Tomorrow will be yesterday by the time you get through this.

Yesterday’s Tomorrows

This will be released through Diamond on Wednesday, which means North Americans can buy it without coughing up the fee to ship it over from the UK. It’s a limited edition (3000 copies), 256-page hardcover collection of comics drawn by Rian Hughes. The publisher is Knockabout Gosh, and the cover price is $47.50, although you can also still get an extra-limited (350 copies) signed and slipcased edition (with dandy art cards!) from Forbidden Planet for £24.50, which actually isn't very different from the regular edition's US cover price, although the shipping charges bump it up to north of $70.

Something tells me that, for a lot of US readers, Hughes is going to be one of those artists they just know they’ve heard of somewhere, but can’t quite place it; the chief attraction, then, will likely rest in the presence of two otherwise out-of-print Grant Morrison stories. I was initially amused to see Morrison credited above Raymond Chandler on the cover’s list of writers, but then I realized that the ranking was probably due to page count. And indeed, while there is a Raymond Chandler adaptation in there, Morrison wrote the most pages out of anyone in this book. None of them are among his best, frankly.

But enough of that; Rian Hughes is the star of this show. Paul Gravett has helpfully posted his Introduction to the book online, and that’ll fill you in on the details of the teenaged Hughes’ professional entrance onto the UK comics scene in the early ‘80s, through Gravett's and Peter Stanbury’s seminal Escape. But this collection does not otherwise concern itself with Hughes’ earliest works - comprehensiveness is not its aim. Rather, it presents a simple selection of five pieces -- some of them ‘major’ works, some of them probably not -- set in order of creation. All of them are written by persons other than Hughes himself. A sixth section of advertising and design projects is also included. The result: a tour of Hughes’ visual development over a fertile six-year period of comics creation, 1987-1993, one that would conclude close to Hughes’ withdrawal from comics at large, toward a greater immersion in illustration and design.

As you can see from the images reproduced at the Gravett link above (with more at this Newsarama interview), the Hughes of Yesterday's Tomorrows is a very design-conscious artist, preferring sharp, bold lines, plainly influenced by the then-contemporary likes of Serge Clerc and Yves Chaland, and their ironic, self-aware appropriation of the authentic mid-century ligne claire style of Hergé and followers. But Hughes' character work is especially jagged, set against architecture and accoutrement detailed so sharp that you might cut yourself leaning against a wall - everything seems carefully sawed from some magnificent omnibus of rocket dreams, and pasted together without any need for smoothing out the edges.

Much room between clear lines is left to be filled with color, both varied and monochrome, usually dabbed with geometric arrangements of white light. Sometimes this light is used to give the illusion of three dimensions, but often its employed for wholly complimentary purposes, so as to better facilitate the page's operation as a total composition. Indeed, page composition is almost always key to Hughes' art. Simple square and rectangular panels (or some variation) are the norm, with the placidity of Hughes’ arrangements upset mainly for moments of special impact; with page arrangements as slick as his, any jostle is as good as a collision. It’s a sparklingly conceived approach, with Hughes in control of each element; even the lettering fonts are carefully selected to behave in an integrative manner. Yes. Hughes loves letters.

Oh, and not everything I just wrote necessarily applies today; a look at those postcards linked at Hughes' homepage above reveals a more rounded, 'warm' approach, albeit one that doesn’t need to concern itself with sequential storytelling. But even among the comics presented in this volume, unified by the certain elements outlines above, almost every story in this book seems somehow different in visual approach.

The earliest of the stories, The Lighted Cities, is also the shortest, weighing in at only six pages. It’s written by fellow Escape veteran Chris Reynolds, himself a fascinating writer/artist, and first appeared in Reynolds’ own Mauretania Comics #2 from 1987 (it was later reprinted in the US in issue #24 of Fox Comics, which appears to have been a North American vehicle for UK and Austrailian cartoonists, co-produced at that time by Fantagraphics). It’s also somewhat unique among the stories featured here, in that Reynolds is very much the dominant creative force, perhaps owing to his own deeply individual approach to comics. Pages are composed of simple grids, here nine panels each. Narration or dialogue runs across the top of most panels, with contemplative moments of silence dropped in. The story is ominous and melancholic.

Put simply, it’s a Chris Reynolds comic that happens to have been drawn by Rian Hughes, with the artist working in a black-heavy style, character and object outlines often melting into shadows; this has the primary effect of subsuming Hughes' clear lines into something like Reynolds’ own thicker-lined, inky approach. And yet, even here we can sense a foreshadowing of Hughes’ willingness to adapt the elements of his own style to the needs of the stories he’s presented with.

More extensive is the 30-page graphic album The Science Service, written by future prolific editor and blogger John Freeman, and commissioned by Belgium-based publisher Magic Strip. It debuted in 1988, with UK and US editions following in 1989 via Acme and Eclipse. This time, the political force of Hughes' adoption of a 'nostalgic future' visual approach is fully complimented. Freeman's plot is rueful sci-fi, centering on aging Henry Van Goyen, who used to explore outer space as part of the heroic, forward-thinking Science Service, which eventually got knocked back to a technological maintenance squad as large corporations co-opted scientific advances as a means of keeping the population satiated with conveniences and novel body-modification products. He soon becomes caught up in a scheme to rush a dangerous face-changing device (look like your favorite movie stars!) onto the market, an investigation that (naturally!) comes to involve his former cohorts.

So, if Hughes can't draw cultural force from his simple use of ligne claire, he certainly can exploit that style toward embodying a Western dream of astro-lounge optimism, one that Freeman's story sees perverted and rusted after too many decades. It’s almost an anti-cyberpunk work, acknowledging the capitalistic overload of a technology-choked society, and making nods toward classic gritty investigative fiction, while openly lamenting the loss of optimism in a to-the-stars future, and blinking at ground-level, mass-produced technological concepts as idle distractions for a sedated populace, and indicative of a latent acceptance of corporate domination as the status quo in that-which-moves-the-world.

But men like Van Goyen can’t quite accept such ‘realism.’ Even as Freeman's storytelling stumbles a bit, seemingly uncomfortable with space restraints and prone to rushing through major confrontations while relegating seemingly important events to background chatter, Hughes conveys the theme perfectly. He draws Van Goyen with zig-zag eyebrows, just like Dan Dare, that famed British sci-fi symbol for rocket-powered futuristic gallantry - the man (and symbol) are aged, but not quite ready to lay down. And Hughes fills the character’s world with sharp, sharp architecture, a hollowed representation of everything that used to be possible, but still retains power when properly beheld.

The next story is a complimentary one, and the first of the book's big Morrison pieces. If the prior story had a character that looked like Dan Dare, this one actually had him. Dare was serialized from 1990-91 in a pair of 2000 AD sibling magazines: the short-lived, 'counterculture'-flavored Revolver (which was designed by Hughes himself), and the somewhat less short-lived, politically-aware Crisis, where the serial wound up after its first home went away. It was soon after brought to the US by Fantagraphics' Monster Comics line as a four-issue, pamphlet-format miniseries. It’s the longest work in this collection, 73 pages in total, and certainly the most ambitious, ready and willing to press past the yearning for a '50s space ideal in The Science Service, and expose the dirty side of that very ideal, as enacted by cold political reality.

But Dare is a flawed work. And, since Hughes mainly provides an even more elaborate version of his inspired visual approach to The Science Service, the blame falls squarely on Morrison's shoulders. Gravett places the work as part of an anti-Thatcher trilogy in the Morrison catalog, along with 1989-90's (excellent) St. Swithin's Day and 1990's (sadly uncollected) The New Adventures of Hitler. Dare, however, is the only one of those works to incorporate that specific political charge into the fantastical, preexisting costumed pop character milieu that Morrison was already making a name for himself in. Yet Morrison's obvious rage over the politics of the time doesn't mix well with the rubber suits and rayguns he's examining, resulting in a sadistic, shrill work, one that overstates its broad case nearly to the point of hysteria, declaring to uncover the dark abuses behind certain bright bits of comics, all while providing an equally simplistic vision of the stuff he doesn't like.

I'm going to spoil the plot now, just so you know.

It's the sort of comic where a pair of armored troopers storm into a bank, demanding access to a safe deposit box. When the clerk says something about respecting confidentiality, the troopers demand to know which party the man voted for. He replies that he voted for the Unity Party and Prime Minister Gloria Monday (Margaret Thatcher), the trooper sneers "Then you voted for THIS," thrusting a privacy-killing document under the poor fellow's nose. You'd half expect these bastards to assure a man that they'll watch over his innocent doggie, only to put the pooch down via raygun as soon as Master's out of the room. And that's exactly what happens several dozens of pages later. It's Dan Dare's dog, by the way.

Really, this is The Passion of Dan Dare. Morrison's plot is quite simple: England is a complete fucking hellhole, thanks to Margaret Thatcher, although Dare is also partially to blame. There was wicked empire-building in all those adventurous missions of years gone by, but Dare's sort of blocked out the children he killed in those clashes against the green Treen folk of Venus. He also seems utterly unaware of the starvation and crushing poverty that's taken much of the country, all cozied up in his upper-class retirement coocoon. Yes, the beauty of the past was actually pretty nasty ("All that lovely art deco and no bloody shops," hisses a disenfranchised youth), but the suicide of Dare's beloved Prof. Jocelyn Mabel Peabody sends him on a dark mission to uncover the dirty work, all while evil evil Margaret Thatcher coaxes him out of retirement to act as an election year symbol for the good old values and blinders-on herd optimism that her party stands for.

What a wicked time for Dan Dare! His goofy sidekick Digby is suddenly very class-conscious, and openly consorts with urban terrorists. His wonderful Space Fleet Headquarters is falling apart, and will soon be remodeled into apartments. When he gets too close to the dark secret at the center of the mystery, his honorable commander Sir Hubert Guest winds up having his granddaughter threatened, and he sells Dare right out, his once-proud face falling in irreversible disgrace as Margaret Thatcher grins wickedly in the background, in case any readers have developed full-blown amnesia while reading the story and therefore have forgotten that she's evil evil evil.

So evil, in fact, that she's actually planning to sell an entire future generation of lower-class England off to the Mekon (series archfiend from Venus), in a bizarre scheme involving an election-clinching miracle foodstuff that's actually an alien sexual emission that causes intense sexual desire and awful birth defects. Actually, this stuff is kind of fun, letting Hughes rip out some suggestive organic food production designs, while Morrison amuses himself with the aphrodisiac implications of the foam itself. But anyhow, Dare gets lobotomized or something, but not before he goes terrorist himself and plants a fission bomb in his proud spacecraft, the Anastasia, which then evaporates all of the bad people, and I guess most of London, but then the white of doom turns out to be a virgin drawing board, and we realize that sometimes comic fictions that come from a poisoned source deserve to be wiped out, because they can always be started again, and the shining ideals behind characters (as actors in fictions and symbols in waking life) cannot be destroyed by any bomb or writer.

Morrison would start many things again over the course of his career, and most of them would turn out better than this. But Hughes - he really keeps it up. Rich color is all over in Dare, the bright facades of buildings deeply sad in the present. It's an equal, more eloquent statement.

The final two stories in Yesterday's Tomorrows see Hughes moving farther toward intense design. There's the 44-page Raymond Chandler adaptation, Goldfish, scripted by Tom DeHaven (of several prose novels, like the fun Derby Dugan series and the recent It's Superman!). It was completed in 1992, and then apparently went unpublished until the 2003 iBooks comics anthology Raymond Chandler's Marlowe featured it. You really need to look at this sample.

You'll notice that Hughes' line is a bit looser. But the graphic impact of the story is so evident that it's nearly distracting. Check out those square cuts of white light, not even so much meant to represent light in an illusion of storytelling reality but to symbolize the presence of light as hyper-conscious elements of graphic design. Note the spot color of the lighter flame, and be aware that every 'place' in the story gets its own monochrome wash, like tints in a silent film, although sometimes single environments change hue to suggest a certain mood, the panel gutters shifting complimentarily. Shit, pay attention to how the lettering is set down in the harshest font known to humankind, in so as to act as the presence of hard film noir dialogue delivery. We can't have sound (ha ha... silent films), but we can have graphics.

It's really something. It's so impressive it almost drives the story into the ground, but Hughes knows just when to pull back and let his sense of panel-to-panel clarity kick in. It's an old story, one that I think many readers will have either come across or seen portrayed in some variant form somewhere, so maybe this type of intensive graphic experiment is appropriate here. Certainly, you can sense Hughes' interest in fonts and illustration becoming more powerful.

But before he's off, there's 1993's Morrison-written Really & Truly, which ran for eight progs in 2000 AD's Summer Offensive of that year. I don't believe it's ever been reprinted until now. I guess I can call the story Morrison on autopilot -- after all, the man himself claims to have written the whole thing over a weekend Ecstasy trip -- but sometimes autopilot is a nice little option. Nobody's going to nominate this one to the Career Best list, being a 40-page lark about a pair of cute girls on a big road trip to deliver Soviet song bullets to a huge San Francisco party, taking strange fantasy drugs and eluding the FBI's House of Fun (a rolling clown tank) and a Buddhist crime gang, with a drunken cosmonaut (his memories literally spilling out of his head, psychically) and a beatnik in tow.

Silly ideas and notions spill out at a fast clip, and Hughes adopts a cartoon style mean to evoke Hanna-Barbera classics, with the edges of his panels smoothed down to look like little television monitors. And it's indeed the disposable sort of thing you might sit through on television, but that's it... you'll sit through it. Maybe even picking up on an undercurrent of sadness that joins the work with all of Hughes' other pieces in this book; both an understanding of the past, and what it all could have meant for the future.

The secret's in the title, then. After these works were finished (along with a few more), Hughes moved into fonts and logos and illustrations. He did a lot of logos for comic books, Vertigo (Morrison's Flex Mentallo and The Invisibles, for example), Image (NYC Mech) and more. He designed seemingly half the comics paperbacks in England. He worked in music, ads, etc. But there remains a real unity in Hughes' art of this earlier period, a theme that resonates through varied approaches from varied artists. It's yesterday's works, but looking back even farther to glimpse a world paradoxically still too far ahead of us.