This week, I am honored to be interviewing Gene Ha, an artist on volume two of DC’s Black Label Wonder Woman: Historia. Ha is also the writer and artist behind the comic “Mae” and was one of the chief artists involved in his comic “Top 10.”
You can hear our full conversation on Comic Book Herald’s “Creannotators,” on the podcast.
But since some people prefer the ancient art of “reading,” we’ve also transcribed the interview below, talking with James about making the graphic novel. The transcription has been slightly edited for clarity. Read and enjoy!
CBH: Hello and welcome to Comic Book Herald’s Creannotators. I’m Dave Buesing, founder and editor-in-chief of comicbookherald.com. For today’s interview, I’m excited to be joined by artist and storyteller extraordinaire Gene Ha, the artist behind Wonder Woman: Historia, Top Ten, Mae, from Oni Press slash Lion Forge somewhat recently and a whole host of others; we’re going to talk to Gene today about the comics work, including the most recent volume two of Wonder Woman: Historia, which is a big DC Black Label book. So, Gene, first off, thanks so much for joining me. How are you doing this morning?
Ha: It’s good to be here. You know, as the old joke goes, comic book interviews give me a reason to wake up in the afternoon. It’s almost noon, but I have my coffee, so I am ready for the interview.
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CBH: You’re ready to go. Awesome. How are you recovering from slash feeling about what’s been a busy Con season, I’ve heard. I know I recently saw you at C2E2, at Terrific Con before that, how’s the Con season going for you?
Ha: Let me see. So I haven’t gotten anything for most of the summer, before then it was Comic Con Revolution in California, then just the weekend before I did Terrific Con in Connecticut for the first time, which was an amazing small-medium sized convention but with amazing New York lead talent showing up all the time that I’d never seen at conventions before. Let me see, then I got C2E2 the next weekend, which wasn’t hard. The hard part was that I booked too many preshow sketch commissions, so I was working nonstop for two weeks trying to get all these done and just barely squeaked them in, but I got them all ready for pick up.
CBH: Yeah. That’s definitely one thing that stood out to me as I’ve talked to more creators is how busy Con season is for artists a lot of times, especially on the commission front–which is a good problem to have, you know, you have people who want your work, I imagine. But it’s funny, I talked to Nick Dragotta–an amazing artist there as well–and just like “head down, gotta get these commissions done” during the Con. It’s pretty crazy!
Ha: Yeah. The thing for me is that I hate doing the commissions during the convention because then I can’t talk to anybody and anyone who’s a regular artist has seen the famous art who is just nose down, facing their table just finishing up commissions the whole convention, which is kind of like “you know, you might as well mail them in. Why go to the convention to do that?” because you’re not going to experience the convention and they’re not going to experience you.
CBH: Right. Yeah, that’s a tricky Catch 22. Yeah, sure. If you want to see the process in action. Well, good good. I’m glad you’re hanging in there with Cons. It’s been good, getting back out there and doing it, you know, as they’ve been available. So let’s talk a little bit first about Wonder Woman: Historia. So volume two is out now. This is the volume that you produced with Kelly Sue DeConnick. Volume one was with Phillip Jimenez and volume three is going to be with Nicola Scott. How did this project come about for you and how long has it been in the works?
Ha: It came about because I was riding an airport shuttle from the airport to Heroes Con and the other person on the shuttle turned out to be the husband of Kelly Sue DeConick, who happened to know all the projects she was interested in. She wasn’t at the convention, and he said “would you be interested in working with my wife” and I said “Kelly Sue DeConnick? Hell yeah!” So, other than just knowing that she was on it, there was nothing else I knew and I just wanted to do the book.
CBH: So this was just Matt Fraction on a shuttle and you just got to talking and there it is?
Ha: Yeah. I was just like “hi! Do you happen to be in comics? Yeah, I happen to be in comics. Are you Gene Ha? Yeah! Who are you? Matt Fraction. Oh! We’ve never met before! Shake hands and like you know, my wife is interested in working with you some day.” So yeah, it was one of those conversations.
CBH: Just total coincidence, but a perfect match. So, volume two is out now, like I said, as is volume one. People can check these out. Historia is, I think very different from what fans of a Wonder Woman graphic novel might typically expect in that it is intensely lore based, right? It’s about the history of the Amazons as a whole. It’s not a Diana story, at least not yet, right? It is, but it isn’t. What was the experience like for you getting acquainted with the project and working with Kelly Sue in terms of, like, the mission of Historia?
Ha: My on-boarding process when it really got going was getting to read the first script that Phil Jimenez had worked on and then some of the art that Phil had been working on from those scripts. I should mention that the first thing is that if you match in how you’re going to retell the story of the Amazons, my assumption was that you would tell it from the ground. From the view of the women on Earth going through troubles and then showing how this leads to their passion to want to form the Amazons and why they need to. And she did an amazing creative choice, which was she started from the god view point, from the female goddesses of the Greek pantheon, which I thought “how can this work?” but then you read the script and–well, I read the script.
You guys can read the darn comic and you can see–It is amazing! It’s really powerful, and you can really feel their anger and fury and need to do something about the world that humans live in. And then towards the end, she moves to the human scale and it’s amazing how much of a shock it is going back to Earth again. So anyway, that’s the first thing that was an introduction to what I’d just seen. I can’t believe she pulled off this story in this script! And then peaking at Phil’s designs and layouts, the pages he often times had not finished, I’ve described it as Margaret Attwood writing a script for Stanley Kubrick and Alexander McQueen to film and design, and it was the most intimidating project I’ve ever jumped on board of.
Ha: Yeah, I know I would have drawn the script Kelly Sue DeConnick gave to Phil, but seeing how he did it, it was just like “this is insane.” And honestly, he only got done with volume one a few months before I did and he started way before I did. The amount of work he put into that book is insane! And I took forever to get mine done. A really good, well-known artist friend of mine said that essentially Phil has drawn beyond the level of human perception. It’s literal too! You can’t actually register all the details he put into that book! Like, there’s a scene of like a thousand vases floating through the air at different distances and they’re Greek vases, they’re all painted with figures and stories, and some are so tiny you can’t tell what the story is, but he drew them! They’re there. In detail. You just can’t see it with your human eyes.
CBH: Yeah. That’s fascinating. And now an Eisner winning piece of work, right. It’s one room and story and Phil did win the Eisner for pencils. That’s interesting. So you got those images. You got those layouts and some of those designs as you’re already working on volume two. It sounds like you had a sense of what you were looking at in terms of like “wow, this is…I need to try and measure up to this” did you feel….like…I don’t know, how did that competition feel?
Ha: I did not think that. I didn’t think “I need to measure up to this,” I told myself there’s no way I’m going to be able to do what Phil’s doing. There’s no way to be able to out-Phil Phil. So I had to figure out ways to simplify the drawings and the costumes a little bit, or at least how I drew them compared to how Phil did them, while also putting in things that are very Gene Ha to make up for me not being Phil Jimenez. But there’s no way I could out do what he did.
CBH: Yeah. Oh, that’s interesting. So, that’s interesting that even at this stage in your career, you’re accomplished. You’ve won Eisners. You’ve done a lot of good work. I would have thought that something like some of your earliest works or Top 10 where you’re working with Alan Moore has that level of profile would have felt like a bigger challenge, but actually this–you say–is the biggest challenge you’ve felt because of that incredible kick off, essentially.
Ha: Yeah. If the Phil Jimenez of 1998 had done the first issue of Top 10, I feel comfortable I could have done something keeping pace with what he did back then, and I am perfectly comfortable with saying that. If the Gene Ha of today or of 1998 had to draw the second issue of Top 10 after Phil Jimenez had put this level of work into Top 10 number one, there’s no way! There’s no way either of us could have kept up, when I was younger or me now. And Top 10 is famous as a detailed book, but Phil Jimenez went beyond Top 10 level by far.
CBH: Yeah, yeah, no. It’s really something. So ton of respect there. That’s awesome.
Ha: Oh yeah.
CBH: So, in terms of your volume and in terms of what you wanted to do given that, you wanted to talk in the issue’s notes about your goals of putting the divine on the page, right? And you talked about how the perspective is that it starts with the gods actually, it doesn’t start with humanity. How did you approach this artistically and what are some of the details you’re proudest of in terms of how you represented what is a hard thing to represent because the divine is inherently unknowable in a lot of ways, right?
Ha: So, there’s a scene in, I think it was page ten, where it’s Hippolyta on a horse, riding through a forest and the script asked me to show that Artemis is watching and following Hippolyta and she can actually feel over her shoulder that someone is following her and watching her. But that Artemis is literally not there bodily following her. And I had to figure out how to do that in storytelling, which created this first section of script I got and this created one of the big themes or tropes I used in how I was going to handle the divine in the Earthly world in the book. I stole a trick from the movie Midsommar where they put faces in the trees and inside the masses of trees and things like that and other elements in the background. But it doesn’t work very well in movies because the modern movies have cameras that slide left and right and go forward on rails and such that, but in comic book since it’s still images, this can work really, really well. So I was able to put faces into the trees, following Hippolyta and looking over the Amazons, even when they don’t realize that someone is watching them. And there are various and complex ways that this happens.
CBH: And you use this multiple times.
Ha: Yeah. There’s a scene later in the book where a group of Amazons, the second tribe, are leaving the ruined building where they’re living right now and as sunset falls, and you’ll see that there’s no goddess in the first two panels. They’re almost identical but in the third panel, the sun just cracks below the horizon and there’s the sunburst and a flock of birds flies over and suddenly Artemis is there. But also, in the background on the ground, instead of in the sky, there’s also a statue of Artemis and it’s a really unusual version of Artemis. It’s the one that looks like it has a hundred breasts on it, but it’s the Artemis of Ephesus, so I had two versions of Artemis watching that scene.
CBH: That’s cool. What did you enjoy the most about diving deep into Greek mythology and then trying to reflect those characters and some of those stories? Is that something you were already relatively familiar with or was it all kind of new to you?
Ha: Because I love Thor and Thor cartoons and comic books and stuff like that, that lead me to just loving all the mythology I could get my hands on and later I became a Dungeons & Dragons player as a teenager and then I got the book Deities and Demigods: The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Source Book. So I just though mythological gods are wonderful and just so much fun. But the great fun of following on Phil–it’s intimidating following on Phil’s volume one–but also the great joy of it is how insanely–again, how Alexander McQueen-esque–brillant his takes on the gods are because they are not what you’d expect as a traditional interpretation at all. Even with the very pop culture DC comics interpretations of them. He just twists them. He takes the essence of who they are or what aspect of those gods he and Kelly Sue want to emphasize and they just twist it into something totally new and different, and it’s just fascinating. The goddess of magic, and I’m sorry, I’m horrible with names, even the names of goddesses (Transcriber Note: The Greek goddess of magic was called Hecate), but the goddess of magic where she’s the three-headed twisted one-hundred arms and bound inside of metal thorns character. I would never have imagined that way of representing that goddess, but damn does it work!
CBH: No. Yeah, it’s really cool. And this issues opens with, I think, the seven primary goddesses, right? And you get a visual and kind of what their deal is.
Ha: Yeah. We have a double-page spread with the six goddesses who aren’t Hera and then we have the double-page spread of just Hera. So yeah, all seven of them. I should also mention that in this I’m not following so much Greek myth, I was doing deep research into literally Alexander McQueen and other fashion designers for the divine realm but then I was researching into actual Greek history for the Earthly realm. And just a lot of weird details like “what do chamber pots look like inside of Greece?” and weirdly–or maybe not–it’s really hard to find just ancient Greek chamber pots, so I just threw in an ancient Roman one and hoped I did not annoy anybody who’s an ancient Greek chamber pot archaeologist or something like that.
CBH: Yeah, yeah. Like the scholars and the archaeologists.
Ha: Yeah. Like “what does the front door of a Greek house look like inside of a big city?” and I was like “oh, I didn’t know that detail was there.” They usually had like a square cross section wood post carved with a face of I think it was Hermes on it and a little penis symbol kind of in the middle of the post. An erect penis. So if you look very carefully at one of the scenes in one of the constantly Greek populated city near the end of the book, you’ll see a house with this weird post on the front and that’s what that is.
CBH: Wow. Okay. Yeah, what a detail. And that honestly ties into and reflects the gender conversation that is happening throughout Historia, right? So, I think one of the pages that is the most striking is that there’s a double page splash with Hera lamenting the lack of equal rights for women. Basically, in the past, in the future, basically throughout all time, and there’s a background of this powerful image of all these inspirations and historical figures and moments. How did you determine who to chose there, how to include them, what went into that particular moment because it’s very striking?
Ha: Okay, I should say one of the great things about working with Kelly Sue DeConnick–and it’s a huge compliment–is that she’ll both throw out incredible graphic ideas at you on how to handle a scene–she doesn’t require you to do it quite the way she says in the script, she trusts you to find a creative solution that’s better if you feel that it’s better and it works with the story–but sometimes she’ll just say, “you’re the artist and I trust that you have a graphic intuition even better than me–a comics writer who has an incredible graphic novel imagination.” And you can see that in, say, Phil’s designs in number one. And she’ll just say “I don’t know how you’re going to do this, but we need to on this double-page spread, show Hera raging and lamenting three thousand years of injustice against women using only her and birds and a lot of feathers.” And that was the description she gave.
CBH: Okay. Yeah.
Ha: And I already set up a trope where my symbol for Hera’s plans for the future was represented by the golden spiral, the Golden Ratio spiraling out like a seashell, so I knew that that was going to be involved in it, and therefore I was going to arrange feathers flying out at the viewer looking like they’re coming at you in a seashell spiral and then I had to figure out “okay, how am I going to use this to represent injustice against women?” Like, I didn’t want to like, form the letters “sexism sucks” or something like that. Then I came upon the idea that it’s a spiral, so it implies the unspiralling of time, or the unwinding of a clock spring, so then I arranged historical scenes inside of it and I wanted to try and get as many sections of the world as I could. As many time periods as I could. Including definitely the modern day, but I also needed to figure out–I didn’t want it to just be a history of women being ground down by injustice, I also wanted to show women of spirit building their own worlds and sometimes fighting back–so that’s how I selected them. And if you go online, you might be able to find my Tweets or Instagram images of me explaining what each of those images is. And in fact, I can email it to you afterwards so you can put it on the screen.
CBH: I would love to share that and we’ll try to put it in the show notes as well because I think that’d be awesome. And probably lead to some additional research and reading and all sorts of things for fans of the work, which is always a nice bonus.
Ha: The one thing where I was definitely able to integrate a feather into the spiral of injustice was I had the last birds of the scene dropping off a feather to Mary Wollstoncraft, who was the second feminist in history, who was writing a treatise on the defense of the rights of women. I’m getting the name a little bit wrong, but essentially it’s a very famous book on why women deserve equal rights written around 1800. And she’s writing with a quill feather and then a bird drops off a new feather for her.
CBH: Awesome. So, this is such a detailed, such an expansive way to tell the lore of Wonder Woman’s history. One thing that I’m kind of fascinated by is, I guess, what the third volume is going to do. We got Zeus coming into the picture at the end of your volume, we know Nicola Scott already has the third volume–I think that’s coming later this year. How much have you been ruminating on…I guess, have you seen that volume? And what would you tease for fans about what to expect about where this is going?
Ha: She started on the book before I totally finished volume two, so I was able to consult with her, send her any reference she needed and such and then I was able to see her inks from the first about ten pages. And the way I would describe it is it’s got all the elements, all the themes, all the virtues that me and Phil established in numbers one and number two, but also she brings a joy to it. It’s partially because of the story’s changed. This is the Amazon’s trying to figure out who they are and what they’re going to do now that they met Hippolyta and she’s kind of changed the way they look at the world and also the male gods have picked their tools for crushing this insurgency. And this is where the big action scenes happen. I got to see the big hints of some of the showdown coming about. You know, it’s getting to see the fighter jets–the X-wings–flying out towards the Death Star and then before they get to the trench run, just like “okay” and now you’re out of the conversation. And they’d send it to me probably, if I asked but it seems a little bit rude to say “gimme the preview or else,” but it’s amazing. It’s just like “oh this looks so good and oh they’re about to start the trench run!”
It’s full of beauty and joy. It’s prettier than me or Phil did it. Like there’s this lightness and prettiness but also it’s got the complexity and the design and the humanity that me and Phil put in, but also just this kind of joy. This kind of lyrical quality to it that wasn’t quite there before. And if you see the cover–and the cover’s been released–it is amazing and you can just feel how it has this kind of…it just makes you happy seeing that cover. You can just feel the joy coming from Nicola and Kelly Sue.
CBH: Yeah! Following up on a C2E2 panel you were on with Wonder Woman, I saw you Tweeted and I think you talked about it on the panel, yourself and Sanya Anwar had some big ideas around the world of Diana and Wonder Woman and Themyscira that you were sharing. I was curious if you’d want to talk a little bit more about what were some of the ways that you started thinking about this world now that have shifted now that you’ve been so heavily involved?
Ha: Oh, I mean the fun thing is that Sanya’s viewpoint on the characters and what she wants to do with it is it’s outside what Kelly Sue was doing. Kelly Sue was focusing very much on the Mediterranean history of Themyscira and the Greeks and the Greek gods. And a lot of what Sonia wants to do is expand beyond that. And I should mention also that we also had an artist who we have some samples from, a male artist and then also my fellow Chicagoian Ashley A Woods, so Ashley was there and she was talking about Nubia and then it kind of came up in our discussion in our panel discussion that at least–I’m not sure about the current state of her history–but in her original history, she came from a separate colony of Amazons living outside of Themyscira. So essentially this colony has a different history than the Themyscira Amazons and while the Themyscira Amazons haven’t necessarily gotten involved in the world until Wonder Woman, that other colony could have done anything. And then we began talking about how Sanya, if she got the chance, would love to use more Greek mythology. Like I’m going to note that if you look inside of Historia in most of the books, you don’t see major characters who are not humanoid, but Greek mythology’s full of the weirdest stuff like some odd folktale about a human-headed-lion-bodied-serpent-tailed-dragon and goat-headed monster and it talks.
There’s just so many weird creatures you can use as actual dialogue characters inside the mythology or just weirder elements of history. Sanya’s in love with this stuff and I mentioned also that if we establish that in some interpretations, Diana is a demigod or even a full goddess and she’s [unclear] into the divine realm of Greek mythology and those gods and goddesses, she will be able to cross over into other mythological realms and deal with them. And even recruit from them. And you could have a league of extraordinary Wonder Women, and she could do a Batman Incorporated thing with any historical or mythological character she’d like. She could go into the afterlife of any mythology or any religion and pluck people out of it because there’s a mission they’re needed for. It would be an amazing team! Just pulled together Oceans 11-style whenever she needs them.
CBH: That sounds incredible.
Ha: So yeah, there’s so many stories you could pull and also because there’s this whole theory of non-Themyscira Amazons, you can tell stories at any time period. Not with Wonder Woman, but with those Amazons getting involved in any period of world history. Actual world history. It’s like I did not know you could tell Wonder Woman stories about all these different places using all these different characters, but it makes total sense. Anyway. DC, you need to talk to Sanya because I am not a superhero comic book writer. I am a modern fantasy writer in comic books. I’m not really interested in writing superheroes but Sanya is and she’s good at it and she has amazing ideas. Anyone out there who wants to tell DC comics they need to contact Sanya, please do.
CBH: Yeah. There you go. There’s a good pitch. So, you’re not interested in doing a written and drawn DC or Marvel or kind of corporate-owned superhero story? Like you’re pretty out on that?
Ha: I’m not really interested in that type of stuff. I love drawing them, but I’m not interested in writing them. I’ve kind of fallen out of following the regular comics for the most part. I follow creators, I don’t follow characters so much. So if a writer I really love is writing a book then I’ll follow it, but I’ve kind of lost track. Also, I hate events. I mean, god bless the fun events that happen in comics like Crisis on Infinite Earths, but I cannot read another “oh surprise! The whole universe is going to be destroyed and we need to get every damn comic in the line involved in it” and I’m just like “oh, I hate these so much.” I know they don’t quite do all the books anymore but it’s so annoying to me. I don’t want to follow it. (Transcriber note: Preach.) So yeah, there’s so many ways I’m just not a modern, American superhero comic book writer. I could write like a single issue about something if it’s non-continuity or something like that or a graphic novel of it, but writing continuity is just bleh. No. I don’t want to follow in that.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah that’s funny.
Ha: And also, god bless the writers and editors who keep track of this, but keeping a book in continuity and current with the continuity and making sure it doesn’t clash with another book, is a nightmare. It’s so hard and I don’t want to get involved with that either. Like “you can’t be in this city now, you can’t use this minor side character right now because they need it in this book and it can’t be in two places at once.”
CBH: Yeah. It’s a project. It’s definitely a project. No, that makes sense. Alright, so you’re focused on obviously Historia is out now, your creator-owned works, you’ve got Mae, which there’s twelve issues out that people can check out. This is your creator-owned story of two sisters, one of whom kind of vanishes, disappears at one point–and it’s revealed early on, this is not a particular spoiler–that she basically went to a fantasy world. Kind of this Narnia type situation but you mentioned the D&D influences earlier, it’s this huge mythical fantasy land and then both sisters get involved. Are there plans for returning to more Mae now that Historia is done, or do you see that settling at twelve issues?
Ha: I have another volume plotted out on index cards on a corkboard in another room nearby, so it’s all plotted out. I know exactly where it’s going, but I have not written the script yet and I haven’t drawn it, and before I do that, I have a post-apocalyptic young adult graphic novel I want to do with a well-respected, well-loved YA graphic novelist. And I need to get that done first because it’s so exciting writing comic books for actual kids and older kids–teens–but I just love it. And she knows–there’s a clue right there who it is–so much about how teens like to read and also how they feel in a way that…I don’t remember the pain of being a teenager nearly as well as she does. I mean, she understands the pain of being a teenager way better than I do, which she shouldn’t. But she’s so good. She’s so good at understanding, not just how it felt, but also how to evoke the emotions so they understand the situation. And getting to work with a writer like that is just amazing. I’m just going to say, I have worked with some amazing and legendary writers but none of them have understood the teenage experience the way she does.
CBH: That’s awesome. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed seeing with the launch of Mae, but just your career over the past several years, like you’ve clearly taken a shine to the younger readers and the market and the potential of getting comics in these kids’ hands. You know, one thing that I told my wife this before we started talking, but it’s like, I literally have a bookmark with your face on it that I use in comics because you did a talk at the Downers Grove library in the Chicago area, that’s near my shop, my comic shop had these bookmarks, so I have a Gene Ha bookmark. And I tell you that because you’ve done a lot of work in libraries and promoting and getting these things out there. When do you think it clicked for you that this was something you really wanted to hit more and I guess, you’ve been doing it for a while now. It sounds like you’re just as jazzed about it now–if not more so–getting to do this new project. Do you see that continuing to be your trajectory?
Ha: Yeah. I mean, it’s not the only thing I want to do. I love writing for people over the age of 25, over the age of 30, and I love writing for my fellow 50 year olds. But, being able to bring in kids is just such a treat because at the start of my career, if you went to, say, 1995 comic convention, it was almost all 15 year old boys who were into the X-Men, the X-Force books and stuff like that and then 30, 40, 50 year old men who were into comics and there were very few younger kids and very, very few women and girls of any age. And this is actually how I did my famous thing of doing free drawings for kids, which is I’d see that if often felt like there was nothing for these kids if you weren’t into superhero comics, there’s very little fun for the non-superhero fans to have, and I’d see my fellow comic [unclear] dragging around a kid who looked bored. It could be a boy, it could be a girl, but they both looked bored. Or it could be a female significant other and I’d think to myself “wow, they deserve one good experience while they’re at a comic convention.”
And so I’d do a portrait of them, or just do a drawing, or whatever they’d like, and it just struck me very hard that if we don’t get new readers, we’re not going to have a comic book industry in a few decades. And then every year, comics sales in my early career went down, down, down, up until about 2010. I started about 1995, so fifteen years of decline. I got to watch this happen, and so I thought I needed to do something to help save the comic book industry. I need to help bring in new readers, and I like new readers. I like dealing with kids and stuff like that and I like strong female characters. And when I say “strong” I don’t necessarily mean action heroes and stuff like that, like Mae, the main character of my book is not an action hero. Her sister is, but she is not. I mean, interesting, complex, proactive characters. Strong female characters that way. So I’ve done all these things like help promote libraries, do school events and all that type of stuff, but I should mention that the people who save the comic book industry by bringing in new kids are creators like Jeff Smith and Bone, and the superstar in all of this–and I have one of her books right over here, sorry, I have two of her books here within easy reach–is Raina Telgemeier and this is the book that saved comics. And she will be like “I’m not sure about that” if you ask her personally, but Smile changed the industry.
It just brought so many kids into loving comics and librarians to understand that kids love comics and teachers to understand that kids love comics, where before Raina Telgemeier, a lot of teachers and a lot of librarians were really down on the idea of kids reading comics. And then suddenly they realized that “oh, Raina Telgemeier’s a gateway drug to literacy. To literature” and it’s like books like Bone and Smile are the reason why consistently since 2010, so the last twelve years or so, kids’, middle grade and YA graphic novels are the most consistently growing literature and book category inside the industry. And sometimes the only category that’s actually growing every year, which is saving comics. And then these kids, some of these kids will transition over to reading superhero comics, and that’s where we’re getting a lot of our new readers.
CBH: Sure. Sure. Yeah, no absolutely. Yeah, I keep going to this story, but I was at my local library with my kids, and my kids are really young. They’re under five. But we’re looking in the kids’ graphic novels section and a mom and her daughter walk in there and the daughter’s maybe eight or nine, and the mom goes “oh, do you want to get this one?” and she pulls out a Raina book, either Smile or Guts, one of the two. And the girl goes “oh I’ve read that one like eleven times. Yeah I’ll get it again.” And I was like “holy cow!” Like she’s getting it twelve times! That’s the power of how big these books are, you know? Obviously case study of one, but they are massive. They are just so big and it’s cool to see. I mean, it’s cool to see whatever the genre is, right? Whatever the style is. Just kids reading comics. I love it. You know?
Ha: Yeah. Yeah. So anyway, for those first fifteen years of my career, it felt like every year we were having a Crisis, and “Infinite Crisis on Infinite Earths,” just every year it’s like “oh here’s another event that could destroy the industry.” Marvel went bankrupt for a while. I mean, one year during a crash, two-thirds of comic book shops in the United States closed. And there were so many events it was like I don’t know if we’re going to survive this, and then Jeff Smith and Raina Telgemeier and all those folks came along and saved the industry because so many of those kids who started their kid’s graphic novels read us.
CBH: Yeah. Sure. So like, that’s interesting because you started, your career takes off with Marvel, with some of the licensed stuff, right as the industry is going through maybe its worst time, with the Marvel bankruptcy and the distributor wars and all the craziness that happened circa 1996, right? And now here we are, 2022, kid’s literature is booming. Do you feel like the comics industry as a whole, have you ever seen it better? Do you feel like it’s in the best place throughout your career?
Ha: Yeah. I feel like, okay, so of course the start of the comic book industry–the era when Superman came up and all those books–is called the Golden Age, and I feel this the Better Golden Age. Right now. That we’re living through.
Ha: Because the first Golden Age began collapsing soon after World War 2. It was not a sustainable model and then the McCarthy hearings and Fredrick Worthum and all that type of stuff just really really slammed comic books. Especially as a creative form. And now we’ve got this explosion where American comics is growing and expanding and moving into new subject matters and genres and authors and reaching new audiences in a way that’s never been possible before. Ever. And it just keeps on growing and growing, and just more things are possible now. Things are possible now in a way they’ve never been before. It’s just brilliant. It’s just great seeing it.
CBH: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, I’m a huge fan, obviously, of the medium and one thing that I’m perpetually amazed by is any of the kind of factions of complainers who complain about “oh, the books all stink” or blah blah blah. It’s like, there’s so much variety and there are so many good comics coming out from so many different places, plus the degree of access that we have now through streaming, through libraries, through everything, right? It’s like it’s so hard to not find something to read. Like, there’s so many books that I want to read that I’ll never catch up with, you know? It just blows my mind that anyone could think that there aren’t enough good comics, right? If anything, there’s too many! In my view.
Ha: Yeah. I mean, like ten years ago, I was like “man this webcomic thing is interesting,” but it’s gotten so big, I can’t even comprehend how big it is. There’s just pockets of the comics community where I’m just never going to understand this giant audience of people out there reading in a different way or different subject matter that I’m never going to be in touch with until it pops up so big it essentially shows up in Publisher’s Weekly or something like that. But underneath each of these icebergs floating on the ocean, like when you see the hockey comic Check Please! Show up or something like that, which is like “what the heck is that?” A gay hockey comic! Written by a woman who grew up in Africa and had never really watched hockey until she got to the United States for college–I think she’s in Yale–and she’s just like “this sport is amazing!” And she made a gay hockey comic and it was brilliant. Again, that little, tiny iceberg cap with this other mass of giant, brilliant webcomics and stuff like that I have no idea about, invisible to me below the water.
CBH: That’s how I’ve been feeling about Webtoon more and more. I am slower to catch on to what is hot and hip there because I’m getting older and I’m more set in my ways and I know certain comics, but I don’t have a steady stream of “oh, you’ve got to read these ten Webtoons” or whatever, right? So something like Lore Olympus becomes huge and I catch up and I get acclimated, but there is so much under the surface. It’s the same thing, right? And those things are probably going to increasingly get their moments in the sun and get published in graphic novel form and become Netflix series and yadda yadda, right? But there’s so much there. It’s very cool.
Ha: Yeah, and a lot of the stuff will never break through in the internet world I know and the social media I follow. So, like, I have a friend Serena Guerra, has been doing comics for a while, but she’s recently become very successful on TikTok and she’ll just share a drawing she’s doing while she’s drawing it and just talk about it and it’s very soothing, but it’s also super beautiful and she’s got like hundreds of thousands, getting towards millions, of followers right now. But these things are not popular on the media I follow, which I mean are popular but not “hundreds of thousands” popular, on the media I follow. So things like Facebook or YouTube are nothing. She did a Goddesses coloring book, which went virally popular, except Amazon doesn’t like actually presenting it. It’s hiding it like, “wouldn’t you rather get these other Goddesses coloring books published by Amazon Print instead?” And it’s just like, their invisible to me because I’m in the wrong place, except I’m friends with her, so she can actually show me the work she’s doing. It’s like “wow, this is the best work you’ve ever been doing. This is totally brilliant” and it’s not getting any traction in the things I know.
CBH: Sure. Yeah, no that’s a really good example. Definitely. There’s tons of great stuff out there, it’s awesome. It’s a good time to be a comic books fan. With Mae, the one question I do want to come back to you with is that was kind of your biggest foray into writing and drawing, and I’ve seen you talk about them in previous interviews how you kind of had to learn to write and you had some tutors and kind of some lessons there. Is that something that you want to engage with more? Do you want to flex those writing muscles more? Or now that you’ve done it some, are you actually like “actually I don’t like that as much?” Like, where do you stand in that relationship between the elements of storytelling?
Ha: Because I’m a pretty well-known American comic book artist, I have the chance to work with amazing writers. So, like, for instance, the joy I get from writing and drawing Mae is just hard to describe. It’s just so much fun and I love the characters so much and I love the readers so much. Everything about the community both real and fictional people makes me happy. But also then, the unnamed YA novelist/graphic novelist I’m getting to work with is able to do things I can’t do because she has an understanding of both a slice of readers both as what they feel and how they perceive and also how to present to them that is just beyond my understanding. I mean, working with her, it’s reminding me of how I felt as a teenager when she talks about teenagers like “oh yeah, that was painful. Oh that was [unclear] for me” and one of the observations is that the value of putting fantastic characters into street clothes and how you do it and what makes it work and what makes it not work. And I remembered back when I was a teenager, I read Matt Wagner’s Mage, in which these people were like a King Arthur character who goes around in tennis shoes, jeans, and a black T-shirt with a white lightning bolt on it.
Or another character who looked like girls in my high school where she’s a young black woman with big curls and she wears kind of a newsboy cap. Just these people who talk and look like people I knew living in a city that kind of looked like South Bend, Indiana, it just hit me in a way that no other comic had at that point. Having people in street clothes living in a city that looked like mine instead of the inside of a stainless steel and glass mansion or sky scrapper just kind of blew me away. And it changed how I interpreted the world I lived in, where suddenly South Bend looked magical when it never had before. And I could just imagine magical things happening in my world. Yeah, so working with an author who can do things and write things and understand things the way you don’t is amazing and because of who I am, I get the chance to do that. And it’s hard to pass that up sometimes. Again, also Kelly Sue DeConnick for example, she writes in a very different way than the YA author, but she’s also able to perceive and write technically and emotionally and socially just write things I could never write. She’s just so genius.
CBH: Yeah, no that totally makes sense. It’s cool. It’s good that you get all of those opportunities. I looking forward to this secret book. In my head, I’m like running through names of who this writer could be, but I bet we’ll see soon. Alright, so before we kind of wrap, I had two questions about your comics career. You probably get these kind of questions all the time, Top 10 obviously is an amazing influential work that you did on ABC Comics with Zander Cannon and Alan Moore, what was the biggest lesson you got working with those two individuals on Top 10 that sticks with you to this day?
Ha: Okay, so I’m going to give an early lesson I got from Alan Moore, which is that–he’s written some very famous stories that involved time travel, so they’re very intricately plotted where events throughout the book tie together to other events. Or like, there’s Watchmen where one panel ties into another panel many issues later and the whole book is just knotted through with threads that make an incredibly complex wire harness from an expensive power. Just, wires everywhere connecting to each other. So, when he started, we talked on the phone a lot when we started the first issue, and he began talking about his plans for later issues but there were barely any and I began asking about this and his answer was that he “plots ahead as little as necessary.”
So if he’s doing a time travel story, obviously, he’s forced to make all these complex knotted, wiring diagrams between different sections of the story, but in this case, he was going to do no time travel, so he didn’t have to do that and he wasn’t going to because it was going to make a crappier story. So he knew that one character was going to when she visits a crime scene, she–and this is spoilers for Top 10–would hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy [sings melody to Ode to Joy], and then later she would solve the crime when she noticed that someone was wearing an unusual perfume and she asked what the name of it is and it’s “Au de joie.” “Ode to Joy.” And then she realizes “oh. You. You’re the one.” And the lesson I took from that, the way that I would rephrase the lesson I took from Alan Moore in that case is that “trust future you. That you’ll be just as creative tomorrow and the day after that, and the day after that, as you are today.” And if you try to force the creativity you have today, to be enough for a whole long story, you’re cutting off future you from adding more creativity later. And if you just keep adding your daily supply of creativity to the story as you’re going along, it’s going to amass this giant pile of creativity that wouldn’t be possible if you plotted too far ahead.
CBH: Hm. That’s cool. That’s a good idea. Because I feel like a lot of fans–myself included–there’s a lot of admiration and respect for the long term planning, right? These amazing sequences of “oh, this thing happened in the first issue and then two years later it paid off with this amazing moment,” right? And people love that stuff. But that’s a fascinating way of looking at it, saying “well, you necessarily didn’t really need to know that” when you did the cool thing the first time, you just needed to set yourself up with enough rope that you could get there and trust yourself.
Ha: Yeah, and you give yourself opportunities to be creative later. So essentially, that “Ode to Joy” moment was Alan Moore running through a battlefield and then tossing a sword into the air and then eight minutes later, he puts up his hand and catches it.
Ha: You just give yourself the opportunity and sooner or later, I’m going to catch that sword and I have done something now, I don’t know how I’m going to use it. Oh, Better Call Saul, they do this a lot too, where they’ll set up a moment and they have no idea how they’re going to use it in the future but they know they will, so last season of Breaking Bad, Walt puts a machine gun–a military machine gun, M60, I think–into the trunk of his car and then it pays off in the last episode of the last season. They didn’t know how they were going to use it when he finally figures out that “oh, he’s going to use that machine gun.” And it looks like they have this planned all along, but they just knew “we’re going to do something creative later, and we’re going to trust that we’re going to be creative later, but we’re going to do a set up now that we’re going to have to pay off and we don’t know how.” And it looks like it’s this intricate plan, like they planned it all along, but they didn’t. They purposely didn’t plan it ahead.
CBH: Yeah. Yeah that’s very cool. That’s very cool. I love that. Okay, final question for you before we let you go, I saw you mention in a previous interview that one of your favorite earliest works was the chance to work with Archie Goodwin on DC Showcase 95 #11. I dug it up. My comic shop actually had a copy, and it’s a really cool Arkham Asylum story. I love it. Is that your favorite early career work that you’ve done, and if it is, why?
Ha: Oh, um, so okay I did that way before–a few years before–I worked with Alan Moore. So many years have passed now. Just two, three years is not a long time anymore, but back then it was. So way before I worked with Alan Moore, and Archie Goodwin contacted me and said “hey, I’d love to work with you on this anthology book DC’s doing to do a short story, and we’ll try to get any writer you’re interested in working with to write the story for you, if you would like,” and the first name I said was Alan Moore and Archie said that “obviously, at this point, Alan Moore is not ready to work with DC comics, so you’re going to have to pick someone else.” And then I said, “Archie, I want to work with you.” And if you’ve read the stories that Archie Goodwin has done–he’s most famous as an editor, as one of the greatest editors in the history of comics–and also people call me the nicest guy in comics, but Archie Goodwin had such a good heart. He was so much a better person than me in so many ways. He was just so kind. I said “I want to work with you,” and he said “no, seriously, who do you want to work with,” and I said “you.” His stories are good. Read his Manhunter with Walter Simonson. Walter Simonson drawing, Archie Goodwin writing, and it’s just such a brilliant explosion of creativity from the early 70s, and he wrote a story for me and it was brilliant and part of what happened also is that this is relatively early in my career, I was like two or three years in, he pulled me away from the early Image, Youngblood, Wild C.A.T.S, X-Men #1 type style storytelling, which I hadn’t totally bought into, but I had largely bought into, and had been trying to do super dramatic, how-to-do-comics-the-Marvel-way, high-drama scenes at every point in the story, and his advice was “oh, you can’t do that on the first page in this story, because this story is a slow build up of tension, and if you release all the tension on the first page, the suspense doesn’t build. You have to build suspense in this story.” And he just taught me how to do the storytelling for the script he wrote for me. Visually. And it was the most important comic book lesson I ever had because it was early in my career and it made me ready for everything else I did.
CBH: That’s awesome. I love it. Now, I do highly recommend that people find this. It’s DC Hero Showcase 95 #11. It’s the second story in that issue. It’s really good! It’s a classic feeling kind of Arkham Asylum story, you know? It’s not some massively influential “oh and we’re seeing this character again” thing, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s pretty memorable and I quite enjoyed it. So, it’s a good one.
Ha: Oh, I should mention, visually, it’s the high point of my crosshatch style, whereas before I got control of the shading and the coloring at all, I was trying to do everything through US currency-style shading lines and anti-shading lines and stuff like that, so it looks kind of like a dollar bill. That’s the style I was using. I was trying to make it look like a really good portrait on that. Also, it has a double-page spread on it, which is a 180 degrees panoramic, where it looks really odd when you look at it on the page because it’s all fish-eyed lens out, but if you literally get a print copy of the comic–you can’t do this with digital unless you have a very weird computer screen–and you wrap it around your head like a waste paper basket and just turn your head and look like this and this, the fish-eye lens effect disappears and it’s just a Panopticon–a half-Panopticon–wrapped around your head and every direction you look, the perspective’s right.
CBH: That’s amazing. I love that. Oh, it’s so cool. That’s the thing where Killer Croc’s reaching up and he’s kind of exploding on one side of the page? Is that it?
Ha: Yeah, and I used a lot of literally trigonometry, a paper spreadsheet and a calculator. I calculated the curves to make it work right.
CBH: That’s so fun!
Ha: I would be able to use computers to do it today and in various ways, even just warping it in Photoshop, but before I had Photoshop, before I had a desktop computer–back in 1997, whatever it was–that’s how I was able to do it. And just making a graph with sine and cosine waves for the perspective lens.
CBH: The mathes of the art, man. That’s complex. Very good. Very good, that’s so cool. Alright, Gene, this has been a pleasure. What is next for you and what do you want people to check out so they can find your work?
Ha: Oh! Okay, so of course, if you have not read Historia already, grab yourself a copy if you can find number one and number two. They are freely available as digital comics, but they’re really hard to get the actual print copies at this point because DC did a limited run. And then number three is coming out and hopefully eventually, they’re going to collect all of this, but it’s going to be a long wait for that. I’m also doing a lot of covers now for Immortal Comics, which had some amazing culturally honest interpretations of the legends and the actual martial arts of China through American characters, American-Chinese, Chinese American characters and stuff like that. And it’s just some of the most fun I’ve ever had doing covers because they’ve pushed me to be really artsy. Let me see, I’ve also been doing a lot of covers for Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle’s The Wrong Earth, where they’ve been playing with 60s vs 80s superheroes comics tropes and just being able to play in their playground is the best too.
CBH: That’s a fun series.
Ha: Oh yeah it’s so great. I love it so much. And both of them are such delightful guys. I am not the best person for playing around with comic book tropes on a writing basis, both of those guys are, and they are able to play with them and twist them and refresh them in ways that just give me joy. Because I am a comic book geek. I’m just not as good of a comic book geek as Tom Peyer or Jamal Igle.
CBH: Cool. Anything on social you want people to check out? Instagram? Twitter? Any of that?
Ha: Yeah. You can always check out my Instagram–this sounds like an aside, but I had horrible internet connections over my smart phone when I was at C2E2, so I was not able to post my sketches that I did for C2E2, so I need to post those online after C2E2, so you should be seeing a nice flurry of really amazing marker sketches I did. I’m pretty proud of them. Coming up in the next week or two. Ah, let me see. You can also follow me on Twitter. You can kind of connect on Facebook but…I mean, it’s mostly me ranting on Facebook about things that aren’t comics or just saying hi to my friends. So, yeah. Instagram and Twitter are pretty good for that type of stuff, and I’m not going to flood your feed. It’s just going to be the interesting stuff I post there about comics.
CBH: Cool, cool, cool. Awesome. Well, this has been great. We’ll put links to all the books in the show notes as well as everything Gene mentioned here. But seriously, thanks for your time today. I appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Ha: Oh, you’re very welcome. I should also mention this, the obvious thing of course, is that everything is connected through geneha.com. So if you want to find out what I’m doing, it includes links to my social media, my convention schedule, that kind of business stuff.
CBH: Gotcha. Alright. Awesome.
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