Mark Schultz has had a long career as a writer and artist, with five Harvey Awards, two Eisners, an Inkpot, a Spectrum, and three Haxtur Awards for his work, which includes writing "Superman" and writing and co-creating "Subhuman" for Dark Horse. But Schultz remains best known for writing and drawing "Xenozoic Tales," which in only fourteen issues created a great successor to the classic adventure comics with a science fiction story that was later turned into the animated series "Cadillacs and Dinosaurs." More recently, Schultz has done considerable work as an illustrator for many different outlets, and since 2004 he's been writing "Prince Valiant" for King Features with artist Gary Gianni.
This year is shaping up to be one of Schultz's busiest. Hill and Wang just released "Stuff of Life," a genetics primer in comics form written by Schultz and illustrated by Zander and Kevin Cannon, and Marvel published "Sub-Mariner Comics 70th Anniversary Special" with a short story written by Schultz and illustrated by Al Williamson. Additionally, a new collection of Schultz's artwork, "Various Drawings," will be released this summer from Flesk Publications along with a collection of "Flash Gordon by Al Williamson," for which Schultz wrote the introduction.
With so much in the works, CBR sat down with Mark Schultz for an in-depth chat about his many projects.
CBR: What are you working on right now?
MARK SCHULTZ: Right now I'm working on my illustrations for this short story I wrote called "Storms at Sea." It's going to be heavily illustrated, about 32 pages of text to 32 pages of illustrations that John Flesk is going to be publishing as soon as I get it done. I'd hoped to have it done a long time ago. [laughs] I'm not really good at scheduling my time. So it's still in process.
Can you tell us what "Storms at Sea" is about?
It's hard to describe. It's a cautionary near-future story that involves this guy discovering an alternate history to civilization. It has elements of crime fiction and science fiction and conspiracy theory and lot of opportunities to draw a lot of different subject matter that I wanted to do. It's a suspense thriller, I guess you'd call it with science fiction and film noir elements thrown into it. That's pretty all over the place. (laughs) It's kind of hard to describe in forty-five words or less.
And of course that's in addition to your current ongoing project of writing "Prince Valiant" every week, with art by Gary Gianni. How did that come about?
Gary had been assisting the previous artist, John Cullen Murphy, for several years and when John Cullen Murphy decided to retire -- he was well into his eighties-- King Features handed the strip to Gary. About the same time, when his father retired, the man who'd been writing the strip, John Cullen Murphy's son Cullen Murphy decided that without his father working on the strip -- he'd been working on it for several decades -- he was ready to retire as well. They were looking for a new scripter and Gary recommended me. We'd worked together in the past. We were on the same page as far as what our aesthetics were. King asked me if I might be interested and asked me to submit some story plot outlines just so they had an idea of where I'd be taking the character. I guess they were happy with what they saw because that was all it took. They had me on the strip shortly after that.
When "Prince Valiant" was announced it seemed like a good pairing because you and Gianni have a very similar aesthetic and a lot of the same influences.
We both pull a lot from early Twentieth Century illustrators and our love of adventure comes out of that period as well. So yeah, we definitely have close to the same likes and dislikes of what we want to see in an adventure strip, or an adventure storyline I should say.
How do you put the strip together? It's an ongoing story published weekly, and the size and format varies. It would seem like a challenge given all those considerations.
Yeah there are some formal considerations that have to be incorporated into every strip. Because it is reconfigured in different formats in different newspapers the way the panels are structured is pretty set. It's divided into tiers more or less and it's got to work in a two-tier format or three-tier format depending on if it's being shown as a complete vertical strip on an entire page as some newspapers still run it or as a horizontal format where there are two tiers. Most papers do it that way.
It gets complex. The different configurations we can put the panels in are limited. And of course the frustrating thing about a strip that appears once a week is that you have to kind of recap in the first panel what's come before just to kind of remind the readers, "you haven't seen the story for a week now but if you'll remember this is where our characters were last week." And then it's not absolutely required but we find it helpful to keep readers interested to in the last panel leave some sort of a either a cliffhanger or some loose thread. Something that leaves them with some anticipation for what's going to come next.
So in between those factors we've got to jam in what we can of story development, action, some character pieces. Once in a while we try to put in some humor there. But it doesn't leave an awful lot of space to work with.
Was it a big challenge coming to a strip from comic books?
It really is a different skill set you have to develop, to work on a strip. It can be frustrating at times, but on the other hand it is what it is. It's a form of doing comics that is very well established and seen by a huge amount more readers than your average comic book is seen. Millions of people look at the Sunday Funnies and hundreds of thousands if not millions see "Prince Valiant" every week, as opposed to [comics, where] you're doing well these days if you've got ten thousand copies of a comic book sold. The advantage is we're in a venue that reaches a much greater readership. The downside is it's very formalized, it's very structured. You just learn to work with that and make it work for us.
You wrote the book "Stuff of Life," which was a very different book for you. How did that project come about?
Schultz: I am very interested and concerned that we, meaning science, need to find ways of communicating better with people in general. Technological developments that are based on scientific investigation and scientific discoveries are becoming more and more a part of all our lives. I think people need to be educated on many aspects of science, and certainly genetics is a very important aspect that's impacting our lives and our health. The more people know about it, the more educated they are, the better for all of us. It was a project that I was very happy to be asked to be a part of, and I think maybe educating people through the comic medium is an important way of reaching people, people that might not otherwise want to investigate on their own a subject that is as complex as genetics.
At what point was it decided that "Stuff of Life" would take the form of a report on genetics by the alien, Bloort 183?
Pretty early on. The artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon have done a number of different nonfiction science works. Nothing this extensive, but they had a background in communicating actual science facts through the comic book medium. I'm very interested, though I myself had never done anything of this nature before. We were in agreement pretty quickly that to best communicate the information in the most efficient manner, we really needed a character to kind of stand in for the readership. A character that's coming from point zero. Someone who didn't know anything about how genetics works, how evolution works, how the entire system of life has developed on Earth.
We thought it would be a fun way of grabbing readers. At certain points in the story, if things got particularly dense and complex, we could have the character say, wait a minute, let's stop and go over this again. That was one of the earliest constructs we came up with. That would be the overriding format there would be this framing device of the story. The publisher needed a little bit of convincing that this was a good idea. Coming from his background outside of comics, he couldn't envision a science primer that had a fictional framework on it. You go to the store and buy a textbook that's purely text that delves into the subject matter of genetics or DNA and you don't think in terms of the narrative in a textbook wrapped within a fictional construct. That's just not done. But the Cannons and I explained that it's a different medium. This is comics and it's a visual medium and there's a lot of things you can do in comics and there's a lot of things you can't do in comics as compared with a purely text piece of nonfiction. And one of the things that's needed in a visual comic format is a character, something that will help things move along, that will bridge certain subjects. There's a quite a number of reasons actually to have a narrator in there to help the narrative flow smoothly and move as efficiently as possible.
How much of the design of the fictional aliens was you and how much was the Cannons?
I wanted to throw a contrast between the development of life on earth and understanding that from a completely alien culture. I wanted the alien life form to be very alien from the human shape. I came up with a basic design for this thing that the closest thing on earth to it would be would be a sea cucumber grafted onto a starfish. The Cannons took my initial model sheets and developed them further into the characters that actually are in the book so it was a bit of a collaborative effort.
Is "Stuff of Life" the sort of thing you'd like to do more of?
I would. I would very much. I really think it's an important venue for reaching and teaching people that might otherwise be intimidated about picking up texts on complex information. I just think there's a large number of people out there that tend to learn visually and comics are great for teaching those people. I'm one of them.
Going forward, the one thing I learned from this project is that it's too much to take on when you're not an expert in that field already. I would very much want to do this, but I would only do it in connection with a person that was an expert in that specific field. It would have been a lot easier for me if I had someone I was working with that really knew genetics. That could be pointing me in the right direction and I could just call up and say, I'm getting conflicting information from these two different texts, give me your opinion of what is the right direction to head in.
Is there a particular topic you have a specific interest in and a passion for?
Something connected with the oceans. People know very little. They know more about outer space than they know about what's going on in our oceans. What's happening in the oceans is so important to our well being on land, even if we don't live anywhere near the ocean. It's a huge circulatory system that regulates the climate and the weather patterns and it's being altered. It's important for people to understand that and to have an understanding of how the oceans work. It's a very big subject, but very important that people understand more about it.
It's not surprising to hear you mention that because environmental change has been a major element in so much of your fictional work in "Xenzoic Tales" and "SubHuman." Are you going to return to these projects?
It's a little annoying to get asked the same question all the time, I'm sure.
No. I'm glad. I get that over and over and over again but I'm happy that people remember and are interested. I'm not really complaining. It's just a question of economics. I want to get back to "Xenozoic Tales." That's my baby. It's what I want to get back to more than anything else, but it's a matter of finding the time and the financial cushion that allows me to invest the man hours that I need to invest in it to actually get the stories done. I'm very slow and doing comics is very time consuming. But that's kind of my master plan, to find a way of getting back to that. I've got a one hundred page story that would wind up things that I left hanging in the last issue of "Xenozoic Tales" that would not end the story altogether but would wrap up what I left hanging.
And "SubHuman," Michael Ryan and I are always trying to figure out a way of getting that up and going again, too. Maybe in the format of a text story that is heavily illustrated. Sort of like what I'm doing with the "Storms at Sea" book right now. But that's something that is absolutely not ever far from either of our minds. We'd like to figure out a way that we can invest the time into that that's necessary and have it happen but not wind up in the poorhouse in the meantime.
Has Dark Horse shown any interest? They reprinted "Xenzoic Tales" a few years ago.
No, that's expired. I've got new material for "Xenozoic Tales" and I want to also reprint all of the old stuff and I've offered it to Flesk Publications. John Flesk does my "Various Drawings" books and will be publishing "Storms at Sea" as well. He expressed interest in it, so if everything goes well at some point in the hopefully not too far distant future there will be volumes of it out there from Flesk Publications.
You described yourself as slow and people unfamiliar with your work might be tempted to shrug you off as just another slow artist, but a quick glance at the meticulous detail in your work shows that there's a reason it's a such a time-consuming process.
For whatever reason I'm just tempermentally predisposed for doing meticulous craftsman-like work. I'm not unhappy with that, but I think there's a place for doing that amount of detail and that amount of meticulous work. That's in single illustrations and on covers. I really am trying to simplify my style for doing interior work, which would allow me to actually produce stuff on a respectable schedule, but would also, I think, just be better for storytelling purposes to not have so much detail going on in every panel of every page of every issue. There's a place for that kind of level of density of detail, and there's a place to pull back and let the story do it's job.
Is that from wanting to do more work faster or is it a question of a changing aesthetic on your part?
It's both. I really want to be able to do more. That's a big motivation for me. But also, as I've matured, I see more and more of the advantages of simplifying. I know I certainly have a stronger feeling and concern for overall design in my work than I did before. I think that it's just a maturing process. The trick is how do I keep the elements, the feeling the atmosphere and the individuality that I want to keep in my work, at the same time that it's simplified. It's a balancing act. It's finding a way to keep what I like about what I'm doing when I put in all the nuts and bolts and go with all guns blazing, how do I pull back from that a little bit but still keep what I like about it, what keeps me excited about the work.
I think there is a way of getting across what I want to get across. A lot of what I do with the detail is put in because I want to create a certain atmosphere, a certain feeling of a real world around my characters. And I think there are ways of doing that without going into all the level of meticulous detail in every panel. That's absolutely kind of a control issue of just saying I can pull back here. It doesn't have to be here all the time. It's important to be able to lead your reader's eye where you want it to go and just have him see the details you want him to see.
Do you think comics tend to follow that Chekhovian notion of theater, where if there's a gun on stage in the first act you have to fire it by the third act?
Exactly. And I guess the analogy would be, if you're going to draw your readers' attention to a certain detail early on in the story, you better well use it later on or it's just kind of showing off -- and thus not helping the story. It's not going in the right direction. The most important thing to me in the comic is telling the story. I say for me but I think it is for everyone in comics, or just about everyone, I think there's a certain number of people who are just doing comics because they want to draw pictures, but I think for most people comics are about telling the story. And of course the question is, how do you get out of your way? How do you get rid of all the things that are hurting the telling of the story? For me, I think my attraction to doing a lot of excessive detail interferes with my telling the story. My storytelling and the whole entertainment level of what I'm doing will be improved a great deal if I get beyond that. If l pick my places better when to put in that level of detail and when to pull back and just keep things simple.
What do you enjoy more, comics or illustration?
I enjoy comics more than anything else. It's a complete art form that allows me to control the narrative as well as the visual elements. They all join into one thing. I like illustration but basically in illustration if you're illustrating someone else's work. The story is the important thing and the illustrations are just there to kind of accentuate the story. It's of secondary importance. There's nothing wrong with that. I enjoy it a great deal. But in comics everything has equal weight and it's all working together.
What about when you're illustrating your own work as you are now with "Storms at Sea?"
This is the first time I've had a chance to do that and I'm enjoying it quite a bit because it is working more hand in glove. The images are important to telling the story that I've written. This is kind of like a compromise. I'm not fast enough to do a regular comic but I can do the illustrations for a text piece a bit quicker and it just might be a compromise that allows me to do something like comics in that I'm combining images and text to tell the story even though it isn't quite comics.
Have you written much prose prior to this?
I wrote a Flash novel for DC several years ago, part of their JLA series that Pocket Books published. That was a great experience. I've just written the text for a collection of Al Williamson's Flash Gordon work that we're publishing through Flesk again. It's a collection of all of the Flash Gordon comics that he did as well as all the other associated Flash Gordon images. I had to write an essay and overview for that as well as historical context going through his different projects, so that was a challenge.
Was Al Williamson big influence on you?
A huge influence. Both as an artist and getting to know him as an individual and watching how he handled fans and behaved at conventions. How he was every good with people who would come up to have books signed and he was just a very polite, very generous man. He is a very polite and very generous man
You've collaborated with Williamson a number of times and a short story you did was just released by Marvel as part of the "Sub-Mariner Comics 70th Anniversary #1." How did you end up involved working on that?
The publication of the Sub-Mariner story caught the Williamsons and me by surprise. Back in the late nineties, Marvel was experimenting with formats and launched a comic featuring stories done in black and white, inspired, I think, by "Batman: Black and White." The editor asked Al to contribute a story. Al had his choice of character. Al had been primarily an inker for Marvel for the previous decade, although he had drawn their Flash Gordon miniseries in 1995. As he had been a fan of Bill Everett's work since he was a kid, he took this opportunity to produce a Sub-Mariner story and he asked me to script it.
As was usual when Al took on a story, he already had certain plot elements in mind. He wanted the story to take place in the late thirties, in keeping with the early Everett he saw as a child, with an Amelia Earhart-type pilot as the female lead. I framed up his elements into a story, "Vergeltungswaffe!" which was, I hope, reflective of Golden Age storytelling.
Working with Al has always been a joy and an education. He is an excellent storyteller as well as a premier illustrative renderer. I've learned a lot from Al about what can and cannot be told effectively in a panel, on a page of panels. Al finished the artwork, had my wife Denise Prowell letter it, and the comic it was to appear in was cancelled before the story could appear. The story disappeared for over a decade, with neither Al nor I expecting to ever see it in print. Then, out of the blue, we find "Sub-Mariner Comics" #1 solicited. Chris Chuckry, by the way, did a wonderfully subtle, thoughtful job with the coloring.
Who were your other influences?
Wally Wood was huge. He was kind of like the guy that I wanted to be, I wanted my art to look and feel like Wally Wood's art. The classic comic strip guys, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Roy Crane. Also a lot of the illustrators from the early part of the Twentieth Century. A lot of the guys who worked in black and white. A lot of the techniques I'm working with now in these illustrations come from guys like Federico Gruger who worked in carbon pencil, which is what I'm doing these illustrations in. These guys are just a huge influence. The more I learn the more I look back at the earlier artists in the early Twentieth Century and the more I admire what they accomplished. When illustration moved more into color and away from black and white, a lot of these guys were forgotten, but it's marvelous art.