Frank Cho on Liberty Meadows Hardcovers

If you've been resisting your significant other's pleas to get rid of your massive cut out collection of Frank Cho's "Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips," you can finally cave in. This July, Image Comics will release the first of two hardcover collections of "Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips," compiling over three hundred pages of comics that were previously available only in newspaper format - and this time, the strips are coming to you censorship-free and in the precise form that Cho had always intended.

"There's nothing like sitting in your favorite chair, opening a nice thick book and visiting that world of make believe," Cho told CBR News of his older work on "Liberty Meadows," which will be showcased in the new hardcover. "I look at my old stuff and cringe all the time. But at the same time, I'm delighted to see my writing and drawing evolving for the better as 'Liberty Meadows' progressed."

While most fans of the Frank Cho series know "Liberty Meadows" through its comic book format, it was originally released as an internationally syndicated newspaper strip. In fact, "Meadows" - which focuses on the titular animal rehabilitation center and its quirky human and animal residents - was actually formulated as an offshoot of a previous comic strip that Cho worked on while earning his nursing degree at the University of Maryland.

"The college strip was called 'University 2,' [pronounced] University Squared," said Cho. "There's no secret about the creation of the strip. I was simply bored in college, so I started drawing comic strips for the student newspaper to amuse myself. I based the characters' personalities on my dorm mates and it took off. 'University 2' got noticed right away and next thing I knew, I was offered a newspaper syndication contract from Creators Syndicate. I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in nursing and started drawing comic strips for a living that night and never looked back."

Cho's nursing degree may not have paid off in a conventional sense, but his focus on the multitude of eccentric, often downright demented characters in a rehabilitation clinic - albeit an animal one - might owe some thanks to his formal education. Some of the animal patients featured in "Liberty Meadows" include but are not limited to Dean the pig, Ralph the midget circus bear, Leslie the hypochondriac bullfrog, Truman the duck and Oscar the wiener dog. The patients are cared for by the beautiful Brandy Carter and the sheepish Frank Melish, the resident animal doctor that shares a first name with Cho and has googley eyes for Brandy.

Attributing animals with human characteristics in order to shine a light on our own species has long been a common form of storytelling in comic books, as seen in the various mouse-in-warrior's-clothing tales of "Mice Templar" and "Mouse Guard," as well as Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon's "Pride of Baghdad," among others. But Cho insists that he has no such agenda with the "Liberty Meadows" cast - all he's looking for is good, typically unclean fun.

"I'm a very nonpolitical person," said Cho. "I have no social message nor do I have a cause. I just write what makes me laugh. Nothing is out of bounds. If it's funny to me, I'm going to write and draw it. Simple as that."

But it wasn't always that simple when Cho was working on "Liberty Meadows" as a newspaper strip. The Maryland-raised cartoonist's strips were often filled with material deemed unfit for a national audience by newspaper editors, causing some significant censorship in many cases. In the new collection, however, Cho's work will be seen without that editorial interference.

"This 'Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips' collection book will collect the first three years of [the Sunday strips] in their entirety - all uncensored and unedited," Cho revealed. "All the Sunday strips will have all the title panels that most newspapers chopped out when it was originally published, so you'll see how these Sunday strips were meant to be seen."

It was that very issue of censorship that caused Cho to pull "Liberty Meadows" out of the syndicated newspaper strip format in the first place. "I simply got tired of the censorship and the low pay, so I just moved from the newspaper to the comic book market," he said. "I never stopped drawing 'Liberty Meadows.' Instead of being published one strip a day, the comic book allowed me to publish 'Liberty Meadows' comic strips in seven week batches - like a small collection book."

Now, the uninhibited versions of the Sunday strips will finally see the light of day thanks to Image Comics. Cho, whose "Liberty Meadows" comic book run has been printed and distributed through Image since issue #27, has nothing but kind words for the company - and by the sound of it, he no longer has any reason to worry about editorial interference. "[Chief Financial Officer] Erik Larsen, [Publisher] Eric Stephenson and [PR & Marketing Coordinator] Joe Keatinge are my biggest fans at Image Comics," Cho stated. "They pretty much gave me carte blanche from the start. Whatever I want to do, they'll publish it - it's a sweet deal."

The editorial restrictions on "Liberty Meadows" may be fewer now than they were during the newspaper strips, but what haven't changed are Cho's characters or the storytelling methods. "['Liberty Meadows'] is the same, except the comic book version is uncensored and raw," said the cartoonist. "My approach to writing remains the same-- I write the punch line first and try to figure out how to set up that punch line. 'Liberty Meadows' is a very punch line-driven strip. The time to produce a strip or a single issue varies. If I can't think of anything funny then it takes a long time. But if I have a clear story and jokes in mind, the process is fast. The drawing is the fast part, it's the writing that takes the most time."

It's certainly Cho's hope and expectation that readers will get "a good, honest laugh" out of the "Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips" collection, but even he has to admit that the run had its ups and downs in terms of quality. "There were definitely clunkers," he conceded. "Most of the clunkers were filler strips that I had to do at the last minute to replace the censored strips. Most of those fillers involved Truman and Oscar doing something cute - I like cute, but in small doses. The Sunday strips that I'm most proud of are the black and white 'breaking in my new pens' strips - it's me trying to do these beautiful pen illustrations like you see in the golden days of newspapers. Good art and draftsmanship is definitely lost in newspapers nowadays."

Having transitioned from newspaper cartoonist to full-fledged comic book storyteller, it was only a matter of time before Cho visited other areas of the industry, including art chores on mainstream books like Marvel's "Mighty Avengers." Cho is happy to work for a bigger name publisher, but he's fully aware that there's a great divide between what he can get away with there as opposed to his creator-owned work. "The difference between drawing 'Liberty Meadows' and a Marvel book is vast," said Cho. "Marvel is a great company to work for, but at the end of the day, you're just a freelancer who has to draw what is dictated to you. With 'Liberty Meadows,' I'm my own boss and I answer to no one. No censorship and absolute freedom. It's a pure vision. It's just you and the paper."

Luckily for his readership, there are plenty of Cho-and-paper byproducts to look forward to in the months to come - namely, a second and final collection of the "Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips" that promises to showcase Cho's rebellious side. "The second volume will collect years four and five of 'Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips,' where I started to really lose it and started doing strips that I knew would get censored by the newspaper editors," he teased.

Beyond that, the illustrator will be working on an ongoing daily comic strip called "Glory Rose" with Aaron Williams of "Nodwick" and Jim Demonakos, the founder of Emerald City Comicon. While it's still too early for him to discuss the endeavor at length, Cho said that the current plan is to release the strip online next year after he's wrapped up other comic book obligations, including more work at Marvel Comics.

But even in light of that project, don't count on Cho checking out of "Liberty Meadows" anytime soon - if he has his way, he'll be staying at the animal sanctuary for many years to come. "I am still writing and drawing 'Liberty Meadows.' Sure it's slower, but I'm still doing it. Writing and drawing in four-panel grids is in my blood," he said. "I'll always have 'Liberty Meadows' stories. These characters are my family and friends, and I'll always revisit them until the day I die."

"Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips, Vol. 1" hits stores on July 1 from Image Comics.

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