A Professional Comics Experience With Andy Schmidt

A comics interview article by: Andy Schmidt
Andy Schmidt spent his career at Marvel Comics editing such titles as X-Men, Annihilation, Madrox, Drax, Ms. Marvel, Union Jack, X-Factor, and Captain America: The Chosen. Earlier this summer though, with the impending birth of his son, Andy opted to end his Marvel editorial career and become a freelance writer.

As someone who has been Andy’s friend since 2005 (coincidentally, he and I share the same birthday), I was simultaneously happy for Andy’s imminent fatherhood… and mighty pissed that the bastard left Marvel JUST as I was about to pitch him some story ideas. Great timing, buddy! So in mid-June I seized the opportunity to duly roast Andy on his Marvel departure.

Recently, Andy and I spoke about his latest venture: Comics Experience, a series of classes and seminars—involving guest speakers Peter David, Dan Slott, Jae Lee, Walter Simonson, Christos Gage, Nick Lowe and Khoi Pham, among others—designed to teach the comic book profession to aspiring writers and artists.

Keith Dallas: It’s been five months since you’ve departed Marvel’s environmental control-broken hallways. How did the transition to fatherhood and a freelance career treat you?

Andy Schmidt: It’s been great. I’m really enjoying being a father and I get to spend more time with Cale than I ever thought I would be able to. And freelancing is going smoothly. I’ve been able to maintain a nice balance between paying work and my own creator-owned properties. Of course, it’s really strange being on the outside now after my years on the inside, but so far, everyone’s been supportive.

Cale Schmidt’s editorial training:
giving Tigger the disapproving staredown.

Keith: That’s good to hear.
I was looking at your Comics Experience website today. I didn’t realize how far along you had gotten setting this up, and honestly, even though you’ve told me about your plans before, I didn’t realize just how multi-faceted Comics Experience is. Seriously, I just assumed this was going to be a “simple” expansion of your MoCCA [Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art] seminar “Breaking Into Comics for Writers,” but Comics Experience seems much more involved than that.

Andy: It definitely is! I’m trying to create the ultimate resource for creators who want to break into comics, are already into comics, and for the person who wants to learn about comics. It’s a whole big thing. Unfortunately, not all of it is up and running quite yet, but the website will be growing over the next couple of months.

My class at MoCCA was something I did on the side while editing at Marvel, and helping newer talent was always a passion of mine while working as an editor. Now I get to do it full time. This is now my full-time job—helping talented writers and artists connect with each other, with comics professionals, publishers, graphic designers, colorists, and letterers, production staff, all of it. There’s a lot of work that goes into making comics, and I’m hoping to cut down on all the hassles while helping talented writers and artists develop.

Anyone who is a writer or artist—or wants to be—can already sign up for the intro classes on either writing or art. And it’s not just me they’re getting. When putting these together, I decided that I’d build classes that I would want to take myself—it seemed like the best way to make sure it was worth the money. So I’ve been seeking out some really great guest speakers too!

Keith: Sorry Andy, I know where you’re headed, but I’m just not available to be a guest speaker. (And before you interject, you should realize that a true friend humors delusions of grandeur; he doesn’t dispel them.)
Anyway, you just said that helping newer talent was a passion of yours. Really? Why? I’m not doubting your sincerity; I just find it to be a unique sentiment. Most comic book professionals I’ve encountered talk about the exhilaration of meeting fans or collaborating with fellow professionals.

Andy: Yeah, both of those are exciting too. I remember meeting George Perez for the first time—here’s the first comic artist whose name I bothered learning because his work was so cool—and he’s standing in my office. I got so tongue tied—ugh. I’m still embarrassed.

BUT, for me, there’s just something about really getting into a script or a penciler’s layouts and making suggestions that lead to improved work. It’s really gratifying to know that you’re actually helping a specific person in a very real way. And I loved helping talent grow.

That doesn’t mean I’m trying to take credit for the skills of the talented people I’ve worked with. I always try to ask questions too, figure out why they may have done one thing instead of another. Always be learning. That’s my top piece of advice to any creator—always be learning.

So, yeah, I loved reading new independent books, and looking for new people. It’s like digging for gold, I think (not that I’ve ever been digging for gold), in that you find a lot of stuff that looks like good comics but needs some help getting into the right shape. And when you find that golden creator or when you help dust it off and smooth out the rough edges—then you’ve really affected a person’s life. And that’s awesome.

Keith: Something else you said also struck me: “all the hassles while developing talented writers and artists.” What exactly do you mean by this? Was this something you experienced as a Marvel editor?

Andy: Yes, of course. If we’re talking about hiring someone new at an established publisher, then the hassles come from both ends—the publisher and, often, from the new talent as well. It can be as simple as the person has never done work-for-hire and wants to scrutinize the contract to not knowing how to take criticism, not understanding how to do an effective rewrite, or just being a little too jumpy—getting ahead of oneself. There are a ton of logistical hassles on the publisher’s side to overcome as well. Simply put, it’s easier to hire someone who’s already set up in “the system” than it is to hire someone new.

And there are hassles if you’re not dealing with a bigger publisher as well. When creating your own thing—you think you only need a writer, penciler, inker, and letterer (maybe a color artist). But that’s not the case. You don’t realize that you’re going to have problems moving files from one person to another, that everyone needs the same computer programs, that you’ll need a person who really knows how to do production work, and that you’ll have to follow certain production guidelines, and that you need a designer—there are a hundred things you don’t think about—and don’t WANT to think about—when you just want to make great comics.

And that’s one of the things Comics Experience is here to help with. So that creators are prepared and understand what they’re getting into—and ultimately, how to navigate through it all without going mad.

Keith: Alright, so the courses you’re offering are: “Introduction to Comics Writing,” “Introduction to Comic Book Art,” “Advanced Comics Writing,” and “Advanced Comics Art.” Do you determine whether a student belongs in the Introductory class or the Advanced class? Or do you let the student decide that?

Andy: Great question. Really, they are designed so that one builds on the other, so yeah, someone wanting to take Advanced Writing, should take Intro first. In fact, you can’t actually sign up for the Advanced classes right now—no Paypal button for them. And that’s because I don’t want people skipping ahead.

This is a tough thing to communicate to people without sounding like a jerk, but everyone needs to unlearn bad habits, learn the basics—backwards and forwards—before they move onto something bigger. The Advanced class isn’t going to help someone that much if they haven’t taken the Intro.

That said, in certain cases, I may make exceptions. That person would probably want to talk with me on the phone first to make sure it’s a good fit. Bottom line, I don’t want anyone taking a class from me that I’m not confident that he or she is going to get some really valuable experience from. That does neither of us any good.

If you want to check out the course listings and descriptions (and/or sign up for one of the Intro courses), simply go directly to the Courses and Seminars page of the website. You’ll get the overview, and signing up is easy as can be. If you’re unsure of when they are, simply give me a call and I’ll fill you in. It really can’t be any simpler.

Keith: So what’s the end goal of the course? To be a better writer? To be in the position to pitch proposals to the comic book publishers?

Andy: There are two tracks here—one for writers and one for artists (although taking both is perfectly fine with me—the more you learn, the better off you are).

So the end goal for the writers class is to get everyone up to an industry standard level. You get the basics on how to write, format your scripts, etc. And we cover basic networking. The thing is, every individual is different. Not everyone wants to work at Marvel or DC, so I don’t focus intensely on breaking in at any one particular place.

The Advanced writers class gets into how to create a whole series—how to finesse your concepts, characters, and marketing strategies. It’s funny, but you can’t just force all of this on someone at once. Ideas take time to percolate through the brain. So the Advanced section takes a break from the Intro—let’s the people taking the classes work on their own for a bit, face new challenges in their own writing—and then they come back for the Advanced class and we cover the bigger fair—expanding on the foundation laid in the first intro course.

For artists, it’s similar to the writers track. The Intro course gets everyone on the same page and leads the students or attendees up to an industry standard—everything from basic layout and design, storytelling, to production values and what kinds of pencils and inks to use.

The Advanced class then focuses more on the bigger picture, how to tell a whole story instead of just a scene or sequence, how to prepare a great portfolio, team up with a writer appropriate for you, and all of that sort of thing. Again, all of it builds on the Intro class. By the time you’ve completed both classes, you’ve got all the tools you need to make a successful venture into comics!

Keith: Now as you say that, I feel compelled to ask, how are you going to handle the students who assume your class will automatically gain them employment with a comic book publisher? I mean, there’s going to be at least one person (and more likely, more than one) who misinterprets the purpose of your class and assumes you’re going to be their Scott Boras and land them the exclusive three year DC Comics exclusive contract along with the Justice League of America writing gig. Of course, I’m providing the hyperbolic scenario, but perhaps you’ve even encountered these kinds of people at your MoCCA classes?

Andy: I have, yes. I had one student about two years ago who felt like as I talked about networking that by connecting with me that that was all he needed to do. When I didn’t hire him right out of my class, he was either offended or thought I was full of it. I really like the guy, and I liked his writing, but six weeks is just not enough time to go from 0 to 60 when writing comics. It might be for an artist—they’re easier to judge, but still probably not.

How do I deal with that case? I found out how he felt and that he was angry after the fact. But I never promise to get people hired. That’s out of my control. How could I possibly promise that? The terrible part of the story is that he is a talented writer and had improved significantly during the course he took. I think, had he stayed in touch and continued working, he would be published comic writer by now.

We’re Americans—we like quick and easy. But there’s really no substitute for hard work—and when you work hard for something, it means more when you achieve it. You will value it and protect it, and that means you’re much more likely to stay professional and have a full career instead of just one short story somewhere.

Again, it’s this long-term goal that Comics Experience is designed for. No one else has this in mind. That doesn’t mean that change doesn’t happen quickly. My students tend to improve quickly when they apply themselves, and they usually do.

Keith: I couldn’t see on the website where classes are planned to meet. I assume they’ll be held in the New York Metropolitan area.

Andy: Yes, they are being held in Manhattan. When you sign up for the class, I let you know where it is exactly. That’s mainly because I can’t accept payment at the door, so it’s a logistical thing for me. Registration for a course or seminar must be done on-line. But classes are held close to Midtown, not up in Harlem or down in Bowling Green. Easy access is important.

Keith: I see for people outside the New York City area, you offer Personal Consulting Services via telephone. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing this personal consulting you offer is more of a “reactionary situation” than a structured tutorial: “Tell me your problem and I’ll tell you ways to solve it.”

Andy: Yes and no. It is more personalized, but what I’ve found is that often people feel like they’re covered on all areas but one or two. Usually, we get deeper into the consultation and we both realize there are some other things that need to be covered before we get to the topics they wanted to discuss in the beginning.

What I’ve learned from those situations is to ask a few pointed questions at the beginning and then formulate a kind of structure from there. It’s a very organic process, but it’s not entirely free-flowing.

I’m enjoying the personal consulting more and more. At first I thought it was kind of egotistical, but now it’s great. I’m connecting with people on a more personal level.

Keith: On one page on your website you claim you will teach your students “how to avoid the three most deadly common mistakes by professionals just starting out.” Alright, paint me curious; what are the three most deadly common mistakes?

Andy: There are three categories that I put them in:
  1. The “Eager Beaver” is the guy who is as persistent as can be but doesn’t have the credentials yet to justify getting a mainstream gig. God bless him, he’s got the drive, no doubt about that, but he just needs to figure out how to build to writing The Ultimates or All-Star Superman.

  2. The “Nonchalant Genius” is the guy who probably really does have the goods but doesn’t know how to present himself very well. He’s low key and isn’t great talking with people. He’s the next Grant Morrison, but no one will ever know because he’s too humble and isn’t enthusiastic when speaking to editors. If you’re not excited by your own idea, how do you expect me to be?

  3. The “I-want-the-World Monger” is the guy who does have a bit of publishing history and thinks that he should be able to write his own ticket wherever he goes. He’s lost sight of the fact that publishers—even when dealing with a creator owned property—have to get something out of the partnership. This guy is in serious danger of burning bridges.
The thing is, these are common mistakes and they’re not easy to recognize in yourself nor easy to correct. Sometimes, you just need help. And help is exactly what Comics Experience offers.

Keith: That’s a real interesting classification. I can’t tell you how many “Eager Beavers” I’ve seen at comic book conventions who have walked up to the microphone during the Q&A portion of a DC Comics or Marvel Comics panel and announced, “I’ve written a [insert best selling DC or Marvel title] script that I would like to submit...” And he’s always drowned in a chorus of “boos” before he can even finish his sentence.

Andy: Awkwaaaaaard. I’ve never actually seen that exactly happen, I’m glad to say. But yeah, that’s probably the right kind of guy. In that case, that’s just not an appropriate time for that question. Yet another pitfall.

Keith: You’ve never seen that? Oh, trust me, it’s a sight to behold. You get to watch a guy’s dreams get absolutely crushed in front of 200 unsympathetic people.
Anyway, now that you’re a free-lancer, do you warn yourself about fitting into one of these categories? If so, which one?

Andy: Yes. I’m most inclined naturally to be the “I-Want-The-World” guy. I have a tendency to see where my ideas can lead if developed properly. I’m a long-term thinker in that regard. So when I’m talking about a little three-issue limited series, a publisher may see three issues and that’s it, but I may see three issues, a video game, a TV series, a card game, toys, and building an empire based off of it. So, yeah, I have a feeling I’m inclined to ask for too much before I’ve proven myself as a writer.

I’ve proven myself as an editor, but writing is different, and I’m not seen as a big name as a writer—YET!

Keith: Go get ‘em, Tiger! (I did say true friends humor delusions of grandeur, didn’t I?)
Anyway, I don’t know if you still reference this, but last year for Write Now! Magazine you wrote a very detailed article titled “Breaking into Comics (And Staying In) For Writers.” Among other things, you provide some great advice on the proper way to pitch to publishers.
Specifically, you stress that a story most probably isn’t very strong if major characters can be substituted without the story being affected. In other words, if someone pitched you a Spider-Man story and told you that it could also be a Daredevil story, then the story isn’t likely to be very good because it’s not really about Spider-Man or Daredevil. It’s just a plot.
Recently, I had pitched a Star Trek story to IDW involving a specific villain and planet. IDW got back to me and said they liked the story, but (A) Paramount won’t allow their Star Trek line of comic books to feature the villain my story was using, and (B) IDW already had a series in the works that used the same planet my story was on. So IDW rejected the proposal but encouraged me to pitch them some more ideas, which I saw as progress.
A friend of mine though asked me if I could pitch them the same story but just use a different villain and planet. I pretty much immediately told him that my story worked ONLY if it featured the villain and planet I initially wanted to use. Once I realized that, I said to myself, “I’ve been a good student of Andy Schmidt’s without even taking his class.”

Andy: Uuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… Dude, you should have switched the names and taken the money! Always take the money!

Keith: Now you tell me.
Comics Experience is an exhibitor at this weekend’s Big Apple Convention in Manhattan. At the convention are you merely distributing information or are you registering students as well?

Andy: Signing people up! Come visit the booth, we’ll have handouts and all kinds of good stuff! You can talk with me and my crew and see if the courses are right for you.

I’m also hosting a panel on Saturday at 1:30 on “Breaking Into Comics” (are you sensing a theme here?) with not just me but also writer Peter David, penciler Khoi Pham, Marvel editor John Barber, and Danny Fingeroth to help out and relate their stories about the breaking in.

As far as signing up for a course, coming to the con is great because there, it’s just $25.00 to sign up and that guarantees your seat for the first night of class. You don’t like it after the first night, no further commitment. If you do like it, then you’ll just pay the rest after the first night.

If anyone has any questions, look around the website at www.comicsexperience.com or just give my office a call—number’s on the website.

If you want to learn more or just stay in the loop about next course offerings and the one-day seminars, you can sign up for our free newsletter at the website. It’s in the yellow box on the left of the page. It’s a great way just to keep tabs on what’s going on with us.

Go now and make comics!

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