Chuck Jones and the Future of the Library of American Comics

Dean Mullaney has had a long career in comics, first as the founder of Eclipse Comics and more recently as the Creative Director of the Library of American Comics, an imprint at IDW Publishing which, in just a few years, has become one of the most acclaimed publishers in comics. Focusing on reprinting classic work, LoAC, as it's known, has published a wide variety of strip and art collections including "Terry and the Pirates," "Bloom County," "Dick Tracy," "Little Orphan Annie," "Rip Kirby" and "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles."

CBR News spoke with Mullaney and editor Kurtis Finlay to talk about the imprint's upcoming projects, including work from Berkeley Breathed, Otto Soglow, Milton Caniff and John Prentice, taking a close look at the two major releases coming out this fall: "Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim," the first of four volumes collected the seminal work by Alex Raymond, and "Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was." The latter book features a short-lived comic strip unknown even to most comic fans, written and drawn by the legendary animator, along with the designs and storyboards from Jones' proposed animated version of the project. LoAC provided CBR with an exclusive look at "Chuck Jones," which comes out in early December.

CBR News: Dean, you have two major books coming out this fall and I wanted to take some time to focus on each. The first is "Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim." Now, there have been reprints of "Flash Gordon" before, so could you talk a little about how and why you're presenting the book like this?

Dean Mullaney: For one, technology has changed, allowing us to restore the strips in a way that hasn't been done previously. Secondly, Raymond created "Flash Gordon" and "Jungle Jim" as complete pages, and while "Flash" has been reprinted several times, this is the first time both strips are collected as originally printed. Third, our book is going to be huge, the same size as the Eisner-nominated "Polly and Her Pals" -- a massive 12" x 16" on wonderfully thick, opaque paper. Our "Champagne Edition" size.

The other book is "Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was." How did this book come about?

Mullaney: Like just about every other Chuck Jones fan, I never knew that he had done a short-lived newspaper strip named "Crawford" in 1978. A Jones fan named Kurtis Findlay came across the strip and started researching the character. He brought the proposal to us and I jumped on it. In the course of further research in the Chuck Jones family archives, Kurtis discovered that the character was originally created for a proposed 1962 "Adventures of the Road-Runner" TV series and that Jones had repeatedly tried to sell it as a series for a couple of decades. What's most amazing about the book is that, thanks to the cooperation of Marian Jones and the entire family, we have 288 pages of never before seen Chuck Jones art -- concept, sketches, storyboards and original newspaper strip art. It's incredible that a creator as famous as Chuck Jones, whose career has been so well documented, has this linear, almost parallel universe energy going on. No one knew all this work existed -- even the family wasn't aware of the connecting threads until Kurtis dug it up. This book is going to blow everyone's minds.

Kurtis, just to bring you into this conversation, for people who don't know the name Chuck Jones, could you just briefly mention why just about everyone knows his work, even if they don't recognize his name?

Kurtis Findlay: Chuck Jones is one of the most prolific animation directors in history. His Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons have been viewed by nearly everyone at some point in their lives, whether they know it or not. The frog that sings and dances for a construction worker, but only when no one else is looking? That's Chuck Jones. A rabbit and a duck fighting over whether it's "Rabbit Season" or "Duck Season?" That's Chuck Jones. A down-on-his-luck coyote engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with a speeding Road Runner? That's Chuck Jones. A romantic francophone skunk that is in love with a black cat? That's Chuck Jones. "Kill the Wabbit!" That's Chuck Jones.

He has won Oscars for his films "For Scent-Imental Reasons," "So Much for So Little" and "The Dot and the Line." His characters, the Coyote and Road Runner, Pepe le Pew, and many others, have become cultural icons. His animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" has become a holiday staple. His cartoons have brought joy and laughter to any child that has grown up watching Saturday morning cartoons.

What is "Crawford?"

Findlay: "Crawford" is the name of a newspaper comic strip Chuck wrote and drew in the late seventies. It stars a group of children whose minds function on a higher intellectual level than most eight-year-olds. Influenced by the writings of Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, Chuck wrote a strip that has a more sophisticated humor than the average comic strip. And, of course, every panel contains artwork from an amazing cartoonist.

Many people may consider "Crawford" to be one of Chuck's failures. It was not widely syndicated, only lasted for six months and had several problems. Chuck himself doesn't even mention it in his two autobiographies.

Given that, how did you end up coming across this comic and what made you take on this project?

Findlay: Believe it or not, I first learned about "Crawford" on Wikipedia. There are four good books on Chuck Jones and his career, but I found that none of them put any emphasis on his post-Warner Bros. career. I know that it is not the best go-to source for information, but that's where I went to learn more. Buried in there was one sentence about a Chuck Jones newspaper comics strip.

I had to know more, so I did a bit of digging and found a few examples of the strip, but that was it. There was literally nothing more about "Crawford" on the internet. I had to know more, and I figured that others would want to more as well. That led to the decision to collect the strips into a book for the world to see. Really, who doesn't want a book full of Chuck Jones' art?

How did you end up connecting with Dean Mullaney?

Findlay: That is actually a fortunate series of events. As I was looking into the copyright status of the strip, I found that one person at the Tribune Media Services actually works with Dean on a number of LoAC projects. He connected me to Dean, who was very enthusiastic about the book idea. Dean is a huge Chuck Jones fan. He and I are co-editing the book together. The Library of American Comics was my top choice to publish a book like this. Their comic strip archival projects like "Dick Tracy" and "Bloom County" are fantastic, and I knew that the same attention would be put into this book as well.

Has it been a challenge trying to find Jones' original artwork? How helpful has the Jones family been in this process?

Findlay: Really, the project could not have been possible without the support of the Jones family. They were so excited that someone cared enough about "Crawford" to want to compile it into a book. They have supplied the original art to nearly all of the strips and have provided a decade's worth of sketches that Chuck did for various "Crawford" projects. They have been very supportive throughout this process.

The hardest part has been tracking down the remaining strips that the Jones family doesn't have in their archives. Since the strip wasn't widely syndicated, tracking down which papers actually carried "Crawford" has been a challenge.

I hope you'll enjoy the book when it comes out. It is a very interesting, behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a comic strip. You'll see everything, from thumbnail sketches to fully finished art and everything in between. There is a section devoted to unpublished strips and gags. Best of all, I've uncovered an unknown history of "Crawford" that dates back to the early sixties and includes an storyboard for an episode of a shelved "Crawford" television series! It will be a Chuck Jones book like no other! A must-have for fans of animation and comic strips!

Now, Dean, just to turn our attention to other LoAC books, Milton Caniff is one of the major cartoonists of the Twentieth century and the six volume edition of "Terry and the Pirates" put LoAC on the map. Could you talk a little about the Caniff art book that came out over the summer and what you were trying to do with it?

Mullaney: Terry and the Pirates was LoAC's initial release because it's my favorite strip of all time, and the series is our strongest in backstock -- all six volumes are in second printings. Given Caniff's fame and influence, I was as surprised as anyone to realize that there had never been a full-fledged art book devoted to his work. Incredible when you think about it. Perhaps it's because the subject is too overwhelming. When I went through the seemingly never-ending Caniff files at Ohio State with LoAC Art Director Lorraine Turner and Contributing Editor Matt Tauber, we couldn't contain our enthusiasm, consistently running over to one other, "Didja see this?" "Holy &#@$ -- look at em>this!" We requisitioned hundreds and hundreds of pieces of artwork and photographs. When the box of scans and copies arrived at the LoAC office, the real work began -- how to distill a celebrated career of more than five decades into a single book. What I had hoped to accomplish was show that Milton Caniff lived a long life, lived it to the fullest, spending long hours creating artwork that meant so much to him. Bob Harvey's biography gives great insights into Caniff's life; this artbook is a visual biography -- a biopic, if you will.

You also have another Caniff comic, "Steve Canyon," coming out early next year. What is "Steve Canyon" and what makes it so interesting and significant?

Mullaney: "Canyon" came into existence because Caniff wanted to own his own strip. He knew at the time that whatever he did would be compared to Terry -- and it still is. The early "Canyon" strips are absolutely amazing. Caniff is at the peak of his artistic prowess. Although the characters are, of course, different, the general thrust of the storyline is exactly what Caniff would have done if he'd continued on "Terry" -- he deals with what warriors do when the war is over. After a few years, when the Korean conflict began, the strip took a new direction and it actually got better. I think our first "Canyon" book can be considered "Terry" volume 7!

What makes our series special is that -- for the first time -- you'll see the complete, uncropped dailies, and even better, the Sundays in color. No one has seen the color Sundays since they were first in newspapers more than 50 years ago! Almost every strip in the series is reproduced from Caniff's personal set of syndicate proofs. It's a great pleasure to work with his nephew Harry Guyton on making this definitive series a reality.

The first "Canyon" volume, on sale in January, will also be a milestone for LoAC: our 50th book since we started in 2007.

How many volumes of "Steve Canyon" do you hope to print? Is it open-ended with the possibility of reprinting the entire run, or do you have a more limited period in mind?

Mullaney: It is open-ended. We have every hope to complete Milton's entire run.

You've been working in comics for a long time, and with the recent and upcoming books by and about Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond, I'm curious whether you think that these books might help us rethink them and their influence for a new generation?

Mullaney: A friend of mine who teaches at one of the colleges offering degrees in comics art told me that the "Terry" and "Rip Kirby" series have made his life easier. Now, when he tells his students to study Caniff and Raymond, he doesn't have to hand out second-and-third generation photocopies -- the students can simply go to the college library and check out the LoAC books. Caniff on "Terry" and Raymond on "Rip" created distinctive new directions for comics. Each cartoonist took comics in a modern direction --Caniff by using cinematic storytelling techniques that were copied by just about every comics artist and cribbed by film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles; Raymond by introducing a style of photo-realism, black spotting and character placement that lives on today. I think it's safe to say that no artists have had more of an influence on mainstream comics than these two. By bringing their works into print in archival editions, students of comics can continue to consult and study their works.

I just wanted to touch on some of the other projects you're reprinting. After "Bloom County" is completed, are you going to be publishing "Outland" and "Opus?"

Mullaney: The complete "Outland," in one volume, will be published in April; the complete "Opus" is on for October!

After the Archie Goodwin/Al Williamson "X-9" books are all released, is there any chance we'll see the Alex Raymond "X-9" strips written by Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and others?

Mullaney: It's definitely on this list of projects I'd like to do.

You published the entire run of "Rip Kirby" illustrated by Alex Raymond. Are there any plans to publish any of John Prentice's run on the comic?

Mullaney: The fourth volume included the last of Raymond's strips and the final story's conclusion drawn by John Prentice. We just made the decision last week to add a fifth book that will contain all Prentice art. I just love Prentice's work -- and we've received a lot of emails requesting that we continue the series. So we will, in mid-2012.

What other books can we look forward to next year?

Mullaney: I'm really excited about "Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow and the Little King," on sale in February. I like to call it "a big book for a little king." 432 pages of Soglow's cartoons, primarily his most famous creation, "The Little King," but also a complete run of "The Ambassador," the strip that preceded the "King." We were fortunate to have access to almost 40 years of syndicate proofs. The intro is by Jared Gardner, professor at Ohio State, and the afterword is by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti. Having read more than 2,000 of Soglow's pages, I have an even greater appreciation of his artwork and humor than I had going into the project. He's one of those rare cartoonists whose work is so deceptively simple-looking, but his work is anything but simple. His influence is notably seen in the works of Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, and many others.

Soglow was also an interesting character. Contributing editor Jared Gardner notes that Soglow "began his career as a radical artist publishing in "The New Masses" and "The Liberator"; a decade later he was working for William Randolph Hearst and creating advertisements for Pepsi Cola and oil companies. "The Little King," Soglow's most famous creation, is born out of the tension between his political idealism and his professional ambitions. That tension was one of the things that drew me to collect the strip in the first place. 

You're still publishing a lot of great books, but what about the future? Are there a lot of comics that are both good enough and have enough of a built-in audience that makes publishing them viable?

Mullaney: My schedule is already just about filled up through 2014! Trust me -- there are plenty of good books just crying to be done. On one hand, we have continuing series such as "Dick Tracy" (we've done 20 of the 40+ years), "Little Orphan Annie" (30 years to go!), "Li'l Abner" and "Steve Canyon." These books alone would keep me off the streets.

But there are plenty of other classic strips that need to be preserved -- not necessarily the entire runs, but select periods. With "The Little King," for example, we decided to do one longer book rather than several in a series. A while back, we published a "Bringing Up Father" volume; in 2012 we'll release a second book from a different period in the series' run. Keep building those bookshelves -- there's a lot more to come!

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