Arlen Schumer: The Frederator Interview
You read that right.
We all hear so much from fans about our “red robot” that I thought the time was right for Arlen to design something for us again, 20 some-odd years after his first.
So here it is! The 2019 Frederator New Year’s poster. (You can see some of the poster’s development work here.)
Arlen’s not only a fantastic artist/designer, but he’s a prolific pop culture historian with some great books and essays to his name, and a thriving lecture series on some of the famous (and even more unsung heroes) of comic book art.
How did Arlen Schumer come to Frederator? And how did Arlen come to art, specifically, comic book art? As you can read below, he and I have known each other and worked together for several years, even pre-Frederator.
All this and more, in the first Frederator interview of 2019.
Hi Arlen. When did you start drawing?
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 3 networks but the 3 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!
What was the first comic you fell in love with?
Giant Superman Annual #7 (Summer ’63): Not only is its cover the hands-down greatest of all the great multiple-panel Superman Annual covers that Superman Artist of the Baby Boom Generation (and my first favorite artist) Curt Swan drew in the ‘60s—not only does it feature perhaps the greatest single Superman figure ever rendered by Swan (in pencil; head of DC coloring Jack Adler did the hand-painted grey wash tones over it) or any Superman artist, before or since—but it is the first comic book cover I can recall ever seeing, when I was five years old, in summer camp that year. What an image to come into the wonderful world of comics by!
What was your first professional job as an artist?
My summer job between freshman and sophomore years at art school (Rhode Island School of Design), creating black & white line illustrations for a t-shirt silkscreening company in Fair Lawn.
I know that you count Neal Adams as a primary mentor? Were there any others?
Neal Adams was one of two Gods of Comic Book Art in the late-‘60s: the other was Jim Steranko, who was described as the Jimi Hendrix of comics, because Steranko’s career was as meteoric in its rise, and as short-lived. Though Steranko didn’t die in ’70 like Hendrix, that’s when he left Marvel Comics after less than 4 years of explosive and experimental works—and, like Hendrix, his impact on both the art form and its audience was in converse proportion to the relatively small amount of work he turned out. In particular, Steranko’s design sense and typographic talents were a tremendous influence on my choosing to major in Graphic Design at RISD.
It was sometime in my junior year there that I must’ve written Steranko a fanboy letter, gushing about those very things—and much to my shock and surprise, he wrote me back, inviting me to come see him in his home/studio in Reading, PA! So I took a bus from Providence, RI to Reading, and spent the day with Steranko—except I barely remember a thing about it! Why? Because I think I was having a Dr. Strange-like ectoplasmic out-of-body experience the whole time I was with him—I, a fan, spending quality time with one of the Twin Gods of Comics!!!
He wanted me to leave RISD and begin working with him as his apprentice! I couldn’t believe what he was offering me; I remember the bus ride back to Providence in a daze, feeling the utter cliché come to life of my future like the road in front of me: I could either stay on the main highway of getting my college degree, or take that exit ramp and join the circus! What do you think I did?
I stayed in school and got my diploma a year later. Had it been freshman year, maybe I would have left;
but not when I was a year away from matriculating—not to mention honoring my mom’s sacrifice of
putting me through school financially. But I’ve remained in touch with Steranko ever since, and feel both
fortunate and unique, that I am the only fanboy who grew up to not only work for one of the Twin Gods
of Comics (I ended up working for Neal Adams 3 years after I graduated from RISD), but almost worked
for the other, too!
And then, Fred, there was—YOU! You were one of the first great professionals I met/interviewed with after I graduated from RISD and moved to New York City, when you were still at Warner-Amex having just created the MTV always-changing logo [actually it was Manhattan Design; I was the company creative director]. You impressed me as someone who was “real,” who didn’t hide behind a phony “professional” mask. We stayed in touch after that, and you gave me my first real breakout illustration job when I went solo as a freelancer a few years later, designing and illustrating an animated 30-second spot for a radio station, working with Colossal Pictures in LA (who later became Pixar)—and a NY metro-area billboard to go along with it!
Since then, we’ve done a bunch of great things together, up to and including this Frederator poster! And I’ve watched you wade through your own career waters as a multi-dimensional leading man, wearing so many different hats over the years—the decades—which has inspired me to cultivate my own Renaissance Man attributes. I’ve always described you to others as a mensch, the ultimate New York pro who’s got a great big beautiful heart an d soul to match his creative mind. If I could ever be described that way one day, I would consider that to be the highest compliment I could ever receive!
How about the mentors that you never met?
My father died when I was only four months old; my mother raised my older brother (by a year and a half) and I herself. Neither of my grandfathers was alive, and, though I had a handful of uncles, I would only see them a few times a year at family gatherings. So I had to find surrogate father figures elsewhere—and I found them in the American Pop Culture I grew up with in the’60s, in roughly this chronological order: Sean Connery’s James Bond, my first idealized masculine role model (the first movie I ever recall seeing, when I was around four-five years old, was Dr. No, the first Connery Bond, at a drive-in theater); Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, a pop prophet of moral righteousness in the vast television wasteland, looking cool as all get-out in those incredibly tight TZ introductions—all of my artworks based on the series can be seen as my ways of honoring Serling’s legacy as a son would honor his father’s; and the superheroes in comic books, first and foremost Superman and Batman (the Yin-Yang of the genre), pseudo-paternally teaching me right from wrong, good from evil, and standing up and fighting for one’s beliefs. These are the things I suppose sons learn from the fathers, as well as their religious and academic authority figures. But “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Comic Books”!
You’ve published a few pop culture histories, and given countless lectures on various great, neglected figures. What got you started as an historian?
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 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 8-year old comic book fan in 1966 and hear that there was actually a book in the Fair Lawn public library about comics!
How did you come to design the Fredbot?
When you asked me to come up with my take on the classic Japanese-influenced sci-fi trope of the giant-monster-attacks-the-tiny-people back in 1997 for your first Frederator brand image—but make it a robot, and make it look like you [I don’t remember this last part], to boot—I immediately thought of the animated robot Gigantor, one of the first Japanese anime to reach American shores in the wake of the Batman TV series in 1966. Once I started drawing my version of Big G, it was a no-brainer to add the distinctive Seibert horned-rim eyeglasses, topped by the equally-distinctive Seibert eyebrows, and voila! Fredbot!
OK, I know you love Bruce Springsteen. How come?
I believe there are Four Pillars of Rock & Roll, in roughly chronological order: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, representing the greatest voice, lyrics, band, and guitar; hence, The Four Pillars.
Like Elvis, Bruce is a singular, dynamic presence with a commanding vocal power; his lyrics and songs have stood the test of time and made him the only one of the many “new Dylans” to actually live up to the label, living a true, real rock & roll life while writing it down, The Great American Novel but on records, great American songs chronicling not only his life and career, but that of the postwar generation that has come of age with him, timeless anthems like “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road” and “Born in the USA,” just to mention three of his greatest hits; with The E Street Band, Bruce captured the sheer joy, enthusiasm and positive energy of the early Beatles; and, like Hendrix and any of the other guitar gods—Clapton, Page, Van Halen, The Edge—Bruce has played searing, soulful, melodic leads with the best of them.
But Bruce isn’t one of those rock & roll pillars—he’s the rock & roll roof built over them, the complete rock & roller, putting it all together as no one has before. Bruce Springsteen is, quite simply, the promise of rock & roll…delivered.
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.
Bruce is also a bonafide moral leader for our age, doing what a true leader should be doing: living his life by example, and using it to inspire and exhort others to do the same.
He is the true President of the United States.
Thanks for the interview Arlen. And of course, thanks for the Fredbot! Happy New Year!