On a chilly Seattle Christmas Day 2012, two miracles transpired in the little circus I call my life. The first one occurred when I sank into the old easy chair and cracked open my gift to myself that year: the large, lovely, lavish volume Krazy Kat: A Celebration of Sundays. It was my first Sunday Press book.
After ten minutes of reading, I was immensely grateful I had peeled the lettuce for this baby. I had no idea how powerful, how rich, how different it would be to experience Herriman’s work in the original capacious size and eloquent colors—desert coppers, touches of turquoise, brown-green, and black –that delicious Herriman black. (The book contains an essay by Herriman biographer Michael Tisserand--his Herriman book would not come out for another three years--and I mused on how a black cartoonist passing for white would use black in such a prominent and unique way in the color Sunday pages.)
I had been reading the antics of Coconino County’s delirious denizens for decades, starting with cruddy microfilm reels cranked through the ancient hot and noisy viewers in the basement of Florida State University’s Strozier Library (I vividly remember the smell of burning dust on the viewer lamps) and continuing through the many paper reprints, all smaller than the originals and often altered in one way or another. None of those decades of rewarding study could prepare me for the experience of the real thing, which is what Sunday Press artfully recreates. The nuances, wit, deft touches, masterful pen work—it all came into sharp focus that still and quiet afternoon. It was as if I were reading Krazy Kat for the first time.
After some time, I came up for air and took a break. I checked my email and the second Christmas Day miracle unfolded: I had received an email from Pete Maresca, publisher of the book which had just served as my magic carpet over a starry desert. Pete told me that he liked my screwball comics blog and wondered if I would like to write something for an upcoming Sunday Press book. You could have knocked me over with a brick.
A few days later, I spoke with Pete on the phone—the first of many calls. His deep, friendly voice, his deadpan sense of humor, his humble expertise, warmth, and goodwill all came through in the first moments we talked.
The book turned out to be Society is Nix and I had the incredible honor of writing one of the many introductory essays in the deluxe volume. I also wound up researching and writing about 50 of the 60 or so short biographies of the cartoonists in the book. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my work in five Sunday Press books, approximately one-third of the company’s output. Pete generously gave me a co-editor credit on Foolish Questions and Other Odd Observations by Rube Goldberg, which garnered me my first Eisner nomination in 2017.Since 2005, Sunday Press has issued, on average, one book every year for a total as of this writing of 16 glorious, head-spinning volumes. Titles have covered comic strip greats including Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Frank King, Lyonel Feininger, Chester Gould, and E.C. Segar. An impressive amount of pages have also been given over to extraordinary work by less well-known cartoonists, from Percy Winterbottom to Gustave Verbeek, deepening our understanding of the vital, strange, and arresting qualities this form had in spades in it's first years.
Each book contains a curated sheaf of meticulously restored rare newspaper Sunday funnies from as far back as 120 years ago. Each book also includes informative essays that provide context and details on the comics, along with scads of rare photos and art sussed out from dusty archives and coveted collections. It's the deee-luxe treatment. Think Criterion, Eureka!, or Indicator for comic strips. The press has received 18 Eisner Award nominations and won three (and a couple of Harvey Awards, to boot).
The volumes are unlike anything else seen in the world of comics: large, flat, hefty, unwieldy portfolios of pages imbued with so much color the rainbow looks like a lead pipe seen through a dirty windshield at night in a storm. The impeccable presentations of Sunday Press are as close as one can get to time travel.
Maresca’s business model defies all conventions. The art drives the format so his books are too tall or too wide to fit on a bookstore’s shelves. They are priced much higher than the average book, but are dirt cheap compared to the cost of acquiring the original tear sheets--if they could even be found (in some cases Maresca has scanned the only known surviving copies of some pages). Many of the books generously include clever extras: a designed tissue box for the Winsor McCay Sammy Sneeze collection, a reproduction of circa 1912 Foolish Questions postcards for the Goldberg book, a facsimile reproduction of a Dick Tracy syndicate brochure for the Eisner Award-winning Dick Tracy volume, a sheet of excerpted panels of numerous comic strip characters beaned with bricks for the Krazy Kat tome, to name just a few.
To create his books, the California-based Maresca travels to France and works with designer Phillipe Ghielmetti. I get the feeling each book is a massive undertaking and none of them come easily. Until recently, Maresca has handled all the shipping himself, processing literally hundreds of tons of books, hauling back-straining boxes all around the world to conventions, putting each book in the mail himself. It’s been a small-time operation to sell big books. If a Sunday Press book breaks even, break out the champagne.
Success in Maresca’s work is not measured by profit, but rather how well he has fulfilled his prophetic mission to preserve these weird old four-color treasures and renew our appreciation of them. Dictionary makers, take note: another word for “love” is Sunday Press. Come to think of it, considering the impracticality of Maresca’s venture, maybe Sunday Press should be synonymous with “crazy.”
Which brings us to the press’s just-released Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross. The pages in this collection come from the late 1920s and 1930s, an era that parallels our own in some ways. It was a time when American life felt particularly strained and distressing. A time referred to as “The Great Depression,” when millions were out of work. It was also a time when popular entertainment embraced nonsense and absurdity while the country went even crazier than it already was.
Chico Marx is on trial for his life in the 1933 Marx Brothers masterpiece, Duck Soup. After a barrage of questions from the prosecutor, he says “Now I aska you one. What has a trunk, but no key, weighs two-tousand pounds, and lives in a circus?” When the prosecutor says, “That’s irrelevant,” Chicolini smiles broadly and says, “Irrelephant? Hey thatsa that answer. There’s a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus.”
Lest you think my Duck Soup tangent is irrelephant, you'll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the same kind of manic, anarchic, ethnic-tinged, irreverent, nonsensical humor in Gross Exaggerations, which provides comics from the same era. It's easier to give the flavor of this sort of beautiful libration from rationality by quoting from a Marx Brothers film than it is to attempt to describe Gross's art. You have to see it for yourself. Both the Marx Brothers and Gross at his peak were products of their times and speak to the current fowl soup in which we all find ourselves. (For another socially aware Sunday Press project, see also their recent 11” x 17” poster, Little Donald’s Sneeze, a satire based on McCay’s Little Sammy Sneeze by New Yorker and MAD magazine cartoonist Peter Kuper. All proceeds from the print, which sells for $10, go to Feeding America.)
Gross Exaggerations offers generous trunks, er, that is, chunks of Gross’s three major Sunday comics series, Nize Baby, Count Screwloose of Tooloose, and Dave’s Delicatessen, plus some tasty extras. Believe me, these pages ain’t easy to find and it’s wonderful to have large helpings of them in a handsome book.
In addition, cartoonist, author, and teacher Mark Newgarden contributes what must be considered the definitive Gross biography to date. As one would expect from Maresca, the comics are large and beautifully restored. In full transparency, I curated and captioned the book’s gallery of Gross’s lesser-known magazine cartoons, and I have an associate editor credit.
The interview that follows was conducted via Google chat on October 21, 2020. The original focus for this interview was supposed to Maresca's new Milt Gross book, but the undisciplined historian in me could not pass up the opportunity to explore deeper and so this piece is a mixture of celebrating both the art of Milt Gross and the remarkable Sunday Press.
Paul Tumey: Pete, congratulations on your new Milt Gross book, Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross. Before we discuss the new book, I wanted to check in with you and see what’s up these days with Sunday Press. It seems Sunday Press is now distributed by IDW, is that right?
Pete Maresca: Yes it's been a little over a year now. This flu that's been running around has slowed everything down a bit. My main concern was that after 16 books it was getting harder to edit and distribute, and physically ship everything on my own, so was looking for a new distribution set up. The IDW deal is more of a hybrid where they will publish certain books under the Sunday Press name, but I will continue to work on whatever titles I like. They handle all the distribution and marketing, including digital sales, regardless of who's paying to get the book made.
That sounds like it will free you up to focus more on the creation of the books.
Yes, that's the big plus. I can now do more than one book a year, or just do one book a year and have more time to goof off.
While I am a fan of idleness myself, I would dearly love to see more Sunday Press books. I hope the new deal helps with sales. IDW books are distributed by Penguin Random House to bookstores everywhere and that should help. Although this year has not been so hot for that, with many outlets on lockdown.
In my case, there was a big delay in getting into the Penguin Random House system. It took nine months to get this baby out, but going by the last quarter, sales were up a bit for me over the same period last year, but that could have been from pent-up demand for the time the books were not available. But we shall see. Anyway, my back doesn't miss trips to the post office.
I bet! I need a special weighted rope and pulley apparatus to read Society is Nix in bed. I put little wheels on my copy to save my back and keep a team of Clydesdales stabled and ready to help me move it. In fact, the unusually large size of most of the Sunday Press books could be a challenge to brick and mortar bookshops. Although, speaking as a former bookseller, the big colorful books with bold cover graphics would grab eyes in windows and on tabletop displays. I think the dedication to reprinting as close to original size as possible is a valuable gift to Twenty-First Century culture and one of the reasons l adore and champion Sunday Press books. Was that a part of the vision all along?
Yes, the idea was not just to reproduce the comics from the historical or content perspective, but to attempt to recreate the experience of reading a Sunday newspaper comic strip. The full size was essential for the earlier strips because of the large amount of detail on a single page as well as the small text. For example, Feininger's comics are virtually unreadable in the reprint formats that came before the Forgotten Fantasy book. It's not as essential as you move into the strips of the 1930s, as many were created to be printed in tabloid format as well. So my more recent titles weigh in somewhere between full broadsheet and the smaller tabloid size.
Wanting the newspaper-reading experience also dictated the type of paper used and the degree of restoration. Bright colors, pure whites, and glossy paper weren't going to do the job.
The results are well worth all the effort, even with comics that are readable in a smaller format. For example, reading color Krazy Kat comics in the original size and colors and with the care you put in things like paper stock and format is a revelation. I see and experience aspects of Herriman's art that just doesn't come through in the smaller versions. Could you tell me a little bit about your process for restoring the comics?
Sometimes there's a big bonus in not knowing what you're doing. Working on the first Little Nemo collection back in 2005, I knew that I wanted something other than what I had seen in previous reprint editions, but didn't know how to get it. I had no experience in print so I wasn't starting from a place of trying to adopt existing formulas. It took a lot of experimentation.
Working off of the scans from the original newspaper pages, and using the pages for a guide, I used Photoshop to restore the colors the way they might look when the paper was new, but with a hint of age. Subjective for sure, but I knew when I got what I liked. I would restore the defects in a page due to the ravages of time and the elements, but many of the original faults like ink smudges or minor off-register colors would remain
Since many of the pages were of different quality the backgrounds and gutters would look drastically different once you got the panels to be just right.
To get a more even look for all the pages, I scanned several pieces of blank newsprint, then created a set of a dozen backgrounds to use for the reproduced pages. The panels would be lifted out in a separate layer, then dropped on the background to give the effect that each page came from the same newspaper. Blank newsprint is far from white, and the subtle blend of colors and texture of each background is what gives the page the look of an old Sunday comic.
Oops, giving away the trade secrets here!
Don't worry, boss, I won't tell. Whoops.
As for the time, when I first started it took me around an hour for each page, sometimes more if I had to redraw pieces of missing artwork. It's much faster now that I've learned the tricks.
Actually, I wish more people did it the way you do, because not only do the comics look great, they offer a superior reading experience, closer to what the cartoonists and craftspeople who made this art intended.
I've thought a lot about this. The cartoonists designed their work for a very particular output: the pages of the American newspaper, with all of the severe limitations for printing graphics and color. The really good cartoonists, I think, learned how to make their comics work in this challenging format and had to do very clever, specific things in the design, rendering, and lettering. So reproducing this work in a smaller size, recolored, and tweaked this way and that, just makes it hard -- sometimes impossible -- to completely understand the art.
Your approach is more like that of a preservationist, or a museum curator -- to honor the original intent and reveal as much about the art as possible. Unlike, say, paintings, pottery, textiles, or sculpture ... you can produce an art book that is much truer, because you are working with materials very close to the original format – paper and ink.
Some people disagree and think that a bright printer's proof better displays what the artist intended, but no comics lover ever saw that, so I had to believe the better artists were always thinking about how it would look in the funny papers. Certainly, the early artists felt this way as there were no color printer’s proofs way back when. My first experience with classic comic strips —a divine revelation by the way— was from a large collection of the original sections, so that is what I wanted to see reproduced and what I work to preserve for a future long after the newsprint has dissolved.
Ah, so you imprinted early on the original format. How did you find that collection?
My initial exposure to the form, other than reading the New York News and New Haven Register comics in the 1950s, came in the early 1970s when I came across an eccentric collector living in an old farm in Orange County, NY. For fifty years he had taken every comic section from every New York City paper and walked it up the rustic stairs to the attic of his old farmhouse. So he had about a hundred running feet of comics sections that he had continued to re-read over the years. He had every character and storyline committed to memory. I spent two solid days going through the stacks with him. Coming from a world of Marvel comics of the 70s, imagine seeing for the first time full runs of McCay, McManus, Caniff, Raymond, Herriman, Gross, Segar, and dozens of other greats for the very first time in the actual papers where they appeared. And being guided through this glorious universe by someone who lived the culture. The comics remained a huge part of this man's now solitary life, but he was forced to sell out to subdivisions and move to an assisted living home, unable to take his comics along.
That is a great story! So what happened to his comics? Asking for a friend.
It made it back to my place in two trips in the old Volvo station wagon and became the basis of the collection I have now. I spent another forty years filling in blanks, finding strips that were before 1924 and the many comics that were not in the three major NY papers.
It was a sad day. I saw a lifetime coming to a close, and was flooded with conflicting emotions; discovering this great new love and knowing the sadness he felt begin separated from such a great part of his life. He seemed to get some happiness knowing that the collection would have a better future than the landfill. I would like to think that he'd be happy, and probably surprised, to see how his collection is now being shared with the world.
I've been working on a fact-based fictional back story here, would make a nice graphic novel.
I would love to read that graphic novel! There are a few older experts and collectors I've spoken with who have since moved on, such as Cole Johnson. I'm turning into one of those people! I have a collection, too... although not nearly as expansive as the one you describe. I mostly buy in areas I’m writing about, such as for the Screwball! book. The newspaper and magazine comics are sitting in portfolios and boxes in my closets, slowly turning into piles of brown chips. I feel like I am in a race against time, to scan this stuff before it disintegrates. For all I know, I may have the only extant copies of certain pages in existence.
I spoke with Cole on the phone only once. I had put up an early Hearst section on eBay and he bought it and then wanted to talk with me. He was looking for more, which I had, but I also think he just wanted to meet. He said there are only a handful of people interested enough in this stuff to seek it out. Man, he described his collection to me and my mouth was watering. Sounds like he had a lot of treasures. He was into old radio and comedy films as much as comics, it seems. I remember thinking he sounded a lot like W.C. Fields. We were going to work together, but then he passed on, into the great funnybook in the sky.
Cole was a wonderful guy, and in many ways similar to the man who introduced me to the strips. I visited him several times and bought him an oversized scanner so that he didn't have to use the tiny fax-machine scanner and copy pages in pieces. His place had stacks of bound volumes and loose pages. I was once nearly "Collyered" by a stack of falling library volumes. Sadly, it was not an 3archival environment for the pages and they were hammered by the elements. He had the only known copy of a New York World two-page spread jam that appeared in Society Is Nix. It literally crumbled to pieces as we gingerly lifted it from the scanner.
I am curious about what was behind your decision to create and publish a deluxe collection of Milt Gross comics. You’ve published the work of Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Chester Gould, Harold Gray, and Frank King. Does Milt Gross belong in that pantheon?
I think every comics lover would put together a slightly different pantheon, for me Gross is right up there. Each of the greats brings some part of American life or culture to their work, often taken from their own experiences. Garrett Price did that in a uniquely wonderful way, as did Chester Gould. Comic artists borrowed from dime novels, newspaper headlines, and the grand tapestry that was American culture in the early 20th century, making comics a center of popular culture. Gross brought the spirit of Vaudeville: the buoyant, frenetic slapstick, rapid-fire gags, and broad and eccentric characters; plus in his early work, the unique flavor of the Yiddish-English language.
I received my advance copy of Gross Exaggerations, and I think it came out great. The restorations and printing of the color Sunday pages are clean and crisp. As often happens with your books, having the chance to read a sheaf of his Sunday pages in the original size and colors and free from the distracting artifacts of deterioration is like bringing a picture into clear focus. I spent a lot of time reading and studying Gross’s comics when I was researching and writing Screwball!, but in this collection, I am able to see aspects of his art that are new to me.
Yes indeed. Doing this book - as is often the case - I was able to discover, or rediscover, details about the work that can be overlooked. When you are restoring a page, with panels blown up to fullscreen, one can really appreciate the little touches that contribute to great work.
Art Speigelman once perfectly described Gross's line to me as a "loose scrawl." I think his linework is remarkable. It has that brilliant improvisation you see in children's art but is clearly infused with great craftsmanship and understanding of cartooning. Rube Goldberg used to talk about the importance of having a “loose hand” when cartooning. Miraculously, the comics of Milt Gross drawings never feel stale or uninspired.
Like many others of the period it's fascinating to look at his earliest work and to see how it resembles a typical comic of the day, and then the freedom is grasped and the inspiration kicks in, resulting in something that is completely different, and yet universally accessible.
I also have discovered some new gems I had not seen before. A particular delight is the Nize Baby from January 16, 1927. In this episode, the Feitelbaums are out for a drive in the country when they get lost. Papa goes to ask directions and winds up in a home for the insane which looks a lot like Nuttycrest, the asylum in Gross’s next strip, Count Screwloose. There’s even an early version of Iggy, the dog who wears the Napoleon hat. That’s Gross all over. Where most cartoonists would have drawn a man in a Napoleon hat, Gross twists it further and makes it a dog among humans in an asylum, which makes it even funnier.
The book gives us large, curated selections of Gross’s three major Sunday comics series, Nize Baby, Count Screwloose of Tooloose, and Dave’s Delicatessen plus their assorted topper strips. How were you ever able to round up all this rare material? And did you curate it much, or just had to run with what you could find?
Much of it came from that first collection and the rest dribbled in over the years. I was a Gross fan early on, so when I started working on Gross Exaggerations, I had about 75% of the pages. To upgrade or find missing pages I relied on other collectors, like Carl Linich, and spent time at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, going through their stacks to be sure there wasn't something important that I was missing. I think I got a few scans from you as well.
I think I actually mailed you a couple of dozen pages from my archives because I didn’t have the time to make the scans. I am delighted to see some of these in the book. Do you have a favorite Gross strip?
Ha! How easy would it be for you to answer that question? I have some favorites from his three major titles. There’s the first Nize Baby strip, "Moving Day," and the one with Looey's cooling invention. In Count Screwloose, there’s the page with the nutty chef in the restaurant juggling and chasing the cat, while singing "He Done Her Wrong.” Another Screwloose favorite is the page where the cops head out with automatic weapons to arrest a kid for fishing in the park. And for Dave's Delicatessen there’s the page where the kite string wanders the town.
Nicely played! I really love the cover of the book. The image of the lady chasing Morris Feitelbaum and beating him over the head with a huge sausage in a blurred frenzy is hilarious. Sunday Press titles all have such a consistent and distinctive design, from the covers to the interior layouts. If I am not mistaken, all the Sunday Press books have been designed by Phillipe Ghielmetti in France. In addition to being a book designer, he is also a music producer and graphic artist. He’s also a publisher.
I know you contributed an essay on Gross to recent his elegant hardcover reprint of Gross’s classic wordless cartoon novel, He Done Her Wrong (available through amazon.fr; the text is in French, but the Gross story is wordless, so speakers of all languages can enjoy it). How did you first cross paths with Philippe?
Well, I first got to know Philippe through Futuropolis founders Etienne Robial and Florence Cestac because of their “Copyright” editions reprint books. That was around 1979 when I would work with them in finding some of the American comic strip material for the books. Later Philippe moved to New York City where I introduced him to an old friend of mine, Tibor Kalman, a well-known designer and the owner of M & Company. Tibor just loved Philippe. He told me, “Philippe does great work. I give him a big pile of projects and a pack of Gitanes, and he sits and works all day.” Philippe and I spent a lot of time together in New York. When he moved back to Paris I would still see him regularly, and then our first collaboration came in 2005.
That was the first McCay Nemo book?
Right. While at the 2005 Angoulême festival, I talked about the Little Nemo book with my friend Fershid Bharucha, then of Éditions USA in Paris. He had published over five hundred books and magazines, and certainly knew how to put a comic together. So he said: “Get all the image files and come back to Paris, I’ll show you how to do it.” And Philippe joined in “I’ll take care of the design, we’ll do it in, you know, a weekend.” It took us about ten days and two cases of wine. A big problem was that we were dealing with files that were so huge and we working on older computers, slower computers – Quark (this was before InDesign) would always crash. So you get to create the PDF file and you get right to the edge and, boom, it crashes.
I know about that! Wow, so this was the birth of Sunday Press! What was it like making that first book?
It took us a lot longer than anticipated. Well, we were finally able to build all of the PDFs and were ready to go to the printer. And at that time we had to put it on seven CD-ROMs. Of course, now you just upload it all. I remember when Philippe said it was all done except for the ISBN. I asked, “What’s an ISBN?”
I had an ISBN once, but I saw a doctor and got an ointment. I'm better now.
HA! (rim-shot here). Philippe's first cover for the Nemo book was quite different, more like a standard cover for this type of book. He threw that out a day before the deadline and said it was all wrong for what we wanted to say. These books were big and we needed to have an oversized character to exemplify that size. So all the covers became one iconic image with a fanciful typeface. This is a unique design by Philippe.
It’s inspired design by Philippe and I love every cover. Getting back to Milt Gross, in my communications with readers of my book on screwball comics, I have become aware of a surprisingly large pocket of folks who know about Milt Gross and absolutely adore his comics. It seems to continue to speak to people almost a hundred years after it was created. Do you agree, and if so, what do you think is going on with his work that makes it still appeal?
I think there's always been an appeal to the crazy side of humor, from the screwball movies of the thirties, the Stooges, to Olsen and Johnson, Spike Jones, MAD in the 1950s, up to Steve Martin, even Borat. Gross brings the anarchy of the world into focus, then spins it on its head and throws all of the family dysfunction and social hypocrisy right back in our faces to knock us off our feet. This is a timeless form of humor.
It certainly is! And these days, we need all the laughs we can get! Before we close, is there anything you can share about upcoming Sunday Press projects? Now that you have all that new free time and all with the IDW marketing and distribution arrangement.
There are several things I'd like to put together. A second volume of Dick Tracy tabloid Sundays, for one. Also, two early adventure strips that haven't been done before. And an anthology collection of the great female adventure strips of the 1930s and 1940s, Heroes in High Heels, many of which are relatively unknown. These heroes of sci-fi, adventure, and detective stories did everything the male heroes did, but in order to remain in their established environment, they did it in flowing skirts and high heels. Once into the 1950s, the women in comics--as in society--for the most part, slipped into a more domestic role.
Those all sound great. I am excited about the female adventure strips book. I hope it will include Invisible Scarlet O’Neil and Deathless Deer! I seem to remember you mentioning that you are working with Trina Robbins on the Heroes in High Heels project.
Yes, we have runs of those and lots more. And of course, you can't do a comics history involving women without consulting Trina!
Haha, I agree! She's the expert. And she’s a wonderful cartoonist and visual storyteller, too. I recently scored a pile of her underground comix from Last Gasp and have really been enjoying them.
Yes, her work and other artists of Wimmen's Comix got the females of the comics back out of the kitchen.
Best of luck with that project. I will enjoy reading it when it comes out, as well as future Sunday Press books. Thank you, Pete, for taking the time to talk about Gross Exaggerations and your other work with me. It’s been fascinating. I’ve written for you for years and I learned a lot of new things! Next time you are in Seattle, come up to the house for a duck dinner (you bring the duck). Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to have some matzo ball soup.
And we can do our best to seek out a Dave's Deli for some insanity with the sandwich.