David Petersen: Gene, you were very excited about Legends and knew you wanted on board with Lowell. (in fact, you were one of the most aggressive creators to be a part of the series…not long after we first chatted you emailed samples of your animal drawings, color work, Lowell’s writing…) Why was this a project you pursued?
Gene Ha: I'm a big fan of Mouse Guard, as are my other comic geek friends. When you told me [about Legends of the Guard] I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to work on a story with my friend Lowell, I'd love to draw mice again (hyper- or not), and I love the Mouse Guard setting. Thanks for letting me into your playground!
Lowell Francis: Gene emailed me after he talked to you and told me the premise of the project- a kind of Canterbury Tales in the Mouse Guard setting. I thought that was pretty brilliant, working with folk tale forms. It also opens a window into other areas of the setting-- people, places and professions we might not otherwise see.
David: So you two were the first duo selected for Legends of the Guard. I had planned on the creators being artist/writer all in one, but decided after you two and a few others asked, we could make some exceptions. Have you two collaborated together before?
Lowell: We've worked together on a number of project proposals in the past and we've been playing with a webcomics idea more recently. Gene and I are also both role-play gamers and we bounce ideas and concepts off each on that side just as frequently. Gene's a great sounding board for plots, concepts and mechanics. He always sees things that I hadn't when putting together the initial premise.
Gene: I've since learned I didn't have to, but one of the samples I sent to David was 3 pages from the tale of a lab animal squirrel living in a steampunk wizard's lab. That was from a game idea of Lowell's, and I asked him to write me a bit of script. We've also done a 4 page story about the Biblical hero Samson for the Hero Initiative fundraising book Hero Comics.
David: How did your collaboration work? When picking out the story idea did you both work on it together? Did Lowell get involved in panel layouts? Did Gene make decisions about phrasing or how scenes would play out? And how did you communicate mainly? by email, phone, skype…?
Lowell: Gene told me the initial premise and let me brainstorm for a bit and them come back to him. I remembered a side comment in the Mouse Guard rpg which mentioned that some smiths among the mice valued their hands so highly they took out insurance policies with local banks. I loved that idea and wanted to do something, which eventually evolved into considering the kinds of tales which merchant and banker mice tell-- a very different kind of hero. I'm interested in cultural history and I looked at some things like Verdon's Night in the Middle Ages for ideas, but ultimately I wanted which felt like a tavern tale. I like the idea that there exists a whole cycle of stories about this character, Worley, and we show just one of them. For scripting, I did a kind of page beat breakdown, then a preliminary script which Gene made suggestions about: resorting and adding elements. He suggested bringing a background character forward which ended up changing the ending and tying things together really well. Gene's an amazing designer so I leave most of the graphic elements open- I just try to describe the key element to be conveyed (I hope!).
Gene: We mostly communicate by email, with phone calls if I need to get a feel for what he's thinking. Every now and then I'll drop by his town to hang out, talk ideas, and game. For the look of the book, I just swiped as much from David's stories as I could. I knew it wouldn't look like your work at all in the end because I can't draw like you. The I used your nine-panel grid for laying out my panels, though I sometimes broke a bit away. For the character designs, I acted as if your books are photographs and I was doing a stylized version of it. David and I had an amusing Facebook conversation about why his mice have two fingers and a thumb, instead of the traditional three fingers and a thumb of cartoon mice. For the design of Wolfepointe, I ran with Lowell's idea of it being a rough frontier town. What trade goods does a town like that make, and what does is it need from civilization? Because the Scent Border keeps out large mammals, I figured they'd harvest things from across the border. Shed antlers, bones and claws and teeth from carcasses, urine soaked bark from marked trees, and other nasty bits. The Wolfepointe armor and halberds are made from bear claws. Their totem poles are gnawed from antlers. Antler is a great source of calcium for mice so I made them bigger than other mice. It all made a nice contrast with Worley the banker.
David: How did you two meet?
Gene: School. Lowell was the best read geek in Clay Middle School, and one of the most creative. He had a whole circle of often older comic and gamer geeks around him, and I got drawn into his circle. His tastes were really mature for a young teen. He introduced me to Alan Moore, Frank Miller, British comics, and art cinema.
Lowell: We had a number of classes together; I remember playing games at the back of the room when we could get away with it. Gene and I were in the school Improv group as well. Gene was one of the few people to get how crazy and cool Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing was. He also gave me my first taste of manga, long before anyone was putting out translations here in the States. That really affected the way I saw comics.
Gene: I still go to Lowell and his wife for advice on movies, comics and music. He's got great taste.
David: Was working on the Legends story different from the way you both normally work?
Gene: Almost all of my work is for the big publishers, DC and Marvel. The freedom on this is exhilarating. I thought you'd keep a tighter rein on your 'universe' but you've been very encouraging. It helps that it's a legendary story. Lowell and I have pitched ideas for new books to DC, but it never worked out. Someone else always seems to have dibs on even minor characters.
Lowell: I think we followed our usual route: we begin with an initial idea and then Gene lets me chew over it for a while. Then I come back to him, we bounce things again and then I walk away to do some more chewing on it. Gene's amazing at spinning things out off the top of his head, and I like to spend some time fitting things into position, like a puzzle.
Gene: I come up with ideas, but I can't make different voices for dialog and a sound story arc. Lowell understands people better than I do, which is why he writes well and I can't. When I blather about comics storytelling, I'll inevitably start talking about neural function and the different brain visual centers. Lowell's the human half of our team.
David: Did you find working in the square format different than working in the traditional comic size? (from either a layout or narrative panel-flow perspective)
Gene: It is different, but it really fits the world just right. The mice live very close to the ground, where even tree roots dominate their landscape. Having a lower shorter page reinforces that. One has to use fewer panels than a bigger page. I like that. It's also harder to end a page with a big panel, but it can be done.
Lowell: I tend to think in terms of points to be made on each page. I know if I put those out there Gene will come up with a way to visually organize the page and panels. And I know when I see what he's done it will feel right and inevitable.
David: Where did the inspiration for your Legends story come from? Were there specific elements you guys were including just to draw or to write about them?
Lowell: I really wanted to see Gene draw a Mink. And I wanted to pick a wild and far distant Mouse settlement we could play with, which is how we ended up with Wolfepointe. I crossed that with my desire to have a merchant mouse folk hero.
Gene: I was very hands off at first. My initial idea was to do a tale of dashing swordsmice, but I kept my mouth shut till he had time to think it over. I'm glad I did. A banker in the wilderness was great fun to draw.
David: Gene, can you talk about your process of getting a page from a script to scanable artwork?
Gene: After I get a script, I'll make 'thumbnail' sketches in the margins, literally the size of a thumbnail. I'll do one for each panel, including only essential elements like major characters, dialog, and background elements crucial to the story. Then I'll do a pencil layout about 3" wide. This gets scanned and printed as a 'blueline', on which I'll do my inks. At this point, I do my inks with a 2B pencil and Copic marker brushes. As long as I don't smear or overwork it, it scans really nicely as inks.
David: And your color work has an interesting atmosphere. How much of the artistic work is done in the coloring stage? What do you use to color?
Gene: When I'm doing my own color, it's important to plan what I want the final colored scene looks like. A lot of things, like hazy trees in the distance, aren't worth drawing in the inks. It will only hamper my colors. I'm better at painting trees than drawing them. I color in Photoshop. I've tried Corel Painter, but even on my shiny new Mac Pro it's too slow. I work at 900 dpi so the images can be printed as posters or 'Ultimate' editions later. To get my color palette, I'll either take a photo or find a Google image. I don't steal objects from the pictures, but I will use the eyedropper tool take colors for the sky, background, midground, and foreground.
David: Where can Readers find out more about your work and various projects?
Lowell: Gene and I have been playing around with a couple of future projects. The first, Crowsmantle, is a longer form modern fantastic work. The second, Codici Malefactus (working title), is a kind of Harry Potter meets Rats of NIMH. Gene has some sketches from those you could post. I blog at http://ageofravens.blogspot.com/ about games and things, though I've taken March and April off from that.
Gene: On my own, my most famous work is Top 10 with writer Alan Moore, who also created The Watchmen, Constantine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and other books which he didn't want turned into movies. My next big project is Back Roads with writer Bill Willingham, creator of Fables. Otherwise, I'm mostly a cover artist but I've done short runs on Starman, Green Lantern, and two X-Men limited series. Any good online comics database will have all of my work from the last 15+ years, I can't keep track! [Gene's website is geneha.com]
Gene & Lowell's story appears in Legends of the Guard issue 2 in stores June 23rd.