Meet Superhero Educator Andy Schmidt of Comics Experience

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Once upon a time, comic books were regarded as strictly the purview of adolescent boys, and perhaps only the nerdiest among them. Superhero sagas were seen as part of a fringe lifestyle enjoyed mostly by people not unlike those annoying dudes from The Big Bang Theory.

But times have changed quite dramatically. Today, thanks to the massive box office success of properties well over half-a-century in age, comics are basking in their brightest spotlight ever. Indeed, at 75 years old, Captain America's forthcoming Civil War is among the most hotly anticipated films of 2016. Not bad for a flag-waving septuagenarian.

In fact, four of the Top Ten domestic box office hits of all time are comic book properties: Marvel's The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Dark Knight Rises. That number is actually seven of 10 if you count Star Wars films, which in addition to spawning a commercial empire of gargantuan proportions, have also spun off into numerous successful comic book titles.

Tried and true heroes like the Flash, Green Arrow, and Supergirl are transforming the scope of primetime television. Thor, Iron Man, and the Incredible Hulk are merchandising giants. Just this March, Marvel's Deadpool became the highest earning R-rated movie ever.

In nearly every regard, comics have completed the transition from geek subculture to mainstream draw for people of all ages and genders. The subject of our interview is talented and fortunate enough to have witnessed this transition from the inside. Today, as the founder and president of the Comics Experience educational program, he is working to give others that very same opportunity.

Andy Schmidt has worked as a comic book writer and editor as well as a video game writer. His resume includes stints with Boom! Studios, IDW Publishing, and uncontested industry leader, Marvel Comics (which produces roughly 45% of all titles sold in the U.S.). With Marvel in particular, Schmidt contributed to or oversaw production on some of the industry's most important titles, including The Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man. As the lead editor on the Annihilation crossover series, Schmidt helped to produce a storyline that has since been mined to tremendous box office success in The Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, inevitably, in the upcoming Civil War.

Lucky for us, Andy sees himself not just as a writer and editor, but also as an educator. It is this passion that led the former substitute teacher and adjunct professor (at St. Louis Community College and Webster University) to establish Comics Experience in 2007. A program dedicated to educating aspiring comic book authors, illustrators, inkers, marketers and pretty much anybody else with a love for the field, Comics Experience has attracted glowing industry feedback and impressive enrollment numbers. At the time of our interview, courses such as “Advanced Writing: Scripting Your First Issue”, “Comic Book Lettering and Production,” and “Advanced Comic Book Coloring” were actually sold out.

Course offerings run the full gamut, from penciling and scripting to self-publishing and comic book law. All courses are instructed by professionals with valuable insight into and experience within the industry.

The world of comics is driven by fantasy and for many, the mere notion of working in this world is exactly that. Comics Experience offers a clear path for those who wish to make it a reality.

Our discussion with Andy produced an enlightening look into comics, education and the point in our culture where the two intersect:

Let's get to know you a bit first. Where and when are you from?

I was born in the mid-70s in West Virginia, but we moved a lot when I was a kid and I've kept that trend up into adulthood. At this point, I don't really have a place I'm from, but I've lived on the east coast, in the south, Midwest, and out in California.

How did you begin your relationship with comic books? Was there anybody in your life who was a direct influence? What writers, artists or titles first inspired your imagination?

I'd have to credit my two older brothers with that. My recollection is that comics were always around. I'm still a little unclear on how they found comics, but I grew up reading their comics.

My brother Craig really nurtured my appreciation for comics, often suggesting things I'd like. When I was too little to read, he would sit with me and read them to me while I looked at the pictures. Looking back on that now, those are some of my most favorite childhood memories.

Both my parents were huge influences. My mother is extremely supportive of her children and their weird pursuits. One of my brothers works in video games. The other is writing a novel. My father is a writer and both my parents are educators. At one point in high school, my father “supplemented” my English classes and essentially took over my schooling, specifically, teaching me how to write effectively. It was kind of traumatic at the time, but I'm a much better writer because of it.

As for folks outside of my family, I'm inspired all the time. There are too many to count and I'm inspired by nature and my kids. I truly do find inspiration in all kinds of places.

You've worked as a comic book editor and writer as well as a video game writer. At what point did you realize that this was something you could do for a living?

Honestly, sometimes I'm still not sure it is. I love writing and working on characters I grew up with as well as creating my own, but I do go between sheer joy that this is what I do for a living and complete despair that I'm not going to have any work in a few weeks. I've been lucky not to have that happen yet, but the income of a freelance writer fluctuates greatly month-to-month and year-to-year. So, part of me is still not convinced that this is sustainable, but I'll ride this train until it runs out of steam.

Tell us a bit about your tenure with Marvel and some of the titles that you worked on. Was that a positive experience? Why prompted you to depart?

It was a hugely positive experience. By the time I left, I had worked on every major property they had from The Avengers, to the Fantastic Four, to X-Men and Spider-Man. And many of the specific stories I worked on have been adapted into their films, which is very cool to see work I had a hand in on the big screen.

When I joined Marvel, the company was still in bankruptcy and climbing out. That afforded a lot of opportunities for people like me to take the lead on big projects. I developed and edited the project that brought back the Guardians of the Galaxy more or less in their current form, and I'd only been there a couple years when I pitched it. I think it would be highly unlikely that someone as green as I was would be able to pitch and maintain control of a project that size today, but maybe I'm wrong.

As for why I left, simple economics. My wife and I were having our first son, and she made a lot more than I did, so I became a stay at home dad while she continued to work full time.

What about your work with IDW Publishing and Boom! Studios? Can you tell us about those experiences?

I had good experiences with both. The editorial staff at both places that I worked with were friendly and helpful and I made some great friends at both of those places while having a ton of fun writing and editing for them.

On the editorial side, when I was working at IDW, I was running a lot of licensed properties like Star Trek, G.I. Joe, Transformers and Dungeons & Dragons. Those were really fun properties to get to work on and the licensors were all good to work with, too.

How do you spend most of your days now?

Broken down, it's mainly teaching, publishing/editing, or writing/consulting. No two days are the same and I have to be careful I don't over commit to things or choose to work on projects that take more time than I suspect and pull me away from what's important. Owning your own business is no easy feet. It's very easy to get sucked in because there's always more than you can be doing and you're never 100% sure when the next check is coming in. It's definitely not for everyone.

When you aren't immersed in the world of comics, where are you immersed?

I try to stay active with my kids and in our small community. I work from home and so it would be very easy for me to become a shut-in. So I do try to get out and get involved in volunteer activities and sports with my kids.

There's a rumor going around that you are flirting with idea of running for public office. Would you care to comment?

There's a history of public service in my family and so I've grown up with that as a role model. I'd say that's not an unlikely scenario—I'd just need to find the right place, and something to do with education is most definitely where I'd be inclined to focus.

Let's talk about your online educational program, the Comics Experience. Can you tell us about the concept behind your program and the history behind its creation?

I started it up in 2007 when I left Marvel. Prior to working at Marvel, I had been an adjunct professor at two universities in St. Louis (St. Louis Community College and Webster University) and I was a substitute high school teacher. At that time, I was planning on teaching for a living, but then got swept up by Marvel.

So when I left Marvel, I decided to take those two things I was most passionate about—comics and education—and smash them together. But I knew I'd need to have more focus than simply to teach about comics. That's when the core idea really hit me—the litmus test for everything I was about to do: I would create comics courses that I wish had existed when I was trying to break into comics. And those courses would be taught by working professionals like myself.

And those are the two things that drive what I do. A mix of content structured for people to bring out their creativity—not a paint-by-numbers approach—and real world know-how and application.

When I started, I rented theater space in New York City to hold my classes. Later, I expanded our course offerings and moved the courses online, and that's when the whole thing really took off.

Your program offers a wide range of courses and seminars as instructed by an impressive roster of educators and industry professionals. How did you go about creating this program, establishing a curriculum, and enlisting educators?

I put that litmus test up on my wall and would constantly apply it to everything I was developing. From being an editor, I knew a lot of working professionals, so I reached out to folks at the top of their game, who I knew had an interest in teaching, and were great communicators. I looked for substance over flash when it came to instructors and I think that's paid off in the long run, it's created something sustainable and something that people in the industry speak very highly of.

As for expanding, a lot of that happens naturally. I would get feedback on the courses and students would want a course on this or on that. If I thought the interest was genuine, I'd try to build that course, but always applying the litmus test—is this a course I would want to take when I was trying to break into comics? If the answer were yes, then we'd move forward. I've always got about five new ideas on the back burner that I can move to the front burner when the time is right or if something else doesn't work.

I trust my instincts about instructors. There are several conversations about the overall mission of Comics Experience as well as what I expect from instructors in terms of conduct and content and accessibility. If an instructor seems enthusiastic and meets all the criteria, then we try to get a course up and running.

Is Comics Experience a fully independent operation or do you have industry or educational affiliations? In either case, what is the value of this status? Are there any drawbacks?

It's independent. I personally have some industry affiliations—causes I support, that kind of thing, but I rarely link those to the business itself.

The upside is that I don't have to deal with politics or with someone else trying to influence the business to do this or that, to lower its standards to become more profitable or any of that kind of stuff.

The drawback is that the business has to grow organically because I don't have a lot of money to spend to market it and advertise it and all of that. It's almost all word of mouth and over the last eight or so years, that's been enough to grow it substantially each year without me having to answer to anyone else or compromise the mission statement.

That said, I don't think I'm a business genius, and so I have had a lot of help. I talk to and work with people who are smarter and more clever than me and they've been tremendously helpful and in one case in particular, I'd credit my friend Rob Anderson with helping me make sure I didn't sink the business. It's good to know smart people and trust their advice.

At the time of writing, a good handful of your courses are sold out. It seems like there is a lot of interest in your program. Are you experiencing the kind of response you'd hoped for when you established the Comics Experience?

The response I'd hoped for? Are you kidding me? The response has far exceeded what I ever thought possible. I thought that, at best, this was going to be a little side business that would help a small group of people get their careers started. But I thought I'd always need to have a corporate job to pay my bills. I never thought we'd be able to offer more than 20 different courses and have a thriving online community in the form of the Creators Workshop. I definitely never thought I'd be publishing comics from my students that are getting distributed all over the world. Comics Experience turned into a wonderful monster that has helped many, many people start their careers in comics and has been a joy to develop and work on.

Your program offers enrollees an opportunity to self-publish. Can you tell us a bit about this opportunity? Any insights you can offer about the comics and graphic novel self-publishing game?

Members of our Creators Workshop, which is an online, forum-based community built for creators to learn from professionals and fellow members alike, are able to submit their independent comics to Comics Experience for consideration of publication.

We just launched Comics Experience Digital which publishes comics digitally and that provides us with more opportunities for getting our members' work out into the world.

The key to the publishing program is that the work submitted must have been, at least in part, workshopped on the forums. That's part of the process. And so far, the response to our offerings have been extremely positive both in terms of sales and industry reviews.

As for insights into publishing, the biggest one is to be careful. It's very expensive to do and a lot of people don't do the math before they get started and before they know it, they're underwater financially. The biggest key is doing the research and forming a plan all the way to the end that's realistic.

Obviously, your program depends largely on online mediation. How has the internet changed the nature of the comic book profession? What impact has online mediation had on your experience as a reader and as a professional?

As a reader, I read almost all my comics on digital devices now. Which is odd, because I'm not a tech person. That happened largely due to my moving back to a small town in the south with no comic store nearby. So, I'm grateful that I can still get just about anything I want to read.

But really, the huge boost has been in how we can teach and communicate with people all over the world. There are comics published in France, India, and Africa that have come through Comics Experience on some level. And that's a huge thing to be a part of a global community in a way that maybe no other person or company in comics really is.

And, of course, technology now allows for people all over the world to work together with relative ease. Right now, on my own projects, I'm working with people here in the US, but also in the UK, Italy, Spain, and France. That's awesome because people with different cultural backgrounds tend to bring different sensibilities to the work and that's amazing to watch.

One of the coolest things about your program is that it taps into a field that is truly flourishing right now. From the box office achievements coming out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to DC's growing permeation of primetime television, to the recent explosion in merchandising, comic books have gone from geek subculture to mainstream popular culture. What do you think accounts for this transformation and growth?

Interestingly, the comics market itself, at least here in the United States, hasn't grown all that much. What we have seen is that content is diversifying. It used to be 95% super hero titles and now that's still the largest single genre, but there are a lot more kinds of titles from crime and thriller, to war, to science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so on. And we're also seeing a diversification in the people both reading and creating comics, and that means that the diversification is going to continue to expand. There have been significant in roads into romance comics, sports comics, historical fiction, and so on.

And I think a lot of this is attributed to the efforts many people have gone to in order to change the perception that comics are just for kids. They're not. Comics is a medium like television or film or prose. It's simply a delivery device, but the content inside can be of any type and for any type of person. The general public accepting that comics is a medium rather than a genre is a huge deal for the industry.

The mainstream appeal of comics largely has to do with the ascendance of super heroes in cartoons and movies. That's big business stuff due to Marvel being owned by Disney and DC being owned by Warner Bros. The smaller publishers don't have that kind of muscle, but we're still getting a benefit of more interest in the medium for sure.

Is this growth sustainable? Will Marvel movies and Iron Man Halloween costumes still be a big deal in 10 or 20 years? Or are we in the middle of a trend that might again recede into the subculture one day?

All “properties” have life cycles. They're hot, then they cool off a bit, sometimes they hibernate, and then they come back. I've done a lot of work in intellectual property development and sustainability, and there's only one company that I know of that has managed to essentially stop the cyclical nature of a property and it's Disney. Their “princesses” line appears to be completely evergreen.

Are we at the height of Marvel super heroes? It's likely that we're close to it. But Marvel has so many properties that if Avengers cools off a bit, then Spider-Man could be on fire, and then as it cools, then the Fantastic Four appears and so on. And there can be a kind of stability in that with enough popular properties. And the same is true for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman at DC. They ebb and flow. The trick is being able to stretch that time at the top and keep your audience engaged for as long as possible.

Is there a downside to the massive upswing in comic book popularity? Have the jocks invaded the AV Club?

I'm one to welcome anyone who wants to read comics. If you like comics, you're a part of the club as far as I'm concerned.

It seems like a lot of the characters prominently featured in the Annihilation storyline that you oversaw at Marvel are now enjoying big-screen success. Do you feel a personal connection to films like Guardians of the Galaxy? Did you have an opportunity to contribute to or consult on this or other films in any way?

Of course I feel a personal connection to that and a few of the other films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War since I worked extensively on those stories and loved them as comics. But I have not consulted on the films directly, no.

As a writer and entertainment industry consultant, my connection with those films and properties continues to be a very beneficial thing for me. So I greatly appreciate their success and get a huge kick out of seeing the films. I mean, if you had told 10-year-old-Andy that we'd live in a world with eight X-Men films, three Iron Man films, eight Batman films, and so on, he wouldn't have believed it. But here we are. So 10-year-old-Andy is very happy!

As a man with insider knowledge, do you know about Easter Eggs before they hatch or do you have to sit through the credits like the rest of us?

I have to sit through the credits like everyone else. But you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way. With those movies, I want to walk into that theater as my 10-year-old self. I don't want to go in as a thirty-something comics professional. Those movies are for the part of me that's still a kid and for enjoying with my kids.

In a broad sense, comic books are sometimes criticized for glorifying violence and sexually objectifying female characters. At the same time, the comic book universe has frequently served as a platform for progressive ideologies such as Civil Rights and LGBT identity. What role do you think comic authors and artists have in moving the needle forward in terms of social progress? And what responsibility do authors and artists have to protect progress already made?

Hey, what happened to the softball questions? Ha ha.

I think we all have a responsibility as citizens of the human race both as creators and as consumers to be responsible for what we create and what we support. The comics industry has its issues, the same as any other industry. And that's not to say that it's okay. I think, by and large, as we become more aware of those issues, we're taking steps to correct them—be that with staff or in the content itself.

But anyone who has moved from one city to another knows that change is hard. It's something that has to be pursued and it's something that is evolving. As I said, I live in the south, and I hear people say fairly regularly that they wish people would stop talking about race issues. But we can't stop talking about it. Because race relations isn't something we solve, it's something that we evolve. We can never stop talking about it the same we can't stop talking about the civil rights of the LGBTQ communities or immigrants and so on.

And I think comics are now becoming aware of the fact that this little industry is actually a part of those conversations. Before, I think many of us thought we were in a little bubble and that no one noticed or cared. But that's not true now and probably never was.

So, as an industry, that's tough to say. But as a group comprised of individual people, I think we're all responsible for what we say and do and we will all make mistakes, and that's okay, so long as we're learning and the conversation is evolving.

In our conversations, you have been most forthcoming about the flaws you see in America's approach to public education. What insights can you offer to educators at any level based on your experiences with your own program? What successes have you had that you think could be informative to educators and schools struggling to connect with students?

It's not easy, but try to think like your student. I've got a real advantage over public educators in that my students are highly motivated. That's not always the case when you're teaching the third grade. But I do think that a lot of teachers push his or her own agenda onto students. And to a certain extent, that's a good thing, but the best teachers I see listen to what their students are telling them—either directly or by reading their behavior—and allow the student to take a hand in his or her own education.

In adult education, I come right out and ask what topics my students want covered, but for my preschooler, he's not going to just tell you what he wants to learn, and in all likelihood what he would say isn't going to line up with your agenda item. But he goes to a wonderful school where his interest in animals is used to teach him reading, math, and geography. The teachers there listen to what he tells them through his behavior, and then use it to help motivate his education. Other students in his class have very different interests, but the teachers take this approach with all their kids and the results are outstanding.

So I think that's the biggest thing. Have the confidence in your own teaching ability to give up some of that control and let the students lead or direct you.

Returning to Comics Experience, what role do you think your program can play in expanding the accessibility of the field? What avenues exist for participants in your program to parlay their education into professional opportunity?

We teach clear and accessible storytelling before we get into the more experimental forms of storytelling and narrative devices. So we provide a baseline so that creators who come through our program have the knowledge to create accessible and easily understandable stories using the comics medium. Which is a technical way of saying, we teach how to make easy to read comics.

Our more advanced courses teach more experimental techniques and review those with students and we discuss the importance of pushing the envelope and trying new things, but it's important to do that, once you understand the foundation.

My hope is that Comics Experience is pushing diversity within the industry in form and content.

As far as avenues for career development, we have the aforementioned publishing program that we run, as well as a vast network of professionals within the industry. The name Comics Experience has grown to mean something. It's easy to say it means “quality” but I think what it really means is that the person who has taken a course or more than one, or is a member of the Creators Workshop, is serious about making the best comics that he or she can.

What are the challenges to beginning and maintaining a career in this field? For artists, inkers, authors, etc., are the barriers to entry high? Are major comic book houses highly exclusive clubs? Is it all about who you know? Or are there readily available paths of entry for young aspirants?

The biggest challenge is getting noticed by publishers if you want to work for them. If you're interested in self-publishing, that's not a big concern, but if you want to get paid a page-rate to do your art or writing, then you have to get noticed and then stay noticed by the publishers. And that's difficult because it is a competitive marketplace.

Networking is a valuable tool, but the quality of work and professionalism both have to be there as well. It's not all about any one thing, it's about being the complete package.

One place where I think the industry as a whole could do a lot better would be to provide clearer paths to entry. I think that's actually gotten worse, by and large, in the last decade. And there are reasons for that that I won't get into here, but it's an area where the industry could improve a great deal and one of the main reasons I started our publishing program as a means to showcase new talent.

Are there any opportunities that you don't currently offer but which you believe would ultimately enhance your program? What does the future hold for Comics Experience?

There are several things I'd like to do or services I'd like to provide, but we only have so many hours in the day and ultimately, we all have our own work that we want to do and our families and friends we'd like to enjoy. We're making progress on some of those things, but it's organic and so takes time. But we're getting there.

As for the future of Comics Experience, it's looking bright. We've got some new initiatives coming up in the next year or two that I think are going to be great, and I'm trying to expand our marketing efforts as well. I think we're making good and steady progress. And that's the ideal way to be for me—steady progress fits my temperament.

And the most important question you'll answer all day, if you created a comic book title centered on your own adventures, what powers would you possess, what would your name be, and would your costume be spandex, leather, or some space aged polymer that defies easy pronunciation?

I'd be called the Tick-Tock Man because I want to know what makes people tick—especially my children. I'd be able to read people's minds and watch how they get from point A to point Z. People fascinate me. My costume would definitely be made of unstable molecules—the awesome stuff created by Dr. Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. It seems to be able to do just about anything and stay very, very clean.

I don't know that my adventures would be all that interesting to other people, but I'd be entertained.

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