Kevin Cannon Talks "T-Minus" & "Far Arden"

Kevin Cannon is best known as Zander Cannon's studiomate in Minneapolis-based Big Time Attic. The two-man studio has illustrated books including "Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards" and "Stuff of Life." Kevin also helped Zander write the recent "Top Ten Season Two."

Kevin Cannon has two new books out now. The first is "T-Minus," a nonfiction look at the American and Soviet space programs in the 1960s, written by Jim Ottaviai, illustrated by Kevin and Zander, and published by Simon and Schuster. The other book is "Far Arden" a new graphic novel from Top Shelf that was written, illustrated and lettered by Kevin. An entertaining adventure story starring a colorful sea dog named Army Shanks, the book was illustrated in 288 hours (more on that later) and originally published online.

CBR News talked with Kevin Cannon in advance of the June 13 release party for "Far Arden."

CBR: Your new book "T-Minus" is the second book from Jim Ottaviani that you and Zander have worked on. What is it you like about working with Ottaviani?

KEVIN CANNON: Jim is really passionate about science and history, and maybe more importantly he's passionate about sharing his favorite science and history stories with his audience. That energy really comes through in the scripts and makes them fun graphic novels to illustrate.

What drew you to the project? Have you been interested in space travel and the subject before?

I have to admit that I've always taken space travel for granted because I grew up thinking that shuttle and satellite launches were routine occurrences. It wasn't until I started research for "T-Minus" that I really understood how recently space travel began in the grand scheme of things, and what a huge achievement it was, and continues to be.

How different is this from your last collaboration? There was relatively little reference available for "Bone Sharps," but here there's so much it's potentially overwhelming.

Having so much space race research material at our fingertips was both a blessing and a curse. For instance, there are tons of gorgeous photographs from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions -- I could have easily spent months researching just one page of "T-Minus." But at a certain point you have to pull yourself away from the computer and say, Alright, you've seen enough photos of the Saturn V, it's time to sit down and draw it.

You've worked on a number of nonfiction comics. What do you enjoy about them?

I like how good nonfiction graphic novels take advantage of the comics medium in order to educate readers. I'm a visual learner, and there's only so much I can glean from even a heavily illustrated textbook before my eyes glaze over. Comics, though, combine visual metaphors with attention-grabbing narrative in a way that makes it hard not to learn something.

How do you and Zander break down the work on this project and how is that similar to the ways you break up art chores on other projects?

We work on each project differently. On "T-Minus," Zander primarily drew the figures and did most of the layouts, while I drew the backgrounds and rockets and lettered it. The trick is to figure out a system beforehand and stick to it, because you don't want the style changing halfway through the story.

Let's switch tracks and talk about your other new book. Where did the idea for "Far Arden" come from?

I think the core idea came from reading arctic explorers' journals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was a lot of mystery about what was at the top of the earth, including the idea that there are tropical islands heated by the earth's core. So "Far Arden" was born out of that concept, and follows a group of people in modern times who believe they have a map to just such an island.

Why did you set out to produce the comic the way you did, drawing each chapter in 24 hours?

My friend Steve Stwalley dared me to do an extreme version of the regular 24 Hour Comics Day. But instead of it being a once a year thing, he challenged me to draw one 24-page chapter a month for a whole year. My body was only able to take four straight months of that -- all-nighters were fun in college but run me ragged in my old age. So I revised the challenge and continued drawing 24 pages a month, but not necessarily all in one 24-hour period.

Had you written it out beforehand or when you sat down to draw for 24 hours straight, what did you have in front of you and did you know the story you were going to tell?

The first chapter was based very loosely on a short story I wrote a few years ago, but really most of it was made up on the spot. After the first chapter I started brainstorming ideas for where to go with the plot. So for the first few months I would go into a drawing session with a few bullet points of what the characters should do in that chapter. But as the story got more complicated and plot threads needed to be resolved, I started writing tighter notes and eventually full scripts.

So it was the drawing that took 24 hours for each chapter, not the writing and drawing?

Yeah, that's a good point. By the end of the book, the plotting and scripting happened separately than the drawing. So all told, each page maybe took two hours by the last few chapters.

As far as you know, are there any other graphic novels created this way?

Not that I know of. In a recent essay on Powell's Blog I tried to emphasize that the "288-Hour Graphic Novel Challenge" has yet to be won. I got through four chapters and quit, but the challenge is definitely attainable. I'm confident that there are some young cartoonists out there willing to wreck their bodies month after month for the title.

How has the discipline of drawing each chapter over 24 hours helped and changed your process or style?

There's nothing like having an hour-per-page deadline to force you to become efficient. On the theoretical side, you start to realize that (as we all know) comics are just symbols placed on the page to move the narrative along. A banana rendered too realistically in some cases in not necessary, and in other cases may actually slow the pace of the story or distract the reader. Unless the panel is focused on that one banana, it might be better to just draw an outline and a few quick hatches and move on. And then on the application side, you quickly learn which tools work best for a speedy comic. Dip brushes and pens are generally out, as the dipping and clean-up eat away your time. You're also forced to make do with limited pencils. In a 24 hour comic, I try to keep my hands off the pencil as much as possible -- using it for blocking or simple outlines, but that's it.

How did you end up connecting with Top Shelf?

Zander Cannon introduced me to Chris Staros back in 2001 when I was Zander's very green intern, and since then I've had it in the back of my mind that if I was ever going to seek out a publisher, I would go to Top Shelf first. Top Shelf has published a lot of my favorite authors, including Tim Sievert, Jeffrey Brown, James Kochalka, and Craig Thompson, so part of it's a giddy fanboy feeling of "I want to play on that team!" Anyway, I sent Chris the "Far Arden" manuscript when it was halfway done, and he passed on it but gave me some good advice on what could make it a stronger story. So when I finished the whole book I sent it back to Top Shelf, and Chris and Brett were both enthusiastic about it and said they wanted to publish it. I was floored.

How much of a role did you play in the design of the book and was your goal to make sure it was in hardcover?

The fact that "Far Arden" turned out to be a hardcover was a nice surprise. I just got my copy in the mail recently and it's a beauty. People should feel the thing if they get a chance, it has a unique textured cover finish that begs to be taken on a camping trip and beat up a little bit. As far as design, I worked really closely with the guys at Top Shelf. I did a few rounds of thumbnails for the cover and we narrowed it down to the one you see. Also, I'm not a cover finish or paper stock expert, so they were very helpful with those elements. The one design aspect that I really focused on was to make the book feel like a gritty pulp novel from the sixties, a book that has sort of a guilty pleasure feeling to it. I think it retains that while still feeling like a graphic novel.

You also still have "Far Arden" available online. Why?

I posted each chapter online so my friends could read it, and that also kept me honest because I knew I had to get chapters done on time or my friends would call me out. When Top Shelf signed on to publish the book they seemed cool about letting it stay online. The feeling is that if people read it online for free, they'll really enjoy the story and want the hardcover. "Far Arden" is a book that celebrates the Old School, so it's really meant to be read as a fat 400-page hardcover book, preferably in a leather recliner with a pipe in one hand and a glass of Sheep Dip in the other.

You've done projects that have been just you before, but this is a much longer more ambitious project than a lot of the short pieces. What do you enjoy about being a one-man band and is there anything you'll do differently the next time around?

Part of it's an ego thing, to be completely honest. I love the projects that I've worked on collaboratively with Zander, but there's always been an element of feeling like I'm in his shadow because he has his own identity with the solo books he's produced, like "Replacement God" and "Smax." So I'd like to be known as a comics creator in my own right, as well as Zander's little brother, or Jeff Parker's second cousin. As far as the next project, I'm going to try and write a script beforehand, and see if the book feels any less spontaneous that way.

So what is next?

Sequels are what's next. Zander and I are illustrating a book on evolution for Hill & Wang -- it a follow-up to "The Stuff of Life," which was all about genetics & DNA. And in my free time I'm writing another Army Shanks book. But there's not much to talk about yet, it's just a zygote at this point.

We have to ask, what are you going to be doing on the next 24-hour comics day?

I will definitely be at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which is where we've had most of our Minneapolis 24HCD's. Whether I'm actually going to participate is another matter. I shook my fist after the last one and swore never to do it again, but then the story ("Blotchmen") became a bit of an internet hit thanks to Tom Spurgeon, so I softened my stance a little. Anyway, I'll probably cave in and do it again, or at least be there to blog about it.

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