Mark Schultz: Respect for the PastA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Mark Schultz achieved his slice of comics fame by embracing Cadillacs and dinosaurs in his terrific fantasy/sci-fi series Xenozoic Tales. Schultz's art style and his intense attention to plotting detail made the series a spectacular highlight of its era, one of the best comics to come out of the '80s. Flesk Publications just released a wonderful compilation of the whole series, which Danny Djeljosevic and I reviewed recently here. I took the occasion of the release of the latest edition of the Flesk compilation to speak with Schultz about the series.
Jason Sacks: I was struck reading the book just how much it still stands up today, it's still a very beautiful, unique interesting work. How do you feel about it when you look at it today after having worked on it, started on it how long ago now?
Mark Schultz: Oh boy, I started in 1986, so and well over, oh well over, what's that?
Sacks: Twenty-five years.
Schultz: Twenty five years, is that -- it doesn't seem right. Yeah, we were talking an anniversary here I guess.
Sacks: You need a limited edition hardcover, I think.
Schultz: Well hopefully at a certain point that's coming, you've got to generate some new work, which we can talk about.
I created Xenozoic Tales partially out of frustration with the work I was doing at the time in commercial art, and I wanted to create a story, a concept, that had many story possibilities, something that wasn't a flash in the pan. And I had time to develop this slowly, so I kind of refined the concept of something I wanted to live with, something I wanted to be able to develop much like Hal Foster did Prince Valiant over his lifetime. And yeah, I'm happy to say I've remained interested in it over all these years. I haven't been able to devote the time in creating new stories in the last ten years that I'd like to be able to, but I'll get back to that.
But I'm always very gratified by the response I get from people that it remains both a popular book with nice popular stories that new generations are responding to, so I guess something about them was done right.
Sacks: It seems like it's aged really well. Because it's so based on kind of a classical way of constructing a story as opposed to having a much more modern feel, it reads much more classic than a lot of work. You mentioned Foster, there's obviously a lot of Al Williamson in the work also, and that kind of gives it a much more illustrative classic feel and I'm sure that's on purpose.
Schultz: Exactly right, My aesthetics, my love in comics and illustration is grounded in the classic naturalist style, Raymond and Foster and Williamson, Wally Wood and these great illustrators, the great American illustrators that they pulled from, and I've always tried to be mindful of the fact that while that is an inspiration, I can't try to duplicate that. I have to also keep a storyline, keep aesthetics, keep characterizations that are more contemporary, something that works with the culture, social concerns, whatever, that are happening today. You can't just try to nostalgically duplicate a past period, you've got to use that to get across the message, to get across a storyline, that works for people today.
Sacks: It does feel very contemporary in a lot of ways. I mean, part of it is the timeless feel, part of it also is the fact that as with the cartoon series, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, there's something about that alone that conjures up a certain image in reader's minds. Contemporary and classical all at the same time.
Schultz: Of course, the joke was almost that Cadillacs have kind of become dinosaurs. You know the old Detroit heavy metal that is an illustrious, glorious, very magnificent past, but doesn't really resound with new car buyers? You know, they're beautiful instruments but their day as huge gas guzzlers is kind of past. But it's just worked out very well that [the readers responded to] some of the imagery that I wanted to work into the story, again, because I love it.
Sacks: And Jack and Hannah are just such classic fantastic lead characters, too. I can tell from your sketchbooks how you love Tarzan and John Carter and a lot of the other classic characters. Did you really try to create characters who are archetypical in a way?
Schultz: I wanted to create characters that were both archetypal, because again that's what I read and loved growing up, but put a spin on them that may be contemporary. I wanted Jack and Hannah. I didn't want the traditional male/female relationship that complete. I wanted that to be part of it, because there's a great deal of sex appeal in that, but I also wanted Hannah and Jack to stand on equal ground.
Sacks: I like that Hannah's the strong woman on her own. Everyone enjoys seeing a beautiful woman who looks strong in skimpy clothing, but at the same time she stands on her own two feet. She can shoot a gun and fight a dinosaur just as well as he can.
Schultz: And I've got to say, that's the kind of woman that attracts me. I like the independent, strong women, so it wasn't a big leap for me to transfer my personal interests onto the page.
Sacks: Even back then, though, the book stood out. There are only a few books that were particularly illustrated that beautifully. Nexus is maybe the only comparison. I feel like you were part of the larger kind of comics movement at that time, you also had a different publisher than a lot of people.
Schultz: Well, you know, I had a love of comics and I followed comics since I was a kid, but I was never part of the fan scene, the contention scene. I was very divorced from all that. So, I've always done Xenozoic Tales for myself, essentially. This is what I wanted to see, so I guess what I'm saying is those kind of concerns never entered my mind. I never thought of myself in terms of how I fit in with what else was being done in comics at the time. If anything, I'm thinking, I love this stuff, and [I hope] that other people will respond to it, too. That worked out for me.
Sacks: You had a great ride with the book for a few years.
Schultz: I worked primarily -- exclusively, I should say -- on the book for about 11 years.
Sacks: I remember it started to come out slower and slower, and it was a little hard to track it. It still was kind of what you were drawing exclusively, which I guess shows how painstaking you were with the art.
Schultz: Yeah, that was my failing. I became more interested in refining my drawing ability, [and] each issue took more and more time until it came to the point where I was only producing an issue a year, and you can't make a living doing that. I kind of undermined the series.
Sacks: I was a big fan of it at the time, and I ended up just losing track of the title, honestly. Especially when we hit the black-and-white boom and then the aftermath of that.
Schultz: Yeah, you know, the black-and-white boom propelled me, got my career going. Kitchen Sink was my first publisher. Dennis Kitchen brought me into the comics world, and comics needed more creators at that time. There was a publishing boom. There weren’tt enough cartoonists to fill the need. I hit the ground at the right time. But, you know, that boom only lasted a year or so, and there was a lot of attrition in the field. Xenozoic Tales made the cut and lasted, but it became harder and harder to maintain the sales, the competition, changes in the field that came in the early '90s. The growth of comics, the mainstream comics, [meant] people were moving more towards works by people like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, so there was kind of a shift in the industry.
Sacks: It was an interesting shift, because the industry really made a change to the kind of flashier art, but also it was much less classically influenced, much less anatomically based. I mean, your work shows education and experience in terms of anatomy, right?
Schultz: I don't want to make any value judgments. As an aesthetic amongst a lot of, let's say, entry-level comic book fans, younger comic book fans, [my style] was not as popular. But the good thing is, though, there's always a fan base for that. It's not necessarily as large of a fan base as for other types of art, but there's always a continued, consistent fan base that enjoys that kind of classic, naturalistic art, so I've been lucky that [fans have] supported me through the years in one effort or another.
Sacks: We're seeing it now with the book staying in print I suppose.
Schultz: Right, right, exactly. The fact that there's been enough interest to keep Xenozoic Tales in print, in reprints over the years, tells us that, yeah, people out there that appreciate that.
Sacks: And you went through a lot of adventure with Hollywood, too. If I remember right, there was a cartoon that spun out of the comic, how much of that did you have an influence on?
Schultz: Yeah, we licensed the rights to do a TV adaption, an animated adaption of Xenozoic Tales, which was called Cadillacs and Dinosaurs to Nelvana, the animation studio in Canada, and it was produced as a Saturday morning TV show for the '93-'94 season for CBS. I didn't have an awful lot to do with it. I had the right to say yea or nay to specific scripts to kind of keep things from wandering too far off from the original content. But I didn't have the time nor did I have the power to really dictate much in the way of where the content was settled. And what I took from that was that, in the future -- if I'm ever so lucky to have interface with my property in Hollywood again -- it's just basically take the money and run. It's a huge beast, you can't control it. Just take their money and run.
Sacks: I've heard from multiple people that the deeper you get in script the more it sucks you in, like a black hole, and you need to stay in the orbit of it. The closer you get the more it drives you.
Schultz: And you can't really win unless you've had success within Hollywood and built a career that allows you some power. You can't just go in cold and say, well, that's my property you're licensing. You can't do that. That doesn't fly. They have the money, and money is power.
Sacks: And you had the very strange experience, I'm sure, of having new stories based on your world that, if I remember right, were produced by other people. Topps did a line, I remember.
Schultz: Topps did a line of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs comics which I had really nothing to do with other than saying, go and prosper. It was interesting because Roy Thomas wrote a lot of the stories -- it might have been all of them -- and he's a wonderful writer. I love his writing, and I think he did a very good job with the series, but again I'm a control freak, I'm very proprietary about this, so to me those are not real Xenozoic stories. They're an interpretation, someone else's viewpoint, and they're wonderful but not part of the canon.
Sacks: I've been curious about the idea of having other people tell stories in your universe. How did you work that out and deal with them?
Schultz: I'm not sure exactly, other than that it was a licensing deal and they don't give you the rights to do that.
Sacks: It's like Thomas adapting Conan and going into the print concept.
Schultz: Same idea, yeah. Yeah.
Sacks: But you're still drawing despite the fact you had to do that. Your sketchbooks are beautiful, and obviously you love the classic fantasy literature. You see a lot of Rice Burroughs and other characters in there.
Schultz: I'm working with Flesk Publications. John Fleskes’ essential interest is classic illustration. So I'll be able to kind of showcase and develop more of my illustration side working with John, and we're showcasing that in the various drawings collections. And, of course, John has also collected Xenozoic Tales again, which is the first time it's really been reproduced properly, using new scanning techniques and the printing that's available now that wasn't available before. It's a package I'm very happy with.
Beyond that, I'm going to be doing a couple of volumes coming in the future of stories I've written. One will be a Xenozoic story, a prose stories that is heavily illustrated. So, two years down the road we will have new Xenozoic stories.
Sacks: Something like the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that Gary Gianni drew so beautifully?
Schultz: That's a good example. That H.G. Wells story that was produced in the back called "The Sea Raiders," Gianni provided illustrations with the text. They'll be in the same story for Xenozoic. Right now I'm working on an illustrated book for John that I've written called Storms at Sea. Again it's a prose story, a novelette that I'm illustrating, and the format is going to be a page of text, faced with an illustration. And if I do this right, the illustration and the text will be supplemented by each other. But in some cases there might even be a divergence and the reader will have to decide what the truth is and what is fantasy. And when I'm done with that I'll go on to the Xenozoic story.
Sacks: How does it feel coming back to these old characters, this old world?
Schultz: You know, I never moved far away from them. I'm always thinking about what I want to do with them. They're in my mind all the time. It's not like something I shelve. I'm always thinking, what do I want to do next? When I have the time I want to develop the stories further [and establish] where the characters are going.
Sacks: Are they going to have aged in the meantime, or is it going to kind of continue on?
Schultz: Well, no, they're not going to really have aged, I should say.
Sacks: It's just that in all the fantasy literature that you love the characters are the age they are.
Schultz: Right. They do age, I mean, but I'm not going to jump ahead. The first story I'm going to be doing will be a standalone story. It won't be connected with the story I left hanging in the comic book. I very much plan to finish that, too, but I want to finish that in comic book form.
Sacks: Any other projects or anything else you want to make sure that I mention?
Schultz: I continue to work on Prince Valiant, writing Prince Valiant for the newspapers. Illustrated beautifully by Gary Gianni.
Sacks: How is it working in the newspaper industry these days?
Schultz: It's wonderful as far as I'm concerned. The syndicate does not interfere at all; they pretty much let us do what we want to.
Sacks: In some ways, it's now a webcomic published in the newspaper industry instead of publishing in the newspapers. Has that kind of opened your canvas in a different way? I mean, it used to be when we did a strip for the paper we'd have to remember what happened the day before. Now everything is right there at your fingertips.
Schultz: Well, the format is still geared toward the newspapers, and people see a new installment only once a week. So those rules still apply. That's part of the format of doing that, and it's part of the frustration that the first panel of every weekly strip has to reacquaint the reader a little bit with what happened before and the last panel has to be some sort of a setup for what's coming next week, which doesn't leave a lot of space for panels to develop a story every week. And that's what it is, and you learn to deal with it and you learn to make the best of it. But, you know, until newspapers disappear altogether, I think that's probably going to be still the go-to format.
Sacks: It must be kind of a dream come true also to get to work on Prince Valiant. I think that's the first thing you mentioned in our interview.
Schultz: It's very intimidating. It's very intimidating, Gary and I both are huge fans of the strip and the artist that preceded us, and we just try to do our best to maintain a level of quality that keeps the readers happy. A lot of the readers have been with the strip an awful long time, and they've seen a lot of history, so they expect something. They know what the quality levels have been in the past, and they expect that to be continued. We try to maintain that.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.