When artist Matt Whitlock was seven, he wrote a letter to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz with one request. He wanted to help draw the cartoonist's famed strip.
“I got a form letter back with some Xeroxed drawings,” Whitlock recalls during our conversation at Meltdown Comics on Wednesday night.
As an adult, Whitlock was finally able to meet his hero. He traveled to Schulz's Santa Rosa studio in 1999, a year before the beloved cartoonist died. They talked for about 45 minutes and Schulz gave Whitlock an original strip.
“It's my prized possession,” he said.
But, it wasn't until recently that Whitlock's childhood dream came true. He is now drawing the latest incarnation of Peanuts.
Yes, it's true, Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang are back thanks to Boom! Studios' imprint, Kaboom! The first issue of the new series is hot off the presses and features both Schulz's work along with interpretations from a new generation of artists and writers. Whitlock and writer Shane Houghton are working on the first four issues of the series.
Houghton is the co-creator and writer of Reed Gunther, an all ages, Wild West comic that has been gaining steam since it was picked up by Image. The series caught the eye of some folks at Kaboom!, who asked Houghton and his brother, Reed Gunther co-creator/artist Chris Houghton, about working on the Peanuts relaunch. Chris was unavailable, but Shane was still interested.
Houghton then suggested his friend Whitlock, who works in animation in Los Angeles, as an artist for the new series. Whitlock jumped on the opportunity to work with characters that he says he has been drawing since he was six years old.
“After it started to sink in, I became completely paralyzed with fear,” says Whitlock.
He goes on to describe the kind of intimidation he felt.
“It's like being in a cover band. I'm never going to be as good the original,” he says. “All these fans that are just as rabid as me are going to be just as critical of new stuff as I'm going to be on myself.”
But the duo's stab at the legendary comic is a good one. “Cat Cash,” their story in the first issue, is a classic tale of Lucy Van Pelt messing with the neighborhood children.
“Growing up, I never liked Lucy. She was so awful and so mean that I couldn't stand her,” says Houghton. “But, as a writer, she's great.”
He continues, “She really is what helps define any sort of conflict in Peanuts.”
Part of the appeal of Peanuts was Schulz's knack for balancing concepts that could appeal to both children and adults. I'm not the only one who can say that I learned how to read with Peanuts, that I grew up with the strip and came to understand it on a philosophical level with age.
“I think kids can appreciate the comedy, but, as you get older, you start to appreciate the melancholy of the strip,” says Whitlock.
Whitlock and Houghton have managed to tap into that appeal that Schulz so brilliantly cultivated. But, as both the artist and writer admit, they had a lot of help from the franchise's rich history.
“The Peanuts language is so well-defined as it is. You know how they talk and you know what they say,” says Houghton. “We're not changing Peanuts and we're not doing anything insanely different. All the characters are there.”
“There are 50 years of reference, so there is very little guesswork,” adds Whitlock.
“We never have to think, would Linus cuss here?” says Houghton. “You just don't think that. ”