Z is for Zed

Michel Gagné

by Rebecca Salek

Michel Gagné has been in love with comics since he was a child. A gifted artist and long-time animator with Don Bluth Studios, Gagné has not only worked on such films as An American Tail and The Land Before Time, but also produced his own Annie-nominated film, Prelude to Eden. Gagné recently turned his talents to the field of comics; his sci-fi epic Zed is one of this Tart's favorite comics! Gagné took time out from his very busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

Sequential Tart: How did you come to work in comics?

Michel Gagné: Actually, animation was my first career. I started as an animator in 1985 and have worked on probably twenty movies up to now. I've had a great time in the movie business. After the completion of my short film Prelude to Eden in 1995, I started trying other medias. I first embraced painting and did a number of acrylics from 1996-98. During the day, I worked on movies such as Quest For Camelot, Space Jam and The Iron Giant, and at night I was a consumed fine artist.

From 1996 to 1999 I created nearly a hundred fine art pieces including paintings, sculptures, collage, inks and mixed media. My art was exhibited in several one-man shows and quite a few group shows. In 1997, I also wrote and illustrated my first graphic storybook, A Search For Meaning: The Story of Rex. Six months later, I started Gagné International Press and released the book. I wrote, illustrated and published four more hardcover books before moving into comics.

So, at the age of 35, I discovered comics as a means for my artistic expression rather than a career per se. This is now my second year in the process, and I'm in love with the medium.

ST: As a child, how did you regard comics? How did your idea of what comics actually were change as you grew older?

MG: As a kid, I loved the drawings, the heroes, the fantasies, the sci-fi themes. I loved the experience of looking at great art and getting involved with strange and wonderful characters. Today, to tell you the truth, not much has changed, except that my taste has become a lot more eclectic. Still, not a week goes by without me reading a comic or graphic novel.

ST: What is it about comics that drew you to the medium as a reader?

MG: I was drawn to the medium around the age of nine. I'm not sure what the attraction was. It was just there. Comics felt comfortable. I preferred them to TV because they were less noisy and I felt more involved in the process, less passive.

ST: What drew you to comics as a creator?

MG: I've loved the medium my whole life, and I had been itching to get into it for quite a while. When I found the right story it just became a natural progression.

ST: How did you make your dreams of creating comics a reality? What steps did you take to break into the comics industry?

MG: In December 2000, after seven years working as Supervisor/Designer/Animator for Warner Brothers Feature Animation, I decide that I needed a new challenge. So I left to become a full time independent artist.

Creating comics is a time consuming endeavor that needed my full attention. So, when I didn't have to go to a full time job anymore, it just became my main focus. When the time came to publish Zed, my first comic series, I had already learned a lot about self-publishing. We already had deals in place with distributors. So in 2001, Gagné International Press moved into comic publishing.

ST: While studying at Sheridan College, you worked on two short animated films. In what capacity did you work on them? What were they about?

MG: Part of the three-year animation program at Sheridan College was to storyboard, design and animate two short films. My second year film was about one minute in length and was called On a Good Note. The teacher gave all the students a model sheet of the same character, and we had to do the following routine with him: 1. He gets out of an elevator. 2. He does whatever for thirty seconds to one minute. 3. He returns to the elevator. 4. The door closes. Fellow student Mike Surrey, who is now a renowned Disney animator, designed the character. All the films were to be spliced together after completion as to form a kind of anijam. As far as I know, no one else finished his or her film. So now, it's this little weird film that doesn't seem to make much sense to anyone. HBO bought the right to air it for a couple of years, so I guess they must have liked it. My third year film was called A Touch of Deceit. It features a cute little rabbit and a hellish creature. It's about two minutes in length, and I've been told that it was kinda cute. It became part of the 23rd International Tournée Of Animation and was theatrically distributed across the US and Canada. This is the film Don Bluth and John Pomeroy saw, before offering me a position at their studios. In 2001, because of requests from fans, I put all my short films together on a DVD, which I sell through my site and at conventions.

ST: As an animator with Don Bluth Studios, you worked on such films as An American Tale and The Land Before Time. How long does it take to produce an animated feature? With which aspects of the film were you involved?

MG: I started at Bluth as they were wrapping up animation on An American Tail. I was assisting Linda Miller at that time. I graduated to animator on The Land Before Time and worked on six features over a period of six years. I guess I probably spent about a year on each film but the total production time is about three years on average. I worked in the character animation division on the first few films and on the rest I was in the special effects department.

ST: What did you enjoy most about working with that studio?

MG: Bluth was my breakthrough in the film world. I was right out of college so everything was new and exciting. I met and worked with a lot of great animation artists and absorbed a lot of knowledge. I see the Bluth period as the formative years of my animation career.

ST: How did you come to work for Don Bluth Studios? What did you learn there that you took with you as you moved on to other projects?

MG: After Sheridan College in 1986, I took the plane to California to go meet Don Bluth. Of course I never met him on that trip, but I was persistent enough to leave a videocassette of my student film A Touch of Deceit with the receptionist. I returned to Toronto and got a job at a small animation outfit called Light Box. About a week later, I received a phone call from John Pomeroy asking me if I could start on Monday. During the six years I spent at Bluth, I learned how animated features were made. I refined my drawing abilities and I gained confidence in my animation skills. This new confidence expressed itself in the short film Prelude to Eden, which I started on weekends and evenings while at Bluth.

ST: What is Prelude to Eden?

MG: Prelude to Eden was my great animation experiment, a project that was four and a half years in the making. I started Prelude to Eden in January 1991, while I was working for Bluth. 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. The synopsis for Prelude to Eden goes something like this: Long before there was life on Earth, or before there was even an Earth in the galaxy, or before there was even a galaxy in the universe, or, indeed, before there was even a universe at all, there was an epic battle between opposite forces. The outcome of this epic clash created the spark, which triggered the explosion now known as The Big Bang. Essentially the film is about creation and its struggles.

Initially I was going to do Prelude To Eden all by myself, but as the project grew, that no longer was possible. I animated most of the film myself although some of my friends, who are great animators wanted to participate and roughed out a few of the giant robot scenes. Nasos Vakalis, David Brewster and Mark Koetsier did some really nice stuff. 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. The film was animated at 24 drawings per second without pause, so it took a really long time to draw the whole thing. When I made the decision to go color, I got great help from a talented art director named Barry Atkinson. He did a wonderful job, orchestrating the colors of the environments and creating truly memorable settings.

All the drawings were painted and composited in a software called Animo, which my good friend Jon Hooper introduced me to. Prelude was the first 35mm film resolution project using Animo. 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 finish it. It was a win-win situation. Jon and I 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 spent 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. I gave Cinesite the right to use Prelude to promote their new technology, resulting in them doing the job at no cost to me.

Other people that deserve mention are Shirley Walker (Batman: The Animated Series), who created a powerful symphonic piece to perfectly accompany the visuals. I was so impressed with her composition that I ended up hiring a full orchestra to record the massive score. Another friend, Joe Campana, created the fantastic multi-layered sound effects track. The film became very popular within the animation community, and thousands of bootleg VHS copies exist throughout the world. It received an Annie Award nomination (the animation industry equivalent of the Oscar) in 1996 for best animated short.

ST: While creating comics is difficult (though exciting) in and of itself, marketing is another matter. What alternative ways of marketing have you looked into? How do you market your work?

MG: I'm learning as I go. I do signings, lectures, and a lot of drawings for the fans. I also have a popular website that I update three to five times a months at http://www.gagneint.com/. It's full of artwork and news. I have a very dedicated and growing fan following. I am very gracious for their enormous support and encouragement. My local comic stores have been very supportive also. Bill Liebowitz from Golden Apple in LA, is very active at promoting my work and providing me with knowledge of the industry. That store alone has sold hundreds of my books!

We also have four distributors (Diamond, Last Gasp, Cold Cut and FM International) spreading the word about my work. I'm putting an ad in February's Previews for my new hardcover book, Frenzied Fauna: From A to Z. It's the first time I'm actually buying an ad. We'll see how it does.

ST: What mediums do you use in your artwork (ink, oil, chalk, et cetera)?

MG: If you include all my work, I have experimented with loads of mediums. If we focus on the comic, I'm pretty straight forward. I rough out with a 4-6B pencil on 11 x 17 Bristol board. I ink with various size pens and brush-pens. Then, I scan the inked artwork in Photoshop where I add color, shades and so on. It's all pretty standard stuff.

ST: What is Zed?

MG: I initially came up with the concept and premise of Zed while I was at Warner Brothers working on Osmosis Jones. At first, I conceived it as an animated series, but then I thought, an animated show requires so many people, so many cooks in the kitchen. I know the elements of censorship you constantly have to face, all the friggin' producers and executives who want to put in their two cents worth. I've seen it happen time and time again. I couldn't put Zed through that. So I thought, why not try my hands at comics? I'm glad I did!

Essentially, the series chronicles the life of a sweet little alien scientist who designs a machine that could save the galaxy from the great energy crisis. When he goes to Xandria, the mother of all planets, to demonstrate his invention in front of the galaxy's hierarchy, something goes wrong, terribly wrong ....

ST: What inspired you to create such a character as Zed?

MG: There's a lot of me in Zed. Sometimes, working in the movie industry I have taken tasks that seemed so overwhelming that I felt that I could never conquer the odds. In the end I always did. The story of Zed is kinda like that. I'm pitting this cute little character against odds that are so extreme, so hopeless, yet somehow he will come through it all ....

ST: Zed is filled with puns (the city of Mussell is a sports center). How difficult is it to work such gags into the script?

MG: It's not that hard. It's very much my personal sense of humor that comes through the dialogue and captions. People that know me, immediately recognize me in the writing. I'm trying to write Zed in a very unpretentious, simplified and funny manner. I've had people congratulate me on the writing, they just love it, while others think it's retarded. Depends what your sensibilities are. The events that happen to Zed are absolutely hideous. There are war elements and some very brutal passages. I try to balance all that with a lighthearted dialogue that doesn't take itself too seriously.

ST: I once described Zed to a friend as twisted Disney. How do you describe your series to someone who has never seen it?

MG: Zed is cute, scary, twisted, epic, strange, funny, brutal and sad.

ST: Visually, Zed looks like a children's comic book (all those big eyes and cute creatures). But in the first issue Macku is decapitated and later an entire planet is destroyed! What target audience do you have in mind for Zed?

MG: You know, when I'm doing Zed, I never really think of a target audience. I do it for myself and like-minded. Zed issue #4 is so brutal that I actually thought of putting a warning notice on the cover. Still, I'd like to keep Zed readable for the young crowd. That's why I changed motherfuckers to muddaf#@%kers in issue #1. Looking back I'm glad I did the change because a lot of kids do like the book, but no, it is not aimed at kids.

ST: In the first issue of Zed, the band Krah ("the Kings of Metal") plays for the audience. That makes me wonder what kind of music you listen to while creating your series.

MG: I listen to rock, heavy metal, classical, musicals and sometimes I'll put a new-age or jazz CD in the player for variety's sake. The band "Krah" was actually inspired by Manowar. They are the loudest band in the world. They beat their own Guinness world record twice. I saw them at the Whiskey in LA a couple of years ago. They were awesome! The wall of sound was unbelievable and the crowd was going insane. The image of these four guys on the stage unleashing this raw power imprinted itself in my brain. I knew one day I'd find a way to work it into one of my projects.

ST: What can we expect in future issues of Zed?

MG: Issue 4 will be out in the spring and will conclude the current story arc. It doesn't have a happy ending. As a matter of fact the issue ends in a very disturbing manner. People are gonna wonder how I could possibly keep the series going after an ending like that! Anyhow, the first 4 issues are really the set-up of what is yet to come. A prelude to the epic, if you will. The next story arc will spread from issues 5-8 and will cover about 10,000 years of history. There are big things coming, and twists that will make your head spin!

ST: In the graphic novel, A Search for Meaning, little Rex the fox discovers that there is "meaning" everywhere and nowhere. Is this story sort of your philosophical treatise, your view on life?

MG: A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex happened in a very strange way. One of my production assistants on Quest for Camelot, Scott Grieder, really liked my art and thought I should do a children's book. So I said sure, I'll draw it and you write it. Next, I did a little drawing of a cute fox facing a strange creature and gave it to Scott and said, "This is your starting point, write something about that". A couple of weeks later, I brought twenty more illustrations to him and said, "Make a story with that". Another fifteen to twenty days later, I called Scott and told him the book was finished and I had written the whole thing. He told me he felt relieved that he actually didn't have to write it. A Search for Meaning became a kind of stylized autobiography. It's really the story of my life, up to age 32. 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.

ST: What is He, and what is the great mystery that He has to solve?

MG: "He was born from a spore, early one morn, around ten past four". He is alone, maybe the last of his race. The book is about the search for his kind and what he finds along the way. I won't give anything away but I'll tell you that it ends with quite a twist. It's a parable about acceptance and brotherhood.

ST: The Bird, The Spider and The Octopus is much darker than your other works. Why is that?

MG: The Bird, The Spider and The Octopus is very much a dark book. I was exorcising a lot of my inner demons while I was making it. It's a book that deals with self-destructive behaviors. We all have those. A lot of people recognize themselves in these stories. I dedicated the book in memory of my dad because he was a very self-destructive man.

ST: A friend of mine is a huge fan of your Insanely Twisted Rabbits collection. What inspired the collection? How did you come up with so many bizarre ideas?

MG: I did those rabbit drawings while I was at Bluth between 1991 and 1993. A friend of mine, Dave Kupczyk, had a rabbit named Fudge. One day, I saw a little observational drawing Dave had done of his pet. He added a couple of fangs and said to me "That's Fudge, evil Fudge!" I went back to my 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!" From this point on I was hooked! Every time I had a minute between assignments and during my breaks, I doodled more deformed rabbits. Dave quickly joined me and the whole thing became a kind of contest of who would draw the most bizarre creature. By the time Don Bluth Studios closed down at the end of 1992, I had done over fifty rabbits. I kept my sketches with the idea of one day publishing a weird rabbit sketchbook. After starting Gagné International Press in 1998 and publishing four books, I finally decided that the time had come to assemble and publish these sketches. The book has proven to be very popular in comic stores. I receive more fan mail about it than any of my other projects. There are six people, that I'm aware of, who have tattoos of my "Insanely Twisted Rabbits" on their bodies!

ST: Which comics do you currently read? Can you recommend any favorite titles?

MG: Hmmmm ... let's see. I'm enjoying Akira right now. I'm glad Dark Horse is bringing this fine series to our side of the ocean. I love Dave Cooper's stuff. I think he's twisted in a way that I can relate to. I also buy old comics on e-bay. I guess it's nostalgia. I recently got complete runs of Kirby's Kamandi, Demon and his '70s Marvel stuff, as well as Herb Trimpe's run of Hulk. I read the whole lot and had a blast. Marvel's Essential series is also one of my favorites. Other artists I like include Mike Allred, Corben, Crumb, Moebius, Alex Raymond, Miazaki, Kishiro, Romita Sr. and Jr., Ditko, and quite a few others. My all-time favorite comics would probably be Lee/Kirby's Fantastic Four (Marvel) and Miazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Viz).

ST: Which comic conventions do you plan to attend this year?

MG: Our company, Gagné International Press, will have a booth in the independent publisher pavilion at this summer's San Diego Comic-Con. I will be there with my beloved wife Nancy throughout the whole convention.

ST: What other projects are you working on?

MG: I just finished book number six, Frenzied Fauna: From A to Z. It's a totally crazy alphabet book with some of the weirdest animals you'll ever see. It'll hit comic stores nationwide in April. Check out February's Preview! I'm currently working on finishing up Zed #4 as well as plotting the next story arc. I don't think Zed will ever be a monthly series, I just have too many other projects I want to do, but I do see the series lasting for a very long time. I have a new graphic storybook called The Towers of Numar, which has been in the works for about two years now. It's another story about creation. It's very weird and unusual. I hope to have it done for this summer's Comic-Con.

In the movie world, I'll be doing some design work on Pixar/Brad Bird's new film. Brad and I got along very well during the making of The Iron Giant, and doing some work on his new picture should be quite fun. There is also a good possibility of me doing a project with DC Comics. At the beginning of the year I got an email from editor Matt Idelson asking me if I'd be interested in doing a project with DC. We've talked on the phone since and we're currently trying to nail a concept. I'm quite excited at the prospect of doing something really offbeat with some of these iconic characters. There's a lot more but you'll just have to keep checking my website for updates.

Gagné International Press