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The Co-Conspirator: A Visit with Diana Schutz

Despite being surrounded by scores of books, Schutz admits that the future of paper-based books is up in the air. Dark Horse recently launched a digital store for their most popular titles, and plan to eventually release their whole back catalog for purchase on iPads and iPhones. Titles that she edited in past years are now re-crossing her desk as part of digital preparation, which involves a radical rethinking of page layout. Some graphic novels are being redesigned to be read as a series of single panels, or as full pages with zoom features, or in numerous other ways in a yet fully defined marketplace. It’s one of the few growth areas in a dying industry, say some comic insiders.

“We seem to be moving, not just comics, but all reading seems to be moving toward digital platforms. Readers who read books, I think, are just going to be a smaller part of the overall group of readers, most of whom – my niece and nephew, who are teenagers, read almost exclusively on electronic devices of one sort or another, and they don’t have a problem with it. They like it. They’ve grown up with it. They’re used to it. Actual brick and mortar print on paper is changing dramatically. I love books. I don’t like reading things on screen, and as my eyes get worse, I like it less. It doesn’t register with me the way that print does. I can’t proofread on screen. But I recognize that I’m not representative in that regard.”

In an interview she gave ten years ago, Schutz stated that if she weren’t working in comics she’d be in the grave. That’s how important the job was to her. Now she’s not so adamant about the grave part. “Since my twenties my entire focus in life has been comics. It’s my career. It’s my joy. It’s my hobby. At age 56 I don’t see embarking on any other career. If Dark Horse gave me the boot tomorrow … I might get some other offers. I might switch gears into teaching but I’d only want to teach comic related courses.”

Schutz organized an educators’ panel for the 2010 Stumptown Comics Festival to speak directly to the comic community about the importance of comic studies. She put together another panel in April 2011, which includes myself, Brian Michael Bendis, Trevor Dodge who teaches Comics and Literature at Clackamas Community College and PNCA, and Nicole Georges, who runs graphic novel seminars at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Schutz introduces the panelists and then describes her own initial interest in teaching comic courses.

Schutz and Will Eisner at San Diego Con in 2003.

“Back in 2001 Will Eisner returned from lecturing at a university somewhere in the great Midwestern plains, and he came back totally enthusiastic, saying ‘Oh my God, Diana, they’re teaching something there called comics as literature.’ For Will, this was everything that he had ever wanted, that he ever envisioned for comics. So he said to me, you have a master’s degree. Why aren’t you teaching? When Will Eisner tells you to do something, you go out and do it. That said, when I went to PCC and broached this idea of teaching a comics class, my thought was it should be taught as part of the English department, but back then they just looked at me like I had two heads. The Dean of Visual and Performing Arts put me in touch with the chair of the art department and they took me in and have been very supportive ever since. As a result my course, though theoretical, approaches the understanding of comics from an art perspective more than from a literary perspective.” Her students discuss and write about comics, and create their own mini-comics.

Bendis describes his entry into academia as a result of Schutz’s efforts. “Diana asked me to come guest lecture at her class. I found this a very rewarding situation. I realized that everybody I admired in the world was an educator or was going to be one. Diana somehow pointed Portland State in my direction and said you should do this. I now teach a graphic novel writing class, geared toward writing.” His first semester class in Fall 2010 did well, and his Spring 2011 class filled quickly so he asked for a better classroom and got it, he says.

PSU originally contacted Schutz to teach the course, she says, but she wanted someone better. “Really one of the best things that I’ve accomplished in my career as a teacher is convincing Brian to become a teacher and in fact I didn’t have to do much convincing. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to put two people together. Ten years ago, there was almost nothing going on in terms of comics in academia. Almost nothing. There were a few courses here and there throughout the country. You could certainly get hands on training in cartooning. The School of Visual Arts was teaching cartooning courses, and the Savannah College of Art & Design as well, but there were almost no theory-based courses on comics being offered.”

“Now here we are in 2011 and it’s happening everywhere. Part of that is the people who grew up reading comics became part of the academic establishment. The comic book fandom of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s went on to become part of the academic establishment and they brought their love of comics into that. Charlie Hatfield who used to write letters to Grendel back in the Eighties is now Dr. Charles Hatfield and a leading light in this relatively new field of Comics Studies.”

Dodge describes his gradual success in convincing college administrators to accept graphic novels as real literature and his eventual hope of creating a comics studies certificate program. Georges describes the comic classes for adults at IPRC, which include everything from story development through the actual printing process. I describe the similarities I find between teaching filmmaking and comics, and how I’ve used comic strips to teach scriptwriting. The audience is engaged, and many have specific questions about implementing similar classes at their schools.

“There are five of us sitting up here who teach comic courses,” she reminds everyone at the end. “Take a class. The kids are hungry for this stuff.”

So is Schutz. Her BFA is in creative writing with a minor in philosophy. After she moved to Oregon, she earned an MA in Communication Studies at the University of Portland. Philosophy courses proved to be the most valuable over time.

“Philosophy taught me the ability to think critically. When you’re editing comics you’re a troubleshooter. You’re a multi-tasker. You’re constantly juggling a variety of different jobs. The ability to think on your feet, the ability to analyze a problem and solve it – all of those are important skills to have as an editor. Analyzing comic literature isn’t really what we do as editors. People think I sit around and read comics all day. Would that that were true, but no luck.”

She takes a philosophical stance on the future of her favorite art form, too. Will people still be reading Batman and Superman in fifty years?

“Sure, absolutely. Those characters are iconic. They’re mythic. They represent certain needs in the human psyche, particularly in the adolescent psyche, the need for power. There is no reason for those characters not to continue. Superheroes fill a need similar to the Greek heroes of myth. But who knows where the future is going to take us? I think we can safely predict that books are going to become more specialty objects.”

What does she hope to see next in comics?

“I want to see more literary comics. More personal expression in comics, of the sort being published by Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. Comics not just for adolescents or the so-called Young Adult market. Comics for adults like you and me. Comics for sophisticated readers, by which I don’t just mean sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

And maybe, a certain French cartoonist’s work being published at Dark Horse.

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12 Responses to The Co-Conspirator: A Visit with Diana Schutz

  1. WOW. I just clicked on the TCJ and saw this photo of Diana Schutz! Made my day. I can’t wait to dig into this. This is one of those interviews I always wished would happen, and only Patrick R. is smart enough to interview the people who really matter. Thanks!

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  3. A fantastic profile of the best and most literate editor in comics. I’m ready for part two…

  4. Jacq Cohen says:

    Diana is definitely one of my idols in comics. If it weren’t for her influence and direction, I probably wouldn’t be in the biz. When I worked with her at DH, I got to witness her professionalism and passion for this medium. She’s a pioneer and overall rad lady.

    I’m so glad to read this wonderful profile. I agree with Dylan, Pat is a great interviewer.

  5. Bruce Simon says:

    A pleasure to read about Diana and wonderful to see that photo of the Hernadezes at C&C with Diana and Ann Eagan! Those were the days!

  6. Zak Sally says:

    Diana Schutz is awesome. was very happy to see/ read this piece.

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  8. Jackie Estrada says:

    Also looking forward to Part II and hearing what Diana has to say about things like her Comico years and her involvement with Cerebus . . .

  9. Kristy Valenti says:

    I wanna be Diana Schutz when I grow up.

  10. DanielJMata says:

    For a piece about an editor, there are some rather glaring typos.

    Still, it is a lovely piece.

  11. Eric Reynolds says:

    Great piece on a great lady, Patrick.

  12. George A. Evans says:

    Diana it is great to see this article about you. It has been a long time since the two of us were behind the counters of Comics & Comix.

    George A. Evans

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