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Diana Schutz: Q&A

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2004
Posted By: Tim O'Shea

Diana Schutz has a rather modest bio in the back pages of AutobioGraphix: “Diana Schutz is a senior editor at Dark Horse Comics and an adjunct instructor of comics history and criticism at Portland Community College.” The top storytellers that respect and work with her on a continual basis clearly speaks to how skilled an editor she is, if you consider the long list includes Frank Miller, Matt Wagner, Will Eisner, Sergio Aragonés, Stan Sakai, Paul Chadwick, Paul Hornschemeier, Linda Medley and Eddie Campbell. And her editorial skills were yet again recognized this past week, when the 2004 Eisner nominations were unveiled and included a Best Anthology nomination for AutobioGraphix, which was edited by Schutz. So, with this nomination, I considered myself fortunate to recently have had the opportunity to interview Schutz about AutobioGraphix. For those unfamiliar with the collection, which was released in late 2003, here’s the official line from Dark Horse: “Dedicated readers have long known that the medium of comics and graphic novels isn't all about caped superheroes. In fact, the combination of words and pictures can be the perfect vehicle for telling all kinds of stories. This collection of short stories illustrates, quite literally, the effectiveness of the medium for telling the most personal of stories -- the autobiography -- and does so by showcasing some of the first published autobiographical stories from living-legend artists, mainstream greats, and young ‘indie’ up-and-comers.” My thanks to Schutz for her time and thoughts, as well as thanks to Dark Horse's Lee Dawson for facilitating this interview.

Tim O’Shea: I was surprised to find that many of the creators are quite different storytellers when telling stories about themselves. When you developed the project, did you expect such results?

Diana Schutz: Actually, yes — at least, I certainly hoped so, especially in the case of those cartoonists who tend to work in the context of more traditional, more commercial comics. By the same token, there’s a sense in which those cartoonists carried a semblance of that over into their personal stories. I mean, Matt Wagner, for instance, was able to invest his recipe for chicken parmigiana with an overwhelmingly mythic quality!

TO: In editing the book, how did you decide the placement of the stories? None two artists are similar, nor none of them share similar themes (except that of autobiography, of course).

DS: It’s curious that reviews have both lauded and castigated me for story placement. Some people know exactly what I was thinking, and some don’t get it at all. It’s hardly a science!

I knew I wanted to start with Frank’s “Man With Pen in Head” — because it’s kind of a balls-out, in-your-face, very non-traditional approach to an autobiographical tale. About as far from navel-gazing as you can get! And I knew I wanted to end with Paul Hornschemeier’s deeply meditative and philosophical “Of This Much We Are Certain” — which calls into question the very nature of truth, and so, thereby, the very nature of the anthology’s enterprise.

In between the two, it was a matter of shaking the stories out in a way that would highlight stylistic contrasts, thematic similarities, and variations on mood and tone, without either entirely jarring readers or letting them ever get too complacent.

Finally, there are the simple mechanics of righthand/lefthand pages, which must also be taken into account, especially when some of the stories contain an odd number of pages.

TO: Can you tell us which creators leapt at the opportunity to (as you put it)”bare one’s soul in print”? Also who (again as you put it in the book’s Afterword) had to be “cajoled or browbeat for their participation”?

DS: I don’t know that anyone “leapt”! Jason Lutes, I remember, was particularly excited to challenge himself with an autobiographical piece, because this was his first — and, man, did he knock it out of the park! Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, my Brazilian twin brothers, whose work I’ve been following for years now, were delighted that I finally offered them publication, especially with such a stellar line-up of creators.

Frank and Matt had to be cajoled. Autobio is something that has never really appealed to either of them — at least not in terms of having a very public forum for stories about their personal lives — but I think their creative muscles were stretched in good ways with their respective stories, and I know they were both really happy with their individual contributions.

And although Will Eisner’s stories are based in the real world and just redolent with humanity, he’s never done outright autobiography — always disguised it, as in The Dreamer, or used it as more of a springboard, as in To the Heart of the Storm. Plus, he’s always very busy, working on one graphic novel after another, so I had to ask him especially sweetly for his involvement!

TO: Which stories did you find most insightful or appealed to you most (if any did more than the others, that is)? For me, it was educational to learn about Ludwig Bemelmans through Eisner’s tale. But the litany of Paul Chadwick’s former roommates (anywhere from Thomas Kinkade to Mark Verheiden) really boggled my mind. Yet in the end, the candor of Eddie Campbell’s “I Have Lost My Sense of Humour” had the greatest impact on me.

DS: Gadzooks! You can’t really be asking me to name my favorites! Not only would I piss off some cartoonists if I tried to list the stories in the order in which they most appealed to me — but that would be an impossible task anyway. I’m not being disingenuous here when I say I was thrilled at every turn, with each story that was done for this book.

TO: On the other hand, in the editorial process were there any creators tapped for the project (no names, I realize) that brought less than stellar tales to the table, and had to be cut from the effort?

DS: No one was cut. I went after each and every one of the cartoonists; it was an invitation-only kind of a gig! I knew which creators I wanted, and I had every faith that each of them could deliver. And they all did.

TO: Did you hesitate including one of your stories in a book you edited?

DS: Not even for a minute. “Tuesday Night at the Jazz Club” was first published in Dark Horse Presents #97, May 1995. I wanted the story in more permanent form — something that I could keep on a bookshelf, in other words — and because I was the editor, I got away with it! That allowed me to make a small edit to the first page that’d been bugging me since May of ’95, and it also gave me the chance to pay tribute once again to my old friend Leroy Vinnegar, the subject of the story, who died in 1999.

TO: Out of the 16 stories, only two of them were not told by males (unless I miscounted). Did you wish you could have included more female storytellers, or did gender concerns even enter the editorial evaluation process?

DS: The Franco-Scottish duo known as “Metaphrog” is one-half female, though Sandra is the artist, not the writer. Actually, the main concern I had with gender was not to encroach upon my next anthology, Sexy Chix, an all-girl anthology wherein the “sexy chix” in question are the cartoonists themselves.

TO: Was Dark Horse pleased enough with the results of this project to entertain the possibility of a second volume? If not, are there other “more personal, less strictly commercial projects” (your words, again from the book’s Afterword) in the offing?

DS: Sexy Chix, for one, which is tentatively slated for November 2004.

Actually, Mike Richardson has been letting me edit an annual anthology ever since the year 2000 — though the first two started life as 48-page comics, followed in 2002 with Dark Horse Maverick: Happy Endings, which contained the Eisner Award winning story “The Magician and the Snake” by Mike and (his daughter) Katie Mignola. I much prefer the book format, and I like setting a theme; it lends a cohesiveness to the anthology that I think works both creatively and from a marketing perspective.

In 2005, I plan to do my ultimate dream project: Book of Love, an anthology of real romance stories. Not satires, not porn, not the insipid love comics of the ’60s or ’70s — but serious, heartfelt stories about emotional relationships. Those are very difficult to write and make visually interesting, but this will also be invitation-only and I already have commitments from some of the top talents in our medium.

TO: In addition to your editorial responsibilities at DH, you are an adjunct instructor at Portland Community College. Through this connection, you discovered student Richard Doutt, whose story “The Tree” was drawn by Farel Dalrymple for inclusion in the book. Have you explored the possibility of doing a similar book completely with pieces from the college’s students and funded by Portland Community College?

DS: That kind of thing has been attempted before, and it simply isn’t viable from a sales point of view. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that PCC could fund something like that. (Community colleges aren’t faring too well financially under the current presidential administration.)

I teach a comics art history and criticism course every fall semester, and Richard’s story “The Tree” was done as that semester’s creative assignment: each student had to write and draw an eight-page minicomic. Out of the 30 or so minicomics handed in, only “The Tree” was of publication quality, in my opinion.

Dave Sim once said he drew 2000 pages of comics art before his work was finally publishable. I don’t think there’s much point to publishing work of substandard quality. I’m all about making the books under my editorial aegis as good as they can possibly be.

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