Sunday, July 24, 2016


One of the most exciting developments 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 brilliant 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.

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.
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.

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. 


Donald Pittenger said...

Not knowing anything about Hale, I'm curious where he found the pounds and pence for food and shelter during the long time it must have taken to do all those paintings.

Greg Manchess is doing a mega-multi-image book project, so I imagine a book advance is helping him during the crash project.

As a former hand-to-mouth consultant, I still think of these practical, non-artistic matters when confronting the likes of your post.

Paul Sullivan said...

After painting this same basic picture over 80 times, the artist may be a good candidate for extended analysis. I hope he thinks he has it right by this time.

Anonymous said...

He did all those Badhairs over a 30 year spread while doing commercial and gallery work .

While loving his work , what I've been impressed by is the guys humility - in one article, he explained how after years of successful commercial work , he tried portrait painting from life, and concluded he had only polished up an array of techniques and tricks and realized how much he had to learn - and then began learning it .

David , have you seen his recent paintings from photo collage ?

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- Hale was born into a distinguished family of Boston area artists but ended up spending some of his formative years in Africa. He now lives in England. Hale has been a successful illustrator for years, but he now seems to be focusing more on gallery painting and film making. Among my favorites of his illustrations are the ones he did for Joseph Conrad's novels. ( As near as I can tell, "the pounds and pence for food and shelter" have never been Hale's primary concern, but Al McLuckie is right, Hale revisited this theme over decades. These paintings were not done for this book.

Paul Sullivan-- What I've tried to argue here, in my own stumbling way, is that these are not the same basic picture. They run the gamut from happy comic book optimism to dark existential fatalism.

Al McLuckie-- I agree, Phil is a terrific person and his humility keeps him on a constant quest to improve his art that I find deeply impressive. I love his curiosity and his commitment. I've seen his recent paintings and drawings from photo collage and they depress the hell out of me.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say his recent work cheers me up , per say , but I like the unexpected juxtaposition of form edges and elements .

Hale and his friend Rick Berry have given some really useful advise for artists in various interviews .

Their early friendship with Jeff Jones and Frazetta influence are interesting to note.

Al McLuckie

MORAN said...

Hale is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Is this book for sale now? Amazon says it won't be out until January. I love those Badhair paintings.


eseffinga said...

I haven't heard any word on distribution, or when stockists like Amazon will have them on hand yet, but ThreeA will probably have them for sale directly on at some point in the future as well. Also possible there will be signed copies available from

This book's been a long time coming, and I am doubtless, worth the wait and then some. I've been expecting Amazon will be cancelling the older pre-order listings for Let's Kill JB, since the price has shifted significantly from what it was listed at a year ago. Always odd when they ahve multiple pre-order listings for the same books up. We'll see how that plays out.

At any rate, excited to finally set eyes on this thing. Phil's been talking about it for years.

Anonymous said...

Hale has lots of imitators but he is still unique. "Brilliant" is the right word.

I can't find this book anywhere. I hope it's not sold out.


Li-An said...

A brilliant serie that always inspired me. Such energy in it.