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.
"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.
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?"
Once reached by fax, the two young illustrators would begin their painstaking work, Cannon mapping out how the action would fall on the page, and Ha superimposing his exquisitely detailed pencil (and, eventually, ink) drawings of characters and locations. That spirit of collaboration continues to this day, even as Ha and Cannon work on their own separate Top 10-inspired projects. Their offices are next to each other, and Ha, when illustrating the main character in The 49ers, will occasionally wander next door to take a few snapshots of Cannon.
Cannon's office has a messy, lived-in quality to it. His walls are lined with bagged comic books, and a "Slow, Children at Play" sign hangs above his desk. Toys abound, as do pages of notes. In a few weeks, Cannon will pick through the office, packing some of it and throwing the remainder away. He is preparing to move to Japan, where his wife has a job as an English teacher in Utsunomiya, a city about 100 miles north of Tokyo, home to Honda, Aiwa, and Kirin Beer. And so it shall be that, via fax and FedEx, two illustrators, one living in Minneapolis, one in Utsunomiya, will be creating a new world with a comic-book writer in Northampton.
"I'll still be working with Zander," Ha explains. "He told me that if I need any more Zander Cannon references, just send him an e-mail. He'll take a digital photo and send it to me." For the original Superman, of course, such a trivial technological exchange would have taken nothing less than superhero powers.