I discovered Gene Ha’s work through his collaboration with Alan Moore and Zander Cannon on the brilliant Top Ten, the story of a world where everyone has super powers, and the police that have to struggle to keep the peace. Ha and Cannon’s highly detailed work was inspirational, and I’ve followed the pair of them ever since.
He is truly one of the nicest guys in comics, with a unique and expressive style that elevates any book he works on. Ha has worked for everyone from DC to Marvel, and everything in-between, but now he’s striking out on his own with Mae, his first creator owned work. He has been working on the book for over a year, and still finds time to draw free sketches for children at library appearances.
Gene took the time out to speak with us a little about his career, self publishing, and this Kickstarter campaign.
First off, I always like to ask creators about their “origin story”. At what age did you begin drawing, and was your family supportive?
I had two brothers who were both better at drawing than me, so I was drawing for as long as I can remember! It never stopped. Both of my brothers were also more athletic and social than me so they moved onto things like high school football and dances. They didn’t spend hours on one drawing. I did.
My dad was a doctor and he never understood my geeky passions. Both of my parents thought art was a silly career choice, but my dad put me through art school. So he was never supportive of me in words but he was in his actions. I’m very lucky that way.
I wanted to draw comics as soon as I saw an artist credit. Around the Christmas of 1975 I remember telling my mom I wanted to be an artist, and she warned me that artists usually end up cutting off their ear like Vincent Van Gogh did. I didn’t completely believe her even though I still believed in Santa at that point.
Anyhow, the first comics I remember vividly were Gene Colan issues of Daredevil. Daredevil went insane, busted into Avengers Mansion and took down the Avengers. I’d read comics before then but the darkness of the story and the art shocked me. I can remember tracing a panel of Daredevil throwing Cap’s shield, trying to capture the emotional power.
Oh, certainly! Gene Colan and Mike Grell were my first comic art idols. I didn’t know Neal Adams’ work so I didn’t see his influence on artists like Grell and Sienkiewicz. Funnily enough, I just now Googled the Tarzan paperback covers that influenced me as a kid and found out they were painted by Neal Adams! In my memory I thought they were Boris Vallejo covers.
Later I discovered artists like John Byrne, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Matt Wagner. Of those three Matt Wagner’s work on Mage remains my biggest influence. The splattery airbrush look of Mae is derived from the loose airbrush work of Wagner. Sienkiewicz and classic Spanish painters like Joaquín Sorolla and Diego Velázquez are also important to me.
You have a very unique, easily recognizable, ever-evolving style. How did you develop it?
My style comes from how I see the world. I don’t see the world in terms of line, I see forms and color and light. This is from my childhood love of Maxfield Parrish, the Impressionists, John Singer Sargent, Sorolla, the Dutch masters, and their ultimate inspiration, Velázquez. Of course, that’s all filtered through my love of old superhero comics.
In my childhood I was limited to pencils, felt tip pens, cheap colored pencils and cheap watercolors. If I’d had access to better tools then my style would have become very different! I could draw comic book art but I couldn’t recreate the paintings I love.
I was never good with paints until I got to art school and took an oil painting class. You can’t paint like Sargent or Sorolla with watercolors or acrylic: the medium will fight you. When I got to play with oils I suddenly could do what I’d been trying to do all along! I went to the College For Creative Studies in Detroit.
I spent my first 10 years in comics working in black and white and occasionally inkwash and grayscale marker. My material had to work inside the US comics industry assembly line model. I didn’t have Photoshop and a tabloid size scanner so I couldn’t produce final art on my own. Once I did get those tools I quickly realized that I could apply oil painting technique in Photoshop. I still use a thick black outline but inside the figure I paint digitally.
From the images and synopsis, ‘Mae’ sounds like a fun book for all ages. What can you tell our readers about ‘Mae’?
Mae is the story of two sisters. The older sister, Abbie, disappeared 8 years ago at the age of 13. Mae Fortell has no idea what happened to her sister. She takes care of their ailing dad, begins running the family business, and graduates from high school. The tale begins when Mae gets a call late one night from the sheriff’s office. Her sister is drunk and she needs to be picked up.
Abbie says she’s been fighting monsters and mad scientists and leading a savage tribe of stray cat barbarians. These claims are hard to believe, at least until the monsters start showing up too…
Obviously I love the tales of Oz and Barsoom. Bill Willingham tells me this subgenre is called portal fiction. The most direct inspiration was Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn. I read that around 1993. I took a lot of the basic premise from Kyle’s book. Two loving but quarrelling sisters, one of whom claims she spent years in a fantasy world. The only page of framed art I have in my studio is a page from Why I Hate Saturn.
The other direct inspiration was Phil Hester and Mike Worley’s 1998 comic book The Picture Taker. That story begins with someone picking up their reckless friend from jail.
Once I began mixing those together, the story bloomed in unexpected ways.
You’ve worked with some of the top names in the industry. What made you want to strike out on your own with ‘Mae’?
I want control of the stories I tell. That’s not going to happen unless I own the property.
I love telling Top 10 stories but Zander and I need DC Comics’ permission to do it. When I signed a two year exclusive with DC I expected to finish up Zander’s Top 10 Season Two. Totally sensibly, DC didn’t want me drawing a low profit comic while they had me on a higher page rate.
I’m grateful to DC and Marvel for all of the great stories they’ve let me tell, but I want to steer my own path now. I have no idea if I’ll be able to maintain my drive and creativity working on corporate owned characters for another five or ten years. Mae is a story I’d happily tell for the rest of my life.
For practical purposes, the main difference is money! When you work for a reputable comics publisher you get paid a set fee within a month. On creator owned books you don’t know if you’ll ever get paid. Most indie books are money losing ventures. This was no small risk for me. My Kickstarter only took 36 hours to crack the initial goal, but I’d been living off of my savings for much of 2014 getting the book ready.
Emotionally it’s totally worth it. If you have a story you’ve been dying to tell your whole career it feels great finally sending it off into the world. And I love that no one can stop me from doing it. I just need to make sure that there’s an audience eager to read it, so it’s a blessing to live in the age of Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is more than a financial transfer company, it’s a real community. My mentors like Kenneth Hite, Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder, Jimmy Palmiotti and Ryan Browne love it. Jimmy has created a series of Kickstarter books, and he’s built up a relationship with his regular backers. If you treat people right they’ll remember. Of course, I hope to be too busy to ever run a Kickstarter again!
I’m sure having friends with highly successful campaigns helps guide the process a bit. What kinds of advice have you gotten from the likes of Jimmy Palmiotti and Ryan Browne?
Jimmy taught me the basics of how a comics Kickstarter works. We first met at his 2013 Long Beach Comic Con Kickstarter panel, but he’s always been good about answering my newbie questions by email. I launched Mae at a major convention, C2E2, on his advice.
Ryan sat me down for an afternoon and showed me all of the tools that Kickstarter gives project creators. Most importantly, he introduced me to Kickstarter’s staff. Their job is to make your campaign a success. They’ve really fine tuned their model over time.
Renae De Liz’s Peter Pan GN Kickstarter has a great summary. My figures are similar. The first cut, roughly 10%, goes to Kickstarter and Amazon finance. Next, at least half the money goes to printing and shipping the book and other rewards. The time I spend preparing packages and making sketches doesn’t count into that. Some of it will pay back the expenses I’ve already incurred: mainly that my graphic designer Anette Nam did thousands of dollars of work on spec! In the run up to the launch she was getting as little sleep as I did. Because we’ve done well she deserves a big bonus. She took a huge risk, and risk deserves reward.
Finally there’s the gross profit. Some of that will be spent on refunds and replacing lost books. What remains gets split between me and my plain old income tax payment to Uncle Sam.
Do you have more stories to tell featuring Abbie and Mae if the campaign is successful (Which it seems it already is)?
I have two whole worlds to explore with the Fortell sisters! I have a rough idea of their path, but my story mentor Tim Seeley taught me an important lesson. Plan a little ahead, but spend as much creativity on your current page as you can. You’ll be just as creative tomorrow and even more skilled.
What’s next for Gene Ha?
I don’t have a publishing deal locked down yet, but I hope to soon. After that, I want to focus on producing stories and ignoring things like dealing with printers and distribution. Kickstarter has been a fun education and I’m meeting amazing people, but now that I’ve met them I want to make more stories for them. So ideally I’ll get in a lot of writing and drawing and coloring.
I hope to take a few breaks to finish up projects like Back Roads with Bill Willingham and Top 10 Season 2 with Zander Cannon.
And somewhere along the way I hope to take a vacation where I can read someone else’s comics and sleep. Sleep would be nice.
I’d like to thank Gene for taking the time to chat with us. Check out his Kickstarter campaign below, and if you like what you see, go grab a copy before the campaign is over.
The project, announced at C2E2 to applause, is a labor of love for Ha. Other than adding the “Thank yous” the book is ready to go to the printer. It will be a 68 page full color hardcover with a foreword by sometime collaborator Bill Willingham, with a behind the scenes look at concept art and production, and a bonus “Sunday comic strip” story.
Once upon a time in Indiana… a 13 year-old girl named Abbie Fortell disappeared. Her younger sister, Mae was left behind to finish school, take care of her ailing father, and build a life without her sister. Eight years later Abbie has returned, claiming she’s found a doorway to a world of adventure and monsters. These tales are hard to believe — at least until the monsters show up too…
Ha, with color assist from Rose McClain and graphic design work by Anette Nam, has worked tirelessly to finish the book, even on top of his convention children’s library appearances. They are all very proud of the book, a project decades in the making. The funding goal has been reached, so the book is heading to the printers soon, but Ha has some fantastic stretch goals with rewards featuring artwork by some major names.
Pledge away to get your own copy of Mae, and pick up some awesome bonuses while you’re at it. Ha has signed and unsigned copies of the book in print as well as digital formats, digital wallpapers, t-shirts, mini art prints by Zander Cannon and Mike Norton, 8.5 x 11″ prints by Dan Brereton and Janet Lee, the hardcover Oddities and Apocrypha collecting his best indie stories and sketches, sketched in copies of the book with signed and numbered bookplate and hand written dedication, full color marker sketches, original art, and even the chance to cameo in a future story! And for the big spenders? Gene Ha will come and hang out with you for full eight hours, sketching and chatting with readers, along with copies of the book, prints, and bookmarks to hand out!
Don’t miss out on an awesome read from one of the most unique voices in comics. Head over the Kickstarter page and grab a copy.