Hutch Owen’s Working Hard (1994)

The first time I read Hutch Owen’s Working Hard I was ready to proclaim Tom Hart the new comics messiah. Here was a comic so interesting, so intellectually engaging, so unique, and so wonderfully drawn that it seemed to proclaim a revolution in comics. I became a zealot for Hart, looking high and low for his few comics that were out at the time.  I found his wonderful New Hat, which was even more obscure and fascinating than Hutch Owen. And I was happy. I had found comics nirvana.

Hutch Owen is a protagonist like no other. He is a man completely of his own convictions. Hutch doesn’t feel any need to live within society’s norms; instead, he has found his own inner life, his own way of looking at the world. Like Socrates’s pholosopher-kings, Hutch makes his own decisions, seeks his own counsel, forms his own thoughts. Though Hutch doesn’t have a job and panhandles for money outside of supermarkets, he is content because he is simply himself. Hutch rages against society’s ills, but he doesn’t rage in the same vague voice that most people use. Instead, he has thought through society’s ills and written them as books that he sells, books with titles like "Klutz Book of Common Decency" and "Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Had to Teach Myself." He is a man of a coherent political and social philosophy. He is a man of three dimensions.

One day Hutch meets Willie, a kid searching through garbage to find wood to build his hide-out. Willie quickly recognizes Hutch, remembers seeing him on TV called the "street pole dissident." Willie is a nice kid, and he and Hutch very quickly become friends. It seems like a cliche for a friendship to happen quickly in a story like this, but it in fact feels extremely natural. Hutch is a very open soul, willing to experience sincere people on their own level, and this helps create a real bond between him and the kid. Willie, meanwhile, seems to recognize a unique sort of view in the adult world in Hutch, and sees in Hutch a man who can realy help him build his hideout and have fun with him.

Our third major player is Dennis Worner. Worner is the head of Worner Products, a massive conglomerate dedicated mainly to selling stuff. They sell Malcolm X products of every type (remember, this comic is from 1994), "slacker Gear" clothing, and ultra-violent movies with titles like Gratuitator 3. Worner Products’s whole philosophy seems to be selling rebellion to anyone who will listen. This very cynical view of the world seems to come directly from Worner, a spoiled rich kid turned into spoiled rich man, who is the exact opposite of Hutch. Where Hutch’s life is thoroughly examined, Worner’s is completely unexamined. Ironically, the two men were friends as children, but somehow went in completely opposite directions.

The commodification of rebellion is a major theme in the book – we see, again and again, how ordinary people are given the supposed ability to rebel by driving "Punk Rock Car" or "Rebel Scum" clothes. Worner is selling people what they think they want, but trends and fashions and styles are so corporate-driven that common rebellion is a false choice. Pepsi, Coke or Snapple are all the same, but Worner makes hay from pushing these false choices as avatars of individuality. It’s an intriguingly insightful view of society, one that applies even more now than it did then. In our age of media consolidation, where we now have 150 different corporate choices on TV, and where ClearChannel owns so much of the share of the radio market, choices are even less tenuous than before.

Naturally such a conflict can only end in sadness, and this book ends in a real tragedy that leads to a painfully ironic ending.

This comic is long since out of print, but thankfully it’s available in it entirety on Tom Hart’s website. See if I’m right or if I’m wrong about this comic. Or is that another false choice?

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