7 Questions With Award-Winning Comic Book Illustrator Arlen Schumer
ARLEN SCHUMER is an award-winning comic book-style illustrator for the advertising and editorial markets, a member of The Society of Illustrators and a recognized expert on American popular culture—ABC-TV’s 2020 called him “one of the countryʼs preeminent authorities on comics and culture,” and Comic Book Artist magazine said he was “one of the more articulate and enthusiastic advocates of comic book art in America”.
His comic book art history book The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (Archway Publishing) won the Independent Book Publishers Award for Best Popular Culture Book.
His other books are Visions from The Twilight Zone and The Neal Adams Sketchbook.
In today’s interview, Arlen Schumer talks about the art of the craft and offers the best advice to new illustrators in the business.
From tips on defining your style to the lessons we were taught by some of the greatest in the industry such as Stan Lee, Andy Warhol, Jack Kirby (to name a few), Arlen Schumer has been around long enough to perceive the trends of the industry and share his knowledge with the world.
In his own words: “No one has merged good graphic design and comic book-style illustration, in non-comic book arenas (like advertising and editorial) quite as I have—and I’m really the only true comic book art historian, treating the comic book art form with the same depth of analysis and breadth of criticism as more traditional art history.
My goal was to bring comic art into the commercial art world with the same impact Roy Lichtenstein had brought it into the fine art world; here is where I felt I could do my part to uplift the medium in the eyes of the mainstream.
At the same time, I’ve been working toget comic book art appreciated and treated seriously in the academic and cultural worlds as an indigenous American art form with a rich history, via my comic book art history “VisuaLectures” (so dubbed because “lectures” is such a pejorative, and mine are as visual as they are verbal) and verbal/visual essays (which form the basis of my book about comic book art in the 1960s, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art).”
Esther Rabbit: You started drawing at a very early age, what caused the transition to superheroes?
I grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a great place to grow up in the early-mid ‘60s, with equal parts bucolic American suburbia and small-town Rockwellian, pop culture ambiance— everything from an uber-Jewish deli like Petak’s to Plaza Toy & Stationery, which had a classic 20th Century soda fountain: it was there, after school, that I read all the comic books of my youth while drinking chocolate egg creams (with a pretzel log, natch).
And because Fair Lawn, like all of New Jersey, was in the shadow of New York City, I grew up on all that pop culture
through television, not just the 3 networks but the 3 local stations that showed everything from the old Universal monster movies to The Little Rascals to The Three Stooges to the George Reeves Superman TV series!
One of those local TV shows, a children’s show called Diver Dan, which was filmed in black & white to look like it took place underwater—the actor, in a deep-sea diver’s suit (with a helmet that never revealed his face, so he was like a superhero), walked slowly like he was underwater, surrounded by pop fish hanging by wires—triggered my interest in drawing, as I watched my brother draw him first, and copied him. I’ve been drawing ever since!
I was always the “class artist,” and ended up going to Rhode Island School of Design to major in illustration because a great comic book illustrator had recently emerged from there (the DC and Marvel Comics artist Walt Simonson)—except once I got to RISD, I learned the graphic design department was the best in the school, and the idea of studying verbal/visual communication appealed to me more; because weren’t comics, after all, a combination of verbal and visual, words and pictures?
Collecting, reading and studying comic books gave me the foundation on which I built my career on, as an illustrator and comic book art historian.
Esther Rabbit: You have a cultivated talent and passion for your work, you went to Art School, defined your illustration in such a magnificent way that it has become transcendent and recognizable among your fans. What advice do you have for young illustrators trying to define their style?
Don’t rely on the computer to dictate your “style”; develop a style of hand-made mark- making that is uniquely yours, and then bend the computer’s software and graphic capabilities to your will.
Combine that with your own life experiences and worldview, gained by intensive, ongoing introspection, and you will have a body of work that will stand out from the crowded visual reality we live in, both real and virtual.
Esther Rabbit: The Silver Age of Comic Book Art is a treasure your fans can cherish. It’s the first and only book of its kind and it won the Independent Book Publishers Award for Best Popular Culture Book. What have been some of the reactions of the fan community to this amazing collection of ink art?
More salient, to me, than “the reactions of the fan community”—which I knew would be as wonderful as they’ve been (read the reviews on this thread in my Facebook group dedicated to The Silver Age of Comics), because I designed the book for both myself and for them, as I’m a member of that community—are the reactions from the three comic book legends I asked to write blurbs for the book:
“Arlen Schumer documents an important period in comic book history, told with an explosive format and stunning design. It reflects the kinetic rhythm of the era.” –Will Eisner, father of the graphic novel “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art is a unique achievement by Arlen Schumer and will be an ongoing source of reference, study and enjoyment for everyone interested in comics. Regards, Steve Ditko”
“A lovingly crafted tribute to the superhero comic of the 1960s, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art recaptures the four-color visionary surge of the era, its jet-age psychedelic rush of imagination and the titanic, luminous figures, both real and imaginary, that glittered in its firmament.
For a brief moment in the late 20th century, it seemed as if the spirit of the age wore a vivid leotard, a chest emblem, and traveled in a strobing blur of speed lines. For anyone with any interest in or affection for that moment, this beautiful volume is indispensable.” –Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Esther Rabbit: What has the young generation learned from Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Andy Warhol to name some of the legends who have paved the way to greatness?
Jack Kirby’s “children” are artists ranging from Bruce Timm (Warner Brothers Animation) and Steve Rude to John Byrne and George Perez, who, in turn, influenced the Jim Lees and Todd McFarlanes, whose Image Comics has defined the look and read of today’s mainstream superhero comics;
Neal Adams’ dynamic, realistic style also influenced a generation of artists who followed in his tsunami-like wake, most notably the great multimedia artist Bill Sienkiewicz and the photo-realistic superhero painter Alex Ross;
Steve Ditko’s late-Silver Age characters Mr. A and The Question, who reflected his belief in the philosophy of the controversial Ayn Rand, influenced Alan Moore to create the Randian Rorschach of the groundbreaking graphic
Jim Steranko’s relatively small body of work from 1966-70 is in converse proportion to its influence seen and felt in comics published since 1970;
Joe Kubert’s own sons Adam and Andy are superstar artists in today’s field—the Kubert School’s alumni read like a Who’s-Who of today’s comic book creators!
Esther Rabbit: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your journey as an illustrator?
The building blocks of any great “realistic” art can be boiled down to mastering two distinct drawing categories: anatomy of the human figure and perspective.
If you can draw the human figure in any and all positions, and set those figures in realistic settings via perspective, you can truly draw anything.
Combine that with your own, individual imagination and way of seeing things, both literally and figuratively, and you’ll have your style.
Esther Rabbit: What are some of Arlen Schumer’s favorite things?
I like to tell people that I have three creative “children” whom I love equally: comic book art (as both an illustrator and historian), the legendary television series The Twilight Zone (lecturing and creating multimedia projects about it), and the music and career of Bruce Springsteen (I was art director of his first fan magazine while in art school); choosing the one area I love the most is like choosing which of your children you love the most!
Esther Rabbit: You’re also an amazingly talented historian and spokesperson. Where can we see you next?
I usually lecture at the San Diego Comicon in July, and other conventions around the country, as well as academic and cultural institutions.
I try to create new VisuaLectures based on important anniversaries being celebrated that year; so for 2019, I have planned: The 50th Anniversary of Neal Adams’ Batman, The 50th Anniversary of Jim Steranko’s Captain America, and The 60th Anniversary of The Twilight Zone!
Find Arlen Schumer here: