Right before the US went into lockdown due to the Coronavirus, I was able to speak with writer-artist Mike Hawthorne about his graphic novel memoir Happiness Will Follow from BOOM! Studios. We spoke about his career in comics, the craft of comics, and the long journey of his book.
Being Puerto Rican in ’80s Philadelphia isn’t a prerequisite to reading this story. Happiness Will Follow is a book that doesn’t pull punches in its depiction of abuse, but It’s also filled with as much love. This isn’t an easy read, and that’s its strength, and Happiness is filled with emotions that will resonate with anyone breathing. I think about what the result would be if I had to create a graphic novel about my life — would I have the courage that Hawthorne had in putting his life on the page for everyone to see? This graphic novel is a beautifully crafted deep dive that captures an era through the lens of Hawthorne’s life and background.
Comics Beat: Give readers a quick overview of your career in comics. Where did you study and how did you break into comics?
Mike Hawthorne: I got a painting degree from the Tyler School of Art, which is part of Temple University in Philly. Breaking into comics was a little difficult because I didn’t really know anybody. I basically didn’t have any connections other than Matt Wagner, the creator of Grendel.
Beat: That’s a hell of a connection.
Hawthorne: I really didn’t have a connection connection, but when I was still in Philly, he was at a convention and I got to meet him. Another friend of mine, this writer that I knew, we did a little Grendel pitch, figuring there’s no way [Wagner] would do it. We both admired him, so we put this pitch together and I showed it to him. And it turned out we happened to have the same illustration professor, but like 15 years apart. We got to talking about this professor and he remembered me. [Wagner] would eventually give me my first official gig at Dark Horse on a Grendel project.
That’s sort of the official breaking in, but it wasn’t my first comic because when I graduated from art school, and shortly after my mother had passed away, I started self-publishing this series called Hysteria. I just had it in my head that I could do this book on my own, distribute it through Diamond, and I could keep it monthly. Which I did, but it just meant that I went out of business faster because you had a requirement, you had to sell x amount of books to Diamond or else they couldn’t distribute you, and I very quickly hit that threshold. I didn’t have anybody backing me — [it] was just me. But the book was one of those things that, for whatever reason, the few people that picked it up, really, really connected with it. 1998 was a weird time.
I had it in my head that this would be a huge hit. This book was a fictional Caribbean island based loosely on Puerto Rico. This island to Puerto Rico was like Gotham is to New York. I wanted a place that was the place but I could mess with the way it was built and all that stuff. And it was set in the future after a second Civil War, which at the time, I remember when I sent out the first couple of issues, reviewers thought the premise was preposterous. I remember one specific dude was like, “This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. There would never be another Civil War in the United States.” Fast forward 20 years, it looks a lot more possible, but back then people thought it was goofy. Every character was Latino but one, and people thought that was weird. I thought the world would be cool with that. The main protagonist was this female detective, I thought that would be a big hit, the greater public didn’t agree 20 years ago. I was doing a lot of experimental stuff like all the sound effects were in Japanese, I was vibing off of a lot of manga at the time.
Beat: We all were in the ‘90s.
Hawthorne: Yeah I was making this book that, to me, I thought there’s nothing like it and everybody’s gonna go nuts for and it just didn’t catch on, for a lot of reasons I think. But I continued to make that for a good 10 years. After the first self-published run failed, I just kept doing shorts and pitching them. I did a couple of stories online, back before webcomics were really popular like now. There was this guy and he had this very early webcomics portal that I tried to do stuff with, and then I did a short with Slave Labor Graphics. Bouncing around, I eventually started to get gigs, I would take a paying gig and use it to fund doing more Hysteria stuff and other creator-owned projects.
Beat: That’s how you got into it, but what was it that made you want to get into comics?
Hawthorne: When I got into drawing it wasn’t comics. It was more graffiti and there was this little crew that would write their gang name on walls and I was very taken with that. There was that combination between the cartoon characters and words that just appealed to me. I figured out I could make a little money at school, I remember I would charge kids 50 cents to write their name, 75 to add a character, I had this price tier. I would make a little money and go to the bodega, get tasty cakes and quarter waters, spend all my earnings, and the next day start all over again. My godbrother Victor had this older brother who used to read comics and he would toss them after he was done.
Beat: I tried to explain that to people. Back then comics weren’t meant to be kept, they were meant to be read and tossed.
Hawthorne: Right, especially with poor people, people didn’t collect things. Every time you couldn’t pay the rent you had to move real fast, you had to dump everything you owned. It wasn’t like a thing to collect comics and I recognize now he had a weird taste and I didn’t realize they were weird, this is my introduction to comics. I can remember the first couple comics he gave me was a copy of Judge Dredd, some Conan illustrated books, just weird stuff. It wasn’t like the typical “my first comic was” Spider-Man or X-Men books. And to me, I thought that’s what comics were, this kind of wide range from British sci-fi and these fantasy books, so that’s sort of where my taste gravitated to, a broad spectrum of stuff.
Beat: I feel like we’re about the same age, so coming up in the ’80s, that’s when the British stuff was really popping.
Hawthorne: Right, it wasn’t really comic shops, you went to the corner store and bought comics. I don’t know where this dude was finding this stuff, he had really interesting tastes and he knew I liked to draw. I would just be thumbing through them losing my head. I think it was very much to me like graffiti, just a combination of pictures of words and so I was hooked after that. When I realized people’s names were in these books, this was an actual job, I thought that’s for me, people actually get paid to do this for a living, I have to do this thing.
Beat: All right, so then let’s get your actual art. What kind of artist are you? Are you a traditional pen and paper or have you gone completely digital?
Hawthorne: Like I said my training is in painting, I still like traditional work. Not that I think one is better than the other, it’s just my personal preference. I still pretty much pencil on paper with traditional tools. However, my workflow sort of changes from book to book, and I tend to incorporate a lot of digital stuff into it. Recently I’ve been doing digital layouts in Procreate on an iPad, blowing them up, printing them out, and then tightening up the pencils traditionally. In the past I’ve done sort of a combination of scanning pencil sketches, bringing them into Photoshop, tweaking them, adding color, and things like that. For the most part, the stuff that most people see from my Marvel work is done traditionally. The workflow for the stuff of my own tends to be sort of a mix of the two. I don’t have a real rigid workflow, it sort of depends on the job.
Beat: You’re a mixed media artist. I know a lot of folks are working digitally right off of artists’ pencils.
Hawthorne: Honestly it’s probably something I will do sooner rather than later on a project for myself. It just doesn’t feel right yet for my more mainstream work because I think I just have a facility with that kind of material that it’s easier for me to do real big complicated things. And that probably sounds counterintuitive because friends will point out, “Yo, there’s all kinds of perspective tools, you don’t have to do all this work.” But I tend to build things in layers, and for me, it works easier when done on paper. I tend to block in everything with a blue pencil, build grids and do everything in graphite to tighten up the image. And it’s not that one is better, that’s what I’m the most comfortable with at the moment.
Beat: It’s how you tell your story, that’s how you get it out. A story that’s in the book, you stated that you had written a while ago but shelved it. What exactly was the tipping point for you to work on this again?
Hawthorne: It’s funny because I wouldn’t have this book if not for Junot Diaz in a roundabout way. Probably about 10 years ago, I was in New York for a book signing, I was working for Vertigo at the time. My editor, Jon Vankin, and I were out to dinner and we start talking about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So we’re talking about it and I was “Yo, you know that happened to me,” in an offhand way, I just thought it’d be like a funny story, but he was “you have to tell me more about this.” So I tell him the whole premise of there was a curse put on me, my Mom was terrified about it, and he says to me “if you want to write that, I will publish it.”
Now, as you know, back then getting to write and draw a book at Vertigo was the dream come true, everybody wanted a Vertigo book. I thought, man I really don’t want to do an autobiographical book, I have never pitched this book. What I thought was, if they want to pay me to do this book, I’ll do it and show them I can write and draw because really that’s what I wanted to get into comics for, to be a cartoonist. So I was like, fine, I’ll grudgingly do this, and we worked on the script probably for about a year while I was doing other books for them.
I didn’t know what was going on in the background, but this is when all the stuff that was happening leading up to the New 52. And when that happened, I had already finished the book at this point and we were talking about publication dates, Jon was let go, which surprised me, [and] I got to work with his assistant at the time, Sarah Litt, who’s still a good friend of mine. We finished the book and they kept saying, well, we’re going to put the book out, we budgeted for it, but the imprint was closing down. We waited about a year, I didn’t know what was going on and I finally asked them what’s up? They were like, yeah, everything’s sort of starting from scratch and we’re gonna let it go. Because they own this thing outright, I thought, what am I gonna do? I don’t own my own story anymore, but we worked all that stuff out. Then I was very gun shy about it, I never pitched this book, I’d never intended to do it, so I wasn’t eager to immediately pitch it to someone else. And so I just sat on it.
I was drawing Deadpool with Gerry Duggan. I respected his work, we were on that book for like five and a half years, we got to be very close friends. I told him about the book, showed him a chapter and he’s like “This is amazing. You have to show it to Bryce (Carlson) at BOOM,” who he knows because he’s all in this LA comic circle. And the rest is history.
Published by BOOM! Studios, Mike Hawthorne’s Happiness Will Follow is available in bookstores now, and in comic shops on Wednesday, August 12th.