In spite of the success of the luminous adventures of Hilda, Luke Pearson also has a dark side. With Everything we miss, the young British author did bring a more ominous look on his fantastical universe, thus oscillating between the optimism of childhood and the anxieties of adulthood.
Xavier Guilbert : Looking at your work, I couldn’t avoid thinking about that very last quote of Calvin & Hobbes : « It’s a magical world, let’s go explore ». And I find this is very fitting…
Luke Pearson : Erm. I like to imagine it’s a magical world out there. Yeah — I mean, I guess with Calvin & Hobbes a lot of it is about like seeing the world through a child’s eyes and giving physical form to that kind of imagination. And a lot of what I’m doing in Hilda is like — remembering how it felt to be a kid, and trying to explore these places like I would have liked to have done as a child.
Xavier Guilbert : That’s something that is present in Hilda, obviously, but also in Everything we miss.
Luke Pearson : Yes.
Xavier Guilbert : There are a lot of shared elements, but seen from a different point of view. It seems that the younger characters relate to it in a much more natural way, while there’s definitely something unsettling for the adults.
Luke Pearson : It’s funny that they almost seem like they could exist in the same universe somehow. I guess with the children stories, I’m kind of — I’m treating those elements like they are literally there. And it’s about… just creating a world that I’d find exciting and cool and mysterious. But they are real, tangible things in their world, and they are kind of normal to the characters. While in Everything we miss, I kinda do the same thing, there are a lot of the same — even some of the same creatures in there, but I guess I’m trying to use them to highlight feelings about — anxiety and unspoken issues. I’m not really sure why I appear to have been so hung up on the idea of hidden things, like things that go unseen. But it’s — it’s a recurring element, certainly.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s like there are two sides to what you are doing. In Hilda, there’s very rarely a villain — it’s usually people who are misinformed, and Hilda herself is rarely afraid. While in your adult stories, worry is much more present.
Luke Pearson : Yes, certainly. Well, with Hilda I really go out of the way — I kinda want her to be a role model. I want her to be — she’s super positive. She’s not — like me at all, really. She’s like an idealized version of how I wish I could be, and how I think it would be — the world would just be better if more people were like her. She’s like selfless and kind and questioning. She doesn’t really get afraid, she’ll just try and find solutions to things. Whereas yes, my adult work is a lot more about… there’s this kind of dwelling on more negative aspects. (laugh)
Xavier Guilbert : And since you’re fairly young, you’re about midway between those two sides you’re kind of expressing. Hilda definitely younger, and some of the themes that emerge from your stories (like the mid-life crises present in Everything we miss) are in your future. There’s something of a center position between two extremes…
Luke Pearson : Erm, I’m not sure what the question is, but I… that does seem about right, you know. Everything we miss is kind of — it’s definitely looking forward, like it wasn’t… it’s not an autobiographical comic, it’s not about me. It’s obviously… I kind of imagined, at the time, I was seeing the character in it like vaguely as me in maybe like fifteen years of time or something. And just a kind of pessimistic — possible outcome. I’ve never really thought of it like that, that I’m looking forwards and backwards, it’s kind of depressing to — to think that maybe that I would have such a negative view of the future. (a pause) Yeah…
Xavier Guilbert : Everything we miss is the only adult book you’ve put out. You’ve been doing the Hilda books which have obviously become your main focus, but from what I’ve seen on your website, you are still putting out shorter stories like How to exist for a day or Nostalgia or You mustn’t be afraid. And those stories are definitely dealing with adult anxieties. I’ve got the impression there’s this kind of back and forth between the very benevolent world of Hilda…
Luke Pearson : I would say that there are no villains in my adult comics either though. I don’t think — I don’t know if I’ve ever written a story that had like a bad guy in it. It’s always just about — some problem or some concerns. (a pause) Yeah, the villain in my comics always seems to be other people who may be — or oneself, and it’s not a conscious thing.
Xavier Guilbert : Is it different for you when you work on a Hilda book ? I don’t want to overanalyze that, but does it really feel like escaping to this other world ? As opposed to the adult pieces that would be more akin to catharsis ?
Luke Pearson : I can’t take that cathartic — I mean, there is an element to that in Hilda, but I don’t really plan it to be that way. Usually — I don’t really do that much adult comics any more. I want to, but… they are usually more a case of — I have some looser, vaguer idea of something that I want to express. Like some notion that I want to just explore or unravel for myself, and… the comics are a little bit more… wandering. Maybe there isn’t — maybe in the past I would always being doing things where there would like a cyclical story, but recently, they are more — they go the way they want.
Xavier Guilbert : I have the impression that’s also true of the style. There’s much more experimenting there, with some diagrams that remind a lot of Chris Ware…
Luke Pearson : Sure. But I was very much into that. Some of those early comics, my influences are all over my sleeves. There’s like a very strong Chris Ware, or Kevin Huizenga influence. It’s there because in my earliest comics, I’m still trying to find my style of something. I’m still trying to find — I don’t really know how I draw. I don’t have a default, so every — every comic I do, I feel like I’m drawing it in a different way. And I try to make the drawing relevant to how I want the comic to feel, and — sometimes it ends up feeling like this isn’t really what I’m doing, like it’s disingenuous somehow. Or I’m making it feel too much like something I’ve seen before, possibly. It’s kind of more haphazard. Whereas Hilda is a lot — the story is always tightly structured and planned. I really — with those books, I enjoy being able to tell a pretty traditional story, basically. A pretty basic story structure, it’s all made up of — I enjoy fitting the plot together like a puzzle or something. It’s all super tight and it doesn’t really have any loose ends. I like that. And to come back to the original point — there is a cathartic element at times, because I have a script, but I can work little things in there. Like this stuff in Hilda and the Black Hound where she’s in the scouts, and that’s kind of drawing on real experiences. I had to cut a lot out because there wasn’t room in the book, but originally there’s a whole sequence there and… And actually, it kind of drives the story forward, the fact that she’s not really good at being a scout, she’s bad at it. Those feelings, feeling inadequate and poor at something that you also on one hand enjoy, that was — that was my experience being a scout. I really liked it and hated it at the same time.
Xavier Guilbert : About doing less adult works, does this have to do only with the importance Hilda has taken, or is that that you’ve found your voice and you don’t feel you still need to be going in that direction ?
Luke Pearson : No, it’s something I feel I do need to be doing. It bothers me that I’m not doing more of it. It’s not so much that Hilda is more important to me — it’s just… I’m not really sure. When I did Everything we miss, it was fairly early on, and I felt really strangely — confident about it. I didn’t worry too much about it. Drawing that book was — the easiest and the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever drawn, even if it’s so downbeat. It was painless to draw. I did it quite quickly, and it all came together very naturally, and I was happy with the result at the time.
Xavier Guilbert : Isn’t that the case now ? Looking back on it ?
Luke Pearson : Erm… not entirely. I feel like it’s — kind of corny or something. I can see what I’m trying to do, it just feels like I’m — I don’t know. Well, I don’t like much of my work when I look back at it. There’s definitely things I would do differently with that book if I was doing it now. But I would probably not even do that book, I would probably think it was a bad idea. But some people seem to like it, so it’s — it’s fine. I don’t know, doing the Hilda books and gradually over time I kind of lost confidence with doing adult work. I try and write things, and I just — I just worry that it’s not good enough. Or maybe I don’t really — I can’t do this. I never get anywhere with anything and I stop. I try and think of something and don’t draw that, so I try and think of something else and never get anywhere. I need to get into — I’ve just lost a good state of mind for doing that. I’m hoping — I hope I’ll get it back.
Xavier Guilbert : Compared to the Hilda books that are tightly plotted, there’s definitely more exploration and wandering in your adult works. Those seem like two different ways of approaching storytelling, I think.
Luke Pearson : Yeah, totally. But that’s why my adult work, it’s all — it’s all short comics, because it’s usually just something that was on my mind at the time. And those comic pieces, they rarely happen because I have had like a burning desire to tell a specific story over time. It’s just something that is — always quite immediate. Something that is bugging me or worrying me, and at the time it happens I just sit down and start drawing.
Xavier Guilbert : Looking at the evolution of the Hilda stories, with the move to the city, maybe there are things that might have ended up in your adult stories that have been integrated into this world.
Luke Pearson : Yeah, well, I think so. I’m definitely kind of closing her world in. On her. It felt like in the first book that she’s living a completely ideal life, and she doesn’t really have any problems. All the creatures she interacts with, she’s — they’re not really a threat to her, and it’s great. With each book, they seem to give her more problems.
Xavier Guilbert : She’s kind of in charge at the beginning. Afterwards, it’s different : she gets lost in the city, while she was never really lost in the mountains… And she has to get to know people and try and understand how things work.
Luke Pearson : But she always finds a solution though. Maybe that’s something — I think there’s something satisfying about, maybe giving her problems that reflect problems that I have, and then being able to give a definitive solution to that problem and for her to end relatively happily. Maybe that’s fulfilling some basic need in me (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : Why is it you don’t face that issue of confidence going into an Hilda story ? Some people might say that writing for children can be really tricky…
Luke Pearson : Well… to be honest, I get to this point where Hilda is enough there already — pre-existing. I don’t have to — a lot of the work is done for me already when I start thinking about what I want to do next. I don’t have to worry about what style it is going to be, what’s the tone of this particular thing. I change the tone in Hilda books, but — you know, there’s a safety net. So I can just focus on the specific ideas and what I want, and how I want it to come across. Whereas — for other comics, there’s all these — there’s a lot of barriers and things to overcome before I can even start drawing it, really. And they’re not real, I think they are just mental barriers. All it really takes is just to sit down and draw something, and it’d probably be okay. But it’s tricky, psychologically.
Xavier Guilbert : From a structural point of view, the Hilda books show a lot of changes in the way you organize the panels on the page. Hildafolk is built around two tiers, with subdivisions of those tiers. In the Midnight Giant, there’s a two-by-three grid, and with the Black Hound, there’s a five-tiered structure and sometimes things become much messier. Is that something you’re trying to find the best way to tell a story ? Or is that a way to express how the character faces a world of increasing complexity ?
Luke Pearson : Yeah, well… I like to think that the growing number of panels kind of reflects — it feels appropriate, somehow. When she moves to the city, the walls are like closing on her. I like the idea that everything feels more cramped on the page itself. A lot of it has to do with — trying to get more out of it. I’m cramming — it’s always my instinct to… to cram as much stuff into a page as possible (laugh). I don’t intend to. Usually I start out with a part thinking I’m going to stick to this… I want to spread it out, I want to have less things on the page. I always think that, but it always ends up — filling it in and arranging and spending a long time figuring out how to slot everything together. I think I probably just enjoy that process. It’s like a puzzle. I think about page layout a lot.
Xavier Guilbert : When you read back the earlier Hilda books, is that something you’re aware of, or do you focus on other things ? Would you do Hildafolk in a different way now ?
Luke Pearson : I guess I probably would — yeah, I imagine I would. When I look at Hildafolk, I don’t — I think it works fine as it is. I don’t feel that I have this desire to go back and change it. I’d neaten it up, I would draw it nicer. I think it looks kinda ropy, but… I think the general page design works for that. It’s just that every time, I’m getting more… I’m just building my skills, I guess, and there’s more things I can do with panels that I didn’t really understand back then. At this point, I realize that you don’t — not every panel needs to have a background. It’s a thing I kind of picked up from manga. I want to get as much out of the scene as possible, so I’d just have these small panels that just have a character so you just get the dialog back and forth, but with a really big establishing shot, where I can really draw and get all the details in the scene… I like doing that — whereas previously I was trying to draw everything in every panel, and now I think it looks kinda clumsy.
Xavier Guilbert : Hildafolk is a small pamphlet with a softcover, and then you moved to a more lavish production with bound covers and a larger size. Is that something that came from Nobrow, or did you ask for something like that ?
Luke Pearson : It mainly came from Nobrow. The first book, Hildafolk, was just that size because it was part of a series where they’re all a uniform size and same number of pages. I didn’t have a choice in that. It was fine, it was just some good boundaries to work in. Then, I think, when we decided it could be a series, I can’t remember… I think they probably suggested it. That seemed like a cool thing to do, in that kind of traditional bande dessinée album format. And it felt like a cool thing to do in the UK where you don’t really see that any more for new comics. It felt nostalgic to me, because I read Asterix when I was a kid, and that’s it made me think of. I didn’t really think about it in the fact that every comic book in Europe is that exact same size (laugh). Originally, with Midnight Giant, you can tell I went to a really straightforward kind of structure, because I wanted to do it just very traditionally, as traditionally as possible. And then I immediately got bored of that, so I had to go back messing around with the panels later towards the end. I like that more.
Xavier Guilbert : You mentioned Asterix as well as manga. Does that mean you grew up in a very diverse reference field when it comes to comic books in general ?
Luke Pearson : I mostly read — indie comics, like American indie comics, mainly. But also… yes, and manga, but usually older manga. I like Tezuka, and like — cartoony. All the stuff that looks like weird Disney comics from the 60s and 70s or whatever. I really like that. That’s like a fairly recent thing, I mean, I’ve always liked that, but more recently I’ve been consciously looking at those pages and I felt that has definitely affected the last book. Dragon Ball as well — that kind of cartoony manga with real dumpy characters and big expressions. Asterix is like a historical reference for me, because I read that as a kid, and my uncle had the whole set, so that was probably my earliest comics memory, and probably one of the only comics I’ve read for years and years. I’d read them again and again. I only have two, myself, but I’ve read them a hundred times, and they always feel like there’s that… When I was doing Hilda, I realized I was kind of unconsciously drawing on that, and I went back and actually looked at them. And then that influence kind of came in to the books, more consciously.
Xavier Guilbert : A parallel I’d make with Asterix is that Asterix is not just for kids. Going back to them as an adult, you pick up things you had missed the first time around. In some way, it’s also present in Hilda…
Luke Pearson : Yeah, well, I — I think I’m conscious of that kind of thing. I always think that the setup of Hilda — there’s just a few basic rules that I have to follow for it to still be a kid’s comics, or an all-age comics or whatever. It has to be suitable — there’s no swearing. And I don’t want it to be violent anyway, so I don’t have to worry about bloody violence. I don’t want it to have any real fighting in it. It’s one thing that’s always in the back of my mind. There’s not going to be any sex in it. As long as the story is clear, then it’s going to be a kid’s comic and an adult’s comic. I’m not — I can explore certain things that probably wouldn’t seem something a child would be interested in, but within the confines of what this stuff is and what it looks like, you can do it. And I think — I think it works (laugh).
Xavier Guilbert : Do you know how kids react to it ?
Luke Pearson : Hum, I don’t really get feedback from kids, I mean… well, I do get feedback from kids. Sometimes I get drawings in the post and stuff. They usually give me some ideas for a new book (laugh). I get emails from parents… it’s always nice. I mean, I guess no one’s ever email me to say they hated it (laugh). A couple of people have said that their kids found it too scary… which I’m quite happy with, to be honest. I kind of want to scare kids (laugh), I want to terrify them. I’ve always felt that some of my best memories being a child, my strongest memories and the ones that stuck with me are of things that kind of frightened me or creeped me out. I think it’s a good thing — maybe not for every kid, but…
Xavier Guilbert : At the moment, what are you working on ? The next Hilda book, probably ?
Luke Pearson : No, erm, well… I feel I’m going to start doing another Hilda book this year. I haven’t started drawing it yet, I think that’s the plan. I took a year off last year, and the plan then was — I was going an adult’s book, or some minicomics or some short stories or something, and I just didn’t. I tried, but nothing happened, and then… I do illustration work and things on the side, and I’ve been doing some storyboarding. But I kinda failed in my attempt to do — to do more varied work. I’m still hoping this year I can do some — some more varied stuff.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that something you miss doing ?
Luke Pearson : Yes, well — I hate not doing it. I always want to be doing it. I always have ideas, and all I do I just — I plan them. I start drawing — I plot them out in a sketchbook, and that’s as far as it goes. I think about it for two days, and then I decide it’s a terrible idea, let’s just forget about it. And that has been going for like hundreds of comic ideas and not drawing them. It’s just terrible. I hope — I kinda hope at some point something will just switch back on and I’ll look back and some of them will seem promising and I’ll do them and they’ll be good. That’s what I hope.
Xavier Guilbert : In the meantime, I guess Hilda is kind of your safe place ?
Luke Pearson : Yeah, it’s something at least I know I can do. I know how to start it, and I know how to finish it. I can explore within Hilda, and it’s good — I enjoy it.
[Interview conducted on February 1st, 2015, during the Angoulême Festival]