We Could Be Heroes

Comic artists Gene Ha and Zander Cannon create a universe where everyone has higher powers

"I only draw one face," Cannon says, laughing. "If I want to make it into a different character, I add a mustache." Indeed, Cannon's illustrations have a smooth-lined generality to them, as though they were made from basic shapes, such as circles and squares. Ha's illustrations, by contrast, look more like portraiture. But Ha avoids composing images on the page. He explains that he isn't particularly fond of figuring out where characters will stand in relation to one another, and where a building or a tree might be in a frame. So for Top 10, Cannon composed the basic layout of the pages, which tell of a team of crime fighters and their adventures in a world where even the mice are superintelligent.

Ha then went in and added fastidious details, turning the landscape into a place of breathtaking complexity. The frames of Top 10 are crowded with images, from parachuting cowboys to wheelchair-using superheroes (including, for some reason, one of Dr. Who's daleks) who carry placards demanding equal access. These characters have no obvious bearing on the story we are reading, but they provide marvelous atmosphere. They peer into the comic book's frames from the background, seemingly living out weird lives that we will never see more than a peek of. In the foreground are Top 10's main characters, which include a semi-invisible lesbian as well as a Doberman pinscher equipped with an android/human body. This crew plays out a gritty series of crime melodramas that borrow as heavily from NYPD Blue as they do from the conventions of the comic book.

It has been a year since Top 10 reached the end of its 12-issue run, closing out with the rather surprising revelation that one of the series' main characters has been in a same-sex relationship since he was 16 years old, back in 1949. Top 10 has since been compiled into two books by its publisher. And Ha is hard at work on the prequel, a graphic novel, tentatively scheduled for release in 2003, which will investigate some of the themes that Top 10's ending alluded to. Cannon's sequel, Smax, is due out in miniseries form sometime next year.

A frame from Gene Ha and Alan Moore's work in progress, 'The 49ers,' features the vet drawn after the image of collaborator Zander Cannon
Gene Ha
A frame from Gene Ha and Alan Moore's work in progress, 'The 49ers,' features the vet drawn after the image of collaborator Zander Cannon

As with Ha's The 49ers illustrations, which are filled with forgotten superheroes, Cannon crowds his frames with images from past fantasies: Characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales abound. But just as Cannon's images are more cartoonlike than Ha's, his in-jokes are also a bit goofier. His imagined universe is filled with images borrowed from the covers of heavy-metal albums, for example; in the background of one frame, he has Britney Spears riding a unicorn.

 

Cannon and Ha are only two of the three collaborators on these Top 10-related endeavors. The miniseries was scripted by comic-book legend Alan Moore, a bearded and wild-haired eccentric who lives in his childhood home of Northampton, England. Moore may be best known for having penned a miniseries for DC Comics in 1986 called Watchmen which detailed the fading days of a group of aging superheroes, regrouped to battle one last global crisis. Beyond this, Moore has been responsible for some of the most distinctive comic-book scripts from the past two decades. His grim, heavily annotated retelling of the Jack the Ripper murders (42 pages of notes! In a comic book!), titled From Hell, was recently made into a film starring Johnny Depp.

"How did I meet Alan?" Ha asks. "I was talking on the phone to another comic-book artist who was already working with him. I told him that I wished I was working with Alan Moore too...so he told me to get off my lazy ass and do it. Honestly, I never had thought of just looking for work with him. The first company for which he was working was interested in my work, but they collapsed before I could do anything. But the second company, Wildstorm, is still here. And I'm still working with them..." (There was a fourth collaborator on Top 10 at the start as well, a fellow named Todd Klein, who lettered the early issues, roughed in the page designs, and created the Top 10 logo.)

These are the days in which comics are created over vast distances. The advent of the Internet is a part of this--collaborators often communicate with each other via e-mail--but the evolution of Federal Express and the fax machine are just as important in this case. In fact, without this last, Ha and Cannon's collaboration with Alan Moore would have been impossible. In a typically contrary move, the author refuses to use the Internet. "I don't think he likes change very much," Ha offers by way of explanation. Moore leaves his house very rarely, and has joked with Ha and Cannon that he doesn't even like the other end of the living room. "People have strange customs there," he joked to his illustrators.

And so Moore's scripts, often written in one sitting without any planning, would hop the Atlantic via fax machine and then jump between the artists and a half-dozen editors. This occasionally resulted in scripts that were all but illegible. "He's got a computer," Ha says in mock frustration. "Why can't someone just trick him and set up the Internet for him?"

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