Review: Hugo Tate

At what point do you actually know who you are? Do you ever do?

That is the central question at the heart of Nick Abadzis’ Hugo Tate collection (Blank Slate Books, 2012), which compiles his late ’80s and early ’90s strip from Deadline magazine. You learn and grow as you go through life — and that seems to apply to both the character of Hugo and Abadzis as an artist.

Hugo starts out as little more than a doodle. He’s basically a stick figure — with his round head and only scant facial features and crudely drawn body, he’s more a suggestion of a person than a representation of one. As the strips continue, Hugo’s friends are all more realistically drawn in Abadzis’ classic style, but Hugo remains separate and cartoony. He’s not fully formed yet.

As the story and strip progresses, Hugo does take on more notable characteristics, although Abadzis never gives him complete facial features. It becomes easy to see yourself in Hugo because he doesn’t look like anyone in particular.

Beginning with a 3×3, 9-panel structure, the formality of Hugo Tate is a contrast to the looseness of the drawing. Abadzis, however, does begin to ditch this rigid layout for more inventive ones. The later, open pages are a marked contrast to what begins the book — it’s an artist testing his storytelling limits and what he’s capable of. Joyfully, though, Abadzis does often return to the 3×3 grid in Hugo Tate, especially in the last few pages, providing a beautiful echo of all that came before.

Women play a surprisingly strong role in this book. Although Hugo is the focus, it’s about those around him, too. Perhaps the biggest influence on Hugo’s life is his older sister, Edie, and I’d love to read an entire comic about the beautiful and self-assured Dorinda. While Hugo’s briefly-seen (ex-)girlfriend Mattie is a bit of a cypher — Hugo can’t even recall the exact circumstances in which he met her (he was drunk) — she still seems to have her own life. I kind of love that all the people around Hugo seem to have more going on than he does.

It may be a stretch to say that the character of Hugo is a stand-in for Abadzis at this time, but I appreciate that Abadzis seemed to understand that while Hugo may be adrift, the other people around him aren’t necessarily. It’s telling that the last several pages don’t even feature Hugo.

It’s not a story without its flaws. The episodic nature means plot threads don’t always necessarily connect, and Hugo’s cross-country trip just seems like a half-hearted attempt to say profound things about the U.S. and soap-opera twists and developments toward the end feel a little out of place, as if Abadzis wasn’t sure where else to take the story. But there’s an honesty about all of this — as much as it is about Hugo’s journey into adulthood, it’s about an artist finding what he wants to be saying. And the free, making-it-up-as-I-go feeling is charming. It doesn’t entirely work, but I admire that Abadzis felt daring enough to push Hugo’s story into a darker, more challenging place.

Abadzis was definitely developing his style here, but his line work is still stunning. Although some of the broad parodies of late ’80s New Yorkers or early ’90s Californians may come across as forced, his ability to capture distinctive personalities in his drawings is delightful. The suggestions made with facial expressions and wildly inventive dream sequences tend to set the mood for the story overall. It’s not just about a young man making his way in the world. It’s about all of us.

And ultimately, that’s why Hugo Tate resonates. Hugo is no one, but he is also all of us. His story isn’t my story, but I understand his desire to know what’s next. It’s not a perfect story perfectly told, but life is wonderfully messy, and that’s why Hugo Tate is so much fun. It’s not my story, but Hugo and his friends feel natural enough. I’d happily buy Hugo a beer and listen to his stories if he was real.

Nick Abadzis will be signing copies of Hugo Tate at Big Planet Comics‘ Bethesda location (4849 Cordell Ave.) from 3 to 5 p.m. June 9.

Review copy provided by Big Planet Comics.

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