Interviewer: Anthony Andujar Jr

Interviewee: Mike Ha
Q1. Your current comic series that you’re working on is Heel Turn. What was the inspiration for this comic? How did you conceptualize the book and what were the driving forces that led you to making this book?

MH: Heel Turn was an idea I had back when I was still trying to be a filmmaker, except back then it was conceptualized as a motion picture series. Originally it would be based on the Monday Night Wars from the 90s and it would follow an ensemble cast of characters. I also played a lot of those wrestling games like Smackdown and No Mercy, and usually, in those games, they had a mode where you can create a character. I would just mess around and create these characters for fun. At the time I was going through kidney surgery so I had a lot of downtime. My father was dying from kidney disease and I donated one of mine to keep him alive. I wasn’t thinking about making anything of it until later.

Jack DeSilva was originally an idea I had riffing off of the Kenny Powers character from Eastbound and Down. What if Kenny Powers was a washed-up pro-wrestler instead of a washed-up baseball player? From there, he became an amalgamation of different wrestlers. The more I wrote Jack, the more I started to borrow things from wrestlers like Mick Foley, Jake the Snake, Scott Hall, and Terry Funk. The line where he says “I don’t want the most [money], I just want a lot,” that was something Scott Hall said to Vince McMahon when he joined WWF.

Q2. You’ve got a close association with wrestling and it shows in the comic. What are some of the ideas that you wanted to address and highlight about wrestling that people often misconstrue? And what are some elements of wrestling that you feel hold true to what people perceive it to be?

MH: I love pro-wrestling, always have… but it has changed since I was a kid. A lot of things have changed and what you see today is a lot more watered-down and sanitized. You also see a lot of these companies being ashamed of the content they made in the past so you got the WWE Network censoring old shows and events. I can understand not always being proud of some of the more salacious, tone-deaf, or straight-up racist things the wrestling industry has pulled… but to straight up act like none of it happened? It’s completely absurd.

I really do feel like a lot of pro-wrestlers that I’ve shown the first issue of Heel Turn to, chances are they most likely really hated it. Either that or they think I’m trying to paint wrestling in a negative light or something. I’ve had only a few pro wrestlers (the ones that actually bothered to crack the book open) who saw what I was trying to do and gave it a chance. A part of Heel Turn is making fun of the sillier aspects of pro-wrestling because it’s not just an action/fighting comic, I try to inject some humor where I can. On the same note, I make fun of EVERYBODY in that comic book. I make fun of wrestlers, I make fun of fans, I make fun of the media that surrounds it, I make fun of drug dealers, I make fun of drug addicts and tricks who pick up hookers… I make fun of my-fucking-self! Nothing is sacred in my book.

Heel Turn is NOT a romanticization of what the wrestling business is or what it’s supposed to be, but also: I’m not trying to tear down pro-wrestling, either. If I mention things like a “viagra-on-a-pole” match or show how insane the main character, Jack, is inside and outside of the wrestling ring… I DIDN’T EXACTLY MAKE THIS SHIT UP OUT OF THIN AIR. A lot of it IS based on stuff that actually happened and a lot of it IS inspired by shoot interviews with older wrestlers who were big in the 80s and 90s. Jack breaking a bottle over his head to intimidate a bigger guy, that’s exactly what Shawn Michaels did when he first joined the WWF to gain the respect of the bigger wrestlers. A lot of the language is straight-up lifted from sound clips I’ve heard of pro-wrestlers being frank about the industry or from promos they did. Am I having fun with Heel Turn? Yes. Could it be insensitive to people’s delicate sensibilities? To be honest, I could’ve went harder. Pro-wrestling to me was always larger-than-life. It was about spectacle. It was about entertainment. It was always about pushing boundaries and breaking rules. It doesn’t always have to be about in-ring action, either. I fucking loved it when Brian Pillman pulled a gun on Stone Cold for breaking into his house!

I still follow certain wrestlers that I think are absolutely terrific. Killer Kross, Kenny Omega, Jake Andrewartha… all great examples of why wrestling is still relevant in a world dominated by UFC and celebrity boxing. There’s still a lot of great pro wrestling out there and even after all these years, I’m still a fan.

Q3. What are some of your illustrative influences and how did they inform your art style as you developed into your own? 

MH:  Heel Turn 1, I was reading a lot of Berserk, Sun Ken Rock, Baki, and a manga called Shamo. I really tried my best to emulate how those artists drew action scenes… showing the full swing and impact of a punch or a weapon. The way mangaka draw action, you really feel the full weight of that physical exchange. They tend to break down the sequence from move to move. The motion blur effect they render in those comics… it’s like someone took a frame right out of a motion picture. It’s something I try to copy for Heel Turn.

At first, the comic book was meant to just be black-and-white. I really was trying to just copy what manga artists were doing but then I was looking at my old Heavy Metal Magazines and I made up my mind to color it. Seeing comics like Requiem: Vampire Knight and pretty much anything Richard Corben did, anything Simon Bisley did… It was all reawakening that same exhilaration I first had discovering these magazines. I had to follow suit. At the time, I actually didn’t even know how to color on the computer at all, so it’s been a fun learning experience just experimenting and exploring.

Obviously, anybody that knows me knows I grew up on X-Men and Spawn so when people see ANY of that in my work, that’s one of the biggest compliments I could ever receive. Especially since I idolized Todd McFarlane back then. That guy had me wanting to grow up and make action figures. I copied Jim Lee’s drawings, Greg Capullo’s drawings, and copied a lot of art from Dragon Ball, too. 

Q4. What were some of the challenges that you faced coordinating writing, illustrating, coloring, and lettering duties? And how did that change your approach from crafting one issue to another?

MH:  The process of making Heel Turn… I mean, mostly it’s a rather painless process. I’ve heard an artist describe doing all of it yourself is kind of like piecing together a puzzle and I think that’s pretty accurate. The only thing I’m doing different as far as from the first to second issue is toning down how dark the pictures were in the first issue. It’s one of those things you don’t really know until you see the print. There was a bit of frustration that came with that, so it’s something I tried to be mindful of on the second issue.

For Heel Turn, I work Marvel method… I actually had a script for the first version of Heel Turn when the main character was supposed to be a babyface cage fighter. Then I changed it so the story revolved around Jack DeSilva and I tossed the idea of using a script altogether. The plot was in my mind, I knew the characters already, I knew what I wanted to see, I knew what I wanted them to say, so I saw no point in using a script. But I DO have shit-ton of notes that I keep around so if I forget something, I’ll always have it written down somewhere. Not that I’m against using a script. When I did pages for Image Grand Disaster, that was off of a loose script that was given to me, and it was very quick and easy to finish.

Q5. When crafting this series, what is the creative process like? What soundtrack of songs do you assemble to help reinforce the kind of energy and attitude that some of your characters display? How influential is music to your work on this book?

MH: Believe it or not, a lot of time is spent staring at the tablet screen just sitting there, thinking about what I’m going to draw. There’s a lot of time spent on looking at comic books that I want my work to be like, watching cartoons, anime, movies, TV shows, wrestling matches, UFC fights, playing certain video games, watching youtube videos… sports movies. Just a lot of time taking in things that I want to absorb into my own work. I believe that you are what you surround yourself with and that you are the people that you surround yourself with. What you consume is what you become. I watch a lot of Cartoonist Kayfabe. Those guys are a major inspiration for why I did Heel Turn in the first place and I hold those guys in very high regard as far as their opinion on comic books and art. I watch a lot of Jim Lee’s drawing streams and David Finch’s drawing streams. Just watching how they go about it. I try to copy any artist I admire, that I want to be like, and try to integrate that into my own work. Being a mimic, being a copycat is an excellent way to learn – well – anything.

I listen to a wide range of music, but mostly a lot of electro-synth club music, a lot of thrash rock and metal. I listen to a lot of hits from the 80s and 90s. Sometimes I’m listening to Soft Moon while I put down line work or maybe I’ll put on some Surfing while I color. Really, it could be anything and sometimes I’d rather not listen to music and have a movie on or a show on in the background while I work. Also, when I put a song on, I have that song on repeat. For, like, HOURS on end. Whatever that song’s giving me, I have to stay on that vibe until the feelings are gone. Maybe that’s a weird thing, I don’t know, but I never listen to playlists anymore. I pick one song that’s got me in the headspace I want to be in, and I ride that feeling until that feeling is gone. I listen to music to help me work, it’s like in the military when you’re marching to a beat.

Q6. What do you find the most difficult when making this series? What is your creative schedule like? How do you balance working on the comic amongst other things? How many days a week did you dedicate yourself to inorder to complete the comic?

MH: Heel Turn is a full-time job for me. I treat it like I’m going to work every morning. Some days are more productive than others, but I ALWAYS DO SOMETHING once a day. Heel Turn Comics is small but it’s something I want to build up and eventually grow into things outside of comic books. So I’m making the comic book, but there’s also a good amount of time trying to get the book out there in people’s hands. This past year I sponsored a couple wrestling shows and hit Baltimore Comic Con in an effort to get the book out there a little more while I worked on a 150+ page comic book. I’ve never done this before. So as a completely independent publisher, I have to make sure I’m getting it out there and I also have to keep creating, too. It doesn’t always go as planned. I’m not saying I’m a super-professional workhorse or anything like that. I’m still very inexperienced as a comic book artist and as an independent publisher. There’s still a lot for me to learn. I’ll also say this:

When I started the first issue of Heel Turn I was a bouncer at a bar my friend worked at. Not exactly the safest job. You have to jump in the middle of fights, you have to be ready to choke someone out, and you might even take a hit to the face every once in a while. Brawls would break out, you can get stabbed… I’ve had people try to shoot me. It’s one of those jobs where it’s all taking place in the nightlife, too, so there’s partying and drugs. That shit was fucking killing me. Not necessarily because it was dangerous, but It was killing my drive to work on my comic book. Once I quit that job, I was fucking flying on the book. I was banging out page after page… never before had I felt such clarity like I did drawing that first issue. There’s no way I can ever go back to what I was doing before that. No fucking way. When I feel my work rate dipping, all I have to do is remind myself what it was like before I finished that first issue. That makes it easy for me to work on a page all day, every day. Compared to the shit I was doing before I did the comic… it’s a very easy decision for me to keep myself working on Heel Turn.

Q7.  What is it about Jack Desilva as a character that made you want to focus on him as the primary character of the series? Was he always intended to be the central character? Were there others prior to Jack that you initially wanted as the focus before settling on Jack?

MH: While I was recovering from kidney surgery, I decided to write a script for the first issue of what would be known as Heel Turn. Except the original concept was supposed to be about a cage fighter who enters a wrestling promotion. The same way guys like Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, and Tank Abbott crossed over from UFC to WWF and WCW. The idea would be that in the world of Heel Turn, the wrestling business isn’t just a show… it’s a brutal competition much like how the MMA world is now. I just asked myself: what if it was real? What would that be like? And even more so, how can I really punch that up and take it up a notch to the most exaggerated levels. The word “hyper-realistic” is something I try to keep in mind when I’m making the comic book. Then I saw the anime Tiger Mask W and I thought to myself “ohhhh, they kinda already did that…” and, of course, Tiger Mask W is fucking dope.

Eventually, I changed that idea again and it became about a pro-wrestler who may be past his prime and is likely the most hated man in his business. I was kind of in a dark place, mentally. The idea switched when I found myself homeless in San Francisco. I would sleep at San Francisco International every other night when I couldn’t find a place to stay and draw out some of these ideas in my sketchbook. I took inspiration from films like Bad Lieutenant, Bullet, and even the movie The Wrestler. Having a deeply flawed and even unsympathetic character is a lot more interesting to me than your average babyface… so I decided to turn the concept into a story about a despicable heel that everyone hated.

Q8. What are some real-life elements from your life that have spilled over into the comic? 

MH: Well, I think any writer knows that every character they create in their work, in one way or another, represents an aspect of that writer’s personality. My story is no different. Jack represents the wild man. Uncontrollable, ever-defiant… destructive. If there’s something I’m well-accustomed to, it’s definitely the path of destruction and self-destruction.

I grew up around the Baltimore area of Maryland. When I was younger, I used to drink a lot and get into a lot of street fights. I’m not a tough guy, I’m not an exceptional fighter or even a trained fighter, but that was the reality of who I was for a long time. When I was in Florida, one of my roommates stabbed a guy to death in self-defense. The next week, I woke up with the barrel of a pistol pointed in my face… and I thought I was dreaming and tried to go back to sleep. Fortunately, it was just Orange County Sheriffs. Anybody else, I’d probably be dead. I got kicked out of the Joe Kubert’s School for beating up another student (to be fair, that kid attacked me first). In California, I was getting into street fights all the time to the point where it was just normal. I could go on and on about these sort of things, but the point I’m trying to make is that violence has always found its way into my life. I’ve been to jail, I’ve been DEAD from an LSD overdose, I’ve lived in the streets as a homeless man and a drug addict. I also had a film I directed that was accepted in the Cannes Film Festival back in 2015.

I’ve never been your typical “Asian male.” America wants the Asian man to be quiet, to be small, to take abuse and be silent about it. I don’t subscribe to that and I never will. Once when I was child, a white boy came up to, spit in my face, called me a gook, and told me to go back to my country. I’ll never let that happen again. EVER. America has always tried to emasculate the Asian man and I just simply don’t put up with that sort of bullshit… on a personal level. On top of that, just because I’m Americanized and I don’t necessarily have strong ties to my roots and my heritage, I’m an outsider to my own people. So I understand what it’s like to see the highest mountain top. I’ve literally walked on the same red carpet as Benicio del Toro and that weirdo Woody Allen. I know what it’s like to reach an intense level of success and not knowing how to handle it. One day, you’re in France with a couple of Ukrainian twin strippers, then before you know it, you’ve lost it all and you’re living in the streets, smoking crack. I understand violence and I understand what it means to be the outsider. When the guys at Cartoonist Kayfabe talk about OUTLAW comics… they’re talking about ME. They’re talking about Jack DeSilva. Heel Turn IS outlaw comics because that’s how I’ve lived my life.

A character like Jack DeSilva has been champion, he’s been around the block, he’s lost it all, he’s come back, and he’s at a point where he’s just hanging on. He’s still keeping things together after a crazy life and a series of really bad decisions… That’s me. Now, I don’t drink or do drugs anymore… I don’t fight anybody unless it’s in self-defense, but I understand addiction. I understand alcoholism. I understand violence, I understand madness, and I understand how all of it can eat you up. Piece by piece. I know what it’s like being trapped in a hell of your own design. You’re going to see a lot of that as Heel Turn continues… and who knows? Maybe a guy like Jack DeSilva can be redeemed.

Q9. You recently wrapped up work on issue 2. What was the timeframe like working on that book? And what do you aim to work on next once this series wraps up?

MH: So with the second issue, I’ll admit… I might’ve bitten off more than I can chew. What do I mean? Right after that first issue, I dove right into work for the second. It was supposed to be done by last winter! I added pages… then next thing you know I had some more ideas I wanted to put in there… it just kept getting bigger. So obviously, I missed the mark on that. Then I wanted to release it during this past summer and it got delayed again. Frankly speaking, I might’ve overestimated my own abilities. I am DEFINITELY faster than when I did the first issue, but I’m still an amateur, I’m still learning, and I’m still trying to get a hold of the mechanics of all of this. Nobody taught me how to create a book or how to go about the comic book industry. In 2020 my artwork was SHIT, and I had to sharpen my skills back up to a point where I said “ok, this is how things should LOOK.” I’m learning all this on-the-fly as I navigate through the industry. There’s still more Heel Turn after this issue… honestly I plan to keep it going. I have three main arcs I want to write in Heel Turn and Jack is the main character of the first arc. The other two story arcs will follow other characters and if you think it’s just about drugs and living like a rockstar on meth, well that’s just the first issue! I plan to cover a wide range of topics, characters, and how they all interact.

Q10. What projects do you have in the pipeline that readers should keep an eye out for?

MH:   After this issue of Heel Turn is out, I’m going to do some work with the homies at Last Bastion Studios. Those guys have been nothing but supportive. Just nothing but mad love from that camp and I feel like we’re all headed in the same direction in this business. I’ll be doing some artwork for Wes Allard’s Luchador comic. I’ll be drawing a short about one of the main characters, King Jaguar. Eventually, I plan to get into animation so I’ve been getting stuff ready to learn how to do that. Not that I don’t know how to, my father used to own an animation studio in South Korea. He even once owned the rights to Felix the Cat. So, naturally, I want to see if I can try to keep that legacy alive and make some cool shit while I do it. Imagining Heel Turn in the animation style of, like… a Ninja Scroll or something like that… I think it would just be perfect. Of course, if Heel Turn doesn’t ever get there, well… I’ll just move on to the next idea I have lined up. For now, though… Heel Turn Comics is where I’m spending most of my energy.

By Anthony Andujar Jr.

Anthony Andujar Jr. is an NYC cartoonist and lover of comics and music. So much so that it led him to writing comic book reviews in between it all.