READING “PEANUTS” has long been a patchwork endeavor. You read it in the newspaper, or in paperback collections, or in anniversary editions, but nowhere has existed a single bound set of the beloved comic strip’s entire collected catalog — even after the death of creator Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz in 2000 fanned a new wave of appreciation.
“And it didn’t seem likely that anyone would publish it,” says Seth, the Canadian cartoonist and graphic designer.
This October, that all changes. Fantagraphics will publish the final volume — No. 26 — to conclude its “The Complete Peanuts” hardcover box set. And a guiding hand throughout the creative process, over the past 13 years, has been Seth, who delved into the forthcoming volume by gathering Schulz ephemera, including his advertising art and editorial illustration.
“Today, it seems like a no-brainer,” Seth says of collecting Schulz’s entire works. But more than a dozen years ago, he says, it still seemed like a no-go. When Seth worked with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth years ago on a Comics Journal project, he tossed out the idea like a distant wish: If anyone ever published the entire catalog of “Peanuts” strips, Seth said, he’d love to design it.
Then one day, out of the blue, the call came. Seth and Groth were soon traveling to “Peanuts” headquarters in Santa Rosa.
A nervous Seth worked up a talk to convince Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, that he was just the man to design this “Peanuts” set — that he had “deep respect for the work” and that he thought of the “Peanuts” creator as an inspiration. He was soon assuaged by Jean and their smooth meeting of the minds, which he calls “a really meaningful experience.”
Also a profound experience has been designing the set’s final volume, for which Jean will write the foreword. “This volume is basically an appreciation of what the strip meant to me — and how meaningful it’s been for me to be connected to it — to get the work, and the series, in print,” Seth says. “It’s been a tremendously important thing for me.”
That comes across in the design-intensive final volume, by way of its afterword, in which Seth writes that he wanted the collected “Peanuts” strips “to look and feel respectful and dignified, and maybe even a bit sad. I wanted the beauty of the strip to shine. And, I admit, I wanted something else, too. … I wished to pay personal tribute to Charles Schulz. To thank the man.”
As the “Palookaville” cartoonist has designed the entire set, that sense of passionate mission has shined through — as he realized he was “probably constructing a monument.” And it all started with illuminating what a unique creation “Peanuts” was.
It can be challenging to identify, for example, just why a comic has a certain life to it — that kinetic spark that breathes soul into a static strip.
“It’s so obvious when it’s there — it’s not there very often,” Seth tells Comic Riffs, emphasizing what a wealth of traits “Peanuts” had. “It was funny. Profound. Sweet. Absurd. And had a wide range of emotions.”
Working on “The Complete Peanuts” has focused Seth’s longstanding appreciation of just how rare a cartoonist Schulz was. “Sparky was that one person,” Seth says. “He’s liked across the board by cartoonists. One rarely runs into another cartoonist who doesn’t like ‘Peanuts.’ From people who draw Batman to hard-core underground cartoonists, [Schulz] transcends those differences.”
And what has been especially clarified by his work on “Complete Peanuts” — poring over the decades of strips as Seth traveled from Schulz’s Northern California offices to the cartoonist’s native Minnesota — is how the strip morphed over its five decades.
“Each decade, he almost reinvented the strip,” the designer says of Schulz, who launched the strip while in his 20s. “There were the same characters, but he could have retitled it [at different points]. There were very distinctive flavors.
“The last 10 years and the first 10 years are tremendously different, and the last 10 years and the ’70s are different. He was a different person and he was getting older,” continues Seth, noting that the latter strips had a somberness that was less leavened by a younger man’s buoyancy and pacing.
And that evolution — that ever-changing nature of “Peanuts” as an honest organic creation resonating with its own “life” — is crucial to the brilliance of the strip.
“If ‘Peanuts’ had been frozen in time” creatively, Seth says, “we wouldn’t still be talking about it.”