The Comic Stop Exclusive Interview: It’s Peanuts Creative Team Shane Houghton & Matt Whitlock, Charlie Brown!

In last week’s edition of The Comic Stop, I raved about the first issue of the new ongoing Peanuts comic book from KABOOM! You can read all about it here, but suffice to say combining classic stories from Charles Schulz with new ones written by a variety of creators could have gone very badly. Instead, it looks as though Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy et all could very well be introduced to a whole new generation thanks to the skill and reverence of teams like writer Shane Houghton and artist Matt Whitlock, whose story Cat Cash is one of the highlights of Peanuts #1. Shane and Matt were kind enough to talk to Biff Bam Pop via email about their work on the series, what it’s like playing in the world of the Peanuts gang and so much more. 

Andy Burns: Shane and Matt, congrats on your work in Peanuts #1. As a longtime fan of the entire gang, I thought Cat Cash managed to capture so much of what makes the characters so beloved. How did you each come to work on the new series?

Shane Houghton: Thanks Andy! We’re definitely happy to hear that our story is gelling with what people have come to know and respect about Peanuts. I was brought into this project by our editor, Adam Staffaroni, who knew about the all-ages, bear-riding cowboy book I write for Image Comics, Reed Gunther. Adam was interested in having me and my brother Chris (who illustrates Reed Gunther) test for Peanuts, but Chris is jam packed with drawing a full monthly book and couldn’t fit it into his schedule. Luckily, our mutual friend, and alum of the same hometown in Michigan that Chris and I are from, Matt Whitlock, is the BIGGEST Peanuts fan in the world. Matt works as a storyboard artist for animated TV shows and has been trying to get on a Peanuts project for years. I called up Matt, he was ecstatic, we tested, and BOOM! really liked our stuff.

Matt Whitlock: Shane pretty much summed it up. I jumped at the opportunity and owe the super-cool Houghton Brothers big time. I love Shane’s brother Chris, but he’s lucky that he couldn’t fit Peanuts into his schedule. Had it been otherwise, Chris may have suffered a mysterious hand injury.

Andy Burns: Was there any feeling of intimidation for either of you, knowing that you’d be writing characters that really, in the mind of so many, belonged to Charles Schulz only? If so, how did you get over that intimidation?

Shane Houghton: YUP! It’s scary jumping into a property that my grandparents know and love. If we screw it up, I’ll feel like I’m letting them down, and disappointing your grandparents is the worst feeling in the world. The Peanuts gang is incredibly close to the hearts of millions of folks, and that’s a lot of pressure when it comes to creating new material for those fans. As for getting over that intimidation, I know I couldn’t have done it without Matt. Whenever we get too stressed out, we’ll give the other one a call and talk each other back from the edge. It’s great having that support and knowing we’re in this together. Besides that, we know that the rules of the Peanuts universe are very well defined, and all we have to do is stay within the boundaries. We’re here to play in the Peanuts sandbox, not to build a giant new play-center where the sandbox used to be.

Matt Whitlock: You assume that I was able to overcome that intimidation! I haven’t, and probably won’t. The characters will always belong to Schulz exclusively, no matter who is drawing or writing them. His wishes were that no one continues on with the newspaper strip after his passing– he penciled, inked, and lettered every panel of the daily strip- with no assistants- for 50 years. However, Sparky did have a couple ghost artists work on a completely separate Peanuts comic book for Dell Comics in the late 50’s. If that precedent hadn’t been established back then, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable working on these new books and would’ve turned the job down.

It’s hard to fathom the enormous popularity and love that people all over the world have had for these characters over the past 60 years. Believe me, I’m constantly reminded by friends and co-workers in the animation industry, “Don’t screw this up and ruin my childhood!” I’m the biggest superfan in the world, so I scrutinize my work on this project like nothing I’ve ever done before.

Andy Burns: Shane, how did you go about writing you script. Did you revisit any previous Schulz stories for inspiration?

Shane Houghton: There were some Dell Peanuts comic books produced in the 50’s and 60’s that were written and illustrated by folks other than Schulz. BOOM! and Creative Associates (the company who manages the Peanuts license) wanted to start this new series by adapting certain stories from those Dell comics or from series of Schulz strips. The stories we’re doing have roots deep in the Peanuts world, with new flourishes from me and Matt. I’ll receive a Dell story and will adapt that story, improve it, and make it fun. Honestly, a lot of the Dell stories are really strange. They’re confusing and jump all over the place without much of a plot. I use the Dell comics as a springboard for an idea, and then go from there. We get lots of notes from Creative Associates, so some of my ideas fly, and some don’t. My main challenge is finding a through-story for whatever material I’m given, and then weave as many Schulz-like gags into it.

In addition to any source material that was given to me, I also have been re-reading the entire run of Peanuts (thanks to Matt whose been letting me borrow his copies). I read a little everyday and pull strips that deal with a topic I’m currently writing, or know I will be using for an upcoming story. Yeah, I definitely revisit Schulz work for basically all inspiration.

Andy Burns: As a writer, working on such a known property, how do you go about making sure you’re staying true to the characters? What sort of rules, if any, do you follow?

Shane Houghton: The characters are already so well defined. People everywhere know the differences between Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and Snoopy. It’s so clear because the characters have had DECADES to define themselves. Charlie Brown never kicks the football and always crashes his kite. Linus will always have his blanket and believe in the Great Pumpkin. Lucy is going to be ruthless and has a sincere crush on Schroeder. Snoopy can do anything. No grown-ups. The list goes on and on. When creating new material for Peanuts, I barely ever have to think if what I’m doing is appropriate for Peanuts or not. It just is. It’s a mental state that you get into and it’s all safe. Matt and I will sometimes joke about what would make a terrible Peanuts strip, and you can tell right away what doesn’t work.

Andy Burns: Matt, it would seem that you have more room to play with in drawing Peanuts for comic books than Charles Schulz did crafting for dailies (Sunday comics the obvious exception). Do you think having that freedom of space allows you to approach things in a different way than Schulz was able to? 

Matt Whitlock: It’s ironic, because the beauty and uniqueness of the original Peanuts strip was Sparky’s ability to create an entire world and evoke such deep emotion within the tiny confines of those 4 panels. The appeal and beauty in those drawings lie in the simplicity and economy of lines. It’s true that we’ll have much more freedom with layout and size in this new book- and it’ll be fun to really open up and take advantage of the space. I think it’s good for us newbies to be working in this format rather than trying to ape the original 4-panel layout of the newspaper strip. We’d easily pale in comparison. I think the visual distinction is necessary and will work to our advantage.

Andy Burns: Shane, were there any characters in particular you really enjoyed writing? I’m guessing Lucy would have been fun.

Shane Houghton: Lucy is a blast to write because she can so easily get into a conflict with anyone. You put Lucy anywhere, or with anyone, and she instantly has a problem with something. Snoopy is also a blast because he can get away with so much. He’s the most imaginative of the bunch, so you can have him running around like an alligator or fighting the Red Baron on top of his dog house/plane. There’s a fun freedom with Snoopy. It’s okay when Snoopy does something different or crazy, but if another character was to do something like that, it would be tough to digest. I’ve written Snoopy into every story I’ve done so far, just because he’s so much fun to have on the page.

Andy Burns: Matt, what about you? Are there any characters you personally got a thrill out of drawing? 

Matt Whitlock: It sounds corny, but I love drawing every single character. It’s my boyhood dream come true. But If I had to pick my current favorite, it’d probably be Snoopy. He usually hogs a lot of the action-y, silly stuff.

Andy Burns: Looking back at the amazing history of Peanuts, were there any stories or characters that resonated with each of you over the years?

Shane Houghton: Charlie Brown for sure. Whenever I fail at something, I feel like the worst human being on Earth. No one likes me or what I’ve created. But before you know it, I’m up and at it again, living and creating and not ever stopping. That’s what Charlie Brown is. For as depressing and self-loathing as he is, Charlie Brown is really an inspiration because of his unstoppable persistence. There’s one strip in particular that I especially like: Lucy approaches Charlie Brown and asks if she could give him a little friendly criticism. Charlie Brown beams and spends two panels talking about how great that would be. He loves constructive criticism and appreciates the opportunity to grow as a person. And then in the last panel, Lucy stares right at Charlie Brown and says, “You’re kind of stupid.”

Matt Whitlock: I gotta agree with Shane here. I think the frustrations and disappointments of Charlie Brown are universal. When I was a kid, I adored Snoopy. He’s funny and imaginative… a sort of Walter Mitty character. But then when you get older and life starts to beat you down, you think, “Oh man, I feel just like Charlie Brown.” The melancholy of the strip is what I think people discover and appreciate more and more as they get older. If you tried to pitch Charlie Brown to an animation studio or comic strip syndicate now, they’d laugh in your face. He’s not extreme, ironic, edgy or hip. But then again, that’s why most cartoons today suck.

Andy Burns: What’s up next for you both?

Shane Houghton: More Peanuts and more Reed Gunther! Matt and I will have stories in the first four issues of Peanuts and then there will be a short break. Reed Gunther will continue on its monthly schedule, and issue #7 comes out this week (1-11)! I also wrote a really fun issue of Casper’s Scare School for APE Entertainment that should be coming out sometime soon.

Matt Whitlock: More Peanuts! I can’t wait to see the direction this new title goes. I really hope that it’ll expose a new generation to the characters and make them want to seek out the source material. I continue to work as an animation storyboard artist here in L.A. during the day, but I really hope to be moonlighting with the Peanuts characters long into the future.

Andy Burns: Finally, are there any books, comics or otherwise, that you think Biff Bam Pop readers should check out?

Shane Houghton: Obviously, my creator-owned series Reed Gunther is a super fun read about a goofy bear-riding cowboy who fights monsters in the wild west. We’re doing a series of one-shots right now, so new readers can easily jump in during issues 6, 7, or 8 and not feel lost or confused! Also, you should check out the new Adventure Time comic book from BOOM! Adventure Time is a superbly hilarious cartoon and I’m sure the comic will be just as awesome. Plus, my brother Chris is doing covers for the first four issues!

Matt Whitlock: I’ve also gotta give a shout out to Reed Gunther from Image Comics. I really can’t recommend it enough– and I’d feel the same way even if Shane wasn’t a friend. It’s hilarious, beautifully drawn, smart, and action-packed. I love it. People tend to pigeonhole ‘all-ages’ comics, but Reed is truly fun for everyone- I’d equate it to a Pixar film.  Other than that, I’ve always adored Carl Barks and Don Rosa’s Uncle Scrooge stories, I love the new Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse collections from Fantagraphics… Pogo, Krazy Kat, Winsor McKay. As for newer stuff, I lean toward the political: This Modern World, Tom the Dancing Bug, Ted Rall, Mike Peters. I love Katie Rice’s webcomic Skadi ( I could go on and on… my tastes are kinda schizophrenic.

Thanks to Shane Houghton and Matt Whitlock for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop. And, as always, thanks to Emily McGuiness and BOOM! Studios for making it possible. 

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