Mark Schultz Weathers Environmental Disasters in "Storms at Sea"

If you're a fan of Mark Schultz's work, you can be forgiven if you've given up hope of ever seeing his long-promised illustrated novella "Storms at Sea." First announced nearly a decade ago, Schultz has been working at it as his schedule permits, and this coming August, all the waiting finally pays off.

An environmental warning, a pulp thriller, a global conspiracy and a fine art showcase all in one, the "Storms at Sea" narrative unfolds over thirty-one pages of noir-tense prose and science-based speculative fiction. Accompanying each page of prose is a full-page carbon pencil illustration that enhances -- sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory, always beautifully -- the unfolding tale.

CBR spoke with the acclaimed illustrator/writer about "Storms at Sea," its lengthy gestation and its progressive message. Schultz also told us about another art book coming from his longtime publisher Flesk and gave us an update on his ten-year-long tenure scripting the Sunday newspaper adventures of Hal Foster's legendary "Prince Valiant," now with Thomas Yeates providing the illustrations.

And yes, we asked him about the possibility of new "Xenozoic Tales" in the not-so-distant future, as well.

CBR News: Mark, "Storms at Sea" has been talked about for quite a while now. What was it about this project that took so long, and is it a relief to finally have the book coming out?

Mark Schulz: Well, it's exciting to be done with it, but also nerve-wracking, considering that I've been promising it for close to ten years: What will people expect out of a ten-year-long project?

There's no one answer for why it's taken so long, and, unfortunately, none of them are exciting. Mostly, it took so long because this was a personal project for which I pulled no upfront income. I worked on it as time permitted, in between the work that paid the monthly bills. Also, I sort of hoped that working in carbon pencil -- instead of my usual brush and ink -- would somehow speed up my process. Right. As it turned out, my unfamiliarity with carbon pencil probably slowed things down. And then there's the unfortunate fact that as both the story, and my understanding of the medium, evolved, I wound up redoing a good chunk of the illustrations. And, suddenly -- ten years. I am extremely lucky that I have publisher who is very patient and understanding.

The initial idea was that I could complete an illustrated novella faster than I could a graphic novel. Live and learn.

You've long threaded environmental themes through your work, from your creator-owned projects like "Xenozoic Tales" and "Subhuman" (co-owned by Michael J. Ryan) to a few issues of "Superman: Man of Steel" (notably issue #103, dealing with a hurricane hitting the barrier islands) starting long before the current cresting of concern for global warming. What brought the subject to your attention, and what keeps it as a recurring thematic component of your work?

I've always had a general interest in the sciences, and how humans fit into the big picture -- the natural world -- in particular. I think we're culturally trained to see ourselves as somehow removed from nature, but the data that shows otherwise has existed for a long time. Despite what deniers want to believe, the facts are there: Human activity does affect global systems. I just dramatize the relationship between we humans and the rest of the world. And, I hope, make it entertaining.

"Storms at Sea" pulls from a broad range of adventure and conspiracy threads. Illuminati-style world manipulation, exotic lost worlds and a vision of a theoretical future, all cast in the framing device of hard-luck gumshoe noir. Did it ever feel like a lot of material to fit into 33 pages of text?

I knew it was going to be dense, but I had determined what I wanted the story to be, with each page of text and full-page illustration complimenting each other. I did my best to make it work within that framework. It's a story inside a story, and the hard-boiled crime genre gave me what I needed in the way of a path into the more fantastic stuff. Of course, it's up to the readers to decide if there's too much crammed in there -- if it works or not.

There is a subtext of environmental ruin, but you choose to focus on the conspiracy for the most part. The big moment at the end seems to set up a sequel, but it also seems to ask readers to think about the subtext and put themselves into Griff and Asha's shoes -- to accept their potential to change a seemingly terrible outcome. So I guess the question is, is there more "Storms" to tell? Or is that up to each reader him or herself?

"Storms at Sea" is a complete story -- it says all I want it to say. There's a lot that I can explore within the overarching history that "Storms at Sea" hints at, but at this time I have no specific plans to follow the characters of Griff and Asha any further. That's not to say that I wouldn't return to them if I got a new idea that I liked.

The time I thought "Storms" used its sci-fi setting to most specifically reflect what's going on today is when Asha talks about how the First Order colors the public's perception of their actions. It seems like you were commenting on how media outlets (TV, radio, online -- every single one of them) spin news to fit their constituency more than ever before.

I guess, if you want a theme, "Storms at Sea" is mostly about the difference between accepting what we're told to believe, and so remaining reasonably comfortable, and risking that comfort by challenging the "truths" we're fed. I don't believe in global conspiracies, and I don't believe in cryptic history -- extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof! -- but I do believe that we tend to blindly accept what people in positions of power want us to believe. Very often for their benefit alone. I don't think that most of what passes as calls to patriotism, or nationalism, or religious faith is anything more than strategies for the advancement of the already powerful. So I took that and I do what I do, which is exaggerate for effect, and came up with the "Storms."

Be honest -- how much of this story exists purely to give you an excuse to draw those fantastical scenes you love drawing?

Honestly, it did start with the ideas for a few drawings that carried certain specific moods. But I wanted a story more than a mash of disconnected imagery -- I already have my series of drawing collections for that. It's been a long time since I've told a story of my own. I had all sorts of loose ideas hanging around, and they coalesced into this. Some of those illustrations that initially excited me were jettisoned along the way, and replaced as the story required. But, yes, my original intent was to show a variety of fantastical scenes.

Speaking of your drawing books, Flesk is also releasing a collection of your work this August. All of the "Mark Schultz: Various Drawings" sketchbooks are being combined into "Portfolio," a thick art book, and your eight-year long run on "Prince Valiant" with Gary Gianni is being collected as well. Outside of the Sunday papers, your profile hasn't been very high lately, so I imagine it must be nice to have a few noteworthy projects on the horizon?

Absolutely. I've been relatively low profile for a long while now. It's high time I got some new story content out there. "Storms at Sea" in particular is something a bit different, so I'll be interested to see how it's received.

You're still writing "Valiant," with Thomas Yeates now illustrating. Has your approach to writing a weekly strip evolved over the last decade?

Thomas and I have been working together on "Prince Valiant" for over two years now. I'm not so sure my approach to writing the strip has changed so much as my understanding of what can and can't be told in an effective manner within the constraints of a weekly strip has grown. Of course, I always try to be conscious of the strengths and interests of the artist -- Thomas has to do all the heavy lifting.

There have been rumors that following "Storms at Sea" you'll be returning to "Xenozoic Tales." Is that truly a possibility? What else do you have coming up?

I'm hoping that my next project is a new "Xenozoic" graphic novel. It'll all come down to economic realities, but I do have it pretty well plotted out in my head and am itching to get on to it. I'm thinking now that it'll run about 60 pages. Other than a new volume of "Carbon" next year, I've got nothing else that's solid enough to discuss yet.

If you can't wait until August for "Storms at Sea," Flesk will have copies for sale at Spectrum Fantastic Arts Live convention in Kansas City, May 22-24, and at Comic Con International in San Diego in July.

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