Jesse Hamm: Exceptional artist, Generous Human (and Meme Master!)

Since the passing of Jesse Hamm one week ago, I’ve been mulling over something to say to honor him. I met him around 2007 and many people have known him longer and more in depth than I, but I always felt lucky to consider him a friend. In 2007 I aspired to draw comics and joined Portland’s Helioscope Studio (what was then known as Mercury Studio) and came into the good fortune of working alongside Jesse as a background penciler for comic artist pros like Ron Randall, David Hahn and Matthew Clark who were generous enough to provide the extra work they had to people like me who wanted to work professionally. I quickly began to notice that Jesse was adept at background pencils and was impressed by his underdrawings and perspective grids and realized I should pay attention to his work if I knew what was good for me. When I saw his drawings for Good As Lily (DC Comics, 2007) I became aware of just how skilled he was. Not only at technical drawing, but also his ability to draw expressive characters and dynamic sequentials. I could see influences of Alex Toth, Dan Decarlo and Jaime Hernandez, but his was an entirely unique voice.

From there on out, I became a Hamm-head and followed his work as is unfolded to be more impressively layered than even my first positive impression. I noticed the subtly of the gestures in his figures and how he pushed beyond the way superheroes are typically rendered and posed by emphasizing their humanity and integrity.

Recent commission, color.

Reading his essays on comics and drawing (his “Hamm Tips”) was a jaw-dropping revelation for me. Here was a guy who was not only exceedingly talented at his craft, but made the effort to generously offer up everything he had learned about that craft so freely and eloquently. Jesse’s “Hamm Tips” are still available on his Gumroad . They are absolutely accessible to all skill levels, empowering and inspirational to anyone interested in learning about the craft of comics and the art of drawing.

One of my early memories of Jesse was sometime in the first year of working in the studio. I showed him my quirky freshman effort of a comic book. He turned his attention completely toward it, read it page by page at a desk just a few feet away from me. He didn’t judge it critically despite its flaws and he genuinely seemed entertained by it. His response felt so validating. That may have been Jesse’s greatest superpower, his ability to enable creators to put their work out into the world. He saw great value in the voices of fellow creators. You can hear it in his essays and see it practiced in his own work.

Thinking back on my memories of Jesse, I thought of the times we tabled together at conventions, I always felt like I needed a shirt that read “I’m with Genius.” To me, not enough people fully understood how good he was. Of course there were many who absolutely knew and he always had commissions during those shows, but I felt that his art was underrated. One day in 2015 was different, though. He nonchalantly dropped an image on his Tumblr and wrote, “For those of you who don’t understand archaeology, I have made a diagram.”

And those of us at Helioscope Studio (then Periscope Studio) got to watch it go viral in real time. I love the two hashtags #jesse hamm #archaeology. The simplicity of it, the oddly confident voice of the caption, it was meme perfection. I remember it got rolling and we were placing bets if it would break 50,000 likes by midnight. This viewing party was taking place in an email thread, but I could sense Jesse’s pleasure and it felt to me like all was right in the world for a brief moment as Jesse’s wit and creativity was being celebrated in the best way that 2015 had to offer.

We encouraged him to make a T-shirt and with his wife Anna’s help it was available on a store site (unfortunately, I don’t think it’s available to purchase anymore). I bought a couple and my eldest son was wearing Jesse’s shirt the day we drove by Stonehenge. (Well, the Stonehenge of Washington state, anyway.)

If you mine the work that Jesse posted online (via Instagram, Tumblr, etc.) you will be greatly rewarded. I would look forward to his holiday-themed drawings of which there are many, like these two Christmas gags:

“Ho ho HO.

Over the years, as I’ve become an illustrator who often works on a computer in a home studio, and of course with the isolation that has been required of all of us over the past year, I saw very little of Jesse, but I took it for granted that we would continue to cross paths. I would look forward to his posts on Toucan as well as the Hamm Tips that are still available on Gumroad. I took it for granted there would be many more. Now I just hope there will be a collection of his comic art and a book of his Hamm Tips. He left us so much to remember him by and I’m grateful that I can hear his voice in my head as I read those essays, but right now the loss feels like too much. All of us have lost a great ally to our creative expression. Thank you, Jesse, for your generous gifts.

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