Alumni Spotlight recognizes a chosen Kubert School alum showcasing their work and journey after The Kubert School.
Talent from The Kubert School
Interview by Michael Kraiger
Eric Shanower is a 1984 graduate of The Kubert School. He is an Eisner award-winning artist and writer as well-known for his work on various Wizard of Oz projects as his stunning AGE OF BRONZE, the complete retelling of the Trojan War.
TKS: Looking at your biography we see that you moved around quite a bit when you were younger. Even so, you came to the Kubert School right after high school. What was that experience like?
Eric Shanower: I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was in high school. In tenth grade my dream job was to draw the Justice League of America comic. I was ready to leave home after high school and anxious to start attending the Kubert School. Moving to New Jersey from northern California was a little bit of a culture shock, even though I’d lived many other places before. The first weeks at the school were fun. I was just drinking in new experiences, meeting my classmates, drawing a lot. Although there was a lot of work the first year, it wasn’t overwhelming and I usually had free time on weekends. The second year was a lot more work, but it was also a lot more fun – more parties and my friendships with other students grew stronger. I also knew more people in the area outside of school.
TKS: Is there anything from your time at the school that particularly stands out – a lesson, a teacher, or a class?
Eric Shanower: José Delbo was a great teacher for the type of comics I wanted to do. He was also a nice guy. Watching Joe Kubert ink on vellum over a student’s pencils was always riveting. Learning the Hildebrandt method of painting from Greg Hildebrandt was exciting. I think the most valuable thing I got from the Kubert School was just that it made me work hard at improving my craft in a relatively short period of time. The second year of the three was really a fun year. I worked hard that year, but there were lots of parties and I spent a lot of time with friends. There was no pressure except to get schoolwork finished. My memories of second year have a lot of joy and freedom. Third year, however, was not much fun. That was the year the school was crowded and classes ran double-shift, so third year classes started really early in the morning. Also, the end of school was approaching fast and all the third year students had to figure out what they were going to do next. I remember people being pretty grumpy a lot of the time.
TKS: Also, according to your biography, you got your first professional job in comics the day after you graduated. How did that come about?
Eric Shanower: During my final semester I was afraid of having no work when school finished. My parents had helped a lot with money during school, but I was facing making it on my own after graduation. So during the months before graduation I started sending my portfolio out to comic book publishers and seeing editors at DC and Marvel in New York City. The day after the final day of classes at The Kubert School, First Comics hired me to letter an issue of Warp. And the next day DC Comics hired me to draw a story for New Talent Showcase.
TKS: So you actually started your career doing lettering. Did you see this as just a means to getting your foot in the door or were you ready to do lettering for the long haul?
Eric Shanower: I saw lettering as a way to get my foot in the door. Adam and Andy Kubert were classmates, and I knew they lettered comics. On Fridays during our third year they lettered professional work in class. I figured that lettering was easy, I could do it well, and it might be a lot easier to get lettering work than penciling work right away. So even though I already knew how to do comics lettering pretty well (thanks to Hy Eisman’s class), I started practicing lettering – half an hour a night before bed. And I included lettering samples in my portfolio. And obviously it did get me work and just as obviously I wasn’t trapped into lettering for my career. I lettered other people’s comics professionally for less than a year and was drawing and inking other jobs most of that time, too. I still letter Age of Bronze myself, the old-fashioned way—by hand.
TKS: From lettering you moved on to inking Nexus, one of the most influential independent comics of its time. Guys you had gone to school with were reading and following that comic. Was that something you actively pursued or were you an inker in the right place at the right time?
Eric Shanower: With Nexus I was in the right place at the right time. I’d been lettering comics for First Comics, the new publisher of Nexus. The folks at First knew I could do more than letter, so they had me try out as an inker, first on Grimjack – didn’t get that job – then on Nexus. Got the job. I was really happy to work on Nexus, since it was one of my favorite comics at the time.
TKS: Now when you were doing lettering, were you working on inking samples to show editors? And to carry that further, while inking were, you working on doing penciling samples to show around?
Eric Shanower: I got penciling work right away from DC, as I mentioned above. I also drew a story for Creepy Magazine the summer after graduation. I was working on the proposal for my Oz comic series while all this was going on. That proposal made the rounds at many publishers, initially DC Comics. Then First Comics and Warp Graphics were interested. I finally went with First and had to give up inking Nexus because I didn’t have time for it anymore.
TKS: You seem to be the go-to guy when it comes to all things Oz. How did your first graphic novel The Enchanted Apples of Oz come about? What I'm wondering is did you propose the idea to First Comics?
Eric Shanower: I’d been working on a proposal for an Oz comic book series during my final year at JKS. Then for the final assignment in Joe Kubert’s class, Joe assigned a four-page story and said if anyone wanted to do a war story, he’d consider it for a back-up in Sgt. Rock. So I did an Oz war story that Joe accepted for publication. I ended up withdrawing it, but while the pages were at DC, Nick Cuti saw it. Nick was developing a children’s comics line for DC to compete with Marvel’s Star Comics line. Nick asked me to put together a proposal for an Oz comic for consideration. So I finished the proposal I’d started in school and submitted it. DC’s children’s line never came to fruition, so I sent out the Oz proposal to a slew of other publishers. First Comics and Warp Graphics were interested. I went with First because I already had an established relationship with that publisher.
First didn’t want to publish the project as a comic book, though. They wanted to do a series of graphic novels. I was resistant to this idea at first, but gave in, and ended up being very glad I did.
Before First accepted the project I had to show them the plots for the first two volumes and write some script pages for the first one. That initial plot for Enchanted Apples is close to what was finally published. But I tossed out the second plot and only later incorporated an idea or two from it into the fourth Oz graphic novel, The Forgotten Forest of Oz.
TKS: The Enchanted Apples of Oz was your own original story based on the work of L. Frank Baum. Did you have to get permission from the Baum family or a literary trust? How did that work?
Eric Shanower: The first four Oz books by L. Frank Baum were in public domain in 1985, the year I signed the Oz graphic novels contract. So most of the best known Oz characters and situations were free for anyone to use. I didn’t need permission from Baum’s heirs. But I was quite judicious in sticking only to the Oz material in public domain. For instance, one of the recurring Oz characters has a beard for most of the Oz books, but his beard is gone in the third and fourth Oz books. So to place my story as following directly from the period of “Oz history” then in the public domain, I depicted that character as clean shaven. This was probably unnecessary, but no one knew whether these graphic novels were going to prompt any legal challenges.
When IDW reissued all the Oz graphic novels in 2006, I drew a beard on the character. The Oz books where he’d regrown the beard were all in public domain by that time.
TKS: By my count you've written and illustrated five original Oz graphic novels and have created numerous illustrations for other Oz novels. Now you're adapting the Oz novels with Skottie Young for Marvel Comics. How did that project and collaboration come about?
Eric Shanower: I became involved in Marvel’s Oz comics when Marvel wrote me an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in writing them. These comics were originally planned as part of the Marvel Illustrated imprint, Marvel’s adaptations of classic literature. But by the time the first issue of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was ready to come out, the Marvel Illustrated imprint was being phased out. So Marvel’s Oz comics are simply regular Marvel comics. I have continued to follow the philosophy of faithful adaptations of the source material, although I am taking one major liberty with the fourth series, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, which I’m currently writing.
Skottie Young, the artist on the series, had been doing a lot of artwork for Marvel. They had to ask him several times before he agreed to work on the Oz books. He and I both thought they wouldn’t be very popular, and Skottie didn’t want to be saddled drawing a comic book few people were even aware of. Imagine our surprise when they turned out to be best sellers and award winners. Skottie seems perfectly content to continue drawing the series. I’m happy to keep writing it. Jean-Francois Beaulieu, the colorist, was Skottie’s colorist before they came to the Oz series, and I’m really grateful Skottie brought Jean along. His coloring adds so much to the look of the series.
TKS: In 1994 you co-founded Hungry Tiger Press. What was the impetus behind that?
Eric Shanower: Self-publishing in comics was a bit of a fad in the 1990s. I wanted to write and draw my comic book retelling the complete Trojan War story and it didn’t seem as though any publisher would find it particularly commercially viable. So I decided to self-publish it. My partner David Maxine wanted to edit an annual anthology of Oz fiction. The anthology happened – we published Oz-story for six years. But I remember the day that I was calling comic book distributors to carry Oz-story I learned that Marvel had bought the distributor Heroes World, initiating the distributor wars of the mid-1990s. That was a major turning point in my decision not to self-publish my Trojan War comic, Age of Bronze, but to find another publisher.
David and I published quite a few books in the eight years I was with Hungry Tiger Press, all Oz books or Oz-related. Now David runs it solo, although I help him with some tasks, primarily proofreading.
TKS: According to your online bio you began research for Age of Bronze in 1991. What sparked your initial interest in the subject matter?
Eric Shanower: I listen to a lot of audio books while I’m inking and painting. I listened to the book The March of Folly: From Troy to Viet Nam by Barbara Tuchman in February 1991. Her chapter on Troy made it clear that there were many different versions of the Trojan War story. I thought that if I combined them all and set the story in the correct time period, the Aegean Late Bronze Age, it would make a terrific comic book.
TKS: It was a number of years before the first issue came out. Was the majority of that time spent learning as much as you could about the Trojan War and plotting out your story?
Eric Shanower: Yes, I was doing a lot of research on the literary sources of the Trojan War story and on the archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age. I also had to write and draw enough material for a proposal in order to find a publisher, since I’d decided I wasn’t going to self-publish the project. And I had a lot of other work at the same time.
TKS: How does it feel working on such a long term project? Have you ever felt like walking away from it?
Eric Shanower: I knew back in 1991 that it would be a long project, but Age of Bronze has turned out to be longer than I ever imagined it would be. I try not to think about it as a whole, just try to look at the next piece that I have to get finished. That’s worked well up until this year. I’m currently having a devil of a time trying to finish the current issue. It’ll get done and I’ll get past my current obstacles, but the past few months have been troubling as I’ve tried to figure out a new relationship to the material I’m dealing with now. Happily, I’ve figured out a new approach – not that readers are going to see anything different. I have never seriously considered walking away from Age of Bronze before I reach the end of the story, however. The story itself is too important to me, I think, for me ever to be able to do that.
TKS: Age of Bronze seems to be well received by comic fans and academics alike with you lecturing at several universities and your work being reviewed in several archeology magazines. What's been most rewarding to you, recognition by the comics’ community or recognition of your scholarship by the archeology community?
Eric Shanower: I can’t say that one is more rewarding than the other. I was surprised by how initially well-received Age of Bronze was by comics readers. I figured I’d have to really work to build an audience from the general population. But I didn’t have to work quite so hard as I’d feared. I’m really grateful for all the readers of Age of Bronze. I’m also really happy to have connected to the archaeological and classical studies communities. Meeting the people who are making the discoveries is really great, and to know that many of them like what I’m doing is extremely gratifying. But I’d never want Age of Bronze to be seen primarily as didactic or as a piece of scholarship. It’s a story with as much of the drama, humor, and sorrow of real life as I can manage to inject into it.
TKS: What's a typical working day for you like?
Eric Shanower: Get up in the morning. Swim at least three days of the week—cartooning is a solitary, sedentary task, so it’s important to keep one’s body in shape. Check e-mail. Get to work. Break for dinner. Work until bed-time. Read books and/or comics, then sleep.
Of course, I have to fit in the tasks of life into this schedule, too. And I take at least two dance lessons a week, and David and I have been studying to learn French for a few years now (although we’ve lapsed in that goal lately). Over the course of my career the general state of things is that I work hard every moment I don’t have something else that needs to be done – like eating, sleeping – or answering interview questions like these. Joe Kubert warned me in the telephone interview I had with him before I was accepted to the Kubert School that I’d have to work every waking minute as a professional cartoonist. That’s an exaggeration, but the idea behind it is real enough.