Walt & Skeezix in the New York Times with Joe Matt!

“See You in the (Restored, Reprinted) Funny Papers” / The New York Times / Ben Schwartz / January 14, 2007

A NIGHTMARE,” Joe Matt sighs. “All those years, all that money, all that work. None of which I’ll ever get back.” Mr. Matt, the graphic novelist best known for his absurdly self-centered autobiographical comic “Peepshow,” is sitting in a prefab booth at Daily Donut in Los Feliz, a neighborhood spot favored by quiet elderly customers and infrequent rushes of teenagers seeking afterschool snacks. He is speaking of his quest for the perfect collection of Frank King “Gasoline Alley” comic strips, from 1921 to 1960. Mr. Matt, who owns no home, car, computer or cellphone, estimates he has spent upward of $15,000 on his mission since 1994.

“I found dealers in comics magazines and ordered the years I wanted,” he says. “A year runs about 312 dailies, of which you can get about 290 or more. Times that by 40, at $50 each. And there’s always missing strips. I’d have to order the same year again and again just to get a few missing days. God help you if you drop them, because you have to sort 300 undated strips by story line. Then I found that different papers ran the strip at different sizes, or with better printing presses. It was maddening.”

It’s a habit Mr. Matt has had for some time. He clipped his first strip, a “Li’l Abner,” at the age of 9, in 1972. He now seeks out obscure work with little chance of getting reprinted, and Mr. King is a prime example. His collection forms the bulk of “Walt & Skeezix” (retitled from “Gasoline Alley” for licensing reasons), a decade-long, multivolume reprinting of Mr. King’s complete works published by D&Q (Drawn & Quarterly). (Volume 3 arrives in June.)

Mr. Matt is not unique among collectors. Peter Maresca, whose day job is creative director of GoComics/uClick Mobile, self-published his own collection of “Little Nemo” Sunday tearsheets as “So Many Splendid Sundays.” Fantagraphics’ “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat” series are made possible by the archivist Bill Blackbeard, and IDW’s “Complete Dick Tracy” relies on a legion of fans, since no single run is known to exist.

Their compulsion to own an artist’s every strip — sometimes 15,000 or more — and to clip, preserve and organize them all, has helped rescue a disappearing corner of American popular culture. After decades in which comic-strip syndicates and libraries have been purging themselves of paper archives for microfilm, their collections are often all that’s left.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” said Kim Thompson, co-founder of Fantagraphics, the publisher of popular graphic novels like Daniel Clowes’s “Ghost World.” Fantagraphics began issuing “complete” projects in the 1980s, with multivolume collections of “Popeye” and “Prince Valiant,” and currently with George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” (as “Krazy & Ignatz,” for licensing reasons), an improved “Popeye” and Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts.”

Mr. Thompson has resorted to making pleas on the Internet for rare strips, and fans turned up what he needed: “Even with ‘Peanuts,’ where Schulz maintained an archive, we have one fan, Marcie — yes, same name as the ‘Peanuts’ character — who compiled a database on her own that lets her plug in the date of any strip, and it tells her wherever that particular strip has ever been reprinted.”

Until recently the market for many of these projects was limited to other collectors, and weak sales doomed some earlier multivolume series like “Little Orphan Annie” in the middle of their runs.

But today’s collections show more commercial promise, thanks in large part to graphic literature successes like “Maus,” “Jimmy Corrigan,” “Ghost World” and “Persepolis.” Fantagraphics says it has sold about 100,000 copies of the first volume of “The Complete Peanuts” since 2004, and it issues new volumes twice a year. The publisher has also sold 10,000 to 16,000 copies each of the first three “Krazy & Ignatz” collections and is issuing an eighth volume next month. “The Complete Dick Tracy” sold out a 7,500-copy printing last October; a second printing is due in late February, with Volume 2 scheduled for April.

“There’s a younger audience that’s grown up during this renaissance in cartooning,” said the cartoonist known as Seth who designs “The Complete Peanuts.” “Probably in their early 20s, they grew up reading, say, ‘Eightball,’ as teenagers. So they’re well prepared for this, and it’s not a big stretch for them to embrace comics history.”

That history is refreshed by today’s top graphic novelists, who design art-book quality presentations, often contribute historical essays and cleverly rework the art into endpapers. Chris Ware, the creator of “Jimmy Corrigan,” designs the “Krazy & Ignatz” and “Walt & Skeezix” series, while Adrian Tomine designs a series of work by the Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Jeet Heer, a historian who edits the Herriman and King sets, said: “They make them seem fresh and alive, not just something of antiquarian interest. Those earlier reprint series — ‘Terry and the Pirates,’ ‘Flash Gordon,’ ‘Prince Valiant’ — appealed largely to men in their 50s and 60s who wanted to relive their boyhood. The new crop of books aren’t being read by people who have a nostalgic memory of first reading them.”

Chris Oliveros, the publisher of D&Q, said: “Artists like Ware and Tomine make it possible to bypass the superhero-dominated comic book shops for the general reading public. We’re introducing this as good work that should have an audience.”

To do so, the work is emphasized, not the kitsch merchandising that the more popular strips often generate. Seth’s “Peanuts” covers are minimal, for example, focusing on the emotions of Schulz’s strips rather than the crowd-pleasing imagery of Snoopy’s Red Baron or Lucy’s psychiatry booth.

“The world of Charles Schulz at the drawing board is an entirely different world from the Charles Schulz in stores, television, theaters or Japan,” said David Michaelis, the author of the forthcoming “Schulz: A Biography.” “What Seth has done is take a diamond out of its old setting, polished it and reset it in a way that makes it sparkle more.

“He’s gone into Schulz, with a camera eye, deeply into the images, and pulled out passages and expanded. That’s not Schulz, that’s Seth. It doesn’t take away. It builds it back up. He’s remaking him. It’s one of the more generous gifts one graphic artist has ever given another.”

Ted Adams of IDW said he hoped to reintroduce readers to the dark, brutal imagination of Chester Gould. “People first asked me, ‘Dick Tracy?’ Why are you reprinting that? It’s so vanilla,’ ” he said. “I think their memories come from the Warren Beatty movie, which I like. But that’s not Gould.”

“This is a 1930s police procedural about a cop who does what it takes,” he continued. “It’s not vanilla. It’s ‘The Shield.’ ”

Physical restoration of the strips is aided greatly by digital technology: missing letters are “cloned” from other word balloons, faded colors balanced and missing backgrounds transposed from similar panels.

“It wouldn’t have been possible 5 to 10 years ago,” Mr. Thompson said. “The results are so much better. Back then we shot photostats from tearsheets and then repainted corrections by hand. Now it’s scanned into the computer and fixed with Photoshop.”

For Mr. Maresca, the self-publisher of his “Little Nemo” collection, it comes down to “the high tech saving the low tech.” He founded Sunday Press Books in his home, restored his own tearsheets using Photoshop and reissued them at original newspaper size. For the first time in a century Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” appears as intended, in a coffee-table book. It sold out a 5,000-copy print run, and Mr. Maresca plans a similar Frank King Sunday book with Mr. Ware.

Perhaps the best example of the renewed interest in classic cartooning is Mr. King’s “Gasoline Alley,” now renamed “Walt & Skeezix” after its father and son protagonists. Obscure to even devoted comics fans, the strip’s only real selling point today is Mr. King’s storytelling.

The first volume, which has sold over 10,000 copies since 2005, begins in 1921, when Mr. King reluctantly sent his only son off to boarding school. Soon after, he dropped the infant Skeezix on Walt’s doorstep.

“This suggests that the strip is essentially King’s imaginary life with a son who was no longer there,” Mr. Ware says. “King’s strip took the formal structure of the regular, daily appearance of the comic strip and used it as a real-time medium to tell an almost 50-year long story about American middle-class life. Children grow up, get married, go to war, have children of their own and then have grandchildren.”

Surprisingly, Mr. King’s revival has found a dissenter in his No. 1 fan, Mr. Matt. “Kind of a drag, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, I love the books, but where’s my compensation?”

He said he wasn’t talking about the $540 that D&Q paid for his collection, or about credit, although he makes sure in the new “Peepshow” to remind readers who introduced D&Q to Mr. King’s work. No, he sees himself as the victim of an O. Henry-type twist ending, one in which his collecting defeated its own purpose.

“I never intended to put out the books,” Mr. Matt said. “I did it so that I could read Frank King whenever I wanted. I concentrated on him because I thought he’d never be reprinted. I mean, what are the odds? Of course they’re reprinting ‘Peanuts.’ But King? Now anybody can buy one.”

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