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Eric Shanower Interview


[ Eric Shanower ]

This interview with comic book writer and artist Eric Shanower was conducted by Director Sebastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means that Eric Shanower received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Eric Shanower was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.

By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.

Can you tell us about your background?

I was born in 1963 in Key West, Florida. After graduating high school in 1981, I attended the Joe Kubert School. I began working professionally in the comics industry immediately following graduation from Kubert's in May 1984. My work has been published by most of the major American comic book publishers and many of the smaller ones. As a child I fell in love with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and decided I wanted to write and draw Oz stories when I grew up. I fulfilled this ambition in my series of Oz graphic novels published by First Comics and Dark Horse Comics 1986-1992. Image Comics published my current series, Age of Bronze, my retelling of the Trojan War myth. I also illustrate books and run a publishing company, Hungry Tiger Press, with my partner, David Maxine. We publish books, comics, and compact discs.

What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

Comics tell stories with a unique blend of words and pictures. Comics are different from illustrated prose in that the words and pictures carry the story together. Comics are different from movies in that the words and pictures are controlled by one creator (sometimes a few creators, but that is usually an economically imposed structure.)

What was the overall mood in the industry when you began your career? What was its commercial state? How has it evolved?

In 1984 the overall mood seemed to me to be extremely optimistic. Small publishers were popping up all over the place in the early 1980s. It seemed that anything that could be published was being published. The Marvel/DC near stranglehold was being demolished. Exciting and different projects were appearing all over the place.

Commercially I'm not sure how good it was in 1984. Most of the smaller publishers that started then are gone now. Many of the exciting projects have disappeared. The superheroes of Marvel and DC still dominate, so in a way there hasn't been much progress.

Back then the Graphic Novel was going to save the industry, was going to bring comics to a general audience, put them in bookstores. Now, nearly two decades later, there's been progress, but not as much as everyone seemed to expect back then. Graphic novels can be found in their own little ghettoized section of many bookstores. Libraries are buying graphic novels. But the comics industry seems ill in many ways.

Comic book stores were created during the 70's as a boosting solution for the market. But as years went by, the direct market became the major distribution channel at the expense of the "newsstand" channel. Do you think that the industry is now paying the price for what was considered as the only viable solution back then?

Yes. In general, comic book stores ghettoized the comics market. In general, the public perceives comics as violent musclebound knuckleheads pounding each other along with elements of pornography and demonism. To a disturbingly large extent, the public is right. Why should they go to a special store to seek such material?

1986 has been a turning point for the industry with works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It seems that since then, the comic book audience has grown up with the industry and that there is just no new readers. Has the industry at that time completely forgotten its younger target audience?

Well, if you'll remember that 1986 was also when Disney comics burst back onto the scene with Gladstone, you might want to revise your question. Of course, Gladstone is gone now. I think the comics industry has to a large part ignored a younger audience. There are still titles here and there that appeal to under-12s, but often these titles don't last long.

Art Spiegelman's Maus has also been an important moment of 1986, and, at the opposite of the two other works, has been independently released. Maus also was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer prize. Do you think that this media coverage for a comic book story changed the industry? Has there been a post-Maus for independent comics?

I don't perceive that Maus changed much. It gained a bit of visibility in the general populace, but who in the general populace remembers it now? I had high hopes for Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby, but it didn't have nearly the same impact as Maus. I suppose Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde might have been the most recent project to approach Maus's impact.

1993 was the last profitable year for the American industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?

Well, I'm not sure I really have a knowledgeable view of causes of the collapse. But I'm sure the inflated collector's market of the early 1990s and the larger publishers' pandering to that market helped the collapse a lot. I suppose the black and white glut of the late 1980s contributed. The continuing paucity of thoughtful and innovative comics that appeal to a general readership is the biggest problem. And the failure of such thoughtful and innovative comics that exist to reach a wide, appreciative readership is also a major problem.

During your career you worked for the big publishers, but also for much smaller companies. How would you compare both experiences?

When I'm sitting at the drawing table working, it doesn't matter how big the publisher is. I've had good and bad experiences at publishers big and small. I've had late checks and lost artwork at publishers big and small. Usually the pay is better at big publishers. Sometimes the distribution of the work is better at big publishers. Usually the big publishers want more rights to my work.

In the 90's, publishers began to create alternate covers, and made a lot of—sometimes unnecessary—relaunches. What do you think of those "gimmicks"?

I paid little attention to them, and when they were brought to my attention, they just made me tired. Just not interested.

To make more money and be able to reach different places such as bookstores, the publishers have created the trade paperback. As an example, many people have read Sandman when it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you feel that the comic book format had its days, and could be replaced by the paperback?

It's possible. At the moment it's not economically feasible for me to completely abandon the serialized pamphlet—and I suspect the same is correct for many other comics creators.

The early 90's saw the first digital lettering and coloring in American comic books. Do you think that it opened a new world of possibilities as far as storytelling is concerned?

No. I haven't seen anything in digital lettering and coloring that isn't possible by hand. I think it just made it more economical to reproduce—and sometimes faster and easier for the artist to produce—which I don't think is implied by "storytelling."

Also around the same time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that the internet could become a distribution system for independent artists?

No. I wasn't really conscious of the internet till the mid-90s, and I didn't get online till the late 90s.

Diversity seems to be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that current comic books are oriented mainly toward a male audience in its 20's?

More toward a male audience in its mid-teens. But that's a broad generalization concerning comic books. There's something published for just about anyone.

A success of the American film business has always been not to ignore the foreign market. Do you feel that the comics industry has been successful abroad?

Not that I've noticed. But I'm not that knowledgeable about American comics abroad. I understand that Don Rosa is a big celebrity in Europe while he's underrated here.

Comic book conventions are typical in North America. What feedback do you get from your peers over there? Is there a positive mood within the industry?

I'm not sure what you're asking. As far as a positive mood within the industry, I can't say that I'm aware of any consensus. People have different opinions and expectations. I don't think the appropriate audience for Age of Bronze is found primarily among American comic book readers, so I try to look beyond the borders of the comics industry for interest in my series.

When you go to comic book conventions, do you feel that people come to buy comics... or toys, busts, and whatever merchandising has to offer? What do you think of that merchandising?

I don't know what they come to buy. I sell my own work, and the people who buy from me are generally the convention attendees I speak to. I don't usually have the time at conventions to look around much farther than my immediate area. I don't care about toys, statues, and other knick-knacks. It's all clutter to me. I don't understand why anyone would want to buy it.

In the biggest comic conventions we can find print and digital artists. Some print artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do you feel that there are now two clans of comic book creators?

No, but I don't have much contact with digital artists. I don't know of any paper artists who are ferociously anti-digital. That doesn't mean there aren't any—just that I'm not aware of them.

Many forgotten artists who can't find a job in the industry because they are told they are "outdated" make money thanks to commissions on their personal websites. Others create those digital comics but don't really make money out of them. Do you think that the internet could be the solution to the current state of the comic book industry?

It could be one avenue or part of a solution. I don't think any one thing will save the comics industry. I think it's got to be a wide expansion on many fronts. But until there's an artistic and intellectual rise in the quality of a substantial percentage of comics material, I don't think any expansion will last for long.

Some digital comics use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

A sequence of pictures that carry a narrative delivered in a digital format. Animation is animation—it's not comics. Sound effects seem as if they'd just be distracting once the novelty wore off.

Do you think that digital comics offer much more diversity than the paper market?

First, please understand that I don't have much exposure to digital comics. I suspect that digital comics can't take advantage of different printing techniques and different papers to print on, different bindings and trimmings and inks and textures. I'm sure that digital comics have other areas of diversity. So, I 'd have to say no, I don't think digital comics offers much more diversity, just different diversity.

Only big publishers would have the financial asset to afford the legal support needed in the piracy issue. How do you think that the big companies will make their way into the digital world? Do you think that independents will have to wait for those companies to make money in a safe way?

I have no idea how big companies will make their way into the digital world. It seems reasonable to expect that smaller publishers will have to wait for big publishers to pave the way on legal issues. But who knows? It's impossible to know exactly what the future holds. I'm not in a position to make any reliable predictions.

I do think that the big publishers have a financial interest in keeping the comics industry at status quo rather than spending time and money in exploring new forms.

Do you think that readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for them? What about you?

I think that most people today would rather read a printed object. It's much easier to take a book to the bathroom than to take a computer screen. I like a nicely printed and manufactured comic. The resolution on a computer screen is too low to make looking at artwork enjoyable for me.

There are many issues that could prevent digital comics from growing, such as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall, it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such as PayPal. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments: what do you think is the best option to be paid on the web for digital creations?

I have no idea. As soon as someone figures it out, I'd like to know, too. I have to say that I greatly dislike most advertising. There's far, far too much of it in the world already—I think a lot of it should be banned.

Why would artists choose to make digital comics, even if they don't really make money, instead of becoming independent publishers?

I'd suppose it costs less to publish on the internet. You can do it from the comfort of your own home.

If a cartoonist is making comics as a hobby, the internet is a convenient publication and distribution system. Internet publication requires less dependency on other peoples' decisions.

There are different ways to compose a comic book story on the internet. Some artists like to consider the screen as a page, others still use a typical comic book format. We can also use the screen as a panel/link leading to another panel and so on. Finally, other artists use the internet as an unlimited space to compose a story. What do you think of those ideas?

They all seem unwieldy. The transition from one panel to the next on a computer screen seems like an obstacle to the success of digital comics. But as I said, I'm no expert in this. What seems unwieldy in theory might be delightful in practice.

One can find digital comics on the web, but also short films produced especially for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes? What do you think of them?

Never seen any.

We talked earlier about the unlimited space and animated digital comics. Do you think that we could apply some of those compositional ideas to live moving pictures, instead of just drawn panels?

Well, yes. It would be interesting to watch a movie that had no borders, that just continued wherever you looked. Of course, I think it couldn't really be a conventional story, more like an impression of culture.

Bad artistic, and moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems like a good solution to create art without any form of concession. Do you think that the internet is an open door for new creative voices?

Yes, it seems like an excellent tool. The problem is for a new creative voice to make others aware of its existence. How would that creative voice reach me with its URL? Lots of print advertising, I suppose.

Now that comic books have become a niche market (whether they are on paper or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality as a reaction to the current situation?

I can't predict the future. The major percentage of comics will always be dismissable, and a smaller percentage will be worth reading. I suppose there'll be a peak someday—if such a subjective judgment can be made—but will I see it in my lifetime? Who knows?


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