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Illustrator Profile - Arlen Schumer: "Everything I needed to know I learned from comic books"

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 14, 2017

Arlen Schumer is a Westport, Connecticut-based illustrator, writer, graphic designer and lecturer. Schumer specializes in bold, graphic comic book-style art that has appeared in numerous publications, in advertising, and in a wide array of commercial and promotional materials. Schumer is a passionate champion of comic art; in addition to creating a definitive book, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art, he gives an ongoing series of lectures on comic book artists and history. Schumer will be giving his latest "visualecture" on Tuesday, October 10 at the 92 Street Y in NYC on The Centennial of the King of Comics,Jack Kirby. Tickets are available here.

MY LIFE:
I live in Westport, CT. I’ve been working as an illustrator (I’m a member of The Society of Illustrators), graphic designer, writer and lecturer since I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design (majoring in Graphic Design) in 1980;

My father died when I was four months old, and my Mom raised my older (by 18 months) brother and I herself. I think I ended up finding my surrogate father figures in the pop culture I was surrounded with, in roughly this chronological order: Sean Connery’s Bond (the first movie I ever recall seeing, when I was around four-five years old, was Dr. No, the first Connery Bond, at a drive-in theater); Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling on television; the superheroes in comic books, pseudo-paternally teaching me right from wrong, good from evil, standing up and fighting for one’s beliefs; comic book artists like Neal Adams and Jim Steranko; and finally, Bruce Springsteen (I was art director of the first Springsteen fan magazine, Thunder Road, when I was at RISD).

After RISD, I went to New York City and began my professional career. I started at PBS’ flagship station in New York, WNET, doing TV graphics, then at NBC doing the graphics for the first year of Late Night with David Letterman (remember its baseball-script logo? That was mine!), followed by stints in ad agencies, both big and boutique-sized, as an art director/copywriter—including working for my comic book artist childhood idol, the legendary Neal Adams, at his commercial art studio, Continuity Associates, doing storyboards and animatic art, which was like going to graduate school—and getting paid for it!


MY WORKSPACE:

I have a great apartment/studio, in which I carved up my living room into half-workspace, half-media wall/living room. I’ve surrounded every square inch of it with framed artwork, posters, action figures, models, toys and all manner of pop culture tchotchkes, covering all of my interests: comic book art, Connery Bond, Twilight Zone and Bruce Springsteen, so that I’m surrounded by all the images, objects, totems and talismans that make me feel good, and give me power! Maybe not quite super powers, but the powers of perseverance, determination, integrity and stick-to-it-tiveness needed to be an artist and live the art life (to borrow the title of the recent David Lynch autobio doc). You can see my place in this video shot a few years ago.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I draw traditionally with pencil on paper, then ink with black pens and markers on paper (one day I hope to be able to make the leap to working directly on the computer screen, on a Cintiq!), then scan my inked work into my Mac computer, and color in Photoshop. I try to ride the line between the organic warmth that the hand-drawn line allows, with the range of fantastic coloring effects that the computer provides—without letting the latter overwhelm the former.


MY FIRST BIG BREAK:

My “big break” was getting to work for Neal Adams at his Continuity Associates in 1983. If you had told me at age 12 in 1970, when I—and an entire generation of comic book readers—was getting my mind blown on a monthly basis by Neal’s work, that I would one day be working for and with Neal Adams, I would have had an adolescent heart attack!

At the time, Neal was doing mostly advertising production art (comps, storyboards, animatics), which was preventing him from taking on all the finished-illustration comic book-styled ads that were coming in; I reasoned one guy could make a pretty good living just on the work he was turning away, and that that was what I set out to do full-time upon leaving Continuity in ’86. Neal had previously done, I thought, the best comic advertising to date; I could never compete with him on a pure drawing level (who could?), but I thought I could differentiate my work by emphasizing overall graphic design and good hand-lettering, due largely to my graphic design education at RISD.

I had no desire to do comic book art for the companies, as I was probably just too slow for the field, and didn’t really have the burning desire to tell stories anyway--I had more of an illustration/poster design mentality. So I combined my expertise in graphic design and illustration with knowledge and love of comic art and its history to create work that I’d like to think stands out from the crowd of more conventional illustration, photography and graphic design. My goal was to bring comic art into the commercial art world with the same impact Roy Lichtenstein had brought it into the fine art world; here is where I felt I could do my part to uplift the medium in the eyes of the mainstream.

At the same time, I’ve been working to get comic book art appreciated and treated seriously in the academic and cultural worlds as an indigenous American art form with a rich history, via my comic book art history “VisuaLectures” (so dubbed because “lectures” is such a pejorative, and mine are as visual as they are verbal) and verbal/visual essays (which form the basis of my book about comic book art in the 1960s, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
It would have to be Bruce Springsteen; his uncompromising and unparalleled creativity, body of work, attitude, and performance and work ethic have been an inspiration to me since I first heard the song “Born to Run” over a tinny AM car radio when I was 17 years old in the summer of ’75. Especially when I lecture, I employ what I call the “Springsteen Performing Style,” which is to give your 110% all to your audience, whether it’s 10 people or 10,000 people.

In addition to the illustrations I created in 1978 during Springsteen’s legendary Darkness on the Edge of Town tour (available as poster-prints), I’ve created a number of unique verbal and visual works about his career.


MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:

Almost everything visual that surrounds me on a daily basis: comic books, television, movies, newspapers, magazines and books, New York City’s sights, sounds, and sensual experiences, and everything online too, of course.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO WORKING ALONE:
Art can be a lonely, solitary vocation, and as a people person—not the stereotypical “artist who can draw pretty pictures but has no people skills”—I thirst and long for human contact and interaction. Which is probably why I spend so much time on Facebook, where I run three comic book art history groups, because it’s like a virtual café—I can stop what I’m working on, drop in on a conversation, throw in my two cents, and then leave and go back to work!

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
I got to do the cover of the New York Observer when it still had a print version, before it went totally online, and before it was discontinued by owner Jared Kushner, because he left for The White House.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
I would love to create and oversee an entire national/international advertising campaign with a major consumer client in my own comic book style, that would (possibly) involve creating custom-designed superheroes, and incorporate all of my skills as a writer, copywriter, art director, illustrator and graphic designer, and work across all platforms: print, TV and online.


WHY I LOVE COMIC ART:

I love comic book art because it really taught me everything I know—and perhaps more importantly, love—about art itself. It instilled in me so many things: a love of drawing, a love of the human body (which the superhero is all about), a love of American popular culture via all those superheroes, a love of color, a love of the printed, page-turning medium.

And a love of reading itself; I remember learning to read from comic books long before I learned to read from books in school. My mother used to tell my brother and I when we got older that she once went to see the elementary school guidance counselor over her “fear” that we were only reading comic books (leftover from the 1950s scare that comics caused juvenile delinquency). Whoever that guidance counselor was, God bless ‘im, because he simply responded, “Don’t worry; as long as they’re reading”!

And “everything I needed to know I learned from comic books,” too! The morals and ideals and lessons those superheroes stood for and taught us by proxy, like understanding the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, when to stand up for what you believe—when to fight for what you believe—have remained with me to this day.

Comic art, being a unique combination of words and pictures—each working individually but also creating a “third” artistic reality, the simultaneous, symbiotic, harmonic convergence of verbal and visual—is one of the few truly indigenous American art forms (along with jazz, baseball and musical theater). It’s not only one of the greatest forms of American popular culture of the 20th Century, with a history to rival film and rock & roll, but now, in the 21st Century, is more popular than ever, with superheroes having taken over film and television, and graphic novels becoming the lingua franca. Our entire visual culture, whether virtual or “real,” is actually a combination of words and pictures, just like comic art has always been, of its time and ahead of its time.

And comic art, being not just “pretty pictures,” but “pretty pictures” that have to tell a story, a narrative, is therefore far richer and more rewarding in content than most “fine art” I see in galleries and museums. And “content is king,” no?

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
I recently completed a massive book illustration job with Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot)—17 full-page, full-color illustrations (with hand-lettered display type) about the legendary American “Mountain Men” of the 19th Century—working with an editor/art director named Keith Wallman. Given the quantity of the illustrations, it was a pleasure to work with someone who allowed me to have my creative vision on every piece, and never nitpicked with unnecessary changes.


SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:

In addition to the evergreen influences of aforementioned comic book legends Neal Adams and Jim Steranko, there are so many great comic book illustrators today whose work I admire, respect and look at: J. H. Williams III is probably the greatest mainstream comic book illustrator extant: his command of composition, drawing and design are incomparable. Other current greats include Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Allred, Steve Rude, Jaime Hernandez, Alex Ross, Amy Reeder—all of whom I literally draw upon for inspiration.

OTHER WORK:
I’m also a writer/designer of my own books about American Pop Culture, like The Silver Age of Comic Book Art; I’m currently working on a revised version of my out-of-print coffee table art book Visions from The Twilight Zone, about the legendary series, a monograph about the great DC Comics letterer Ira Schnapp, and a coffee table tome on the famous Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s.

I present my VisuaLectures on those subjects (and others: http://www.arlenschumer.com/visualectures) at universities and cultural institutions nationwide; next up is one on The Centennial of Jack Kirby, the “King” of Comics, for the 92 Street Y in New York City on Tuesday, October 10.

And I market my comic book-style illustrations and graphic designs as high-quality posters.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
My entire career—or at least, one half of it—as a comic book-style illustrator has been “unconventional,” in that I’ve attempted to bring comic book art into traditional illustration-and-photography-based advertising, editorial and design arenas where you’d least expect to see comic book art. So that’s still my career quest, and always will be. In order to do that when traditional print is dying, I’ve had to up my social media profile in recent years, in the hopes that that increased exposure will lead to more assignments from arenas that are all over those platforms. Because of all that, I’d call my career now (still) a work in progress!

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
I actually do a little (or, in some cases, a lot) of everything, because these days, you just never know what or where someone’s going to find you; there are no more “rules” anymore about what “definitely” works and what doesn’t. I recently completed two of my “Inner Superhero” custom portraits for a client who had gone to a one-man show of my art in a tiny Connecticut gallery almost two years ago!

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Don’t rely on the computer to dictate your “style”; develop a style of hand-made mark-making that is uniquely yours, and then bend the computer’s software and graphic capabilities to your will. Combine that with your own life experiences and worldview, gained by intensive, ongoing introspection, and you will have a body of work that will stand out from the crowded visual reality we live in, both real and virtual.

See more Arlen Schumer illustrations, new work, and updates:
Arlen Schumer website
YouTube
Instagram: @arlenschumer/
Twitter: @arlenschumer
Tumblr
Facebook
The Silver Age of Comic Book Art Facebook group



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