As an Arizona native and a contributing writer for The Source, this weekend I had the fortune of talking to multiple comic book creators, artists, and writers at the annual Phoenix Comicon. Taking place over four days at the Phoenix Convention Center, I lived, breathed, and absorbed comics and heroes underneath a dependably blazing Arizona sun. During my time between panels, exploration, buying comics, breaks for mustache-shaped pretzels, and mandatory stops for water, I interviewed some of the talented guests the con managed to acquire.
The last of these terrifically talented guests, from artists to writers to creators, was the retro-loving, self-proclaimed “Midwestern Man of Mystery,” Brent Schoonover. He spends his time drawing and creating art. He has worked both inside and outside the comic book industry for companies such as Marvel, DC IDW, Dark Horse, Disney, Pixar, Lucas Film LTD., Target, Walmart, General Mills, Polaris, and more. Some of his greatest works include IDW’s Back to the Future series, Marvel’s Howling Commandos, and DC’s Batman ’66. You can check out all of his work and lengthy list of employers on his website: brentschoonover.com and follow him on Twitter @brentschoonover.
Luckily, I found him at the right time, and we went straight into the interview while he continued to work on a commission.
If there is any specific book, what comic book inspired you to pick up the pencil and start drawing?
“Well when I was a kid,” Brent began, “I kind of was like a product of the late eighties and early nineties. I went and saw the Batman, Tim Burton movie, and I walked out of that thing mesmerized, just like ‘Holy Cow!’ And so my dad bought me a bunch of comic books. So yeah, it was that kind of movie and then just going to the comic book store for the first time. Batman was obviously there because of the movie but Hulk and Spider-Man definitely [interested me]. The first comic book I ever got was a Peter David run, [an] issue where Mister Fixit [who is the Hulk] was in Vegas and Spider-Man happened to be there, and they got into a big fight. And I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world was Hulk [as Mister Fixit] and Spider-Man fighting each other. So that kind of hooked me, so that was my gateway drug into comics.”
That’s awesome! So obviously you have done a TON of work, which I see here on your table, from Punisher to the Phantom to Batman ’66, which I think is really cool since the more modern Batman comics just seem to have been getting darker and darker, and then Batman ’66 comes along with the retro, classic, quirky kind of Batman. Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally at all, a lot of your art is a little more retro. What is it about the retro style appeals to you?
“I don’t know what it was. I think it was just…after I started getting into comics, a lot of the bulk of my collection came from rummage sales, so it was like stuff from the sixties and seventies and stuff like that. Like I had gotten a TON of the Marvel Monsters stuff at a garage sale when I was a kid, and so like Jean Coland, you know artwork really kind of was like an early influence. There [were] reprints of some of the old Jack Kirby monster stuff from the fifties. So I think that was sort of my first introduction into comics, even though it was stuff that was way older. So I feel like I kind of got that old school influence early.”
However, classic monster comics were not the only influence on Brent. “Another thing too, when I was a kid, when all the movies started coming out, a lot of the pulp books started getting movies, the Phantom, the Shadow, you know that kind of stuff. I remember walking out of a Dick Tracy movie, and our local movie theater in Beloit, Wisconsin actually had the Kyle Baker, Dick Tracy 3D books. I think each one of them was like, they weren’t a hardcover, but they were definitely bigger than a single issue. They were like sixty pages or something like that, and they had all three of them there. And I’ve never had that happen again, so it’s like I walked out of a Dick Tracy movie going, ‘I’d love to read some Dick Tracy!’ And it was right there waiting for me. And then my dad was like, ‘You know he’s in the newspaper like every day.’ And I was like, ‘I can read it every day?’ So kind of just that good time growing up that a lot of those throwback characters were getting thrusted into the limelight a little bit, so it was just perfect timing.”
Nice! Well, speaking of movies, I have to ask this because I’m a huge fan of this movie:was there an immense amount of pressure on you when drawing the Back to the Future comic? How does that feel?
“It was intimidating a little bit,” Brent began, “but it kind of helped that they told us not to do too much of a likeness, just because they did have some likeness rights issues with the book. It seemed like some people ignored them. I tried to kind of create my own vibe with it but yeah, definitely some pressure. The biggest pressure too was [that] Bob Gale was the writer on everything. So the guy who created the entire series was creating the stories, so that was kind of crazy too. But once I got started, it was kind of like… I got myself in that world. I watched the movies a lot, watched certain scenes over and over. After a couple pages, it started feeling like a lot of comic book projects.”
However, re-watching the fantastic films was not the only help Brent received. “I think what also helped me at the time was that I was also beginning work on Howling Commandos for Marvel. I had just started a regular monthly, and since I was only doing a twelve page short story, I knew I had a limited amount of time. So I had to make it good.”
Brent paused shortly before continuing. “So I was working on Howling Commandos at the same time, and I moved into a brand new house at the same time. It was just total insanity! So it kind of helped having all this crazy going around. In a way, you are just like ‘I’ve got to do it.’ I couldn’t put in too much time to overthink it, you know?”
Oh yeah, you couldn’t sit there and get in your head. When you have to get it done, you have to get it done!
“Yeah, it’s just like, ‘Does my Christopher Lloyd look quite right?'” Brent joked before adding, “It was a huge honor. I couldn’t ask for anything better. To me that’s my favorite movie franchise. Like I know for a lot of people it’s Star Wars, especially in comics, but to me it will always be Back to the Future.“
With that in mind, do you prefer creating your own characters or having something to base your work off of?
“Well, when I first started out in comics, I did a couple of creator-owned books, and like any good creator, it takes awhile to develop your voice and your style and maybe even a little fan base. So in a weird way, it feels weird, but everybody is like ‘You should do creator-owned stuff someday!’ And I’m like, ‘Well I have, but it’s just not really stuff that is contemporary now.’ I would love to — it’s been on my brain a lot now — try to go back and do something like that, but I feel like I’ve also worked a long time to try to get steady work at Marvel or DC or just in comics in general. And it’s finally starting to happen, so it’s kind of like this wave, you just kind of want it to go and see where it takes you.”
Yet despite the wave, Brent did acknowledge the need of a backup plan and even gave some advice. “I think it’s wise to always have those creator-owned projects in the back of your head that you can get going in case those phone calls stop or those emails stop from editors because you don’t want to be sitting there just like, ‘When is someone going to give me work, so I can start making comics?’
“You can always make comics; there is no one stopping you.”
“But that’s been on my mind lately, I’ve got a couple projects in mind. I definitely would like to start writing and drawing my own stuff, too. I’ve done it a little bit with Burial Brothers, which is a short story in Dark Horse Presents that I got to do, and it’s a fun little story about two grave robbers who go cemetery to cemetery and find weird things that are coming out of the ground and they put ’em back in it. So, just sort of a simple little fun idea I had, and I wanted to tell. I think these characters might have a bigger life of their own down the road.”
That’s awesome and coincidental! My next question was going to be about whether you were going to do some writing, but clearly, you really want to.
No! That’s great! I didn’t even have to ask, so I guess I’ll just skip to my last question: If you could go back in time, maybe even in a DeLorean, and see the ‘you’ who just realized, “I want to work in comics,” what advice would you give yourself?
“I would tell him it’s a long haul and not stress it as much. I feel like there were probably a lot of nights where I was stressing over things that I think about now like, ‘Why was I doing that?’ That’s just something that we all do, but it’s easier said than done. I mean it’s sort of like when we all look back at the drama we thought we had when we were maybe in high school or even in college, and now that life is kind of, you know, bills and rent and stuff have kind of kicked in and you’re like, ‘Man, that was the Golden Era! What was I doing being so pissy about stuff?’ I think I’d just try to do that [tell his past self not to stress as much] in some way. Probably the same way my parents tried to do with me, and I’d completely not listen. But no, I just think, ‘Enjoy the journey a little in times where you probably weren’t.’ But I don’t know. I think that’s the only thing I could really say. I’ve been pretty fortunate, and I always kind of knew that this was a tough job. But it’s so hard to do and do well that I think about it now, especially with Marvel and DC, getting to know the editors and what they go through every day, not just with the people who have been in the industry forever looking for work but then also the young, up and coming people that are trying to look for work; the fact that you can even get a six issue mini [series] at Marvel or just somewhat steady work, you gotta pull back and be like, ‘Doing pretty good!’ But I think sometimes we’ve always got our head down looking at the next page and the next deadline, and we don’t always acknowledge where we’re at and be a little appreciative about it.”
In the end, I still think that it’s great advice. We all need to learn to be a bit more appreciative when things are going well, yet that is still not the best advice Brent gave me. His greatest piece of wisdom simply came from him during an answer when he said, “You can always make comics; there is no one stopping you.” While that may have been an off the cuff remark, thrown into the middle of his answer, I refuse to believe it. In that moment, Brent chose his words carefully and left me thinking about the power of comics, and the ability to create them, for the entire day. No matter what happens in life, as a writer, an artist, a colorist, or anything else, at least we dreamers and superhero lovers can always make comics.
Be sure to check out Brent Schoonover’s beautifully made website at brentschoonover.com, follow him on Twitter @brentschoonover, and don’t forget to check out the rest of my interviews from Phoenix Comicon 2016!