Smash Pages Q&A: Matt Kindt, Brian Hurtt + Marie Enger

The denizens of St. Louis-based HEK Studios team up on a new anthology, which is up for funding on Kickstarter.

The depth and breadth of what you can do in comics and with comics — and I’m talking story-wise, design-wise and format-wise here — is virtually limitless. Sometimes it takes a particular project and a particular set of creators to remind us of this, and The HEK Treasury serves as just such a reminder.

The HEK Treasury is a creative project by the members of HEK Studios — Matt Kindt, Brian Hurtt and Marie Enger. The three of them have a large assortment of credits within comics — Black Badge, The Sixth Gun, Dept. H, Super-Spy, Fhtagn and Loathing, Shadow Roads, Nosferatu! and many more. The Missouri-based creators formed HEK Studios in 2015 and have purchased a vintage Route 66 garage that they’re converting into “the first full-time exclusive comic book studio in St. Louis.”

In addition to their own projects with various publishers, they’ve decided to team up on a large prestige format hardcover (8 ¾  x 11 5/8 ). This deluxe collection will feature “all new epic, experimental science fiction, fantasy and genre short stories. The HEK Treasury will showcase each creator as they unleash new ideas, using experimental art and storytelling techniques.” The project went live on Kickstarter earlier this week, and the campaign runs for 30 days. If funded, the book will be delivered to backers in the fall.

I spoke with the three of them about The HEK Treasury, HEK Studios and what they hope to accomplish together with this project.

How did the three of you first meet, and what made you decide to form HEK Studios?

Matt: I don’t remember meeting Brian. He’ll tell a story about it – but maybe it’s true, and maybe it’s not. (laughs) But I remember us having a mutual friend and talking at a party of that mutual friend and realizing that this guy has the same job I do. We both do comics for a living. And in everyday life, there are not many people you can complain to about our jobs. We set our own hours. We draw and write all day. Who do you commiserate with? And I make our jobs sound amazing – and they are, but the flipside is more of a mental thing. You have to be okay with long hours working in solitude. And you have to be okay with not knowing when you’re next paycheck is coming, let alone how much it’s going to be. Doing comics full time takes a high tolerance for the unknown.

Marie — I remember the day I met her. I had started my short tenure as comic book instructor at Webster University and I was trying to figure out where I was supposed to go to get a photo ID – I was totally lost. She was working at the place where they take your photo for the IDs. Later, I’m teaching class, and there she is. She stood out right away – as the hardest working student I ever had. Always doing extra. Super conscientious. And that was really the main thing I taught in class. You can learn how to write and draw. But work ethic and determination. Those aren’t really something I could teach. But it’s the most important thing to have in comics. She had it from the beginning so I just got out of her way.

Marie: Haha! MATT!

So, Matt was the first comic artist I met? I don’t talk about it a lot online, but I was in animation. When I was in my last semester at college, my advisor was like “we’re getting an instructor who works for Dark Horse! You should take his class!” So I did! And now Matt will N E V E R be rid of me. He looked over a lot of my garbage pitches, let me fail when I needed too, taught me a lot about building a story…hell gave me my first chance coloring Pistolwhip and 2 Sisters.

I met Brian at NYCC in like…2013? I was having a massive panic attack and Matt was like “go meet Brian!” So I did and then I started doing little assistant jobs for him – spotting blacks, cleaning up pages in photoshop, learning how to cram 12 panels on one page…I actually have all his old furniture now – Brian’s apt. 2.0.

Brian:  I actually first met Matt at a small comic show in St. Louis over 20 years ago! Yikes.  He was set up at a table with a self-published comic called “Liquid Paper”–I still have the copy I bought from him.  I then ran into him again a few years later at an art event a local comic shop put on.  That was the first time we really got to talk and he even gave me some of his minis–including some unbound ones he hadn’t put out yet (I also still have those!).  Matt was really inspiring to me because he was a guy that was DOING it.  Not talking about it, or dreaming about it, but MAKING it happen.  So, I was aware of Matt for years before I made it onto his radar! (laughs) It wasn’t until several years later that I bumped into him at a comic show walking around with a mutual friend.  We all hit it off and Matt and I–both published creators at that point–started hanging out and occasionally working together soon after. The rest is history!

I met Marie just as she described it and soon after she was doing odd “assistant” work for me.  I was really impressed with how hard she worked and how she was constantly seeking notes and trying to improve.  When the time came around that Matt and I started discussing getting a studio together we both had the same thought that Marie would make a great addition.  And we were right!

from “Firewatch” by Matt Kindt

You always hear about the stereotypical “solitary life of an artist,” but how does it help each of you — creatively, or even from a practical standpoint —  to be around other people when you work?

Brian: I definitely did the “solitary life” for the first 12 years of my career.  I think most people who’ve taken the time to develop the skills to be a comics artist has already spent a great deal of time in “solitude.”  There can be a peace in that.  BUT, there’s also the downside.  I know that, for myself, I would end up going days without talking to another human–in person–and would also end up getting on the crazy schedules where I was working through the night and going to bed at dawn.  I would end up feeling disconnected from the world–like a vampire.  Shortly after Matt and I started hanging out, it became a pretty regular occurrence for us to get together, either at my apartment or a local coffee shop, and work.  I found that I really enjoyed sharing that workspace and that creative energy with other people.  At this point, I can’t imagine going back to my old ways.  I get too much out of working in close proximity to my peers.  For starters, it’s just good for my mental health!  But I find the studio atmosphere to be great for my art and creativity.  We are each being constantly confronted with other voices and tastes, and that only helps us each to grow.  And I rely on my studio-mates to challenge me and give me fresh takes on my own art, to be a sounding board for ideas, and a shoulder to lean on when dealing with the challenges of the industry and self-employment.  As self-employed artists we often find ourselves isolated on our own little islands.  And maybe we are still on an island, but at least we’ve got one another for company.

Matt: I’ve had the good fortune of having my wife, Sharlene, with me since the beginning. She’s always been a great collaborator and sounding board, and I really think that’s essential. It’s a way of just not getting stuck inside your own head and having that outside voice and that extra set of eyes look at something and let you know what needs to be done. With Brian and Marie, it’s become a kind of extended family. Now we’re all bringing our different experiences in the industry together so we can triangulate the business side of things and just holler out for someone to come over and look at a thing you’ve been staring at all day so you can get a fresh perspective. It’s really essential. It’s something I always read about – with different schools of art in art history where Van Gogh and Gauguin or Tolkein and the “Inklings.” That kind of thing is something I’ve always wanted to be a part of. And I think we’re doing it here with this studio now. We’re carving out a little bit of comic book history with this studio and this space.

Marie: Uh…I get really cagey when I’m alone for too long. I need to be around people; before HEK I set up my studio in my cousin’s basement (she worked nights so she was home during the day), just so that I would have a way to separate my work from my personal life. I can’t be solitary. Having Matt and Brian around has been key to getting any work done at all – I’m not so stupid that I think I know everything. I ask questions every day, they are ALWAYS having to look over my stuff. Having this place keeps us all on track, all together, all working and getting better.

from Brian Hurtt’s “Biologic”

How does working on something like The HEK Treasury allow you to stretch creative muscles you might not be able to on other projects?

Matt: I’ve been pretty lucky with the creative latitude that all of my publishers have given me. BOOM! And Dark Horse have been such great collaborators and I can’t complain. And I think that if we wanted to take this book to a publisher, we certainly could. But there’s something exciting about taking full control. We’re sourcing the printing and we’re doing the fulfillment on this book and this is really allowing us to work directly with the best retailers in the industry and most importantly – directly with the readers. And honestly, we’re making some creative choices in this book that aren’t going to be super profitable. And we don’t care. Tri-fold spreads? Sure! Interactive sticker-captions that you add to a story? Why not? European-sized album format on thick paper, and two different covers? Let’s do it. We have less over-head and we’re running really lean so we can make a book that looks like nothing else out there…and hopefully make it sustainable.

Brian: The truth of it is, I’ve always felt myself writing and drawing for a specific audience.  Sometimes that audience is my editor, or the publisher.  I find myself bending to expectations.  I’m a pleaser.  But with this project, I’m confronted with creating stories with no expectations other than the ones I place on myself.  It’s incredibly freeing and only slightly nerve-wracking.   I’m excited about working and experimenting in different mediums–from digital, to pen, to watercolor, to some hybridization of digital and analog.  And I’m super excited by the over-sized format and the opportunity to create comics on a, literally, larger canvas!  And within those pages, I’m excited about chasing down any wild inspiration I have, with no one to convince of its worth other than myself.

Marie: Like Matt said – control. We get to decide EVERYTHING about this book. The only person telling us “no” is us. This is a way for us to take risks, do something new!

Was there any collaboration or discussion between the three of you about the kinds of stories you wanted to bring to the project?

Matt: I think from the beginning we wanted to do something more sci-fi/fantasy. The genre of stories you’d find in Heavy Metal or 1984 back in the day. Fun and weird pulp genre stuff but with our twist on it. I think the magazines we looked at for inspiration had such amazing art but the stories were often dated or just…didn’t have any weight to them. So I think part of the impetus behind this thing was to do something that looked as great as that old stuff and even the modern European albums but give the stories some real weight. Make you think. Make you care. Make you feel something. Comics can be the most powerful medium on Earth if you use all the things that it can do.

Marie: Yeah! Sci-Fi, fantasy…stuff that looks like it could thematically fit in with Heavy Metal but a little…different? We want a little emotional punch.

Beyond the stories themselves, this sounds like a fun, ambitious project from a design/format standpoint. What went into the thought process of creating the physical pieces that will make up The HEK Treasury?

Matt: Different. If we’d seen it before, let’s avoid it. Or how can we push it further? Stickers as add-ons? We’ve seen it. But stickers that can add to and change the meaning of a story when applied? Now I’m excited. Paper-doll or papercraft promo pieces? Okay, that’s weird – but how can we push it further? Let’s make them part of the narrative. Let’s add to the story. I think that’s what informs the decisions the most — not just what looks cool – but how can that extra bit of cool add to the story? How can we leverage that weird and crazy design into making the narrative more powerful. It’s not just image. It’s image and story. That’s what makes comics great.

Brian:  It’s not a dig at publishers but they are always going to be a little conservative, a little hesitant to do something, creatively, that hasn’t been tested before.  They’re also going to balk at design elements that might be too costly and limit a book’s profitability.   I get all that.  But, it’s also not as fun. Self-publishing allows us to choose to take any hits on profitability in exchange for having a unique book–an artifact–that we can feel real pride in. From cover to cover, this book will be an amalgamated manifestation of who we are, creatively.  Amalgamated manifestation.  Say that three times fast.

Marie: We all want to do something a little different than stuff we’ve done in the past! We get to go all out on this so we’re gonna!

Mech print by Matt Kindt

If this is successful, do you see yourselves doing future volumes?

Matt: We have plans…the short answer is — definitely.

Marie: Oh HELL yeah! But this one first haha!

The HEK Treasury Kickstarter is now live. Additional assets/rewards can be seen below:

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