From his book design to his brand of cigarettes, let there be no debate that Seth is a man of complete and largely uncompromised style, a fact that has made his art some of the most instantly recognizable cartooning work of this decade. The artist practically recoils at the mention of editorial oversight when it comes to his comics, by anyone from The New York Times on down.
In this second of our three part interview, we touch on that exact topic, as it pertains to his most recent book, George Sprott, and his work on the design of Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts.
Despite the fact that [George Sprott] was on TV and he was a big personality, he was a big personality in a small community.
And he was doing the same thing over and over again—reading in the same theater, week after week.
Exactly. I wanted George to be someone who was in the public eye, but obviously not a genuine celebrity, because then you’d have to deal with the problems of real celebrity in the story. It’s not a story about fame, because that’s too easy. But George’s limited fame is an essential ingredient. It’s a story about things falling away with time. That minor fame of his simply gave me another element of his life to fall away.
It’s a story where I’m ambivalent about who George is. I wanted the reader to feel ambivalent as well, and to make up their own minds about whether George is a person to like or not, and whether he’s a failure. I mean, it’s hard to paint him as a success. He’s running away from a lot of things. But I wanted to make the reading experience as fragmented as possible, because if you fill in too many gaps, then you’re deciding for the reader what he should feel. You can’t entirely escape that as the author, but I wanted to try and give the reader some choice about whether they liked George.
Do you feel as if you were filling in too many gaps in prior books?
Um, no. but I think I had a bigger picture of who the characters are in other books. With George I never really did work him out fully for myself. There’s stuff in this book where I don’t know what the answer is, either. Someone today asked me why George was in the seminary, was it to avoid going to war? I agreed that the narrator of the book hints at that, but he sort of retreats from it as well. The answer is, I don’t know myself. It’s a possibility that George goes into the seminary because he wants to avoided the war, but it’s also a possibility that he genuinely thought that that was the seminary was the direction his life was going and it simply didn’t continue in that way. I don’t really know what the answer is, because I didn’t really bother to figure it out—it wasn’t really important for me to know. George is a fragment.
Have you had something more invested in your characters in previous stories?
Yes. George, for the most part, was based on other people, and all my other characters have been largely based on myself. The two brothers in Clyde Fans, for example, are clearly two sides of my own personality. George is actually more based on three or four or five people that I know through the media or through my personal life—my father being one of them. So it’s more of an outside view.
Is there a news presenter that he’s largely based on?
Yeah, the initial figure that he’s based on is a fellow by the name of George Pierrot, who was a local Detroit TV travel host in the 60s and 70s. I took a good number of surface traits from. He was well-known for falling asleep on the air, so I took that exactly from Mr. Pierrot.
I’m certainly not saying that he was anything like George Sprott though. If anything, he seemed like a very nice old guy. His show was a remarkable anachronism of a show when I watched it as a teenager in the 70s… and it always stuck in my mind.
He was already on the wane at the point?
Oh yes, he was. He probably died some time in the late 70s. I watched him then with a sense of boredom. It was not the kind of thing I was interested in at the time. Whereas now I think I would love to be seeing his shows again.
You’re carrying this personality with you, all these years—at what point does that congeal into a story?
Just around the time the Times called me, actually. I had been playing with the ideas of a character like George. I didn’t fully know what the character was going to be. The idea was a bit more expansive originally. I was going to involve more characters from the TV station. At some point I thought I would have two central guys. These two old fellows from the TV station and their individual lives—they would have parallel stories and then somehow they would collide at some point in the story and have a conflict. But I wasn’t really all that sure where it was going. And then the Times called and asked me for ideas.
So, I gave them three ideas. The first one was that I wanted to finish a graphic novel that I had started in another magazine–and I knew they wouldn’t go for that—but that was the main project I wanted to do. The second idea was really kind of characterless and esoteric. I was to be about a city block, and allowing the reader to act as sort of a ghost figure, you would go through each of the buildings and explore their history and experience the whole city block. This idea may still get done some day in some form. This would have been quite fragmented. A lot of bits and pieces. Certainly more than George turned out to be.
That’s sort of the ultimate version of this story, because it doesn’t connect with any of the characters.
Yeah, exactly. You really need the reader to make something out of it themselves. To piece it together. But I had a bad feeling that they wouldn’t go for that one either. For the third one, I just threw in the germ of the George story, “something about an old guy. He’s an old, lonely TV host. It’s the end of the career, etc.” And, of course, they said they liked that one. And then I had to figure out what the hell to do with the idea.
Did they have any input beyond choosing the initial story?
No, remarkably not, and I was a little worried. You see, the first idea I mentioned– the unfinished story I hoped to complete– the reason I didn’t finish it was, the magazine I was working for in Canada…well, I had been very clear to them about allowing no input from the editors. They had agreed and it ran in four installments before they started to interfere. Then they wanted to change things.
Someone was telling me earlier—I don’t know if it was on a panel today—but you made that point that you don’t like any editorial input.
I don’t, it’s true. I can’t deal with people telling me what they want from the story or forcing me to think differently. The minute I know they will be in a position to ask for changes, I start self-censoring. I talked to the Times about this before hand, and they were very reassuring, but I still didn’t feel entirely relaxed at the beginning. I was waiting to see what would happen. But, I have to give them real credit– they never interfered.
What’s that law of physics? You automatically change things by observing them?
Yes, exactly. I can work in the illustration business that way—I don’t care what anybody says. They can ask me to change things and I am more then happen to change it. Turn the guy into a girl–no problem. Make it red and not blue. Right away. But I can’t write that way. The Times didn’t interfere We only had a few disputes over a couple of words that didn’t quite work for them. Didn’t match the ethics of their “style book”. It was all fine. I took the words out, and then put them back in for the book version.
How much control do you have when you’re working on something like the Peanuts books?
Obviously Jeannie Schulz had the final say. But that’s not to say I wasn’t determined to do things my way. It was one of those cases where when I went down to see Jeannie with a presentation for what I was going to do, I told myself beforehand not to get too attached to the idea of being the designer of the series. I told myself that If the people in charge of Peanuts were going to require this series to be another one of those collections that I hate–meaning, bright pastels and smiling Snoopys– I was going to tell them that I wasn’t interested in working on it. As difficult as it would be to turn down the Complete Peanuts there was no point in getting involved in a project that would depress me. I was pretty determined that it had to be my way. But Jeannie was a dream. She didn’t ask for any changes but one, which was, my initial plan was to have Charlie Brown’s face on the cover of every volume.
The evolution of Charlie Brown.
Yeah. I wanted to have him on all 50 volumes. They (meaning everyone else involved in the project) thought that was just too similar for a set of books. And I kind of figured that as well. I was more than ready to throw that idea out. Beyond that, no one really interfered. It’s been the perfect working experience. Everyone at Fanta and everyone at One Snoopy Place. I have nothing to complain about.
Are you locked in for the entire set?
It’s totally locked in. The design evolves slightly for each decade, but it’s all about subtle change. For example, the end papers change each decade. The color scheme changes each decade, but it’s a very subtle shift. The design is set in stone. It will be a set that looks like it was planned to be a set. That might make each volume a little less creative to put together but this is a sacrifice I am happy to make to get the cohesiveness of the overall design. I like sets.
[Concluded in Part Three]