Interview: Greg Hinkle
“Man, Morrison’s used to be the spot.” He was pointing towards the two-story corner restaurant no longer bearing that name, but still relatively unchanged on its exterior. Greg Hinkle was back in his hometown, or at least what he considers his true hometown of Woodland, California. We had met up a few hours earlier in a coffee shop on Main Street and Greg had his now shoulder-length hair tied back, having been untouched since he started work on Airboy back in 2013. Rocking some orange Asics, shades, and a genuine smile, we spent an afternoon talking about growing up in this town, working for the local supermarket, the whirlwind year he’s had, and comics. One thing that’s evidently clear about Greg Hinkle is his undeniable love for comics and how much creating comics is nothing short of a dream come true. It’s the result of hard work and dedication, certainly, and it’s fueled by a desire to never stop learning and improving. It’s been a strange year for Greg, to say the least, and it’s been the beginning of an experience that’s all about getting better.
All-Comic: You’re from Woodland originally, born and raised?
Greg Hinkle: No, I was born in Arizona. My dad worked for Northwest Airlines for 40 years so he moved around a lot. So I was born in Phoenix, lived in Memphis for a while, that’s where my sister was born, then we moved to Seattle, stayed there until I was in Middle School then we moved here like 8th grade. This is what I claim is my hometown.
AC: You went to art school in San Francisco?
GH: Went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I did my four year program in six years. Have all the student loans to prove it.
AC: You read comics growing up, but you didn’t necessarily think about comics as a career path until later.
GH: Yeah, in college.
AC: But you were interested in art before then, what was sort of pushing you towards that?
GH: Comics were always my preferred visual aesthetic. You know, I loved the way they looked and I could really imitate that style more than I could imitate, say, fine artists or graphic designers or stuff like that. I was always more of a linear…. It’s all about lines for me. So those were the best examples of linework. I could just sit and copy panels. Lots of panels from GI Joe comics. Mark Bagley, his Spider-Man stuff was my jam when I was growing up.
AC: So really your interest in art, comics were the main inspiration?
GH: It was stories that I was interested in and characters that I thought were cool. There’s a look that I could really identify with and imitate. I got to high school and discovered that was not going to be a viable career path according to my high school art teacher. I really have him to thank for a lot of it because he prepared me for art school, in that I could take criticism. Because he would just break you down. The more he yelled at you and the more that he berated you, the more he liked you. If he didn’t care, he would just ignore you. So if he screamed at you, it was a sign of, “well I guess I’m on the right track”. So he prepared me for art school. When I got to art school and we had the big group critique sessions, it wasn’t personal.
AC: So comics were the spark for the art interest and then you were told that it wasn’t viable?
GH: Yeah, he was just like “What are you going to do, you going to draw comic books for a living? You can’t do that.” “Okay, you’re right. Maybe I should pursue fine art” and I tried it. I went to UC Davis right out of high school for two quarters. The beginning of the 3rd quarter they said, “Your cumulative GPA at this point is .04. So you can quit or you can get kicked out.” I said I don’t want to completely screw myself over, I’ll resign with some dignity. My .04 percent of dignity. So I went to a couple different community colleges for a little while. I did the community college thing for a bit and that ended up not working out, so I worked at [local supermarket chain] Nugget for a couple years. I was in their meat department. I was on my way to be a butcher. Which was really cool, but I was also doing fine art shows in Sacramento at some of the galleries. And I had to turn some art in for a show one day and I had to get it in by a specific time and I was going to be working late so I said, “I’ll go over on my lunch break. I can make it over to Sacramento and back real fast.” Right. So on my way back, after I’d been gone for an hour and a half, I called a buddy and said, “Just clock me back in man, nobody will know.” They knew. And the next day, I got called into the office and got fired. It was their call. That was my impetus to go back to school. I was out of work and out of school and figured, well, try art school. All my friends had graduated with their PHDs and Masters, so maybe I’ll get my Bachelors in something so I can keep up and not feel like a schlub.
AC: Has this year been something of a coming-out party? What’s the experience been like for you, three issue into Airboy?
GH: It’s been crazy. It’s been absolutely crazy. Before any of the Airboy stuff came out, I’d see people on Twitter complaining about their inboxes, “Oh my inbox is so full, I’ve got so many e-mails” and I was like, “Man, nobody’s e-mailed me in a week and half. Last time I got an e-mail was from Epson wanting to sell me some ink.” So, it’s gone from no attention at all to suddenly I’m getting, you know I’m not getting a million new e-mails a day, but I’m getting a couple new e-mails a week. I think I doubled my Twitter followers in the week that it came out. It was kinda crazy.
AC: You definitely strike me as someone who is very much, with everything seemingly happening all at once, involved in a learning experience. You are still very anxious to learn both about the craft, about the industry, asking questions. Is that fair? Do you feel like someone who is driven to continue to always evolve?
GH: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean you look at the guys who don’t evolve and they don’t make it. You have to adapt, otherwise it’s not going to be a viable career. You’ve got to learn, because it’s always changing. And I’m still really new. I’ve been drawing for a long time, but as far as being a professional, this is like my first year.
AC: Which is kind of crazy to think about.
GH: It really is. [Laughs] I’m 32 and I just started my professional career. Making something is one thing and not having anybody see it, but making something and having people see it is a completely different experience. [Jason McNamara and I] made The Rattler and we sold out of our print run at 500, but I feel like a lot of those people were already fans, or family or friends, or people who had been following us and wanting to support us which is great and we have a great fan base for The Rattler, but it wasn’t really, you know, we weren’t really expecting the same kind of criticism that we’d got from Airboy, where we are being seen by more people than we know.
AC: Sure, media outlets and colleagues for instance.
GH: Yeah, I’ve got “colleagues” now. Which is bizarre.
AC: Yeah, have you read the quotes in the back of the book?
GH: When James showed me those it just blew my mind, right out the back of my head. Darwyn Cooke has read my book. When I ran into Andy Belanger at SDCC he was like “Dude, Darwyn Cooke is just raving about your book.” I just about fell over backwards. Mike Mignola has commented on my Facebook page. Like, he’s my number one guy. He’s my biggest influence.
AC: I think I’ve seen you say that you were at Art School and when you checked in on comics again it was Mignola’s work that rekindled your interest.
GH: Yeah, it was because of him. It doesn’t have to be the ultra crosshatched, extreme, add “blood” to the title of everything type book that I was used to when I stopped reading books. Like I could still be an artist and apply all the stuff that I’m learning in college to this medium instead of putting a frame around it and selling it.
AC: And really cartooning on top of it too though, the storytelling aspect.
GH: Yeah, the storytelling aspect has been really what I wanted to stress more than anything. It’s one thing to make a really great looking piece, but it’s another thing entirely to tell a story with great looking pieces. I want people to be able to read it visually without the words at all. No offense to James [laughs]. He’s given me a lot of feedback on what reads visually and what doesn’t. When I did The Rattler with Jason, he’s probably my harshest critic. Which is great, I love him for it. But we had some talking head scenes in The Rattler, he was really adamant about the talking head scenes not looking like talking head scenes because they just get really boring. And there are a couple scenes in there that I could have done better. So when I went to Airboy and I read the first two scripts, I was like, “Man, this is just two whole issues of talking heads. This is going to be a challenge.” I think a lot of it was more “how do I make this interesting and still get the dialogue in there?” more than “well, this will be a nice storytelling angle.” It was really utilitarian, like I’ve got to put it this way because it’s the only way I can do it to fit everything in there, tell the story, and not have it be super boring. I mean, two guys talking in a bar for two issues is [shakes head].
AC: Right, but it doesn’t read that way at all.
GH: One of the advantages to working with Image is that if a scene needs more space, more breathing room, you can just add a couple pages to the book. Then you got 28 pages of story at your disposal. If your story is 20 pages, it’s 20 pages. If you need 28, then it’s 28.
AS: Are you open to doing work for hire?
GH: At this point I’m not really looking for it. I’m kind of digging the creator owned stuff, just because it makes more sense career-wise for me. In my mind anyway. To do stuff that I own. Yeah, you’ve got the creative freedom, but you also get to keep your material. And as cool as it would be to get a check with Spider-Man on it, and say that you have worked on characters that you grew up with, you get paid for that page and then you get paid like a tiny royalty check.
AC: The funny thing about those checks is that they are also partially like a No-Prize.
GH: Exactly. I see a lot of guys on Twitter like “Thanks for the royalty check, DC” and it’s for like 47 cents. Work for hire stuff would be cool, it would be cool at some point to work on some of those characters. If somebody asked me to do a Man-Thing book, I think I’d probably do it. I don’t know what my thing is with Man-Thing. Freud would probably have something to say about it. But I got close with Airboy, because Airboy has The Heap. And The Heap is what inspired Man-Thing and Swamp Thing and all those characters. He was the proto character for all those, but a living hay stack; mindless, wandering character that never says anything he just shows up at the last part of the story and smashes something and wanders off.
AC: Did you go back and read a lot of that original Airboy stuff?
GH: I read as much as I could find, which isn’t a whole lot. There was a digital archive of the old Golden Age stuff. Since it’s all in public domain you can share it pretty freely. So I downloaded as many as I could find and flipped through them and the stories are hard to get through, but I wanted to read it. There’s a lot of exposition. I didn’t read a whole lot of it, I looked to see how Airboy was depicted and how his airplane was depicted and it changed so much, so I was like “I’ll just make up my own.”
AC: Did you keep a lot of the character designs relatively similar?
GH: I changed the body shape a little bit of everybody, like Iron Ace and the Flying Dutchman, I think I made him like 8 feet tall, he’s just this towering guy.
AC: I love what you did with Iron Ace and I can see a little bit of a Mignola influence there.
GH: Yeah, the big like Hellboy shape; broad shoulder, tiny waist, little bitty legs. The public domain stuff extended to all the Golden Age stuff, but the Airboy that everybody knows from the ‘80s from the Eclipse series, that’s all still copyrighted.
AC: Did you look at any of that? Or did you figure, “what’s the point?”
GH: Yeah, the stories aren’t going to connect, we can’t use any of the designs, so yeah. It’d be fun to get a chance to do like just like an Airfighters comic. Just a straight Airfighters comic. Some back-up stories or something.
AC: Maybe for the trade or something? Or, I suppose that’s all put together already?
GH: Yeah…Man, I’m so burnt. I’m so burnt. And it’s nobody’s fault but mine for being so burnt out. James and I were originally planning on adding at least a letterer to the team, since I didn’t know how. Before I knew it, the book needed lettering and it just kind of happened. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, and I said, “Okay, fine. This will be like my first introduction to the professional medium, I’ll do it all myself, I’ll make a big splash.” And I think I may have bit off a little more than I could chew.
AC: When did that realization hit?
GH: I’ve also done four issues in like sixteen months, so… I do have another project lined up to start as soon as I get home and we’ve got a colorist attached. Thank God. Which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve never worked with a colorist. So, every new project is something new. This was, you know, I’ve never done lettering, I’ve never done spreads, so I got all that out of the way.
AC: How did you teach yourself?
GH: Yeah, the lettering was a little tough because I’ve colored my own stuff for a long time. I know how to use Photoshop enough to be able to color. That’s all I know how to do in Photoshop is color and that took me 10 years to figure out how to do. I can draw with charcoal, but I can’t use Illustrator. It’s my own fault. At art school you can go the digital route and learn how to all the digital stuff or you can go the traditional route.
I bought a copy of Comicraft’s Comic Book Lettering guide and studied it. I studied other letterers work, and just had to start doing it.
AC: Did you get feedback from anyone on that, though? Were you nervous about it?
GH: I was super nervous about it. It was a lot of trial and error. That’s been the hardest part of the whole process. The drawing part’s fun, the coloring part’s okay, the lettering’s fast, but it involves the most amount of revisions. I use Photoshop for everything and then I’ve got to use Illustrator for lettering. And I don’t know how to use Illustrator at all. So I’ve got to learn how to letter and I got to learn how to use the program TO letter. And now I’ve got to learn how to format those files just right so that Image can put them together and thank god for the production team at Image. I was talking with them a lot at the beginning, “I don’t know how to use Indesign, how do I send this stuff to you?” “Oh, you can send us an art file, and you can send us a lettering file, and we’ll put it all together. “ Thank god. One too many steps for me to try and complete.
AC: The lettering gets intricate too. There’s a scene in issue #3 and they’re in Airboy’s London, and they’re going up…
GH: Yeah, the backwards panel.
AC: It really works. Where you’d typically want to start at the top left, you’ve directed the eye to start at the bottom.
GH: I tried to stick that word balloon as close to the center spine as I could so that you’d go from the last panel to that balloon. That your eye would just gravitate to that.
AC: The figures are more in the foreground to start at the bottom too, then as they wind upward distance themselves.
GH: It was a tough one. Really tough page. And that was James’ idea, that panel, he had everything laid out in his head; we were going to go backwards, we’re going to go the opposite way.
AC: What’s the collaboration like with James in general? I know in issue 1 the character of James is telling the character of Greg that he, as the writer, likes to be the “idea guy.” Does he himself have a bit of a controlling nature?
GH: He’s not controlling at all, he definitely gives me a ton of leeway. But he gives me such good scripts. Totally full scripts. That’s the only way I’ve ever worked. All the cover ideas, those were his. He brought this book to me really fully formed. It was at WonderCon. I had met him after his spotlight panel at WonderCon in Anaheim at the top of an escalator. “Let’s work on a book, I’ve got this idea” and by the time we hit the bottom of the escalator I’d said, “Okay, I can do that. Sounds cool. But I’ve got to draw myself naked? Okay, I guess we can do that.”
AC: What is it like to be the preeminent penis drawer in comics right now?
GH: Well, my mom’s proud. It’s odd. When he brought the idea to me and I’d read the first couple scripts, I was like “Me and Chip Zdarsky are going to have a panel together some day I’m sure that’s just going to be how to draw cartoon dongs. The Art of the Dong.” All those artists that are not drawing penises are really missing out on a really versatile appendage. It’s like getting to draw an extra arm without any bones in it.
AC: Does it get tiring that regardless of the conversation, people seem to unavoidably ask about it at some point?
GH: It’s hard not to ask. I can’t blame anybody for asking, I mean it’s such a weird thing in comics now to see that because it just doesn’t get done. Women are over-sexualized and that’s no big deal at all to see a bare chest in a book or bare asses in a book. There’s still this weird stigma attached to male nudity. Which just doesn’t make any sense. I mean, if it’s for the story, it’s for the story.
AC: I appreciated your response to the issue #2 controversy breaking down to essentially: you hurt people and that means something to you.
GH: Yeah, nobody wants to do that. That was never anybody’s intent. But nobody sees intent. You can’t argue intent. You see results.
AC: You learned something from that particular instance that you’re going to have in the back of your mind whenever you’re telling a story.
GH: Forever. Absolutely.
AC: If there’s a large group of people reacting, that’s a lot of voices to listen to. If it’s a small group, those are voices to be heard too. Nothing is invalid in someone’s reaction to a work.
GH: Right, that’s the one thing James and I talked about a lot after issue #2, after it really came to a head, was we don’t want to make anybody feel …we’ve already made people feel like “less than” and to put out one of those fakey apologies that’s not really an apology, that’s just going to hurt even more people. It’s going to add insult to injury. It’s not “IF you were hurt, we’re sorry” but “you WERE hurt, so I AM sorry.”
AC: And if it’s a group of people who feel like they don’t have much of a voice and then you’re also not allowing them to express that voice…
GH: Yeah, we’re piling on and that’s no fun. Comics have always been traditionally, or at least in my mind, have always been a refuge for outcasts…Comics are like a safe haven. Everybody should feel welcomed in comics…Everybody’s opinion is valid. Even if we had upset one person, if it had been only one person upset, I would feel just as bad.
AC: What are you digging right now?
GH: I picked up the new Doctor Strange. Paper Girls, I haven’t read it yet, but it looks great. I don’t know, I pick up a lot of trades. Like all the Image stuff. There’s one shelf on my bookshelf that’s like Volume 1, volume 1, 1, 1, 1… it’s all the new Image stuff. Declan Shalvey, anything Declan Shalvey. Him and Jordie, either one of them. I actually started following colorists, which is really cool.
AC: So a lot of Image stuff?
GH: Yeah. Also anything Chris Visions draws. I’ve got this stack of comics that I haven’t read yet. That new Moebius stuff coming from Dark Horse is just going to kill my wallet. Any of the Hellboy stuff, I always pick up Hellboy. I think four years ago I was totally caught up on all the Mignolaverse stuff and then I finished college and all my student loan money ran out, I was like, “Well, guess I’ll stop buying comic books for a while.” Now that I’ve got money to buy comic books again, I’m like one hundred books behind.
AC: Airboy, its subject matter and delivery, is going to be controversial, but it also feels honest, for good or ill. Not just what James is expressing, but in terms of you putting yourself out there in terms of tackling all the art duties.
GH: I really wanted it be a good introduction. If this is the only book somebody reads of mine, I wanted to be able to do as well as I could do. The best product I could put out.