An Interview with Alex Schumacher
This week I got to speak with the incredibly talented Alex Schumacher, creator of works such as Decades of (in)Experience and Mr. Butterchips. I hope you find Alex’s insight to be informative and introspective as I do.
Aaron Iara: It is nice to finally get a chance to chat with you. Please tell the readers a bit about yourself and your work.
Alex Schumacher: Absolutely,and thank you so much for inviting me to chat. I’m Alex Schumacher, an author/illustrator of underground webcomics and graphic novels. Currently I write and draw the weekly slice of life/semiautobiographical webcomic Decades of (in)Experience for Antix Press and the monthly satirical comic Mr. Butterchips for Drunk Monkeys. I’m also in the process of pitching a brand new graphic novel at the moment.
Aaron Iara: Welcome to Effective Nerd! I am a huge fan of your work. What made you decide on comics as your preferred medium? How long have you been drawing and writing?
Alex Schumacher: While I deviated several times during the journey, I fell in love with the medium at a very young age. There were two specific perennial moments that shaped my formative years as a cartoonist.
The first was discovering my aunt’s extensive collection of classic comic books from the ’60s and ’70s. She had amassed an impressive array of books including Marvel, DC, Archie Comics, Harvey Comics, and the Wuthering Heights series. I immersed myself in the work of such luminaries as Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Marie Severin, and “King” Jack Kirby.
The second was my grandparents gifting me with the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comic Strips. Walter Kelly, Roy Crane, Harvey Kurtzman, and all of the greats grabbed me by the throat and never released their grip. I spent hours inside those panels and dreamed of the day I might be able to join their ranks.
This may sound like a stock answer but I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. I stopped around junior high and suppressed the comics bug for nearly ten years. When I returned to sequential storytelling in my early 20’s I began pursuing the craft seriously.
Aaron Iara: I was also given an old comic book collection as a child. Much of my adolescence was spent reading Archie comics from the 70s and 80s.
A life-long love of comics means you have plenty of books under your belt. What creators (comics or otherwise) have had the biggest influence on your work?
Alex Schumacher: Honestly,that depends on which stage of metamorphosis I was in at the time. Around the age of 22 I started pursuing a career in comic strip syndication so it was cartoonists like Lynn Johnston, Bill Watterson, Morrie Turner, Jan Eliot, and Berke Breathed who inspired me.
Within a few years I began to discover the alternative/underground comic book scene and found a wealth of influence in people like Gilbert Shelton, Michael Allred, Julie Doucet, Keith Knight, Joe Matt, Roberta Gregory, and Los Bros Hernandez.
I then returned to children’s literature and rediscovered early favorites including Shel Silverstein, Edward Gorey, Beatrix Potter, and Quentin Blake.
Once again shifting gears at 33 or 34 I decided to focus on the craft of writing and deferred to the craft of authors like John Steinbeck, William Goldman, Toni Morison, and Tobias Wolff. Finally, when I resigned to fully give myself over to the comics medium I studied (and continually reference) greats like Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, art Spiegelman, and Joe Sacco.
This is by no means a comprehensive list,as there are far too many inspirations to name.
Aaron Iara: It sounds like you have given yourself a well-rounded education of storytelling! Decades seems to be a very personal story. Has the creation of the story had an impact on your life?
Alex Schumacher: It is indeed incredibly personal. I designed it to be a roman à clef interpretation as to give myself the ability to compartmentalize and detach a bit from the retelling of the more poignant or difficult anecdotes. At the same time I didn’t want to shy away from or sanitize the harsher realities of navigating the meat grinder we call life. Luke Carlin (the main character) is immediately introduced as a struggling 30-something prone to substance abuse and aspiring to be a cartoonist whilst working thankless gigs to make ends meet. Sound familiar?
I would say the comic has had just as much of an impact on my life as my life has an impact on the trajectory of the story. The episodes tend to poke fun at or at least analyze some of my past behaviors and accentuate why said habits may have been in need of modification. Luke’s journey was always intended to exhibit individual and emotional growth. While he is a version of me to be sure there are some fairly distinct differences as well. Hopefully this is evident to anyone who may have the chance (misfortune?) to meet me in person.
As for affecting my life, there have been a few instances where a few readers have conveyed how relatable a specific installment was or thanked me for talking candidly about a topic close to their heart. Reaching even one person makes all of the hours hunched over a drafting table worth it. Working with my editor Francis Lombard has been an incredible endeavor too. He’s always looking to push me, or offer an enthusiastic nudge, to move in directions I may have never thought about exploring. Francis has certainly assisted in elevating my storytelling prowess and possibly even helped to attract me a fan or two along the way.
Aaron Iara: The best writing and art, in my opinion, will give readers insight into both the perspectives of others as well as themselves.
Navigating regular life while trying to make art is a difficult task. How do you balance your creative output with the rest of your responsibilities?
Alex Schumacher: While I am aware there are some artists who are organized, I unfortunately fall into the chaotic creator category so scheduling is imperative. This necessity to carve out writing and drawing time is all the more acute for those of us who must also continue to maintain a day job for financial stability. I’ve found that if I set very specific parameters for myself in which to operate I am able to stay on a regular productive schedule. For the most part anyway. Protecting my creative time to the death and ensuring my ass is in the chair by means of psychological self-flagellation is what seems to have worked for me thus far.
Aaron Iara: That sounds a lot like my work style. I typically make a list for the entire week, but every week is different. I try to plan out my writing time in the gaps of my life.
Creativity can be a fickle friend, especially when it comes to stress and depression. What keeps you motivated to continue pushing forward with your art?
Aaron Schumacher: Agreed and in my experience I have found creativity to have an unpredictable ebb and flow. At the risk of sounding facetious I don’t have time to plummet into a stagnant state. Impending deadlines from publishers have a way of keeping me motivated. That said, suffering from clinical depression and anxiety as I do there are absolutely stretches of time when my gusto all but disappears.
A common misconception seems to be that medication eliminates all symptoms of a particular chemical imbalance. Nothing could be further from the truth and,while the right medications can treat a number of associated negative features, certain traits persist. One of the ways this manifests for me is enduring “low” periods where my fervor is reduced to barely a simmer. These are obviously the most difficult times to forge ahead. I’m not always stellar at it but self-care is of the utmost importance during these times. My philosophy is that those of us suffering from the same or similar afflictions must give ourselves the permission to take a guilt-free night or two off. In doing so I can hopefully return to the task at hand recharged and renewed. Take it from me, forced output leads to a shit product.
Aaron Iara: I couldn’t agree more. I have dysthymia and some days are lower than others. I am a huge advocate of the guilt-free night off. It is much easier to tackle the difficult days with a full tank.
What are your biggest obstacles when it comes to creating your work? How do you overcome them?
Alex Schumacher: As touched on above, when working around the rigidity of a day job time is probably the largest obstacle. For that, I meticulously plan, which is not exactly my forte but it is essential. Procrastination and poor time management tend to derail my efforts as well. My crusade to conquer those handicaps is perpetually in progress. In addition, as soon as I have laid out a current project idea I immediately suffer from a debilitating and unfounded fear that I will never again conjure another story idea. This isn’t an obstacle per se, since another idea always eventually arrives, but I figured it was worth mentioning should anyone reading this encounter the same issue and feel as though they may be the only one.
You’re not alone!
Aaron Iara: Time management is extremely important, especially in a time where distractions are so common. I have a real problem with blindly browsing social media and Reddit when I am bored. I do my best to carry a notebook on me at all times so I can be somewhere productive while away from my home computer.
Starting your own business/brand costs money. Effective Nerd is big on saving money in order to afford our creative endeavors. Do you do anything special to financially balance life and art?
Alex Schumacher: Buy cheap whiskey.
In all seriousness, it’s as simple as not spending money that my wife and I don’t have. If that means I can’t travel to/exhibit at a particular con or have to wait to buy another set of pens so be it. Spend within your means. If you’re looking for a career with stability become an accountant not a cartoonist.
Aaron Iara: That is great advice that is easier said than done. Living a frugal lifestyle is very important for my family. We have had a lot of success with couponing and repurposing.
You mention the popular 90s punk band Rancid in Decades of (in)Experience. I grew up as a punk rocker myself, but have greatly expanded my musical tastes since adolescence.What are your some of your current favorite bands/genres?
Alex Schumacher: Of course the punk and rock of my youth continue to receive heavy rotation in my studio to this day but in the past 10-15 years I’ve definitely broadened my musical horizons as well. Having dabbled in performing I can appreciate almost any style for the sheer musicality, especially when it’s some transcendent artist like Janelle Monae (thanks to my wife for introducing me to her music!).
In recent years I have found myself most drawn to the Americana/Bluegrass/Alt-Country genres. People like Jason Isbell and Margo Price absolutely blow me away. Music is a requisite while I draw as silence allows my mind to wander light years from the page in front of me. There is something I have found in the sound of a steel pedal guitar that is ineffable and unfailingly soothing.
Aaron Iara: Listening to music that lets the mind wander is important for my creative process as well. I am a big fan of instrumental hip hop beats. The recent increase in the popularity of lofi hip hop beats has been a gold mine.
What are some of your favorite current comic creators? Give a shout out to some of your favorite indie creators!
Alex Schumacher: This is somewhat of a golden age for comics and graphic novels so, again, there are far too many to name. An abridged list of some current favorites (off the top of my head and in no particular order)is: Derf Backderf, Jillian Tamaki, Lucy Knisley, Jeff LeMire, Ellen Forney, Thi Bui, Judd Winick, Nicole Georges, C. Spike Trotman, Luke Howard, Tara O’Connor, Guy Delisle, Noah Van Sciver, Nidhi Chanani, Mimi Pond, Daniel Clowes, Tom Hart, Roz Chast, and Julia Wertz.
Aaron Iara: Great comics have never been more readily available. Jeff LeMire is one of my favorites as well. Sweet Tooth is one of the most powerful comics I have ever read.
What advice can you give to people who want to start making their own comics?
Alex Schumacher: Don’t concern yourself with what you believe editors or publishers may or may not want. Tell the stories that are screaming to be released from the pit of your gut.
Only compete against yourself. Always be striving to improve but resist the urge to judge your development or career against others in your field.
Establish an online presence. It’s unavoidable in this day and age unfortunately.
Find beta readers outside of your family and friends who are willing to tell you the brutal truth.
No matter what, keep on scribbling!
Check Out Alex Schumacher
Thank you to Alex for taking the time to speak with me. I hope you enjoyed my interview with Alex Schumacher.
You can support Alex Schumacher through Patreon.
Decades of (in)Experience can be read through the archives at Antix Press.