Good Grief

You're an angry young man, Charlie Brown.The following Q&A first appeared, in condensed form, in my column The Panelist for Toronto’s Eye Weekly. Here’s a special, extended version of the conversation.

Collecting every Peanuts strip Charles Schulz ever drew, The Complete Peanuts will take a whopping 25 volumes and more than 12 years to complete. With the first installment (1950-1952) due in stores in May, its designer — Guelph cartoonist Seth — reflects on the gang’s legacy, and the grief at its core.

THE PANELIST: How’s the project coming?

SETH: The work on Volume I has been done for a while, now. I’m about to start seriously on the second one.

TP: Yeah, I have a copy of the first one.

SETH: Well, you don’t have a copy of the first one, believe me. That’s a terrible promotional version to give to people, I really… I’m horrified at that booklet. It reflects nothing of the final project, trust me. It’s a promotional thing they put out, and for their purposes it’s fine, but it does a very poor job of representing the final product. None of the design work is actually in that. It’s a very bare-bones project they’ve tossed together. You’ve got the strips in there, and that represents pretty much how the strips will appear: very simple and straightforward. But there’s all kinds of interior spreads and design work that goes with the various interviews and introductions, there’s title pages and just a whole variety of stuff.

TP: This is a pretty massive project. How much research was involved before you even began designing?

SETH: I didn’t need to go back and reread anything because I’ve been so obsessively interested in Schulz for so many years. Even with this first volume, I knew most of the material before I got my hands on it anyway, just because I’d sought it out years ago. A lot of it just came instinctively. I don’t feel I did actually have to suffer a great deal to put this together. It was a pretty natural expression of my feelings toward Schulz.

TP: How so?

SETH: I guess I’ve always been a little disappointed with how Schulz has been presented — except for maybe the first few books. In the ’60s, his work was considered sophisticated adult humour. But with all the TV specials and merchandising etc., I think in the public’s mind it has been pretty much reduced to a children’s product of some kind. And I think the design always reflected that, from about 1970 onward. And I just felt that was something that wasn’t really suited to the strip and actually kind of brought it down. So I wanted to turn it around and present [the strip] with as much straightforward subtlety as I could. I didn’t want it to be too over the top. Probably it’s a reaction against that kind of design. Very low-key, in general.

I wanted the book to be something that could lead the reader into Schulz’s work and let them judge it for themselves, hopefully removing some of the pop-culture associations.

I was hoping. It’s impossible. I mean, the Peanuts characters are just too big and too well known. I was just kinda hoping maybe I could present them in a slightly sedate format.

TP: Do you feel that’s more true to the nature of the strip? What do you hope people will find?

SETH: I do. It’s a quiet strip, you know. It’s funny, it’s absurd, but it’s also really sad. Of all the newspaper-strip [creators], I think Schulz was one of the very few who managed to infuse his work with something of his personality. And I think his is a kind of quiet, kind of private personality, and I think pop-culture America never pushed that aspect of it.

TP: So what do you think happened that made Peanuts balloon into this children’s icon?

SETH: Schulz made poor choices, I think. Schulz didn’t make many poor choices in the strip itself; generally, I think his poor choices were in following the American dream of promoting the product too much. He always went along. I think he saw it as his duty. He didn’t completely own the property — United Features was involved — and I think he enjoyed being the success who was making millions and millions of dollars and having his characters known worldwide. I think that was important to him. The great thing is, it didn’t actually affect the work in any way. But it did affect the image of the work.

In the ’60s, it was very cutting edge. He was dealing with topics that were hot topics at the time — psychiatry, a lot of “neurosis talk” — and the characters were very flip and cruel. I think it tapped into a certain adult humour that was common then, by people like Jules Feiffer and Shel Silverstein, that gave it an illusion of New York hipness. I don’t think Schulz changed any, but I think as perceptions of the strip changed, and readers saw a lot of the TV specials, a lot of the suffering in the strip just became things they thought were cute gags for kids. I think the audience moved on.

TP: Did the strip change much?

SETH: It went through definite changes. Certainly his humour does change in the ’70s. You could almost say that Schulz did several strips, all under the banner of Peanuts. Certainly the ’70s strips are more about Peppermint Patty and Snoopy. And he really does explore absurd humour, and a much higher level, in the ’70s than he did before. He goes with that Snoopy and the doghouse stuff that he was doing in the ’60s and really lets it completely have free reign. It’s a quieter humour in the ’60s. It’s silly in the ’70s, to some degree, but it’s on a high level.

I think even the last 20 years, which people generally look down on, is a very interesting strip. It’s an old-man strip. I think even the characters are old in those last 20 years, they’re not children anymore. Take a good look at Lucy. I always think of Lucy because Lucy transforms from a little girl into an old woman. She’s dumpy, she’s walking around in sweatpants all the time, it doesn’t look anything like Lucy in the ’60s. And she’s very complaining.

TP: Do you recall when you first came across Peanuts?

SETH: It’s one of those things I can easily say I don’t remember seeing for the first time. As a pre-teen, it was my key period of being interested in it. I was reading a lot of the paperbacks, though mostly I just thought it was funny. My real attachment to it came when I was about 21 and started buying those paperbacks again and re-evaluating the strip. I was interested in cartooning and picked some up at the Goodwill and thought, “Oh, I had these as a kid.” It was rereading classic work from the ’60s that made me reconnect to the work. And that started a long process of getting very involved with Schulz’s work through my 20s.

I would put it in that area of something I was obsessively involved with, looking at the work over and over and over again. He would certainly rank very high on my list of very important people in the world.

TP: Did you ever meet him?

SETH: No I never did, and I’m kind of glad. When you meet people whose work you really like, it tends to alter the work. I even maybe know too much about him, to be perfectly honest. There’s a certain purity to knowing things from a distance.

TP: Can you tell me a little about the process of putting this book together?

SETH: In many ways, the way I’m working with the book — since I’m working with his images and moving them around and reshaping them — I kind of feel like I’m drawing with his hands, even though I’m using my design sense. You have a way as an artist of drawing and composing pictures and stuff, and if you’re cutting up another artist’s work and moving things around you’re, in a sense, using their hands to recreate things in your vision. There are spreads inside the book where I’ve recombined characters and backgrounds and things like that to my own tastes.

TP: Was that difficult to allow yourself to do?

SETH: It should have been, but it wasn’t. It’s the kind of thing that I can see people being pissed off at. It has a certain intrusiveness; [it’s] kind of nervy to be taking the master’s art and messing around with it for your own purposes.

TP: Do you mean actual strips?

SETH: No, just drawings from the strip. For example, I’ve composed a complicated double-page spread that’s background that doesn’t really exist. I’m taking various elements of his drawings, putting them together and touching up this part and that part to create a large, empty scene that isn’t really there in any of the strips. It’s all kind of innocuous; it doesn’t affect the actual work. God knows, I’m not interfering with his work as much as the guys who did all those TV specials.

TP: Were there any surprises along the way? Did you rediscover the strip in a sense?

SETH: I wish I could say that. I really didn’t. The work’s too familiar to me. I mean, I certainly went through a process of re-appreciation, but that happens whenever I get involved with his work.You're an angry young man, Charlie Brown.

TP: That cover image of a scowling Charlie Brown on Volume I is quite striking. Why did you choose it?

SETH: I think the strip is funny, but I think that’s a shallow reading of Schulz’s work. I mean, obviously he’s a humourist, and the work is about being funny. But I think what makes Peanuts different, what makes it important — over something like BC, for example, which was also funny in the ’60s and also considered sophisticated — is that Peanuts had a real human quality to it that went deeper than all the other stuff, and it was mostly based on sadness. He was a sad person. And that I think is really what makes the strip worth reading at this point. I mean, there are lots of strips out there that express joy, and that’s a valid thing to be interested in, but I don’t think that’s the key point of Schulz.

TP: You think that was consistent?

SETH: I do. I think it becomes less as the strip goes on, and the nature of the sadness really changes. I think the sadness in the early strips is much more visceral; of a young person dealing with those feelings of trying to fit in with the world, the freshness of all the suffering of childhood… and that really mellows over the years. I’d say, though, by the time he hit the ’70s, it’s changing into a looking-backwards kind of sadness. And certainly by the time he’s an old man, you get that sense of someone who is adding up the details of their life. But it always comes back to a certain sense of disappointment.

TP: Despite his success?

SETH: Maybe because of it even, who knows? He seems to have been a complicated character in that sense.

TP: Why do you think Peanuts has endured?

SETH: I don’t know. That’s really a complicated answer. I’d like to say it’s because they’re great characters and people respond to that. But I don’t really think that’s the answer, because I’m sure Garfield is highly recognizable, too. Superman’s highly recognizable, and generally there’s nothing really… actually, maybe I’m wrong about Superman. They might be responding to something interesting there; something at the core of it. But I think the public does respond to junk. It’s not just that they’re great. It may come down to something as trivial as the fact that Snoopy has lasting value as an iconic character. He’s really well designed, like Mickey Mouse, he’s been in the public eye for a long time, and people responded to him at a young age and then continued as they’ve grown up. It’s the kind of thing that’s been through a couple of generations of people now. When something’s been around a long time, people do end up having a lot of good feelings towards it. It might even be as simple as the fact that the Japanese have discovered him, and he’s a great marketing device, and that’s certainly pushing a whole new category of Snoopy merchandise. Sadly, it could just come down to the fact that he’s been merchandised so much that everyone in the world has seen him, just like Mickey Mouse.

TP: You say Snoopy is well designed. I do see what could be the influence of Schulz’s character design — his line work and simple, iconic faces — in some Japanese cartooning. Hello Kitty, for example, could be almost a 21st-century version of Snoopy or Woodstock.

SETH: Absolutely. And I think that there is some power in that. Certainly those kinds of characters have a great impact in Japan. They seem to respond to this stuff in a very strong way.

TP: Do you think there’s something inherent in Schulz’s art that’s contributed to the strip’s endurance?

SETH: Well, you can’t undersell cuteness in the North American market. Snoopy specifically has been such a powerful image because he’s a pleasing, well-designed cartoon figure that’s easily applicable to a million plastic trophies and postcards and beach balls. And I think that has had a huge effect on his popularity. Snoopy, he’s the character of anyone in the strip who represents a brazen sort of self confidence, an American kind of bravado. And that might be the reason why the public has responded to him so much more than Charlie Brown, really. Charlie Brown is popular, there’s no denying it, but you’re not going to see Charlie Brown on as many coffee mugs as Snoopy. Snoopy dancing and saying “Have a good morning” is a very marketable image. I don’t think Schulz ever really calculated it that clearly, but it sure paid off that way. And that may have a lot to do with the fact that the strip is still popular.

I don’t have a good feeling about people, I gotta tell ya. I’d like to believe the good thing, that people respond to quality, but I tend to think people respond to the lower aspects of popular work. And the other stuff’s getting in under the door.

TP: Although an image of a dancing Snoopy isn’t necessarily lower than one of a scowling Charlie Brown.

SETH: That’s not really what I mean. I think Peanuts is popular because [readers] have embraced all the light-hearted merchandising. So when they read the strip, they’re probably not coming to it for the deeper moments. And if that was the key experience that the strip was about, and that was the only thing they knew it for, I have my doubt they’d still be reprinting it in the paper after his death. I think the marketing has a lot to do with that.

TP: So how far ahead are you in the design? Are you going to be designing all 25 volumes?

SETH: Yeah, but it’s not that complicated. It’s really following a very simple design system. Books will really look alike. I wanted this to be the kind of series that, when it’s done, [the books] look like they’re part of a series. In no way will you get the feeling that the book’s being redesigned every single book. Different elements will continue to change and evolve. It might be a mistake to have planned it so carefully right at the beginning, because I might be really sick of it by the time I get to the end.

TP: In 12 or 16 years or something, right?

SETH: [chuckle] Yeah. I think it’s 12. I have a feeling I’ll be very sick of it even in a couple of years. But ultimately that’s how the series should be. It should be the kind of thing that, when it’s done, it has the look of the complete volumes of something.

TP: So for a work that, as you say, remained relatively consistent throughout its run, how do you decide what to emphasize from one volume to the next?

SETH: Basically I’m working with a system that decides that for me. For example, there’s a series of double-page spreads in each volume that will always be an iconic location from the strip. So, for the first one, it’s Snoopy’s doghouse. And then, I’m not sure what the second one is yet, but let’s say it’s the pumpkin patch. And then the third one will be, say, the wall they’re always leaning on. That’s set, so all it is is a matter of choosing. And the same goes for most of the elements, they all fall into categories like that. So by the time you get to the end of the series, you’ve covered all the bases. There’ll be various images of the characters that change from year to year and decade to decade, but it’s again a matter of choosing which are the nice images for that. So it’s not really that complicated. In fact, it might even become a little boring later on. But I do think that, ultimately, when I have all the books on the shelf, I’ll be thinking that’s how I wanted them to look.

TP: And I guess this will be the reference for Schulz’s work in the future.

SETH: I hope so. It’s hard to say. You never know with this sort of thing. In five years the answer could be to have it on a disk instead. Which is probably the truth.

TP: There was another Schulz anthology designed by Chip Kidd just a couple of years ago. Did that influence your design at all?

SETH: Not really. I mean, I loved the book. I thought it was a great book, and I thought Chip did an amazing job with it. But it’s a very different project. Chip’s individual design sense is so unique, I never would have even approached it in any way like that. Chip works with a very interesting layered effect with everything he does. He likes to show the time, he likes to show the edges. He really gets into the artwork as object, which I think is great, but I’m always very different in how I approach design. I like things to be very flat, very simple. I’m just dealing with the images as designs in themselves, and I would never get that complicated with the design work. I think of his as being an interesting little essay about Peanuts. It says as much about Chip as it does about the Peanuts world.

TP: Though, arguably, your collection would say something about you as well.

SETH: Yeah, it does. I’m not trying to remove myself from it, that’s for sure. But I’m hoping that what I’m doing is creating a package that, when you hold the book in your hand, [it’s] as if you’re taking a walk in. [I’ve designed it] to lead you across the variety of landscapes, right into the work, and then at the end to lead you right out again.

TP: I imagine this book won’t be part of your show at the Rivoli on March 31? [Ed. Note: The Rivoli is a Toronto concert venue where Seth will launch his two new books: the graphic novel Clyde Fans: Book One and the illustrated story collection Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea.]

SETH: No, but I do mention Schulz. ‘Cause I’m talking about cartoonists and he has to come up, as usual.

TP: So you’ve got two collections that you’re going to be presenting: Clyde Fans. finally!

SETH: It’s still not the full Clyde Fans; it’s just the first half of the book. I’ve still got a couple of years’ work ahead of me.

TP: And the other, Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea, is an interesting project. Tell me about that. What inspired you to illustrate your father’s memoirs?

SETH: My father is, typical of a Maritimer, the kind of guy who told stories all the time. I think he came from that kind of culture. And as a child, I [always] heard the stories of his childhood in the depression. These were fascinating stories to me as a kid — especially because my father told them in a real lively way with a lot of humour. To me, as a kid, they were just interesting stories. Exciting stories. Funny stories. So when I was in my 20s, I thought about recording him. But that wasn’t working out, so I asked him to write them down. And bit by bit, as he wrote them down, he would often write several versions of the same story, forgetting he had written it down or changing this or that. Eventually I had a huge stash of stories he’d written for me. They’re all quite short, really only a couple of hand-written pages each.

It was funny reading them again later, because they weren’t really that funny. Without the storyteller, they were actually pretty grim. They were [about] starving in the Depression. I don’t think I really was planning to make a book out of them… but after I had them all, I thought this would make an interesting book. They’re very short pieces [that] work together to build a bigger whole. So then I started the process of trying to turn them into a book, which was actually a very long process. I must have worked on this for about a decade. Mostly because I had to do a lot of editing, and that was a tricky matter in itself. I was combining several versions of the same stories and trying to keep his voice in it, trying to keep my meddling to a minimum. And then I was shaping what order the stories were going in. It’s funny when I look at it now and think this is what it turned into.

TP: They’re illustrated stories, not comics, right?

SETH: Yeah. Exactly.

TP: Why did you do it that way?

SETH: A couple of reasons. I liked how he’d written them. They’re very short, and I could have easily turned them into a couple of page comic stories, but they would have progressively become more and more about me the more I drew. I’ve tried to keep them as much about him as possible.

TP: Why do you think that would have been?

SETH: Comic storytelling is a really individual thing, the actual movement of the panels, the figures, how the story is told. His voice could certainly be in it as a narrative item, but when I sit down and start breaking down how to tell a story… I think really that’s what cartooning is about. It’s how you tell the story. It would really be altered in my mind at that point. Then it really is about my storytelling. That could have been fine, and I think it could have been a very interesting project, but it would have been a very different project.

TP: Did it give you any insight into your father or yourself?

SETH: It certainly gave me insight into seeing how I viewed the stories differently as a child and as an adult. That was the first thing that came clearly to me. But also I think it showed the difference between relating a story and writing a story. The way my father told these stories and the way he wrote them really changed his emphasis of what he thought was important in them.

Another thing it showed me: the looking-back process. He’s a pretty old man now, so he was writing these in his late 70s and early 80s, and I could see that the emotional quality of the stories had gotten higher from when I was a kid. Possibly because he was telling them more as anecdotes when I was a kid. But also, I think, when you get older, people start to get more emotional. They start looking back and they start seeing their lives in a very different way. They’re at the end of their lives.

TP: Clyde Fans is also about someone looking back on their life.

SETH: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know why I’m attracted to old people as subject matter but I seem to be. I seem to be attracted to people looking backwards, too. It might just be my own nature.

TP: Now, I don’t want to draw an unnatural parallel, but is there a comparison to Peanuts? Is there a similar kernel the three projects share?

SETH: I haven’t given it much thought, to tell you the truth. But it’s certainly possible. Nothing would surprise me when it comes to how Schulz is subtly involved in my thinking. I also think I’m really drawn to Schulz for those reasons. I think the underlying sadness in the strip is what ultimately drew me towards it in ways that I haven’t been towards other work. I put him near the top.

TP: There’s certainly an underlying sadness to Clyde Fans.

SETH: Yeah. I think I’m just attracted to that as interesting story material. It sounds kind of shallow but… I seem to think an interesting story a lot of times involves melancholy reflection. It’s kind of adolescent too, now that I think about it.

TP: But you’re not approaching it from an adolescent perspective.

SETH: No. [I mean] the pleasure in that, of picking over your own sadness. I keep returning to the idea of the wasted life. Or maybe not the wasted life, but the poor choices. This seems a very potent theme to me somehow. Even if I sit down and try to do a couple of pages of something, like short strips I might be doing in my sketchbook, a lot of the times that seems to be… not necessarily the point, but it’s in there. This probably has a lot to do with my own parents, I assume.

TP: Not so much, then, with your choice to be a cartoonist. I assume that’s been a satisfying choice.

SETH: It’s a good choice. It’s hard to say — it’s a frustrating thing to be a cartoonist, too. Not as bad as it used to be, but there is a certain sense that you’re working on something that people consider pretty meaningless. That doesn’t really bother me too much, because I really do think the comic book medium is extremely interesting. But certainly it’s not a career I would advise people to pick if they’re looking for attention or commercial success. But then, in many ways, I can’t think of anything I prefer than to be away from that kind of attention. I mean, god knows, I’d like the money. Who wouldn’t? And I like attention. Who doesn’t? But the thought of working in a big system like Hollywood, where the action is, does seem pretty repulsive. It’s nice to be away from the action.

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