For Gene Ha, getting to tell his own stories has been a fantasy of his -- and now, he's doing it... with a fantasy series.
On Friday at C2E2, the longtime DC artist Gene Ha announced the project he's been working on the past two years -- Mae. Set to launch using Kickstarter, Mae is a story of a girl named Mae who is reunited with a sister Abbie who ran away years ago and finds that the place she ran to was a fantastical other world called Cimrterén. Ha says "mad science and monsters are everywhere" in Cimrterén, and they're coming to get Abbie -- and whomever stands in their way, including Mae.
Ha says that Mae is a project decades in the making, inspired by his early love of Matt Wagner's Mage and kickstarted by the recent crop of creator-owned success stories. Newsarama talked with Ha about this creative endeavor, the real world decisions behind it, and what he hopes to gain -- and it isn't money.
Newsarama: Gene, what can you tell us about Mae?
Gene Ha: Mae is the story of two sisters from small town Indiana. Eight years ago, the older sister Abbie Fortell disappeared. Mae, the younger sister, finished school, cared for their aging father, and took over the family business. She has no idea what happened to her sister until she gets a late night call from the Sheriff’s office. Abbie is back, with tales of adventure and mad scientists and monsters. Those stories are hard to believe until the monsters start appearing in Indiana…
Nrama: So it's about two sisters, Abbie and Mae. In any other story about a fantastical other world, it would be Abbie's name in the title and not Mae, the one who stayed behind until now. Why is it titled what it is?
Ha: The viewpoint character is Mae. Just as the first Middle Earth novel is called The Hobbit instead of Gandalf, this is a tale of an ingénue dragged into an adventure, not the guide.
Mae will have a much more interesting take on the other world than her sister. Abbie is an action hero, so if she has a problem she just looks for an enemy to attack. Mae has a more nuanced view and more thoughtful solutions. Sometimes that solution will involve kicking an ass but not always. Mae will never stop growing and learning: that’s why Mae is the hero I want to write.
Nrama: What is Abbie's other world like that Mae is drawn into?
Ha: We see the monsters from the other world but we don’t see their home world yet. I can give you a broad description. In Cimrterén mad science works and monsters are everywhere, many of them quite pleasant and some of them terrifying. The first Czech explorers arrived in this other world in the 19th century, and Czech-Americans and then other US citizens followed them. For instance, there’s a large African-American population. Whatever your race or gender, economic and political power usually comes from mad science talent.
I’ve created a history and basic principles for the mad science of Cimrterén. This is only for consistency’s sake; I won’t force it into the story just to show off. I want to avoid anything like midi-chlorians and long debates in the galactic senate.
Nrama: And how would you describe the creatures coming to get Abbie here in this first installment?
Ha: The tall armored leader is Rytí? Kazisvet, which means “Sir World Wrecker” in Czech. He uses chthonic mad science to create earthquakes, a ghastly power. He has a retinue of mechanical zombies and two beasties I’ve nicknamed Big Cat and Batninja. If any readers speak Czech, send me a note if you have name suggestions for those two!
Nrama: You have over 50 pages done -- is it intended to be the first part of a comic book series, or OGN series? How do you see the size and length of Mae as a whole?
Ha: The 57 page story I have ready to print is just the beginning. I hope to turn this into an ongoing series like Mouse Guard or Hellboy. A successful Kickstarter campaign will let me do that.
Nrama: You're known almost exclusively for doing work at DC, Marvel and Alan Moore's ABC Comics line. What made you decide to jump out into the relative unknown of creator-owned, self-published comics?
Ha: I wanted to have a story I own, and to tell it without compromises.
I have a stake in Top 10, but I can’t tell tales set in Neopolis unless I get permission from DC. Zander Cannon and I would love to finish off Top 10 Season 2, but when I was under contract with DC they had more profitable uses for my time. It’s an understandable decision on their part, but I want the freedom to tell the story I want, when I want.
Also, I wanted to reach new readers. For most of my career U.S. comics sales shrank as our readers aged. That’s finally changed and a younger generation have made us a growing industry. The new readers were born after 1980 and include at least as many girls as boy. It’s time for me to roll out the welcome mat to our saviors and offer them the best book I can make.
It was a big risk living off my savings to complete Mae and launching it as a Kickstarter, but I have faith that readers, young and old, are ready for this book.
It’s not the only thing I want to do. I still hope I get the chance to finish Top 10 with Zander and Back Roads, my project with Bill Willingham. Mae definitely comes first.
Nrama: How long has the story for Mae been in your head?
Ha: Mae has been around in some form since 1998, from inspiration I took from Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn and Hester & Worley’s The Picture Taker. At first it was going to be a space opera, and Abbie wore a space suit and ray gun. The story didn’t stand out from all of my other ideas yet.
Around 2010 I drew Abbie in a Napoleonic jacket and a liberty cap, and it couldn’t be about space ships any longer. I had to build a world where that outfit made sense. Why were people still wearing 19th century clothing? Once I built that history the rest of the characters and plot came easily.
Nrama: Ultimately, what are your goals with Mae?
Ha: I want to tell the best story I can, for as long as I can. The art is always going to be beautiful and I’ll tell the smartest story I’m able to tell. If you’re going to pay for entertainment, I need to provide more than just a quick read. I want you to get the cheap pulpy thrills the first time through, and to provide thoughtful depth every time you read it again. That’s even if you first read it at age 13 and read it again 8 years later.
I have big plans for the story. There’s an ever escalating set of complications and enemies. The heart of the story, however, will always remain the friendship between Abbie and Mae.
Nrama: And what are your goals for yourself nowadays, as an artist and an author?
Ha: My professional goal has remained the same throughout my career: give readers the same thrills and inspiration that Matt Wagner’s Mage gave me in high school. Mae is my best shot at that goal.
Huh, I never noticed before how close Mae sounds to Mage!
It’s funny, but the older I get the more I want to tell comics stories. I stay fit so I can live a longer life and draw more pages. I crave more time at the drawing table as the years go by. When I get to tell my own stories my way I absolutely love this job.
Nrama: Is that hand lettering and hand-drawn balloons I see in the preview? What's it like doing lettering, coloring, writing -- virtually the entire package here?
Ha: The hand lettering is by Zander. I wanted a style that was obviously hand drawn, even a little rough. I can show you my roughs with computer lettering, and the finishes with Zander’s letters. It adds so much energy.
Other than the letters and a color assist from Rose McClain, it is all me. Coloring is the most labor intensive stage for me, even with help. After Rose starts a page, it takes me a full day of coloring to achieve the look I want. It’s not something I can explain to another colorist without digitally painting it myself. I hope to speed up the process and delegate more, but for this first story I had to do it myself.
This is also my first comics writing longer than 12 pages. Tim Seeley was especially helpful. I wrote the first “script” in the form of a marker rough with dialog, and Tim went through and pointed out what worked and what didn’t. I ended up adding two 2-page scenes based on his comments. He was really encouraging. Tim told me the only way to learn writing is to just start doing it. Start writing now and don’t let your inexperience and fear stop you, you’ll learn quickly if you apply yourself.
Nrama: For the Kickstarter, what specifically will that fund for Mae?
Ha: If I just make the goal the fund will barely cover the printing and manufacturing of the books and extras like t-shirts and prints and book plates. If the numbers are bigger, cost per book goes down and I can use the extra money to add awesome stretch goals, like art by some of my favorite comic book artists. And I’ll make new artwork too.
Beyond that, I hope to use the profits to assemble an ongoing team to make more Mae stories. I want to get this baby off to a solid start!
Nrama: I believe this is your first Kickstarter -- any friends or colleagues you've gone to for advice on using Kickstarter?
Ha: Definitely, and the advice has been invaluable. I attended a Kickstarter panel by Jimmy Palmiotti at the Long Beach convention 2013, and afterward he answered some more questions for me. He’s continued to advice me by email ever since. He’s an incredibly savvy storyteller and businessman. He’s launched a whole series of great PaperFilms books through Kickstarter. My main advisor has been fellow Chicagoan Ryan Browne. He did a brilliant Kickstarter to publish the hardcover collection of his God Hates Astronauts comics. No one has ever created more fun running a Kickstarter. He had limited run tiers where you could get extras like having the book packed in the box backward, or getting the book signed along with a personalized sarcastic insult. Those stunts were amusing, but he could only do stunts after he had the basics down pat. Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder have been incredibly generous with their wisdom. That’s humbling because their Rocket Girl Kickstarter inspired me to try this.
Nrama: And how about the self-publishing/fulfillment aspect of this, should the Kickstarter prove successful. How have you planned that out?
Ha: I’m using the same path as Brandon and Amy. I’ve reserved a room in my house for packing and personalizing the packages. If I do really really well I might hire extra help, but even so I expect to spend at least a month packing boxes and making custom sketches for the folks who made Mae real. It’s such an exciting time to be working in comics!