RICH INTERVIEWS: Arlen Schumer Writer Silver Age of Comic Book Art
First Comics News: What will people find within the pages of “The Silver Age of Comic Books Art”?
Arlen Schumer: Every comic book history book before mine was text-heavy, with miniature reproductions of the comic book art, panels, pages and covers. As an artist/illustrator of comic book-style artwork, who, like an entire generation, became an artist because of comic books (and particularly those of The Silver Age), it bothered me that there wasn’t a coffee table book about the ART of comic books—and again, about the art and artists of The Silver Age, as most comics history books were about The Golden Age (the 1940s), the EC years of the ‘50s, or other genres and eras of comics. Where was the book about the era I and so many others of the Baby Boom generation (I’m on the tail of it, born in ’58) came of age in, grew up with, and still are in love with? The Silver Age of Comics, which gave us the new DC heroes, the Marvel Revolution, the Batman TV Show, Neal Adams’ game-changing photorealism and the Jimi Hendrix of comics, Jim Steranko?
Well, if you want something done (right), you have to do it yourself. So I did. I had developed over the years prior to the book’s original publication in 2003, a verbal/visual approach to published historical essays about comic book art that you “read” like a comic book itself. That came from my training in graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design (which I went to because Walt Simonson had come out of there!), in which we learned the concept of the “concrete book,” in which every design choice you make in book, magazine or publication design should reinforce the subject matter.
So if you’re doing a book, say, on the history of trains, maybe there are tiny train tracks running alongside the bottom of the pages that carry the page numbers, your display type reflects 19th century signage, etc. So it only made sense to me that a coffee table art book ABOUT comic book art should “read” like a giant comic book itself. This design approach extended to the typography. I wanted to have the artists themselves—via first-person interviews and previously published interviews with those deceased—to “talk” about the art, with my own curatorial text being supplemental to their voices. So there had to be two levels of text, two type fonts that would harmonize with each other. As I looked at the art I’d be reproducing, I realized that the original text in the word balloons and captions was now meaningless, since I was isolating the artwork and recontextualizing it in coffee table art book form; my book is not about the characters per se, nor is it about the “stories”; there are plenty of books about both. So I took license here and there to drop out original word balloon and caption text in favor of the artists’ quotes, set in comic book-styled text lettering. My entire design approach—utilizing reliefs, drop shadows and enlargements—has been to treat each spread as if it were not a 13” x 18” book spread, but a 13-foot by 18-foot museum wall exhibit, with me as your curator, celebrating, for the first time, the glorious artwork by the greatest artists of our generation.
1st: Why was the Silver Age of comic books so great?
Arlen: The Silver Age of Comics (circa 1956-70) is when the styles of so many of the greatest artists of the most popular genre, superhero comics, matured and hit career peaks in both the art and the stories that went with it—which influenced entire generations after, who have since gone on to create the comics, graphic novels, movies and television series you see today taking over the American popular culture—they all come out of the Silver Age era that my book is about. And the artists who drew their most iconic versions during The Silver Age are like our Renaissance masters; the way we look back on those masters of the human figure 500 years ago, so too will future art historians look back on the artists represented in my book and declare the same thing about them.
1st: Why do you enjoy illustrating comic book style art?
Arlen: Bottom line, comic book art is still primarily a visual medium first—you have to be drawn (pun intended) to the art first, and then you decide if you want to be the story. Although I suppose that if now readers are just following the writers, then they’ve “overrided” their critical faculty concerning the primary visual component of this synchronicitous verbal/visual medium. But I believe that subconsciously/unconsciously, you can’t really enjoy reading a comic book if you don’t like the art.
But great art will make you read a weak story! Or, as Gil Kane himself put it (on the table of contents page in my book: “The only thing that makes comics worth reading is the art.”
1st: What are a few facts about comics that most people do not know?
Arlen: Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics (and Stan Lee) and goes to arch-rival DC Comics! It was the comic book equivalent of The Beatles breaking up!
Editor Mort Weisinger leaves the Superman Family line of comics he had shepherded since 1940. Essentially, whatever the layman knows about Superman, they learned it through the prism and worldview of Weisinger—whether it’s from the George Reeves TV series that he story-edited or the Comics themselves, which are the Baby Boom Generation’s superman.
Marvel Comics publishes Conan the Barbarian #1, the first new genre in mainstream color comics—“sword & sorcery”—since the re-introduction of the superhero that kicked off the Silver Age (DC’s The Flash in ’56).
DC Comics publishes Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, the first of 13 issues by the team of artist Neal Adams and writer Denny O’Neil, that were torn from the day’s headlines, reflected a new, adult sensibility, and essentially brought the curtain down on the innocence and naiveté of DC’s Silver Age superheroes of the decade prior, and sent them into a new era—just like America in 1970!
1st: What are the fundamental differences between DC and Marvel?
Arlen: I don’t read much of the mainstream Marvel/DC material these days—superheroes have to be deconstructed for me in order to get my attention—except if it’s done by artists whom I love, like the
aforementioned Mike Allred on Silver Surfer, Amy Reeder on Rocket Girl, and J.H. Williams III on whatever he’s doing; I still follow all the great independent guys, like (off the top o’ me head) Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets), Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Adrian Tomine, Jessica Abel, Dean Haspiel and others—like the still-prolific and profound Robert Crumb!
1st: Why would you say Jack “King” Kirby is the Auteur of the Marvel Comics Universe?
Arlen: “The Auteur Theory of Comics”
(http://kirbymuseum.org/pubsandmerch/auteurtheory/), that uses the Jack Kirby-Stan Lee conflict over the creation of the Marvel Universe as the foundation of my manifesto—patterned after the
1950s French film critics’ Auteur Theory of film—that posits the comic book artist as the auteur of the comic book reading experience, whether he works from an old-school full script, a synopsis, a phone call chat, or one of Alan Moore’s 26-page exegeses for one panel.
1st: Do you have fun teaching and informing others about the comic book medium?
Arlen: Yes I love of the art form and teaching about it.
1st: What are you currently working on?
Arlen: In between all that, I’ll be doing whatever commercial illustration, graphic design, art direction and lectures come my way, wherever and whenever I can.
1st: How many comic books have you read in your life time and do you have a favorite genre?
Arlen: Who can count that high? 🙂
My favorite genre is still superheroes, but truth to tell, I’d much rather read an autobiographical comic work that feels real and raw, 24/7/365.
1st: From all your years as a expert on comic books what are a few pieces of advice for others you have learned?
Arlen: Don’t rely on the computer to dictate your “style”—develop a style of mark-making that is uniquely yours, and then bend the computer software and graphic capabilities to your will.