Chris Schweizer on leaving SCAD Atlanta and forming a studio

Earlier today, SCAD Atlanta Professor and Crogan Adventures creator Chris Schweizer announced the 2012-2013 academic year will be his final one teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta. As the scholar/writer/artist noted at his own blog, "I love being a teacher, and I love being a cartoonist, and in many ways each helps me be better at the other. But I’ve come to find that I can do neither to the best of my ability without infringing on the time necessary to see the other done to the degree of quality I’d expect of myself."

The move is not just a decision to stop teaching: Schweizer has also agreed to form a new studio with Chad Thomas (Mega Man) and Jason Horn (Ninjasaur). In conjunction with announcing the decision, Schweizer fielded a few questions from me. As a fellow resident of Atlanta, I have to add, as pleased as I am to know Schweizer will have more time to devote to his craft, I am equally sad to know he will be leaving Atlanta to do it.

Tim O'Shea: Knowing how much you love teaching, how many times did you talk yourself into staying at SCAD?

Chris Schweizer: I know it sounds cavalier, but never. Once I realized that there was a real problem with the regularity of my output, a problem that was only growing as I moved the Crogan projects to color, I had to look for a solution. I often have trouble finding my way through a problem that I’m in, both in writing and in real life, and I find that the best way puzzle out a solution is to not think of it from the standpoint of what to do next, but to decide on the ideal outcome. Once that outcome is in place, it’s much easier for me to determine the path by which to arrive at it. I was surprised that my ideal outcome didn’t leave time for teaching, or have us staying in Atlanta. Once I realized that, there was no real debating, there was only trying to figure out how best to undertake the change. Originally we thought I’d teach for an additional year after this one, to give us plenty of time to sell the house.

Who is more nervous about this career decision, you or your wife, Liz?

Probably me, just because this decision is predicated on the expectation that more and more people will read the comics as I put them out, something that, despite all I’ll do to try and make that happen, is out of my control when all is said and done. Liz is very much a realist, and the household financier, and I would’ve expected this to weigh much heavier on her, but she seems even more gung-ho about it than I am. A big part of our confidence is that, within a couple of days of deciding that we should do this, we were given a number of very clear signs that this decision was the right one, and in fact one of these indicators sped up our timeline by a year. In the past, we’ve always paid heed when we felt that we were being guided, and it’s always been to our advantage, so we have a good track record to console us in an otherwise scary and risky decision.

Once you told SCAD management you needed to step down, did they try to talk you out of it?

There wasn’t anything that SCAD could have offered me once the decision was made that would’ve compelled me to stay. I feel like there’s only one right way to go when it comes to big decisions like this, and that way was pointing us towards Nashville. When I told Pat and Shawn, I made it clear that this wasn’t a negotiating tactic, that this was a fixed decision, and they respected that. Both have always made it very clear that they support their faculty’s professional endeavors to the fullest, and they reiterated that sentiment regarding this move.

What are you going to miss most about teaching? Are you bracing yourself for going through teaching withdrawal?

I’m going to miss everything about teaching (excepting the administrative paperwork), even (perhaps especially) the parts of it that are compelling me to stop.

I will miss being consistently amazed by my students. I’ll miss exposing them to new things, new principles, that “aha!” moment when their eyes light up and some obstacle that has plagued them for their entire life is suddenly no longer an obstacle. I’ll miss being there to console them when they reach that stage where their taste has improved to the point that they know what is good but their art hasn’t yet gotten to that point, and everything they do is terrible in their own eyes. That’s a hard stage, and one that defeats many artists, and having someone to talk you off the ledge is invaluable. I’ll miss being that someone. Seeing the pride they feel when they do their first “good” comic, their first comic at a professional caliber, when they know what is good and they know that they’ve done something good. I feel that pride with them.

On a selfish note, I’ll miss being exposed to work outside of my comfort zone. I’m 32, but I’m kind of a grandpa when it comes to knowing about new things. From whom but the students will I learn about new technology, new comics, new whatever? Most every new thing I’ve come to know in the last three years has come from my students.

I am not a naturally patient person, and teaching forces me to be patient. Teaching is perhaps the only aspect of my life where I can be very Zen, very long-sighted, confident that the students will eventually find their feet if I work with them long enough and continually approach problems with their artistic or professional development from different angles. In most other areas of my life I’m very mercurial, but I can be consistently avuncular and supportive while teaching and still insist on perfection. Even when I profess to be angry at a student’s apparent inability or unwillingness to apply a principle to their work (and then only if it’s a principle that I know the student understands but fails to employ regardless), that anger is feigned, a tactic to rattle them and force them to acknowledge the problem. I like the teacher part of myself more than any other, I feel like it’s the best of me, and without that I don’t think that I will be as good a man. And that’s hard, and that’s scary.

I’ll have to teach in some way or another. To not would be to repress a part of myself that I doubt can be contained. I’ll surely find some avenue through which to teach, but it will have to be a little more informal. I’ll do workshops and online lectures or tutorials and school visits, but I’ll need to find some way to have that teacher/student=peers relationship again. Maybe I’ll have intern students sometime down the road.

I’m looking forward to working collaboratively more, and to teach my colleagues the same way that I’m sure they’ll teach me.

How long have you, Thomas and Horn been exploring the possibility of starting a studio? What kind of non-comics design work are you looking to do?

Chad and I have worked together in the past on some young reader Choose Your Own Adventure-type books for younger readers, these prose/comic hybrids based on folktales. Aside from Liz, Chad is probably my closest friend. I usually hate talking to anyone over the phone, but Chad and I talk every few days, often while we’re working, with both phone and video. We go over each other’s designs, pages, whatever. We have very similar ideas when it comes to what we want in a comic. We also have different skill sets. When it comes to design, I’m very much a blue sky kind of guy. I can rattle off a few dozen different takes on one character, do environments, props, whatever. Chad is an impeccable clean-up artist. He can take a rough design and pull from it and add to it and make it perfect, and consistent. That isn’t to say that Chad isn’t a good designer, or that I can’t manage serviceable final art, but our best work leans one way and the other. Teamed up, we can do work of far greater quality than either of us is capable of independently. We’ve wanted to work together for some time, but haven’t done so since the Tricky Journeys books, which had a more assembly-line production, me writing and Chad drawing afterwards.

Jason’s involvement was actually the catalyst for the whole studio idea. I’d discussed with Liz how, in my ideal future, a few years down the road, I’d like to have a production guy handling, among other things, coloring and web and app stuff, and that Jason would be my top pick. Anyone who’s seen his Ninjasaur app (only 99 cents, check it out!) will know why. Liz pointed out that Jason has a day job, and likely wouldn’t be interested in leaving it. The next day, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Jason, who lives where we’re moving, telling me that he’d no longer be at his day job come May. This is one of those signs I mentioned, this one being the reason for leaving this year instead of next. The sales of the Crogan books certainly don’t yet merit my eventual plan, which is to have the production job as a salaried position, but I felt it was clear that Jason and I were supposed to work together in some capacity. Chad and Jason and I are all friends, and though Chad no longer lives in Nashville I couldn’t envision doing a collaborative venture without him. I asked him, and he said “did you ever think I’d say ‘no?’”

The bread and butter of the studio will be concept design for animation and games, doing some character and story but focusing the majority of our attention on props and environments. I’d love for us to get some writing work, too. All of us write, and I love having a fixed structure (commercial break at the end of Page 6, etc.) within which I can craft a story. We’re also going to be pitching a number of comics to do together. We’ve got a system of sorts in place, and we’ll put up some samples soon. Our ideal is to be a studio that people can come to for the whole package – writing, art, coloring, lettering. Make things as easy as possible for the client or publisher. We’ll do corporate comic work (that’s when a company contracts a training, internal, or advertisement comic) as well as narrative stuff. I love when a publisher has a specific need, a specific demographic or curricular slot that he or she needs to fill, and I love crafting work to fit that.

We’ve got quite a few projects that we’re looking forward to pitching as a group. The Crogan books will still be me, Ninjasaur will still be Jason, Winter Warriors will still be Chad, but we’ve got a number of kid and YA projects that we want to work on together that we’re eager to pitch.

Care to give a hint of these non-Crogan kid or YA story ideas you are looking to explore?

Sure. None of them are at a publisher yet; we’re going to start talking to editors after New Year. There’s a horror series, The Creeps, about a group of unpopular kids that investigate supernatural mysteries in a small town that long ago made peace with its weird occurrences and wants everything left well enough alone. Sea Monsters and Samurai is a coming-of-age adventure story that ties together sea and lake monster myths from around the world. There’s a series retelling the Robin Hood legends with Maid Marian as the protagonist. Marian is a clever 14-year-old girl who has to keep her impetuous best friend alive after he becomes an outlaw. The series will be very rooted in history, showcasing both royal and peasant life as Marian (with increasing difficulty) splits her time between the court and the woods, with the events eventually leading up to the siege of Nottingham in 1194. We’ve got a few others that we’re kicking around, but those are the ones that are furthest along (the first book in The Creeps series is outlined, with nine other books loosely worked out), so those are the ones that we’re most eager to place with a good publisher.

Any final thoughts you want to share with folks about this decision?

Don’t emulate it? It sounds romantic and appealing to quit your day job and try for art full-time, but it’s very risky. The last thing I want is to saddle us with debt (which we have luckily stayed ahead of, save for some remaining student loans). When combined with my comic income, my pay from SCAD has kept us comfortable, and its consistency has been reassuring when our finances would otherwise swing so widely from month to month.

Yes, I love teaching, but it prevents me from making comics at the rate at which I wish to do so. I’m giving up a day job that I love and am terrified of the prospect that I might eventually have to take one that I don’t in order to keep food on the table and a roof over our head. Liz and I are pretty flexible, but our daughter is three, and I need to be sure that she’ll never want for stability. But, as I said, I believe that this will work, and I’m going to do all I can to make it work. If I work hard and well and smart, hopefully everything will turn out the way we hope.

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