Rory Milne talks to Hunt Emerson about his recently-released Phenomenomix collection…
Amusing and amazing by turn, Hunt Emerson’s Phenomenomix is a weighty tome and a study of odd phenomena like no other. Culled from the pages of that uniquely British institution the Fortean Times, Phenomenomix collects Hunt’s ongoing strip of the same name. Since its creation in 1979, it has documented those topics that serious science sneers at in a far from serious manner. Although its origins can be traced back five years earlier, and to a shop selling comix and counterculture.
downthetubes: I wanted to begin by asking how you first got involved with the publication that became Fortean Times, way back in 1974?
Hunt Emerson: I was in Birmingham. I’d been a student – I’d dropped out, and I was messing about, really. I worked at the Polytechnic first of all, and then the Arts Lab, and close by to those places was Birmingham’s head shop, which was a place called Japetus. It was run by a couple, Nick and Carol, and Carol said I ought to meet this guy who used to come in. That was Bob Rickard, and he was in one day, so she introduced us. Bob had started producing this magazine, a fanzine of the time, which was produced on very early photocopy equipment. It was about unexplained phenomena, which was a subject he was interested in. I’d never come across this before, but he asked me if I wanted to do some work with him. I was only just starting to do cartooning, and this was the first time I’d ever met anybody who was involved in publishing. So I was intrigued, and I went around to his flat with my girlfriend at the time.
downthetubes: What do you remember about the visit?
Hunt: Bob lived in this lovely attic room that had a ceiling that was all done with wood slats. It was kind of like an upturned boat! He worked up there, and he had all these books and his typewriter. He welcomed us in, got us a cup of tea and sat us down. He had been working on the next edition of his magazine, and he hadn’t seen anybody for three days! He just started telling us about all this stuff that was in it, and I was amazed. So we decided that the best thing was for me to do some column headings for him, which I did – but he could never use as many as I wanted to draw. Then at some point he must have asked if I wanted to try a comicstrip – or maybe I suggested it – but it was inevitable.
downthetubes: So that strip was Phenomenomix, where did the name come from?
Hunt: In the early days, when I was first doing comics, we were doing underground comix. When they were first done in America they were spelt c-o-m-i-x, to differentiate them from mainstream comics. So when it came to doing the strip I took phenomena and comix, and got Phenomenomix from them. You have to take a run at it! Originally it was just a daft name to call it, because it had to be called something. I still get people who write about it who spell it wrong, and I have to point that out to them – I quite enjoy doing that!
downthetubes: Getting onto the new book. What it is about the Phenomenomix strips that made you decide to put out a collection of them?
Hunt: First of all because there were such a lot of them, and secondly I’ve always loved doing them – and I think they’re really funny. It’s been an ambition for years now to get a collection like this together. Of course, when we did The Lives Of The Great Occultists that was Phenomenomix as well – they were all pages from Fortean Times. But in that case they were strips that were written by Kevin Jackson, and they were on one theme. But that still left a load of others – 240, or whatever it was, and I really wanted to get a book done.
downthetubes: How important is it to be open minded about the subject matter in Phenomenomix, and how do you make it funny without making fun of it?
Hunt: To my mind, open minded is what you have to be to be a Fortean; it’s not believing or disbelieving anything. I find it fascinating, and so much of the stuff has a funny element to it – or can be made funny. But then what do I do? Well it’s mild satire, I suppose. I look for the most absurd elements of the subjects I’m dealing with, I also just let stories happen. One that comes to mind is a page about relics and reliquaries in churches. Something about a flooded church came up in something I read somewhere, and I just thought about this priest walking past and finding his church full of water! Then I just let the story happen. So in the end it didn’t have to be about reliquaries, it was just another comic story – and it was funny. I keep saying this, but I think that they’re all really funny!
downthetubes: It’s hilarious that the flooded church strip ties in with the priest’s cleaning lady wanting the floors cleaned!
Hunt: When I’m doing things I try to keep the characters mundane, so the priest’s got this thing about a miracle happening in the church, and he has to go and have a word with his cleaning lady about it. And it’s obviously going to turn into a convoluted argument between him and this old woman. I could have written another page just about the argument, and just lose the whole thing about reliquaries and miracles, and all the rest of it. Because they just would have gone on and on!
downthetubes: So you like to bring strange phenomena down to earth?
Hunt: I like to try. I’ve just done that with the latest Phenomenomix. In the new edition of Fortean Times the main subject is sea serpents. And so in the strip, Gully Bull – the Fortean detective with a ‘nose for the odd’ – sees a sea serpent, and he has to interrupt his seaside holiday to investigate the occurrence. Because it may be an weird event, but for him it’s his job. It’s just nonsense, really. Generally that’s how the strips go, well that’s how the best ones go. That’s what writing is for me. The writing bit is the fun bit, but after it’s written it’s just hard work.
downthetubes: You mean Illustrating the story you’ve put together?
Hunt: Well I already know what it’s going to look like – I just have to draw the bloody thing!
downthetubes: So where do you tend to get your ideas for Phenomenomix stories?
Hunt: First of all there are lots of books. But looking for ideas is always a problem, looking for approaches. Sometimes it can take me two or three days just to come up with an idea, and I’m thinking: ‘It’s not going to happen! What the hell will I do?!?’ But something always comes up in the end. Sometimes I just sit and think what I fancy drawing and what would be Fortean. But that doesn’t usually work. In the end, I often go to old copies of Fortean Times and just open them randomly until I find something that’s interesting. Sometimes I just make things up.
downthetubes: [Laughs] You make up phenomena?
Hunt: Oh yeah! Well it’s all the same, you know? Like the thing about fishes falling from the sky. I’ve done several about that, and one of them has a character who looks like a huge fish with legs coming out of its mouth! It turns out that inside is a smaller fish, and inside it is an even smaller fish, and inside that is a bloke who’s been hit three times by fish falling out of the sky. I think that’s the case.
downthetubes: The fish inside bigger fish certainly rings a bell!
Hunt: So yeah, I make them up. Sometimes I just invent things. My favourite invented one is the Yelpenburg Yell, which is a peculiar geographical feature in the Alps, where, if you shout, your echo comes back before you shouted! It means that when you’ve heard the echo you can actually reply to it, and get an argument going.
downthetubes: So are some phenomena difficult to adapt into strips?
Hunt: There are some things in phenomenology that don’t work for me – like conspiracy theories. There are a lot of those around, and I can’t get my head around them. I think possibly because they’re too abstract. Also, things like conspiracies tend to involve masses of people and masses of events. That’s just too much to draw. The other thing about conspiracies is that they spread, and they change. So it’s not really a subject for doing in a single-page gag comic. It’s the sort of thing that would have to be over a longer stretch, and I’m not that interested when things like cryptozoology are easier.
Then with ghosts, you have a character that looks like a sheet wandering about the place! So what? And ghost stories often involve things happening that you can’t see. Like people having feelings about places, which isn’t very graphic. So if I was to try to tackle a ghost story it would have to change a lot from just being about a ghost. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, but I definitely don’t deal with conspiracy theories and I also try to stay away from anything that might be too controversial. I mean, if you start dealing with weird religions or evangelical Christian manifestations then there are a lot of strange people out there, and the stranger end of them are possibly going to be readers of Fortean Times.
downthetubes: And they might live in your street!
Hunt: Well they don’t have to live in your street anymore, do they? They can get you remotely!
downthetubes: I hadn’t thought about controversial subjects. I guess you also avoid anything to do with living people that might be rich enough to sue you?
Hunt: [Laughs] It depends what it is, but yeah. Yes. Also, I don’t go towards things like ritual murders, and that sort of weirdo stuff.
downthetubes: I don’t know how you could make that funny either.
Hunt: You couldn’t. Not without being unnecessarily offensive. If I was to read it myself it would make me feel uncomfortable, so I stay away from it. Anyway, there’s always something else to do. Something that’s jollier.
downthetubes: Are there certain odd events or folklore or legends you find yourself returning to with Phenomenomix?
Hunt: Actually, folklore is a good one. I like to come back to that, because it’s always been an interest of mine – folklore and folk music. Then it’s trying to find a different way to do it. Like doing stuff about the world of faeries is difficult to do without it always coming out like Tinker Bell. So it kind of strains the storytelling ability to find a different way. Sometimes I can find something, and sometimes I just have to go on with something else.
There’s also something I haven’t mentioned, which of course is the work of Charles Fort. Charles Fort started all of this in the 1930s. He was an American who came into an inheritance that enabled him not to work. So he spent the rest of his life in the New York public library, and then the British Library, going through old newspapers and magazine files looking for odd occurrences. Because he believed that there was a lot of stuff that was dismissed by science, but was reported on and believed in by people it happened to. He started the whole idea of Fortean study – or whatever it is. Of collecting information and saying this happened or was reported to have happened, and it’s preposterous for academics to say that it’s not true just because it doesn’t fit their orthodoxy.
Anyway, his books are almost unreadable! [Laughs] He wrote four, and he had a very idiosyncratic way of writing. It’s a very odd style. So I haven’t read them cover to cover, but they’re good to go to for source material. It’s difficult to sift things out from them, but for example if you want to look at rains of blood, and you go to an index to find things falling from the sky then you’ll find five pages of maybe 200 examples. They range through history, from things in The Bible through to things he’s unearthed in The Countryman magazine – or Hare And Hound from 1876 – or something. You’ll find yellow sand falling out of the sky, or red sand falling somewhere else, and all that sort of stuff. Rains of blood, frogs, fishes, hazelnuts. Of course, actually using his words is difficult, because as I say his writing style is so complicated. But his books are good for source material for sure.
downthetubes: I remember reading a Phenomenomix strip where you tried to cover 200 phenomena in two pages!
Hunt: Oh yes, right. That was pure Charles Fort. That was just dipping in and out of his books. So there are all the different kinds of falls – and this, that and the other. But he has them all there, you see, in his chapter about falls in whatever book it was. Just Google Charles Fort, and look at a few pages. That would be all that you’d need to get an idea of what they’re like. The ideas are there, it’s just that you have to wade through so much stuff to get at them – and that stuff does include his strange way of writing.
downthetubes: So how you go about doing justice to subjects in Phenomenomix that have centuries of history or need a lot of exposition?
Hunt: I think you have to assume a certain level of education among the readership to start with. So you don’t have to explain too much about what the Crimean War was – or whatever it is.
downthetubes: So rather than telling the whole history of some battle you might just have one soldier giving readers a potted history.
Hunt: Exactly, because I don’t want to draw an entire bloody battle! [Laughter] Actually, that’s very true of the whole writing process. When I’m writing Phenomenomix I’ll write the story and I won’t edit it too much to start with. So if I’m writing something about a Roman battle I’ll write about the Battle Of Philippi or something – or was that the Greeks? But when I’m editing it I’ll cut out bits and re-word things so that I don’t have to draw the whole lot, I only have to draw two legionnaires and then get on to the rest of it.
downthetubes: Do you treat Phenomenomix strips differently that are based on phenomena that may well be real but are known to have been faked?
Hunt: Well it’s the Fortean approach. It’s just what I was saying before about not being required to believe or disbelieve anything. I mean, yes, there are things that are obvious fakes, and there are some things that are obviously true. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s in-between. Crop circles, for example. I believe there’s some sort of meteorological phenomenon that’s created simple circles in crops at times right the way through history. Then of course there are all of the elaborate ones, which everybody knows now were done by artists. But for a good long time there was all this nonsense about them being messages from the stars, ritualistic magic and all the rest of it. I never believed that, but I was quite happy to read about them, and to take them in, and if necessary do a strip about them.
downthetubes: Does it just give you more opportunities for humour if you cover fraudulent phenomenon that have been debunked?
Hunt: I mean, sure. There’s nothing like a good fake! [Laughs] One of the things about my comics is that the characters in them always know they’re in a comic. So something can be proven to be a fake but still happen in the comic – because it’s just a comic. Then it can still be called out as a fake that actually happened.
downthetubes: So you could have the real Bigfoot watching fake Bigfoot footage in a strip and saying that it looks nothing like him?
Hunt: That sort of thing, yeah. But it’s such a wide subject, and it doesn’t get controversial in terms of politics or in any other way. Even conspiracy stuff that brings in the FBI and things like that isn’t political dynamite. They’re just not things that would appear on the news.
downthetubes: Something like a conspiracy about the moon landings being faked just wouldn’t be topical enough.
Hunt: Those were obviously not faked, but there are a lot of people who believe they were. But it doesn’t make any real difference to anybody.
downthetubes: You mentioned that conspiracies don’t make great strips. Could a conspiracy about faking the moon landings work?
Hunt: Hmm. Like having them faked and filmed, but it turning out that they were actually filmed on the moon!
downthetubes: Yes, by aliens – who send the tape down to earth!
Hunt: A couple of years ago, before the pandemic, so 2019, I went to a conference in Manchester called Awakenings, a ‘UFO and Conscious Life Expo.’ It was the anniversary of the moon landings, and that was the theme of that year. There were all of these people with books to sell doing panel talks about the faking of it, and about ancient mechanical artifacts being found on the moon, and so on, and that was fascinating. There are some weird ideas out there. [Laughs]
downthetubes: Although I find that genuinely interesting.
Hunt: It was, yeah. Did you know that Buzz Aldrin was a Freemason? A third degree Freemason, and he wore his grandfather’s Masonic ring on the flight. The reason Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon was so that he could then be there to film the first Mason on the moon, as Buzz Aldrin came down the steps!
downthetubes: That’s an unusual take on events.
Hunt: Apparently he did some sort of ritual on the moon that was significant – a Masonic ritual – while he was there. I mean, in a private sort of way. He didn’t have an altar set up or anything like that, but he did something or other. Now this is all very interesting, and it was interesting to hear it spoken about by the writer involved, but I always thought Buzz Aldrin was a Catholic!
downthetubes: That kind of blows that up a bit.
Hunt: Yeah. But I don’t mind, I like the story!
downthetubes: And it would work as a Phenomenomix strip with paranormal investigator Gully Bull interviewing the author. He’s the closest the strip has to a regular character, what makes him suitable for some strips and not others?
Hunt: He’s always useful as a way to make a story go. He doesn’t have to be in every one, but obviously it’s a good idea to have a protagonist, someone to carry things on. Right from the start, Gully Bull seemed like the right name for him, with his ‘famous nose for mystery.’ With the very first one I did, I hadn’t thought of him as a recurring character. He looked quite different, much more like a balloon on legs, and he had a bowler hat. Then he had this long, pointy nose, and that’s what stuck. He wears a trilby now, but the nose is still there. I don’t make a great play of it, but the idea is that he’s led by his ‘nose for mystery.’ Sometimes he’s directly being led by it, and sometimes it’s not mentioned at all, it’s just there if it happens.
downthetubes: So why did you initially introduce him?
Hunt: Because it’s good to have a character to make things work. Sometimes a story will work by itself and not need a character, it’ll just need a narrator – maybe not even that. But sometimes you just need something to get it going, somebody to ask the questions.
downthetubes: And whoever he bumps into is his straight man.
Hunt: Yes, that’s right. But he doesn’t actually need anybody to exchange ideas with, because he’s already doing that by the very nature of what he does. He doesn’t need an oppo, because he breaks the fourth wall all the time, and speaks directly to the reader.
downthetubes: Ok, from Gully Bull to Madame Astraloozi. Who is she, and how did she end up appearing in a number of Phenomenomix strips?
Hunt: Somehow or other I came up with this name, and I just liked the sound of it. So I doodled, and I got this nice looking woman, and she worked well in that first strip. So I did two or three, and it ended up as I think seven over a period of six or seven years. It was a bit difficult to do, actually, as I’m not really very good at writing long stories, and they take me too long. But over the time that I’ve had Madame Astraloozi she’s started to develop a world, where there’s this woman Vera, who’s her sidekick, who first of all is just there, but then turns out to be like her maid and assistant. As I’ve been doing it, I’ve started to work out what’s going on, which is that Vera is the one who has the actual powers – even though she doesn’t really know it herself or isn’t quite aware of it. Madame Astraloozi is a fake, but she knows she’s a fake. She also knows that Vera has the powers, and she makes use of them in her fakery. Whereas Vera doesn’t bother.
downthetubes: How about the appearances that your better known characters like Max Zillion and Pilgrim make in Phenomenomix?
Hunt: If I need a jazz player in Phenomenomix then I put Max Zillion in, because why not? The Pilgrim strips, there are two of those in Phenomenomix, but I did a whole bunch of strips about him in other publications. Pilgrim is an old hippie, and the very first Pilgrim strip was for a programme for the Reading Rock Festival. Then I did some others for various other things, and they were eventually collected in a book called The Festival Ritual. But before then I must have been looking for an idea for a Phenomenomix, and thinking about what I might use, then coming up with Glastonbury and meditation, and coming up the psychedelic garden party. Well Pilgrim would work in those. So those strips were originally drawn for Phenomenomix, then used in the Pilgrim book. Puss Puss is in a Phenomenomix strip too, isn’t he?
downthetubes: Yes. It’s quite clever, because it’s about Gully Bull investigating big cat sightings!
Hunt: And I used Puss Puss just because he’s so big! I keep saying that it’s all down to necessity; to get the thing in on deadline. So getting an idea and getting on with it, and if that idea involves Puss Puss, well alright, I’m not going to worry about if the context is right or not. Because it’s only a comic! [Laughs]
downthetubes: I suppose it helps sometimes to have cameos, like Pilgrim, because you know exactly what he would do in certain situations.
Hunt: That’s it. If I’m thinking about a psychedelic themed strip about a garden fair, well Pilgrim’s the one to use. Because he’s the character I have who would be most likely to do that – rather than just any old hippie. Because that’s what he is: an old hippie.
downthetubes: And I guess spaced-out hippies and phenomena go hand-in-hand.
Hunt: Yes. I mean, I was a spaced-out hippie, and I got into all of this. A lot of us were! [Laughs] Strange goings on came into popular culture in the Sixties because they were weird, and because of drugs and things. Of course, the study of all this stuff has happened all the way through history – see my previous volume, Lives Of The Great Occultists!
downthetubes: All right, back to the Phenomenomix book. How complete a collection of the strips is it?
Hunt: It’s not entirely complete. I did quite a lot of strips in black and white in the early days. None of them are in there, well one or two of them are, but those have been coloured later. There have been strips produced since I did the book, of course. But there are also one or two that I think have escaped somewhere. I don’t know of any that I specifically excluded, but there may be one or two that I decided weren’t good enough – or that I haven’t been able to find. Because there’s a lot of paper pages, and a lot of computer files!
downthetubes: I thought you were going to go on to say that it’s a phenomenon: the lost cartoonist’s pages! Where do they all go?!?
Hunt: [Laughs] I could make the book as big as I liked, and I did keep adding more pages until Tony Bennett at Knockabout said: ‘That’s enough!’ The first print quotes he got were on 220 pages, but as time went on I was adding more and more. Even at the end, the final page of the book was blank, and Tony was saying: ‘It’s ok. You can have a blank page.’ But then I drew a new strip, and it’s on the last page of the book, and it’s sort of a goodbye wave – to say that Phenomenomix continues. So I phoned Tony and said that I wanted to put it on the back page, and he said: ‘Alright then, if you must, ok.’ Because it didn’t add to the cost at all.
downthetubes: So how much is the Phenomenomix book, and where can people find it?
Hunt: It’s £22.99, and it’s just now starting to get into the shops. Waterstones will have it, and it’ll also be available on Amazon. But for my purposes, the best place to buy it is from me. Because I get the money then.
downthetubes: So that would be largecow.com?
Hunt: That’s right, yes. You get a signed version with a little scribble on it, and you also get one or two stickers, and fridge magnets and things like that. I like free gifts, so I just shove them in with the books. I like to think that I’m giving people something that’s like a little present from me.
downthetubes: I should probably ask if there’s anything else I should have asked you?
Hunt: I think the only other thing to say is that everyone should read Fortean Times!
downthetubes: Absolutely. Because Fortean Times needs to keep coming out in order for more Phenomenomix strips to be published.
Hunt: Well, I’m part of the furniture there now.
Our thanks to Hunt for the interview.
• Buy Knockabout titles by Hunt Emerson at all good book shops or on the Knockabout eBay Store
Rory Milne has been a freelance writer for the award-winning games magazine Retro Gamer since 2011, he contributed to the final issue of GamesTM in 2018 and occassionally finds time to write about his first love, comics. He can be contacted on Twitter at @Rory_S_Milne or Facebook at facebook.com/rory.milne.writer