Hugo Tate by Nick Abadzis – book review

Hugo Tate by Nick Abadzis
Blank Slate Books
£15

Graphic novelist Nick Abadzis used to write a series called Hugo Tate for a well known magazine back in the late 80’s / early 90’s. Titled “Hugo Tate” the series have finally, following years of clamouring by fans, all been brought together in one collection, a collection which Bert Random reviews for us below.

It’s best to approach childhood icons with trepidation when there’s a twenty-year gap since your paths last crossed. In the same way there’s no fun in discovering that a long-lost love is now a Scientologist gimp (or even worse, a Conservative MP), books that blew your under-developed mind are often grim when re-read through jaded eyes. So it was with reservation I approached Hugo Tate, a new collection of the black & white comic-strip that was originally published in the late 80’s UK comic-anthology / weird-art-magazine called Deadline. Among the brash tales of freaks and weirdoes, including the first Tank Girl stories from Gorillaz Jamie Hewitt, and reports from the musical frontlines of London (lots of acid house references and an obsession with the band Cud), a rare gem nestled quietly in the form of Nick Abadzis’ eponymous hero. Gladly, reading this superbly produced book has proved to be one occasion where rose-tinted reminiscences don’t lead to disappointment ”“ if anything Tate is better than I remembered.

It’s a beautifully crafted piece of story-telling with an early-twenties heart on it’s sleeve and it gives a nuanced insight into the world that revolves around Hugo, a skint, confused, ordinary bloke in the big city. As in all great stories every character feels like they have a fully realised existence when they are absent from the page, that in a parallel world they have their own books that intersect with the one we’re reading like a huge Venn diagram, but it is Hugo’s navigation of the yawning gap between childhood and responsibility that gives the comic its spine and its emotional heft.

The story deserves attention for its intrinsic merits, with drama, suspense, and humour woven through it, but also does something beautiful with the comic-book form, using it to tell its story in a way that could not be replicated in another medium.

During the run Hugo literally develops from a stick man with a blank background, to a fully rendered figure (though still blank-faced) in a fully-realised world. This progression suddenly hits you when, in the third episode, there is a single-panel, depicting a posh late-80’s London-scene party, with people wearing horrible shades indoors and shoulder pads everywhere. It’s incredibly well-dawn, with Hugo in the middle, still a stick man, observing the wankers around him. And it hits you ”“ Abadzis isn’t drawing stick-men because of any kind of limitation: the drawing style is the story, the art is telling us as much, if not more, than the dialogue. Vicariously through Hugo we experience the feeling of development, of being filled-in, of growing up, as he becomes more detailed throughout the book.

When I used to read \’Deadline’ as an impressionable 14-year-old I always turned to Hugo Tate first, a habit triggered by the fourth episode, \’Bread and Liver’. In it we take a trip with Hugo, a visit to his old sad Dad, and a lifetime of stories are told in three quiet pages, through the sub-text of small-talk and missed signals between a father and son who don’t quite understand each other anymore. It’s beautifully told, movingly illustrated, and the final panels elevate it to greatness. Then the book punches you in the stomach.

Having set the bar incredibly high Abadzis carried on through the rest of Hugo’s messed-up life in London, before sending his hero on a classic, American road-trip, mining a new world for new anxieties and new redemptions.

And come the end of this suddenly epic journey, even though wrinkled and rough around the edges, even though more detailed ”“ even though older ”“ Hugo’s face is still blanker than those around him, the way we all face our own worlds; ours is the face we rarely see, though present in every scene. He reminds us that life is tough and life is exhausting but we can survive and, with a bit of luck, thrive; heroes in our own way for getting through the day.

Quite a story to tell for a little stick man.

All word by Bert Random. More by Bert can be found here.

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