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The Big Time Attic Interview
Despite not being a household name (yet), Zander Cannon has been working in comics for over ten years, both on his own work and doing (often uncredited) layouts for a variety of other artists. He is best known as the layout artist for Alan Moore's Top Ten (with Gene Ha) and as the penciller for its spin-off mini, Smax, though followers of his work should be familiar with his creator-owned series, The Replacement God, as well. In August 2004, Cannon joined forces with Kevin Cannon (no relation) and Shad Petosky to found the comics, illustration, and design studio Big Time Attic.
The studio's first graphic novel, a work of historical fiction written by Jim Ottaviani for his own G.T. Labs, is called Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards, and stars rival 19th Century paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, with appearances by P.T. Barnum and famed dinosaur artist Charles R. Knight. (G.T. Labs has just published Knight's autobiography, with illustrations by Xenozoic Tales creator and Thunder Lizards cover artist Mark Schultz.) Between Ottaviani's deeply absorbing story of human folly (and dinosaurs!) and Big Time Attic's beautiful, sepia-toned art, the book is an instant, all-ages classic — one that is poised to be a favorite of parents, teachers, and librarians across the country.
Gordon McAlpin spoke with Zander Cannon and the rest of Big Time Attic, about their work on Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards, as well as Zander Cannon's previous work, Alan Moore's TV habits, the origins of their studio and their upcoming projects.
Zander, your first professionally published work was Chainsaw Vigilante, which made it to three issues and got cut short in the middle of the storyline. That was because of low sales, I imagine?
ZANDER: Yeah, it was low sales and… the guys at New England comics were not terribly supportive of it. There was one guy that was supportive, but the rest of them weren't. I don't know that it was really worth pursuing anyway, but there was sort of a majority of people that were like "Yeah, this book is stupid." Including the editor the book.
That's not very encouraging.
So I guess Chainsaw Vigilante wasn't a positive experience for you?
ZANDER: I was a college student making a living doing comics. Not that this was a high point of my career, but the first issue of my comic had this foil embossed cover. They were paying me… not a huge pay rate, but I think it was like a hundred bucks a page, which was fantastic for twenty years old or twenty-one years old.
But when they told me the book was being cancelled, it was almost a relief, because it was like, well, jeez, I'm a junior in college. I'm a little busy.
So it was not an unpleasant experience. Bob Polio, the art director — the guy who believed in me at New England Comics, not including Ben Edlund, who also did — was a good guy, was fun to talk with, and I see him at conventions now. So I have nothing negative to say about it.
How long was it, then, until The Replacement God came around?
ZANDER: I stopped doing Chainsaw Vigilante, I think, in spring of '94. That was the spring of my Junior year in college. I sent those three issues around to a lot of publishers — one of which being Slave Labor Graphics. At the time, I was trying not to be a writer, penciler, letterer, everything. Instead I wanted to just do some penciling or just do some inking… just some sort of technical, skilled work. But Slave Labor, who was really one of the only companies that responded in a very favorable way, they just said, "Look, just do your own series. We don't have the manpower or the energy to put together a team with you as part of it."
So then I started doing the Replacement God the summer after my Junior year of college. I finished the first two issues by the time I graduated, and it started being published in 1995.
It made it to eight issues with Amaze Ink [Slave Labor Graphics' adventure imprint], before you took it to Image. How was your working relationship with Image?
ZANDER: It was very… by the numbers. You know, you send in the work… they took care of a lot of stuff like warehousing everything, and they had the color separators [who] knew what to do when they got your artwork, and all that stuff. But basically, to be in the catalog and have that Image "i" on the cover, you basically paid two thousand dollars an issue for all their work and then everything after that was yours. So, if you had a high selling book, you did great. If you had a low-selling book, you paid them money. Which didn't turn out to be a very good deal at all.
And so my book started out being a high-selling book and then turned out to be a very low-selling book.
ZANDER: I think it sold fine throughout, but it had these artificially inflated numbers because it was coming out right when that Image "i" was still riding high in the comic book stores. In some places it was being valued as highly as a Marvel or DC book.
So when they were realizing that Image was putting out a lot of black and white books, which wasn't what Image was known for at the time, the pre-orders started to dwindle.
You had a sixth issue that was self-published [under the name The Handicraft Guild].
SHAD: That's how we met.
ZANDER: Shad helped me publish that.
How did that work out?
SHAD: We were just making it up as we were going along. We didn't know anything about publishing or the comic book market. Zander wanted to draw and write, and I was playing businessman but we didn't have a computer, or…
ZANDER: It was pretty much by the seat of our pants.
SHAD: We were just kind of hoping things would work out. We printed a lot of books that are now…
ZANDER: They're now in the attic. You want one?
Actually, I would love one. Until I was researching for this interview, I didn't even know that a sixth issue of the second series had come out. I guess the store that I bought from in Peoria didn't even carry at.
ZANDER: It didn't play in Peoria.
How many volumes was that supposed to run in all?
ZANDER: Well, it changed all the time. I think I originally planned it to be sixteen issues or something like that. But for a while now, the first eight issues is the first trade, and there was going to be the next six issues plus maybe another issue, and that would be the second trade, and then a third trade. They would all be around a 175 to 225 page range.
That was what the whole story would be, and I actually have pages that I'm working on now in my free time… which is rarely.
Was there anything else before Top Ten?
ZANDER: This is sort of my little mini-Cinderella story. I was working at a coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis, and across the street was the Minnesota Orchestra, and they saw my chalkboards in the store and asked me to do a comic book symphony. It was a slide show that was synced up to Stravinsky's "Firebird." I did 110 illustrations of the old Russian folktale of the firebird and then synced them up so that when there was a big downbeat or a crescendo or a quiet moment, the pictures [changed] to the music. They played this slideshow during the presentation; it was sort of a kid's show. That was sort of the first time that I was paid well for creative work, and so I was like, "Huh, I've got a taste for this now!"
And right after that I did an educational comic book called Space Weather for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NOAA — which everyone knows about (now) because of Katrina. That was like a 16 page color comic [and] came out in 2001. I was doing that while I was doing Top Ten, I guess.
How did you fall in with Gene Ha?
ZANDER: He and I had met at several conventions. This was right when he was starting the conception phase of Top Ten. (It was mainly because) he moved to the Twin Cities in late '99, I think. He was working with another assistant, and that sort of fell through. This assistant was originally going to do backgrounds and architecture and stuff like that, to just sort of take the weight off of Gene. But what ended up happening was that we sort of flipped it: I was going to do layouts, and Gene was going to do finishes, and we actually worked on everything altogether. I did some pencils, he did some pencils. I did some inks, he did some inks. But eventually it turned out to just be layouts and finishes.
Now, when you were working on issues of Top Ten, there were always these little tiny details that really set the tone for the book. You'd have like a thousand superheroes flying around in the background and crazy billboards and such. How much of that was just what you guys threw in, and how much of it was straight from Alan Moore's notoriously dense scripts?
ZANDER: Well, it's hard to say, exactly. The ones that are sort of thematically connected are usually Alan. Like, for example, when they're at the Transworld station and there's a bunch of people picketing for better wheelchair access ramps, and it's Professor X and the guy from the Doom Patrol and whoever, that was Alan Moore, because it's part of the stage.
When there was just a street scene and something more general like… well, there was a mime who was Black Bolt from the Inhumans, that was Gene who put that in. And… mine were always sort of non-superheroey, I guess. It was harder for me to think of sort of specific superheroey ones and just sort of general. I mean, you've seen the ones I put in Smax, I suppose.
I noticed Chairface Chippendale in the first issue right away.
ZANDER: The ones that were more sort of like, you know, science fiction movies or animation or video games… '80s Gen X stuff, that was usually me.
I was surprised, because somehow I couldn't imagine Alan Moore being that up on pop culture.
ZANDER: He's more up on it than you'd think, because he's crazy about things like — well, now this isn't so up-to-the-minute, but like South Park and things like that. I think he watches a ton of TV.
SHAD: Sometimes you couldn't call Alan Moore because his shows were on, like NYPD Blue.
ZANDER: Well, he would always watch NYPD Blue, but I don't remember there being times that I couldn't call.
SHAD: Okay, nix that.
Was there anything else before Smax? I know you did a short Top Ten story for one of the America's Best Comics anthologies…
ZANDER: I did a few pages for The Dreaming [#55]. It was like a Peter Pan story. Bill Willingham wrote it.
I was doing layouts for a lot of people, actually. I did layouts for one issue of Tom Strong for Chris Sprouse, I did layouts for an issue of Justice League [of America] for Howard Porter, and I did layouts for an issue [of Books of Faerie] that was never published, for Linda Medley. But they paid me — and her — so who cares?
Did you adapt your style consciously to match the way they [do] layouts, or did you do them how you ordinarily do them?
ZANDER: Well, mainly it was speeding people up, so I had to match them a little bit. But I was also trying to add what they didn't have, if I could be so arrogant to say. Like, Howard Porter is really dynamic, but it's not very clear, so I was trying to make the panels as clear as I possibly could. In a way they look a little bit static to me now. With Linda Medley, her stuff is very clear, but not always very dramatic.
So I was doing thing from lower camera angles… making peoples' positions sort of dynamic and action-oriented when they needed to be. Because I knew she would sort of tone it down a little bit, and I knew that Howard Porter would sort of amp it up. Maybe. Although he was like, "Good, they're all done. I'll just add my Bat ears on this thing and send it off."
How did Smax come about? On Top Ten, you and Gene Ha had worked together, and then Gene Ha went off and did The Forty-Niners without you, and you go off and do Smax without him.
ZANDER: Well, obviously, we're the two artists on Top Ten. Top Ten splits into two things, so…
It was (also) from my conversations with Alan Moore. I think they'd established Smax as this dragon slayer. He had written little hints about it in the script from the very beginning. Alan Moore, among his other talents, he has a really good ability to pick out what artists are good at drawing. I think that he knew that my style was very organic and that I would be suited for something that takes place in a fantasy world.
There are definitely some elements from Smax that recalled bits and pieces from Replacement God — like, Replacement God on acid. I was curious how much your work on Replacement God had influenced the direction of that?
ZANDER: It's funny… I find myself doing fantasy stuff all the time now, because you get a little typecast. But basically, it's just I've got sort of a visual encyclopedia in my head for the houses to put in the background and shorthand for trees… that kind of stuff.
So, doing Replacement God and having that sort of stuff stored up helps a great deal, because you're not going to your reference books for every last little thing that's in the background. If you're used to drawing books with cars and skycrapers… I'm not, so if I were drawing a book with cars and skyscrapers, I'd be at the reference books every day.
On Smax, I know [fellow Big Time Attic artist] Kevin Cannon worked with you. I think I read someplace that he was doing backgrounds…
KEVIN: Well, the story was that I was Zander's intern the summer that he got the script for Smax issue 1, and he was kind enough to let me do some thumbnails and a few panels for the first six pages.
ZANDER: I worked so abysmally slow on the first issue that he only got to work on the first six pages, because he was only there for like three months. (laughs)
Now, you met Kevin at Grinnell…?
ZANDER: Actually, I graduated like three years before he came. But it's a small school, so he went to Grinnell and got the whole: "Oh, you must be Zander's brother." Because obviously, he's a cartoonist and his name is Cannon and he goes to Grinnell. I would have guessed that he was my brother.
KEVIN: I had no idea what people were talking about. I guess a few months later I went on the internet and did a search for Zander and found his site with his e-mail address. I was scared as shit. He was suddenly this celebrity that everybody at Grinnell was talking about, so I was really nervous. We had one little e-mail correspondence, and I didn't contact him again until the end of my junior year when I needed an internship. I contacted him that spring and asked him if he had any job openings. I didn't even know if cartoonists had assistants.
ZANDER: And I didn't.
KEVIN: I was just like, "I'll make coffee for you, or whatever you people do…" So yeah, he just took me under his wing, and it was one of the greatest experience I had during college.
At what point did it stop being the Handicraft Guild and become Big Time Attic?
ZANDER: It was a long time, actually. We started Big Time Attic in 2004, and Kevin graduated in 2002. The summer of 2002, my wife and I, we left for Japan. We lived in Japan, north of Tokyo, for two years — summer of 2002 to summer of 2004. Over that time, I talked with Shad and Kevin about putting together this studio that basically was the blueprint for Big Time Attic.
SHAD: The Handicraft Guild was actually a building in downtown Minneapolis, and there were a ton of cartoonists in that building using it as a studio space. There was a lot more than me, Zander and Kevin. There was King Mini and Sam Hiti… Gene Ha, Brian Ewing. A lot of people came through that low-rent studio space.
We'd actually talked about doing a whole bunch of different things. We'd all worked together for years on our own projects, so there were all sorts of notions on how we could collaborate on stories together and it ended up being Big Time Attic, but it was sort of a lot of other things first.
ZANDER: I was gone for two full years, and… I was really nervous when we were coming back, because my wife and I were going to buy a house, and I felt like I needed to get really serious about my career, so… talking with these guys, we wanted to put together something that wasn't just "Comic Book Club," sitting around and shooting the breeze. We needed to be really serious — something that really got stuff done.
Was Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards your first project, then, as Big Time Attic?
ZANDER: Well… kind of. Because when I came back to the US, I came back directly to the San Diego Comicon. We flew into LA, and then flew down to San Diego. I literally stepped off the plane… and twelve hours later, we were in the Comicon.
Actually, it sort of eased me (back) into America, because there was still manga everywhere. It was like, "Oh look, there's kanji."
And I talked to Jim Ottaviani there and he was saying he was looking for an artist for his next project, and I was sort of sleep-deprived, so I was like, "Oh yeah! We can totally do it! We can totally do a hundred and sixty page graphic novel… I've got a studio now, no problem!" Of course, it was not a done deal yet, but we had sort of gotten that started there.
But, actually, our first assignment when we came back to the city and set up in Shad's attic — hence the name — we started on nine o'clock on Monday morning, and then by eleven o'clock, Peter Gross called us and said, "Hey, could your studio pencil and ink five pages from my layouts [for Lucifer] by tomorrow?"
So then you moved on to [Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards]… How much research did you have to do for the era?
KEVIN: Jim was actually amazing. Three weeks after we'd started the studio, he sent a care package with a copy of the script for everybody and this huge packet full of visual research. I don't know, maybe you guys had expected something like that, but I thought we were going to have to start from scratch, going through library books. He did an amazing job putting everything together, telling us where it goes in the script… he even sent full dinosaur books and little toy dinosaurs for us to look at. But then on top of that, we read a few historical books, just to get a flavor of the period, the flavor of the character, the paleontology at the time…
ZANDER: By "we," Kevin means he read them.
SHAD: As a studio, "we" read them.
Edward Drinker Cope worked for the US Geological Survey during much of the events in Thunder Lizards. And now you're doing a comic for the US Geological Survey. Coincidence — or fate?
KEVIN: Pure coincidence. There's no such thing as fate.
ZANDER: After doing [the] comic for NOAA, we were told that it had sparked the interest of the USGS, who wanted something similar. So I suppose the same motivations that led us to Thunder Lizards led us to NOAA, and over to the USGS. Sounds like fate to me!
What was the division of labor [on Thunder Lizards]?
ZANDER: It's funny, because it was not like Cerebus where Dave Sim does the characters and Gerhard does the backgrounds. It was very much interlaced. Sometimes Kevin's doing pencils on figures, and I'm doing inks. Sometimes it's the other way around. Sometimes I did some of the backgrounds, and Kevin did some of the backgrounds. I could probably look at it now and I'd be hard-pressed to point out with 100% accuracy, who did what.
A lot of it was Kevin's style. I mean, there [are] places in there where you can definitely see that this is a face that I drew for sure or a hand that I drew, but you can also see a lot of Kevin's style, particularly in buildings, certain designs for clothing, various backgrounds.
KEVIN: Yeah, I really wanted to make sure that when a person read the book, they wouldn't necessarily know that two distinct people were [drawing] it. I think a lot of comics people will pick up on that right away, but for me and the rest of the guys, the point was to just have a fluid style that wouldn't interfere with the story. I hope that came across.
SHAD: As each of these projects comes out, I guess that's the game: Where's Zander? Spot the Zander.
When you were going through the script, did you ever fight over things like who gets to pencil certain scenes? Would you share the really fun scenes like, for instance, the story Marsh tells Chief Red Cloud near the end, or did you both really get your hands on every page, so things like that weren't important?
KEVIN: Actually, there were very few pages in the book that weren't touched by everyone, [but] the Mastodon story is an example.
ZANDER: I mostly worked on the Mastodon story because... I don't know. I think I told everyone I really wanted to. Or maybe having one person work on it made it more dreamlike and more like a legend.
All the storytelling scenes in the book, are highlights of the book, art-wise. They're really beautiful. I especially love the lettering in the mastodon story, and any time P.T. Barnum goes all circusy. A lot of artists just kind of squish the words in however and don't treat lettering like a visual element, which I think is a shame.
KEVIN: We're also appalled by that. Good lettering is the only thing that separates man from beast.
ZANDER: What particularly irks me is when lettering is shoved out of the way, presumably to make room for the pretty pictures. So the unlettered original looks just great, but the comic is unreadable. When lettering is made to be an integral part of the artwork, no matter how that lettering is actually produced, the comics becomes ten times more interesting for me.
As the Appendix ["Fact or Fiction?"] points out, you draw a couple of characters in Thunder Lizards like Thompson and Thomson, from Tintin. Who's the Hergé fan?
KEVIN: That was Jim's direction, but we're all Tintin fans.
ZANDER: I certainly loved adding those Hergé touches to these otherwise unremarkable characters.
What books did you guys read growing up? And what stuff do you pay attention to these days?
SHAD: Growing up I read TintIn, Mad and Cracked magazines, and then got into super-hero comics. Now I look cartoonists with a good design sense, a lot of Adhouse, Top Shelf and Fantagraphics books.
KEVIN: I read the dailies growing up, and began reading comic books in college, mostly work by Pete Bagge, Daniel Clowes, and R. Crumb. Currently, I read what my friends produce.
ZANDER: I read a lot of small press and alternative books in middle and high school — Flaming Carrot, Groo, Zooniverse, Tank Girl, Cerebus, Gregory, etc. I also enjoyed people like David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Geof Darrow, Alan Davis, Alan Moore, and whatever they produced. Now I pick up big collections mostly, either of major current storylines (like The Ultimates or Louis Riel) or of old work (like Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, or The Fantastic Four).
What do you have on your plate next?
ZANDER: Well, comics-wise, we're drawing an issue of Lucifer, and then we're all going to be doing a sequel to Space Weather called Space Junk. We're going to be doing another (educational comic) for the US Geological Survey about geomagnetism. Also, a short story about Top Ten and a short story about Smax [for ABC: AZ, a series of one-shots that comprise are sort of "Who's Who" for the America's Best Comics Universe]. And some unannounced stuff for Wildstorm after that.
And you're not going to tell me what that is, so I can get a scoop.
ZANDER: I'm sure they'll announce it soon enough.
So you've got some smaller works, then — no big, giant graphic novels?
ZANDER: No, we're taking a break from big, giant graphic novels. But hopefully we'll have [that] unannounced Wildstorm project, [which] is longer. That will be more of a graphic novel style.
SHAD: And we have a bulletin board full of longer stories that will happen.
ZANDER: Yeah, we've got other projects for when we get a second. There are probably a half dozen ideas there. And then also, we're theming a family fun center in Wisconsin, which is really fun. We're doing the environmental design — incidental signs…
SHAD: Everything. Everything anybody sees we're going to be designing for this place with laser tag and go-carts.
ZANDER: We have to do things like the entryway for the laser tag, and the back panels in the mini-bowling area… the roadside attractions on the go-cart ramp, and the birthday room…
SHAD: Menus and pizza restaurants and the employee application…
So you do a fair amount of graphic design work, then, in addition to the illustration.
SHAD: We do a lot of commercial work. We have two employees, besides ourselves, and we do a lot of interactive work. There's a nondisclosure, but we did something for Cartoon Network — games — and we do a lot of work for Target Interactive — it's kind of a kids book club with J.otto Seibold artwork.
ZANDER: It's mostly animation, design and illustration.
Could you elaborate on the J.otto Seibold project, because I'm a huge fan of his.
SHAD: Oh, we are, too! It was the biggest thrill in the world to get a DVD full of J.otto Seibold's art files, and books that are coming out… It's called "Ready. Sit. Read!" and it's on Target.com. With the help of King Mini, we designed the logo generator and the name generator part of that site. It's all the animation and design and concepting of the logo and name generator.
To get back to comics, because this is for Comic Book Galaxy, of course, you've done a lot of non-fiction comics. Do you have a particular affinity for the sciences and doing non-fiction stuff, or are you just kind of going where the clients want you to go?
KEVIN: I think a lot of it is (more) non-superhero — trying new things and other fun stuff. We all love science and doing other types of genres and stories. So when you have the chance to do that, you just take it.
ZANDER: And I think when you do an educational comic or a science comic that's a little bit non-standard, you get non-standard readers, which I really appreciate. I think that people doing comics can get lulled into a sense of security where it's like, "Oh yeah, everybody that reads my comic reads a milion comics," so they get lazy… you know, the storytelling gets a little weak or things like that.
But when you are getting a comic that's going out to sixth graders who may not ever read any other comics, then you know, I've got to be on top of my game to make sure they know exactly what's going on in every panel. It's kind of fun, because you look at it with fresh eyes — it's like knowing that your mom's coming over to your house, and you look at it and you're like, "Oh god, I've got to clean that up."
SHAD: We're sitting there hitting refresh on paleontologist's blogs to see what they think of this book. That's who we really wanted to impress. We want scientists to like it. It's a different kind of test than just having people who love comics read a comic.
ZANDER: I found out right after the book came out that Edward Drinker Cope is distantly related to me. He's related to (one of) my cousins. So to have my cousin read this story about my great grandfather's cousin or whatever he was is really quite cool. It's really neat to get that different perspective on it — somebody who's probably never read a comic in her life.
KEVIN: It's funny that Zander is related to Cope, because he looks exactly like Charles Knight.
Now, is it that Zander looks like the photos you've seen of [Knight], or Zander looks like the way you draw Knight?
ZANDER: When we first started the book, I drew a drawing of Charles Knight from a photo that I had, and Shad was like, "You just drew yourself!" "No, really, I just drew it right from the photograph! He looks just like me!"
SHAD: It's true.
ZANDER: We used to look a lot more alike when my hair was shorter and I wore different glasses, but there is quite a resemblance.