JACOB COVEY ON POPEYE BOOK DESIGN

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Martin: The overall global language constructed for the Popeye reprint Books seem pretty elaborate, what was the initial brief for the project?

Jacob Covey: The initial brief for the project was basically that my bosses love Popeye and they were keen to reprint the original strip in the best format possible.

Since the creator is long passed and the syndicate is more concerned with the creation as a “property” the only real client demand was pleasing my bosses. King Features was pretty remarkably hands-off. Maybe because Popeye hasn’t managed a great resurgence of popularity, they’re willing to just see what happens. I mean, nothing can be much worse than the (licensed) Reggae Popeye t-shirts I’ve seen.

Were you familiar with the original work before going in?

I wasn’t familiar. I had the common opinion that Popeye was just some repetitive cartoon about a guy who eats spinach and gets into fights over a skinny girl. After reading the first year of his appearance in comics Popeye became one of my all-time favorite characters. It’s really a genius strip. Brutal, hilarious, and totally lost in existential adventure.

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In the initial stages of brainstorming did the editors of Fantagraphics play a big role in helping mold the vision, or were you left on your own in planning things out? Do you have complete carte blanche on something like this, or do you (like many designers) crave and feed off creative restrictions?

That’s a smart question because I had carte blanche in a way but I sort of need restrictions in order to function. I find too much of celebrated contemporary design to be the work that’s most free of restrictions.

Even in school I’d open these magazines and find design-cum-Art that, for me, feels masturbatory [ugh, no pun intended] and meaningless to the content of the project. Meanwhile, the folks at Fantagraphics are totally removed from that world and design doesn’t mean a lot to them because their interest lies more in preserving work they see as important. Their vision is more archival than product-driven. So I end up looking for the restrictions. Asking for them.

In this case, the main priority was how to reprint all of the Sunday color pages and the daily black-and-white strips with the best presentation while also being within budget. So the editors broke apart the two formats within the book– basically creating a front section of 1c and a back section of 4c to save on costs. And then I had to find a way to give the book an overall feel that wouldn’t make this progression feel polarized, visually.

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As much as Popeye ends up intimidating others with his physicality, your book literally towers over its surrounding books on the shelf …it seems like one of the projects crucial decisions was the size, did the original newspaper context influence the size, why the need to go so big?

I’ve found that Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics’s co-owner) helps me a lot by giving me really intuitive direction then stepping back. Kim and Gary Groth (Fantagraphics’ founder) both knew they wanted a large format so the Sunday strips would be done justice. When I proposed the diecut smacked clean through the middle of the cover, that dictated the heft of the cover board and we had our final size.

And, as you pointed out, Popeye is about physicality and so this book is. That was important.

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Its size (multiple sections on a page) gives a unique view of something that was initially visually digested one strip at a time …do you think Segar made conscious design decisions when making the strips that would take under consideration what they would look like next to / on top of each other?

I’m not an expert but I very much doubt Segar imagined these strips being preserved in this way. Newspaper strips weren’t archived in those days (the ’20s and ’30s). Even in later decades as commercial packaging of comic strips became the norm, collected books were just picked-over versions of the strip and they never considered the ‘artistry’ of the storylines much less the format.

The strips were ephemera, meant to be digested and discarded in one sitting. Which is why half of each day’s strip is often taken up with reminding the viewer what happened the day before (except in Segar’s case he began to master making the strip stand on its own while also part of this arc).

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Your typographic decisions in the overall language is pretty eclectic and varied, serifs, sans serifs, slanted / italics different sizes … there are many different things happening but the overall rhythm is still one of refinement. Was there a need to modernize the application of type for the project, or was there a conscious decision to reference older typefaces in order to reflect and comment on its newspaper origins?

Hearing you say it, I realize that this same theme turns up often in my work. I think it’s rooted in an appreciation of the eccentricities born from the hands-on nature of past design but a desire not to make something that would have been done decades ago.

This book design is definitely meant to make the strip’s original context clear while expressing its relevance to a modern audience. While I would tone down something like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, I want to emphasize the intensity and purity of Popeye using only colors mixed from 100% or exactly 50% of the press colors, CMYK.

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Was the main Popeye type header drawn especially for this project?

Trick question. It was inspired mostly by old Castle Films home movie titles but I did it in the computer, not by hand. In fairness to the creator, it’s a font called Samson. I have now destroyed the romance.

Along with its towering size, the punch out / die cut on the front cover visually sets the collection apart from many other books. Playing along with Popeye’s aggressive physical behavior, it seems so fitting to have the main typographic logo seen through a punched out cover …how did this come about?

Eric Reynolds is the third member of the Fantagraphics Royal Family and he was the first to see my comps and push for the diecut. I didn’t know if it was feasible to do– in fact I assumed it wasn’t feasible and presented the comp as a fake diecut, complete with a Photoshop drop shadow that I never would have followed through with using. Ultimately, that diecut is what most communicates the nature of Popeye and makes the series feel complete to me. He is aggressive and, poetically, his violent nature only reveals his core purity.

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One particular design decision that intrigues me is the act of cutting up the main image on the cover (which is repeated for Volume 2 and 3). It looks incredible, and (to me) oddly makes reference to films strips or movement, which is an odd link to a static medium …what are the reasons behind this cutting up? Was there a concern in distorting the original image, especially for the cover – does this end up saying anything about the attitude of these new reprints?

I put this down to an unconscious association with the cartoon, which has had a much more lasting cultural impact for good or bad. It seemed natural to break the image this way, even though it is completely contrary to the structure of a comic strip.

The entire concept was born from when I saw the image that ended up as the cover of Volume One, of Popeye in a boxing match swinging so blindly that he ends up K.O.ing himself as well as his opponent in a fight. It encapsulates everything that’s so charming about Popeye’s humanitarian-but-prideful nature. There is a self-destruction that happens when he lashes out at the source of his frustration.

And, of course, it’s just a fun look. It’s very pleasant to handle the book and that punched out cardboard feels like childhood adventure. I have a friend who keeps talking about the “mouthfeel” of food. These books probably even have that.

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The back of your book is beautifully dynamic – offering vertical and horizontal information and what HAS to be the most carefully considered bar code I’ve ever seen. It’s really raised the bar on how much care can be put in this subtle area of book design. Along with the small chapter dividing images it’s my favourite part of the design.

It means a lot to me to hear anyone noticing that back cover. Only you and Chris Ware have commented on it. I hope that means other people are responding to it. The way a viewer first experiences the book and how they later experience it is constantly on my mind. I want there to be little things to appreciate each time you pick up the book. There’s a lot more that design could be doing if we designers just had more time to focus on it.

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4 thoughts on “JACOB COVEY ON POPEYE BOOK DESIGN

  1. This is probably my favorite designed book of all the recent collections of old comic strips. Unlike some others (ahem, Peanuts) it feels like a book that anyone – adult or child – would see, and immediately want to pick up.

    • Covey did such a good job – I had zero interest in Popeye, the design sold it 100%. But I’d be curious to hear why you seem to be critical of the Peanuts design. If anything there had been years and years of more kid oriented packaging of his work – flashy colors, little pocket books, badly printed stuff etc.

      It seemed like at the time there was such an urgent need for someone to properly reprint that series from start to finish in a way that was different than the previously mentioned child oriented look and feel. Seth brought an elegance and respectability to it all that the previous approaches lacked. I also love the book Chip Kidd put together about Peanuts.

      • I am collecting the Seth-designed Peanuts books because Peanuts is my favorite comic strip ever, and they are very well-printed, reasonably priced little hardcovers. So I’m thrilled with the work Fantagraphics has done. But I strongly dislike Seth’s design, for several reasons. The main one is that these are books that I plan to pass on to my daughter, but I just don’t think they’re books that appeal to kids, visually. They colours are muted, and the lettering used on the covers is not easy to read. On the subject of lettering, I find Seth’s hand-lettering/fonts to be completely random, and having nothing at all to do with Peanuts. Overall, while I understand that Seth was trying to capture the darker, more existential side of Peanuts, I don’t feel that the tone of his design really fits the material.

        In contrast, as I mentioned above, what I love about Covey’s Popeye design is that it captures the fun of the strip in a way that I think would appeal to almost anyone, of any age. Likewise, Chip Kidd’s Peanuts book. Kidd is a virtuoso designer and everything I’ve seen of his is impressive. Seth is, by his own admission, not really a designer at all – he’s an interesting artist, but I just find his book design awkward and arbitrary.

        By the way, I am enjoying your blog and am always happy for a forum to talk about design.

  2. - But I strongly dislike Seth’s design, for several reasons. The main one is that these are books that I plan to pass on to my daughter, but I just don’t think they’re books that appeal to kids, visually.

    I totally agree, these versions of the strip were definitely not designed to cater to a typical kid’s needs (full color popping out to entertain and make sure their attention is absorbed before they lose interest etc). Seth says it himself:

    “I’ve tried hard to steer away for the cheerful pop designs that have almost always hindered Schulz’s books in the past. I want the reader, when they see the book, to realize that this is an adult item, something meaningful. God knows the strip is subtle and rich enough — people need to be reminded of that.”

    So you can’t blame oranges for not being apples – he wasn’t aiming to design it for kids. But I see your point, and it’s a valid one. Chances are its possibly a bit too somber for a young kid to take in – but aren’t there dozens of other editions to hand over that would be more appropriate for your needs? I think that is the whole point of Seth’s approach – there has been so many of the “appeals to kids versions” let’s have at least one that has another take on it.

    – In contrast, as I mentioned above, what I love about Covey’s Popeye design is that it captures the fun of the strip in a way that I think would appeal to almost anyone, of any age. Likewise, Chip Kidd’s Peanuts book. Kidd is a virtuoso designer and everything I’ve seen of his is impressive.

    What is your favorite Kidd book design? I chatted with him once after a lecture he did, we talked about Chris Wars and he ended up pulling out his phone to show me he had just been at his house (they are good friends and he is godfather to Ware’s kid) and he had footage of all the crazy comics related stuff he had there. It was so surreal to be seeing Ware’s house on Kidd’s phone. Great designer.

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