The comic business followed a much different model in 1981 when 26-year-old Diana Schutz moved from Vancouver, BC to the Bay Area to accept a retail position at Comics and Comix. The end of the underground coincided with a rebirth of the commercial comics market and the advent of the independent publishing houses and creator ownership as a viable concept in publishing. It was also the advent of the direct market – dedicated stores for comic book sales.
“I think back to just the changes that I’ve witnessed in thirty years in the industry. When I first moved to Berkeley what was available for me to read then? There was what was left of the underground. There was Eclipse Comics, providing the model for the other independent publishers to follow. Dave Sim had started publishing Cerebus. But Marvel and DC were still the so-called ‘Big Two,’ and despite Archie Goodwin’s best attempts with the Epic line, superheroes were still the order of the day. There were almost no female cartoonists being published except in the underground, but the undergrounds were pretty much gasping their last at that point. The Diamond catalog didn’t exist. There were almost no original graphic novels being published. Now here we are thirty years later and it’s hard to keep up with it all because there is so much great stuff being published. Like all the high-end productions of classic newspaper strips that Dean Mullaney’s Library of American Comics is reprinting. And original graphic novels by smart cartoonists like Chester Brown, David Mazzucchelli, Chris Ware, Carla Speed McNeil, I could go on. That’s a huge welcome change in thirty years.”
Arts education is another passion for Schutz. She’s been teaching a popular course called Understanding Comics Art at Portland Community College since 2002, and she also enrolls in every other comics course she can find in the area, including The Graphic Memoir and Comics and Literature at Clackamas Community College. She attended my course A Thematic History of Comic Strips, Cartoons and Funny Books at Pacific Northwest College of Art last fall, where she was an terrific student – attentive, participatory, and with an excellent attendance record, even showing up for class the night before she had to catch an early-morning flight to New Orleans for Neil Gaiman’s 50th birthday party.
For her own classes, she often invites colleagues to speak to her students, so she can hardly refuse when the tables are turned. Last February she willingly accepted a guest lecture request at Writing 399: Graphic Novel Writing to repay writer Brian Michael Bendis. She shows up with a PowerPoint Presentation and a large latte.
She hands out the Dark Horse submissions guide for writers and artists to the four dozen students, but then tells them to ignore what it says and think of better ways to break into the business. “Mailing in submissions is the worst way to get hired.” Self-publishing a mini-comic is a better calling card, she advises. Networking can also include buying drinks for editors at comic conventions. “Don’t pitch to the wrong publisher. Do your research.” The students take notes, ask questions and listen attentively for the most part. One works on a crossword puzzle the entire time. “If anything goes wrong with the book, it’s the editor’s fault,” continues Schutz. “If everything goes right, the creator gets the credit.” She explains the difference between creator owned work contracts and work for hire.
“I’m very Germanic in my adherence to deadlines,” she says, and then recounts a few horror stories about artists who missed deadlines, or who went into hiding to avoid their editors. “We will track you down,” she warns.
“Word gets out about these people and they’re treated like the plague,” Bendis confirms. “Now with Facebook and Twitter, when the creator disappears, the editor can check the social networks to see if they’re posting messages when they’re not answering their phones.”
When asked by Bendis what were her proudest moments as an editor, she nominates 300. “It brought tears to my eyes when I saw the art for the first issue. Lynn Varley’s watercolor paintings raised the bar. I put in so much work on that book. The paintings were so beautiful that it was really important for the color separations to be right.”
That’s her best advice based on her own experiences, she says, and wishes them luck. Students come up front to talk to her as the class breaks. One young woman follows her out into the hallway and asks, “Are you taking resumes? Can I give you my name and number?” Diana tells her no and the girl goes back to her classroom.
“Apparently she didn’t hear anything,” grumbles Schutz, shaking her head.
“In the last ten years I’ve become quite a hermit,” admits Schutz. Only the rare few are invited to visit her Fortress of Solitude, a cozy condo in inner Southeast Portland. She has family in the suburbs: her sister Barbara and Barbara’s husband Matt Wagner, whose Grendel books she edits, and their two children. She attends occasional comic events like exhibits and conferences, but prefers to keep the world at bay while at home.
I park, knock on the door, and we walk around the corner to the neighborhood coffee shop where she buys her favorite fuel, in high octane, and then we go back to her home to talk about more personal issues.
The décor is hardcore, but high class, comic geekdom. All the framed art hanging on the walls is original comic art. A glass case displays a DC Supergirl statue, as well as Batman and Robin figures. An upstairs office is where she works when at home, and a guest bedroom next to it holds shelves of suitable reading material for special cartoonist friends that she hosts while they’re in town. Cupboards and closets are crammed with books that don’t fit anywhere else. Furnishings are sparse – no TV and only a couch and coffee table in the living room. The kitchen doesn’t show much evidence of culinary activity. When she moved here four years ago from a larger Bungalow style home in nearby Colonial Heights she had to pare down her belongings. “Lugging those long boxes back and forth gets old pretty quick. That’s the good thing about moving. I got rid of a lot of crap.” Still, it took her several months to unpack all the boxed volumes that crowded her living room and fill the shelves to hold them. She can’t remember the number for the landline phone on the kitchen island, a Crest toothpaste Sparkleman novelty phone. No one ever calls it, she says, but she needs it to operate the home security system. I admire her library a little longer and then we settle down, she on the couch, me perched on a footstool.
What was the young Diana Schutz like when she immigrated to America all those years ago, and how has she changed, I ask.
“I was at a crossroads in my life and I’d abandoned academia. Nothing was really tempting me. It was the summer of ‘81. I was 26 years old. I had dropped out of graduate philosophy. I loved comics and that summer when I was recovering from cancer surgery, I started writing letters to comic books. I wrote letters to Cerebus, I wrote to Frank Miller who was doing Daredevil, letters to Marvel. Where I wanted to be was California, because that was my dream place. I was familiar with the Comics & Comix chain stores, and I wrote to Bud Plant and said, ‘Hey I’ve worked in the Comicshop in Vancouver for three years and I know all this stuff about appraising collectable comics, pricing them and bagging and tagging and I know my shit when it comes to comics retail.’ I fired off the letter and surprisingly got a phone call from Bud’s partner at Comics & Comix, the late John Barrett. John offered me a job and so off I went to work for Comics & Comix while they helped me get my U.S. Green Card. It was too late to have flowers in my hair, but that didn’t matter. I was right in the thick of the comic scene. It was a really good time for comics. When I got there in 1981 Comics & Comix was already a seven-store chain. It was then still a really odd thing to have a girl behind the counter at the comic book store.”
She worked at the Berkeley store, where artist attended events happened all the time. “The very first store signing I ever participated in was Bill Griffith and he’d just released Zippy Stories. If you did the Zippy thing – if you ate a Ding Dong with taco sauce, you would get a free copy of Zippy Stories. We were right on Telegraph Avenue just a few blocks down from the university. Every wacko in the world was hanging out on that street. We had people in the store eating Ding Dongs with taco sauce in front of Bill Griffith and he gladly signed the books over to them.”
Comics & Comix assigned Schutz to edit a company newsletter called The Telegraph Wire, which put her in touch with many of her favorite cartoonists. “I got to do interviews with artists and writers and reviews of books, which allowed me to get to know all these people and sharpen my editorial skills. It was a 16-page magazine that came out every two months. I typed every single article, every single review and then I had to Xerox and paste it up. Tom Orzechowski did the logo and taught me about old-style paste-up mechanicals, and introduced me to Trina Robbins, who took me under her wing and introduced me to the entire Bay Area Women’s Cartoonists Collective. Then I met Mike Mignola and Arthur Adams because they were customers at the store. They were like 18 years old at that point and unpublished. They would come into the store and show me their drawings. So it was massively exciting to me to be part of that. My entire life was comics at that time. I lived and breathed comics. Nothing has really changed I guess, except I had a lot more energy when I was 26.”
Mignola now represents a mini-industry at Dark Horse Comics, a franchise that includes books, movies and action figures. Former confederates who have become successful and well known to today’s young comic readers often present a dilemma for her when students discuss their work in class. “Here’s the problem, for me as a student, with knowing so many cartoonists personally. In a class I’m auditing, one student recently made a really disparaging remark about one of the cartoonists whose work we were reading. Well, I know that cartoonist. And not only do I know that cartoonist, but that cartoonist is a friend. And this young shit-for-brains from the class makes some ignorant remark, not about the work but about the person, and I have to bite my tongue. Once you get to know someone, it’s difficult to divorce them from the work.”
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