DC Comics artist talks getting his start at CMU, experiences in the industry

The cover to Future Quest #1 illustrated by Evan Shaner.

Before his artwork found its way onto the pages of some of today's most popular comic books, Evan "Doc" Shaner was a mild-mannered student at Central Michigan University, picking up the pieces of a short stint as a music major, and working as a cartoonist for Central Michigan Life.

Known for the distinctively "old school" stylings of his art, Shaner has become a rising start in the comics industry — working on titles that blend classic comic book characters with a modern sense of fun. Shaner currently works for DC Comics, coming off of a stint drawing "Future Quest" and preparing to bring life DC's own take on the Fantastic Four, "The Terrifics."

CM Life: What inspired you to become an artist?

Evan Shaner poses in his office.

All through grade school, all I wanted to do was work in newspaper strips, and that was just from reading "Peanuts" and "Calvin and Hobbes" and all the stuff that was in the newspapers in the early 90s. 

I drew all through high school, but I kinda lost interest in it as a career. I left (music) in my first year at Central, and I went through a bunch of different things, before eventually coming back to drawing. I was back into comics and books at the time, and halfway through my sophomore year the (CM Life) newspaper job opened up, and a friend of mine pointed it out to me, so I applied, and somehow I got the job.

Doing that for three-and-a-half years just made me think, "you know this is something I think I could do as a career."  

You said that you liked "Peanuts" and "Calvin and Hobbes;" where there any specific artists that influenced your drawing style growing up?

As a kid, it was primarily Charles Schulz (creator of "Peanuts"), and Bill Watterson (creator of "Calvin and Hobbes") as far as drawing went. As a 7-year-old you don't really know how to search out artists. My grandfather was really into comic strips, and he was the one who got me reading a lot of the ones I hadn't heard of. But even then, I never thought about it as, "I really like this artist," so much as I just liked the stuff, but didn't really know why, back then.

Even later on, when I got into (superhero) comic books, for a long time I was just reading it because I liked the stories and the characters. It actually took me a while to start keying into the art.

What kind of things did you draw as a cartoonist for CM Life?

I worked as the editorial cartoonist all of my three-and-a-half years there. (I drew) three times a week in the "Voices" section – one for each newspaper. 

When I first started working there, they gave me a strip once a week, but that only lasted for a semester. I was still pretty new to everything, and I'll be the first to admit the writing wasn't very good. I think my last year-and-a-half was when I ended up doing a one-panel gag strip every week to do whatever I wanted, because I wasn't that opinionated, at least at the time, about what was going on at the school — a lot of times the editor would feed me what was going on that week and what they wanted to get something on, and I'd go from there. 

It was nice to have a cartoon where I could just do whatever I wanted – make a quick joke and get out of there. That (strip) was called "Paint Chips," if I remember correctly.

After graduating from CMU, what was your first job as an artist?

My first "real" comic book job was an anthology book for Oni Press called "Jam!: True Tales of the Roller Derby." 

(The book) was full of these stories from actual roller derby players. I really don't have any strong feelings about roller derby, but I got pulled in on that gig to adapt and draw one of the stories.

How was that experience?

It was pretty daunting. When I left Central, I didn't plan on becoming a comic book guy, with the mainstream superhero stuff. I had planned to continue working in newspapers, because that had always been my dream job, but when I got out there just weren't very many jobs to be had.

I kinda ended up falling backwards into comic books, so to speak. Not that it was ever my back-up plan, necessarily – I read comic books and I enjoyed comic books, but I never thought about working in them. I was a different kind of storytelling altogether, so that first job was pretty daunting. I had to learn an awful lot while working on that, not just as an artist, but as a writer.

In addition to Oni Press, you've also done work for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse (comics) – do you have any favorite company to work for, if you're allowed to say that?

Totally! This isn't just me being political; I've never had a truly bad experience, especially with any of those (companies). Even though my first book was at Oni, I had a great time at Dark Horse. (Dark Horse) gave me my real start – I don't think anybody noticed the Oni book, or that I was involved. People really started to notice when I started working at Dark Horse.

Even though I haven't done a whole lot for Marvel, I loved the people there, and I had a great time doing the couple of things I did there. 

Certainly, and not just because I'm still working there, I've had the best time at DC. They've been very receptive to me and my ideas, they've been great people to work for and with. I've always felt very at home there – I've had a great time at DC.

Do you have any specific favorite characters to work on?

It changes depending on what you're working on at the moment. About two years ago I worked on a Green Lantern story, and up until that point, I hadn't really thought that much of Green Lantern. I don't know if I would've even considered myself a fan, really. But while working on that book, I really came to an appreciation for that character and that world. Now, I would consider myself a Green Lantern fan.

That said, when I first started working at DC, they asked me what characters I wanted to work on, and I had a list (of characters) ready to go.

I've done a little work on Superman – he's a favorite of mine. Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) is another, and I've done a little bit with him. Plastic Man was another, and I'm working on him right now (with "The Terrifics"). The only one left on my list is The Flash, so I'm hoping at some point to work with him as well.

You mentioned Captain Marvel – what originally attracted you to that character?

A bunch of things. I tend to be pretty nostalgic, and my tastes tend to veer toward – not necessarily the older stuff – but stuff that's been around for a while. 

Captain Marvel has this great sense of wonder. He embodies so much of that original golden age of comics, but I think he has so much potential – for a long time he was outpacing Superman in sales because kids loved him, and I think there's so much potential there to tap. I think he's a tricky one for DC to really figure out how best to implement him, because in the modern sense he hasn't always sold that well, unfortunately.

He's such a great twist on the "Superman" idea, and the whole design and look of him is really pretty charming.

As a fan, are you excited for the upcoming "Shazam" movie?

I think so. We'll have to see what more comes of it. I think the casting announcement (of Zachary Levi playing Shazam) they made last week is pretty interesting – not one that I would have thought of, but I certainly don't hate the idea either. 

I'm pretty curious – it's taken so long for them to get (the film) rolling that I think it'll be very interesting to see what happens when it all comes together.

Do you think the movie will jumpstart a new wave of interest in the character?

I hope so. The tricky thing about the comics-to-movies turnover is that comic book movies have been around long enough we can see now where it has helped and where it has not helped certain characters. Certainly, the movies did wonders for stuff like "Guardians of the Galaxy," but there's been other characters where doesn't really do anything for them.

I think the difference being that there is certainly a much smaller fanbase for Captain Marvel, but they're a very devoted and dedicated fanbase, so there's already that going into it.

It'll be interesting. I know that down the road there'll be a lot of demand for Captain Marvel to have his own book again, and I would love to see that. I guess we'll have to see.

Do you have any dream projects on your mind, or specific writers you'd like to work with?

It's tricky because what I considered my dream job for a long time was working on a Captain Marvel book, and I got to do that. It's the same thing with writers; I had a small list of writers I really wanted to work with, and I've worked with most of them now. I've just been very fortunate in my short career thus far.

There are certainly still writers that I'd love to work with, but my list was Jeff Parker, Mark Waid and Tom King, and I've worked with all those guys. I would love to work with any of them again – if Jeff (Parker) and I got another chance to do Captain Marvel I'd take it, but I've always said if I don't get another chance, I'll be ok with it. We got two issues, and I'm really proud of those two issues, and if I don't get to work on Captain Marvel again, it'll be ok. Same goes for Superman, and we'll see if I feel the same about Plastic Man. 

The way I look at it, as long as I'm still interested in what I'm doing, this is all my dream gig. To be able to work full-time as an artist is pretty fortunate, so I certainly count my blessings.

Do you have a favorite project that you've worked on?

The "Shazam" book is pretty high up there for me. The "Green Lantern" I did with Tom King also means a lot to me, but weirdly, the first book I did with Jeff Parker back at Dynamite (Entertainment), "Flash Gordon," is the one that really holds a soft spot for me. 

I don't know if that was because it was relatively early on in my career, or because it was the first comic I worked on with Jeff and (colorist) Jordie Bellaire. Something about that book – we had so much freedom with that book with where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do with those characters. I feel like we only did eight issues, but I'm very proud of those.

The next big thing on the horizon for you is "The Terrifics" with Jeff Lemire. How has it been like working on that book?

It's been great! I've known Jeff for a few years, but we've never worked together, but I've always been a fan. We've talked a few years, but he's been at Marvel for a while, and I only found out back in March that he was coming back to DC and that one of the projects he was starting with was "The Terrifics." 

It's been fan-... really pretty great. I just had to stop myself short of saying "fantastic" – I'm really trying hard not to use that word all the time with this book. (Lemire) has been really open to collaboration, and he's had so many great ideas with where we're going to take these characters that I think puts just enough of a spin on them to keep it interesting, but pays tribute to these characters' legacies for old-time readers.

Plastic Man has been around the longest on the team, so we realize he's got a fanbase of people that are much older than us, but there's also a lot of young fans who love Plastic Man in the same way, because he can be a very appealing character to younger fans.

Tonally, how would you describe your work on the book, because it's kind of DC's own version of the Fantastic Four, who are known for being, like you mentioned with Shazam, throwback-y and, for lack of a better word, "comic book-y" compared to other books on the market; how would you describe "The Terrifics?"

I know what you mean when you say "comic book-y." The way it was pitched to me by the editor, it was very much "this is DC's Fantastic Four." We very much want to do it in the vein of those original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first 100 or so issues of "Fantastic Four."

It's going to be all about adventure and exploration and just having fun, and making stuff explode off of the page. That's very much been the motto going forward with this book.

It helps that Plastic Man and Metamorpho are a lot of fun to work with – there's just so many possibilites with those two. Mr. Terrific brings in a lot of the smarts and the intelligence that those early Fantastic Four books had with Reed Richards. Also, with our Phantom Girl, who is a new character, with an old name. 

Being able to hint at that legacy with the Fantastic Four, but also bring new characters into the DC fold, is really exciting.