The renowned artist of “Batman: Fortunate Son,” “The Adventures of Cylcops and Phoenix,” Alan Moore‘s “Top 10” and more, Gene Ha is no stranger to the comic book industry, but there are a few avenues even he has yet to explore. Now, Ha has struck out on his own with his first-ever creator-owned work. “Mae” tells the tale of two sisters who find themselves up against an alternate reality filled with monsters and mad science. The main story thread centers on the titular character, Mae, just reunited with her sister Abbie, who had disappeared eight years prior. But while Abbie is back in Indiana, she didn’t return alone; her sojourn to this parallel world brought back all kinds of creatures with her, and Mae has found herself along for the ride.
Like many other comic book pros in recent years, Ha funded his project through Kickstarter, achieving his $22,000 goal in just two days. As his very successful crowdfunding campaign draws to a close, Ha took some time out to talk with CBR News about the graphic novel’s two female protagonists, the works that inspired him to give writing a try with his first creator-owned foray, and his overall experience using Kickstarter.
CBR News: “Mae” is about the relationship between two sisters, Abbie and Mae, who grew up in Indiana. When you were writing the characters, was anything in their relationship influenced by your personal experiences with your siblings?
Gene Ha: That’s a new question for me! At first, I was going to say no, but that’s not true. Mae Fortell definitely shares some qualities with me. She’s a nerd who’s legally blind without glasses, while both of my brothers were high school athletes, who could see fine without. And my late older brother got arrested a few times and I bailed him out.
I took a lot of inspiration for the jail scenes from Phil Hester’s 1998 book “The Picture Taker.” Looking back, the jail visit in “The Picture Taker” likely resonated with me because of my own experiences visiting Indiana jails.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve had the idea for “Mae” since the mid-’90s, but also that you hope that the graphic novel welcomes the newest generation of female readers. How has “Mae” developed since you first envisioned it? Do you believe it’s evolved to become more inclusive?
Originally, Abbie was the action hero main character. It was a story of a two-fisted protagonist and the brainier sidekick, like Buffy and Willow, or Bruce Wayne and Alfred. The jock and the nerd.
Female nerds get two regular roles in pop culture. As main characters, they have to leave behind their geekiness to become romantic heroes — the big turning point is usually taking off their glasses. Or they’re worshipful researchers for heroes too impatient to read a book or to Google “werewolf.” “Arrow’s” Felicity Smoak comes to mind.
I have a lot of plans for Mae, but that doesn’t include making her less of a dork.
In “Mae,” Czech explorers were the first people to encounter Cimrteren, the otherworld Abbie disappeared to. That’s an interesting choice! What made you decide to use Czech for Cimrteren? How does it fit into the story?
A large part of it is visual. “ZemÄ›tÅ™asi” just looks so exotic. Those beautiful accents gave Czech the edge over Polish or Romanized Russian. Let me confess that I have no idea how to pronounce the Czech names I use; I’ve been depending upon advisors like the University of Chicago’s Malynne Sternstein.
More commonly used languages didn’t work for me. English names often feel like subdivisions, or ye olde pubs: King’s Landing or Oakenshield. German and Scandinavian sounds like death metal or worse. Japanese evokes anime. And French always sounds pretentious in English.
Choosing Czech shaped the setting. I planned on great noble houses dominating Cimrteren, as with “Dune” or “Game of Thrones.” This stopped making sense once I started reading Czech history. In 1620, the Austrian Catholic Holy Roman Emperor crushed a rebellion by Protestant Czech nobles. Much of the native nobility were exiled or executed and replaced with German speaking nobles. The Czechs came to value equality and to see aristocracy as something imposed by foreigners.
Cimrteren values talent and genius over inherited titles.
Cimrteren is also filled with monsters and mad science. What influenced your creature design? What kind of horrors can readers look forward to?
The biggest influences are Maurice Sendak, Jill Thompson and Studio Ghibli. They’re a way to push myself past my superhero habits. I wanted design for “Mae” to be bold and simple, with a big graphic punch. An artist develops personal style when they fail to copy someone else’s work. I felt good about failing to ape them.
A lesson I learned from Alan Moore and from Tim Seeley is not to plan your story ahead too much. You’ll be just as creative a month from now as you are today, and if you apply yourself, you’ll have more skill. I don’t have a tight blueprint for future “Mae” stories, just important milestones I want to hit.
I can tell you that we’ll see some really horrific technology from the ZemÄ›tÅ™asi, who play with Frankenstein concepts. Mary Shelley’s original novel is packed with big ideas, and I think very few of them have been explored by modern pop culture.
Of course, you’ve said your biggest inspirations for “Mae” were Kyle Baker’s “Why I Hate Saturn” and Matt Wagner’s “Mage.” What was it about those particular works that influenced you here?
I read Matt Wagner’s “Mage” in high school, and it taught me the value of rooting your fantasy story in the real world. It’s fun building something that doesn’t look at all like our world, but the power of “Mage” is how it transformed the real world for me. The heroes looked like people I knew, not muscle bound giants in tights or armor. The job of art is to make the everyday magical, and the magical seem every day. This is as true in painting and literature and architecture.
I also love the hand-painted coloring in “Mage.” The spattery airbrush was a huge departure from the flat comic book coloring of the time. It made the walls seem rough and made the air into atmosphere. I’ve tried to capture that with my coloring.
I love almost everything about Kyle Baker’s “Why I Hate Saturn,” but what surprised me was the bond between the sisters. The sisters fight over a guy, but he only shows up in flashback. The focus remained on the sisters, not in how a guy could validate their lives. He’s just one speedbump in an epic journey they take together.
All of this taught me that a story with two female leads could have universal appeal long before “Frozen” hit the screens.
“Mae” is obviously different from your past work — what was it like to approach this project not just as an artist, but as a writer?
It’s been a huge learning experience! My first printed story was a 12-page “Iron Fist” story in 2002. I had to work through several drafts with a very patient editor, Stuart Moore. I learned how much I had to learn. It taught me to respect the writers’ craft much more deeply.
Taking my dream project to print has been a huge thrill, but I’m under no illusion that I’ve mastered writing. You have to be confident enough to create, but always conscious that there’s so much more to learn.
You reached your Kickstarter goal in under two days, and have since tripled it. Were you expecting that kind of success? What was your initial reaction to reaching your goal?
I planned for it, but I didn’t expect it! My first reactions were to share some Scotch with some friends and to make sure I didn’t let my backers down. A Kickstarter project is a promise you make to everyone who backs you, and I aim to keep that promise. I’ve spent this whole month looking for ways to make the Kickstarter rewards better.
Several other artists, like Frank Cho, Philip Tan and Katie Cook, are creating prints for your Kickstarter. How did you get these guest artists involved? What was it like to see your original characters as drawn by other creators?
Comics is an amazing place. People from industries like TV and movies are always amazed by how supportive comics creators are of each other. Folks like Frank and Katie are friends, and I’m proud that they are. I’ve never met Brandon Graham, but we admire each others’ work and we’re online friends. Philip Tan contacted me and offered to help. That really represents the best of comics: he grew up reading my books! Exciting young talent inspires and spurs me and, in this case, humbles me.
You had “Mae” just about completed when you began your Kickstarter. Have you begun to work on a sequel? Do you plan to use Kickstarter for future “Mae” installments?
As much fun as this has been, I hope never to run a Kickstarter again! It’s a lot of work doing it right. I’d be happy to help and advise my friends when they run Kickstarters, but it’s a full time job. I spent more than a month learning how to publish and Kickstart “Mae.” Running the campaign has been a full time job, which crashed into a late script with a tight deadline. I’m told preparing and sending out the packages will take more than a month. That’s far too much time away from the drawing board.
I’m nailing down a deal to turn “Mae” into an ongoing series, available through comic shops and digitally. The more time I spend making new “Mae” stories, the happier I’ll be.
Gene Ha’s Kickstarter for “Mae” ends Wednesday, May 27.
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