Interview with Author And Editor Renee Witterstaetter

Renee Witterstaetter is the author of Excess: The Art of Michael Golden, Tex: The Art of Mark Texeira, the critically acclaimed Nick Cardy: The Artist at War, Dying for Action: The Life and Films of Jackie Chan, Kerry and the Scary Things, Nick Cardy: Wit-Lash, and many more. More recent projects include James O’Barr: Uncoffined and Michael Golden: Dangerous Curves.

Witterstaetter began the comic phase of her career working on titles such as Superman, Silver Surfer, Conan the Barbarian and Conan Saga, and then went on to spearhead the reintroduction of She-Hulk at Marvel. She then moved on to Topps Comics, where she was the editor on X-Files, Jurassic Park, Xena and Hercules, and was the co-creator—with artist Michael Golden-- of the Spartan X.

In addition, Witterstaetter has worked as the colorist on hundreds of comics from the Avengers to Spider-man to Captain America, and many, many more. She then went on to work on music videos for Madonna, Seal, Ben Harper and Usher, as well as the feature movies Crime Story, Rush Hour Two, Red Dragon, and among others.

A member of the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan, in addition to on-going film work, she is the President of Little Eva Ink Publishing and Little Eva Ink Toys. Witterstaetter is also currently working in artist management via Eva Ink Artist Group, and is the co-producer of the DVD series highlighting creatives in many fields. 

While appearing at Wizard World, Witterstaetter took the time to answer a few questions.

Describe your introductory experience to the world of comics.

I like to joke that it started when I discovered some old Jerry Lewis and Spider-man comics and "Mad Magazines" in my brother's bedroom when I was 7 or so.

But in reality, it was one of these situations where one door opens and you decide if you will walk through it or not. That one decision can, and often does, decide the course of your whole life.

I became interested in Journalism while I was in Junior High School, when my brother Robbie took me to one of his High School Journalism parties, trying to recruit I suppose. I was already the editor of my Jr. High newspaper, and was already producing slide show documentaries-- most often relating to history.

The one I was most proud of in Jr. High was on World War II, documenting the whole conflict on slides, timed and accompanied by a cassette tape recording. The nice German lady who helped me with the voiceover recording had actually been a concentration camp survivor. I won an award for that.

But basically, what I'm trying to say is that I was interested in storytelling-- all forms of storytelling-- from an early age. And art is storytelling. 

I was the kid that would sneak out of bed every night to watch the Midnight Movie (we only had three channels), while my parents were asleep. So that was my film education, and I saw everything. I think that my Dad thought it was funny. I'd often stay awake until the channel went off the air after the movie, by showing a huge picture of the American Flag and playing "The Star Spangled Banner." Dad was a postman--back when that was a wonderful job--and would wake up early at 4 am to go to work, turn off the TV and put me to bed.

So, starting off that way, being a shy kid-- you tend to spend alot of time in your head using your imagination. Drawing as a kid, reading all the books in the library subject by subject, eventually finding an outlet for creativity in the Jr. High newspaper, continuing with editing my High School newspaper, then my college newspaper and art magazine... I think my path was laid to be involved in storytelling in one manner or another.

What influences have shaped your work as a writer, editor or colorist?

All the experiences in my life really. I spent many years as a colorist, but now I am mostly a writer and editor. But when I was doing alot of color art, my color influences were people like Maxfield Parrish. I love his work and how he creates a sense of place with his color palette. Writers that I love are people like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Modern writers-- I enjoy the humor of Carl Hiassen. I run all over the place with my reading tastes. I don't stick with one genre. But I believe I find my most inspiration just in my life and people around me. 

I was lucky enough to have some very wonderful people helping me learn along the way--they shaped me-- Craig Anderson, my first boss at Marvel, followed by Spider-man editor, Jim Salicrup and Vice Editor in Chief, Mark Gruenwald. Marvel during that time period was a very creative place and a great home. They were my influences. They taught me about being an editor-- what all these people taught me--being an editor requires you to think creativity if you are going to be good at it. Think on your feet. And I believe it's imperative to have a good artistic eye yourself. At any given time, I'd have 6-9 books a month or more to get out. Considering that you have 5-7 creatives on each of those titles, that's alot of working with various personalities and addressing various needs to keep things running smoothly.

Working in movies--which I did after my years as a comic book editor-- seemed to be the same thing to me, and not much different than being a comic book editor. Organization, organization, organization.

How did you “break in” to the industry?

While I was in college at East Texas State University, some of my friends from Texarkana told me they were going to a convention in Dallas, Texas called the Dallas Fantasy Faire--- one of the premier shows of the time--and asked me if I wanted to go. So we loaded up the truck and drove to Big D. I had an amazing time talking to writers, artists and other creative types, and met friends at that show that have remained my friends until the present.

In fact, my first job out of college ended up being as the "Girl Friday" for the Dallas Fantasy Faire working with the owner, the late Larry Lankford. I think my official title was "Assistant Convention Coordinator" or something like that. But it entailed everything from making phone calls to acting as a guest liaison, to taking and developing photographs, writing press release and articles. Laying out the program books. You name it. Whatever needed to be done.

From that experience I met many people in the comic book industry and landed a job as an assistant editor at DC Comics on the Superman books with editor Mike Carlin. Carlin taught me a great deal about comics storytelling and putting together a comic book, and I'll always be grateful to him for that.

From there, I moved over to Marvel Comics for five years, starting out as the assistant editor for Craig Anderson on the Silver Surfer books. I was the editor on "Conan Saga" then too, and assistant editor for "Savage Sword of Conan." Soon, I became a full editor, and had my own line of books, including "She-Hulk," "What The?" "The Impossible Man Summer Special," "The Marvel Holiday Special," and numerous others.

When my friend ,and one of my mentors, Jim Salicrup, became the head at Topps Comics. I joined him there for 5 years, editing such books as "Xena," "Hercules," "Jurassic Park," "Jason Vs. Leatherface," and I can't remember how many other books. It was a fun time.

After this run of comic jobs, I worked exclusively in film for five years, on such movies as "Rush Hour II," "Red Dragon," "To Ease the Lose," and dozens of music videos for talents like Madonna, Seal, Usher, and of course too many commercials to count.

The funny thing about all my various jobs, be it working at a small newspaper, doing PR for a convention, editing comics or working in film, the attention to detail, and the eye for storytelling and graphics--the skill set required was the same. My skill set served me well at each of these jobs, I think. It's about adaptability, I suppose.

I've been an agent, in addition to everything else, since 2003, when an artist friend of mine asked me to start repping him because of my knowledge of comics (I was working exclusively in film production in LA at the time, so comics sort of "pulled me back in.") And again, I'm using all those same skills I used as a comics editor or a crew member.

Are there any current trends that have changed your outlook of making art?

I don't tend to follow trends with my writing. I like to write things that I myself would be interested in reading. That's how my book "Nick Cardy: The Artist at War," came about.  I was visiting Nick in Florida and he brought out all these sketches that he'd done during World War II. Now, it you don't know who Nick Cardy is, he set the standard for cover design at DC Comics for decades. This was art of his, that nobody had ever seen! And of such historical significance. I immeditalty decided that we needed to write a book. Nick said "Renee, do you think anyone would want to read it? I said, "Nick, if I want to read it, others will to."  It sold extremely well, and the UK edition has just been released from Titan Books. Nick passed away last year, so I'm so happy you got to see this before he died.

How does an idea for a piece begin? What are the steps to your creative process?

In my writing process, the ideas are easy to come by. I stumble on them-- just like the idea for the Cardy book. The trick is recognizes that what you tripped over could be something. Then, it's finding the time to do them all. I have 4 books I want to work on right now. The first thing you have to do, is write down your ideas. You think you'll remember them, but I'm here to tell you, you don't always do that. Ideas slip through your fingers like water.  So, write them down.  Then the research phase begins, and that requires alot of note taking. I still use index cards to write down all the details and organize the thoughts and facts into chapters and groups after compiling everything. Then, your prose is the glue. 

What projects are you currently working on?

My newest books are "Michael Golden: Dangerous Curves" and "Mark Texeira: Tempest." Two art books that have just hit store shelves this  month. Michael Golden is a renowned illustrator and storyteller and his work is just amazing. This is a look at some of his key pieces over the last few years.  I am also working on a deluxe package of the aforementioned book "Nick Cardy: The Artist at War," to commemorate our friend Mr. Cardy. 

Are there any mistakes that you frequently see other creatives making? If so, what are those mistakes and how do you think they can be avoided?

Oh sure. All the time. But I'm making mistakes too, so it's better for me to focus on my own work and improve what I'm doing. Hopefully we all become smarter as time goes on. 

What are your favorite characters you like to depict, and why?

I have an idea for a detective series that I'm itching to write. I can't tell too much about it, but it's a combination of things and people I love from history, and putting a fantasy aspect to it all. If I have to spend alot of time with the characters I'm making into flesh and blood, they might as well be characters I like.  Of course you have to throw in a few you don't like so much as well, to stir the pot. 

What kind of stories are you looking to tell through your work?

Oh Gosh! That's hard to say. I've worked on so many things I love. I feel I've been very lucky to live a life where I can work on projects, be creative and say one day, "Ya know, I'd like to write this book," or "I'd like to produce this toy," and then I find a way to make it so.

Every project I'm currently working on is my favorite project and is a story I want to tell.

I'd have to say for me though that some of my favorite books have been about people I care about-- "Dying for Action: The Life and Films of Jackie Chan," and our comic book series "Spartan X," inspired by Hong Kong movies, for one. 

I have also loved learning about the subjects of my art books-- Michael Golden,  Nick Cardy, James O'Barr....finding out what makes them do what they do, and how they do it. That is my journalistic background coming into play.

In my film work, I have enjoyed being a part of every movie I've worked on, and contributing to those stories becoming solid. It is this bizarre reality where you live, eat, sleep to make a movie for six months, and the people you are working with become your surrogate families for that unique time. When the movie wraps, you almost feel like you are going through some time of mourning or withdrawal. The first morning you don't have to get up at 4 am and go to work for 20 hours, you don't know what to do with yourself!

I was lucky enough to work with some fantastic crews, with directors like Brett Ratner, and AD's like Jamie Freitag-- a few bad ones too. When those productions end, you can't WAIT to get away. :-) You are almost ready to chew your arm off to do so! But lucky most production jobs are not that way.

Of all my movie experiences tough, I think I loved working with Jackie on "Rush Hour II" and Anthony Hopkins on "Red Dragon." You remember the ones who are class acts, and I knew Jackie long before I worked with him on that movie.

So, what stories am I wanting to tell? New ones are always popping up and can come from any or all of these experiences and often do. 

Are there any characters or stories you're dying to do?

"Kerry and the Scary Things," is a children's book that I developed with my friend and talented artist Keith Wilson, many years ago. Probably over 2 decades ago. It had a long and winding road to being published-- i.e. picked up by two companies that then went out of business. And Keith and I got a little frustrated to see many of the ideas we had for the book, starting to be mirrored in other pop culture projects and movies. So, we felt we really needed to get out our book and introduce it to the world. So we did.

Kerry, our hero, is a little boy who loves monsters. So, he puts together a monster fighting backpack in case he ever meets any, with all the things he'll need in order to fight them. In the course of the book, you'll see if he actually does meet any monsters, how he deals with them if he does, and what he has in his bag of tricks. It's really a story about kids using their imaginations.

I think we've lost a lot of that--kids have toys or video games that play "for them," and it's important to not forget to foster creativity.

There are several sequels planned. The next, which also was written many years ago is "Kerry and the Dreadful Dragon."

My intent is to pursue animation with these properties as well.

What future projects are you currently working on?

I'm waiting for the next door to open. And it will. More comics, more books, more movie work, more writing. More fun. 

I have a few other books I can't announce yet, but I think they will be fantastic to bring to life. And a few more documentary projects a well.

In the world of comic books, what liberties and restrictions do you observer?

I often have folks asked me if it's been a disadvantage--or been restrictive-- being a women in comics. Well, I never had a problem with it, and I actually never even think about being at a disadvantage or being restricted. I like being a woman. And, I have always tried to go out and make my own opportunities. Granted, however, it's true there were not that many women in the comic book industry when I first started. I can probably count with one hand the women that I knew that were working in the industry. But remember, you didn't really have very many women even going to conventions at that time either. 

As far as working in the industry, me personally, I was given so many opportunities: to be an editor, to learn and to work with some amazing people. If I did have a bad story or two, I probably wouldn't tell it. No need.

All my bosses in comics were men. (Conversely, working in film, most of my bosses were woman.) In comics, Mike Carlin taught me a great deal about putting together comic books when I started at DC comics as a green assistant editor on the "Superman" books. And from there my friend and mentor Jim Salicrup at Marvel comics was a great teacher, he was the "Spider-man" editor and later my boss at Topps; my immediate boss, Craig Anderson on the "Silver Surfer" books at Marvel was amazing; and another one of the best bosses I ever had was Mark Gruenwald at Marvel, who really took everybody--all the assistants--under his wing and taught us all his passion for putting together comic books. By that time there were a lot more women in the industry.  I never felt like I was ever being discriminated against, and I was also given plenty of opportunities to do female oriented books. I was the editor on She-Hulk for a long time. Xena later, etc. 

Now the field has changed so much! SO many women in the industry now as compared to years ago. 

As far as liberties? Well we have an amazing life. I love my work. It makes me happy and I look forward to doing whatever I'm doing every day. I travel with creative people. I make books and stories and events happen. I feel blessed. There's nothing, for me, like working in a creative industry. That's a gift. 

And with the internet and digtial publishing, the field is wide open. There are so many avenues now for folks to get their stories out there. It's wonderful.

13) Any advice you'd like to offer for up-and-coming creators?

Sure: Breathe. Dance more. Laugh often. And take notes.

For upcoming appearances for Renee Witterstaetter, be sure to check the Wizard World convention schedule.