whereas other work … If I was to do other work, I wouldn’t necessarily be particulary bothered or interested about that kind of traditional story structure or like closing of all the loose ends.
TK: On your website I saw a few works about music. So we thought it’s interesting: Do you listen to music while you’re drawing or writing or would you recommend music for the readers which they could listen to while they’re reading your works?
LP: Not really, I don’t know. I always feel insecure and embarassed about my music taste. [laughs] Like, I never talk to anyone about it because I don’t know what’s cool. [laughs] I don’t know, I always feel weird about it. I do listen to music. [pauses] I guess I don’t listen to music when I draw. I kind of feel I have to work in silence a lot of the time, maybe more than some people. And I get very distracted. I feel like I can’t think if I’m hearing anything. Like, it does definitely affect me.
TK: So, you like to focus on the page.
LP: Yeah. I mean, I listen to stuff while I’m inking. I guess because it’s slightly more of a mechanical process. And colouring as well, because that’s a very mechanical process.
BW: How do you cope with the things that have happened to you in the last year? I mean, the press basically loves your stuff, I haven’t read a bad word about it anywhere.
BW: You’re coming to those festivals and you’re treated as a guest of honor, you’re treated as someone special. And you seem really, really … well, rather quiet, rather withdrawn. I mean, just the way you’re sitting.
BW: It’s fine, I do the same thing. But… does it feel natural to you? You just don’t seem the type that says: “Yes! Great! Here I am!”
LP: [laughs] Erm, eh. I don’t know. [pauses] I think anyone who lets … [pauses] too much praise in comics get to their head would be a fool. It’s all really nice and I’m really grateful. I’m really super pleased that people like my work. But at the same time, it’s also like it’s weird. A sort of alternate world. It’s only comics people who care about this stuff and it’s only a small pocket of comics people who care about this particular stuff. I feel like a lot of it is just smoke and mirrors.
BW: But still, have you become more self-assured? Because you always talk about your insecurities and things you feel you’re not quite that good at?
LP: No, if anything I feel like I’m constantly on the verge of being found out. Like I’ve tricked and pulled one over on everyone. I guess at some point the tide is going to turn and people are gonna realize it’s been some kind of mistake.
BW: Let’s move on there, because I don’t want to embarass you too much. It was just something that popped into my head.
Have you been approached about Hilda merchandising? Because: Cute animals, plushes, money. Is that something that you could consider or is that something where you say: Artistic integrity — or whatever — so: no!
LP: Well, we have done some Hilda merch. But Nobrow have no interest in getting anyone else to do it, but we’ve done a Hilda vinyl toy recently. It’s just cool. It’s fine. I wouldn’t want there to be too much merch, I mean the thing about that toy is, that it’s a really nice figure. I really was just keen on… it was just fun to design and then see it appear. That was also really weirdly like a useful drawing exercise because I had to draw her all the way round.
TK: In three dimensions.
LP: And I had to learn how to actually draw things that I had been faking, like her hair. That’s actually the reason why she looks like this now [points towards the cover of Hilda and the Bird Parade]. That’s basically: I draw her as the toy. I realized, I can draw that hair from any angle if it’s a kind of a weird blob but I’d always drawn it just blowing vaguely in one direction in Hilda and the Midnight Giant.
TK: Now she also looks a little more like animation.
TK: Which brings me to my next question. Is that anything that you can imagine: Some animated TV stuff or a movie about Hilda?
LP: Yeah, maybe. I’d be open to that. But that just depends on how things go. It wasn’t designed with that in mind. But at the same time, I’m into animation and in a way that’s kind of an influence on her design and the way I draw stuff. Like, I always wanted her to feel like quite a physical character who looks like she could … erm, how to explain it? I wanted her to have a certain weight to her and looks like she is actually moving. And I’m inspired by animation in that way.
BW: So, what’s the next non-Hilda-related thing you either have in your head or are already working on?
LP: I actually don’t have a big project that I’m aiming towards, currently. I do lots of other comics for anthologies or different sorts of publications. I tend to take any chance I can get, like when it’s a thing that seems interesting to me or something I’d like to be a part of. I quite like to use that as an excuse to do one to four pages of comics. And they’re usually quite varied, like I shift my style around and try different stuff out.
And I’ve done some sort of other comics related stuff, like I just did this big sort of comic for an exhibition for the V&A in London. Just like a big sort of five metre long comic on a wall, which is interesting. But that was to someone else’s script. But I don’t have a book in mind, necessarily.
I always think that I’d quite like to do some sort of collection of short stories, maybe. But I definitely don’t have a graphic novel in me, currently. Or at least I haven’t found anything that I feel strongly enough about to dedicate a few years of my life to. But that will probably happen at some point.
TK: You also do illustration jobs for magazines and stuff, New Yorker covers. Recently, I saw you in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in Germany with an illustration.
TK: I think it’s also necessary for you money-wise to do that and to balance the work, comics stuff and illustration stuff. How do you manage the balance of these things?
LP: Erm. [pauses] I enjoy doing illustrations. And I don’t particularly see it like: This is my boring day job and I’m just waiting to do comics.
TK: … because some comic guys do that …
LP: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, a little bit, I do. But I mean, I studied illustration and until right at the end of that I was fully ready to just do illustration. So, I am kind of fine with it and I enjoy it. And to be honest, I don’t actually do loads of illustration. I’ve been really lucky, really. I don’t have to work too hard to seek it out. I usually find that whatever the last thing I did kind of advertises me and so brings the next thing in. It seems to be mostly interesting stuff that comes my way. I’ve been fortunate. There’s never been a job that was like really well-paying but I didn’t have any interest in at all, that I took. It’s all been cool stuff. And a lot of the time there’s a weird cross-over. Now it seems a lot of the people who want illustrations want something in the style of a comic that I’ve done or even something that is a comic.
Although, one thing I definitely don’t do or always turn down is a promotional comic or a comic that would be an advert or something like that. Because that would be kind of soul destroying. I couldn’t do that. But I quite enjoy the surprises of just having one picture to do and making it as interesting and useful as possible.
But as far as balancing the time between them, I don’t balance it very well. I’m always tripping up and an illustration job will come up and totally destroy my schedule for that week. And I think, I’ll be able to just do it in a couple of days and it will roll on for days longer. And I feel like I’m constantly behind and being chased.
TK: I think that’s the problem of any artist.
TK: So, I think basically we’re done. Thank you very much!
Images: © Luke Pearson / Nobrow Press / Reprodukt / Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin
Photo: © Siegfried Scholz/Splashcomics, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
For more English-language interviews on Comicgate, click here.