An interview with artist Michel Gagné
By Matthew J. Phillion
Even if you are not yet a fan of his comics, you have
probably enjoyed Michel Gagné's work and not even
realized it. This multi-talented artist is an
award-winning animator runs his own
publishing house, Gagné
International Press, and his work can be found on comic book
racks everywhere. His recent film work includes the visually
bizarre "Osmosis Jones" and the highly popular "The Iron
With another book coming out and an upcoming project for DC
Comics in the works, Gagné is a busy man. But he was kind
enough to take the time to talk with Small Press Magazine
about comics, filmmaking, and insanely twisted rabbits.
Gagné's interest in animation began at a young age.
"When I was 16, I saw "Lady and the Tramp," and that was
it, I fell in love with animation," said Gagné.
After completing high school in Québec City in Canada, he
trekked to Toronto to attend a 3-year animation program at
"Around that time, I saw 'The Secret of Nimh' by Don Bluth,
and it blew me away," said Gagné. "I had to work for the guy
who did that."
Upon graduating college, Gagné flew to Los Angeles and
found work as an assistant animator on Bluth's "An American
Tale." He was quickly moved up to an animator position on
their next picture, "The Land Before Time."
From Don Bluth Studios, Gagné moved to Rich Animation,
Available Light (a live action FX house), and eventually
landed at Warner Brothers Animation, where he worked on some
of his favorite projects.
"Despite the heavy corporate management of Warner Brothers
Animation, I really enjoyed my stint there," said Gagné. "As
an added bonus, I was able to take 3-4 months off between
pictures, so I got time to work on my own stuff too."
He was initially hired to head the special effects
department on "The Quest for Camelot" and stayed in a lead
position for seven years, working on 4 feature films,
including "Osmosis Jones."
"'Osmosis Jones' was particularly fun because I was given a
lot of freedom to create the look of the effects," said Gagné.
"I had a blast coming up with crazy concepts like cellular
smoke, molecular fire, weird organisms and lots of really cool
His favorite film project was "The Iron Giant."
"I loved designing and animating some of the effects for it
such as the lake/tidal wave sequence and the dome of doom
explosion on top of the ocean. Working with visionary director
Brad Bird was very inspiring," said Gagné.
It was during his time with Bluth that Gagné started his
"great animation experiment," "Prelude to Eden." The four and
a half year project began in January of 1991, when Gagné moved
to LA after a 4-year stint in Ireland.
"I had recently broken up with a girlfriend, and I was all
around very depressed," said Gagné. "I essentially started
Prelude to Eden to give myself a purpose, to create
The film began with a tiny spark:
"When I started, I wasn't sure what story I was going to
tell. I just started. I had always wanted to animate an atom
with electrons spinning around over a black background. I
don't know why. It's an image that stuck in my mind. So the
film starts with an energy blast from which a spinning atom
emerges," said Gagné.
Initially planned as a solo project, "Prelude to Eden"
grew, requiring additional artists. Fortunately, Gagné brought
on board a number of friends and animators, Nasos Vakalis,
David Brewster and Mark Koetsier, who wanted to participate in
the creation of a few of the giant robots scenes.
"To ensure the film looked like it was animated and drawn
by a single hand, I proceeded to clean-up, inbetween and
retime at will all of the scenes, to give them the Gagné
style," siad Gagné. "The film was animated at 24 drawings per
second, so it took a really long time to draw the whole
Art director, named Barry Atkinson orchestrated the colors
of the environments creating truly memorable settings. All the
drawings were painted and composited in a software called
Animo, which Gagné's friend Jon Hooper introduced him to.
Prelude was the first 35mm film resolution project using
"I signed a contract with them stating that they could use
the film to promote their software, as long as they provided
me with all the necessary equipment to finished it," said
Gagné. "It was a win-win situation. Jon and myself started
painting and compositing in his bedroom on his NEXT computer.
Eventually, Cambridge Animation, the folks who created Animo,
got me an office in North Hollywood and there, I spend about
six months painting and compositing the film. Jon was my
guiding light throughout the whole process, sharing all his
extensive computer knowledge with me."
Once the film was fully colored, Kodak Cinesite outputted
all the files on 35mm film. Gagné gave Cinesite the right to
use Prelude to promote their new technology, resulting in them
doing the job at no cost.
Shirley Walker (Batman: The Animated Series), created a
powerful symphonic piece to perfectly accompany the visuals.
Gagné was so impressed with her composition that he ended up
hiring a full orchestra to record the massive score. Another
friend, Joe Campana, created the fantastic multi-layered sound
Prelude to Eden received an Annie Award nomination
(animation's industry equivalent of the Oscar) in 1996 for
outstanding achievement in an animated short.
Gagné's move to comics was a fairly natural move.
"I've been a fan of comic book literature my whole
life. Doing comics has been in the back of my mind for a
long time," said Gagné. "I just felt that I needed the
right type of story for the medium. "ZED" became that
story. The funny thing is, I initially conceived "ZED"
as an animated series, but then I just didn't want to
deal with the logistics of animation. I thought comics
would be a more intimate medium and the vision could be
The experience so far has been both
good and frustrating.
"I really like publishing books, but publishing
comics is kind of a pain in the butt. The pamphlet
format doesn't have much of a
life and the sale venues
are a lot more limited than books," said Gagné. "One of the
things I like is the fact that I don't have to wait a year to
get the story out and I can keep in touch with the readers
through my letter page. I'm committed to publish "ZED" up to
issue 8 in comic form, then we'll see what happens."
"Issue 4 of "ZED" was solicited in July's Previews and will
ship to stores in September. The hardcover and soft cover
trade will hit stores one month later. I intend to do the
second story arc (5-8) next year."
Gagné's comics tend not to fall into a particular genre of
style label. Sometimes described as children's books, they are
definitely more complex than any one "title" can describe
them. How does he deal with the labeling of your projects?
"Bill Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple Comics in LA came up
with the perfect term, 'Graphic Storybook,'" said Gagné. "I
liked that a lot."
For the uninitiated, Gagné describes his books as "weird,
funny, conceptual, cute, scary and offbeat." His artwork can
be seen on his website (http://www.gagneint.com/), where they can
even read his entire book, "A Search for Meaning: The Story of
Despite his wildly imaginative style, Gagné finds
inspiration from everyday things.
"I walk my dogs one hour every day. I use that time to come
up with concepts and plot ideas. When I look at my wife, I get
inspired," said Gagné. "There's inspiration everywhere, it's
hard to pin point one source in particular."
There was a more unusual inspiration for "Insanely Twisted
Rabbits," a collection of sketches of, well, insanely twisted
While Gagné was working at Bluth, he saw a little
observational sketch his friend Dave Kupczyk had done of his
pet rabbit, Fudge.
"He added a couple of fangs and said to me 'That's Fudge,
evil Fudge!'" said Gagné.
Not to be outdone, Gagné went back to his desk and
scribbled a picture of an enraged deformed mutated rabbit.
"I brought the drawing to Dave and said, 'Now that's an
evil Fudge!'" he said.
Deformed rabbits became sort of an addiction. Gagné drew
the little beasts during his spare time, and eventually
Kupczyk joined him in a contest to see who would draw the most
"bizarre creature." Michel's sketches were published by Gagné
International Press in 2001.
"A Search for Meaning: the Story of Rex" is a sort of
"stylized autobiography" for Gagné.
"It's really the story of my life up to age 32," he
said. "I had recently married my soul mate Nancy, who
had a huge impact on me. She opened my eyes to many
possibilities and encouraged me to travel a path of
spiritual self-discovery. The book was definitely part
of my search."
The book was inspired when a production assistant on
Quest for Camelot," Scott
Grieder, suggested Gagné should do a children's book. Gagné
was open to the idea, suggesting Grieder write it and Gagné
Gagné drew the first image, a cute fox staring at a strange
creature. He gave it to Grieder and said, "this is your
starting point, write something about it." Over the next
couple of weeks Gagné produced image after image, and in the
end wrote the book himself.
"He told me he felt relieved that he actually didn't have
to write it," said Gagné.
Gagné will be diving in to a different sort of genre this
fall: the superhero comics. He has been invited by DC Comics
to create a five-part, 40-page backup story for Detective
Comics, due out in November, starting with issue 776.
"It's a completely insane Batman story," said Gagné. "They
gave me complete freedom to write and illustrate the whole
thing. What more could I ask for?"
Moving from film to comics is essentially about people. As
in, the number of people the artist works with every day.
In animation, Gagné was working in a building with a crew
of 300-400 people, on projects that lasted for 1-2 years. It
allowed him the chance to get to know the folks he was working
To work on comics, he had to switch over to very small
teams, partially in isolation.
"People usually work at home, so it's not like the
animation community where people work in big buildings for
years," said Gagné. "I'm relatively new to this industry so
it's hard for me to judge, but so far, I find it a welcome
change. I like the artists I've met and I love attending
conventions. I feel a lot more connected to my audience also,
which is great."
Any pet peeves about working in animation?
"One thing that bugged me though is that there's always a
sense that you're working on somebody else's baby. If the
movie is good, then it's encouraging, but if it's a turd like
'The Quest for Camelot,' then you just have to pinch your nose
and hope the next one is better," said Gagné.
Comics allowed Gagné to find both a voice and a measure of
control over his projects.
"The whole time I worked on movies, I didn't feel like I
really had a voice as an artist. Let's face it, unless you're
at the top echelon of production, you're a cog in the wheel
that helps the huge machine move forward," said Gagné. "Some
people are totally OK with that. They like to contribute and
that's fine for them. I guess I'm a bit of a megalomaniac
'cause I want my own artistic voice to be heard. At the end of
2000, I said goodbye to the big studios, and became a full
time independent, dedicating most of my time to Gagné
As a card carrying member of both communities, does he have
any feelings on the future of either industries?
"I am very optimistic," said Gagné. "I think they will keep
changing and diversifying, and that's a good
When he's not creating intergalactic comic
mayhem or on-screen magic, Gagné is also a noted artist of a
number of other forms.
Gagné rattles off some of his influences: Picasso, Jack
Kirby, Moebius, Yves Tanguy, Yerka, Oscar Fishinger, Miyazaki,
Don Bluth, Walt Disney, George Lucas… and others too many to
His other influences include "my beloved wife
Nancy, my dogs Star and Nova, looking at nature, seeing
Manowar in concert, going to museums and looking at other
talented artist's works," he said.
also includes painting and sculpture. He began painting
after a lifetime of cartoons after seeing a Kandinsky
exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. |
painted and sculpted like a maniac for about 3 years
from 1996-99 and had several art
shows," said Gagné.
He toyed with a number of mediums, including acrylic,
collages, inks, wood, mixed-media, charcoal.
"I was obsessed," said Gagné. "I guess you could call it
obsessive-compulsive behavior. I developed a kind of visual
linguistic that, later, segued right into my illustration
work. It's all connected you know. It's all part of an
artist's search. I look at my books as an extension of my fine
art. To me, the whole experience was a form of therapy as well
as moving forward as an artist."
Beyond continuing with "ZED" and his upcoming with DC,
Gagné has a full slate of projects coming up.
A new hardcover graphic storybook is set for release early
next year called "The Towers of Numar," an off-beat
science-fiction tale about god, the creation, and a "far-out
"I've been working on this project off and on for about two
years and I've made a commitment to myself to have it released
before April next year," said Gagné.
"ZED" #5-8 is tentatively set to be released next year. In
film work, Gagné is designing special effects for a Pixar film
by Brad (The Iron Giant) Bird. And, of course, this prolific
artist always has a number of additional projects on his
"I never know which one is gonna go into high gear and get
finished," said Gagné. "It all depends on what my next burst
of inspiration will be."
For more information on Michel Gagné his website at: http://www.gagneint.com/
You can also
here to check out our review of Zed.