For many fans, creating a comic book is a mysterious process, with few outlets for would-be creators to find direction and learn the ropes. However, former Marvel editor Andy Schmidt hopes to change that with his online comics teaching program Comics Experience, which in addition to offering classes on comic book writing, art, coloring and lettering, recently signed a deal with IDW Publishing to publish creator-owned comics straight from Comics Experience's Creators Workshop.
Newsarama caught up with Schmidt to discuss the first four titles – Creature Cops, Gutter Magic, Drones and Tet - as well as what his teaching program has coming next.
Newsarama: Andy, can you tell us a bit about Comics Experience as a program, and how you developed it towards this partnership with IDW?
Andy Schmidt: It’s important to note right off the bat what the purpose of this publishing program is, beyond putting out great books that comics fans will hopefully want to read. The purpose after that is to provide a platform for new creators to develop great content and get it out into the comics market where it will be seen and read by fans and industry professionals alike. And that meant putting the work out through one of the top five publishers in the catalog. This really is a great opportunity for creators.
As for developing the program, I recognized a need for it within the industry over the last couple of years. Opportunities for really good and new creators just were fewer and further between. There are several reasons for this and none of them malicious, but it's really unfortunate that as some of the top companies get more aggressive about gaining market share, new creators are the ones who feel the squeeze. And again, that's not malicious; it's just the way the market works.
The problem is, the newer creator gets more easily lost in all the hype those guys are throwing out there and the opportunities dwindle. So, what we figured was needed was a platform with a front-of-previews publisher, that is specifically to showcase creator-owned stories by new, and talented creators.
I got an appointment with IDW, after doing tons of market research with Rob Anderson, my general manager at the time. I met with IDW, and they really liked the idea, and also immediately saw the need for it for the industry as a whole. This program needs to exist. And from that point on, IDW and Comics Experience were finding solutions together. And that was a really nice feeling.
Nrama: As the editor for these projects, how in-depth is your level of involvement? Are these creative teams already in play before they're considered, or are you helping make introductions and pairings via your different classes?
Schmidt: The creators have to bring the project to Comics Experience for consideration, and there are certain criteria that are required. For one thing, at least one member of the creative team has to be a member of Comics Experience's Creators Workshop. That's an online community of creators and professionals who are helping each other develop their skills. It's a kind of talent incubator and there are a lot of great people involved already. For another, the project has to be have been developed within the workshop. Once they have the project assembled, they can submit it during one of our submission window times.
Then all the projects get submitted, and we look for projects we believe in and want to publish. We're a publisher, so our standards are high. But we've got the right people involved already. And we absolutely will get back with a definitive answer to every single person that submits. I think that's extremely important. There's nothing worse for creative people to just hear nothing. It's insulting and it's unprofessional on the part of the publisher accepting submissions. So there won't be any of that here. You'll submit, and you'll hear back.
The way this works, because some aspect or aspects of the project will already have gone through the workshop process, they should already be fairly polished, before they’re put onto the publishing schedule.
As for my involvement, I'm involved after a project is accepted (unless I happen to have done one of the professional critiques on it during the regular workshop process). I may have some notes on the project as a whole, but if we're accepting it for publication, we already like it, so those notes will probably be for clarity of storytelling and emphasis, not asking for major rewrites or anything.
And remember, the creators own these outright – 100% owned by the creators, so ultimately, it's their property to control. So, I give notes on the projects as they're going along. Comics Experience is an educational institution at it's core, and this is still a part of the Creators Workshop, so if I can help make projects better, and the creators can learn from my experience as an editor, then that's awesome.
Nrama: What made you pick these specific projects? And how did you pick people from your various classes to further develop their books?
Schmidt: These were all projects that were already in the workshop. In order to make a deal with IDW, they wanted to see the kinds of projects and the level of polish they'd have. So, these projects were all already in the works. I knew I needed a handful to launch and show some range of genre, so I reached out to these creators and asked if they'd want to be involved. I was lucky enough that they all said yes. But they were picked by me. I like all of these projects and they all have very different tones and voices. So I think these projects together send a stronger message than announcing one at a time.
And, apparently IDW liked them, too, since that was the easiest part of making the deal – showing them what we had lined up, and they nodded and were like, “Yeah, that’ll work!” I think maybe they were a little surprised, and I believe that’s a mistaken impression that we may have to battle more than once, but I’m confident that most people will think of us as a strong publisher, not just as and educational institution soon enough.
As for the actual process of selecting them, they were all right in front of me on the Creators Workshop message boards. All I had to do was reach out to the creators, since I’d been watching them develop on our forums for some time.
Nrama: The first book out is Creature Cops, by Rob Anderson and Fernando Melek. First off, why make this the first book? And with a concept as off-kilter as runaway animal hybrids, what can we expect from this series?
Schmidt: Yeah, that's an off-beat book. But Drones is also a really off-beat book, too! For me, Creature Cops (and all of these) are books I don't currently see in the market. I was looking for things that would be different and could capture people's imaginations. Rob and Fernando built a compelling world and one I wouldn't mind living in. I like science fiction, I like police stories, and I really like their characters. I think the concept of a project can bring people into it, but it's always the compelling characters that bring them back, and Creature Cops has strong, believable characters.
Nrama: Gutter Magic is a book that you've described as the heir of a wizarding family being robbed of his birthright, now having to rely on sleight of hand and other "gutter magic." Especially in a world where Harry Potter has tapped the zeitgeist, what's Rich Douek and Brett Barkley's twist on magic here?
Schmidt: Well, magic is real here. And we're in a world in which WWII was fought with magic. But, unlike Harry Potter, where the central character is fairly wholesome and good, Cinder... isn't. He's a scoundrel. And he's entitled, and you may not always like him very much. But he's also fighting against people a lot worse than he is. So, you've got this really interesting dynamic of a guy I don't want to be friends with, but I can still root for him. And you're always wondering, just how far will this guy go to get what he wants?
Nrama: Tet, by Comics Experience mainstay Paul Allor and Paul Tucker, seems like an interesting mash-up. You've described it as "crime/romance/war" - how do those three genres co-exist? Can you speak a little bit about the tone, and how the Pauls make these three very different types of stories all mesh together?
Schmidt: Well, that kind of makes it like life, doesn't it? I don't know about you, but my life doesn't exist in just one genre. So, what the Pauls have done is found the romance and the crime in a war story. And they've just focused the lens on these elements. It's legitimately equal parts all three. There's an investigation related to the Vietnam War that greatly affects Eugene's personal life, including his love life. And let me tell you, this story is brutal. I just read the lettered and colored first issue last week for the first time all the way through in its final form and my gut was all balled up at the end of it. It's tough stuff, but it's so good and visceral.
Nrama: Chris Lewis and Bruno Oliviera's Drones feels particularly timely, especially when we think about drone warfare and the fighting in the Middle East. But there's also this spin of a terrorism-themed hotel - first off, can you discuss what that hotel might mean? And how does this comic stand alongside other comics with prescient wartime themes?
Schmidt: Much of Drones is left to interpretation by the reader, so I don't want to prejudice any readers into my own interpretations. But don't worry, it's not ambiguous and vague in a way that’s just weird for weird's sake. Chris definitely has a point of view in the story he writes, and Bruno's art is the perfect half-way point between representational and surreal for a book like this.
As for its timeliness, if we're being honest, drones have been used for about 10 years or so now, but there are still certain moral questions that have largely gone unaddressed.
What really interests me, besides how the characters deal with this very bizarre situation they're in, is the exploration of where war meets entertainment. And drones are a part of that. Flying real drones has been compared to playing a video game, except that real people are actually dying.
The hotel in the story, is much like a casino, except it's all about the celebration of war. So, it's a very well constructed exploration or the entertainment meets war theme, but it doesn't hammer conclusions over the reader's head, it just explores them, and then lets the reader think about them if he or she chooses to do so. And I do!
Nrama: Publishers are often cautious when it comes to creator-owned – IDW, for example, primarily traffics in licensed books, which already have proven fanbases. How do you buck the trend in terms of marketing and packaging these projects, and get eyes on them in spite of a particularly crowded field?
Schmidt: Well, that's the real name of the game, isn't it? I'm an editor, a writer, and a businessman. What I'm trying to do is reconcile the businessman and the editor here. The editor in me recognizes good content (at least, I think I do), but that can't be the sole criteria – and sorry to break any illusions, but it never is the sole criteria. I'm also running a business and, frankly, so are the creators who are submitting projects. None of us want to lose money. I've done the research and it's unlikely any of us are going to get rich doing this. It could happen, but it's unlikely. So I have to evaluate projects that I think are not just good, but also marketable and have a chance of finding an audience.
What's working in our favor is the current expansion of genre and readership in the industry. We're getting new readers and readers with different interests beyond just super heroes. And that means there are new types of stories that are getting traction. Our goal is to be a part of that expansion. There's nothing inherently super hero-y about the medium of comics. There is no inherent reason that other genres can't perform well in addition to super heroes.
So, we're going to put out strong content and we're going to do our best to get the word out through outlets like Newsarama and others, and we're going to build, from the ground up, a name that readers and retailers can count on to deliver the goods every single time out of the gate. And I have no illusions. That will take a long time to build that kind of reputation. But we're not a flash-in-the-pan kind of institution.
Comics Experience has steadfastly built a strong reputation based on delivering great courses on how to create comics and then again building the Creators Workshop. We're used to having to work hard to get where we are. Heck, that's part of what makes it worth doing. Knowing that we worked very hard to gain the ground we've gotten.
I'm okay with that. We all like what we're doing for a living. And we believe this is a needed step for the comics industry.
Nrama: Going back to Comics Experience as a program, what courses do you have coming along the horizon? Anything cool that stands out to you?
Schmidt: We're re-focusing in 2015 on our core courses. The Introduction to Comics Writing course is really packed with valuable information and students work directly with me as the instructor.
The Introduction to Comic Book Art and Intro to Comic Book Coloring courses are also huge hits. These are the courses upon which great creators can build their careers (or at least do something they love on the side). 2015 is a back to basics approach. We want to make sure there are courses for everyone – novice to seasoned pro. And we're a welcoming place for all kinds of creators.
If you want more than one of the core courses, don’t worry. We’ve got Justin Jordan’s (Strange Talent of Luthor Strode) Professional Techniques: Writing Great Dialogue & Narrative Captions coming up soon as well as others.
Likewise, the Creators Workshop is open for enrollment constantly. Someone can sign up and start using it 365 days a year. The value from the Creators Workshop, for those people who are ready to seize it and finally make the comic they've always wanted to make, is remarkable. The only thing stopping creators from making comics today is themselves. Not everyone who wants to make comics is doing it. We're here when the creator becomes ready to take the plunge. We're here, when that urge become irresistible.
Now, with the publishing program, the through-line is crystal clear. Join the Workshop, develop your series/story, and submit it for publication to be listed in the front of the Previews catalog. That's amazing. Lord only knows how I would have been all over this 15 years ago when I was trying to get my break into the industry.
Nrama: For those who are still on the fence about these projects, what would you say to them to get them on board?
Schmidt: I'm not going to twist anyone's arm into anything. Read the solicits and place your pre-orders. If you like animals, or science fiction, or police shows, then check out Creature Cops. If you don't generally enjoy or are interested in those things, then check out Drones or Gutter Magic or Tet. I want fans to check these books out, of course. If we've piqued your interest, then please check the books out.
Creature Cops: Special Varmints Unit #1 (of 3) is in the November PREVIEWS catalog for books on sale in January, 2015. The full-page solicitation can be found in the IDW Publishing section of the catalog at Diamond Order Code #NOV140526.