From Friendly Ghosts To Gamma Rays, NO.81: Interview With Vampires…Okay, Not Really, Actually With The “Peanuts” Guys
Hey readers and welcome back to another edition of our all-ages column, where this week we have an interview with writer Shane Houghton and artist Matt Whitlock, who are doing part of the new stories for the new Peanuts comic from Kaboom! Let’s get down to it!
ComicAttack.net : Peanuts, wow! That is almost larger than life to get a chance to take on these established characters, but unlike Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, not too many people other than Schulz have had a chance to take a crack at them, so it’s a new frontier still. Excitement? Terror? Both mixed together with a side of cheese? How does it feel to be working on the first set of issues for the new Peanuts?
SHANE: You nailed it. It’s like kinda like what I imagine jumping out of an airplane is like– extremely exciting while also terrifying that the fans will hate your work. I may have mixed metaphors there but, comic fans hate skydiving. It’s extremely cool to be working on Peanuts, but it’s not a huge departure from what Schulz was doing. This isn’t Shane and Matt’s take on Peanuts, it’s us staying in the lines and following the very clear rules set up by Charles Schulz. Everything we do is approved by our fantastic editor Adam Staffaroni at BOOM! and then has to be double approved by everyone at the company that manages the Peanuts license. And everyone who works there is creative, artists, and HUGE PEANUTS fans.
MATT: At first, disbelief and excitement, then gradually- and now presently- pure terror. I work in the L.A. animation industry, and just last evening, the Animation Union held a big post-holiday party. A lot of people had heard the news, and were all coming up to me saying, “Wow… congratulations, Matt!” then immediately, “Don’t [expletive] this up and ruin my childhood, jerk.” I know how much Peanuts means to the superfans, because I’m the biggest superfan there is. I certainly dont want to be responsible for the Phantom Menace-ing of Peanuts. If there hadn’t already been a precedent set back in the 50’s when Sparky had a few ghost artists for the short-lived Peanuts series from Dell Comics, I would’ve turned the gig down. It’s uncharted territory to be sure, but I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
MATT: That’s an understatement. Peanuts is the sole reason I became an artist and left my tiny hometown in Michigan. (Or, I should say our tiny hometown. Coincidentally, Shane and I are both from St. Johns, Michigan, but had never met each other til we both moved to California.) I had written to Charles Schulz when I was very young, naively asking him if I could help him draw the strip (I got a form letter back), and then I actually invited myself up to his studio in Santa Rosa, CA to meet him in 1999, and he couldn’t have been a kinder human being.
Obviously, The strips and specials are what guide us through the new work. We’re not trying to mess with perfection here. Besides Boom! Studio, we also report to Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates- the creative team and quality-control arm of the Peanuts franchise. They’re sort of the ‘keepers of the flame,’ and fans themselves. They are extremely cautious about keeping everything as close as possible to what they feel would be Schulz’s vision. Which is a good thing.
SHANE: I read the comic strip everyday along with Calvin and Hobbes. I love A Charlie Brown Christmas and watch it every year. I’ve seen the stage musical, but only as a cut down, 45-minute competition play in high school. I’d say any exposure of the Peanuts characters influenced us with the stories we’re telling. Except for maybe that stage play I saw. I’m sure a professional version would have been much better. What we’re doing with Peanuts now is very close to the source material, and that’s the main inspiration to what we’re doing. All the characters Schulz created are so well defined that there’s not much guess work going on. The goal with this series is to make it seem like the daily strips never stopped, but just transitioned into comic book form.
CA: Shane, out of the whole crew, who is your favorite character to write and why?
SHANE: I’ve been writing a lot of Lucy because it’s so easy for her to get into conflict with any character. She’s polarizing and that’s great for a writer. But as a reader, I’ve always disliked Lucy. She’s a real meanie. I also enjoy writing Charlie Brown because he’s my favorite of the bunch, but it’s Snoopy who’s the most fun to write because he’s the one character with a true imagination. Snoopy can do anything, and it works.
CA: Matt, similar question, out of the Peanuts gang who is your favorite character to draw and why?
MATT: Even though I’ve been drawing these characters since I could hold a pencil, since working on this project, I feel like I’m drawing them for the first time. Schulz’s style is extremely deceptive in its simplicity, and drawing them the “right” way has been really tough. I find that the work takes twice as long as any other freelance art job I’ve ever worked on. For example– if I have to draw a tree, I’ll pour over all the Peanuts anthology books and study the trees in the strip. It’s gotten to be a little obsessive. The toughest part of the gig was realizing that I didn’t want to- and shouldn’t- simply be a human xerox machine for this job. After all, I’ll never make the art look as amazing as Sparky did. The right thing to do, I think, is to find my own style, yet not stray too far for the classic designs. I am still working on that part.
Oh, yeah… and to finally answer your question: probably Snoopy. Not only is he fun to draw, but he always seems to get the more expressive, crazy action stuff to do. And grass. I really like to draw the wispy grass in Peanuts.
CA: What kind of adventures can someone who hasn’t picked up the book yet expect from the new Peanuts stories?
SHANE: In every issue, there are going to be about 3 new Peanuts stories by a variety of creators including us, Vicki Scott, and Paige Braddock. Lisa Moore is also doing a fantastic job of coloring the majority of the new stories as well. In addition to new stuff, there’s also a few Schulz original strips peppered throughout each issue. Matt and I have already done stories featuring Lucy, Linus, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Schroeder, Frieda, and Pig Pen with lots more fun stuff on the way. If you enjoy Peanuts, you’ll love these new comics. If you’ve never really read Peanuts but wanted to give it a try, these books are a great place to start!
MATT: If we’ve done our jobs right, you should feel like you’re right back at home with these characters. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and stray away from what made the strip great. On these first few issues, Shane and I have been adapting a few of the old stories that were written for the 50’s Dell comics. It’s been a great way to ramp up on this project, in my opinion. It didn’t feel sacrilegious to try to update and improve upon Sparky’s ghost artists, unlike the master himself. The other team working on the comic- Vicky Scott and Paige Braddock- have done a couple of wholly original stories, which turned out great. I’m itching to follow suit soon.
CA: Regular readers of our column know you, Shane, best as usually being paired up with your brother on the super-cool book Reed Gunther, but here you are partnered with artist Matt Whitlock on Peanuts. How is it different working with someone who is not your bro? Certainly the dynamic has to be way different at times; thoughts?
SHANE: Ha! Working with my brother is one of the easiest and most rewarding professional collaborations I’ve ever been a part of. You may not believe this, but working with Matt is just as easy! It helps that Matt and I (and Chris) are all from the same small town in Michigan. Matt was an illustrating legend when I was in high school and only heard stories of how he left our small town and was making it as a “real” artist in Los Angeles! Then Chris and I moved out to LA and met up with Matt, who is super cool, and we’ve been hanging out ever since. Chris and Matt worked together at Nickelodeon so they’ve spent a lot of time together too. Matt and I spent this New Year’s Eve together. I’ve got a stack of books I’ve borrowed from Matt sitting next to me right now. Matt may not be related to me by blood, but he’s as close to being a brother as Chris is. I’m the luckiest writer in comics.
CA: Now onto the fun/tough questions!
Snoopy’s nomadic cousin Spike – unlike Scooby-Dumb, everyone seems to like this scruffy beagle. Thoughts on what makes Spike tick, and do we get to see him soon?
MATT: Well, the comparison to Scooby-Dumb (or worse, Scrappy-Doo) sets the bar pretty low. Spike’s kind of an enigma. He lives by himself in an actual location (Needles, CA), in his own isolated word, far from all the other characters. He talks to cacti. I suppose one dark interpretation could be that he’s gone mad with loneliness. Maybe that’s an overstatement… I dunno. I don’t know if he’ll show up anytime soon in the new series. We’re kind of concentrating on the 60’s era of Peanuts right now- what many consider to be the strip’s golden age. Though, I just included Marcie in issue #2- who was also introduced in the 70’s- so you never know.
CA: Feelings on that Christmas Bells song where Snoopy fights the Baron?
MATT: Oh God, that song sucks. Schulz didn’t write that– it was a crappy band trying to capitalize on the wild Peanutsmania of he 60’s.
CA: Matt, when you look at Peanuts from the strip to the movies, etc., not counting your own work, what do you think is one of the greatest Peanuts tales of all time?
MATT: Ha! “Not counting your own work.” I don’t think that’ll ever be a problem. I can’t pinpoint an absolute favorite off the top of my head but three things come to mind: The story line where Charlie Brown becomes overly obsessed with baseball- to the point of developing a rash on the back of his head that resembles a baseball’s stitching. I think this story is generally considered among fans one of the best, and I don’t necessarily disagree. His doctor tells him to spend a few weeks at camp to relax, and Charlie Brown covers his rash by wearing a grocery sack over his head the whole time. Since no one can see him, he suddenly becomes hugely popular, is voted camp president, and becomes a sort of guru to the other campers. He reinvents himself as a total winner. That is, until the sack comes off. There’s also a crazy, surreal ending, which I won’t spoil.
Next, the introduction of Franklin- the strip’s first African-American character- which Schulz drew at the height of segregation tensions and despite some pushback from editors and readers. He told one editor that Franklin would stay in the strip or he’d walk. Also, he never called attention to the fact that Franklin was attending school with Peppermint Patty. It was just so… the way it should be.
Finally, I do have a favorite single strip: Linus delivers the punchline, “I love mankind… it’s people I can’t stand.” That’s always been my semi-secret credo.
CA: Shane, Red Baron Snoopy faces off against Reed Gunther. What happens, who wins, who loses?
SHANE: Ooh, tough question… the World War I Flying Ace would have a leg up on Reed at first because he’s got a flying doghouse, and Reed, being a cowboy from the 1880’s, has never seen a plane before. But Reed does have a grizzly-bear to ride on… Their showdown would culminate with them playing a deadly game of chicken, Snoopy flying close to the ground and charging Reed and Sterling. There’d be a gigantic, Hanna-Barbera collision of smoke, stars, and goofy sound effects. Reed would emerge from the dust riding on the back of Snoopy and Sterling the giant grizzly-bear would fly off into the clouds on a flying dog house.
Well that’s it for this week! Shane and Matt were super awesome for doing this with us, and we can’t thank them enough. We will catch you next week readers, when we look at some more all age goodness. If you are also interested, we reviewed the first issue of the new Peanuts last week, click here to read. Until then!