New York-based illustrator and pop culture historian Arlen Schumer about his life and love for comics
Named as ‘one of USA’s preeminent authorities on comics and culture’ by ABC-TV’s 2020 – Arlen Schumer is a multi-award winning American illustrator, working in a comic art style, who has created an impressive and prolific career. Apart from being an incredible artist, he is also an accomplished pop culture historian with numerous books and art publications under his belt. An avid comic culture enthusiast, Arlen’s work has appeared in various publications, commercial and advertising materials, including a recent poster depicting the media company a Frederator’s Fredbot – the robot that inspired so many variations! His award-winning art history book, ‘The Silver Age of Comic Book Art’ has been recognised and deeply appreciated by some of the biggest names in the comic book industry, including Stan Lee and Alan Moore; it is a testament to Schumer’s passion for the subject matter that’s fueled his career.
Read our interview with Arlen Schumer to know more about his work and his eternal love for comics.
Production Paradise: Arlen, what inspired you to start drawing at a young age?
Arlen Schumer: I grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a great place in the early-mid ‘60s, with equal parts bucolic American suburbia and small-town Rockwellian, pop culture ambiance—everything from an uber-Jewish deli like Petak’s to Plaza Toy & Stationery, which had a classic 20th Century soda fountain. It was there, after school, that I read all the comic books of my youth while drinking chocolate egg creams (with a pretzel log, natch). And because Fair Lawn, like all of New Jersey, was in the shadow of New York City, I grew up on all that pop culture through television, not just the three networks but the three local stations that showed everything from the old Universal monster movies to The Little Rascals to The Three Stooges to the George Reeves Superman TV series. One of those local TV shows, a children’s show called Diver Dan, which was filmed in black & white to look like it took place underwater—the actor, in a deep-sea diver’s suit (with a helmet that never revealed his face, so he was like a superhero), walked slowly like he was underwater, surrounded by pop fish hanging by wires—triggered my interest in drawing, as I watched my brother draw him first, and copied him. I’ve been drawing ever since!
Production Paradise: Who would be your hero or heroine in fiction and in real life?
Arlen Schumer: In fiction, it is a tie between the Neal Adams-drawn Batman, and the Sean Connery’s James Bond (of the first four Bond films only), with Curt Swan’s Superman a distant third! In real life, it is Bruce Sprinsgsteen first and foremost – to me, he’s been the REAL President of the United States for decades!
Production Paradise: What role does art play in your life and work?
Arlen Schumer: I would say it has been playing the starring role since I was three years old when I first started to draw. “Art” is BOTH my “life” AND my “work.” I am most proud in my life when people ask me what I do, and I get to tell them I am an artist. It is really a calling, and I am both humbled and honoured to be able to do it.
Production Paradise: Which creative person do you admire the most?
Arlen Schumer: Again, 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.
Production Paradise: What is your workspace like?
Arlen Schumer: The best way I can answer that is with this attached picture:
Production Paradise: You have published a few pop culture histories, and given countless lectures on various great, neglected figures. What got you started as a historian?
Arlen Schumer: I don’t know how any artist in any genre or medium if they truly love their work, cannot also be equally interested in the history of that art form. When Keith Richards plays any of his classic Rolling Stones licks, he knows which black bluesman he nicked it from; filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese know the history of the film like they know their own films. And the history of comics is as rich in artistic triumphs (and personal tragedies) as the histories of the other major 20th Century art/entertainments: film, television, popular music and rock and roll.
When I was a senior at RISD, for my degree project, I toyed with designing an exhibit of comic book art, and when I went looking for a theme, the only subject that seemed both worthwhile of my passion for the material and deep enough for the demands of the assignment was one based on the comics I grew up with in the 1960s, and the artists who drew them, the twin founts from which I drew the inspiration to become an artist. Though I never did that exhibit (I ended up doing a giant autobiographical photo-comic instead), I kept the ideas and images that I gathered, in the hopes that one day I’d use them in some other form. Many of those 1979 layouts are the same ones I’ve used in my book published in 2003, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art; its introduction, in which I place the images and ideas encountered throughout the book in a socio-political, historical framework, is composed of essentially the identical concepts from my aborted exhibit idea.
The idea to do a book instead on this period of comic book history goes back even further, to 1970, when Jim Steranko, on the heels of his amazing barnstorming stint at Marvel Comics, wrote, designed and published the first of his twin-volume History of Comics, which remain the best books of their kind, and were—and continue to be—a source of inspiration. Except they were about The Golden Age of Comics (circa 1938-1950), the period Steranko grew up with and was affected by, not The Silver Age of Comics (circa 1956-1972) that I, and the entire Baby Boom Generation, was turned on to.
Steranko himself might have been inspired by the first great book about comic book history, Jules Feiffer’s 1965 The Great Comic Book Heroes, even though it’s more of a handful of wonderfully written, witty essays on specific Golden Age superheroes Feiffer followed avidly as a boy, accompanied by reprints of the origins or earliest adventures of those heroes. Feiffer may not have realized what it was like to be an eight-year old comic book fan in 1966 and hear that there was actually a book in the Fair Lawn public library about comics!
Production Paradise: If not an artist/historian, what would Arlen Schumer be in a parallel Universe?
Arlen Schumer: I think I would’ve been a GREAT actor! Art is a lonely profession—you’re basically alone at the drawing board, easel, or computer, and you send your work out, and it’s like a black hole, you hardly get any response. Perhaps that’s why I love to lecture, because it’s a form of “performing” in front of an audience, like an actor on a stage, and you get that direct feedback.
Production Paradise: Who according to you currently, is a real-life superhero and alternatively, who is a real-life villain?
Arlen Schumer: I’ve already discussed my “real life” superheroes; today’s’ real life villains are the treasonous Trump (I have never, and will never, refer to him as “President”), and the equally-traitorous and Republican Party that supports and enables him. Craven power-lustres who’ve put party before country, to America’s—and the world’s—detriment.
Production Paradise: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your journey as an illustrator?
Arlen Schumer: The building blocks of any great “realistic” art can be boiled down to mastering two distinct drawing categories: anatomy of the human figure and perspective.
If you can draw the human figure in any and all positions, and set those figures in realistic settings via perspective, you can truly draw anything. Combine that with your own, individual imagination and way of seeing things, both literally and figuratively, and you’ll have your style.
Production Paradise: What is the biggest challenge of working alone?
Arlen Schumer: 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!
Production Paradise: What would you like your legacy to be?
Arlen Schumer: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” –Albert Camus
We would like to thank Arlen for taking the time to share his journey with us. You can see more of Arlen’s work on his website, on our latest Showcase New York and upcoming Spotlight Illustration Magazine.
If you would like to show off your latest work to the industry in the next edition of Production Paradise’s Spotlight or Showcase magazine, contact us now at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.