Fans of Top Ten, Fables, or the indie comics anthology Double Barrel will be familiar with Zander Cannon, as an artist and writer. Cannon debuted a new graphic novel this week, Heck, about a melancholy former football hero who discovers a portal to hell in his dead father’s home… and then promptly opens up a business settling inheritance disputes. It’s a very different story from Cannon, and we sat down with him to learn more about it.
Gamma Squad: Tell us a little about Heck. How did you first come up with the concept?
Heck was just a character sketch that I did for fun, based on Indiana Jones-type action serial heroes. I basically wanted to make a kind of tough guy blue-collar sorcerer who could explore Hell.
I doubt I ever would have gotten to it except that Kevin [Cannon, my studiomate and not-brother] and our friend Steve Stwalley and I decided to do a project we called the 144-Hour Graphic Novel Project. We were going to take one day a month and each write and draw a 12 page chapter in 12 hours. After a year, we would have a 144-page graphic novel, supposedly. So since we were going to be working that fast, and being that casual and spontaneous about the art and the story, I just needed to grab an idea. Heck seemed the most high-concept-y of the ones that came to mind, and if I eliminated a lot of the overly-ambitious world-building I was doing, it was also the most open in terms of actual story.
I knew I had to hit the ground running, so to have something to crib ideas from, I printed out a map of Dante’s Inferno, as well as the Wikipedia page on the Inferno part of the Divine Comedy. Then I winged it. I didn’t have anything planned out, I just kind of introduced characters that I thought might come in handy later. And somewhere in the middle of that first 12-hour day, all of my initial designs and character descriptions started to change. Heck morphed from a devil-may-care adventurer to a melancholy ex-football hero; Elliot morphed from a mere sketch of an idea to a hopeless soul who gets his validation from others, and Amy just kind of showed up. I literally invented her as a character when I drew the first panel she appeared in.
Gamma Squad: As an artist, what’s fun about drawing, well, hell?
From a visual standpoint, I was really just trying to create a hell that was “less rad”. I didn’t want the heavy metal type of hell, because it always seems like kind of an awesome place. What I wanted was a place that was kind of what you make of it — a place of personal dread. Making the landscape pretty barren, apart from obviously being easy to draw, gave a sense for having the real tortures come from the characters’ memories and feelings, not to mention the flashbacks from the convenient plot device that I stuck in there.
It seems funny to me now, but I was almost thinking of this as a low-budget movie; I needed to keep things dark and let readers use their imaginations about what was beyond the blackness because I didn’t have the money (in comic terms: time) to render out every last terror that was lurking there. But leveraging that into a creative choice made for something that I hope is unique in the comics landscape: a more internal, thoughtful take on Hell and on personal punishment.
Gamma Squad: What are some of the differences between working with a writer and being your own writer? Obviously you’ve got more control, but is there anything subtle or different you didn’t expect?
Cannon: Typically when working with a writer, you are at their command in certain ways: where a page break falls, how many panels on a page, how many word balloons there are, etc. You are also depending on their instincts about how to mix the images they call for and the words they write in order to make the pages work agreeably. I’ve done a lot of writing for other people and done all that stuff, but the real freedom comes on a project like this, when I can not only make all those decisions myself, but also kind of let each half of the project influence the other. I can kind of allow that part of my mind to enhance what’s in the rough script with more character depth than the plot initially called for.
Gamma Squad: What’s next for Heck?
Cannon: I left the world and characters of Heck open for further adventures, but I consider Heck to be more or less a complete work on its own. The digital magazine I serialized it in, Double Barrel, however, is soldiering on with new material from me and from Kevin Cannon (who serialized his book Crater XV alongside Heck). We intend to start putting out ‘season 2’ of the anthology sometime late this year with new serials. My new one is about superheroes; it’s all the superhero stories I ever wanted to do, and all the rejected pitches I ever brought to DC or whoever, all crammed into one series to get them out of my head once and for all.