One of the big hits at San Diego Comic-Con last summer was Finding Frank and His Friend, the first collection of Clarence “Otis” Dooley’s classic newspaper comic. In the tradition of such strips as Calvin & Hobbes the tale of a boy with a doll named Frank captured the wonder and innocence of a childhood perspective, and this collection brought back a lot of memories.
Except there never was a Clarence “Otis” Dooley, or a strip called Frank and His Friend.
The book is an extremely clever reproduction from writer Kristie Shepherd and artist Cesare Asaro, a duo who’s set up a mock-nostalgia company called Curio & Co. (www.curioandco.com). Their work includes prints, books and various drawings from comic strips and cartoon series that never existed…but it might seem that way.“Presenting a history instead of a straightforward strip was always the intention,” says Sherpherd. “The idea of the company is to produce memorabilia and collectibles, but from an alternate history – pop culture properties that never existed.
“Creating the memorabilia before the actual work itself allows us to play with the power of nostalgia and memory. Just as your childhood home is never as big as you remember it to be, the memory of something can often be stronger than the actual object itself. So our products cut out the middle man and go right to the nostalgia to re-create warm and fuzzy childhood memories. Who couldn’t use a little more of that, right?
“Our products should straddle the line of authentic and silly. At first glance, they should look like they could fit in with other similar collectibles. They should look familiar in terms of style, materials or context. But upon a closer look it should be clear that the world is made up, and a little bit ridiculous. Allowing this moment of discovery is really important to us. We love puzzles and riddles, and letting people in on the joke is key to the fun.”
Asaro’s work combines “actual” Frank strips with color pencils and other “Behind the scenes” art. “Because it’s a retrospective of an artist and it’s supposed to be the behind-the-scenes work prior to syndication, it was important to us to show the process the artist took to get to that point of finalizing the character,” Asaro says.“Even with the production drawings that are included in the book there is quite a variety of the character’s stylistic lines. It’s not supposed to look like it’s finalized, it’s supposed to show the process towards what it’s going to look like – and of course nobody knows what it’s going to look like because nobody knows what Frank and His Friend look like.”
Part of the challenge was creating a strip that looked like it belonged in a different era. “I was looking at a specific time period, so there is a color scheme tied to the time period and there was the aging, of course,” Asaro says. “Since the company is about nostalgia, we wanted to have something that looked as charming as possible and needed to have really warm colors and had to be soft and not angular. It still needed to work graphically, but because we were trying to communicate a kind of comfort and softness we needed to round the edges.
For that. Asaro had to figure out how to “age” the material. “Primarily, the aging process was all done digitally and involved me looking at specific aged material,” Asaro says. “Something that I looked at closely was a particular poster that I have at home – how the mildew was piercing through the poster and how the color was deteriorating. It was useful to see what water might do and how the drawings could have been used.Another trick was imagining how “Dooley” would have created the strips. “Usually when I do production work I tend to take advantage of every single space on the walls and one of the things that I wanted to communicate was that because the artist was looking for a specific feeling or a specific something and that these are concept materials, he needed to take a look at them on a regular basis,” Asaro says.
“That’s why they have pin holes in them, because the way I imagine it is that he’s in the studio and he has all these drawings up on the wall and is constantly looking at them and every time he’s making a new one he’s posting it up and then he’s judging the work if it doesn’t make sense or if it makes sense.”
Shepherd says that she’s enjoyed the creative experience behind Finding Frank and His Friend. “The most rewarding part of starting Curio & Co. has been just to be able to do the types of projects that we find the most entertaining. We’re really writing and designing for ourselves, and creating the types of things that we would love to collect. We are interested in so many different types of entertainment and pop culture, and this business allows us to create in a variety of fields.”Asaro has also enjoyed the process. “A lot of artists say ‘I was born with a pencil in my hand,’ I can’t really say that,” Asaro says “ I was born with the idea of taking everything apart,” Asaro says. “All my toys I took apart… I was interested in how things connect.”
“That’s why the company right now is interested in so many different things…we’re interested in visuals, we’re interested in manufacturing, we’re interested in products, we’re interested in emotions and everything that kind of communicates that.
“You can’t really separate them – emotions are tied to colors and smells and touch and the experience of taking the product out of the box. Everything is interrelated and a product can’t live without all these different elements.The two share a close collaborative process. “The way that the company is split up right now is that I’m primarily focused on the manufacturing and the design and the visuals of things, while Kirstie is focusing on the content,” Asaro says.
“And with the production of Finding Frank and His Friend I was doing the initial sketches of the strip and then I would show the material to her and then she would get back to me with some ideas and then maybe I would counter that with another idea and there was a lot of back and forth and this is very beneficial and something that is rare for a studio to have.
“I’ve worked at a couple of studios and a lot of the time you have to do what the boss says and there is no dialog, and one of the reasons that Pixar has such an excellent product is that they discuss things and they have a back and forth.“One of the ways that this dialog has worked out very well for us: we’re now putting out a model sheet for an animated series and the process for the character design has been just brilliant. Kirstie wrote the back-story and the description of the characters, and I had done some primary designs and we passed it on to Luca Fattore and Luca made alternative variations and then I talked to Luca about the designs and then from there we went into production variations of the design – just me and Luca and then I would discuss with Kirstie and then Kirstie would have some suggestions and then I would get back to Luca and there was a lot of back and forth.
“As a result, the product is much better and things really congealed because there was a lot of dialog rather than just one person making all the decisions and not allowing for growth of the process.”
Up next is more “memorabilia” for the “cartoon” Asaro mentioned. “We have a second product line on the website that presents animation originals from everyone’s favorite 1960s animated character: Spaceman Jax (“the hero with a heart of gold, and the intellect of a Ploridian Lunar Beast”),” Shepherd says.“As with Frank and His Friend, we created Spaceman Jax and the Galactic Adventures from the ground up, inventing the show’s back-story, the production company that produced the show and the characters who designed and animated it.
“We were fortunate enough to work with a very talented (and real) animator Luca Fattore on the design of the show, and he even helped invent the character of his alter ego, the pud films designer Philip La Carta. Fattore is currently at work on model sheets of the Mantagons, villains that frequently clash with Spaceman Jax and his friends.
“We’ll also have a new book out this year, probably just before Comic-Con. I can’t say exactly what it will cover, but let’s just say that it will be timely.”
Shepherd says she’s pleased with the feedback for the concept so far. “By far the best reaction we’ve received was from someone who ‘got’ the concept of the company so well that he played along to add, ‘Oh, I loved Frank and His Friend. When I was a kid I had a Frank and His Friend lunchbox, and it killed me when I found out that my mom had sold it at a garage sale for fifty cents!’”
“We get really excited about this kind of feedback, because the idea of ‘playing along’ is at the core of the company. The company website is actually a lot of fun for us, because it’s completely ‘in character’ in this alternate world we’ve created, populated with a variety of eccentric personalities that help bring the world to life. This is different from the trade shows, where we pull back the curtain.
As Curio & Co. creates more products, a larger fictional universe will be unveiled. “There are hints in the book at other popular entertainment that existed in the same world, and we’re in the process now of developing the collectibles for those lines,” Shepherd says. “I can’t tell you about them yet, but I can say that we will come back to comics and comic books again in the future.
“What I can say that’s coming up is some of the memorabilia from Pennyland, an amusement park that’s mentioned in the book.”
And fans haven’t seen the last of Frank. “We have other collectibles planned for Frank and His Friend – reproducing the ‘Frank’ dolls that were sold at the height of the strip’s popularity, for example – but we don’t have plans to do more strips,” Shepherd says.
“We have a lot of other products that are in the pipeline first, but we’ll get back to Frank and His Friend in the form of other collectibles, original drawings perhaps. We do hope we eventually find a lunchbox for that fan whose mother sold his at a garage sale!”
Finding Frank and His Friend, along with other Frank prints and merchandise, are available on www.curioandco.com. The creators will also appear at WonderCon in San Francisco this weekend, and at San Diego Comic-Con in July.