A Lot of Action and a Lot of Emotional Consequences: An Interview with Andy Schmidt

by Salvatore Pane

Mark Kleman–my Black List co-writer–and I recently had the opportunity to interview Andy Schmidt of IDW. A prominent face in the comics industry, Schmidt edits the G.I Joe and Transformers lines at IDW, runs online courses focused on comic creation, and writes the occasional mini-series. We specifically wanted to talk to him about 5 Days to Die, his new five-part series with the artist Chee that launched earlier this week. Read the interview, then buy the book at your local comic store.

Salvatore Pane: Your new comic launching this month is 5 Days to Die, a five-part mini-series with art by Chee and covers from Gabriele dell’Otto, David Finch, Michael Avon Oeming, Pablo Raimondi and Ben Templesmith. Give us the pitch. What’s the story about?

Andy Schmidt: It’s about a police officer named Ray, who is in a car accident that nearly kills his wife and daughter and critically injures him. The doctors give him five days before he dies. He’s hurt and he believes that the big crime boss in the city has put a hit out on his family. So, he’s faced with a decision: Stay and be with his family in the hospital, trying to repair their strained relationship, or go find and stop the people trying to kill them. It’s a tough, emotional decision for Ray, and it leads to a lot of action and a lot of emotional consequences.

SP: What’s your reasoning for releasing 5 Days to Die weekly over the course of five straight weeks? Why not go the traditional monthly publication route? On the flip side, why not collect all the material at once and release everything as a graphic novel?

AS: There are five Wednesdays (comic book day) in September so it all comes out this month. As for why the accelerated schedule, it just fits with the story. Each issue takes place over one of Ray’s final five days, so the increased schedule just was my idea to help add to the urgency of it all.

I didn’t want to do it as a graphic novel by itself. I like traditional comics and I thought releasing an issue as a day and making people wait the week adds to the fun of it.

SP: Tell us what it’s like to work with Chee. What specifically drew you to his work for this project?

AS: I’ve worked with Chee before and he’s an amazing storyteller. I like working with him, we had similar ideas about the kind of stories we like to tell and what’s most important for an artist to do, so we just click really nicely. And his style is a perfect fit for the crime, thriller, noir type genre.

SP: Hard-boiled crime stories are seeing a resurgence in mainstream comics through the work of Darwyn Cooke, Ed Brubaker, Howard Chaykin and a few others. Why do you think that is? Do you think it has anything to do with a turning away from the more lighthearted crime offerings of Hollywood like Cop Out and The Other Guys?

AS:  I don’t think it’s related much to Hollywood at all, at least not what Hollywood is doing now. I think a lot of us grew up enjoying crime stories. I love them. And I love film noir. So, for me, my main influences in terms of genre come from the stuff I grew up reading and watching, not what’s being produced now. And ultimately, there’s just a lot you can do with the hard-boiled stories that is a lot of fun to write and draw.

Mark Kleman: 5 Days to Die is a creator-owned project. Unlike Cobra Commander and Wolverine, the characters are yours and you have ultimate control over them. Does this make writing more or less difficult? What do you want readers to see in the characters of 5 Days to Die?

AS: It’s a bit of both. It’s easier to write in the sense that you’re creating them, so they don’t sound wrong to anyone because there is no pre-conceived notion of who they are or how they talk. That’s not the case for, say, Spider-Man. So that’s easier, but what’s harder is that they are mine and I have to create them. I can also rely on the back story of pre-existing characters to draw from, I don’t have to build the world as much, but all of that stuff is up to Chee and myself to build from scratch here. So it’s tougher and easier at the same time.

I’m hoping that people will see a bit of themselves in the characters of 5 Days to Die. Ray and Matt, the two main cops are both pretty complex and relatable. Ray’s sister-in-law has a pretty big roll and I think she evokes a point of view that much of the audience will share. But there’s real, genuine emotion underneath these characters, and I think that’s what carries the book (if anything does) from just being a fun concept to becoming a good story.

SP: Let’s move on and discuss your editorial work at IDW. You oversee the newly-revitalized GI Joe and Transformers franchises among others. G.I Joe in particular has seen a lot of reimaginings over the years, but the IDW-verse seems to be really sticking. What’s your vision for the line overall? How do you pay homage to the great Larry Hama stories of old without falling into the trap of the continual remake?

AS: G.I Joe is a very malleable franchise. It fits comfortably into a lot of different genres and lends itself to a wide variety of kinds of stories. Part of that is due to the varied history of the years. I try to make sure that comics feel grounded. So even when some big scifi element pops up, it still has a level of reality to it, that it works. And in other stories, we keep those elements out altogether. Ultimately, I just try to make sure the creators are telling good, honest stories that they’re passionate about.

SP: I think a lot of people were shocked by the brutality in the G.I Joe: Cobra series. It’s definitely one of our favorites from the line. Can you talk about the genesis of the series and what it’s been like to take a former gag of a character, Chuckles, and turn him into something really formidable and interesting?

AS: The use and development of Chuckles is due almost entirely to Mike Costa. He picked Chuckles, he developed the character for the series along with Chris Gage. The series itself came out of a phone call I was on with Michael, my Hasbro contact and Chris Ryall, the editor-in-chief here at IDW. On the phone, we knew we had two weeks to create the 16-page #0 issue. We didn’t think we’d have time to do one story with one creative team, so on the fly, I pitched a three-book launch with Origins and Cobra being the two books we I just made up on the spot. Michael liked the ideas. Chris and I hung up the phone and asked what I had on the two new books already. I guess I bluffed pretty well.

We figured out those two books in about two days and had 5-page scripts a day or two after that and all the art was done for the #0 issue a week after that. All that to say, we got darn lucky.

MK: You and Chee worked together on a comic adaptation of the motion picture classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Was it intimidating to bring the most honored story of Star Trek cannon to comics? How do you consider fans when approaching famous source material like Star Trek, G.I Joe, and Transformers as a writer or editor?

AS: Fans are a huge consideration. Not just because I like fans and am a fan of most of this stuff myself, but also because, that real core audience is the foundation of fandom. If they are really excited about something, they can get other people talking and something can really build.

Ideally, we’re building stories that appeal to long-time fans and potential new fans at the same time. That’s the goal, and it’s a tough one to hit sometimes.

SP: The famous saying about breaking into comics is that it’s like Fort Knox: every time someone gets inside, the authorities fix it so no one can ever use that route again. What’s the best way of getting your foot in the door these days? Self-publishing? Web comics? Going to conventions and making connections?

AS: That’s a bit over-stated. Breaking into comics is no harder (and I’m paraphrasing Brian Bendis here) then breaking into being a doctor. It often takes years and it takes training and practice but it can definitely be done. My other business is called Comics Experience where I teach online courses about comics writing and art and lettering along with other professionals. They’ve been a huge success and in large part because of all the strategies that we talk about on how to break in.

But honestly, all the strategies in the world don’t matter if you don’t have something professional to show once you get there. And that’s the major focus of Comics Experience, we help you figure out your art and your writing and give you the tips and strategies that are repeatable so you can create professional-level work every time out of the gate.

Self-publishing is probably the most popular way to get noticed in the industry right now. But it’s not as simple as just publishing something, you’ve then got to market it and sell it at conventions and get it into people’s hands so it gets noticed.

SP: Similarly, once someone has that first published work–be it via the smaller presses, self-publication, or the internet–what is the best method on contacting the bigger publishers like IDW, Image or Dark Horse? What is IDW specifically looking for in new talent?

AS: Send them the book! Put a cover letter in, talk to them at conventions. We’re all just people here. I suppose IDW looks for the same things all the other publishers are looking for, the right person, to fit the right project, at the right time. A great writer for Superman may not be great on Transformers, for example. But it could happen. You’ve got to fit the right talent together on the right project.

So, if you’re a writer, always be writing, and always be coming up with new stories that fulfill those basic story requirements and then add something on top. You’ve always got to be better than the guy next to you in line. And as an artist, always be doing your art, growing, and trying new things. A lot of people forget to experiment and challenge themselves. Again, this is something we do a lot of at Comics Experience. We’ve got an ongoing Creators Workshop with monthly challenges and critiques by professionals and all kinds of cool stuff to help people continue to improve and succeed.

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