Interview: Paul Southworth on ‘Ugly Hill’
Paul Southworth’s webcomic Ugly Hill is about, well… monsters.
At least, that’s how he usually describes it.
If I were to describe it, I’d write that the five-day-a-week strip features a brightly colored cast of creatures who experience the trials and tribulations of life in a bleak, consumer-driven world not entirely unlike our own — except that it’s full of monsters. That’s how I’d describe it.
I’d also write that Ugly Hill is part of the Blank Label Comics collective, and at the end of the month, the multiple Web Cartoonists Choice Award-winning strip will celebrate its third year on the InterWebs.
Oh, and I’d also mention that Paul Southworth recently became a new daddy.
But the thing is, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’ll just let the following interview I conducted with Paul explain everything about his wildly successful webcomic.
COMICMIX: First off, congratulations on the new addition to the family! What’s your schedule like these days?
PAUL SOUTHWORTH: Rigorous. I thought I was busy before, but it turns out I was living a life of spoiled luxury, concerned only for myself and my own ridiculous pursuits. Now my life is consumed with filling bottles, mixing just the right amount of orange mush with just the right amount of pale green mush, and having long, detailed conversations about the size, frequency, and consistency of another human being’s feces. Somewhere in there I manage to work a day job for nine hours and draw a comic strip on the side.
To be fair, sometimes I can draw and hold a conversation about human waste simultaneously, but only when I’m pressed for time.
CMix: Well, I’ll try to keep this short, then. How did you prepare for keeping the strip active when the baby came home?
PS: I always try to keep at least 2-3 weeks ahead of publication. When I started the strip, I was six weeks ahead, but I squandered that away somehow.
So I just tried to work ahead as much as possible. I was also able to line up two weeks’ worth of wonderful guest artists to fill in for me directly after the birth, which was so helpful. I don’t think there has been a time in my life that I have thought less about drawing than those 3 or 4 panicky weeks after my son was born, so not having to worry too much about it was a blessing. Otherwise, after the guest strips had run their course and my buffer had dwindled, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’m sure glad it worked out, though!
CMix: Can you tell me about the genesis of Ugly Hill? I understand where the appeal of a story involving daily office life might come from, but what about the monster angle?
PS: I hate to say it, but if I had never been forced to work in a soul-crushing corporate environment in the months after I graduated college, Ugly Hill probably wouldn’t exist.
Years ago, my art degree had landed me my first full-time job as an employee at a call center for a national jewelry company. Basically, I took phone orders and fielded complaints from little old southern ladies and clueless boyfriends and husbands who were too stupid to order off the Internet. I had a headset and everything.
So anyway, being in this corporate environment for the first time made me realize how much I despised it and everyone in it, so I started doodling this little egg-shaped creature on the backs of all my worksheets called "Business Monster." Business Monster wore a little tie, carried a little briefcase, and all he thought about was work. He was kind of a parody of all the people I was forced to work with. Why was he a monster? Because monsters are fun to draw!
Later on, I would develop a rationale for drawing them that way, mainly to more easily put forth fairly shallow observations on human behavior, but initially I have to admit that I drew them as monsters because I like to draw monsters. Yes, I am five years old.
CMix: Have you ever worked with anyone like Hastings, the all-work, angry corporate monster? What inspired the characters?
PS: I felt that pretty much everyone in that call center was a mindless corporate zombie set on ruining my life, but that probably wasn’t true. They were mostly nice people, and no, I never did have to work with anyone quite like Hastings. Of course, I’m only 27, and I’ve still got a lot of workin’ years ahead of me, so karma might show up to teach me a lesson yet.
CMix: What parts of you and your personality do you see in the characters of Ugly Hill?
PS: Every part of me goes into the strip — good and bad. Mostly bad. Hastings usually gets my obsessiveness, stubbornness, and marriage track record. Kidding!
Eli gets my laziness and a sense that the world owes him something, and Peter is basically who I was in high school. It’s been said before, but cartooning is a pretty solitary existence, and I can’t speak for anybody else, but when it comes time to create a new character or write a new story, I don’t have anybody’s brain to pick but my own. So naturally, everything you see in there is me, in some shape or form. I should probably be more ashamed to admit that than I am!
CMix: One thing that really strikes me about Ugly Hill is the use of color. The brightness and contrast of the colors you use really catch the eye. Can you tell me a little about your technique and thoughts regarding the use of color in Ugly Hill?
PS: People always cite the coloring as one of their favorite parts of the strip, and honestly I’m at a loss as to how that came to be.
Honestly, I just watched a lot of cartoons as a kid, and have always tried to reproduce the colors I saw on the screen in my work. I don’t have any techniques or color theories I follow, I just fool with it until it looks good to my eye. I guess my advice to anyone looking to get good at coloring would be to grow up obsessively studying every piece of animation you can find, and when you start doing your own work, you’ll find that it’s sunk in to the point where you don’t need to think about it too much.
That having been said, there are so many people out there who are better at adding color to their strip than I am. Shadows, highlights, limited palettes… A lot of times I feel like I know just enough to get by. Maybe I need to watch more cartoons?
CMix: You recently finished a really unique guest strip week. Why did you decide to ask your guest artists to design strips based on your "unused ideas" pool?
PS: Well, I knew I had been butting my head up against a brick wall during the last week or so, and I thought it would be nice to have a week off to get my bearings and recharge my batteries, but man… the "Guest Week" thing is so DONE you know? I find it boring!
Even if you get a stellar line-up of artists, the reader pretty much knows what to expect. They also know that they can probably skip that week without danger of missing anything important. I wanted to make the guest week special, but I couldn’t think of any new angle. Then I was going through my idea file to find something I’d jotted down for the upcoming story, and there were all these ideas that I had hastily written down over the last three years that never got used.
"Wouldn’t it be fun," I thought, "to have people illustrate these concepts in the guest strips?" Kind of like a "What If…?" week.
I thought that would be fun for everyone involved: me, the artists, and the readers. I know it was fun for me, and I hope it was fun for everyone else involved.
CMix: How do you feel about the results of guest strip week thus far? That Eric Millikin painting was AMAZING!
PS: Oh man, Eric’s painting blew me away. That was the first piece I received, and I couldn’t wait to post it. I want to hang that thing in my house! It’s just beautiful. Everyone did such a great job, but one of the other ones that really stood out to me was by Andrew Borno. He drew the equivalent of something like six or seven full strips! And his style was just so fluid and amazing. I hate when the guest artists show me up…
Notice to guest artists: BE MORE CRUMMY.
CMix: What single strip or storyline best represents Ugly Hill to you? For example, if you could point a potential reader to one strip or storyline in order to show them what they’ll be getting with Ugly Hill, which strip or storyline would it be?
PS: Yikes, that’s a tough one. The one thing I simultaneously enjoy and revile about Ugly Hill is the way all the storylines are connected, and sometimes you really have to have read one to fully understand what’s going on in another.
I’ve tried to stop doing it, but that’s just the way it naturally flows out of me, and I feel the new readers are the ones who pay the price. Or, rather, it’s me who pays the price when they stop reading after two strips because they don’t know what the hell is going on.
But I guess the one story I would suggest might be some of the earlier ones, where we establish all the relationships between the characters. I think those really represent a distilled version of the strip, without three years’ worth of strip to muck it all up.
CMix: Where does Ugly Hill fit into your life these days? Do you think of it as a hobby, as the potential lead-in to a career?
PS: It changes from day to day. Some days I think I’m fooling myself, and then the next day I think I’ll be making my living off self-publishing sales and/or getting picked up by a big publisher in a few years. It’s all subject to my girlish emotions.
Lately I’ve been feeling pretty good about it, because I’m finally making some money off the strip, and I can at least justify taking time away from my family to work on it by telling myself that I’m buying the next round of diapers and/or jar of pureed green beans.
CMix: You’ve mentioned in other interviews how big a fan you are of cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, etc. Would you want to go the animation route with Ugly Hill?
PS: Oh man, YES. I’ve loved animation all my life. It’s where I learned to draw, but I never quite had the patience for it, myself. I gravitated towards comic strips somehow, but if I ever got the chance to see Ugly Hill in motion, I’d be on it like white on rice. Make me an offer.
CMix: Finally, what’s coming up for Ugly Hill? Any upcoming storylines you want to tease or changes in store for strip?
PS: Oh gosh, well, we’re going to be doing some political stuff again soon. People loved (see: hated) the last time I even touched on politics, so I figured it might be time to ruffle some feathers again. And there IS an election coming up, so be prepared to get angry at whatever asinine opinions and/or preferences with which I intend to ruin the strip.
Let’s see… I actually don’t have a whole lot planned ahead, for once! I usually have at least a few months planned out in my head or on paper, loosely, but right now I’m just seeing where the wind takes me. But I’m pretty sure that, one way or the other, Hastings will continue to make himself miserable. It’s a theme I can’t seem to shake.
You can find new Ugly Hill comics every Monday-Friday at www.uglyhill.com.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!