Dean Mullaney on IDW's Library of American Comics

Terry and the Pirates.

Dick Tracy.

Little Orphan Annie.   These three names are not only a trio of the most recognized comic strips in history, with stories and legacies that have touched more people than most comics would dare to dream, but all three are also regarded as some of the highest creative peaks in comic history.   With these three strips as its core, IDW Publishing and editor/designer Dean Mullaney, former publisher of Eclipse Comics (think MiracleMan, Zot!, Scout, and many, many more), launched the Library of American Comics in 2007. Dedicated to preserving and reprinting the best comic strips in American history, the Library of American Comics has quickly become one of the leading lights among archival comics publishing.   Milton Caniff spun yarns about the Eastern adventures of teenager Terry Lee, journalist and ladies’ man Pat Ryan and George Webster "Connie" Confucius, their guide to China, along with a motley crew of scoundrels, damsels and scheming masterminds, from 1934 until 1946 in Terry and the Pirates. Many fans consider it the finest adventure strip of all time, a culmination of all the lessons cartoonists had learned to that point, as well as a reflection of tensions in China during its long war with Japan, and, after November 1941, America's entry into World War II.   Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy began in 1931, and Gould continued to chronicle the harsh crime-busting ways of Chicago’s toughest cop until 1977. Along the way, a new vocabulary for character designs and relentless action was born.   In 1924, Harold Gray started a new strip about an orphan girl whose curly red hair became world famous. She was adopted by benevolent millionaire capitalist Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. Relentlessly curious and adventurous, Little Orphan Annie continued under Gray’s pen under his death in 1968.   And that’s not even mentioning the book Mullaney’s most proud of, Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, a 400-page omnibus of Sickles’ illustration work and a complete run of his 1933-1936 stint as the artist on the Scorchy Smith comic strip. An adventurous pilot for hire, Scorchy Smith doesn’t have the name recognition of his compatriots, but the book has been among the best received comics titles of 2008.   Although work on these books keeps Dean up until 2:30am on a near-nightly basis, he took some time out to talk to us about the status of IDW’s Library of American Comics line and the love for the material that keeps going.   Newsarama: Dean, you approached IDW about starting the Library of American Comics because you wanted to reprint Terry and the Pirates, right?   Dean Mullaney: Yes. Terry’s always been my favorite strip, and I was going to publish it in the early 80s (through Eclipse Comics), but Terry Nantier at NBM beat me to it. Luckily, I’ve lived long enough so that twenty-five years later I’m in a position to release new editions of Terry.   NRAMA: With that initial goal culminating with the final Terry and the Pirates volume in January, do you feel that your initial goals were met the way you envisioned?   DM: It was in my mind for Terry to be the start. It was the series I wanted to begin with because it was my favorite, but it was never the only strip that I wanted to revisit. I’m finishing up the sixth and last Terry right now, and I’m actually kind of sad that I won’t have another one to work on.   NRAMA: So you always wanted to build this line with other classic reprints?

  DM: Oh, yes. Scorchy Smith was another strip that I’ve always wanted to do. Everyone’s wanted to see a complete Scorchy Smith by (Noel) Sickles, but no one’s ever been able to put together a complete collection of it. Fortunately, we were finally able to do it.   NRAMA: When editing and designing these books, you have a dual challenge to make it live up to the expectations of devoted fans who want a high-end reprint of the series, but you also have to find a way to make it appeal to new readers…   DM: I want the introductory text material to be such that anyone – whether a comics fan or not – can pick up the book, read the introduction, and just go right into the strips. The introduction will establish the ground floor. I didn’t want to publish the series just for the choir. I wanted it for the hardcore fans, but I also want to introduce the strips to a whole new generation of readers.   NRAMA: Now that you’re almost done with Terry, how has the reception been?   DM: Well, I actually won my first Eisner Award after thirty years in comics! I started in comics in 1977, and I was out of the field for twelve years, but my first book back in won the Eisner Award, so the response has been very good. The first book is actually sold out. I was just checking on Amazon today, because I’ve only got four copies left, and I wanted to see if I could pick up a few copies, but they’re up to ninety dollars there.   And I’m not paying ninety dollars for my own book! We'll eventually go into a second printing, but the timing will be determined by IDW's sales department.   NRAMA: You don’t have any plans to continue with the post-Milton Caniff Terry strips, correct?   DM: No.   NRAMA: Checker Books has recently put out softcover editions of Caniff’s post-Terry strip Steve Canyon in book form. Has there been any discussion of the Library of American Comics taking over that license for hardcover archival versions?   DM: Since they're already doing it, there's no reason for anyone to do it again, even in hardcover. Eventually, it could be done, but you need to wait a whole generation before it gets reprinted again. There are a number of publishers reprinting classic comic strips, and I’m happy to see them. Sometimes it’s better to buy one copy than to print 10,000!   NRAMA: (laughs) Very true. Dean, the Library of American Comics has recently published the fifth volume of The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. How is work on that series progressing?
  DM: IDW’s been doing the Tracy books in house. The first five are out; they’re doing up through Vol. 6. I did the production on the strips of Vol. 6, but they’re handling the editorial material and design. I’m taking over Dick Tracy with Vol. 7. I’m getting it just when Gould starts introducing all the incredible villains, like Flattop and Pruneface and Laughy and all those grotesque characters.   So I start with Vol. 7, and I’m redesigning the series with IDW’s permission.   NRAMA: When you say redesign, what does that entail? Will it be a big departure from what’s out there now?   DM: Well, not a big departure; the main change is that instead of being the size it’s at now, it’s going to be a larger size. Tracy will be the same size as Terry and the Pirates. This way we can run the Sundays larger. Fans may kick a little that the first six volumes will be smaller than the rest of them. I think the series is probably going to run twenty-five volumes all together. At least Vol. 7 through the end will be the larger size, and I think anyone will appreciate seeing the Sundays larger. They look fantastic the way they are, but I’m 54 years old and my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. Trying to read those Sundays at night is a little challenging for me.   NRAMA: Vol. 5 takes us up to mid-1939 and Gould worked on Dick Tracy until 1977, a somewhat ludicrous forty-six years on the strip. How far do you plan to take the Library of American Comics series with this strip?   DM: All the way. We’re gonna go all the way. When I was a kid in the early-60s is when Moon Maid and the whole Moon sequence happened. I know some fans don’t like it, but others like Art Spiegelman say it’s their absolute favorite part of the strip. I have a soft spot for it because that was the Tracy in the newspapers when I was a kid in New York. Same with Little Orphan Annie. We started at the very beginning, 1924. No one’s ever seen those strips reprinted before, and the second volume of Annie is at the printer now. I’m working on the third book now, and we'll continue until the strip ends in the 60s.
  NRAMA: Let’s segue into Annie. The first The Complete Little Orphan Annie was released in July with three years of the classic Harold Gray strip. Has the initial reception of Annie met your expectations?   DM: It’s been fantastic. Because Annie is better known to the general public than, say, Terry and the Pirates, it’s doing extremely well in bookstores in addition to the comic shop business. Every Barnes & Noble I go into, if any of my books are there, it’s always Annie. Some of them have Terry and Tracy as well, but Annie’s just a better known name to the public.   It’s been a complete thrill, because we’ve been able to reprint Annie from the original artwork. Harold Gray saved about 95% of his original art and, in the 1960s, donated it all to Boston University. With each volume, I go to Boston University and they’re very gracious about pulling out these stacks and stacks of incredible, beautiful artwork from the 1920s.   NRAMA: Oh my God, that’s amazing. That’s tremendous.   DM: And because they were originally printed in newspapers, and now we’re printing on good, quality paper, the strips look better now than they ever did, even in the original papers.   NRAMA: How often do you intend to release new volumes of Tracy and Annie?   DM: Tracy is going to be on a quarterly schedule, starting with Vol. 7. Annie will be three times a year.   NRAMA: Also, expanding the line, as you said, you recently published the Scorchy Smith book. How was the working on that, and will we see more similar volumes, shorter runs, in the future?   DM: Sickles worked on Scorchy for just slightly under three years, so that fit into one book – granted, a big book. Especially, with the introductory material. Our original plan was, since most of Sickles’ career was as a magazine and book illustrator, to do about a sixty page illustrated intro covering the rest of his career. But when Bruce Canwell, who wrote the text and was my associate editor on the book, and I went to Ohio State University, where Sickles’ papers are, we found so much incredible artwork – original artwork, printers’ proofs – that the sixty page intro mushroomed to 140 pages, and three fold-outs.   My attitude is, you’ve got one shot to do it right, so you might as well do it right. We just kept adding more and more pages, until we fit in every piece of beautiful artwork that we found.   NRAMA: Are there any other strips you’ll be working on in the foreseeable future?   DM: Yes, starting next summer, there will be a complete-in-two-volume set of Neal Adams’ Ben Casey newspaper strips. We also have the license from King Features to do the complete Alex Raymond Rip Kirby in five volumes. The first will be published Sept. 2009.   NRAMA: I’m already counting my pennies. You’ve been involved with comics as a publisher and editor for, as you said, nearly thirty years now, but what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced working on this line?   DM: Actually, the biggest challenge is restoring the strips, particularly Terry’s Sundays, since I think Caniff’s Sundays are simply the best Sunday color pages that anyone ever did. Caniff spent about four hours each week just doing the color guides. Over the years, we’ve seen many books reprinting Sunday pages, and many of them pretty much print the strips as found, but the newspaper pages have yellowed obviously over the years. I just think without cleaning them up, I’d be doing a disservice to the artist and a disservice to the reader. The most amount of time I spend on each book is to clean up and restore the color on the Sunday pages. Luckily, they have Caniff’s proofs at Ohio State, so I can use those as a guide to restore pages to how they should look.   NRAMA: Finally, Dean, what’s been the biggest highlight and most satisfying part of working on the Library of American Comics for you?   DM: The best thing for me is seeing Terry done the way I’ve always wanted it to be done, which is the dailies and color Sundays in chronological order. That, and also the Sickles book. Of the thousands of books that I’ve either published or edited over the years, I think the Sickles book may be the best book I’ve ever done.   Classic comics collections from the Library of American Comics are currently available. Information about each series is available at IDW’s website.

Twitter activity