Gene Ha Talks Kickstarter and Opening Up Comics to New Audiences [Interview]
Last week, ComicsAlliance showed you an exclusive preview of Gene Ha's graphic novel Mae, which he's currently running a Kickstarter for. The project is funded twice over with three weeks left in its campaign, but Ha still has more stretch goals and incentives planned. We've spoken with him about genesis of the project, his careful planning for the Kickstarter, what it's like taking on new roles as a creator, and why he thinks broadening comics' readership is important.
ComicsAlliance: How long has Mae been in the works?
Gene Ha: It only became my main project in late 2014, but it’s been building for most of my career. My eyes were opened up to the possibilities of female heroes when I read Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn around 1995. I only grew up with brothers, and the dynamic between the two sisters really blew me away. Even if gender isn’t the explicit theme, it lets you tell a different story if you have female leads.
The setup of a returning sister who claims she’s been off on a fantasy world is a direct swipe from Kyle Baker, though we use it in very different ways. Saturn is Kyle’s Snuffleupagus, it never shows up in the story. We are definitely going to see Abbie’s fantasy world.
The big delay was learning how to write. My only previous published story was a 12 page Iron Fist story in 2002. Stuart Moore had to guide me through four or five drafts, and it really taught me how much I had to learn.
CA: What made you decide to do a Kickstarter campaign?
GH: Rocket Girl! Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare’s Kickstarter in the spring of 2013 was the game changer. I love everything about the project, from how they ran their campaign to the art and the story. I especially love how they built a community around Rocket Girl. People tend to think of Kickstarter as mainly a financial website, but it’s really a community. If creators can prove they’re serious and prepared, people give both their money and their friendship.
I didn’t know if I could do it, but I began talking to experienced KS vets like Jimmy Palmiotti and Ryan Browne. They’re great at Kickstarter because they’re both so sharing and big hearted, and that came through in their mentoring of me. They both thought Mae and I were a perfect fit for Kickstarter. It’s been a lot of work and learning, but they were right. I love the Kickstarter comics community!
CA: You’re a well-known and well-respected artist. Did you ever try to or think about pitching this project to a publisher?
GH: I explored similar projects with writers I love. Then the project would implode. Around 2005 Zander Cannon and I began working on a cross worlds tale for Humanoïds USA. Then they shuttered their US office. In 2009, Bill Willingham and I began work on Back Roads for IDW before scheduling conflicts torpedoed that. I don’t believe in dictated destiny, but it sure felt like the universe was telling me to take Mae more seriously.
CA: You have all the work completed on the project already. Why was that a priority for you?
GH: One of the biggest issues with Kickstarter is proving that you’ll actually deliver. Backers have been burned before, repeatedly. Ryan Browne really drilled this into my head. He only launched his Kickstarter after his book was a finished printer ready file. He became my main Kickstarter role model, and I lived off of my savings while I finished the book.
CA: What is Mae about?
GH: It’s about two very different sisters from small town Indiana. The older sister, Abbie, discovered a doorway to another world at the age of 13. For the last 7 or 8 years she’s been living there and having great adventures. She’s defeated horrible monsters and power-mad scientists and evil nobles. By the age of 18 she was a beloved hero. But by the time she turned 21 it all comes apart and she decides to return to Indiana.
The younger sister, Mae, has had no idea what happened to Abbie all this time. She’s taken over the family business, finished high school and cares for their ailing father. Then she gets a late night call from the sheriff’s office. They’ve found Abbie, she’s drunk and Mae needs to pick her up. Abbie’s tales are hard to believe, until the monsters start showing up too.
The sisters have both missed out on having normal childhoods. Abbie never had to grow up, and Mae had to grow up too soon. I’m excited to explore my geeky love of fantastic worlds, but at it’s heart Mae is about the relationship between the two sisters.
CA: What inspired you to create this story?
GH: There’s so many inspirations! Beyond Why I Hate Saturn, there are also tales like the Oz books, John Carter, the Avatar cartoon series, and especially Pixar movies.
There are also non-fiction inspirations. When I first heard of the Bechdel Test, I realized that Mae would pass that test. It’s not that every movie or comic book needs to be Bechdel Test approved, but there are far too few. I could be part of making the comics industry a little bit better, a little more welcoming.
By doing things like making free sketches for kids, I’ve always tried to invite in new readers. But my books have been mainly aimed at guys about my age. Mae is my chance to make a book that openly invites in new readers to read comics. Along with old male comics nerds like me, of course.
CA: You’ve done nearly everything on this project, including writing, drawing, and coloring. Was it a challenge for you to take on all of these roles?
GH: I have not done lettering, Zander Cannon did that. I know my limits. Besides graphic design by Anette Nam and my color prep by Rose McClain, I’ve done the rest.
It’s a huge challenge, and I’ve gone in knowing that I have a lot to learn. I ran rough drafts of the story past professional friends to get feedback. Tim Seeley has been especially helpful both with specific changes and with broad advice. He says you just have to dive in and start creating, you don’t need to plan everything out. You’ll be just as creative tomorrow and even more skilled.
This coincides with what I learned from working with Alan Moore on Top 10. He’ll knowingly create story hooks that he can use later, but otherwise he plans as little as he can for future issues. If it’s a tightly plotted time travel story then he’ll plan everything. For a book like Top 10 he planned very little except who the murderer of Boots and Saddle was and how she’d get caught.
CA: Did you do anything different artistically when approaching Mae compared with how you approach your other work?
GH: Definitely. This is the first long form story where I have complete control of color. That means I’m going to draw differently because I know the coloring will complete the art. Normally I like to use bold black areas. After a few pages of Mae I realized that I needed to leave that out: it was limiting how I lit and colored a scene. The original ink drawings for most of the book are mostly clean linework.
Beyond that, I’ve definitely taken a strong Pixar influence. The Incredibles really blew me away around the time I began seriously exploring doing a book like Mae. And that’s led me back to works that have influenced Brad Bird, like Rankin/Bass Christmas specials and their animated Hobbit.
CA: You say this on the Kickstarter page: "Mae is the start of a new and different phenomena. It’s a lavishly produced adventure tale with two strong female leads, made for a wide audience: young adult as well as older readers of both genders. We know that there are many readers out there who can appreciate story and art without needing grim, gritty violence, and sex. Let’s prove to the world that there’s room for original creations like Mae. The Comic Book medium is big enough for all of our dreams and stories.” As you know, this is something that I am passionate about as well. Why is this important to you?
GH: I’m doing this because our industry will die without them. There are still people out there trading baseball cards, but it’s a dying hobby. Until recently I was afraid that US comic books would go the same way. I came in during the end of the Image boom, and I watched the industry shrink year after year. Marvel went bankrupt, thousands of local comics shops closed, and sales sank as we used ever more desperate crossover events and cover gimmicks to juice the numbers. I don’t want to sell 25 books that get dumped straight to the quarter bin just to get one variant cover copy.
This has turned around in the last few years, in a way that’s hidden from the Diamond monthly reports. On Comixology Ms Marvel is one of Marvel’s top sellers. It’s not only beating Captain Marvel, it’s beating Iron Man. Books like Bone and Smile have generated gigantic sales outside direct sales comics channels. You wouldn’t know this from online comic geek discussions, but Raina Telgemeier has become more important to comics than Jim Lee. The readers are out there if we’re willing to make books for them. I feel blessed to live in this age of comics.