Olympus-Mature: Suggested For Mature Readers (The Eric Shanower Interview)
I had a vision of some kind on the way to San Diego. I saw myself going to different people's booths at the con and saying hello, maybe getting some interviews. Somehow the figure I saw most clearly was Eric Shanower, Eisner-Award winner for best writer-artist in 2001 and 2003, creator of the series Age of Bronze.
When I got there, I actually did exactly as I saw in my vision, asked for an interview, and in fact interviewed him. As seen here.
Park Cooper: How did San Diego treat you? Say, compared with 2006?
Eric Shanower: I'm assuming you mean Comic Con, because I live in San Diego. It's a local con for me. This year it was exhausting. Meeting new people is nice and seeing old friends is great. And I always like to hear people say they like my work. The atmosphere is exciting, although I'm usually in my booth, so I don't actually get to see much. I'd been working really hard for the past year, and on Saturday night of the con I just had to go to bed afterward. Couldn't even eat anything. Just needed rest. This exhaustion wasn't usual with me. I guess I'm just getting old. But it wasn't too painful.
PC: Ah! Heh, yes I did mean that.
ES: The con wasn't as exciting this year because I didn't have any new major book out. Last year IDW was bringing out Adventures in Oz, the compilation of my graphic novels. This year the third Age of Bronze volume was planned to be out, but I was late getting it to Image for publication.
PC: Ow, that must have been very painful, the late-getting-it...
ES: I'll have the third Age of Bronze volume for next year. I used to love the San Diego con, but every year now I look forward to it less and less. It's becoming such a chore, that I've even considered not exhibiting. It's too big, and as time goes by my sense is that comics are getting more and more marginalized there.
PC: I hear a lot of that about San Diego Con now...
PC: But there's no going back, not for San Diego. Throwing it open to all those media forms is what makes it so extra-successful attendance and sales-wise, I think...
ES: Certainly the more people who attend the San Diego Con, the higher the percentage of people who are going to buy my comics and graphic novels. Which is good since it helps keep me sheltered and fed so I can keep writing and drawing. So while I realize that the leaps in attendance numbers at San Diego is certainly due to a lot of non-comics content and I have some problems with that, I certainly recognize the advantages as well. I'm just complaining a little bit, not seriously objecting.
PC: I'd like to hear your thoughts on the state of the industry now... As opposed to the mid-90s... Less convulsions, do you think, or have they started again?
ES: I'm not sure I know enough about what's going on outside my particular areas of attention. I think the potential for recognition has grown vastly. And not just the potential--it's happening all around and has been for the past five years or so. The fact that comics are winning major book awards and being recognized by the mainstream, and that bookstores have major graphic novel sections, not just a few odd graphic novels stuffed in the "humor" section. It's a great time in the comics business, at least from my standpoint. There's so much great stuff to read, the world is embracing comics as never before. It's not all roses, I don't mean that, but when I tell people that I'm a cartoonist (or, lately, I've been trying to say "graphic novelist" instead) they actually have some sort of vague idea what that means. They mumble something about Maus, or manga, or something. In the past they would ask whether I drew Scooby Doo on tv or what newspaper my comics appeared in. It's a big change, at least from my standpoint. As far as the direct market goes, though, I don't know about that. The old-style comic seems to be going the way of pulp magazines to me. I worry from time to time about friends who own comic shops. I hope they're keeping abreast of the demands of the market. I know some of them are, to their great advantage, but others I worry about.
PC: What are you reading lately?
ES: The comics I still buy on a regular basis include Love and Rockets and any of its spin-offs like Luba, any new Don Rosa work in Uncle Scrooge or WD's Comics and Stories, Swan, Little Lulu, Criminal, Autumn, Peanuts. I don't buy that much on a regular basis anymore. I read a lot of graphic novels. And I get a lot of stuff out of the library, which is also another big change. Libraries have tons of current graphic novels, not just a few Peanuts and Charles Addams collections and that sort of thing (which are great, nothing against those, but the comprehensiveness of library graphic novel collections has undergone a radical change in the last decade.) From the library currently I have Less Than Heroes, Y the Last Man volume 1, The Grave Robber's Daughter, Superman in the Fifties, Superman in the Sixties, Mome Spring/Summer 2006. Just read Ode to Kirihito from the library--enjoyed it in a superficial way.
PC: Yes. Austin, Texas, has a good library system, and while I was getting my last degree in NE Ohio, well, not much to say there, but at least Cleveland also has a good library system, including for comics. In fact that was a few years ago that I lived there; it's probably gotten better stuff since then, I'd guess. And all of this includes the advent of manga over here. Er, in America.
ES: Manga, yes. I've tried to familiarize myself with manga overall in a general way, and as I said, I read Swan regularly and I've also read Tezuka's Buddha as well as Ode to Kirihito. One of my favorite series is Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and I read it faithfully in the '80s and '90s. But one of the library branches in San Diego has tons of manga and I need to start checking out some of the series that I don't know much about just to see what they're like.
ES: One of the best comics reading experiences I had recently was reading Manhattan Beach 1957 by Yves H. and Hermann. I read it in English translation published a few years ago. I loved it--really great technical stuff going on in it. The story itself was engaging, though not spectacular, but the texture was just incredible. I've also been reading some French comics. For a long time I was frustrated that the entire Blueberry series hadn't been translated into English. But in the last few years I've been going to France at the request of Age of Bronze's French publisher and each time I pick up some French comics. I'll tell you, the first year I went to Angouleme--2005--it was so frustrating to see all this fascinating stuff all around, all sorts of comics, and to know that I couldn't read them. I've since started learning French and so now I CAN read them--although I don't read that well yet, so it takes me a long time to get through. But now I've read the first six Blueberry volumes in French! Yay! Blueberry is great and I don't understand why it's not more popular in the US. It's perhaps the greatest Western ever produced. Who cares if it's by some French guys? I didn't start learning French just to read French comics. I've been going to France at least once a year, and after the second time I just felt like such a jerk not being able to speak to most people and needing someone from Akileos, the publishing company, always hanging around just to translate. I wanted to be able to speak to people directly, because even though a lot of people on the Continent do speak English, not everyone does and not everyone speaks it well.
PC: This starts a sort of segue into something I was thinking about-- Hungry Tiger.
PC: For one thing, why "Hungry Tiger"? But more than that, tell me about H.T. ...The business side of things, etc...
ES: Hungry Tiger Press is a small publisher that my partner, David Maxine, and I started in 1994. We planned to publish an Oz anthology that David wanted to do and also Age of Bronze. But in the mid-1990s the comics business was going through lots of convulsions. It seemed safer not to self-publish comics, so Age of Bronze isn't published by Hungry Tiger Press. We did David's Oz anthology and published a lot of other books and some cds, mostly Oz-related. I left the company at the end of 2002, but David is still publishing books. I do some freelance work for him from time to time on Hungry Tiger Press publications. It's still a small company, basically David does everything himself.
PC: I was just looking at some you-and-Age-of-Bronze-related stuff... Did you take a lot of classes in school that helped fuel your interest in the Greek epics etc.? I had a favorite Humanities professor as an undergrad at Texas Tech University whom I would follow around after class and ask things about mythology and the gods and the religious stuff and how it worked its way into the plays etc... Geeky!
ES: No, I didn't go to college. I went to the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. I've never had any sort of mythology class or any sort of literature class beyond high school level.
PC: Man. Well you're doing as good as I feel anyone could do research and application/synthesis-wise, believe me... you probably get that all the time.
ES: I'd never been forced to read the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Aeneid. We read Antigone in ninth grade English class, but I'd never read any of the other Greek plays.
ES: I didn't have the material ruined for me by being forced to read it for some class. I read it all because I was fascinated by the story of the Trojan War.
PC: Yes, exactly... I was looking at the Age of Bronze page, at the characters... I remember when I read the first volume of Age of Bronze, I took note of a couple of things... Take Odysseus. Always a big hero of mine. I thought, "How do you choose a look for Odysseus? You've got to make him human, therefore he's got to have a certain look..." I'm not displeased with how Odysseus ended up looking. How, however, did you arrive at a look for him? That would have paralyzed me with indecision, I think, in your shoes, at least at first...
ES: I just sort of sit down and start drawing in a sketchbook for most of the characters. I try not to let any preconceived notions affect me. In fact, I often try to undercut any of my own assumptions about the characters before I design them. I don't remember at this point any particular thinking about designing Odysseus. I just sat down and drew him. My sketchbook has five different faces of Odysseus before I settled on the one I liked.
PC: And then, probably harder, is Helen. The most beautiful woman in the world... and you have to humanize her... that's hard!
ES: Helen was daunting. And I'm still not happy with the result. I knew I'd never be able to draw the most beautiful woman in the world. So I've addressed that in the story by making it just publicity. Not that she still doesn't have to be good-looking. What I did was go to a statue of a woman from ancient Athens and basically use that face--the Peplos Kore. It's in a lot of books, but it's not from the Bronze Age, it's from later. Helen's face is one element I often do a lot of revising of between the comic book publication and the graphic novel publication. For the next book, Betrayal Part One, I just did about ten pages of trying to make Helen look better.
PC: I know, it's a metanarrative-- a thing you say that takes on a life of its own, and, eventually, a sort of Big Truth of its own... despite the fact that she's, you know, really just a very very attractive human female... Not even a demigoddess as such...
ES: I get comments from people who don't think my Helen is that good-looking. I just try to remember that in the Bronze Age Aegean if you had straight teeth, you were a stunner.
PC: Barb really likes your Helen... In fact... I was looking before this at an interview you did previously where they asked you "Okay, why should people read Age of Bronze?" and you had some good reasons, and then you also threw in there, "Also, there are female characters... and they have really nice hair and clothes." I read that to Barb and she and I felt... yes, this is a person who is well-suited to going on to having a very full appreciation of manga... We're big on the manga and its ways... one day it was explained to Barb that for this certain kind of female-appeal manga she was working on writing, that the character design was very important in that the characters (all of them) needed to also have this sort of potential fashion-plate appeal...
PC: I almost hate to bring up such a predictable topic as this, but what with... well, 300 is just the latest of a series of movies and such, including of course TROY... do you feel that America is sort of starting to take notice of "man, there's really some engaging and dramatic and exciting stories that this place and (vague) era have to offer us in the 21st century..." But I almost hate to say that because I'm afraid it'll be like the story about the cello player on the bus who gets tired of people telling him they bet he wishes he'd picked the flute instead... do people come up and try to talk to you about these, er, Mediterranean movies, as it were?
ES: No, I don't think America is starting to take notice of ancient times and stories in any particular way. No trend that I can see.
PC: Heh. Perhaps it's just me, the Humanities geek, being ultra-sensitive... I haven't seen 300 yet; it seemed soooo over the top. I'm aware that that's me not giving it a chance... I read the book... Barb liked the book too, felt it was the best thing she'd read from Miller so far... But we haven't tried the movie yet. It's a little daunting.
ES: People rarely mention 300 to me, the movie I mean. They used to mention the comic a lot. Which I didn't really get because 300 is based on an established historical event. The Trojan War is--let's face it--basically fiction, and it took place hundreds and hundreds of years before Thermopylae. I liken it to saying that the Norman Conquest and World War II were sort of the same thing. Now, of course I understand the broader picture--old time Greek stuff in comics. Stepping way, way back it's sort of the same thing. I did see the movies Troy and Gladiator. I didn't see the 300 movie or Alexander. Those four are the ones that people bring up to me as being in the same vein as Age of Bronze. I was interested in 300, the comic book, when it was coming out and was looking for it in the comic store. But I recall seeing something called ZOO. Then about issue 3 I realized it wasn't ZOO, it was 300. Terrible logo. So I missed the first couple issues, and that pretty much cut my interest. I think Frank Miller's work is terrific on many levels--the composition, the atmosphere, and the movement he can create is incredible. I don't recall ever having warmed to any of his characters, though. That's why I've never sought out 300 to read the whole thing--I just wasn't engaged by the characters.
PC: Oh, to change the subject... I know I mentioned it to you at the Con, but Barb wanted to put in her two cents personally (as it were) and thank you again for SPECTRAL SNOW. She not only liked it, some of it influenced the atmosphere of some horror she's working on these days...
ES: You're welcome, Barb. Glad you enjoyed it. I was happy to draw illustrations that were creepy and dark--well, except for the Oz story in Spectral Snow. I'm still happy with some of the illustrations for that book. Jack Snow's stories can be really uneven in quality from one to the next. We tried really hard to choose the best for that book. It started to become a bit ridiculous because in nearly every one of his stories, the last line is something like, "and when they found him he was dead." I think we chose two or three of that type for Spectral Snow, but we just couldn't avoid them all. And one of them, Second Childhood, had only been printed once in Weird Tales and then in a really obscure anthology. So we wanted to make it available again. But the last line is one of those "and she was dead" things.
PC: Barb is laughing as I read this to her...
PC: Tell me about... er, the Oz thing... I infer from your earlier comments that your partner is big on the Oz as well...
ES: The Oz thing. . . Been an Oz fan since I was six. David's been one since he was a kid, too. In fact we met at an Oz convention. I still like Oz, and it still is part of my career, and probably always will be, but I try to keep it to a dull roar these days. I've been asked to write the Marvel Illustrated adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, and have agreed to. Skottie Young will be drawing it. I'm really excited to be adapting Wizard to comics. And I'm so glad they didn't ask me to draw it because I don't have the time and would have had to turn it down. But writing the script is going to be great.
PC: Barb's glancing at the Hungry Tiger site... "Ooh, he did design for SWEENEY TODD!" She really appreciates the Sweeney Todd... Good for you on the Marvel Illustrated thing from both of us!
Barb: You're the only person I'd want to be doing that particular project!
ES: Yeah, David used to be a set designer. He has a Myspace blog discussing his Sweeney Todd designs with photos. I think his myspace name is krizzlekroo, if Barb wants to look at it.
ES: There have been decent comics adaptations of Wizard before--the recent French one that Image published in English translation and Antarctic's Oz the Manga. But none of them adapts the complete book and none of them quite gets it exactly the way I think it should be done.
PC: I also see that the Hungry Tiger is friends with the Cowardly Lion. That makes sense. I was just starting to suspect it must be something like that...
ES: Something like that.
PC: Hm, found krizzlekroo... not seeing those Todd photos. Oh well.
ES: They're in one of his blogs. I don't remember the title of the blog.
PC: Sigh... I remember reading Philip Jose Farmer's Barnstormer In Oz...
ES: So do I.
PC: Oh yes? ...Do Oz fans find it heresy or do they just try to appreciate Farmer for giving it a shot...?
ES: Well, Oz fans aren't one monolithic thing. Every one has his or her opinion. Lots of them can't stand Barnstormer. Lots like it. I had no problem with its so-called "heretical" version of Oz. But I just didn't have much interest in the story, so I didn't particularly like it. It's really hilarious, though, how some Oz fans seem personally offended by a sexual portrayal of Glinda, as tame as it was in that book (as I seem to recall, not having read it since it was published).
PC: Me, I enjoyed it for what it was, but I can imagine the canonical-minded falling over like felled trees in outrage... ah well.
ES: Some Oz fans are as nit-picky as some Marvel and DC superhero fans. Continuity is god and they just tie themselves into knots over minutiae. I find these sort of exercises fun a lot of the time, but can't take them too seriously. When people stop having fun with their fictional universes it's time to step back for a while.
PC: Yeah, that's a good point for us all...
ES: I've been braced for years to get the same sort of outraged reaction in regards to Age of Bronze. I have to say that it's never reached the level I've seen over something like Oz or like superhero comics. Occasionally someone will question my sources for some choice I've made or an episode I've incorporated, but it's been a breeze overall. But when I stick a medieval source smack into Classical Greek mythology, I just expect people to react.
PC: Well I think that's partly the research you put into it... Do you get a lot of response from academics? PC: My humanities-minded brethren?
ES: The most negative reactions I've gotten are from classicists--mostly for straying from Homer. But it's certainly not been across the board. I've also been welcomed with open arms by other classicists. I explain to those who react negatively that Homer isn't my only source, but they don't seem to really understand--or else they understand but assume that now we have nothing further to talk about since I've obviously strayed from the true path or something.
PC: (fake shock) Sources besides Homer?!?!? What could those possibly be?!?
ES: Lots of people don't like the fact that I've removed the gods from the story. One classics professor who I was friends with before Age of Bronze began publication--his face just fell when I told him the gods wouldn't be in it. Very striking to see. He couldn't see the point of doing the story without the gods.
PC: I can understand and sympathize, but I feel your approach has great merit.
PC: Perhaps we should tell him they're there behind the scenes? Our characters just aren't privy to their actions except in the usual ways (auguries, dreams, soothsayers etc)? Sigh.
ES: He's since seen Age of Bronze--I sent him, I believe, A Thousand Ships. He wrote me a nice note, but I don't think he'd changed his mind much. And I know he's read things beyond Homer. He's published a translation of Euripides's Hecuba.
PC: Heh. Well, gods are fun, sure. But one may not want that sort of thing all the time...
ES: I wouldn't be interested in doing Age of Bronze with the gods. My idea in the beginning, one of the things that sparked my excitement for the project was to focus on human motivations for all the horrible and stupid stuff they (we) do. And aside from that, there are technical considerations. Not every version of every episode of the story has the gods. For instance the Troilus and Cressida branch of the Trojan War story tree had no gods in the flesh, so if I'd tried to do Age of Bronze with the gods, it would have been very uneven or else I'd have had to inject the gods into episodes where they were previously absent.
PC: Yeah. But there is the, er... natural... fateful perhaps... element... like when the wind finally started cooperating after you-know-what...
ES: The wind . . . well, I don't think that was fate or something like that. That was coincidence. But I did try to leave it open for interpretation. As it had to be, for the characters in the story.
PC: Well god-stuff is just pattern-stuff basically. Something big, like the wind scene, happens, and one is like "Oh. I see now. I see the Big Hand of Fate here. This is bigger and more purposeful than life normally is."
PC: --I know, that's what I'm saying-- character perception.
ES: Yes, that's how we got gods in the first place, I assume.
PC: Right, and these guys all know about and believe in the gods, so, er... reality seems to lend itself to a certain interpretation pretty darn easily sometimes.
ES: It's still going on all around us today.
PC: Understood, and on big levels... policy levels... but A LOT on the personal levels. A LOT a lot. I suppose in a way Age of Bronze is at the other end of a certain scale from Sandman. "Here's the world... with ALL OF THIS! ALL of the fairies and all of the gods and all of everything else and stuff you presumed was fictional and gods and magic... but on the down-low."
PC: "And here's the OTHER end. With ALL o' that Gaiman stuff taken OUT... which doesn't mean the characters don't still see it in the background, overlaying everything."
ES: That's one of the things that Age of Bronze means, one of its themes. Not very revolutionary, but sometimes it's hard to see unless it's pointed out specifically. Obviously Age of Bronze isn't pointing it out specifically, but I hope it makes readers aware of the way beliefs in the supernatural can affect our lives in real ways and that sometimes those ways aren't so great.
ES: Do I dare admit that I haven't read Sandman? Except for the Prez issue which DC had me read when I was drawing the Prez one-shot from Vertigo back in the mid-90s. Sorry. But I think I see your point without being familiar with one of your subjects.
PC: Yeah. The other end of Age of Bronze is where the characters believe so much that sometimes they see what they expect... and sometimes the guys standing next to them see the same stuff... which talks to them about stuff they never would have imagined
PC: It's like if we took a Harryhausen Argonauts movie and edited out all the scenes where he talks to the gods... an oarsman just sees him go into a temple, and he comes out with information...
ES: Yeah, like I did when Agamemnon and the others visited Delphi in issue #8. Except I did it that way because I couldn't find out what Delphi looked like in the Bronze Age.
ES: Incidentally, I love, love, love the movie Jason and the Argonauts.
ES: I have no problem reading stories with supernatural stuff in 'em. Hey, I love Oz. But it's just not my approach with Age of Bronze. And your description of the temple is actually what I do mostly in Age of Bronze, anything that might appear actually supernatural is offstage. I have drawn some scenes of visions, but I hope that I've made it clear that they're just in a particular character's point-of-view. Usually Kalchas's.
PC: Right, that's what I'm saying.
ES: When I was a kid I really liked a lot of other Greek myths, such as the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Also Theseus and the Minotaur. I didn't like the Trojan War much when I was a kid. I think it's too sprawling a story, with too many aspects that don't have much kid-appeal.
PC: Well it's, er, another imprint. Olympus-Mature, suggested for mature readers.
PC: Well, that was an exciting (as such) ending, potentially... anything else you'd like to cover before we go?
ES: Well, I could probably go on about Age of Bronze for days. And I will if you let me. But I gotta walk the dog. One of my next projects is a three page Uncle Scrooge story. Don't think it's scheduled for publication yet, though. So I don't know when it'll be out. The next Age of Bronze volume, Betrayal Part One, will be out within the next six weeks or so. I just uploaded the final files to Image last Monday. With all the revised Helen faces.
PC: Wowee. Okay. Yes, perhaps we'll talk Ancient World shop again some time.