During the indie comics boom of the 1980s, and we’re talking the post Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles era here, there were quite a few creators who came and went without a trace. Those who endured through this era proved themselves as craftsman; serious artists who wanted to explore the art form for all it was worth.
One such artist was Mark Schultz. Mark is best known for his 1987-1996 series Xenozoic Tales, which won him two Eisner Awards and five Harvey Awards. The series was later adapted into an animated series called Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Mark’s work is staggeringly beautiful, a painstaking work of a true artist. The comics medium is lucky to have him, and I was blessed to talk to him. Here’s our chat!
Mark: I first encountered comics in the newspaper funny papers, not surprisingly. Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, Pogo and Prince Valiant were favorites, even before I could read. Then it was a dinosaur on the cover of what I think was one of DC’s war comic books that first grabbed my attention in a store, although I didn’t know what a comic book was at that time.
It wasn’t until I was in the first grade that I can remember actually looking past the cover of a comic book. Fellow classmates would bring them in and I specifically remember the first appearance of the Metal Men in DC’s Showcase. The story started with dinosaurs and giant flying manta ray—who could forget that?
The first comic I owned was one of Joe Kubert’s Hawkman turns in The Brave and the Bold. My mother got it for me when I was recovering from a tonsillectomy—I was still doped up from the surgery and trying to read in the dark, by the hospital parking lot lights. It was a memorably hallucinogenic experience.
I went through phases of following Gold Key comics (Turok) DC, Marvel, and the underground publishers. I also became fascinated with learning what I could of the history of comics—EC’s output in particular left a big impression.
Matt: Those are definitely some fantastic images there, especially those dinosaurs! What lured you into exploring your artist abilities?
Mark: I don’t think I ever needed luring. I can’t remember ever not drawing or painting. It’s just what I did. But the first thing I remember drawing was a brontosaur, so maybe I was lured.
Matt: How did a love of art turn into a career. I understand you started out doing commercial illustration?
Mark: I did both book illustrations—how-to books, mostly—and advertising art over my first few years out of college, while working on my painting—which I thought was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t very satisfying and I eventually figured out that what I really wanted to do was tell stories in visual terms, and that, of course, comics was the perfect medium for that.
But it wasn’t until I actually scored my first EC reading copies—in exchange for a couple boxes of my ‘70s comics collection—that I succumbed to the siren call and decided to try my hand at a career as a cartoonist. There was something about the smell and feel of those moldering pages that got to me. So I sat down and consumed as much Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman as I could to learn storytelling, and Wood and Williamson to start figuring out how to cartoon and ink.
Matt: I’d love to hear about how you broke into comics! Did you start immediately on Xenozoic Tales or was there something before that? I read somewhere that you did some work for Marvel?
Mark: I wrote and drew my first Xenozoic story purely to promote myself. Given my druthers, I knew I’d rather work on my own stories so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to showcase my own concept, but I was willing to take whatever work I could get. I mailed out my samples to the publishers who I thought might most be interested—this was 1986—and got positive responses from Kitchen Sink and Marvel at about the same time. Marvel gave me a job inking a back-up Kull story in Savage Sword of Conan—which became my first completed job—but Kitchen Sink showed interest in the Xenozoic concept itself, so of course I decided to put my time and energy going forward into developing the Xenozoic Tales comic. And that became my bread and butter for many years.
Matt: Xenozoic Tales really caught on in both the comic book world as well as getting the attention of Hollywood. Did it all feel like a whirlwind at the time and how do you reflect back on it now?
Mark: I was working frantic, ridiculous hours to get eight issues done over the first two years. I couldn’t keep up that pace, doing the kind of increasingly obsessive rendering that I was doing, and my production slowed even further after that. It was a tough go those first two year, but it laid the groundwork that brought recognition and led to the animated television show and all the associated merchandising. Denis Kitchen handed me a great opportunity and I think we made a pretty good go of it. By the mid-‘90s, though, I was having an increasingly difficult time getting new issues done on a reasonable schedule (once a year not being reasonable) and I realized it was time to move on to other work.
Matt: From there you transitioned over to more work-for-hire writing projects at Dark Horse and later DC. Were there any differences in working with licensed characters like Aliens and Predators compared to writing for classic DC heroes like Superman?
Mark: Not really. My job was to work within their expectations, whatever those might be. That’s just understood. You always aim at respecting the goals and boundaries inherent in any work-for-hire situation. DC was certainly more directly hands-on in managing their characters than was 20th Century Fox (via Dark Horse), but otherwise there was little difference.
Matt: I’m really curious about the Flash novel you wrote in 2004. How did that come about? How was it transitioning from writing comic book scripts to prose?
Mark: I was scripting the Superman, Man of Steel comic and Charles Kaufman, who was editing at DC at the time, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a prose novel as part of the JLA series. I’d never written a prose piece as extensive as a novel before so it was quite a learning curve. But Charlie was a patient teacher and a great sounding board and I think it turned out all right. The differences between prose and comics scripting are enormous, but one significant difference that made an impression on me was that comics are well suited for long passages of action—which don’t play so well in prose—and prose is suited well for exploring the interior lives of characters, which is difficult to do without artifice in comics. In either case, it’s still all about storytelling. I keep telling myself that I need to make the time to try a second novel.
Matt: You had a very successful Kickstarter last year with Carbon and a new collection of Xenozoic, through your friends at Flesk. What was that process like?
Mark: Well, Flesk—and most specifically publisher John Fleskes—did most of the heavy lifting. The aspect of crowd funding that seems to trip up a lot of people, the logistics of actually fulfilling the contributors’ orders, was all taken care of by Flesk. My contributions were helping organize and design the new books and provide the few pieces of new art that were offered. John ran the campaign and then the worst of it for me was sitting and signing the thousands and thousands of books and prints, much of it done around floor hours at last year’s Comic-Con International.
The campaign went very well, we were able to get the monies needed for hardcover editions of both Xenozoic and Carbon, and the surplus is helping me stay exclusively working on finishing my next book, Storms at Sea.
Matt: Many people would be interested to know that you’ve been writing the Prince Valiant newspaper strip for quite a while! How did you get involved with that? How involved is King Features in your storylines?
Mark: Gary Gianni had taken over art chores on Prince Valiant after the previous artist, John Cullen Murphy retired—I believe this was in 2004. The strips writer—Cullen Murphy, John’s son—was eager to move on, too, and Gary suggested me as a replacement. Gary and I knew we were on the same page as far as how to handle the strip and, good for me, King Features agreed.
Now I’m working with Thomas Yeates—Gary stepped down a couple of years ago—and our working relationship has been good, too. King Features has been very hands-off since I began. Neither Gary, Thomas nor I are interested in turning the strip into anything other than what it was intended to be when masterminded by Hal Foster—it’s a romantic adventure and we respect that. We know it can never be as grand as it once was—there will never be another Hal Foster!—but we try to keep the spirit true. King has apparently been satisfied with our work.
Matt: So what is next for Mark Schultz? Can fans meet you at any upcoming conventions?
Mark: As far as upcoming conventions, I’ll be doing the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live show in Kansas City, MO and Big Wow in San Jose, CA— both in May; Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC in June; Comic-Con International in San Diego in July; and then I’m pretty sure I’ll do Portland’s Rose City Con in September. That’s an unusually full road schedule for me.
As far as projects, as mentioned above I’m full steam ahead finishing up my long delayed Storms at Sea illustrated novella. Once that’s done, I’m finally on to a new Xenozoic story, the first in almost 20 years. Ouch. I don’t like seeing that in print.
And, of course, I’ll be putting out a second volume of Carbon, my drawings collection series, in 2015.
Matt: Before we go, can you tell us a bit about Storms at Sea?
Mark: Sure! Storms at Sea is a personal project I’ve been working on as I can over the last six years. It’s a heavily illustrated prose novella—a cautionary science fiction mystery is about the best I can do to describe it.
Anyway, I’m finally on the last leg, currently devoting full time to finishing the illos by this summer. Flesk Publications will announce a release date once I have it in the bag and they figure how it fits in to their publishing schedule.
Matt: Thanks for your time, Mark! We can’t wait to see it!
In addition to interviewing creators and reviewing comics, Matt likes to write comics of his own, including prose short stories and novels. He is based in New York, where he lives with his beautiful wife and son.
Article/interview is © 2014 Matt Kelly. All rights reserved.
Xenozoic Tales; Carbon; and Storms at Sea are TM and © 2014 Mark Schultz. Superman; and Flash are TM and © 2014 DC Comics. All rights reserved. Dick Tracy is TM and © 2014 TMS News & Features, LLC. All rights reserved. Lil’ Abner; Pogo; and Prince Valiant are TM and © 2014 King Features. All rights reserved. Turok is TM and © 2014 Random House. All rights reserved. Conan is TM and © 2014 R.E.H. Enterprises. All rights reserved. Aliens; and Predator are © 2014 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.