Some things just can’t be helped. Sitting out in front of the San Diego Convention Center, surrounded by throngs of showgoers decked out in their finest spandex, the conversation almost inevitably returns to the state of the superhero in contemporary comics, even with an artist whose life and work and are seemingly inseparable from sequential art of the past.
A line of questioning about Seth’s work on the gorgeous Complete Peanuts soon takes a turn for the superheroic when the artist mentions a childhood fascination with Marvel Comics, and a conversation about Jack Kirby progressing into philosophies regarding the negative pop cultural impact of Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
When artists are discussing cartoonists whose style are impossible to mimic, Schulz inevitably comes it. It’s so deceptively simply and easy to mess up.
Was that a fear?
I do very little real drawing in the Peanuts collections. Anywhere I have to replicate Schulz’s art, I actually trace it. So that relieved a great deal of that fear. I mean, there is no way I could replicate his drawings. He had a style that is impossible to imitate, so it’s just a simple matter of either reproducing his actual art or retracing it. Generally, the art you see in the book is 100-percent Schulz, or mostly Schulz with some little additions from me or complete retracings.
Does the art lose something when you trace it?
It definitely does. But I’m aware that any design elements I am including that include my hand have nothing to do with Schulz’s body of work–they are just decorations for a book. For example, when I do a two-page spread of one of his famous Peanuts locations–I look at it as simply a something to make the book nice. I don’t worry that I am fiddling around with the master’s art because it does no harm to his genuine body of work. Schulz’s work is right there in the book. Every line in those strips is his. But the design stuff is just design stuff. It’s a setting to put a gem in. The setting is not the gem.
Was the legacy hard to deal with? People love his work so much. Were you afraid you’d do something and upset people?
No, no. I actually wasn’t. I didn’t really care about the fan’s opinions–I was only thinking of the work itself and what I thought design I would come up with that would give it the right “feeling”. In a lot of ways I was freed up by the fact that Schulz is no longer alive—I don’t know if I could have done the book if I was dealing directly with him. That would have inhibited me. I couldn’t really have had that attitude of, “it’s my way or forget it.” With him there I would have been far too aware that it was his book. Whatever he wanted would have been the right choice. The series might very well have looked very different if he were still alive. Who knows?
Do you feel like Jeannie [Schulz, Charles’ widow] knew exactly what he would have wanted?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. But I do know that she clearly thinks he was a genius. She clearly has respect for his work and wants his work to be treated with respect. I take for granted, at this point, that she trusts me, because what I’m trying to do is give his work respect. That really is all it’s about for me. I want to present his work in a dignified manner. I feel like Schulz’s work has been casually approached in the past. The books have been usually designed in a very half-assed manner for 20 or 30 years.
I should qualify that statement–the first few books from Hold Reinhart were very nice books and the remainder of the series throughout the series is okay. The 70s Peanuts books, for the most part are abysmal. They have a cheap and lazy aesthetic. Off the top of my head, the only good Peanuts book after 1970 is probably Chip Kidd’s amazing volume.
They’ve had no problem merchandising.
Yeah. No doubt about that. Whether the books were good or bad looking the work inside always sold well. I don’t think Schulz must have cared about the books. What they looked like. I suspect he wasn’t really involved in the book designs. The book really weren’t—- I mean, beyond the first few books– it didn’t really seem like Schulz cared what they looked like, because they just didn’t look very good. He couldn’t have cared. He was concerned with the daily strip. That was his life.
Did you have Snoopy stuff? Did you buy into the merchandising when you were a kid?
Sure, I had all of that sort of stuff when I was a kid. I loved Schulz. He was my primary influence. I loved him right until I got into Marvel comics. I still read Peanuts, but I didn’t think about it in the same when after I started to read those Marvel Comics. Then in my early twenties, I came back to him in a strong way and started to re-read all of the strips and got very Peanuts again. At that point I did collect all that Peanuts merchandise–dolls and statuettes and Avon products. But eventually I got rid of all of that stuff because I realized that I don’t really care about all of those toys and things. That was all just gilding on the lily. It was only the strip that mattered to me.
Are you still interested in the older superhero stuff? Like the Kirby stuff?
Yeah, it still has a lot of resonance. Kirby especially. I loved him so much as a teenager. I have all of that Kirby stuff from that period. I re-acquired all of it in my late twenties and thirties. I think Kirby was a great artist. I think it’s unfortunate that his stuff doesn’t stand up to a great deal of re-reading. But I still take real pleasure in looking at it. There is no artwork in the world like it. And of course it has great nostalgic value for me. It’s no accident that his work has influenced mainstream comics in a manner that no other artist has or ever will. He was a giant in that little world.
He had some kind of basic understanding of how to draw that stuff–a primary vision that set the template for almost every aspect of the superhero genre that followed him. But, that said, I think Jack’s work doesn’t hold up well for an adult reader. I think that if Jack had been born in Europe and had worked in the album format with the kind of freedom that Herge had then I think there would have been a series of Kirby books that would have left behind a more coherent artistic vision. In some alternate reality Kirby would have left a great pile of fantasy comic albums that would have been beloved classics–much like Herge.
This is all just speculative nonsense but I think he had that kind of narrative vision. Yet sadly, too many years in the salt mines and too many editors fucking around with his projects left a scattered body of work behind him. Wonderful series cancelled before they could even get going. Great fun and inventive concepts neutered by little bureaucratic assholes. It’s a shame, because I think he was a kind of genius. Left to his own devises who knows what he could have accomplished.
Do you have anything invested in the superhero characters themselves?
Not beyond nostalgia. The superhero has a weird dichotomy. On one hand, it’s full of American charm like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. It’s a solid pop culture image that’s just loaded with charm. But I think so much of that charm has been destroyed over the decades and turned into a weird fetish object. Because unfortunately the other side of the superhero image is overflowing with weird sexual energy. I mean, a superhero is basically just an erection running around on the loose. Two sides of the same coin– the innocence on one side and all that sex on the other–there is so much naked sexuality in the superhero image. I mean, look around at this convention.
There’s plenty of erections running around.
Yeah. That’s for sure! So I think the modern comics have chosen to focus exclusively on the sexual part. Though they may not realize it.
Werthem realized it, though.
Yeah, I guess he did. in some sense Werthem was right. He was just so wrong-headed in what he chose to criticize and what conclusions he drew from the comics. He was a bad social scientist but a good propagandist. I think the problem with the superhero for me is the loss of that the othe , the charm of the superhero—- I mean, when I see the old covers of Superman and Green Lantern running a race and breaking a ribbon, or sitting around there little table in their clubhouse– that’s that kind of simple charm they had. That is very appealing as a pop-culture image.
They were big policemen helping out the world. Those simple tales of adventure had a childish feeling of profundity to them–very appealing when you were a kid. The big cosmic adventures that happened to these colorful characters were very silly but that absurd childishness made for great innocent reading. They weren’t psychotic killers, or whatever it is they are now. It’s become a weird product that I feel no attachment to. Who wants to read a book where Winnie the Pooh has become a rabid grizzly bear?
So no interest in ever tackling a character like that?
I don’t think so. And I would have thought it was impossible to use a superhero as a subject for an adult story until I read Dan [Clowes]’s Death Ray. That was the book that showed me that all these modern mainstream writers who have tried to write the “real” superhero story, none of them knew what the hell they were doing. Because Dan actually got away from all of those tropes that those fellows can’t help but write about—because these genre tropes are more important to the mainstream writers than the writing of an adult story. It’s too much of a fetish interest.
What they really like about the superhero is the genre trappings–the origin, the costume, the first battle, the villain, the list of superpowers…you know. Whatever the things are that make up the main elements of the superhero genre. What they are not interested in is writing a meaningful story where the superhero is merely a devise to get at something. The superhero is so shiny that they are blinded by him. The Watchmen is a good example of this. Those superhero tropes are all in there. Dutifully trotted out with grim seriousness. Unlike the Death Ray, which is a genuinely grim story which used the superhero as a mere springboard– nd turning the superhero literally inside out. After the Death Ray, I seriously doubt I could figure out anything to do with the superhero. It was too perfect.
Do you like Watchmen as a book?
I don’t. It’s unfortunate, because I like Alan Moore. He seems like a nice, funny, intelligent person.
But it’s an important book…
It’s an influential book. But I don’t think it influenced things in a good way. I actually think so much of what’s going on right now is Alan Moore’s fault. I’m suspect he would be the first to admit that it started a bad trend.
At this point when someone says “real,” they mean violent.
Yes. The Rorschach character, who is supposed to be a someone to pity or hate—now he’s cool. That’s the basic problem with Watchmen. Even Alan Moore couldn’t keep it from being cool. The Death Ray isn’t cool. He’s a real kid. He’s a sympathetic kid and later a frightening adult. Rorschach isn’t actually frightening. He kicks ass. People like to identify with him. He’s Batman.
It comes back to that idea of letting a character out of your hands. Alan Moore obviously didn’t want the movie, and now that it exists, it’s reason enough to celebrate its characters.
Yeah, I guess.
That’s why it’s easy to sympathize with people who want to hold onto their creations.
Well, I feel for Alan Moore, but if he’s mad about anything, I think it’s that DC treated him poorly. If DC treated him well, he might have been excited about these films. I think he’s had a long history of being screwed over by these corporations and losing control. I totally sympathize with him and I think really highly of him that he didn’t take the money. That’s what it boils down to–that’s the most powerful statement you can make in our culture, “I won’t take your money.”