PREVIEWSWORLD EXCLUSIVE: Fantagraphics Books — An Interview With Gary Groth
Mar 31, 2011
As the persons in charge of re-assembling complete archives of daily strips, the editors of some of our most beloved comics collections serve as archaeologists, art conservationists, historians, and designers. PREVIEWSworld has taken the time to ask some of the industry's leading talents to tell us about the process of restoring classic strips, and perhaps illuminate the production process for some of their favorite projects. This interview focuses on Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books.
PREVIEWSworld (PW): Please introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about the company you work for.
Gary Groth (GG): I’m Gary Groth and I co-founded Fantagraphics Books in 1976. We’ve been publishing comic strip reprints since 1981 when we published NEMO: The Classic Comics Library, under the editorship of Rick Marschall. We were the first independent comics publisher to publish newspaper strips in book form, with Prince Valiant and Popeye in ’84, and, later, Milton Caniff’s Dickie Dare, Will Gould’s Red Barry, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, and many others. Today, we publish Roy Crane’s Captain Easy and Buz Sawyer, E.C. Segar’s Popeye (again), Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant (again!), Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, and, of course, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. We also publish a vast array of other cartooning —from collections of R. Crumb and Gahan Wilson to contemporary graphic novels by such artists as Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Jim Woodring, Kim Deitch, Megan Kelso, Joe Sacco, Jason, Cathy Malkasian, Dash Shaw, and others.
(PW): What was your favorite project, and what drew you to the artist or the characters?
(GG): Reprinting the 50 year run of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was certainly among my favorite projects, mostly because of my respect and admiration for the strip and for Schulz’s imagination.
(PW): What was your role in getting your favorite project ready for eager readers? How many staff members do you tend to have on your team?
(GG): I got to know Charles Schulz after conducting a marathon interview with him for The Comics Journal, and brought up the possibility of collecting his life’s work in a series of uniform volumes — which, of course, had not been attempted at that time. He gave me his endorsement and I proceeded to contact his syndicate and, with his blessing, make the deal. (By the time I actually signed a contract, Sparky had died and his widow, Jean, was instrumental in making the project a reality).
Several of us work on Peanuts; that would include me, my partner Kim Thompson, the book’s designer, the cartoonist, Seth, our production person, Paul, and whoever we can rope into doing the Peanuts index.
(PW): Many daily strips’ original art was sold, destroyed, or lost. What sources were available when you were collecting art for your favorite project?
(GG): We were very lucky with Peanuts; Schulz’s company, Creative Associates, has most of the strips. For those they don’t have, we rely on collectors, who have been enormously helpful.
This is not the case with other reprints, many of which require a lot of legwork to hunt down strips.
(PW): Depending on art sources, the original image quality may have been greatly degraded. How does your production team go about retouching the art?
(GG): Again, with Peanuts, that hasn’t been a problem; the images Creative Associates provides are usually excellent. One funny anecdote: One strip had a missing panel and we couldn’t find any other copy of it, so, with the permission of the estate, Seth drew the missing panel (which we identified as such in the book, of course); later, we found the strip with the missing panel in its entirety and replaced it in subsequent printings.
Again, this is not the case with many of our newspaper strip reprints. We often have to spend many hours restoring a single Sunday page, for instance — a laborious process that we have down.
(PW): How long did the first volume of this series take you, from the green light on the project until it went to press? What takes the longest? Were there any unexpected roadblocks as you pulled together the oldest material?
(GG): Peanuts was among our least challenging reprint projects in this regard. From the time I proposed (or re-proposed) the project to Jean Schulz to the time Seth and I gave her a presentation in her office in Santa Rosa to the time it was first published as probably a year or so. But, again, other projects can take many years from the time the proposal is submitted to the pub date. There can be numerous obstacles —from contract negotiations to hunting down the quality strips we require— that can slow down a project. There were several people in the Peanuts organization who wanted this project to happen and who were incredibly supportive — foremost among them Jean Schulz and CA’s Creative Director, Paige Braddock. With them fully behind us, it was smooth sailing.
(PW): How does your company select titles for this kind of treatment?
(GG): The only criterion is that it’s great cartooning. We wouldn’t waste our time devoting this much time and energy to anything less. Our mission has been to publish the best cartooning —not only in comic strips, but in every “branch” of the cartooning art— that we can.
(PW): What upcoming titles are in the works for your editorial team?
(GG): We happen to have two great strip series coming up — Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy (which will be accompanied by a book about Nancy, How To Read Nancy by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik) and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby. We are also publishing two books a year under the Marschall Books imprint, edited by Rick Marschall, the first three of which are Drawing Power (a compendium of advertising art by strip artists such as Caniff, Harold Gray, Rube Goldberg, et al.), a gigantic oversized collection of Johnny Gruelle’s Twee Deedle (intro by Tony Millionaire, natch), and Mail Order Geniuses, a collection of cartooning correspondence courses form the first half of this century taught by Clare Briggs, Billy DeBeck, and Russell Patterson, among others. We just put to bed two books by Bill Mauldin — the brand new Willie & Joe: Back Home, collecting Mauldin’s post-War cartoons, and a reprint of the sold-out Willie & Joe: The WWII Years.
(PW): Thank you again for your time and effort here today and all your work preserving comics treasures!
(GG): It was a pleasure, but I hope you realize that answering these questions has taken me away from procuring one and maybe two more strip reprints.