Barbara Schulz is Changing Comic Book Artistry to a Female Game

Artist and educator Barbara Schulz drew her way through the comic world’s shift away from a boys-only clubhouse

The head of MCAD’s comic-art program, artist and design professor Barbara Schulz has a habit of pausing a moment before speaking, reflecting a meditative streak that finds expression through her stark, detailed but dreamlike illustrations. 

  “I have three older brothers, so there were always comics around. I was drawing and I was reading comics, and those loves grew together.”

“I went to college for a degree in painting and tried to put away comic books. I moved down to the Cities and had been working as an assistant to the curators of No Name Gallery [now the Soap Factory]. I had a foot in both worlds—and then I made the decision that I really preferred the comic-book world.”

During college, Schulz assisted acclaimed locally based comic artist Peter Gross; after graduation she joined him again. She spent years in the industry as an inker—the artist who inks over another illustrator’s penciled drawings. Schulz worked with Gross on a series based on Neil Gaiman’s mini-series The Books of Magic, and she inked for titles including Micronauts and G.I. Joe.

“For a while I worked on comics as a sort of invisible hand, one of the finishing artists in a real studio system. It was fun—I learned comics the old way, working in another artist’s studio. But you only earn so much being an assistant, so I started looking for my own freelance work with other publishers and I started teaching.”

Schulz illustrated the short Hitchhiker Vinegarettes with Deborah Balzer in 2011—described as “childhood memory sketches”—and is currently working on an illustrated adaptation of a play by Twin Cities writer Aditi Kapil.

“Hitchhiker Vinegarettes is about a girl growing up with a young divorced mother in the 1960s—what it was like to be that generation when you saw your mother working during World War II but then she had to go back to the house.”

“The Chronicles of Kalki [based on Kapil’s play] is about high-school girls finding their strength and power. It’s a reimagining of Hindu mythology set against a modern urban high-school backdrop—it’s very girl-centered. To do it as a graphic novel, I’ve gathered two recent MCAD graduates [Alexis Cooke and Allison O’Brien], and we’re working on it as a collaborative studio with me as the lead artist.”

Comic books were an almost all-boys club not so long ago. As a teacher and a creator, Schulz sees the landscape shifting.

“I helped bring over an experimental comic workshop last fall that had been going on in France—there were all these comic artists in their 20s to their 40s, and half of them were female. I was jealous! Today 60 percent of my students are female. When I started, maybe 10 percent were.”

“There’s a new access to a broader range of stories than my generation grew up with, a lot of young female artists and more types of stories being told. And there are more publishers interested in the talent and in publishing more female creators. There are even more female writers and artists in the superhero world—they’re still designed for 14-year-old-boys, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they’re trying to find that wider audience. It’s grown, and it’s matured, in the number of women who see comics as a viable place to tell their stories. I wish what was happening today was happening when I was starting to do comics.”

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.