There is no mistakingit if you walk into a comic-book store: There are a lot of superheroes in this world. Comic books in America have a long and varied history, with some fascinating genres that involved no capes, no secret identities, and no exceptional power. EC Comics, for example, once devoted a series to the study of psychoanalysis. Archie and his gang from Riverdale High are still going strong, despite the fact that their only obvious superpower seems to be the ability to use 1920s slang and story lines in works set in 2002. But ever since Superman debuted on the cover of Action Comics #1 in June of 1938, sporting his familiar blue suit and red cape and hurtling a green automobile, superheroes have been the dominant characters in American comics. They are the financial backbone of the industry's two giants, DC and Marvel, where they still hurtle cars in scores of new issues every month. They glare singly from comic-book covers, or pair up, or in some instances form entire gangs of heroes. How many X-Men are there now? Thousands? Eventually, one supposes, there might be entire worlds filled with such heroes, and what would that look like?
Gene Ha would know. This 33-year-old, who on a recent afternoon was wearing glasses and a black Guinness T-shirt, demonstrates what this realm might look like by brandishing a recent page of his work. It is drawn on a 10-by-15-inch piece of pre-manufactured art board (Eon Productions makes them in both smooth finish and two-ply Bristol). Ha has neatly divided this surface with lines into a series of long panels. Each contains a meticulously detailed pencil drawing and follows the course of a young man's travels by train through a city of superheroes.
These are the opening images of The 49ers, a graphic novel that is a prequel of sorts to a series called Top 10 (published by America's Best Comics). The original series was an industry favorite, winning an Eisner Award for "Best New Series," the comic industry's highest accolade. Not coincidentally, Top 10 was scripted by one of the most celebrated writers in the comics industry, Alan Moore.
This new miniseries, The 49ers, is set midway through the last century, in a universe where everybody boasts a superpower of one kind or another. Ha has filled each frame with characters from the era, some terribly obscure. In one frame, for example, stands Big Chief Wahoo. This 1936 creation of Allen Saunders debuted in a parody of Western comics, but eventually--almost inexplicably--transformed over the years into Steve Roper and Mike Nomad. (King Features still distributes this daily comic strip of international intrigue to about 50 newspapers, minus Big Chief Wahoo, of course, the times being what they are.) Chief Wahoo lives on in name as the embattled mascot of the Cleveland Indians, a wide-smiled, red-faced, feather-bearing caricature. But Saunders's Wahoo, who sported a beaten ten-gallon cowboy hat, a bandoleer, and pigtails, is long gone--except, of course, in Gene Ha's pencil drawing, superimposed upon a vaguely industrial American city in the 1940s, which is probably where he belongs.
Big Chief Wahoo is not the most interesting character in the frame, however. He is hidden in the background, barely visible in a crowd scene. Instead, the story follows around a tall, somewhat mysterious, handsome-visaged doughboy who looks something like a thin Ben Affleck. "Do you recognize him?" Ha asks.
Of course. The character is the likeness of Zander Cannon, who just now sits opposite Ha. Cannon, who is 29 years old, is also bespectacled, and he wears a blue Giant Robot T-shirt. It is Cannon's downtown Minneapolis office we are in (he shares it with fellow comic-book artist Vincent Stall). Ha often draws the images for his comic-book characters from live models, and for the shady main character in The 49ers, he has chosen Cannon, a sort of a tribute to the fact that the two collaborated on illustrating Top 10.
The two came into the field about the same time--the early Nineties--during an explosion of independent comics. Both had illustrated in college, Ha earning a BFA in illustration from the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Cannon writing and drawing an oddball cartoon called "Booperman" for the Grinnell College newspaper in Iowa. Ha illustrated comics for independent publishers such as Dark Horse for a few years, collaborating on creating Oktane, a satiric four-issue mini-comic about a nine-foot-tall giant cutting a swath of destruction through Las Vegas. Cannon likewise wrote and illustrated for independent companies, and he self-created the energetic medieval miniseries The Replacement God for Slave Labor graphics.
"We first met at a comic-book signing in Lafayette, Indiana," Ha says of Cannon. "I'd never heard of him. He was a nice, quiet fellow who gave me some of his comics. I never expect much from the work in these cases. But when I got home and read them, I was deeply impressed. His series Replacement God is clever, energetic, and fun. So when I ended up in Minneapolis and needed an assistant, I looked him up."
Cannon has opened his Web page, at zandercannon.com, to show off some details from his own forthcoming project, a kind of sequel to Top 10 called Smax the Barbarian. The differences between his drawing style and Ha's are readily apparent. "My illustrations are more cartoony," Cannon points out, and indeed his Web page identifies him as "Zander Cannon, Cartoonist. "If Gene wants to draw a Gothic church, he will go out and take photographs of a Gothic church." Perhaps matching this visual style, Ha has a somewhat introspective quality to him, while Cannon is garrulous and jocular.