Working Class Magic: Phil Hester And John McCrea Talk ‘Mythic’ [Interview]
Phil Hester and John McCrea's Mythic is the platonic ideal of a rip-roaring working class supernatural adventure, focused on a group of specialists who help keep the world running by troubleshooting the problems of various gods, monsters, and other magical beings --- all while hoping that they can get overtime pay. They've faced down renegade deities, averted a potential apocalypse, put down a robot uprising, and figured out how to kill candy, and that's just in the first eight issues.
Now, with the book's first arc completed, ComicsAlliance spoke to Hester and McCrea about their approach to magic, their reactions to the absurdity of the world around them, and why McCrea demanded more swearing --- both in the comic and in this interview.
ComicsAlliance: When I first sat down to read the first issue of Mythic, the thing that hooked me about it was that you don't usually see a "working-class" approach to magic. The book obviously turns into something a little different over the course of that first arc, but is that how it all got started?
Phil Hester: Yeah. I think anybody that follows my work knows I tend to do a lot of weird stuff, and I tend to deal with a lot of far-out concepts and cosmic magic garbage. One of my favorite things to do is to make all of that stuff relatable by humanizing it somehow, and making it the subject of someone's nine-to-five workday seemed like a great way to do that.
On top of that, just jumping in and giving all of these deities and demigods actual human personalities and modern ways of speaking furthered that goal of humanizing the inhuman. And by the same token, I'm also always trying to do the opposite, and make the everyday seem magical, as well. That was my goal with all of that.
John McCrea: I just drew the pretty pictures that Phil asked for. Nate was a well-rounded individual when I came to it, so I just had to stick him in a phone shop. I guess there's a bit of through-and-through with Phil and I, where I have a little bit of input, but with that aspect of things, that's all Phil bringing that to the table. I just had to draw it a bit grimey.
PH: Yeah, but you sell it that way. Everything's fantastical, and you do cut loose when you draw the crazy, larger-than-life stuff, but the fact that you ground all the real-world stuff so well sells that contrast.
JM: Oh, well thank you, Phil. Cheers.
CA: That's something I've been a fan of in your work since the '90s, John. Your people are very human, they're expressive and solid, and their emotions come through. But when you draw the fantastic, when you draw monsters, they are monsters. They're so over-the-top and wild in every way, and I feel like that's something that makes this book work in a way that another team might've struggled with.
JM: Possibly. There's a lot of great writers and artists about, and a lot of good teams. I think possibly they would've approached things differently, maybe, but I guess the approach we took is a little unusual. I don't know. I think it's a bit strong to say somebody else might not have been able to do it as well as we did.
PH: Well, they don't have the same suicidal impulses we do.
JM: Ah, there's that of course. True enough, when Phil does present me with a monster, I think, "How can I make this completely unsellable to Hollywood?" [Laughs]
PH: It usually involves just hanging a giant wang on it somewhere.
JM: That's between me and my psychotherapist, Phil! My obsession with giant wangs. If you go and read a little comic that I did with Garth [Ennis] with a funny little title that I'm not going to mention, you can see that obsession right there, painted large. Sorry, Phil!
PH: That's all right. I'm going to direct all Hollywood inquiries to you from now on.
JM: There you go, absolutely. "It's got wangs in it, Mr. Hollywood! Giant dripping ones! Oh dear, why did George Clooney's people hang up?"
CA: Was there a particular monster you've drawn in the book, or a particular scene, that you feel really captured that? I mean, by the end of it, you have a giant, on-fire baby skeleton wrestling a giant wolf.
JM: A giant cyborg wolf as well! I guess the thing that I think encapsulates that is Wewe Gombe, with the very large, extendable Mr. Fantastic tits. That one image in particular, I thought, "Where can I go with this?" The images that I found online, she had droopy breasts, and I thought, "There's something in this," so I just ran with it, and so did her breasts.
PH: You were like, "Let's make them prehensile."
JM: We've had a few people go "what?!" when they've seen that.
PH: That's an actual figure from Javanese mythology, though. We didn't invent that from whole cloth.
JM: That's what I mean. I researched her and looked her up, and there were other artists' interpretations of the figure, but the one uniting thing was that she had the sort of longish breasts. But I took it another stage of four. That would be my moment of taking it to the limit, as it were.
CA: That raises another question, because you get into a lot of mythology that's a little off the beaten path. Obviously, the Midgard Serpent, the Fenris Wolf, those are pretty well-known to comics readers.
CA: But how did you go about digging up pieces of mythology that hadn't been seen on this scale before?
PH: I can't speak for John, but I've always been a fan of mythology, ever since I checked Bullfinch's out of my elementary school library. That kind of thirst for those kind of stories is bottomless for me. Every time I hear a weird story like that, because I'm always surfing for that, when I hit a good one, I'll make a note of it or a bookmark to come back later and delve into it. And also, sometimes I make them up. If it sounds plausible, I'll do that as well.
The whole thing about the elephant bringing the sun over his back in Burma is completely made up. Nobody believes that, even 5,000 years ago. So I guess my goal going into the book was to treat every possible myth, story, fairy tale, folklore, religion and world view in the way that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby treated the Norse people's myths: Using it as fodder for a comic book.
CA: I was curious about that scene in particular because it comes to such a great ending that I was convinced you started with the idea of killing a candy bar to give it to ghost children.
PH: No, the real joy of this comic is that we sketch out a general plan, but we leave a lot of it up to what John feels like drawing every issue. We've been doing this so long that we never feel like we've written or drawn ourselves into a corner that we can't get out of in a funny or entertaining way. That was a sequence like that --- we got ourselves into this weird place, but we trust in, if not our talent, our instincts to find a workable solution.
CA: How did you go about building that cohesive cosmology of magic in your world?
PH: I think the main idea behind the book is that there is no cohesive cosmology behind everything. That's why Mythic exists, to make sure that all of these sometimes-competing, chaotic systems function smoothly at the same time for humanity. Also, to get kind of meta, the theme of the book is --- not to spoil the ending --- that's Nate's point in the final confrontation. Nate's point is that there may be no ultimate truth behind that stuff, but as human beings, you have to face up to that and either learn to live with that or stand up in defiance of that or reject it or something. That there's no one final truth to be revealed from all that stuff is the theme of the book.
CA: That's something I enjoyed, because you have a character, Baranski, who's a skeptic despite the fact that she is herself a ghost.
PH: Right. I didn't want to do that in a nasty way. Everything I do in the book, no matter how irreverent it is, I feel like we do the irreverence in a loving and understanding way. We're trying to humanize these characters, not make fun of them or the world-views that they have. We're trying to humanize these things. To me, that was an endearing aspect of her, it wasn't a mean-spirited jab at skepticism, it's just an endearing aspect of her character that she was able to hold onto it despite everything telling her she was wrong.
JM: I agree with you, Phil. I don't think there's anything mean-spirited in the way you approach the characters at all.
CA: You see a lot of stories that have a similar structure to this that are rooted in the idea of Atheism vs. Belief, in a way that one way or the other is presented as being true. In your book, it's not Atheism vs. Belief, it comes off as being about how whether something happened doesn't change whether or not it matters. The idea of Reality being less important than Truth, if that makes sense.
PH: Everyone's got to deal with those big, unanswerable questions on their own, and as long as your solution doesn't lead you to burning babies, it's a good solution. The bottom line for the story is that when you're faced with the absurdity of, not only the craziness that we present in the book of gods and monsters using Big Ben as a baseball bat, the absurdity of everyday life, everyone's got to wake up and decide, "How am I going to face that absurdity today?" You can either reject it, or you can embrace it and see it as something beautiful. I'm about to be 50, and that's the approach I've taken in my life. Even the things that I find frustrating and bewildering are kind of neat.
JM: I guess I'm not quite as much of a deep thinker as Phil, because I wake up every morning and think, "Gee, I gotta get these pages done!" That's my absurdity, I suppose.
PH: That's absurd as hell! Having to draw comics for a living?
JM: Oh, absolutely. It's crazy and fabulous, so I suppose I'll just embrace that! But the unironic aspect of Mythic that I enjoy is that it's not taking the piss out of anybody or any religion or anything. It's just a large, embraceable canvas that you're painting.
CA: I like how you said that your solution is good as long as it doesn't involve burning babies, when that's literally how this comic ends.
PH: Yeah, I forgot. I forgot we burn a giant baby at the end.
CA: A giant magic baby, but still. As for the design of the book, the covers are so distinctive. Does that come from Rian Hughes?
PH: It comes down to John and Rian. As far as the look goes, I defer to John on most everything, as he can tell you. I think it was your idea to bring Rian in, wasn't it?
JM: It was, absolutely. I've worked with Rian for over 25 years. He designed the Troubled Souls trade paperback that I did way back in the mists of time, so I've known him for a long time and I think he's easily one of the best designers, if not the best designer about in comics for sure.
I had an idea of what I wanted the covers to look like, I had the idea of the logo running down the middle of the cover and the artwork working around it, and I also wanted my covers to be very minimalist, just stealing something from inside the comic and making it almost a pop-art sort of image in relation to the logo. I gave Rian a little bit of an idea of what I was after, and he ran with it, and what he came up with was brilliant. I think it's brilliant in the fact that it's almost a heiroglyphic, it's like Prince's symbol. You can't really decipher it at first glance, it requires a bit of effort.
That kind of relates to the inside of the book and what's going on in the stories anyway, so from a logo point of view, it looks fantastic, and from the concept of the whole book in itself, it's brilliant as well. It reflects a struggle to interpret just what the hell is going on in the world as well! But it's also another one of those "f--- Hollywood" shots as well, where it's like, "Well, we like this, but we don't know what it is. We can't read the logo! We don't know why there's giant expandable tits inside!"
But the general look of the book, yes, Phil has deferred to me and Rian to run with that. Phil's a busy guy, he's got a lot on his plate, and I don't mind doing that.
PH: We should also mention that Mike Spicer does a great job coloring John's work, and he works closely with John to get it the way John wants it to look. And Willie Schubert's contribution, as well.
JM: I definitely wanted Willie on the book, because again, he worked with me on The Demon, and very briefly on Hitman as well, and I always thought his logo designs in comics and his sound effects were just the best in the business.
You know, before Mythic, I had no idea how much a good editor was worth. Thank you, Rob Levin! Honestly, a good editor puts up with so much. I, by default, was sort of editing the book for the first little while, and it was just a bloody nightmare. I realized after the first issue that I was the de facto editor and I said "Phil, we've got to get someone to edit this book or I'm going to die." Phil had worked with Rob before.
PH: He's the person who sold me on that counterintuitive logo. I come from that old school idea that you have to be able to read a logo from across the room, that Erik Larsen aesthetic. Rob did this little experiment where he did a mock-up of the first issue's cover and Photoshopped it onto the New Comics wall of a comic shop, so that we would see what it looked like among the sea of new releases that were out every week, and it really stood out. That was the final little push over the hill that made us go with that look.
JM: That was a great idea. Any editors out there who want to know how your comic's going to look on the stands, use that technique.
CA: I think my favorite thing about the logo is that even the trademark sign inside it has been changed and moved around to look like a sigil in this weird logo. Even the thing that everyone's so used to seeing that it's invisible is changed for your book.
PH: Nothing gets past Rian.
JM: He designs the book right down to every last corner and makes sure that it all works completely. He doesn't leave anything, does he?
PH: No. It's kind of daunting, because you realize how committed he is to his craft, and it makes you think, "Oh man, maybe I shouldn't be halfassing this thing so much."
JM: [Laughs] I know what you mean, Phil. I don't even measure out my pages when I draw it, I just guess! Sometimes, the double-page spreads don't reach all the way to the top and bottom, and that's not because I meant to do that. That's just because I'm halfassed!
PH: But it works for you.
JM: Oh, absolutely. People find it charming, I suppose.
CA: At the end of #8, you do promise that the story is going to continue. Is there anything you can tell me about what we're going to see going forward?
PH: I guess it's not a big spoiler for people to learn that Nate, who was the rookie in #1, has become the boss by the end of #8. A lot of the next arc has to do with him learning the ropes as the head of this chaotic, crazy, unpredictable organization, and learning exactly how much he doesn't know, and how much he can bring to the table as an ordinary person. It's all about him learning. And we clean up some continuity loose ends dealing with Killer Of Enemies and Waterson, and what happens to elemental forces like Asha after they die. And John is drawing more genitals.
JM: If you ask, I'll draw them, Phil. Or even if you don't ask.
PH: A lot of people won't believe this, but I think the first draft of this book was done sans profanity, wasn't it?
JM: It was.
PH: John wrote me back almost like an emergency email, like, "This book needs swearing!"
JM: I felt that it would ground it a little more. It needed the reality of actual swearing. Plus, it's big and clever and grown-up.