Arlen Schumer’s VisuaLectures: Where Comics Scholarship Meets Design Showmanship

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One big factor that sets apart Arlen Schumer’s presentations on comics from the others is his acute understanding of graphic design. His delivery—like the superhero stories he’s discussing—is a dynamic synergy of words and images, of form and function. Mix that together with a heaping helping of contemporary “more is more” postmodernism—more on that in a minute—and voila: “VisuaLectures.”

The view from the audience as Arlen Schumer addresses the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. photo: M Dooley

Way too often, lectures are painfully tedious. The monotone recitation: ho-hum! The verbatim reading of projected bullet points: arrrggh! And worst of all—especially for visual media—no images! WTF’s up with that? Comic convention panels are the absolute worst. You’d think that artists would show some consideration for their fans by sharing some, umm: art! But noooooo.

On the other hand, there are the Schumer shows, bombastic and spirited. After an intro backed up by Thus Spake Zarathustra, Arlen springs into Springsteen performance mode with a non-stop speed rap, punctuated with jazzy off-the-cuff jokes. He absolutely doesn’t add on-screen text: that’s strictly for amateurs and sissies. But images? Picture more than 700—that’s as in “seven hundred”—of them, meticulously structured, sequenced and styled for maximum impact throughout the length of his talk. Hey, this guy doesn’t call his gigs VisuaLectures for nothing. Plus, the highly opinionated and often combative Mr. Schumer frequently challenges audience complacency by attacking industry icons like Marvel editor Stan Lee.

And if all this sounds like a lot of fun, well, it is: Arlen knows the value of entertainment. But he’s hardly a mere comics “enthusiast.” The guy packs his presentations with solid substance, which is one reason he’s invited to such venues as Columbia, SVA, USC, and FIT. Here’s famed Watchmen comics writer Alan Moore on Arlen’s classic 2003 tome on Neal Adams, Steve DitkoJack Kirby, and other iconic 1960s superhero artists.: “A lovingly crafted tribute to the superhero comic of the 1960s, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art recaptures the four-color visionary surge of the era, its jet-age psychedelic rush of imagination and the titanic, luminous figures, both real and imaginary, that glittered in its firmament.” And then there’s Will Eisner: “Arlen Schumer documents an important period in comic book history, told with an explosive format and stunning design. It reflects the kinetic rhythm of the era.”

As a comics history professor myself, I admire Arlen’s emphasis on creative concepts and significant connections to the wider worlds of art, culture, politics, philosophies, and so on. Contrary to the common assumption, scholarship and showmanship aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, Arlen’s theatrical spiel has been opening a lot more eyes to the abundant richness and the awesome potential of his beloved medium than the droning discourses of adenoidal academics. In graphic design lingo, that’s called communication.

In a 1988 issue of Print devoted to comics, Arlen wrote “The New Superheroes: A Graphic Transformation,” a 14-page feature that’s since become a landmark treatise on the then-emerging breed of boldly experimental draftsmen, stylists, and multimedia artists such as the currently renowned Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Howard Chaykin. And after that, Comic Book Artist magazine proclaimed Arlen to be “one of the more articulate and enthusiastic advocates of comic book art in America.”

And the plaudits just keep on coming, particularly for his live appearances. About six months ago, Rob Salkowitz—Forbes writer and author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment – gave this review: “A good critic points you to the subtle details of a work that contribute to its impact and makes you appreciate its greatness on an intellectual level, not just by instinct. I had that experience multiple times this weekend at San Diego Comic Fest, listening to Arlen Schumer expound on the work of Neal Adams, the masters of Silver Age comic art, and the people who brought Batman: The Animated Series to the screen. Great, learned criticism delivered with verve, passion and visual flair.”

I’ve already seen Arlen’s Jack Kirby talk three times this year: at Comic-Con International, Comic Fest, and the Society of Illustrators. And I haven’t tired of it yet. So I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that he’ll be presenting “Jack Kirby: The Centennial of the King of Comics” at the prestigious 92nd Street Y in just a few weeks. From its founding back in 1874 the Y has earned a stellar reputation as one of New York’s most highly regarded cultural centers. It’s hosted a spectrum of famed entertainers, political leaders, scholars, and more than 40 Nobel laureates from Al Gore to Harold Pinter to Toni Morrison. And sharing this season’s lecture lineup with Arlen are Alec Baldwin, Art Garfunkel, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner.

As an organization that “embraces its Jewish heritage and values,” the Y is an ideal venue for the hundred year anniversary of Jacob Kurtzberg, the son of Jewish immigrants who grew up on the Lower East Side during the early 20th Century. And so it’s enlisted Arlen again—he presented on “Jews and Comics” two years ago—to “celebrate the centennial birthday of the man considered by both professionals and fans alike as the single greatest artist and storyteller in the history of comic books.” It’ll be on Tuesday evening, October 10th, and since tickets are still available, you can click here for more information.

Meanwhile, here’s a—visual, of course—sneak preview:

Arlen Schumer at San Diego Comic Fest. photos: M Dooley

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