Z is for Zed
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.