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June 10, 2012


CR Sunday Interview: Chris Schweizer

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*****

imageI met Chris Schweizer before I knew his comics, which is an interesting way to do things when someone's a talented cartoonist because you inevitably spend some time just staring at them, wondering how the hell this thing could have come from that person you know. Schweizer's primary comics avenue by a wide, wide margin is the Crogan Adventure series. This a series of books from Oni Press about the men (mostly) of the wonderfully, snap-named Crogan family. The modern nuclear unit seeks moral guidance or perspective on some issue; an extravagant adventure of a past member provides some measure of commentary on what's happening in the modern Crogans' lives. It sounds simple, but Schweizer, while still a young cartoonist with all that entails, never cheats. The result is the kind of comics a person with high hopes for the industry might conceive of having out there in the marketplace but then would just as quickly explain how they couldn't possibly exist. These are comics that can be read by any number of people at any number of ages but at the same time are clearly not for every audience in some desperate-to-please way; they're unabashedly situated in a specific, western take on the adventure comics genre whose heyday might have come in the strip comics of the 1930s; they're exuberant; they're presented with unapologetic elan, including a fan club where I believe at some level of membership or via some special offer the cartoonist draws your picture in the style of one of the characters from one of the books. A dozen Chris Schweizers, and comics might rule the world.

Schweizer is also a comics educator, one that came out of the general system to which he now contributes from the other side of the podium. I had plenty of questions for him. -- Tom Spurgeon

*****

TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about your background with comics? My understanding is that you had a significant relationship to strip comics, but maybe not comic-book comics. Where did comics exist in terms of your overall cultural appetites; how much of a comics kid were you? Is there a comic strip that influenced you early on we might be surprised to hear was an influence on you? How did you read the comics, seeing as that you were an artist yourself?

SCHWEIZER: I don't think the artist hat really affected my comics reading when I was young. It did in high school.

I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I expect that my parents, both strip fans, probably tried to get me to read comics in the newspaper, but I doubt that I was receptive. I recollect a lot of what I consumed as a kid, and I don't remember being enthusiastic about strips until Calvin and Hobbes came along. I read the first collection when it came out, which means I would've been six years old. And I was hooked. Not just on Calvin, but on all comic strips. I read 'em like crazy, especially whatever my dad had in the house in book form. I always preferred reading big chunks in book form to any other format. We had the full set of that oversized Peanuts collection, which even at age six baffled me with its deliberate avoidance of chronology. I remember complaining often to my dad about it, and his reassurance that someday someone would have the sense to put out the whole run in chronological order. So the Fantagraphics reprints have basically been my dad's Christmas and Father's Day presents every year since they started coming out, and will continue to be so 'til the series ends. Anyway, I devoured every strip I could find, in the papers and in garage sale paperbacks. I never stopped reading strips, though these days I complain to my wife loudly about how nearly everyone phones it in these days whenever I sit down with the Sunday funnies.

Around the same time, early elementary school, there was an Eckerd's Drug Store down the street with a bin of thin two-dollar paperback black-and-white comic adaptations of classic literature. The Pocket Classics series. I remember that bin being there forever, but it was probably only a couple of months. My parents got me and my younger sister a bunch of those books during that time. Those books had a big influence on me, because they weren't very good, and I knew it. I read them over and over and over, and wanted them to be good, to live up their promise. The real versions, the prose originals, usually do, but I didn't read those until I was much older, high school and college. Those comic adaptations were generally pretty lifeless. But I loved the subject matter. Swordfights and whatnot. That's a big part of what I do now, trying to make books that are what I wish those Pocket Classics had been.

I got into G.I. Joe comics in fourth grade in a big way, steered to them from the trading cards. I was a sucker for trading cards, especially file-oriented ones like the Joe set. By the time I was in middle school, with disposable income from neighborhood lawn mowing, I was making the transition from G.I. Joe to Marvels. The cards were what spurred me here, too. I think the reason that I landed on Marvel rather than DC is the cards (with the exception of the odd Batman stand-alone volume, some recent Bernet-drawn Jonah Hex, and some of the Darwyn Cooke stuff, I've read virtually no DC; I've just had no real attraction to the characters). The cards helped breach the walls of obtuse continuity by laying it all out for you before you ever used to pick up a comic. I think a lot of kids my age used the cards as an entryway to the Marvel stuff.

In middle school I got really into Bill Amend's Fox Trot. It probably has more influence on my dialogue pacing than just about anything else, and my dialogue pacing determines almost everything about how my comics are structured, so I guess that's a pretty encompassing influence. Amend is just so good at pacing. He's one of the few comics childhood heroes that I haven't had a chance to meet. I have his number in my NCS phonebook, but I haven't ever called him. I think it's expected that you cold call a couple of people when you get the directory, but I feel weird doing that sort of thing.

When I was in ninth grade, I stopped reading anything but strips and the odd trade collection. Cold turkey. I was buying a ton of floppies, some at a local shop, most at the gas station by my high school, and I became immediately disenfranchised. Within a very short space of time -- heck, maybe it was the same week -- three comics that I was nuts about changed artists. Olivier Vatine was replaced in the second part of the Star Wars "Thrawn Trilogy" adaptations, Joe Madureira left Uncanny X-Men, and J. Scott Campbell left Gen 13. I don't know who the replacements were, and it wasn't that the art was bad... it's that the art wasn't them. The reality of creative teams changing was one of which I was aware, but I'd never contemplated the reality of it, and I didn't like it. It riled me. I thought of those projects as the work of those guys, and had no interest in alternatives, and wanted nothing to do with other comics that might similarly deal me a raw hand. I still feel that way. I have trouble reading anything without a fixed final page or final issue in the can for fear that the artist or writer or whoever will change, so I almost never pick anything up unless it's a stand-alone book. B.P.R.D. was my one contemporary exception, and when Guy left it was like 9th grade all over again. I love Tyler [Crook]'s stuff, but he's not Guy [Davis]. I just picked up the new issue -- I'm warming to it, and I do really like Tyler's art -- but I still grind my teeth at it.

I picked up Bone at a bookstore when I was a freshman in college. I'd read the excerpts that ran in Disney Adventures when I was younger, and had that familiarity with the series. I went nuts for it. I picked up the trades when I could find them. That was my one regular non-strip comics purchase.

imageSPURGEON: You mention something in your sketchbook about seeing Jeff Smith's work and realizing that an artist could bring a strip approach to comics to long-form comic-book comics. Can you talk about that distinction, that kind of different aesthetic that you see in comic strips and through Jeff's work?

SCHWEIZER: That was mostly just me not having access to much stuff. I'm from rural Kentucky. If it wasn't available at a gas station, you didn't get to see it. I think what I meant was that the drawings were clearly what the artist felt like doing, rather than the dictates of the market, stylistically. And that he was writing and drawing it. Outside of strips, I hadn't seen that! Now it's something that everybody does, and tons of other folks were doing it at the time, but Jeff is where I saw it first, and it was amazing. The slick brushwork... it felt like the strips I liked. And I had no worries that it would change artists, even though it was a continuing series. And it being black and white was big for me, too, in that it looked like it was meant to be black and white, like a strip. That's the main reason we did the first three Crogan books in black and white, because I wanted to mimic that it-could-be-a-strip-but-is-really-a-book feel that Bone had for me. I was being a toon-head, a comics snob. I think that black and white better reflects the craft, but color is more accessible. I was more worried with being credible to my peers than I was reaching an audience. You know, being young. I've been changing my inking style a little to better jive with color, which I plan to use more in the future.

SPURGEON: I'm a little unclear as to when comics became an option for you, when you started to seriously look at that as a potential career. I suspect it has something to do with your decision to go to grad school. Can you talk a bit about what led you to that decision to go to SCAD?

SCHWEIZER: I joined one of those book clubs, the scam ones that are hard to quit, sometime not long after I was out of college. My wife and I ran a hotel in Mississippi, and I was at the front desk a lot, and had a lot of reading time. The book club sent you like five or six books free at first, and they carried some graphic novels -- only the five that I got as my initial offering, I think, but hey, seemingly free books, right? Among those that I got were [Scott] McCloud's Understanding Comics, which I thought at the time would make a great textbook, the third volume of [Larry] Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, and volume one of Persepolis.

So I was starting to get into graphic novels as a casual reader. And then I discovered webcomics. The first one I found was Scott Kurtz's Player vs. Player, which I discovered entirely by accident while looking for some Indiana Jones stuff on the Internet, and discovering an Indy-themed PVP storyline.

Scott, I've come to find, is viewed as a very controversial and sometimes confrontational figure in both the web and print comic communities. There are still NCS folks whose backs arch when his name comes up. But he's always been incredibly nice to me, and I think his work is solid, a consistently well-executed strip. At the time, I was amazed that it seemed to hold together better than any of the syndicate stuff. I never play video games, but I didn't have to know the references to get the jokes; Scott's quite good in that arena. Anyway, reading his comic got me looking at other webcomics, which led me to Raina Telgemeier's online stuff, which really was print stuff that she posted online. One of the stories, "Beginnings," was three pages long, just a nice, poignant little anecdote. Its length was what grabbed me. A stand-alone, non-strip short story was not something I'd seen before. And Raina had mentioned that it was a story published in one of her mini-comics. I had never seen a mini-comic, didn't know what one was, but I immediately understood what she meant -- hand assembled, etc. -- and set about making a story for my own mini-comic. I did it that day. I found out much later it was entirely on the strength of that particular story that James [Lucas Jones], my editor at Oni, gave me my Crogan Adventures deal.

I did the mini as a kind of lark, I guess, the same way I had done music. I guess I figured that maybe somebody would see it and I'd hit it big, or something like that, the kind of thing you think when you're young and gormless and don't know how anything works. I had just turned 25. I feel like that's a little old to be a semi-directionless idiot. Anyway, my dad read it, and suggested I consider doing comics professionally. And that was huge for me. My parents are and have always been hugely supportive, but my dad has always been a realist, and his suggestion that I actively pursue a career in it sparked something. He works in the arts. He's a music composer, though the majority of his income now comes from writing mystery novels, a new development that I think has freaked him out a little, identity-wise, since for a long time the writing was just a hobby that paid. But he, more than most, knows how difficult it is to support a family on arts money. His suggesting that I do just that was like a light bulb going off for me. Of course I could do it; dad's faith in the success of the endeavor was like a guarantee to me. But I'd need to go to school for it, for the terminal degree so that I could teach and so that I knew the ins and outs of what I wanted to do. I've always believed that, whatever you want to do, you should study it properly. It shows respect for the discipline and for the wisdom of the folks who came before you. Luckily there were terminal degree programs in comics, at SCAD and MCAD, and the SCAD one looked more organized. I'm a disorganized person by nature, so I need structure.

I talked it out with my wife, Liz. We met in college, and got married a couple of months after graduation. She was immediately and enthusiastically supportive. Given some of the other careers I'd considered, this one was probably likely to be the least stressful on her, so I'm sure that helped, but she's always had my back, and I like to think that I have hers. She didn't want to move to Savannah, though. We were in Natchez, another antebellum tourist town, and we were ready to be somewhere different. We saw that SCAD had a campus in Atlanta -- it had just started -- and that settled things.

SPURGEON: I know a handful of cartoonists that have taught at SCAD, but fewer that have gone.

SCHWEIZER: I think you'd be surprised at how many folks went to SCAD. A lot of near-and-under-thirties, especially. Eleanor Davis and Chris Wright and that whole group. Drew Weing and Joey Weiser and Jarrett Williams and J.P. Coovert. Frank and Becky. Ben Towle was there a while ago, around the same time as Sean Gordon Murphy and Chad Thomas and Kristian Donaldson. Some animation folks, too. Phil Craven was a SEQA major. He was head of story on the second Kung Fu Panda movie, but he still does the odd comic. There's been a lot of big two talent, but my path and theirs intersect less frequently. The folks I mention are the folks I know pretty well, who I see fairly often, who are near my age.

I think that you -- and you have your finger on the pulse of the industry more than a lot of people, Tom, so I expect that you serve as the world at large here -- haven't heard of many people coming out of SCAD because the school itself is not really an industry or convention presence the way that, say, CCS is. When the school sets up at a convention or something, it sets up as the school, not as a repository of student publications. The working (publishing) students are rarely at the table, the working faculty is rarely at the table. They're at their own tables. The SCAD booths are geared very heavily towards admissions and recruitment, and while I expect that this approach results in more students applying to the school (a necessity to keep the programs going), it doesn't do much to draw attention to professional work being generated by students and alums. There are student work samplers, but by their nature they don't include professional publication excerpts. They're a great way of showing off the work of students who are finding their feet -- I was thrilled to have a piece in one, when I was starting grad school -- but they're not the best examples of what enrolled students are making. The Oni and Fantagraphics and Marvel books are the best examples, but having those immediately on hand at the SCAD table is logistically problematic, given the admission-oriented strategy.

The other reason you're less likely to have associated SCAD alums with the school is that few of them tout it. Sometimes this is active. Sean Murphy, for example, has written many posts about his dissatisfaction with his experience at SCAD. But that's the exception, I think. Most folks don't bring it up or draw attention to it simply because they prefer to be associated more with their peer groups from within the school than with the school itself.

I think that happened because of how big the department got over the last five or ten years. There's something like four hundred comics kids at the Savannah campus now, I think, and it probably has to do with percentages. I feel like the percentage of students that really give it their all is pretty high, but even if one in ten kids is lazy, or producing hackneyed work, when you have four hundred kids that's 40 kids doing bad work a year, and just because it's bad or lazy doesn't mean that it's not viewable to the public. If a terrible artist claims that they're studying comics at SCAD -- which is likely all they'll be able to claim to achieve any sort of peer credibility at a show -- then a good student the next table over isn't likely to volunteer the same information for fear of being lumped in with the bad one.

I know a lot of people, myself included, who are publicly silent about political or religious affiliations because of the terrible folks with whom those affiliations are sometimes associated. It's the same thing. Even if 90 percent are trying hard, working hard, that bad ten percent still brings it down for everybody. Your program isn't generally thought of by your best students, but by your worst ones. The goal is to make sure that everyone who graduates is nailing it. It's a tough goal, and infinitely tougher the larger the campus is. The greater the number of students, the more of a presence that ten percent of bad ones has, and the less likely the rest are celebrate their connection to the institution. It's a shame, but it's what it is.

We're lucky at the Atlanta campus, we're really small. We've got something around 80 kids. That means that, by the same measurements, we've got far fewer kids that are phoning it in. Because of this, they're less likely to congregate and make lazy artist subcultures (nothing lets lazy artists continue to be lazy like having each other to self-congratulate), and thus it's easier to spot the laziness and bad decision-making and stay on them until they shape up. If they don't shape up, they don't graduate. That's going to be hard to maintain if we grow substantially -- and our numbers have already doubled in the past couple of years or so -- but we've seen it happen at other schools and with other programs, and we're very mindful of it, and we do what we can to nip it in the bud and ensure that the students can all be proud of their school, which is in itself a marvelous institution. I know very few students that, when asked, don't have fond things to say about their experience. Getting them to bring it up unsolicited is what I hope our approach will do, and thus far I think that's the case with our graduates. Granted, we're pretty new, so it's easy to say this now. It'll be a challenge to say it in five years, when we've swelled, but I think that as long as we stay on it, and don't let anyone slip through the cracks and come out with both a degree and bad habits, we'll be okay. It's a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

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SPURGEON: What comes to mind when you think of your formal comics education? What is that culture like, that community like, experienced as a student -- or what was it like when you were there, experiencing it?

SCHWEIZER: SCAD-Atlanta was, and is, a lot different than SCAD-Savannah, so I'm ill-equipped to comment on the latter, as I never had the opportunity to experience it. For one thing, the Atlanta campus is a lot smaller. When I started grad school, there were only two other guys starting with me -- Justin Wagner, who did the art for that Rascal book that just came out, and Hunter Wook-Jin Clark. Hunter did the art for Oni's Return of King Doug, and is now working on a series called MegaGoGo, kind of a deconstructionist "Power Rangers in Atlanta" type of thing. Very funny, very engaging. But it was really just us and our professor Shawn Crystal, who's been doing a lot of runs on various Deadpool titles for Marvel lately. It was a tight-knit community, and Shawn was invested in seeing all of us take off, trying to help us get publishing opportunities.

The thing that was most astounding to me, education-wise, was how immediately practical all of the instruction was. There was no class-padding, no BS, every bit of it was how to do what we do. I literally learned more in each individual drawing class with Shawn than I did in whole semesters of drawing classes in my undergrad. When I was an undergrad, we learned to draw or paint a model so that we could, well, draw or paint a model while looking at it (sorry for the dehumanizing pronoun, but it seemed the best fit). Shawn taught us how to look at the model in order to better understand the underlying human form, the anatomy, for the express purpose of never having to look at a model because we know and understand what's there. All the classes were like that. Learning in order to ingrain.

Nolan Woodard, the colorist and designer for Mark Waid's new digital stuff (as well as a lot of BOOM! and the occasional Marvel comic), started teaching there my second yea
 
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