TCJ 300 Conversations: Stan Sakai & Chris Schweizer

Posted by on December 25th, 2009 at 4:05 AM

 


From “The Goblin of Adachi Plain” in Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 1, ©2007 Stan Sakai.


Sakai:
You know, there were two different types of comic-book buyers during the black-and-white explosion. Some were the people who really enjoyed the comic books, and there are the others — speculators, hoping that something they’d buy would turn out to be the new Ninja Turtles. But, like I said, even though there were a lot of good black-and-white books at that time, most of them just disappeared. I think because Usagi was at the beginning of the black and white craze that it stood out, and that’s one of the big reasons why it’s still around.

Schweizer:
Were there any concerns about doing things in black and white before it had been proven to be commercially viable?

Sakai:
You know, I remember at the first San Diego con that we had copies of Albedo #2; we could not give away copies. But the next year they were going for $100!

Schweizer:
Was it because it was in black and white?

Sakai:
Because they were black and white. Back then there was just a handful of black-and-white books. There was ElfQuest, Cerebus, Love and Rockets.

Schweizer:
Love and Rockets, was that even going on then?

Sakai:
That was going on, yes. And Matt Wagner’s Grendel. That’s about it. And the Turtles, of course.

Schweizer:
I’m trying to think of what’s comparable to that sort of publishing now, because there doesn’t seem to be anything that is comparable. We’ve got webcomics and we’ve got minicomics.

Sakai:
Nowadays, it’s easier to be noticed; however, it’s harder to be published, because print books just do not sell as much. Publishers can’t afford to risk a comic book for a newcomer. But, it’s difficult to invest money in a full-blown trade. In your case you started out with a graphic novel.

Schweizer:
I did. I was really lucky. But I had done a few minicomics for the love of doing them and to have stuff to trade. Minicomics are invariably a money-loser. You almost never make back what you spent printing them up. And definitely not the more ornate ones that require die-cutting and things like that, just because of the time involved. I put together for SPX a couple of years ago a 300-page rhyming minicomic that was four perfect-bound little volumes, each the size of a business card that slipped into this slipcase that had this fold-over flap and all these other things, and each piece of paper was cut to make 28 pages. Each one took about six hours to assemble. In terms of time management, that’s about the worst thing you can do as a cartoonist, is to spend all of your time working on these.

But, I think that those, from what I’ve seen, tend to create validity for the artists that are doing them to the other cartoonists their age. It shows that they’re serious about what they’re doing. That they’re willing to put in that legwork. And I think to some degree that shows to the publishers as well. Not necessarily for the ornate working, but the editors that I know, most of them want to see that people finish things. They’re not going to offer a book based on a strong portfolio, they want to see if you can finish something. Even if that something is an eight-page comic that you put together yourself, the simple act of completion is such an important step to get published these days.

Sakai:
The best thing you can do is leave something with a publisher — even if it is a minicomic. It gives an air of professionalism or legitimacy to it.

Schweizer:
It does. And I think it gives you as an artist a sense of professionalism. You talked about finishing that eight-page Albedo story and how that was this huge feat, and I felt the same way when I finished my first mini, because I had done tons and tons and tons of comic pages that were roughly set in the middle of my story and ended well before the end of my story. I wanted to draw this particular action sequence or capture this conversation or stuff like that, practicing more that anything else. But I’d never really completed a story, and so the first story that I did after I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist gave me the confidence to do a 12-page story, and then a 24-page story and then a 300-page rhyming minicomic.

And all of those made me feel prepared to tackle this larger historical project because it was something that I knew I wanted to do eventually, but was also sort of terrified of. It was very daunting in its scale. It’s something that now I feel very confident about. I hope that it’ll be good and I’ll do everything that I can that it’ll be good, but I know that I can get it done, which is something that I didn’t know a few years ago.

Sakai:
Well, there is that wondering, because like me, you do everything yourself. My editor, Diana, doesn’t see the story until she gets the finished project, so sometimes I wonder if the story is any good. There was just one case, where I turned in a story and I wrote a note saying, “Read this as soon as you get it. I want your input on this.” My first editor at Dark Horse was Jamie Rich, and he was great, because as soon as he’d receive a package from me, he’d read it, call me, and I’d have his input immediately.

Schweizer:
Were there ever any situations where you had to change anything?

Sakai:
Just once when I was doing Usagi for Fantagraphics. One panel had Usagi cutting a guy’s head open. There were brains flying out. There was blood spurting out of his ears —

Schweizer:
I noticed that the blood is a lot less cartoony in the early books.

Sakai:
Yeah. Kim [Thompson], my editor, called me and said, “This might be a little extreme,” but even before he called me, I had shown it to my wife Sharon, and she said, “It’s a bit too much.” By the time Kim called me on it, it had already been changed.

Schweizer:
The way you talk about sending those in, that’s similar to mine, I think. James didn’t see the book until I gave him the whole thing.

Sakai:
Yeah.


Detail from the character line-up from Crogan’s March, courtesy of and ©2009 Chris Schweizer.


Schweizer:
Without the framing sequence [a modern dad telling his kids about their ancestors]… I knew I was going to do the framing sequence, but I hadn’t written it yet. And it’s sort of the same thing now. He’s coming to Atlanta in about a week or so, and so I’ll show him what I have so far, but I doubt he’ll have the time to actually sit and read it. I think that’ll be once it’s completely done. My hope is that I do a good enough job that he doesn’t insist on any changes, because one of the bad sides about doing everything yourself is that you plan it to fit in certain parameters, and you really can’t change much. You can’t just get rid of a panel or add a panel without changing the entire book, which is all but impossible. It’s not like a novel where you can add a line or take out a line or something like that. It’s structured in a way that makes editing extraordinarily difficult, at least for me.

Sakai:
Where do you see the future of book publishing going?

Schweizer:
I’d like to see more books aimed at kids, or friendly for kids. Part of my presentation tomorrow is on comics that are actually appropriate for all ages. Comics aimed at kids, but that are palatable to middle-schoolers or to high-schoolers and to adults.

Sakai:
You have an Eisner nomination for Best Graphic Novel for Tweens, is it?

Schweizer:
Yes. Tweens and teens. And the way that I’m approaching mine is what I always want to see. I write them for adults, but I make sure there is nothing in them that would prohibit kids from reading them. I think that kids are smart. They’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and so because it’s pirates, or it’s a ninja, or something like that, in theory, the subject matter will latch them in and then I hope that the story will be enough for them to make it through, but I’m trying to write for adults so that whoever picks it up will enjoy it.

But there are a number of books out there that are like that. Aaron Renier’s Spiral Bound is one of my favorites that I think carries across. Are you familiar with Eleanor Davis’s work? She’s done a few things for Mome, and she did that kid’s book Stinky, but she’s got a new book coming out called The Secret Science Alliance that is full-color and it’s absolutely gorgeous, but I think that it’s got the potential to be one of those books that’s going to suck in a lot more kid readers, the way that Bone did. And the way that any number of other titles are, when they get into situations where they can be in book fairs and things like that.

My thought and my hope is that those readers will continue to read comics, and will read our comics so that we can make a living. That’s the biggest thing: that, for years, kids were, to some degree, neglected, just by the industry at large. And I think we’re starting to see a big shift away from that, with companies like First Second and Scholastic’s line and things like that. I think that we’re going to continue to see a shift towards all ages. Again, not just kids, but to where kids are included in the equation in a way that they weren’t.

My generation of cartoonists, we don’t really have any battles to fight. For so long people were trying to focus that comics can be literature and comics can be a valid art form, that now it seems that the majority of people tend to agree. Not everybody. I still have relatives, “Are you drawing Batman?” and stuff like that. At least most of the people who I know that are around my age that are making comics really don’t feel the need to prove themselves or create stories that push the boundaries; they seem to be more just about the fact that they’re telling stories — that they’re working in comics. There isn’t an underlying agenda that I think a lot of the earlier comics people had to deal with because there wasn’t that artistic recognition, so thanks to you guys for fighting those battles for us!

Sakai:
You write adult stories that kids can enjoy. For me, I don’t write to adults and I don’t write to kids. The stories I write are the stories I would like to read.

Schweizer:
Well, when I say adults and kids, I write for what I would want to read and for what I would have wanted to read when I was a kid. I say it’s for other kids so that they won’t feel left out. But that’s the real joy of cartooning, that you do get to focus on these things that you love. And you get to tell stories about whatever! You feel like doing a Godzilla story, you draw him in there! You know, it’s really nice to have that freedom to basically do whatever you want, and to tell these stories. You may never have the chance to helm a Godzilla movie.

Sakai:
Right, exactly. I’ve been very fortunate. My publishers have always granted me a lot of leeway. And basically I just turn in the work, and they publish it.

Schweizer:
Yeah, it’s a great gig!

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