Potential clients, take note: The Minneapolis art studio Big Time Attic is no longer accepting sides of beef as payment.
“We were hired to design a logo for a meat market, and they asked if they could pay us in meat,” explained studio co-owner Zander Cannon.
“It was during our ‘We don’t say no to any project’ phase,” added his business partner, Kevin Cannon (no relation; more on that later).
But just because they’re now using more traditional forms of remuneration doesn’t mean they’ve quit challenging normal business practices. On the contrary, they have generated a considerable amount of buzz for their latest graphic novels — Zander’s “Heck” and Kevin’s “Crater XV” — by using a new medium.
Starting last summer, the Cannons decided to go “digital first.” The newly popular publishing method found them releasing serialized versions of the books online, long before the bound copies will reach book stores on June 26 (published by Top Shelf). They launched a Web magazine, called Double Barrel, where they’ve been posting the books in monthly installments. The website also offers extra material that isn’t in the books.
While digital comic sites aren’t unique, the Cannons’ jump into the digital-first waters has onlookers taking note. Publishers Weekly quickly flagged their site when it debuted last year. USA Today called the Cannons’ move “very promising.” The online magazine Boing Boing went a step further, heralding it as “the true beginning of the future of digital comics.”
“The internet has changed everything about publishing, and both Cannons smartly embraced its power to build an audience,” said Mark Waid, a veteran writer for both Marvel and DC Comics, who’s working on a digital comics initiative called Thrillbent. “If you let the audience access your material over the Web rather than force them to search — often in vain — for a retail outlet, they’ll be your fans for life.”
The Cannons, as laid-back as a couple of superheroes on vacation, aren’t getting caught up in expectations, grandiose or otherwise. Regardless of whether the website turns out to be an innovative marketing tool or ends up cutting the legs out from under book sales, their focus remains on how well they execute a project, not on dreams of riches.
“Hardly anything you do in comics makes you rich,” Zander said. “Fortunately, that’s not our goal.”
They do a lot more than just create graphic novels. They work on textbooks, do illustrations for magazines, draw storyboards for industrial videos and have even designed an indoor amusement park.
“That’s how we keep the lights on,” Zander said of their other endeavors.
It also keeps them sharp, Kevin added.
“We’ve learned a lot of new skills by jumping into the deep end,” he said. “We did a storyboard for a video for Target. When we delivered it, they said, ‘Do you retouch photos?’ And we said, ‘Of course we retouch photos.’ As soon as the meeting ended, we ran over to Barnes & Noble and got a book on how to retouch photos.”
What’s in a name?
The Cannons have spent a lot of time explaining that they’re not related. Nonetheless, they owe their partnership to their shared name.
Zander, 40, attended Grinnell College in Iowa. When Kevin, seven years his junior, enrolled in the same school, the folks in the art program assumed what everyone else assumes.
“People kept saying: You must be Zander’s brother,” Kevin said. “And I kept saying: Who’s Zander? Finally I went to the library and looked up some of the cartoons he’d drawn for the school paper. And then I said: ‘This guy’s really good.’ ”
Zander’s parents had moved from Cleveland to Denver while he was in college. With neither city feeling like home, he decided to settle in Minneapolis when he graduated. Kevin, a Twin Cities native, sought out Zander and talked him into giving him an internship. It eventually led to a long-term business partnership.
“Our skill sets balance each other,” Zander said. As if to prove the point, Kevin finished the thought: “He does great human figures — if someone wants a human that looks like a human, Zander does it — and I’m good at backgrounds and scenes.”
They also have vastly different creative processes for their graphic novels, which they do separately. Kevin writes elaborate scripts, spelling out exactly what’s going to happen, sometimes frame by frame. On the other hand, Zander has a general idea where the overall story is going but has no idea how it’s going to get there.
“I start a chapter not even knowing how it is going to be resolved,” he said.
It’s a laborious process. A page of a graphic novel can take two to five hours to complete. Kevin’s new book is almost 500 pages. Although it’s slower than working on a computer, they both prefer pen on paper.
“A computer does more to improve efficiency than quality,” Zander said.
Although they have visual similarities to comic books, graphic novels are a different genre, Zander said.
“Graphic novels are more complex and dense,” he said. “A comic book jumps out at you, but a novel draws you in.” The Cannons are as well-read in John Milton and Jack Kerouac as in Batman and Spider-Man.
Kevin’s new graphic novel, “Crater XV,” is a sequel to his first book, a pseudo-swashbuckling adventure called “Far Arden.” This time, the hero, Army Shanks, gets involved in a black market space race. Zander’s book, “Heck,” is about an over-the-hill football star who discovers a portal to the underworld.
Even if their books become bestsellers, neither has any intention of leaving town. Minneapolis is an ideal place for cartooning/illustrating, Kevin said.
“One of the great things is that when someone is successful, other people don’t get jealous,” he said. “There’s a ‘raising all the boats’ attitude. It’s a very friendly environment where, if we’re too busy, we’ll refer clients to each other.”
One job they got via the friends’ network was designing that indoor amusement park, Action City at Metropolis Resort in Eau Claire, Wis. They haven’t been back to the park since, but they’ve both driven past it many times on Interstate 94. They should stop in sometime, they said, but not just to see how the park is faring.
“We were promised a lifetime supply of free pizza,” Kevin said. Zander quickly added the reminder: “No one is allowed to pay us in food anymore.”