Jimmy: Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. This is Unpacking Peanuts. This is our anniversary issue. The seasons, they went round and round, the painted ponies, they went up and down, and a whole year went by, with us just immersed in the world of Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts. And I want to just celebrate all that and talk with you guys about it today.
Hope you're doing well. I'm Jimmy Gownley. I'm your host for this evening. I'm also the cartoonist of Amelia Rules, Seven Good Reasons Not to Grow Up, and The Dumbest Idea Ever. Joining me, as always, are my pals, co hosts and fellow cartoonists.
He's a playwright and a composer, both for the band Complicated People, as well as for this very podcast. He's the original editor of Amelia Rules, the co- creator of the original comic book Price Guide, and the creator of such great strips as Strange Attractors, A Gathering of Spells, and Tangled River. Michael Cohen.
Michael: Hey there.
Harold: And he's the executive producer and writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000. He is a former vice president of Archie Comics and the current creator of the wonderful Instagram strip Sweetest Beasts, Harold Buchholz.
Jimmy: So, guys, we have spent a whole year analyzing Peanuts, talking about Peanuts, thinking about, living Peanuts. So it's basically just been a regular year, except this year we recorded it. I'm so happy for that. So what are your-- guys we made it a year-- we’re like, 20 years into reading this thing. Harold, give me your overall thoughts. Mr. Schulz says that if you are to read his comics, you would know him. So, Harold, you tell me, who is Mr. Charles Schulz to you at this point in our reading?
Harold: Wow. Having read Peanuts and speaking about Peanuts with you guys and also learning from our audience, what Peanuts means to them has only magnified my sense of, the breadth of genius of this guy. I mean, he seemed bound and determined to find a way to get his voice out there and to get his best voice out there. He seemed to be looking for a way to share his best self in the most full way he could. And I was thinking about him in terms of other artists who somehow managed to transcend class and culture and race and speak to everybody. That's really rare when an artist wants to do that and does do that. When I was thinking about it, we talked about the Beatles, which kind of came up alongside him in these recent years we've been doing and how they did that. They transcend, the culture and class and race, and they speak something universal that everybody can kind of come together around, and we all feel better for it. And I think of Shakespeare? I don't think that's too crazy to say that.
Jimmy: No, I don't either.
Harold: I'm not a Globe Theatre expert, but my sense of the Shakespeare plays were they were written for whoever could pay to get in. And you had the upper class people in certain seats, and you had a rowdy crowd, down on the floor, and they're responding to these performances, and yet he's inserting all of himself into these stories in terms of themes and language and invention, and he's able to reach people on every level.
I think when that happens, it's rare, but I think people sense that it's a special moment that we feel brought together by an artist. And that's what I feel about Schulz is he was trying to create something that was going to have as big an appeal as possible. He knew the newspaper was like a common denominator all around the world of people reading these things together. He knew children were reading, he knew adults were reading, he knew people ultimately, he knew people from all these different countries were reading it. And the fact that he was able to speak in a way that he didn't keep himself inside of a box in terms of who identified with him, there's something-- it's not chameleon-like but you know, he was able to speak to topics where everybody would kind of see themselves in how he spoke about it. He was vague enough and specific enough at the same time to speak to the universal without getting too specific. And yet these characters are specific. It's amazing.
Jimmy: Well, absolutely and very well said. Michael how about you? Who's Charles Schulz to you these days?
Michael: Well at the time I was reading it, which was when they were coming out in the 50s and 60s, there wasn't a whole lot of information about him. I probably did-- was it Time or Newsweek, I probably did read that. But I thought of Peanuts as something that just existed and didn't think too much about who was the mind behind them. I mean I felt very close to Schulz without knowing anything about him just because I absorbed so much of his humor and just seemed to feel very comfortable with any direction he was taking at that time.
I think that when the Comics Journal-- Gary Groth did a great interview in the Comics Journal near the end of Schulz's career. And that was I think, the first time that I heard his voice. And I wasn't actually surprised by anything he said. But he was very honest about being very depressed as a kid and very lonely and had difficulty finding friends. Which also sort of made sense to me because I was identifying with Peanuts a lot and I kind of felt that way too when I was young. Yeah, I mean clearly a genius, clearly the fact that somebody could just do the best possible work every day.
Michael: I mean there are just so few clunkers and so many absolutely brilliant strips. It's hard to identify with that. I tried writing just as an experiment. I thought I could write one Peanuts comic in my life, and I tried it, and I came up with a joke, and it turns out I totally stole it from, like, an earlier Peanuts, essentially the exact same strip, but I thought I was being original at the time. Anyway, very impressed by his absolute honesty, and he was working within the confines of a field that probably had pretty tight editorial control over what he could and couldn't do. But, we're doing the Anger Index, and there seemed to be a lot of anger coming out, and he wasn't trying to hide that. I don't think he was trying to hide himself at all.
Michael: So I really respect that. And of course, going back to the Beatles is sort of like John, who felt more and more comfortable just being himself. And there were times when he alienated people and it didn't seem to bother him. So I kind of relate Schulz to that. Going from somebody who was clearly doing pure pop culture at the beginning and then moving on into just pure expression.
Jimmy: Absolutely. Well, that was well said, too. I, was going to say, he's like a ducky and a horsey. I changed my mind.
Okay. I'm thrilled that I was able to get both of you to agree to do this. Can you guys go back in time, though? And what were your thoughts? What were you hoping to get out of doing this podcast, together every week? And what has been the things that have surprised you the most? Do you have any fun memories? Do you have any low moments? Harold, give me some of, your years, best and worst.
Harold: Wow. When did you propose this to us first? Was it--
Jimmy: many years ago
Harold: Was it 2019 or 18?
Jimmy: No, we recorded one in 2019, but I proposed it well before that, I believe.
Harold: Yeah, I mean, at the time I was working at Mystery Science Theater, and it seems like around the time we started recording this, I knew that was kind of winding down for me. And so it was a really interesting opportunity for me to kind of reconnect with you, Jim. And I'd known you, Michael, through Jim, for working, just being around when you guys did the Amelia Rules musical up in New Hampshire and did a pilot for a cartoon thing that we did up there. Those are really fond memories. And so I thought, wow, be able to talk with friends about this strip that I knew had been so influential in my life and in ways that I hadn't completely understood. I thought, wow, this is really perfect. What a great way to kind of transition. Because it really was, at this point, a transition in my life. And I don't think I've told this story, on the podcast, but I left Mystery Science Theater. I was the business guy, and I was running Joel Hodgson's company, Alternaversal and it was just an amazing experience. It was a dream job. It's a dream to work for Joel. There's this little what he called his dream team, a group of five people in Pennsylvania, basically pulling all of the elements together for a TV show that we would ultimately shoot in Los Angeles. And, I was becoming a Hollywood producer as a result of that. And to this day, it makes me laugh to think that, hey, I can always say I am a Hollywood producer, because that is something that is part of my life. Now. I hadn't planned for it. I'd gone to film school, but I'd gone straight into print and comics and all of that and didn't look back until this opportunity with Joel. But I was always the person straddling the art and the business, and I happened to be the guy among the artists who had the most business acumen, which usually isn't saying much because we're artists. I was the one who seemed to be the one who had the most ideas of how something could work financially. And I'd worked at Archie on the business side as well. So I'd had this whole business side of supporting voices. I was trying to help get out into the world, and Joel is definitely one of those people. And here I'm leaving the business side, and Joel let me also work on the creative side. And I found out I was really a good writer. I mean, I could stand up with all these other amazing people who these amazing comedy writers, and Joel gave me the chance to kind of be in that world and watch his process.
So I'm coming out of that when Unpacking Peanuts comes along. And the thing that I did, I did these kind of inventory tests. I don't know if you guys have ever done this sort of thing, is in this transition, I'm leaving something I've been doing for-- I'd been volunteering for three and a half years and then working on for three and a half years. It was seven years of my life. And now I'm stepping away from the business side, handing it over to somebody that I've kind of, I believed would be a better match for what Joel and Mystery Science Theater needed going forward after what we launched in the revival of the show. And the guy who we brought in was he also had an arts background, but he was a very sharp business guy. And so he's looking at me like, what are you doing here? Why are you running this company? You're a creative. Those through his eyes, because he's a brilliant business guy. And so, I wasn't used to being looked at that way. It was always a secondary aspect of myself that had been for years, and I took these inventory tests. right at the time, I was leaving Mystery Science theater, and it came up, well, you're a creative, you're a writer. This is where your passion is, and you have enough experience that this is what you should pursue. And it was kind of a shock to myself.
Jimmy: When you say inventory test, you mean me yelling at you and telling you those things for 20 years? No. Okay, just go ahead I’m just checking.
Harold: Yeah. And that was another piece of I knew if I came back into this world, that would be part of my world would be Jim yelling at me. And I was looking forward to that, because, Jimmy, you've always been incredibly supportive of me as an artist and a writer. I'd done the comic book Apathy Cat back in the mid 90s. So great, by the way, and it was an amazing experience, and it kind of hit a bit of a dead end for me. And I'd done other things. I'd illustrated some children's activity books and this sort of a thing, but really, I wound up in this kind of serving the arts kind of position. Jimmy, you were always kind of saying, hey, yeah, your voice does matter. You should get it out there. So I knew coming into Unpacking Peanuts that that was going to be a part of it. And the idea that Schulz had influenced me in such a profound way and that I wanted to emulate that in the work that I did, this is perfect. What a great opportunity to think these things through and understand better how he was so successful in, again, bringing his best self, sharing the best of who he was and the fullness of who he was through his art in such a universal way as, like, what a better way to spend my time? So, like, the last three years, have been me exploring getting my voice out there after having helping all these other people get their voices out there. And Unpacking Peanuts has been a huge part of that. So I got to thank you for that.
Jimmy: Well, I mean, it would not exist without all four of us. I'm so grateful that everybody agreed to this. Michael, how about you? Highs, lows of the year. Anything stands out to you? Any observations or insights?
Michael: Well, I wasn't actually on board because we did this, like Harold was saying, a few years ago, we started it, and we probably did, what? Four years of Peanuts, the podcast. But we were not paying any attention to the quality of the audio. We're doing it as a zoom call with just whatever computer mics we had. And I had made a vow several years before that, I was never going to start any project that I couldn't finish and actually get out into the world, because I had plenty of experience with unfinished projects. And for some reason, Jimmy was not quite ready to post these podcasts. And, we kept saying, well, we'll wait until it's the anniversary of the first Peanuts strip. And, it just seemed to fade away. And I went, oh, well, that's one more project that just didn't go anywhere. So yeah. So last year Jimmy said, let's do it, I'm ready. And I said, great, let's dig up those old files and just start posting them. And it turned out, they were gone.
Jimmy: Right, well, this will be a fun moment for everybody on Unpacking Peanuts.
Harold: Get the knives out.
Jimmy: Did you ever see Star Wars?
Michael: I've heard of it, yeah.
Jimmy: You know that moment where Luke sits down with Obiwan and Obiwan says, it's in the last one. He says, well, you have to look at it from a certain point of view. So it depends on what point of view, you're looking at. What happened to those early files.
Harold: What are you getting at, Jimmy?
Jimmy: Let's say officially, the official record is they have been lost and were unrecoverable.
Harold: Yes, go on.
Jimmy: What may have happened is I listened to them and it was like, there's no way we're putting these out. These are absolutely terrible. And then, what happened was I got a call from or a text or something from Michael saying, hey, if Liz agreed to produce and edit the show, would you want to do it now? And I was like, absolutely. Actually, I don't even think, he finished it. I think he said, Liz has an idea. And I said, absolutely because I knew it was going to be because Liz already was doing a podcast called I Always Wanted To, which was wonderful. Michael and I were guests on it. So I was really, really thrilled that she agreed to do that. But I could not in good conscience drop those five episodes on her lap and hope that she would be sane or that anyone would listen to them. So…
Harold: Why am I not surprised.
Jimmy: I Ben Kenobi’d it
Michael: True Confessions, alright
Harold: That's good for the soul
Michael: It’s all coming out in this episode. Apparently, this will also be our last episode.
Harold: Yeah, you do it while we can't attack you.
Jimmy: I can. I'll do my, act of contrition later. Okay, real quick, when you're Catholic school kid, you have to give your first confession. You have to learn the long act of contrition, which is a long prayer. I was also learning the Cub Scout law of the pack at the same time. And at the end of my first confession, I said, and to obey the law of the pack. The priest lost it. I turned like, bright red. He's like, you just have to sit here for a minute. Just wait until I get it together.
Harold: That's great. Well, I have to ask you, Jimmy, so these not lost, lost episodes, we did use the very first year. why was that? So Liz then had to contend with our very first year.
Jimmy: because I had already sent you guys the very first year. So therefore, I could not lie, and tell you that it was gone. So we had to use the first year.
Jimmy: And Michael almost didn't want to do it, but I knew it was the if I came to you guys and said, we have to redo them, it was never going to happen. Right. But if I made you guys feel terrible for me, I accidentally deleted them. I knew it.
Michael: You’re good, Jimmy. Man you are good.
Harold: well, it would have happened.
Michael: The down part was redoing them because I thought we were really good.
Harold: But I'm glad that you've been able to confess.
Jimmy: Oh, yes. It was weighing on my soul.
Jimmy: Oh, my goodness.
Harold: I do have to say, as a participant, I remember those first episodes. And people can go back and listen to 1950. And the cool thing is they can understand what we're talking about in terms of audio issues. I mean, Liz did her best with what we had and then everything else. Even then, like, when we were recording the newer episodes, we were still figuring out the microphones and getting everything in order. It took us about four years or so of strips to get there.
But I also remember when we were recording it, I guess in my mind, you're saying, what were you expecting out of this? What I was expecting is, I think, really what this is now. It's where we're having conversations. Sometimes it gets kind of deep. And it's always interesting to me. I'm always enjoying the conversation where we just kind of be able to have the freedom to bounce back and forth with each other. And I remember in those first episodes, it wasn't quite there, but there was this aspiration to get there. And, I really enjoyed recording round one. And then round two, you have this 1950 episode to kind of show where we were. And then it seemed like we just got some momentum and that there was this kind of common will among the four of us to get to a place where we felt comfortable with each other and hopefully felt comfortable speaking and knowing that there was an audience with us. And it really did become what in my mind, I thought it could be. so I'm just really grateful for what we're doing now and grateful for the audience who's come along with us on this because, we've gotten some really lovely comments saying that people say it's kind of a warm place. They enjoy being it reminds just remembering about the Schulz strips. And I think he takes people but to a warm place in a lot of ways, and that we're able to share that experience with each other and then with with you. The audience has been really, really special because, you know, Schulz is worth talking about.
Jimmy: Absolutely. And I would also just like to add to all of this Liz knew they weren't lost, too, so it's not just me, anyway. Not true.
Liz: Not true.
Jimmy: You did know I texted you.
Liz: No, you never did. This is the first time hearing about it.
Jimmy: Oh, well, I put the word lost in quotes, so I assume that you picked up on what I meant.
Harold: Wow. Jimmy, you should have just come out. Come on. We would have done it.
Jimmy: uh huh.
Liz: May I put in my opinion about where I was when I wanted to?
Jimmy: I would love that.
Liz: A year ago, I wanted to be a part of something that I knew would be great. And excuse me, I'm getting a little verklempt. When I heard about the concept when you guys were first recording it over Skype, I thought it was brilliant. I just really wanted to hear it. And the fact that I never got to was disappointing. And then last year, I just decided that I wanted to be a part of a team that would be creating something this great. And it is such a pleasure to edit you guys. You guys. I get to listen to this podcast four times.
Harold: That's dedication.
Liz: It is a pleasure, and thank you.
Jimmy: Now, she does listen to each one four times, so she is grateful, but she is wearing a jacket that the sleeves tied behind the back now. And I have to say, I'm just so grateful. It would not happen without you.
Harold: That's absolutely true. Liz, when I heard your podcast and I saw the professionalism of what you were doing, I was like, oh, wow, we're in really good hands. If this doesn't fly, it's all on us, because.
Jimmy: it's all on us.
Harold: You have made us sound so good and edited out the, um's and the uhs and made us sound like we know what we're talking about.
Jimmy: And at least 85% of all James Joyce references.
Harold: On the cutting room floor.
Jimmy: We're actually just saving all those for James Joyce podcast in the future.
Harold: Yeah. Well, I'm hoping it's not sounding too self congratulatory. I mean, I'm literally in wonder that I'm part of this.
Jimmy: I think we could be as self congratulatory as we want. We made it a year. You could only do it. And frankly, we're not just congratulating ourselves. We are thanking and, honoring, all the people who have listened to us, because if no one was listening, we wouldn't be doing it, either.
Harold: And I would like to invite the people who have been listening. we have heard back from some of you, and it means so much because you're speaking back to us some of the things that we think are coming out of the podcast and some things that surprise us. Some of you have been on a journey of almost a year, sometimes compressed because you discovered us a little later. But a lot of you have been listening. I'd love to hear back from you, either through the phone line that we have or through social media. Just when you see one of our posts, just tack something on and let us know if this podcast has meant something to you. just share with us because it's part of our unpacking process. We're never going to be done unpacking this strip and its impact on all of our lives. So I'd love to hear from you guys what your experience has been with this podcast and with Peanuts in general.
Jimmy: Absolutely. Art and communication is a two way street, and you have to send out a signal, and the signal has to be received. So for all of you that have been receiving this signal, I would love to hear from you as well. it does mean a lot that you're listening, every single week. I'll tell you guys what else, I loved about this year that I wasn't necessarily expecting to enjoy as much. I personally loved interviewing the guests. I knew the guests would all be great because I was excited to have every single one we have, but I enjoyed the process of interviewing them more than I thought. And I just want to give a shout out to all of them who came on and just carried episodes on their backs. It's been wonderful.
Harold: Thank you. Yeah.
Jimmy: There's off the top of my head, we got Lex Fajardo, we got Todd Webb, we got Duncan and Melanie, Charlie Brown and Lucy. We got William Pepper. We got, Benjamin Clark, from the Schulz Museum. who else did we get? Steven Lind of A Charlie Brown Religion and Will and Kevin Hines. That was a big thrill for me because they're a podcast, Screwit We're just going to Talk About Comics. It was a big influence for me wanting to start this, and I know Michael enjoyed it as well. So, yeah, having all those people on was just absolutely great. So, listen, guys, how about we take a break now, and then we'll come back on the other side. I'll do my act of contrition, and then, we'll talk about some other stuff. I want to talk to the guys about their work as cartoonists, and I want to talk about, maybe some of their other influences. So hopefully that'll be interesting to you. And, we'll do that on the other side of this break.
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Jimmy: Oh, we're back. Okay, this is Unpacking Peanuts. what is it, the anniversary episode. and we are right back here where we started talking with, Harold and Michael about Peanuts.
So, guys, what I wanted to do and actually what I wanted to do this wasn't even my idea. This was Michael's idea. What Michael wanted to do is for us to all talk about our various influences and why we became cartoonists to begin with, because obviously, we're doing this, because we love Schulz, but we are professional cartoonists. And that was a goal of ours, life goals of ours. And we all managed to do it in one form or another. And, so it would be fun, maybe, to talk about the other things that go into our personal work, aside from Mr. Schulz and Michael, since it was your idea, how about you go first? who do you want to talk about today as, one of your primary influences, non Schulz related?
Michael: Okay, well, I think I need to do a really brief overview of my experience as someone who draws comics, because that was just a huge part of my life, and I was delusional because I thought, oh, I'll just be drawing Marvel comics when I grow up. And I was never that good, to tell you the truth. I think I knew it. I think I knew it. But I started, like, all kids scribbling. But, I remember the first Fantastic Four. The first Marvel comic I actually bought was Fantastic Four number nine. Bought that off the stand. And there was something about it I still feel that way, even though it's dismissed as being, like, the stupidest plot ever. it was so magical that I somewhere on this planet in my pile of everything I ever drew in my life, except I don't know where that pile is, is a page, a comic book page, and it's Submariner versus the Fantastic Four. There's one page, I probably was 13. And from that point on, in that pile of comics are strips that ran three, four pages before I gave up, and lots and lots of covers of golden age comics, because I was obsessed with golden age comics. So I just drew all the time. And, I think I might have finished one little story. At that point, I just had my own pantheon of superheroes. I finished one little story, decided, yeah, I'm eventually going to go to art school and just get serious and become a great cartoonist. Until one day when I was in art school, I saw there was this book about, Al Williamson, which had every list of everything he ever drew and illustrations from all those things. And there was a drawing that he did it, like, age 17, and I looked at it, and I went, that's hopeless. I'll never be able to draw that good. And this is like something before he was ever published. He just knocked it out.
But anyway, I persisted. I took a lot of art classes. I think I was just average. And even though teachers give everyone A's in art school, I wasn't that focused. I mean, I was fanatic in comics and collecting comics and buying comics and reading comics. It, was my whole life, pretty much. I remember trying to learn how to draw, like Williamson and Alex Raymond. And if you're not that familiar with these people, Alex Raymond did Flash Gordon in the 30s and 40s.
Harold: beautiful stuff.
Michael: And Williamson was like a total disciple. And both these guys are, like, major figures in the I mean, they do call the photorealistic school of comic art. So really as far away as possible as you could get from Charles Schulz. And I never got the bug to be a cartoonist, like, doing cartoony stuff. I wanted to draw like these masters.
And sometime in the late sixties, I was still collecting comics, almost all superheroes. But I picked up a book that wasn't a superhero book, and it was Conan the Barbarian number one. And there was this artist, Barry Smith, who became my hero. And it was sort of a pre raphaelite take on the sword, and sorcer--y beautiful line work, beautiful inking backgrounds. Again, way beyond what I could do. So I persisted in that for a few years, trying to draw like Barry Smith. I think I finished one story, seven or eight pages, but basically, at this point, I realized, I'm not going to go work for Marvel. I'm just not good enough. But I kept at it.
Michael: I moved up to Washington State. I grew up in LA. And, my best friend, who was writing science fiction, decided we were going to collaborate on a massive strip about Ernest Hemingway in outer space. And like, we talked about it, and yeah, it'll be like, 500 pages. and that's the kind of thing it was just like, projects that never ended.
Harold: What year would this start, Michael?
Michael: Like 72, 73. So basically, that never got anywhere. I kind of got involved in computer programming in that period and decided I wanted to write computer games. I was writing this text adventure game, and by the time I graduated, it was all about graphics, and I knew nothing. And so I took a long trip to Mexico.
Jimmy: If I can just interject here. The first time I heard Michael tell us the story, and he said, so I, you know, I got on a bus to Mexico to get my head together. I was like, I have to be friends with this guy for the rest of my life.
Michael: So on that trip, I was thinking, okay, should I continue? Because I love programming, and I definitely love computer games, but I said, should I sink into this for the rest of my life? Or maybe I can do a comic book and actually finish something. Do it, because to see if I could actually do it. I never thought of myself as a writer. I was just drawing pictures, mostly.
But anyway, luckily, at this time, a comic book store appeared in our little town. And, up to this point, everything I bought was at newstands. There was no such thing as a comic book store. And I went in, I got exposed to these black and white books that looked like nothing I'd ever seen before. One was Love and Rockets and one was Cerebus and these were books that were being published, either self published or published by these little companies that weren't DC or Marvel. And, looking at Love and Rockets, again, I went like, this is way beyond anything I could ever do in my life. And same with Cerebus. Oh, it's kind of influenced by Barry Smith, like I was, but
Harold: with an aardvark.
Jimmy: With an aardvark.
Michael: Way more professional than anything I'd ever done. Anyway, if you're familiar with Love and Rockets, there's two brothers, actually three brothers, and Jaime Hernandez, who I put in the pantheon up there with Schulz is the gods, one of the gods of comic book creation. It was so good and he just could draw any kind of pose on any angle and it would be flawless. I knew I could ever do that. I just didn't have the training. I tried. I couldn't do it. But I bought this book called The Love and Rockets Sketchbook, which is basically them doodling their pin ups they did, the brothers and sketches. And in the sketchbook were a bunch of comics that they drew when they were 17 and 18 just for fun. They never thought they could ever make money at this. They were just drawing exactly what they wanted to draw. Not thinking that, well, this is commercial. This isn't commercial. It was just a weird blend of genres. Science fiction and monsters and punks and the music scene in LA. Again, even the early Jaime stuff was like, unbelievably gorgeous. But Gilbert, who I thought was a better writer at that time, but I didn't particularly love his artwork in that sketchbook. There were a couple of stories that Gilbert did in that mode of, I'm just going to draw weird stuff because nobody will care. I'm just doing it for me and for my brothers. And I looked at that stuff and I went like, wow, he's not even writing these. He's just making stuff up. And it was these goofy science fiction stories with mostly girl characters. Just crazy stuff that was funny but really nicely drawn, different style than Gilbert, adapted later, and something clicked. I went, I think I could do something like that. I had some skill and I didn't think I could write, but I basically decided I was going to start doing a page a week and didn't plot it out. I thought, these guys are just making this up, panel by panel. And I just thought, well, what's a good name? Like Strange Attractors. That sounds good. And I'll have a couple of girl characters flying around in a spaceship and having goofy adventures and there's no stress on the writing because it's just being silly, basically. And I ended up doing around 50 pages, two complete stories.
Michael: One a week. I wasn't trying to rush it or anything, so I had all these pages and I made a little Xerox copy of them and stapled it together. So like, that's sort of like a comic book. And so when I approached Mark Sherman, who was the guy who we were going to do the Hemingway in Space, Mark also a comic fan, big science fiction fan, writes-- he's written lots and lots of short stories and a couple of unfinished novels. But I knew he could write and I said, hey, here's my two Strange Attractors stories. What if we tried to do this more seriously?
And we went down to Seattle to a comic convention and the person I met who really got me going on actually publishing these books because I just wanted to show them to the Fantagraphics. someone at the Fantagraphics booth and they of course said, sure, come back when you have some talent.
Harold: Who is Fantagraphics. Okay.
Michael: Fantagraphics is one of the big independent publishers of Love and Rockets
Jimmy: They published the complete Peanuts.
Michael: And the complete Peanuts? But at that time they were mostly doing-- it would have been post underground cartoonists, all the greats who came up roughly at the time. The underground stuff like, the R. Crumb type stuff was kind of fading out.
Harold: The underground stuff kind of happened late sixties, and then went into the 70s, but kind of, after about a decade was all but gone, right? And then this comic book shop world kind of opens up after that.
Michael: The Comics Journal, which we've mentioned several times, it was their magazine of comics criticism, which I read avidly. It turned out there were some small publishers popping up around this time who could go directly into the comic shops. And so there was this other avenue other than newsstand sales.
So we went to Seattle for me to talk to somebody and show it to him. And at a booth near the Fantagraphics booth was this guy who really looked like a goth and he had these books, he was selling his own books and, they were printed professionally in black and white and he had like four or five of them. We went up and talked to him. He was kind of intimidating looking, but he was super friendly. And it turned out it was Drew Hayes. And he was the creator of a book called Poison, was called I Lucifer at that time, became Poison Elves. And I showed him my early Strange Attractors stuff and he said, this looks great. You should self publish. Like “what?” And so he gave us the whole low down on, that it was now possible to have your own comics printed. You pay for the printing, but there are distributors. There was a whole bunch of little distributors who would get those comics into the comic shops.
Harold: So what year would this be, then?
Michael: 91, let's say. Okay, his hero was Dave Sim. who did Cerebus? And that was a book I was reading. And Dave Sim was kind of the godfather of the self publishing movement and printed tips for people and printed letters from people who were self publishing. And so anyway, I got into that movement and eventually was self publishing this book, Strange Attractors. me and Mark were co-plotting. He was scripting, I was drawing. And we ended up doing 15 issues of Strange Attractors.
Harold: Good run.
Michael: And it was, again, a vast story, which we didn't really have an ending for. And at some point, the comic market started dying. The 90s is when the Image came out, and the comic market just started tanking, and those distributors started going out of business. By this time time I had moved to, New Hampshire. Mark was still in Bellingham, Washington. And, I realized, well, I guess we got to pull the plug. We're not making money. Not making enough money to keep it going.
Liz: You met Jimmy somewhere?
Michael: Yeah, well, I met Jimmy somewhere along the line at his show, and I met a lot of people, because even though I'm not really social, I was going to all these comic events. And there was definitely a nice little club of self-publishers who stayed in touch and helped each other. It was great. I mean, it was one of the best times of my life because I felt like part of a movement, and me and Jimmy did a whole bunch of stuff together. So anyway, at some point, Jimmy called me and said, hey, why don't we start a little comic company? We'll call it Renaissance Press. And I get to do whatever I want. He gets to do whatever he wants. What I wanted to do was another big anthology, so I could call all the artists I liked and respected and ask them to do short stories. Jimmy was doing Amelia Rules. Started Amelia Rules as a comic series. Anyway, so I quote, unquote, I was the editor, but really, it was all Jimmy's.
Jimmy: And have we ever told the story about the time you had to remove three pages of my book, though? Because I overwrote. So, I mean, you did not do nothing.
Michael: I did that. Well, I must apologize. Now it's my turn for act of contrition.
Jimmy: No, that was my point. No, this story was, I called Michael, I was working at the TV station still, and I said, Michael, I have a problem. This is the fifth issue of Amelia came out. He's like, what's the problem. He said, I wrote 35 pages. It's a 32 page book. He's like, how could you do that? I said, Well, I'm quite stupid. And he said, all right, well, give me a couple of hours and call me when you're done work. So, you know, work came and went. I called Michael. He's like, yeah, I got it fixed. And by taking a couple of panels out and moving a couple of tiers around, he somehow managed to get a 35 page book, be a 32 page book. And when I read that now, I could not tell you what was changed, what was cut. It's flawless.
Michael: Well, good. Well, I can't tell you either, because I don't remember that at all.
So I did two issues with the Forbidden Book, which I thought were very nice. and I was proud of them. And then there was a long fallow period. I got into writing musicals. I guess seven, eight years. I was just putting all my time into writing these musicals. And it was 2016 when I decided, because Strange Attractors never finished. I did, in this Mythography book that ran eight issues, I did a serialized fantasy story, never finished. I started thinking, I'd really like to finish something, actually have something that I can be proud of, that's complete. And it took me six years. Took me forever to come up with an idea. But it eventually turned into my first graphic novel, Tangled River, which looks very different from, Strange Attractors or anything I'd done previously. And when that finished, six years later, so that was last year, it finished. And I went because that was like, a full time job for me for six years. It finished. I went, Well, I don't have to do that anymore.
But comics have been my life. So it was nagging at me that fantasy story I was serializing was never finished. And it seemed to me that that was close enough to an ending that I could maybe pull it together in 20-25 pages. Two years later, I finished that. And I finished that, like, a, month ago. I colored it, I relettered it, I redrew a lot of it. And that became A Gathering of Spells, which would be my second graphic novel.
And now I'm blissfully retired from comics. Except I sort of want to go and go back to my original influences, like those guys, Al Williamson and Alex Raymond, who got me wanting to draw like that. Just to go like, huh, I wonder if I can actually draw like that if I spend an infinite amount of time and cheated with all my, all the ways you can cheat when you're doing computer art.
So anyway, so I'm still drawing, but there's no deadlines. I don't think I'll ever do a long work again. I might do one short story.
Liz: Famous last words.
Michael: Yeah, well, who knows? I also want to write more musicals. Going back to the last segment where we were reflecting on our year in the podcast. We moved to Italy, me and Liz. And I've been totally cut off from the real world of comics and cartooning. I don't know anybody who's interested in it, but the fact that once a week we can get together and talk about comic books, even though it's focused on Schulz, we'll still eventually wander over and talk about Jack Kirby and Ditko, and guys like that. So anyway, for me that's a pleasure just to hang out with some comic guys.
Jimmy: well, it's funny. Well it's not funny, it's of course, totally appropriate that you would mention Love and Rockets because it's one of the things that I think we bonded over earliest was our love of both Love and Rockets and Cerebus. And I'm really glad to have this forum, an opportunity to talk about this kind of thing because yeah, Cerebus, which was a comic book written by Dave Sim, written and drawn by Dave Sim, and for 244 issues, had backgrounds by the genius pen and ink artist Gerhard. And it told the life story of this aarvark, but it was told on the level of like a Russian novel.
It is extremely difficult to talk about Cerebus these days because as he went along and developed 300 pages or 300 issues of this thing, 6000 pages, he got into a period in the 90s where his political philosophies, let's say, became very outre and quite offensive to a huge portion of his readership. And Cerebus went from selling around 37,000 copies, a month to just over like three or four thousand. Part of that was because people were buying it in trade paperbacks, but a large part of it was because people just got offended and walked away.
And one of the things I've been I've been sort of thinking about and working through in my own head as we talk about comics so much for all these years is clearly there's a part of me like the content, the words, the story, whatever it is that people are saying that attracts them to it or repels them from something. It's clearly only a portion of what I enjoy from a work of art, and maybe not even the most important portion.
So I just wanted to talk a little bit today about the first issue of Cerebus I ever got. Now, if you want to hear the whole story of how I became a cartoonist, you will have to pay $14.95 and buy The Dumbest Idea Ever. And you can read that story. which is basically how I wrote and drew my first comic book. But I kind of want to go into just 1 part of it.
As I've talked about in the past in the show, I'm someone who has dealt with depression, but I didn't always realize that's what I was dealing with. And when I was 14 years old, I was really sick. I was at a really, really low point. again, you could read all about that in the book. But I ended up going to this comic book store, and I had heard of Cerebus. This isn't exactly how it plays out in the book. I had heard of Cerebus because it had won best black and white in the comic in the comic book buyers Guide fan awards. And it had been written up in a couple articles in magazines. I could get down at the Jiffy Mart in Girardville just seemed like the weirdest thing. I'd only ever seen one panel of it.
So I went to the comic book shop and I bought a bunch of stuff, and I saw Cerebus, I saw issue 66 was the earliest issue I could find. Issue 80 was the newest issue I could find. So I was I had just come I had been out of school for two weeks with chickenpox. I had missed my CYO basketball team's championship game. Then I got pneumonia. I had missed another two weeks of school. I was feeling absolutely run down emotionally, or run down physically miserable. Went into that comic bookstore, and the way I can always describe it, it's like, it's the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and everything sepia toned on her side, everything's colorful on the other is like, oh my god. That was this moment in my life.
Michael: Except yours was from color to black and white.
Jimmy: Right. So I got all the stuff and, my dad gave me, I think gave me $50 and said, you could buy whatever you want for $50, which is like, amazing. So I bought it--
Harold: Was that after he saw the look in your eyes when you walked in?
Jimmy: I can't remember. Probably. I mean, you know, it didn't take that-- they were soft touches. Both of my parents were very, supportive about anything, frankly. Honestly, if I wanted to read anything they were always--
Harold: wow, well, that's a big that's a big stack of comics.
Jimmy: Yeah, well, I might have gotten one or two graphic novels, too, but it was a big stack. I mean, it was Cerebus, Elf Quest, the Rocketeer. What else? the Spirit, Watchmen, Journey. It was a huge-- I mean, every one of them was great. I always throw Love and Rockets in there. But technically, as long as I'm being completely honest on this show today, technically, Love and Rockets was purchased on my second trip to a comic book store, where, me and my buddy Fran Connor and my other buddy Tim, we split off, from the school trip into Philadelphia and went to a comic shop. And I bought Love and Rockets and a girlie magazine. I leave that part out and I just throw Love and Rockets in with all the rest of them.
But the first one was Cerebus that I got, that I took out of the bag when I sat at McDonald's, to have my lunch. And it just starts in this story. And I'm going to try to explain this to you. Cerebus started as a parody of Conan the Barbarian. It then developed into a political and social satire, including writing stories that were hundreds of pages long. It's also the first series that collected their old issues in trade paperbacks so you could constantly keep reading it, which is now the model for the entire industry. That was like a Sim innovation. So he was an aardvark that was a barbarian. Then he became prime minister. And the issue I picked up--
Harold: just to let that slip right past.
Jimmy: Well the issue I picked up is, in the middle of an 1100 page storyline called Church and State, in which Cerebus is made the pope of his world's religion, which is called as the Taramite religion. The issue I picked up is four pages of Cerebus telling everybody that Tarim, which is the god in that religion, is going to destroy the world in four days unless everybody gives him their money. And while he's doing this, it's not even four pages. It's two pages. A woman, is holding up her baby and saying, please bless my baby. Please bless my baby.
Now, I want you to understand this. I am a depressed Catholic school kid. I am literally at the end of my rope. I see-- I don't know what I'm going to be. I don't know what I'm going to do. I have no plans and no hope. This woman in the comic is begging Cerebus the aardvark to bless her baby. And you turn the page, and Cerebus says, Cerebus will bless your baby and teach you a valuable lesson about life at the same time. And then this ardvark says, bless you, and throws the baby to the crowd. And then he says, you can get what you want. But wait, the valuable lesson is you can get what you want and still not be very happy.
And I laughed so hard, and the Chicken Mcnuggets came out of my nose, and I was like, this is what I am doing for the rest of my life. It was like this comic book punched me in the face and said, knock it off. Get over it and do something. And I went home, and I self published Shades of Gray comics and stories after that. I mean, it was like that.
And I always feel bad. You never see these things with, like, JK. Rowling says something, and then they go to Emma Watson and go, hey, we want to say something bad about JK. Rowling, this person that made you a millionaire. And they go, like, I don't know what to say. I disagree with what she says, but she's like my aunt or whatever, right? I always feel bad for them because I get that. I mean, Cerebus is slandered constantly, and let's face it, they've brought a lot of it on himself because he does not shrink from a fight. But for me, I look at it and I go, that's that thing that saved my life. I am so grateful for it. And when I also think about that particular issue, there's 300 issues at that point. There were 80 issues on the stand. I bought 66 and I bought 80. The other weird thing about that was I was able to realize, oh, my God, there's 14 issues between these things. But this is clearly the same story. Even though I don't know what's going on in between, clearly this is the same story.
And that also, I think, led to me being interested in the form of comics as opposed to just telling a straight ahead narrative. This 1100 page series, Church and State within Cerebus, which I think is really maybe the high point of it's, way, way up there in the pantheon of the Mount Rushmore of comic book stories. For me, that particular issue, though, was the one that was going to punch me in the face. That particular joke timed so well was the one that was going to do it. But I then had to go and piece the rest of that story together out of order, when I maybe go to that comic store two or three times a year, maybe. And then I would go to flea market and places like that and just try to pick up issues of Cerebus. It took me, like, four years to piece together the Church and State story, and it was completely out of order. But it didn't matter because I was staring at the panel. I mean, you could stare at some of the art and it's just like it's moving before your eyes and it's breathtaking stuff.
But I will always be grateful for that stupid baby throwing. And this is the thing you have to look at in life, people, if I may be philosophical, and old for a while, you put stuff out into the world, you really do not have any idea of what impact it is going to have on someone. You just don't.
And if Dave Sim was able to go, boy, I bet if I put this comic book out there, it will one day lead to Amelia Rules. It makes no sense. Makes no sense. But it happened. They did it. And then they ended up, getting a quote. I gave a quote for Dave on his latest book, the Strange Death of Alex Raymond, which is, a thing that blows my mind, that there's a book by the guy who wrote Cerebus with a quote from me on the back. I don't understand how that happened for me.
I just wanted if you're a young person out there, and you're really trying to study an art form. Go outside your comfort zone. You don't have to agree with every word of every book that you ever read or study or even love, as a matter of fact. Challenge yourself. Find some stuff that maybe you don't think will be right for you. Find the things then within it that maybe do speak to you, or maybe you only find something that you want to push back against. But all of that goes into making your voice. Amelia Rules is a kid's comic that's raising up the idea of a young girl and who she is and what she can accomplish and who she can be. Cerebus is nothing like that. But Amelia wouldn't exist if I didn't buy that Cerebus. That just blows me away. I'm still grateful for it to this day.
Michael: well, I want to interject here. And you were advising all the young people. My first public comic was 42.
Michael: so all you old codgers out there who like comics, you, too, can have a career drawing comics.
Jimmy: Well, absolutely. That's one of the great things about this art. When you talk about, you know, rock and roll, like the Beatles, we're on 1967 or 68 recording now. They'll be over in two years, two episodes of us. Right. because it seems like some things you peak early on, mathematicians peak early, rock stars peak early comics. You can do them into your 90s. Jules Feiffer just did a three volume graphic novel series just a few years ago. He's been working since the the early 40s. So, yeah, absolutely. It is a low bar for entry to get a pen and a piece of paper. And you're in comics.
All right. That's me. Harold, how about you?
Harold: Wow. Well, so I guess my bio, mentioned earlier an episode at three years old, I wanted to be doing comics. I was drawing my own little Birdie and Turtle comics. I was three years old, and it was through the newspaper strips that I was experiencing these things. and it was pre language when I was reading them, because I think I told the story about how I was reading reading a comic one day. I was probably three years old, maybe four, and, it was a Nancy comic, which was known to be the simplest, comics in terms of story that you could follow, and it didn't make sense to me. It was a Sunday comic. I took to my dad, and I showed him, I don't understand this. Why is this happening? He says, oh, you're reading it the wrong way. Nobody even taught me what what direction to read. I was going from the bottom, right to left, exactly opposite of how you would read a comic strip.
That's a strange that's one of the earliest memories I have is that I was I was I asked that. Question to my father and realized that prereading I was reading comics. And that was how I was trying to learn how to read. And so it's, it's such a part of me and that, you know, that went through I just, I just said, I'm going to be a comic strip artist. That was the thing. It's going to be a comic strip artist. Around the age of ten or eleven. I learned about animation and I got interested maybe I'll be an animator. I was always kind of going back and forth between comic strips and animation. And then a little bit later, maybe 13 or 14, I think I got a hold of an Overstreet price guide, which is like the comic book price guide, Giant, volume of like every American comic ever printed, particularly the older comics. This has been like 1981 or so. I would have been about 15 years old. This is kind of a marked down book at the local, walden books or whatever. And I'm going, through this book of lists of comics that had existed. And I was just amazed at all the different comic books that had been published in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. It was nothing like when I was a kid in the 80s, where there were very few comics and they were just put up by a handful of publishers. And they were all same, it was all Harvey comics with Richie Rich and Casper the ghost. And if you were into superheroes, they had the Marvel superheroes and they had the DC superheroes. And then there was a bottom of the barrels publisher called Charlton who would surprise you occasionally with this strange mixture of war and western comics and science fiction and horror.
But there wasn't a huge variety of and then you had like, the licensed cartoon characters like Tom and Jerry. That, company called Gold Key was publishing. And so I was wondering, wow, the world that seemed so rich for comic books in this decades prior. And I just became fascinated reading about these titles and how long some things ran. And just reading it through the code of this price guide and seeing some black and white covers of these things. That was all I had to go on.
And I remember we went on a trip to Ohio and visited some friends. We had moved from, New York to Missouri when I was eleven years old. And we went back to visit some, our next door neighbors, who had moved to Ohio. And the father of that family, the Fisher family, he knew that I was really into comics. And he said, tell you what, I've pulled this out of the attic. It's a box of comics that I don't know if he had collected. I'm trying to think of the timing of this. Yeah, he would have collected these comics and I think he said, you can take any five comics you want. And it was like blew my mind because I was actually seeing and holding these comics I had read about. And I could have picked up like one of the early first issues of Mad magazine. But I was really interested in kind of I think I got one that was one called Riot, which was a knockoff of Mad. I picked up one of those. I had a Dennis the Menace comic book, which it was really early. but the one that stood out the most to me was, this oddball comic called Giggle Comics. And it was basically these old funny animal comics done by animators, mostly out in California, who were moonlighting or had quit their animation job just to do comic books. And they're like off brand, Bugs Bunny kind of stuff where the characters have been made up by some small publisher. And there's one guy, I think this guy named his Hughes. He wrote all of these things. There was Giggle and Ha Ha and Cookie and all these crazy titles. And it was like this alternate universe of comics. And I was just amazed by it. And then I would slowly learn, oh yeah, this artist used to work for the Warner Brothers cartoons, used to do the Bugs Bunny cartoons. and I was just amazed that there was this whole world of creativity.
Harold: That was just a free for all in the just became fascinated by that. I was like, well, why did it go away? Why don't we have that variety now? And that was just around the time as Michael and Jimmy were just talking about about these comic book shops, which started to open up, trying to collect a lot of these old things that you couldn't find anymore. There was like this base of old comic book trading. These things didn't exist. These old Sci-Fi and horror and the old superhero stuff. You had to find it at these shops. And as soon as there was a network of shops and somebody got the bright idea that, hey, now we can, make our own comic books and publish them and sell them into the shops. And that was an amazing fertile period. It was like this renaissance of what had been going on in the although it was much more personal level like Michael was doing, where all these people are self publishing their own work or finding sympatico tiny publishers and they're publishing their comics.
And I was really getting into this in the early to mid eighties. And going to the comic book shop, you never knew what you were going to find on the racks of a comic book shop. I mean, there was strange, strange stuff that, you know, these comic book shops like, well, we're just going to order one of everything. And some of these things should never have been published. By many standards, but you never knew what you'd find inside, the pages. And they were all very personal, often practically unedited.
Jimmy: I love that whole period of comics.
Harold: Oh my gosh, it's amazing. I keep waiting for this period to come when there's going to be somebody who rediscovers that world of insanity and just the way I discovered the world of the who might be in their teens or whatever, and then they say, oh my gosh, what was all this craziness? these old comic books that were being self published. And it kind of existed more or less in this crazy free for all period for a little over a decade, I guess, and a lot of can.
Jimmy: I kind of give a real quick, self publishing. It kind of like the underground. People were doing it with very small publishers. Some were self published. Then it was Elfquest and Cerebus in late 77, early 78, that started making these called ground level or alternative comics that were self published and sold out into comic book stores. But you have to understand, it's very different than self publishing now, where you can upload a PDF to Amazon and get some, stock photo for your cover and say you're a self publisher. You had to learn design. You had to work with a printer. You had to produce camera ready art on paper or illustration board.
Harold: You had to learn this code. And then there are these amazing, mysterious distributors that you send something in and you follow these rules. You say, I'm going to publish this thing in a couple of months, and we'll put you in our catalog, and then we're going to send it out to the word of this in the creative community. And the people that hung out in the comic book shop said, oh, yeah, they're doing it. I can do it, too.
Jimmy: And then these two guys had a terrible idea for a comic where they were going to put a bunch of turtles together and they were going to fight people with ninja weapons.
Harold: Another parody comic, just like Cerebus, the aardvark started as a parody.
Jimmy: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a self published black and white comic that was actually a parody of Daredevil, Frank Miller comics, essentially Daredevil and Ronin. No one even knows what Ronin is to this now, but that's what Ninja Turtle started as.
Harold: and that explodes, and that actually breaks into the mainstream because it was selling 100,000 plus copies. And these guys doing this black and white comic that they were publishing themselves, and they were becoming this cultural force. Like, these comic shops had kind of come out of the underground and into the mainstream.
And so it was just an amazing time. mostly, yeah. Most of these people were, you know, anybody who could figure out how to do it pretty much could get a book published and get it, into some stores. I mean, that was the amazing thing. And so you just never knew what you would find, and it was crazy.
So if there's anybody who's interested, as a historian, of looking back on that era, or collecting some of these old things, which you can get for a song these days, because it's a forgotten big beat of history that led to this massive renaissance of comics, on so many different levels that we have today. It was a very fertile ground of some very creative and eccentric people. And, it was a wonderful time to be a part of.
And so, you know, by the mid 80s, I'm dreaming. Like 1986, I'm starting to dream of, could I do my own comic book? How would I do that? And I was learning all the rules about the distributors and the printing and this and that. 1986, I'm 20 years old, I'm in college, and, I'm not good enough to to publish, self published, I mean, art, artistically, I'm just not there. I then go to film school and meet my wife, Diane Cook, who was an artist, an art school graduate. And she said, take some gesture drawing classes. Your stuff is very stiff. I'd never taken formal art classes. And so, we would go to sessions on Saturday mornings. We would go and do life drawing and that sort of thing. And it really helped my art. And I got a chance to do a few, workbooks for the chapel of the Air ministries with my little animal characters that were licensed from, some people in Colorado and, the Critter County characters. And it was just a dream come true for me to get some stuff published. And for three years straight, I did these, like, 64 page workbooks, for for little kids activity books, essentially.
And as I was honing my skills, that, you know, it took me almost a decade to get to the place where I had this opportunity to, there was actually a comic book publisher who showed up within 10 miles of my house, a guy named Don Chen had a company called Entity Comics. He was also running a thing called Parody Press, doing a ton of parody. It's always parody books, right? He keeps weaving back in here, but he was doing a ton of parody books on Marvel and DC characters and what was going on in this fertile comic book world. And I went to a Philadelphia convention, and I was told I should meet him. And while I was waiting to meet him, because he was mobbed at this convention, I picked up his business card, and it said his address was Chesapeake, Virginia. Well, I thought he was out on the west coast, and I was like, my gosh, this guy is my neighbor. So I introduced myself. He was really kind. He invited me over to his house, where basically they worked out of their house was publishing a full line of comic books, which was just crazy to me and so cool. Don invited me over to his house and I got to familiarize with what it was like to publish comic books. And I actually got him a gig working on a giveaway comic book. And so I got to work with him on getting that produced from start to finish. I didn't really work on it other than help just kind of facilitate its production and find artists and that sort of thing. It was amazing experience. And during that process, I had some doodles, a little one inch doodle on the margin of my paper. And it was this little character called Apathy Cat. And Don looked at it and says, what's that? And I said well, it's a comic I was thinking of drawing. He says, well, if you want to develop it, I might consider publishing it. And I was like, really? So I developed what they called an ash can at the time, which was a little eight page photocopied black and white comic book. And just to kind of get a sense of where I stood, I remember I developed it and then I took it to San Diego Comic Con, which was the big comic book convention, at the time, still is massive. It wasn't quite as big then as it is now, but I took it around to a number of companies and I think there was Antarctic Press was another company and they said, hey, we might we might consider publishing it as well. maybe little, you know, in an anthology book that we did of little funny animal comics. So it kind of gave me a sense of where I stood. And then so then I went back to Don and said, okay, yeah, here's the apathy cat, and showed it to him and he said, yeah, I'll publish this.
Jimmy: That's awesome.
Harold: So this is 1995. Actually went part, time, on my job at Harris Publishing, where I was a directory design coordinator for basically the front matter for these high school and college alumni, directories. And, so I could work on Apathy Cat. And I did that 90, 95, and it was a funny animal thing, very much like the stuff I had read in Giggle Comics with my own characters, little Beatnik type animal characters. And I had a blast writing and drawing it and it got out into the world. And people I think the first issue sold like 3000 copies. This is 1985. This is after the big boom of black and white comics was over. Then the second issue dropped to like 1000.
Jimmy: I was like, oh, that's standard, yeah.
Harold: And then the third issue dropped to 900. And then we got a little flurry of publicity and I think people thought it was one thing and it was actually another in terms of its tone. And so it started to, it started to find a little, tiny little audience. And then the fourth issue, jumped up from 900 to 980 copies sold. And we did put out a trade paperback collection. And all of that led to me getting to go to Hollywood and pitch Apathy Cat to Disney and Saban who did the Mighty Morphin power Rangers and to Fox Kids and all that stuff in that era. It was a whirlwind of experience.
And so that led to the opportunity to possibly be involved in animation. And here I'd gone to film school five, years earlier, and I thought, well, maybe that experience is going to come back into play here. But nothing came of it. But what did come of it was, I did put out this trade paperback, Don's company closed right at the time I was finishing that paperback collection. But I had helped Don find a way to print, which was I think it was like a run of like 250 copies of this black and white book, which at the time was not a lot, to print because there was no digital world. Everything was done with offset and plates and this and that. And so I found a place that would print a short run of a black and white book with a color cover. And in the process of learning that so that I could get my he said, I don't lose money on it, I'll publish a graphic novel. And so I found a way he didn't lose money through that research. And then I took that book to some shows.
I was a guest at Captain, Blue Hen comics at a Delaware wonderful comic book shop. Joe Murray, great guy, very supportive of independent comics. And in the process of that, I was at a convention with a bunch of other creators who were kind of in the boat. I was in, putting out these comics with fairly small print runs. And we were all just kind of trying to make our way similar, to what Michael was just talking about. And what happened was everybody saw my little trade paperback and they all knew I'm doing a funny animal comic. That's not a popular thing in the comic book shops. That's all dark adult male fantasy is really what that was all about. I was like the opposite of all of that. And they kind of eyed me in like, how did you get that book done? And then I realized, oh, maybe here's my way to work in the comic book industry beyond my own comic, now that I've lost my publisher. And that led me to printing for others, their books. I was kind of a broker for printing, and I was kind of the go to person for particularly like all ages comics, where I'd help people get their books printed. And I'd also share with them what was going on in the world of comic books and who was selling what to where, because there was really not a good market for the kind of comics that we were doing in the course of this. I met Jimmy, when he was doing Shades of Gray and then later of Amelia Rules. So we got to team up and work on some projects that, kind of led to our friendship and that got us we got to work together, which was amazing experience on Amelia Rules.
And that was kind of my trajectory with comics. Schulz as an influence was the guy that made me want to do a comic book over everything else. I was trying to put the Schulz level of depth of character into something was considered a pretty shallow medium of funny animal comics. And that's kind of what I've been doing ever since, is trying to put something of depth into something that looks like it's for very young readers.
Jimmy: That might be Schulz's big gift to cartoonists. In some ways, this idea that whatever you're working in doesn't need to be limited. It only needs to be limited by your own imagination and whatever skills you can bring to bear on the project.
Jimmy: And I definitely see that in your work, Harold. Definitely. And yours as well, Michael.
Jimmy: Liz, do you have anything you want to throw in here?
Liz: I have questions about when did Sweetest Beasts come along?
Harold: So Sweetest Beasts came from that time when I left Mystery Science Theater. And, the decision to do that was kind of abrupt for me. I was like, hey, I need to bring in somebody with a different skill set on the business side. And so I was kind of scheduling my own departure date. And then I didn't know it was beyond that because I just thrown my life into Mystery Science Theater for three and a half years. So when I said, okay, I'm going to be a, creative, then I'm going to spend my time trying to create, if I could create anything I wanted to, what would it look like in today's landscape? And it seemed to make sense to me that I should try to develop something and put it out to an audience who could give me feedback to let me understand more about myself and what I'm getting across in my art and what people are responding to. And I thought at the time, the best thing to do is maybe put a comic onto Instagram. And I had already been writing, and drawing this little lion character, the little wild lion that cannot be tamed. And so it was always in the background. And I really enjoyed these little characters having a lion, a lion and a lamb trying to make a go of it in this world of being friends. And it just seemed to encapsulate so many of the ideas and the format that I found entertaining. I love playing with animal characters, and how they're kind of universal in terms of you don't necessarily put, race, or class, or the differences of people that you might attach yourself to in a, in a comic with people you don't do with with the animals. Like, we talked about this in an earlier episode, and that, to me, was really special. That, I could use animals and use animals that have this metaphor for a future time of peace and play with that idea. What is that world like? How can I create a warm, inviting world that's hopefully funny, that plays off of some of the skills that I learned as a gag writer, essentially for mystery science theater? And that was the result of that bequest for me to kind of find the ultimate platform for where I was creatively. And that's been very rewarding.
And I'm now prepping and putting that into book form. And this year, if it all works out, I am going to be basically traveling around, the country, mostly on the East Coast, going to a variety of different types of events, from street fairs to county fairs, comic book conventions, punk rock, flea markets, those types of places with my books. Again, to just meet people in person. And it's kind of my little journey to see what audience I have and who they are. And hopefully, if I understand that better, I may be able to kind of go back and retool and regroup some of the things I'm doing and then find a way to really make a living out of it.
Jimmy: Well, that's fantastic. I cannot wait to get reports from the road. This has been a long year. It has been a great year. I have just enjoyed every single moment I got to spend with you three discussing this comic strip and with everybody out there, listening to us blab on and on. So I really appreciate your patience and, just your care for, sitting and listening to us talk today about our own stuff.
We'll be back next week where we talk about, what do we talk about normally? Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. That's what it is. It's a comic strip, people. Until then, you can follow us on social media. We're on Instagram and Twitter. We're at Unpack Peanuts. You could go visit our website, UnpackingPeanuts.com, where you could buy a t shirt or buy us a mud pie. You, could check us out on Patreon if you wanted to support the show. And again, at our website, you could also buy one of our books, because, as you now know, we are working cartoonists, and, we have some books that we would love for you to read. other than that, just come back next week, and, we'll be talking about Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang that you love, so well, just like us. But until then, from Michael and Harold, I'm Jimmy. Be of good cheer.
Harold and Michael: Yes, be of good cheer.
VO: Unpacking Peanuts is copyright Jimmy Gownley, Michael Cohen and Harold Buchholz; produced and edited by Liz Sumner; music by Michael Cohen. Additional Voiceover by Aziza Shukralla Clark. For more from the show, follow Unpack Peanuts on Instagram and Twitter. For more about Jimmy, Michael and Harold, visit unpackingpeanuts.com. Have a wonderful day and thanks for listening.