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Robert E. Howard's Complete Conan of Cimmeria, Volume One:
Interview with Artist Mark Schultz
By Edward Waterman
(March 26, 2003)

Mark Schultz was born in 1955 near Philadelphia, and raised outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Upon graduating from Kutztown State College in 1977, Mark built a career on producing commercial illustration until 1986, when he first submitted an introductory story of his critically acclaimed comic book series Xenozoic Tales. Xenozoic Tales built to a commercial success that saw it adapted, under the name Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, to a CBS television animated series.

In recent years, Mark has branched out, co-creating and co-writing SubHuman, an underwater adventure series, for Dark Horse Comics, and assuming monthly scripting chores on Superman, Man of Steel, for DC Comics. In addition, he continues to write and draw Xenozoic stories, and produce scripts and cover art for various other comics projects, including Star Wars, Aliens, and Predator.

An acclaimed artist, Mark has been awarded five Harvey Awards, two Eisner Awards, an Inkpot Award, a Spectrum Award, and three Haxtur Awards (the last from the Salon Del Internacional Comic del Princapado de Austurias). He has just completed a novel based on DC Comics’s Flash character, to be published by Pocket Books, and has recently finished illustrating Robert E. Howard’s Complete Conan of Cimmeria, Volume One (1932-1933) published by Wandering Star.


EW:  How did you initially get involved in this project?

MS: Marcelo Anciano [of Wandering Star Publishers] called me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in illustrating a Howard book. I was familiar with the work Wandering Star had already done with Gary Gianni, so I was very enthusiastic. When Marcelo mentioned that he'd like me to do Conan, I flipped. Gary had told me previously that he thought I could expect a call from Marcelo, but I never expected to be offered Conan.

EW: What was your first encounter with the work of Robert E. Howard?

MS:  I'd noticed the Frazetta covers to the Lancer PBs back in '68 or '69 --  but I didn't know anything about this Howard guy, or Conan, and cover art alone, intriguing as it may be, has never been enough to get me to buy a book -- 60 cents was a lot of money to me back then.  But then, later in '69, I learned a little about Robert E. Howard in Richard Lupoff's overview of ERB's career, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS, MASTER OF ADVENTURE. Lupoff gave Howard's writing a thumb's up, so I picked up Lancer's Conan of Cimmeria for starters and have never looked back. I was hooked on Howard's intensity -- I could immediately see the difference between his writings and the pastiches surrounding them. I tracked down every collection of Howard in PB that was still in print.

EW: What do you think of Howard’s literature?

MS:  I think Howard was an amazing stylist, with a highly personal vision, who never got a chance to develop fully, due to both the time and formula constraints of writing for the pulps, as well as his early death. Much is made of REH's power as a pure storyteller-- that skill is obvious-- but I think it's important to note his ability to mold the English language. He had a very muscular, economic way with words. His descriptive powers were awesome, and his ability to make action sing is unmatched. His best stories are VERY good. Maybe most importantly, his plots and writing style served to express a unique and consistent viewpoint-- a view of life. I think that's what sets him apart from all the hundreds of other adventure writers who come and go -- unlike  the hacks, his stories serve to illuminate his strong, idiosyncratic point of view. And with Conan he had created a character vivid enough to contain and fully express that point of view.

I think it's also important to note that, by his own testimony, REH often made use of regional and familial folk tales in his stories. So I think there's some importance to him as a regional Southern author, as well.

EW: Where do you start when first sitting down to illustrate a book?

MS:  I read the book, or in this case, the stories, I'll be illustrating. I jot down plot notes as I go along and mark scenes or passages I think might make good illustrations. Then I go back, review my notes and decide which scenes I'm going with. At the same time I try to resolve in my mind what kind of a "look" I want the project to have, both atmospherically and physically. Since I was very familiar with REH, I already had a strong idea of what I was after: lots of darks-- heavy, almost claustrophobic -- to emphasize REH's sense of fatalism and the under riding horror. I knew I wanted to execute the color pieces in oil paint, since there is a weight and textural richness to oil that I thought was appropriate to the subject. For the B&W pieces I went with my bread and butter -- brush and ink -- and decided on a slightly toothy board to allow me to create a gritty, "pulpy" look. And I did research into ancient European, African and Eastern Asian civilizations to come up with a look to the costumes, architectures, etc.

EW: After the initial reading, what's the next step?

MS:  After I've decided what I think are the best choices, I do them up as relatively detailed roughs which I send to the editor to judge. Marcelo Anciano was very easy to work with -- most of my ideas he approved. The few he wasn't quite satisfied with were easy to bring up to snuff, as he has a very clear idea of what he's looking for and is good at communicating that.

   Then, with approval, I begin to work up the final product. I refine the rough sketches with research, reference photos and engage in constant reevaluation. Sometimes a particular illustration comes easily -- the first rough is very similar to the end piece. Most times its a little more difficult, and sometimes it takes a lot of redrawing and revision before I'm close to happy. And then there's a few that I wish I could do over.

EW: When did you start working on Conan vol. 1?

MS:  You’re really testing my memory here. I think I must have started on the initial roughs back in the fall of 2000.

EW: Given the huge impact that artist Frank Frazetta had on the whole fantasy art market, and his close connection to the Conan of the past, do you feel that his work has influenced your decisions or your artwork for this book? How?

MS:  Frazetta is such a huge presence in fantasy illustration in the later half of the 20th century that it would be ridiculous to try to pretend he isn't an influence. And, of course, his vision of Conan is so powerful, and considered by many to be the definitive. But, the fact is, his vision of Conan, while perfectly capturing the violent spirit of Howard's work, does not adhere very closely to Howard's physical descriptions of Conan. I wanted to do my best to put images to Howard's descriptions, and so was trying hard not to tread too close to Frazetta. The last thing I want is to be is a second rate Frazetta.

EW: When you were working on this project, what impact were you hoping to achieve on the reader?

MS:  More than anything else I want my illustrations to be in "tune" with the stories. I hope they seem as visual extensions of the moods Howard is conveying. I hope they do not interfere with the reader's own imaginative interpretation of Howard's words.

EW: Do you think your illustrations deviate from previous images of the Conan character? How and why, or why not?

MS:  Even though we're all working with Howard' descriptions as a source, I think some illustrators have stayed a little closer to the source than others. I wanted my version of Conan to stay as close as I could imagine to Howard's descriptions, because his vision of Conan is something on which I certainly could not improve. We'll have to wait and see how the readers perceive my rendition in comparison to others that have come before.

EW:  Many artists and writers, not to mention adaptors and film producers, immediately view material that has been labeled as “fantasy” as being completely devoid of anything resembling reality. How did you approach the work:  as a flight of fancy where imagination runs wild, bearing no connection to our daily lives or our history, or as a hypothetical and serious possibility – grounded, even if not placed, in reality?

MS:  Since Howard viewed the Hyborian Age as the historic predecessor of our known ancient civilizations, I felt it was important to keep my illustrations grounded in details derived closely from historical artifacts. I did some relatively extensive research in coming up with looks for the various cultures and kingdoms within the stories. Of course, Howard played fast and loose with mixing his cultures and technologies -- lots of anachronism -- so we're not talking about anything close to a fastidious attempt to duplicate a particular historical look.  Touching on known details, that -- hopefully -- ring true to the reader, helps make the more fantastic elements seem more real and, thus, immediate and dramatic.

EW:  Why?

MS:  Because that's what works for me, I guess. Fantasy worlds created without any attempt at connection with reality don't do a thing for me. To get really involved in a story, no matter how fantastic, I need to feel that maybe, somehow, under some set of outrageous circumstances, this could happen to real flesh and blood people. It goes to that necessary "willing suspension of disbelief." Howard is very good at creating that, and the last thing I want is for my illustrations to distract from the spell he achieves. 

EW:  So you decided to stay as close as possible to Howard's original ideas?

MS:  It was my personal interest in Howard's point of view and writing style that led me in that direction. It's what personally interested me and got me excited. I consider myself a fan of Howard's writing much more so than of Conan specifically. Whether or not I succeeded in capturing any of Howard and Conan in a compelling fashion, is, again, up to the reader to decide.

    But I think that by setting a strict problem for myself to solve -- by trying to stay as close as I was able to Howard's descriptions -- I helped myself to avoid emulating too much of what has been done before. The good, as well as the bad and the clichéd. If I'd merely wanted to duplicate what has already been done visually with Conan, I'm sure my results would have been much less interesting -- in my eyes, anyway.

EW:  Where there any particular problems you faced while trying to accurately portray the characters or events in this book?

MS:  The only problem, if you can call it that, was the restrictions of the format we decided we wanted the illustrations to follow. Every chapter heading needed to follow a more or less horizontal configuration, and sometimes a subject I wanted to portray lent itself to a more vertical look. So, at times I had to play around quite a bit to get a composition to work.

EW: What advice would you give to future artists on how to avoid allowing the past conceptions of the Conan character to influence what they do today?

MS:  Read Howard closely. Carefully. Don't be lulled by the briskness of his phrasing to rush through the stories. Let the atmosphere and details sink in. Then mix it up with your own experiences, interests and artistic techniques. But stay true to what Howard wrote, not to what you think Howard wrote based on pastiches, and illustrative clichés.

EW:  Let’s talk a little more about the actual craft of illustrating a book… Did you use models to do your illustrations and paintings? Did you use photography?

MS:  I always try to come up with the figure work out of my head, but if it becomes clear that I'm having trouble visualizing what I need to do, I will take quick Polaroids of models. Most of the paintings involved model use.

EW: Could you tell us a little bit about the tools and materials you used to create the illustrations for this book? Any special brush, paint, ink, or pen tip used for special results?

MS:  The ink pieces were all done with Higgens india ink and a Winsor and Newton Series 7, number 3 brush on Strathmore 500 regular surface, 3 ply bristol board. The regular surface gave me enough tooth to get the textural effects I wanted. These are all standard materials -- the same I use to do my comic book work.

     The paintings were done in water-mixable oil with a linseed oil medium. Nothing fancy or unusual.

EW:  It's possible that people think that after the initial sketching stage, you just sit down with a blank canvas and start painting, but of course you generally create rough color studies for each work first. How many stages of those do you go through?

MS:  To be honest, I only did a quick color sketches for the each of the first paintings. After that, I just did abstract color combination sheets to figure out my color schemes. Of course, all the drawing is closely worked out before hand, separately.

EW:  Do you find that the skills required to work in paint are mutually exclusive to those need to work in pen and ink? And do you feel more comfortable working in one over the other?

MS:  Well, drawing with ink is a much more demanding discipline than painting. You can't fake much when your dealing with stark black on white. Your drawing skill lies naked. Painting with oil is certainly not easy, and color presents a whole raft of other problems, but I find it much more forgiving. You've got a much bigger bag of tricks, and you get more chances to get things right. Which can become a trap in itself, I suppose. Even so, since I've worked most all of my professional career exclusively with brush and ink, I  feel more comfortable with that. I'm still very much a beginner with oils.

EW: How many pieces of art did you ultimately do for Conan Vol. 1?

MS:  About 80. Seven were oils, the rest ink.

EW: In order to get a clear picture of the magnitude of the endeavor, how many hours per day, and for how many months, would you say you put in to create these works of art?

MS:  That's impossible to say. Some weeks when I was able to concentrate totally on these illustrations, maybe 60-70 hours a  week. But I hasten to add that I can't sustain hours that  intense for long. All I know is that I put a LOT of time into this. It's just the nature of the job.

EW:  Being purely objective about yourself, I wonder if you have weaknesses, or strengths that you try to play to?

MS:  Um...I'm not sure I'm capable of being that objective. I've never been exactly satisfied with anything I've done. I always see plenty of room for improvement in almost all aspects of my work. I don't see that as necessarily a bad thing -- I never want to get to the point where I'm satisfied with where I am. I always want to be striving for something more. The alternative is creative death.

EW: You mean, the death of creativity? Could you say a little more about this?

MS:  Yes--that's what I meant, not Grand Guignol!

     I mean if you let yourself get fat and happy with your accomplishments, your going to stop growing. You'll fall into a familiar formula of providing the same thing over and over. What seems to happen is that an artist will get to a certain point of proficiency, and get praise and audience acceptance for his work, and there's a natural tendency to want to keep giving the audience what it likes and comes to expect. So you relax a bit, because its hard getting to that point in the first place, and start churning out the same stuff over and over. But there's no creativity in that – you’re doing formula.

That's what I fear, and try to guard against. I hope I never buy in completely to any praise I get -- I want to stay hungry and a little paranoid and always looking for ways to improve.

EW: Do you have a personal favorite illustrated book? A single effort that epitomizes the sort of effort that you're aspiring to?

MS:  There is no one book, but certainly I can point to the "usual suspects" as huge influences… N.C. Wyeth's Scribners classics, of course. Roy G. Krenkel's gorgeous The Sowers of Thunder. The nautical fiction illustrated with Gordon Grant's pen and ink.

EW: What do you hope to accomplish in the future? Any plans in the works of forthcoming Mark Schultz endeavors?

MS:  My overriding goal is always to get Xenozoic Tales, my comic book adventure series up and running again. Maybe in novel form, maybe as a self-published comic. Dark Horse Comics is currently reprinting all the original series in a two volume collection, which is a start in the right direction. Other than that, I'll continue to write comic scripts and novels, and do the odd art job. Of course, I hope there will be other opportunities to illustrate more of Robert E. Howard's work.

EW: It has indeed been a pleasure interviewing you, Mark. Thank you for the opportunity.

MS:  Thank you, Ed.

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