Interview with Eric Reynolds and Seth on The Complete Peanuts
By LJ Douresseau
January 23, 2004 - 11:04
In a press release dated October 13th of last year, Fantagraphics Books of Seattle WA formally announced what had been long rumored. The company was going to embark on the complete reprinting of Charles M. Schulz's newspaper comic strip classic, PEANUTS. It is no exaggeration for them to call this project the most ambitious and eagerly awaited publishing project in the history of the American comic strip. Despite the publication of thousands of books over four decades in several formats and languages that reprinted Peanuts at different points in the strip's history, no book company had ever reprinted the strip in its entirety.
According to the company, Fantagraphics is producing THE COMPLETE PEANUTS with the full cooperation of the strip's syndicate, United Media, Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates (Santa Rosa, CA), the company that oversees the creative and business management of Peanuts worldwide licensing programs, and Mr. Schulz's widow, Jean Schulz.
Seth, one of the finest cartoonist working in comics today, is the series designer. Our rap with him is printed in the second half of this column.
The reprint series will comprise of 25 books (50 years of art), published two books per year for 12½ years. According to Fantagraphics, each book will run approximately 320 pages in 8½ x 7 hard cover format. The press release further stated, "The series will present the entire run in chronological order, dailies and Sundays. Since the strip began in late 1950, the first volume will include all the strips from 1950, 1951, and 1952, but subsequent volumes will each comprise exactly two years. Dailies will run three to a page, while Sunday strips will each take up a full page and be printed in black-and-white."
We spoke to Fantagraphics promotions and marketing guru, Eric Reynolds, about selling this culturally and historically important series to the comics and bookstore markets:
Would you mind telling us a little about yourself, biographical and professional? Whatever you want to share.
ER: Oh, jeez, I dunno. I'm a cancer, and enjoy long walks on the beach... Plus, I handle all of our promotions and marketing and edit a few titles for Fantagraphics (the Crumb books, DIRTY STORIES, ANGRY YOUTH COMICS, etc.).
While Fantagraphics (I'm guessing Gary and Kim) was negotiating and making its case to publish a Peanuts reprint series, was the rest of the company in a holding pattern? Were you working on the logistics just in case Fantagraphics got the rights or did everyone just decide to wait and start cold as soon as the rights were won?
ER: No holding pattern, per se. It was such a long process; I recall first hearing about the possibility of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS back in 1996 when Gary was conducting his interview with Schulz for TCJ #200. So, we would have had one helluva long holding pattern from that point. We didn't really dive into the project headlong, as a company, until the contracts were signed, although we began to get our ducks in a row a few weeks beforehand, in terms of beginning to plot some loose marketing strategies. Since the contracts were signed, though, we've been working full-time on it.
What is Fantagraphics doing to market the series to bookstores? There's anecdotal evidence that bookstores are dropping non-manga comic book books, although in my experience Fantagraphics titles (even those gorgeous Crumb books) are mixed with the general humor section, which is separate from the DC/Marvel trade paperback section.
ER: This would require a far longer answer than I have time for at the moment, but in a nutshell: Fantagraphics' bookstore sales are up something like 300 percent over the last three years and I would wager that we've seen larger growth in that market than any non-Manga publisher other than maybe DC and Marvel. Peanuts will undoubtedly be our most successful project on every level. We're marketing the Peanuts series hard to both the book trade and the direct market, though we'll likely sell the majority of copies in the book trade. We're doing counter displays, promotional posters, and a heavy media push (print, TV, radio and Internet). Jean Schulz is acting as a spokesperson for the series and we're lining up national media appearances for her in the spring. We've already printed up 500 advance copies of the first volume to send out to national media contacts. I think that the book store market will sell many more copies than the direct market, because frankly, thus far that market has shown far more interest in the series than the direct market. There's a large number of comic shops that don't have an interest in contemporary comic strips, even though it's one of the largest untapped segments of comic readers in comic book shops. I'm hoping sheer interest and demand at the fan level will help some
retailers get their heads around the significance of this and take their minds off of JLA/AVENGERS or whatever. To be honest, our bookstore distributor (W.W. Norton) seemed to understand the artistic and commercial significance of this project much more clearly, at least initially, than Diamond did, which is rather depressing. People think we're courting the book trade at the expense of the direct market, but really, the book trade is courting us because the direct market can't be bothered half the time, even though Charlie Brown is still a far more recognizable and profitable cartoon icon than, say, Spider-Man.
I won't ask why Diamond is slower than, say a W. W. Norton, to pick up on the enormous cultural and artistic significance of this, because that would be a rhetorical question. However, there are news outlets that pretty much mirror Diamond's interests. Are you going to approach Wizard (which is apparently doing some kind of "intro to indie books" issue) or websites like Newsarama, The Pulse, Comic Book Resources, etc. to see if they are interested in talking about The Complete Peanuts beyond slapping some press releases onto their sites? Or have you just rolled your eyes when you finished reading that last question?
ER: I'm not at all rolling my eyes, and I am indeed pushing the book to all of the sites you mention; I've already hit up a couple of them. I have absolutely no faith in WIZARD to expand their myopic scope, but I'm not so stubborn that I won't give them the opportunity to prove me wrong. Everyone else you mentioned, though, I have no reason to think they wouldn't take an interest. We've already lined up an interview with Jean Schulz at THE PULSE.
Are there any plans to inform public, college, and university libraries about the series. For instance, Middleton Library at Louisiana State University had a sizeable Peanuts collection, at one point. I encountered similar numbers at other libraries, and those would seem to be institutions that would be interested in this kind of series?
ER: Absolutely. I don't think there will be any danger of libraries not knowing about it. Our book trade distributor, W.W. Norton, is one of the country's foremost publishers of academic texts, and as such their relationship with the library trade is amongst the strongest in the business. It's amazing how fast the word has spread, really, amongst libraries and everyone else, to boot. Hell, we've already taken our first order from Knott's Berry Farm's Camp Snoopy!
Clearly, a lot of word on this project will be spread by fans and collectors, especially on the Net. I imagine Internet chatter was helpful to Fantagraphics in 2003. Is there anything that you might like to suggest people who want to spread the good word do?
ER: Just tell your friends, talk about the project online and simply help us achieve some grassroots support. That's one great thing about comics not being the mass medium it once was: the potential affect that grassroots support can have is quite exciting. We saw that this summer when we suffered the worst of our financial troubles. It was really inspiring how quickly people rallied behind us.
As stated before, Seth, the brilliant cartoonist behind PALOOKAVILLE and the graphic novel IT'S A GOOD LIFE IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN is the designer for the series. Born Gregory Gallant, Seth's work has also graced the pages of such papers as THE WASHINGTON POST and THE NEW YORK TIMES and magazines like DETAILS, NEW YORKER, and SPIN. He answered a few questions for us about his work on The Complete Peanuts.
How did you become the designer of this series? Is this a long-term project, and will you have to be hands on for the duration of the series?
SETH: The project came about in the most mundane of ways. A few years back the Comics Journal did a big issue, which combined a Charles Schulz interview and a Chris Ware interview. Chris did the front cover, and since I was well known as a Schulz enthusiast, Gary Groth asked me to do the Schulz cover. Gary later asked me if I would be interested in designing the complete Peanuts if they ever got Schulz to agree to let them publish it. I said yes instantly. When the contracts were finally signed (years later) Gary called me up.
The project is 25 books published over twelve years--so yes, long term. I have set up a clear design system for the books...but each book will still involve a fair amount of handwork--so I will be clearly very busy for the next decade or so.
What impact, if any, has Charles Schulz's work had on your art?
SETH: Schulz was my most formative influence. No artist made me want to be a cartoonist more than Schulz (well, maybe [Jack] Kirby). I loved him as a child and his work spoke to me deeply even then. But, honestly, it was in my early 20's that I came to reappraise Schulz and look at him with the eyes of an adult. That's when I really began to collect all of his books and really study what he had done (and was doing). Later, when Joe Matt moved to Toronto (another Schulz fanatic) we talked about him incessantly. We knew the strips so well that we would often play a game with each other on the telephone: one of us would read the first panel of any strip and the other would have to recall what the remaining 3 panels were. We both did very well.
Schulz's drawing was a real beacon to me. His simplicity of design and composition taught me a great deal. Combined with other influences like Herge, [Peter] Arno, [Charles] Addams, John Stanley etc. really made the core of what I wanted my artwork to be like. It was Schulz's profound honesty that made the most impression on me as a young cartoonist ([R.] Crumb also). I'm still deeply moved by much of what made up Peanuts.
For the illustratively illiterate (me), what exactly does your job involve doing? I have a book on art fundamentals, but I can't actually apply what I read about principles of design, so I'm trying to find out what it is that you'll be doing.
SETH: Simply put--I am trying to create a package around Schulz's strips--something that sets the tone for his work. A context. In other words, I'm trying to create a mood or feeling that the reader subtly responds to when he picks up the book. The covers, endpapers, title pages, double page spreads etc etc. have been created to set this mood. The mood I'm going for is decidedly low-key. The colours are earthy and I've tried to create an atmosphere of "sophistication" to remind the reader that the strips aren't "kiddie" stuff. Years of TV specials and cheap merchandise have kind of tarnished the brilliance of Schulz's black humour, melancholy and absurdities. Those elements of his work are currently under appreciated in the mainstream culture. When you see the finished books you will see that I've tried to lead the reader into the strips and back out again (at the end of the book) with a (hopefully) understated approach to design. I've used a lot of his landscape drawings (stolen from his backgrounds) as design elements.
What kind of "look" are you going for. Is it something rooted in the past (like what Chip Kidd did on his Peanuts book) or is it something slick and new? Is your approach going to change as Mr. Schulz's art changes with the growth of the strip? Is there going to be an unchanging uniform appearance, for instance, in the series' book jacket?
SETH: I loved Chip's book--a real poem to Schulz. I'm going a different route though. My designs are very sedate--I'm going for an austere look for the books. They will have a somewhat old-fashioned look (everything I do has an old-fashioned look) but I think they will seem fresh and clean to an audience used to Peanuts books that are bright and pop-culture-y. The books are very much a part of a series--so they will all have a similar look. However they will evolve as the strip evolves and the designs will change to mirror the changing decades. As the strip becomes more minimal in design the books will also (I imagine).
The jackets will especially follow a system. Each book will feature a headshot of one of the Peanuts characters. A few characters will appear a couple of times (Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy for example) but I will try to give everybody a cover appearance.
Are you reaching out to other designers or studying what other people do? Or are you examining what you know as an artist to present something that you think best fits the series?
SETH: I'm always looking at other artist/designers works. But mostly I'm just going with my gut on this. I feel I have enough of an affinity with Schulz to try to present his work sensitively.
Considering that you are yourself an accomplished cartoonist with a considerable body of work behind you, do you worry about impressing or not disappointing all the newspapers, magazines, celebrities, and artists who rightfully have said good things about your work?
SETH: Strangely, I haven't had many worries about the series. Maybe Sparky is guiding my hand. With my own work I am usually a lump of insecurities. For some reason I feel somewhat detached from this project. I'm trying hard to think of Schulz and not be too worried about my own ego.
THANKS, GUYS! The publication date for the first volume of The Complete Peanuts is April 1, 2004. The cost is $28.95 and the ISBN is 1-56097-589-X. Go to www.fantagraphics.com where you can pre-order the first volume. Order before February 1st and get free shipping. According to Fantagraphics, all pre-orders will be shipped from the Fanta warehouse on March 1st, a full month before the book's official release date.
Go to www.drawnandquarterly.com where you can order straight from D&Q many of Seth's works including the aforementioned Palooka-ville and It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken and the superb CLYDE FANS: PART ONE and VERNACULAR DRAWINGS. Drawn and Quarterly is also the home of many wonderful cartoonists including Chester Brown, Dylan Horrocks, Joe Matt, James Sturm, and (one of my favorites) Adrian Tomine. Holla!