July 21 at San Diego Comic-Con was the world release of Phil Hale's new book, Let's Kill Johnny Badhair. The book brings together Hale's well known series of paintings of a solitary, half dressed figure battling a machine in front of a bright blue sky.
Hale painted the same subject nearly eighty times. Yet, there’s nothing redundant about these pictures. Each new painting was a fresh experiment. Each battle had an uncertain outcome.
These are what composers call “variations on a theme.” They allow the composer to explore a concept’s full potential by using multiple, even contradictory approaches. They gave Hale the freedom to give his character different roles, to kill him off and bring him back again in a more profound state, one that could grow and mature along with Hale’s artistic powers.
Hale was kind enough to invite me to write an essay for this book. Here is an excerpt:
Hale’s artistic growth through these variations is obvious for all to see. He didn't want a formula he could repeat to make his job easier. To the contrary, he struggled with each new painting the way Jacob struggled with the angel, wrestling through the night and refusing to let go until the angel blessed him. Sometimes he won and other times he didn’t, but neither outcome was permanent.I love the way Hale sets his stage with a universal background: an eternal blue sky with no distractions or clutter that might limit the scene to a particular time or place. For all we know, these battles could be taking place on Mt. Olympus or in some dystopian future. They could take place over centuries or in a nanosecond. The combatants could be enormous in size or microscopic. The sky gives us no basis for measuring any of these things; it's the perfect backdrop for a clash of big ideas and ambitious icons.
The clash between man and machine has inspired many legends, from John Henry’s race against the steam drill to John Connor’s struggle with Skynet. You might say it has become a central metaphor for our time. Like all great metaphors, the clash between man and machine offers both strength and flexibility. Its imagery is strong and clear while its message is flexible and ambiguous, permitting a wide variety of interpretations. For example, a clash between man and a machine might represent humanity’s clash with modernity, but it might also symbolize sterile efficiency against organic imagination. We might reflect on it as a statement on the endurance of the human will when flesh is pitted against metal; or the value of a soul in a conflict with the soulless; or the conflict between order and disarray.
Hale has developed his own, striking version of the metaphor: a ballet in the sky between Badhair and a sinister metallic conglomeration of sprockets, blades and cables. The two characters leap up together, they twirl mid-air, one advances while the other retreats. The paintings are powerful, even savage, and yet at the same time they are riddled with ambiguity: sometimes it seems one combatant has won, but that lasts only as long as the next painting. The stakes seem high-- perhaps the very highest-- but it’s never quite clear what they’re battling for or who the victor will be.
Hale flew to San Diego from London for the release of his book, which was published by Ashley Wood's publishing company.
It was a pleasure to see Phil again, to talk about our favorite illustrators, and to be reminded of his great sincerity, his intellectual curiosity and his passion for growth. The wonderful compilation of badhair paintings in this book reminds me of his past accomplishments, but it is clear he has many themes, and many variations ahead of him.