The Co-Conspirator: A Visit with Diana Schutz

Writer Brian Michael Bendis recently asked Diana Schutz to guest-lecture in his Graphic Novel Writing class at Portland State University and speak about being a comic book editor. She bravely faces fifty attentive young adults in a small amphitheater classroom on the third floor of Cramer Hall. Bendis begins his introduction, “Her name is on …”

Schutz interrupts. “Her name is on every bathroom wall in this town.”

Bendis continues, “Is on all the greatest moments in comics. She’s the reason I teach, so you can blame her.”

Diana Schutz seems to know everybody in comics – publishers, creators, mentors, rivals, critics, and co-conspirators. Since the late 1970s, she’s worked and played with the whole gamut of industry players, large and small – Comics & Comix, Comico, Comics Buyer’s Guide, The Comics Journal … she once lasted most of a week at Marvel Comics. She brings enthusiasm and experience to her projects and enjoys being a creative force in the wide world of sequential art. Cartoonists want her in their corner. Since 1990 she has been firmly ensconced as a senior editor at Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie, Oregon, where her books have won Eisners and Harveys. She won the 2006 Lulu Award for Women of Distinction, and in 2009 she took home a Joe Shuster Lifetime Achievement Award from her native Canada. She’s been around the block a few times and inside every house.

Schutz is a curious combination of contrasting traits: a hard-nosed editor who can coax and cajole high maintenance creators when they get difficult; a seasoned comic industry veteran who still gets excited by her newest projects; a worrier who spends too many hours checking spelling and grammar while simultaneously wishing she had more time for herself. She appears to be open and accessible every time I talk with her, but occasionally, when someone pushes the wrong buttons, she flashes a glare that warns, “I’ve heard it all, so don’t try to pull that shit on me.” She has a sympathetic ear for visionaries and truth seekers, but no patience for buffoons.

Schutz guest stars in Matt Wagner's Mage II, issue 3

On a rainy Thursday in January, she slouches behind a sturdy desk in a little jam-packed office at the heart of Dark Horse Comics headquarters. There were ten employees when she joined the company two decades ago and more than 120 today, despite recent layoffs. Photos of Schutz with family and friends decorate a bulletin board close to her desk, where she can reach out and touch them. A few famous faces pose with her – Frank Miller, Will Eisner, her brother-in-law Matt Wagner, even Samuel L. Jackson costumed as The Octopus in The Spirit movie. The opposite wall is lined with filing cabinets that are topped temporarily with stacks of Franklin Library deluxe editions of the classics, which she recently rescued from her father’s home back east. Between the bookshelves and computer table there are barely enough room for a visitor’s chair in the windowless cubbyhole that she refers to as her “cave.” She works from home two days a week now and wishes it were more.

“I save the quiet work for home. Stuff that requires real concentration like reading and script editing I’m more likely to do at home instead of in the office. Monday morning editorial meetings, any necessary interface with other staff here, the incredible, ever growing amount of paperwork that we seem to have to do – I save that for the office.”

She fortifies herself for the ordeal of answering a lot of nosy questions with a tall latte and tells the switchboard to hold her calls.

“What’s it like to be me?” she asks with a gulp. “First of all, I’m an insomniac. I never have enough time to get everything done. I’m someone who lives in her head more than anywhere else.”

I can only speculate what’s inside that cranium – Jack Kirby romance comics, Supergirl’s adventures with Superdog and Supercat, Samurai Rabbits, men turned to stone, half naked Spartan warriors, blue collar stiffs on the mean streets of Cleveland – all of that and more likely occupy her waking and sleeping moments.

“Here’s the thing for me about comics. As I grew up they were the first things that I read. The superhero comics of the mid-sixties, with the whacky Lois Lane with a big bubblehead, and green, yellow and red kryptonite – all that crazy weird stuff that was edited by Mort Weisinger and targeted at little kids is what I grew up on. If I go back and look at some of that stuff now, it’s just unbelievable how truly awful it is. It’s sappy and it’s corny. How could I have ever liked that? But the day that Superman revealed his cousin Supergirl to the world, my own world was blown apart. I was so thrilled. Those kinds of things affected me as a child. At this point, over fifty years later what I like about comics is their incredible untapped potential – visually, subliminally, subversively – that cartoonists are only just beginning to discover. Maybe today’s comics artists are discovering what those old newspaper strip guys, George Herriman and Cliff Sterrett, knew back one hundred years ago. It’s how the art form conveys meaning that appeals to me. For that reason I can be democratic in my liking for comics and find interest in a variety of comics, because I’m interested in the art form as opposed to just the content itself.”

Dark Horse assigns their creators to specific editors, so after twenty years her client list is expansive but it hasn’t stopped growing. She championed books like The Art of Sin City, The Art of Usagi Yojimbo and The Art of Grendel as portfolios to complement works of fiction from their popular artists. She recently helped produce and package Motel Art Improvement Service by Jason Little in full color with an attractive hardcover, which she refers to as an underground comic, even though it’s forty years since that movement peaked.

“I’ll tell you why some creators have requested to work with me. It has to do in part with attention to detail. I’m very detail oriented. Creators want that. They want somebody at the publishing house to shepherd their work and pay attention to the little glitches that can happen along the way and make sure they don’t happen or fix them when they do happen. I have a good tolerance level for what other people might call high maintenance creators. I have a tremendous respect for people who have this kind of talent. Making comics is really hard and I’m blessed to work with some of the best people. I’m so in awe of their talent. If they make outrageous requests or whatever, some editors just stop answering the phone. That kind of stuff doesn’t make me too crazy. I just want to do right by them and their work.”

When she started editing comic books, most comic editors worked for companies that owned the characters they were publishing, she says, so the editor represented the owner of the character, and the writer and the artist were doing work-for-hire. The editor’s job, in that case, was to make sure that the work conformed to the corporate owner’s plans for its character. “But I got into the field just as independent publishers began to proliferate, offering creator ownership publishing models – and that’s a whole different ballgame. I sure as hell don’t tell Frank Miller what to put in Sin City. I don’t tell Stan Sakai how to write a Usagi story. They own that work. When you’re editing something creator owned, your role as an editor changes dramatically. I do provide feedback. I make myself as available to the creator as he or she prefers. For instance, with Usagi Yojimbo, Stan sends in every issue completely done. On the other hand, with Concrete, Paul Chadwick first sends thumbnail breakdowns on 8 ½ x 11 paper, with each panel roughed out and word balloons and captions lettered in pencil. It’s not that Stan doesn’t want feedback, but Stan wants it at a later stage than Paul. If I see something dramatically incongruous or if something’s not working, I let him know, but by and large at this point in my career, I’m working with people who know what they’re doing. I don’t need to tell them that panel two doesn’t connect to panel three here or the storytelling is bad. That just doesn’t come up with these guys, because they’re professionals. We’re approaching the 200th issue of Usagi Yojimbo. Stan’s been doing this for a long time.”

Frank Miller and Diana Schutz at Wondercon 2000.

Sakai and Miller are definitely “old school” when it comes to their craft, she is glad to say, since she hates to read comics on a computer. “Stan is a master craftsman. When I get an issue of comics from Stan, that’s what it is, ink on board. So that’s a great joy to read. Frank Miller also still works directly on art board. He’s burning rubber these days, making comics again, and he’s done two issues of Xerxes so far, which is a prequel to 300. The artwork is twice up, which is how the very first comics guys worked, in the 1940s, and it’s all double page spreads. So Frank sends in these big gigantic inked pages and they’re magnificent, just drop dead gorgeous. It’s a great feeling to sit there and hold the art and have the tactile sensation of the work as you read it. You’re in touch with … that’s about the closest communication the artist can get with the reader, if you’re actually sitting there reading the art boards. I wanted other people to experience Frank’s work in a similar way – not only as gripping story, but as beautiful art – which is what prompted The Art of Sin City book in 2002, and that became the first of many subsequent Art of … books published by Dark Horse.”

Just like in the movies, where even a big name actor or director cannot guarantee getting a project green lighted at the studios, best-selling cartoonists and experienced editors can’t always get their pet projects off the ground. Schutz recently tried in vain to get a certain French cartoonist published at Dark Horse. She wrote and presented proposals three times to the editorial board before the accounting department asked her to stop bringing it up.

“The most difficult part of my job is balancing the artistic needs of the work with the publisher’s need to stay afloat financially. That’s the big bugaboo. I always fall on the side of art but I recognize that books have to make money or at least break even if we’re going to continue to do good work. I look back over my career and the great bulk of what I have edited has been adventure type material. Heroic fiction. It’s okay and it has its place but it’s not my personal particular interest. I can certainly get into it, and appreciate aspects of it but at this phase of my life that’s not what floats my personal boat, and the stuff that does float my boat is tough to sell in a market still dominated by heroic adventure.”

Company owner Mike Richardson takes a personal interest in the editorial department, said Schutz, even as he oversees the whole publishing operation. “The editorial department is his baby. He manages the business also, but in terms of all the departments here, Mike is really our editor-in-chief. He runs our editorial meetings every week and he’s the bedrock of the company. All things begin and end with Mike. When that changes that will be the day I’m out of here.”

As if on cue Richardson appears in the doorway. At six foot nine, he fills most entrances. He dropped by with an indicia page from a new book to ask her if the words proofreader and co-writer should have hyphens in them. They discuss the general function of the hyphen and the merits of the Chicago Manual of Style before settling on Dictionary.com as a satisfactory online resource. Co-writer should either have a hyphen or be two words, says Richardson. “Otherwise it looks like cow writer to me.”

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