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The Arts

Enter Sandman

Marc Hempel Works in the Never-Never Land Between Underground and Mainstream Comics

Sam Holden
Dream Theater: Cartoonist Marc Hempel at his Overlea Home Studio.

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 8/21/2002

Marc Hempel frequently calls himself "America's favorite semi-obscure cartoonist." The self-deprecating catch phrase could apply to just about any well-regarded comic-book creator not named Daniel Clowes or Art Spiegelman, but in the Overlea resident's case it is more than appropriate.

Hempel, 45, has had a long and diverse career, but in comics those are attributes that can work against an artist. His lengthy résumé means he hasn't been comics' "new hot thing" since 1981--and that many of his books are out of print. And since he has worked in comics' mainstream and underground--cartooning both genre material and more personal humor comics--Hempel has never been able to build a substantial fan base in either camp, the way more focused artists do.

Unlike many of his peers, however, he hasn't burned out on comics' sometimes repetitive nature and declining sales. In fact, such obstacles often inspire him: Hempel recalls quickly growing tired of the deadlines and creative constraints while working on a comic-book adaptation of the old Saturday-morning kids cartoon Jonny Quest in the mid-'80s. Soon after, he created his most popular character, Gregory.

"The novelty of working on a regular monthly comic book wore off quickly," he says over lunch and drinks at a Thai restaurant in Towson. "It was too much like a job. I really wanted to do my own stuff."

He turned Quest's limitations into creative fuel and started drawing a straitjacketed boy committed to a tiny cell in an insane asylum. "Gregory was my primal scream," Hempel says. "He represents the scared, insecure child within us all. He, like us, is at the mercy of his fears."

Gregory is also very funny. With Gregory's nonsensical babblings, expressionistic and stark drawings, and sarcastic comments from a couple of rats, Hempel had a small but bona fide hit on his hands. Between 1989 and 1993, DC Comics' Piranha Press imprint published four volumes of Gregory.

Before Gregory, Hempel worked on a number of horror, science-fiction, and adventure comics--including Quest, Blood of the Innocent, and Mars--with his creative and business partner, Mark Wheatley. (Wheatley is the founder of Insight Studios, the Fullerton publishing house and workspace that Hempel moved to Baltimore to join in 1980; he also first published Hempel's work, in 1974, in his fanzine Nucleus.) Their last collaboration was the four-issue Breathtaker series for DC's Vertigo imprint in 1990, which was later collected into a graphic novel.

Hempel's efforts on Breathtaker and Gregory proved fortuitous. Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, an admirer of both, picked Hempel to illustrate the best-selling and critically acclaimed series' long final arc, 1993-'94's The Kindly Ones. "It turned out to be a good decision," Hempel says. "I still get yearly royalty checks--about $5,000--and it's by far my largest readership."

With his Sandman nest egg, Hempel went on to self-publish seven issues of Tug and Buster, which followed the adventures of the supermacho Tug and his sycophant, Buster, between 1995 and '98 (a final issue was published by Image Comics). In a kind of postmodern Happy Days, Buster's Richie Cunningham constantly talks up and defends his Fonz-ish "best friend," Tug, who does nothing but sit and smoke, silently, with perfect, slick hair. Their pals, Stinkfinger and Genital Ben, frequently interrupt the proceedings with off-topic comments and represent, respectively, men's lazy and perverse tendencies.

"I'm all of them," Hempel says of Tug, Buster, and friends. "The whole hero-worship thing, we've all felt that. They're different parts of masculinity that are found in all men, I think. They're childlike emotions we all still feel some of the time."

Like Gregory and Sandman, Hempel's art on T&B showed a strong German Expressionism influence, an unusual style in an industry whose mainstream wing rewards realistic, illustrative drawing. In fact, parts of The Kindly Ones resemble director F.W. Murnau's classic silent film Nosferatu, appropriate for a horror comic book featuring gods, goblins, and Sandman himself, the human personification of dreams.

Hempel says he can't recall seeing the German director's work, but he has a simple explanation for his unique style of strong shapes and sharp corners: "I went to college, studied art history, and took drugs." The Chicago native graduated in 1980 from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor's degree in painting.

The painting degree doesn't explain Hempel's near-perfect comedic timing and skillful page layouts and panel design, though. Those talents come from his encyclopedic comics knowledge. Most comic-book artists his age were weaned solely on 1960s and '70s superhero comics, but Hempel discovered classic newspaper strips and animation at a young age.

"I was into animated cartoons--Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Jay Ward--at a very young age and started drawing and copying them at around 2 or 3 years old," he recalls. "Soon after, I discovered the comic strips of a bunch of guys who were already dead then: Winsor McKay's Little Nemo, George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Cliff Sterrett's Polly and Her Pals. I was really into that stuff from the '30s and earlier before I discovered comic books. But then, bam, in the summer of '65 I found comic books--Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, Jimmy Olsen, all that stuff."

And in the mid-'70s, Hempel, like thousands of other horny teenagers, discovered Heavy Metal magazine. He even contributed several humor and sci-fi short comics to it and similar magazines early in his career.

That stew of influences, along with a recent fascination with New Yorker-type magazine cartooning, has led to his most recent work, Marc Hempel's Naked Brain (one issue is out now, the next is due out in early September). It's an omnibus series, featuring one-page joke cartoons (both single- and multipanel), samples from his sketchbooks, and leftover Tug and Buster stories.

"I get bored very easily and, hopefully, with Naked Brain's anything-goes policy, I won't get bored," he says of the book, which is published by Insight Studios. "Sure, it'd be nice to ride Gregory or Tug and Buster to retirement, but I just can't do that. Look at my art from 20 years ago; it's not the same person. I'm amazed by people who don't change. How do they keep doing it?"

To avoid boredom, Hempel plans to submit cartoons to The New Yorker, Playboy, and a few other magazines, and says he might try self-syndicating a strip to alternative weekly newspapers like, well, City Paper. "Making a powerful, funny statement in one panel--it's great," he says. "I'd never really succeeded at it until recently, after I started studying them."

The cartoonist says he'd also like to try his hand at collaboration again, perhaps a sequel to Breathtaker. "On my own, I always do humor," he says. "I like doing drama and adventure, but I can't come up with my own ideas."

Convinced he'll never take the cartooning world by storm, Hempel is sanguine about remaining obscure. "I'm too commercial for the artsy-fartsy folks, and I'm too weird for the superhero people," he says. "But I've done pretty good. I've never had to get a real job since starting cartooning professionally. After working in comics for so long but never having had a huge hit, it's like dating for 20 years. Dating's not bad."

Marc Hempel's Naked Brain is available at better comic-book stores throughout the area. Marc Hempel himself makes appearances at the SPX alternative-comics festival at the Bethesda Holiday Inn Sept. 6 and 7 (www.spxpo.com) and at the Baltimore Comic-Con at the Baltimore Convention Center Oct. 26 and 27 (www.comicon.com/baltimore).

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