Interview: Andy Schmidt Jan18

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Interview: Andy Schmidt

Hey comic book fans, here’s some trivia for you.

What do Nick Spencer, writer of Morning Glories, and Shaun Manning, a semi-finalist in Stan Lee’s The Seekers writing contest from MTV have in common?

They’re both alums of Comics Experience, an online school for people who want to break into the comics industry as writers, artists and editors, which means they owe a huge thanks to Andy Schmidt, the school’s founder, and an old school comic book pro himself.

Comics Experience offers online introductory and advanced courses that teach just about everything there is to know about creating comics. Lessons include those on writing, editing, lettering, coloring and penciling. Schmidt also offers one-on-one coaching, and there’s also a monthly workshop where students share work and network with other creators. Schmidt teaches many classes but has help from other pros. For example, artist Robert Atkins and colorist Chris Sotomayor teach Introduction to Comic Book Art and Introduction to Comic Book Coloring, respectively.

Say Hello to Andy Schmidt

Schmidt’s evolution into a trainer for future comic book pros began in 2002 when he started working at Marvel Comics as an assistant editor in the Marvel Heroes office. He helped guide storylines for The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Captain America before he launched the series Madrox, which lead to a relaunch of X-Factor, a fan-favorite, detective-style superhero titles that still runs today.

Schmidt continued leaving an indelible mark at the company over the years. He launched Drax the Destroyer, which led to the successful “Annihilation” crossover that thrust Marvel’s cosmic characters into the spotlight and caused a resurgence in their popularity. He was promoted to full editor after that and worked on the X-Men family of characters before he quit Marvel, had his first child, and launched Comics Experience in 2007.

But even though he runs a school, he’s made time for full-time work and sporadic freelancing. He’s been a senior editor at IDW, where he worked on G.I. Joe, Transformers and Star Trek comics before he left to work at Hasbro as director of intellectual property development and brand design, a title he still holds. He’s written The Insider’s Guide to Creating Comics and Graphic Novels, and the creator-owned graphic novel 5 Days to Die with illustrations by the artist Chee and a poignant essay by Schmidt at the book’s end that resonated with readers.

It seems like Schmidt would barely have enough time to run a school, but he makes it work. Being a father, husband, business owner, corporate decision maker and a storyteller doesn’t stop him from teaching the next generation of comic-book creators how it’s done. Schmidt sat down with Hilton Collins to talk about his life as a versatile comic book luminary.

Hilton Collins: Why’d you start Comics Experience?

Andy Schmidt: I decided to leave Marvel and wanted to take a shot at controlling my own destiny. I wanted to create courses I wished had been available when I was trying to break into comics. It took me a little over five years to break into comics, to get a job, any job, really. There wasn’t a whole lot of schooling you could do that would help people realize that dream, whether that dream was to self-publish or whether the dream was to work for one of the Big Two [Marvel and DC] or somewhere in between.

That’s really what Comics Experience was about. It had to be beyond, “This is why comics are cool,” and “This is how you go about creating them.” I had to get into how you successfully network. I make sure that I’m always honest, and those answers have evolved as the industry has been changing, and it’s been changing drastically in the last couple of years.

So that’s really what it’s about: Giving the best course on the creative [side] and how to approach the work and teach a real methodology that isn’t paint-by-numbers. It’s sort of a methodology of how you can take that overwhelming task of “I have to create something from nothing,” and you break it down into bite-sized chunks. By the time you’re done, you’ve got a professional-looking piece of art or a professional-looking script.

HC: How do you select which classes to offer?

AS: A lot of times, they pick me. I think what I’m most known for is the writing class. We’ve had some really successful people come out of that. At this point, I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to comics that people from my classes have created, published or been published through other companies, so the writing class seems to always be in demand. There’s a coloring class now and a lettering class, and tomorrow night I will wrap up my first editing comics class, which people have been asking me for for about three years. I just wait until I’m 100 percent sure that the class that I’m going to offer is a class that I would want to take if I wanted to learn this.

I’ve been doing this since 2007, so it’s been four years and over that time, I’ve met the right people, and we’ve built up this curriculum, and it’s intense. You take one of these classes and you’re not twiddling your thumbs doing nothing. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of information. It’s a lot of learning in not a lot of time, and that seems to work for people, so the classes have grown.

HC: How has Comics Experience changed between now and then?

AS: It’s changed a lot just for me personally. At first, right when I launched this thing, I left Marvel and three weeks later, we had a newborn baby in our house and my wife was working full-time and I was a stay at home dad and at that time, the courses were not online. I taught them live in New York. Now they’re online completely.

There are days where I had to go find studio space to hold the classes, so I would go look at all these places that had rental space available for hourly rates. I remember just a couple of days where I can’t imagine what I looked like. I had a baby bag over one shoulder and this baby in the baby carriage. It was just really like, this grassroots sort of thing. It’s really grown now. I have a home office, and I’ve got people that work long and hard with me and it’s really grown into something that I didn’t necessarily expect it to grow into, like a fully functional business.

The reason it has is because the students or clients, depending on how you want to look at it, wind up inspiring me. I get so excited about them succeeding and then turning in a great script and really turning a corner creatively that I wind up wanting to do more.

The biggest thing that’s changed is the creators’ workshop, which is an online community now. We always read a graphic novel every month, and last night we did our book club and Terry Moore came in and we talked about his book Echo. We have these workshops that talk about these aspects of the business that, if you’re serious about wanting to do this, you need to know how you budget a comic if you’re going to self-publish and how you negotiate in good faith. I get into all that kind of that kind of stuff, and we get into all the artsy stuff, too, but the workshop has just been tremendous.

HC: How do you get pros to help you?

AS: There are a number of pros in the workshop. [They] sort of come in, and they’ll do critiques. Right now, the writer David Gallagher is doing it. He did High Moon and a number of other things, and Penciller Sean Chen comes in, but you always have me, Robert Atkins, John Barber, senior editor at IDW and Chris”¦ there’s somebody in every discipline, and we each have our own thread — Ask Andy, Ask Soto, Ask Robert.

I’m not interested in finding people that are just going to come in just because they’re going to get something out of it, like they’re going to get a big check or whatever out of it. I don’t mind working that way, of course, but if that’s all they’re interested in, I really want to find those people that want to help other people improve their craft and see them succeed.

Building that positive reinforcing, encouraging community”¦ it can’t be overvalued. I really believe that. It doesn’t mean that the critiques are all nice. One of the rules about critiquing we have is, you can’t be mean. You’re not supposed to say, “You’re an idiot,” but you have to be honest. If something doesn’t work, you have to say, “This doesn’t work.” You have to give a reason why it doesn’t work or you have to give an option of, “I think it might work better if”¦” And that doesn’t mean the person has to go back and change their script or change their art, but it helps spark that conversation because then that person reads the critique and goes, “Oh, you know, if I did do it that way”¦ But what if I did it this way?” And they come up with a third or fourth or a fifth way. Even if you get a negative review, you come out stronger for it. What I’ve found, which really surprised me, is that there are always Comics Experience people getting together at almost every convention now. They figure out online where they’re going to meet up, and they all have dinner or drinks together. They share booths now together, and it’s just become this cool thing.

HC: What is the value of a comic creator course if American comics don’t sell as well now as they did in the past?

AS: There’s no doubt the industry is not in the best of times. This is not the segment of the entertainment business that you go into to become rich. There are a handful of people who’ve become rich doing this, but you really go into it because you love the comics, whether you grew up reading your older brother’s superhero comics, the way I did, or you fell in love with the medium through newspaper strips or whatever. You take these courses for you first. There are plenty of comics creators who could be making a lot more money doctoring screenplays in Hollywood or doing any number of things, especially artists. Artists could get paid huge amounts of money doing illustration work and design work [in Hollywood], but these are people that love to tell stories with their art, which is different than illustrations. Pretty much everybody in it is in it because they love it. I think that has to come first, but I can’t fault anybody for saying, “This industry looks like it’s really in rough shape. I’m not sure I want to get in right now.”

HC: How do you make time for all of it?

AS: I don’t really do a lot of stuff outside of my day job and Comics Experience now. The reason I left IDW is because it was so difficult juggling these things. being on the West Coast, I would schedule classes so that anybody in the country in theory could take them after work, which meant that they had to be at 9 p.m. Eastern time, which meant 6 p.m. where I was, and so I would come home, spend 15 minutes with my son and my wife and then eat in five minutes and then go up and teach class, and my son was asleep. That wasn’t working, so leaving IDW really had nothing to do with IDW. It was a great place. I needed to go back to the East Coast. That way, I can come home from my day job and spend time with my family every night, and it’s actually made a tremendous difference. It’s really not easy, but I love Comics Experience. I love to teach, I love my day job, and I love my family. I’m in the situation now where for the first time in a long time, I feel like it’s in balance.

Part of the reason Comics Experience has grown as slowly as it has, has been very deliberate because I’m not willing to give up my weekends. I do some work on the weekends, but I’m not willing to say, “Oh, I’m going to work eight hours on Saturday,” when I feel like I should be with my family.

HC: What’s the toughest thing about running Comics Experience?

AS: For me, it is the time. I think Comics Experience would where it is now two or three years ago if I didn’t have another day job, or if I didn’t have kids. But like I said, I love my kids and really enjoy my day job. I loved IDW and I’m really enjoying Hasbro too, so my wife tells me I’m not ever allowed to complain because I have these awesome day jobs.

HC: What’s the easiest thing?

AS: The easiest part for me is teaching. I’ve always loved teaching and watching creative people working with creative people, and watching them grow and develop has been fantastic. That’s one of the highlights of being a comic book editor [and] a comic book writer — getting to work with all of those people. Being able to work with them and talk with them about their craft and all that kind of stuff, I just find it fascinating; I find it entertaining. Getting that sense [of], “Oh, something just really clicked with so and so” — that’s just awesome. That part comes fairly naturally to me. What does not come naturally to me is thinking of it as a business. It’s the marketing and going on Twitter and doing that sort of stuff. That’s the stuff that kind of drives me up the wall because that’s not me.

HC: If you could change one thing about Comics Experience, what would it be?

AS: This is going to sound weird, but I kind of wish I wasn’t the owner. I think I would love to just be the teacher, but I’m the teacher and I’m the business guy and I’m marketing with it and I’m putting together this newsletter. I”˜ve got a guy [general manager Rob Anderson] that helps out now with a lot of those things because it really is too much for one person now. While I would never sell it; I kind of wish I didn’t own it.

HC: Tell us about 5 Days to Die.

AS: That came out in September of 2010. It was a five-issue miniseries, and September of that year had five Wednesdays. The series takes place over five days, so it was really fun to have it come out weekly and expedite the sense of urgency. All five issues came out in September of 2010. The concept is very simple. It’s a police officer who gets injured in a car crash, and he’s essentially told, “If you get up and leave the hospital, you’ll be dead in approximately five days. If you stay put, we might be able to operate, no guarantee.” And he is convinced that the car crash was not an accident and that his daughter, who was in the crash with him, is in danger. There’s a hit out on them, so he decides to get up and leave. He accepts that he basically has five days to figure out who’s behind it and to make things right and protect her, and then he’s going to go away. The concept is right there in the title.

I had a wonderful collaborator on it. Chee’s a fantastic storyteller who really nailed the sort of noir sort of thriller sense. We were going for this sort of gritty”¦ not Lethal Weapon or Die Hard 4 where the guy with the .45 can take down three helicopters. It’s much more grounded than that. All the reviews were positive, some very positive, and almost every single review mentioned the text page at the back of the first issue, which I almost didn’t put in the book.

It was this very personal discovery. The character [Ray] was struggling with his daughter and having a rough relationship with her — “How do I make a connection with her? Can I make a connection with her now? Am I doing the right thing?” — All these things that are completely wrapped up in a thriller-action story, coming from my own anxiety of being a relatively new parent. I wrote this essay about that and how I didn’t want to fall into this trap that Ray fell in as a parent.

The interesting thing to me was what effect that sort of essay in the back had on people. Even now I still get emails from people that say, “Hey, I read 5 Days to Die, and that note you wrote in the back really got to me,” and that’s really neat. That connection with an audience is something I don’t think happens very often, and I don’t know that I could ever do it again because it was emotionally exhausting to write that. It’s a great book, and the trade paperback of it is still available.