This interview with comic book writer and artist Eric Shanower was conducted by Director Sébastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means thatEric Shanower received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Eric Shanower was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.
By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.
Can you tell us about your background?
I was born in 1963 in Key West, Florida. After graduating high school in 1981, I attended the Joe Kubert School. I began working professionally in the comics industry immediately following graduation from Kubert's in May 1984. My work has been published by most of the major American comic book publishers and many of the smaller ones. As a child I fell in love with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and decided I wanted to write and draw Oz stories when I grew up. I fulfilled this ambition in my series of Oz graphic novels published by First Comics and Dark Horse Comics 1986-1992. Image Comics published my current series, Age of Bronze, my retelling of the Trojan War myth. I also illustrate books and run a publishing company, Hungry Tiger Press, with my partner, David Maxine. We publish books, comics, and compact discs.
What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?
Comics tell stories with a unique blend of words and pictures. Comics are different from illustrated prose in that the words and pictures carry the story together. Comics are different from movies in that the words and pictures are controlled by one creator (sometimes a few creators, but that is usually an economically imposed structure.)
What was the overall mood in the industry when you began your career? What was its commercial state? How has it evolved?
In 1984 the overall mood seemed to me to be extremely optimistic. Small publishers were popping up all over the place in the early 1980s. It seemed that anything that could be published was being published. The Marvel/DC near stranglehold was being demolished. Exciting and different projects were appearing all over the place.
Commercially I'm not sure how good it was in 1984. Most of the smaller publishers that started then are gone now. Many of the exciting projects have disappeared. The superheroes of Marvel and DC still dominate, so in a way there hasn't been much progress.
Back then the Graphic Novel was going to save the industry, was going to bring comics to a general audience, put them in bookstores. Now, nearly two decades later, there's been progress, but not as much as everyone seemed to expect back then. Graphic novels can be found in their own little ghettoized section of many bookstores. Libraries are buying graphic novels. But the comics industry seems ill in many ways.
Comic book stores were created during the 70's as a boosting solution for the market. But as years went by, the direct market became the major distribution channel at the expense of the "newsstand" channel. Do you think that the industry is now paying the price for what was considered as the only viable solution back then?
Yes. In general, comic book stores ghettoized the comics market. In general, the public perceives comics as violent musclebound knuckleheads pounding each other along with elements of pornography and demonism. To a disturbingly large extent, the public is right. Why should they go to a special store to seek such material?
1986 has been a turning point for the industry with works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It seems that since then, the comic book audience has grown up with the industry and that there is just no new readers. Has the industry at that time completely forgotten its younger target audience?
Well, if you'll remember that 1986 was also when Disney comics burst back onto the scene with Gladstone, you might want to revise your question. Of course, Gladstone is gone now. I think the comics industry has to a large part ignored a younger audience. There are still titles here and there that appeal to under-12s, but often these titles don't last long.
Art Spiegelman's Maus has also been an important moment of 1986, and, at the opposite of the two other works, has been independently released. Maus also was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer prize. Do you think that this media coverage for a comic book story changed the industry? Has there been a post-Maus for independent comics?
I don't perceive that Maus changed much. It gained a bit of visibility in the general populace, but who in the general populace remembers it now? I had high hopes for Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby, but it didn't have nearly the same impact as Maus. I suppose Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde might have been the most recent project to approach Maus's impact.
1993 was the last profitable year for the American industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?
Well, I'm not sure I really have a knowledgeable view of causes of the collapse. But I'm sure the inflated collector's market of the early 1990s and the larger publishers' pandering to that market helped the collapse a lot. I suppose the black and white glut of the late 1980s contributed. The continuing paucity of thoughtful and innovative comics that appeal to a general readership is the biggest problem. And the failure of such thoughtful and innovative comics that exist to reach a wide, appreciative readership is also a major problem.
During your career you worked for the big publishers, but also for much smaller companies. How would you compare both experiences?
When I'm sitting at the drawing table working, it doesn't matter how big the publisher is. I've had good and bad experiences at publishers big and small. I've had late checks and lost artwork at publishers big and small. Usually the pay is better at big publishers. Sometimes the distribution of the work is better at big publishers. Usually the big publishers want more rights to my work.
In the 90's, publishers began to create alternate covers, and made a lot of—sometimes unnecessary—relaunches. What do you think of those "gimmicks?"
I paid little attention to them, and when they were brought to my attention, they just made me tired. Just not interested.