Talking Comics with Tim | Nat Gertler

Nat Gertler is known by some folks as the publisher of About Comics, while others know him as the person who started 24 Hour Comics Day back in 2004. But for the sake of this interview, I email interviewed Gertler about his new book (set to be released on October 25), The Peanuts Collection: Treasures from the World's Most Beloved Comic Strip. Here's the official description for the book: "This fully authorized, one-of-a-kind illustrated book celebrates the 60th anniversary of the world's most beloved comic strip characters. A compendium of rare materials from the Charles M. Schulz Museum and family archives, The Peanuts Collection comes in a sturdy slipcase and features high-quality reproductions of original sketches, comics, and photographs from the world of Peanuts. Removable film cels, stickers, and booklets are included, as well as reproduction prints of Peanuts artwork ready for framing. Written by Peanuts aficionado Nat Gertler, with quotes from Schulz family members and a foreword by daughter Amy Schulz Johnson, the text offers insight into the making of the comic strip and its impact beyond the realms of newspapers and books to film, television, and popular culture. The Peanuts Collection is a must-own keepsake for anyone who loves Snoopy and the gang. ... Gertler is the founder and author of Aaugh.com, a comprehensive resource for Peanuts collectors and fans." This interview was a fun one for me, thanks to Gertler's thorough knowledge of Peanuts material (For example, I'm still trying to fully grasp the fact that there was once a Peanuts Book of Pumpkin Carols).

Tim O'Shea: You're a respected Peanuts expert, but I'm curious if there was any trepidation on your part in taking on a project of this import and scale?

Nat Gertler: Does a kid feel any trepidation about getting the key to the candy store? I'd already been considering writing a book about all the angles one could look at Peanuts from. That book would've been a bit more academic, but I jumped at the chance to do this celebratory book, with all of its great visuals and the cool removable items.

O'Shea: What were some of the gems of this collection that it pleased you to be able to include?

Gertler: I love having the Schulz sketches, design work, and unfinished strips in there, as well as some of the nifty advertising uses - many folks know that Peanuts were used to advertise the Ford Falcon in the 1960s, but it was quite a surprise to find a Peanuts ad for the Ford Mustang. There's a shot of an early Lucy doll where the eyes just freak me out, and there's a letter from the other famous Lucy - Lucille Ball.

In terms of the "interactive" items - which are reproductions that are either removable from the book or tipped-in booklets that can be opened up right on the page - we've got the letter that inspired Schulz to integrate Peanuts by adding Franklin (and I did get to interview the lady who wrote it.) We've got trading cards, a custom greeting card that Schulz had designed for a friend, and the Security Is An Eye-Patch booklet - a Peanuts strip collection published by the U.S. government. And as the guy behind the AAUGH Blog, the item I get most often asked "where can I find this?" is the Peanuts Book of Pumpkin Carols, a greeting card booklet from 1967, so it made me happy to be able to reproduce that. There are hundreds of images and dozens of those interactive items in the book.

O'Shea: Did the family solely pick out the items for inclusion or did you work in concert with them in selecting material?

Gertler: Finding the items and images was a big team effort. Amy Wideman and Chris Campbell from the book packager becker&mayer! - these are the same folks who packaged The Marvel Vault, The DC Vault, and The Star Wars Vault - and I spent days going through the contents of the Schulz Museum archives, that was just one part of the effort. We met with the staff of Creative Associates - "Peanuts Central", as I think of it - including Schulz's son Craig and his widow Jeannie, brainstorming what the book should include. We were given access to staff's offices, which means we got to explore and see a lot of interesting items for consideration. People on staff at the museum had definite and useful suggestions.

But we weren't limited to those items. I knew of other materials that were out there, and reached out to both corporate owners and private collectors trying to find interesting items. So when you see some shots of the original art for "Li'l Folks" cartoons - that was the proto-Peanuts gag panel that Schulz did for Minnesota papers - what you're seeing is material from a private collection. (In fact, some of those drawings have not been published before, because they were versions Schulz drew when trying to pitch "Li'l Folks" to syndicates... an effort that ultimately ended in Peanuts.) The private collection that got tapped the most was mine - not that I have any original art, but my madness is that I own over a 1000 Peanuts and Schulz-related books, so things like the images of the script for the first Peanuts play or Schulz's cover for the Women's Sports Foundation Cookbook come from my own sizable stash.

O'Shea: How long did the selection process take?

Gertler: From our time at the Museum to when the book was finalized was roughly half a year, and we were changing items right up until the end.

O'Shea: Who in the family and/or with the museum did you work with the most?

Gertler: Of the family, I worked the most with Jeannie, who is very involved in all things Schulz and was eager to see share her ideas of what should be included. She was also helpful in tracking down some of the material that was not in the museum's hands. But then I've known Jeannie for about a decade now, and we're used to hitting each other up for information. Lisa Monhoff and Nina Kollmar Fairles of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center were big helps, both in offering their own ideas in what the book should include, and being very good at responding to "We need something like X" requests.

O'Shea: Was there material that you were unable to include in this collection due to space? Any chance there might be a second volume if demand calls for it?

Gertler: I certainly hope we get to do a second volume, perhaps with a specific sub-focus (say, "Snoopy" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas"). With the vastness that is Peanuts, there is no shortage of interesting items to showcase.

O'Shea: How much research did you have to do in the development of the book's text?

Gertler: While I know a lot about Peanuts, I certainly wanted to find a lot of angles to look at it from. So I did some original interviews, not just with some of the more obvious Peanuts-linked folks (such as Lee Mendelson, who produced the animated Peanuts for decades). I interviewed a member of the Royal Guardsmen, about what it was like hitting the music charts with songs about Snoopy and The Red Baron in the 1960s. And when I contacted the NASA press office to get some information about their Silver Snoopy awards program, I found myself facing the question "Would you like to interview an astronaut?" That is, by the way, a question that really doesn't need to be asked! (Turned out to be a great catch, too - I already knew two ways in which Snoopy had actually gone into outer space, but astronaut Mike Massimino surprised me with a third.)

O'Shea: The book is described as offering "insight into the making of the comic strip and its impact beyond the realms of newspapers and books to film, television, and popular culture". Can you give a few examples of some of the impact beyond newspapers?

Gertler: Peanuts has been a success in many forms, whether you look at the books that hit the best-seller lists, the TV where "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has run on network for more than 40 years now; "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" continues to be among the most produced musicals in American theater. But beyond that, it's a clearly a central cultural touchstone. Not everyone discovers Peanuts in the same way - some know it form the newspaper and some from the TV, some from visiting a Peanuts theme park or seeing Snoopy dolls - but there is a broad awareness of the characters, which is why you can hear Peanuts being referred to in everything from Sunday sermons to rap music. When Quentin Tarantino uses a Charlie Brown kimono in Kill Bill to illustrate something about a character, or Arrested Development drops in some music from the animated Peanuts to set a mood, or Stephen Colbert doodles Snoopy on screen, they're taking advantage of the culture currency of Peanuts. They are characters we're all aware of - and that's true even far beyond the U.S.

And its impact is felt in other ways. It seems to me that there are whole categories of publishing that can be traced back to Peanuts - that's something that I want to do more research on at some point. When you see a book on the science of Star Trek or philosophy as explained through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, can't that all be traced back to the best-selling The Gospel According to Peanuts. And when you see the gift book rack at your local bookstore, you're looking at a breed of book that seems to owe much to Happiness is a Warm Puppy, which spent over 40 weeks on the best-seller list.

O'Shea: In the early days of Peanuts there were a great many cast members that did not appear in the main years of the strips success and history. Of the more obscure characters like them, do you have any favorites?

Gertler: Tapioca Pudding, a mid-1980s character who saw herself as licensable for putting on products. I wasn't even thinking of her when I came up with a similar (if differently textured) concept in Licensable Bear™, but I'm definitely sympatico with what Schulz was doing there.

O'Shea: At your AAUGH.com site, you have a page devoted to errors in 2001's Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. Have you braced yourself for when people contact you with perceived errors, or are you vetting it so thoroughly you expect to avoid errors?

Gertler: We had a lot of eyes on the book, and while sometimes that can actually add errors to the book, I'd like to think we quashed them. But if more than two or three pop up, I'll probably put a similar page up for this book. I'm a believer in accuracy.

O'Shea: Is there any strip currently being published that comes close to the influence of Peanuts? Or has the comics landscape as well as media in general changed too much to be able to have that level of influence?

Gertler: No newspaper strip today has the same degree of influence; even if you have a strip that's as good as Peanuts - a tough thing to achieve - newspapers just don't have the same impact.

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