TDC: Your 35th (!) Baby Blues book hits the streets in mid-October. How does a 28-year-old comic have 35 books?
JS: This is actually our 45th Baby Blues book, and I could use a nap.
Some years ago, we published two “Scrapbooks”, which were smaller books that each contained about nine months’ worth of strips, and a “Treasury” that held the content of those two Scrapbooks. Without resorting to math, I think that adds up to more books than years of syndication.
RK: Funny you should ask, Andrews McMeel set that weird publishing schedule. To end the madness, six years ago, we switched to doing one book a year that included an entire year’s worth of strips.
TDC: When you’re putting the books together are the selected comics taken sequentially or do you select each one?
JS: Mostly sequentially. There are some books that were selected strips to match a theme, and BBXX, our twentieth anniversary book (published in like, our 22nd year) was a “best-of” book. It was a big task to comb through twenty years worth of strips to find our favorites, then wrestle over the ones we actually had room for.
RK: What Jerry said, but all of the “Scrapbooks” are sequential and complete … EXCEPT for a substitute strip we did for the Los Angeles Times (May 21, 1990), when they demanded a replacement-or-else for a strip they deemed in poor taste. We eventually made up for that somewhere in one of the books, maybe BBXX.
TDC: Do you have any sense of what the breakdown is of your readers who buy the book online vs. in brick-and-mortar stores?
JS: Real brick-and-mortar stores, or virtual brick-and-mortar stores?
RK: We don’t know. I do hope there are still fans out there who buy them at brick-and-mortar bookstores. We need those stores to stay solvent.
TDC: One of the concerns about brick-and-mortar stores is that the “humor section” keeps shrinking. Would you ever be up for doing a Baby Blues book that was different from a collection of the syndicated strips? Like a graphic novel? Or a kids’ board book? Or maybe repackaging the current collections so they’re in the Wimpy Kid/Big Nate format and can be better sold in the kids’ section? Maybe a book that stars Hammie or Zoe (vs. the whole family)?
RK: It is dismaying that the humor section has become so neglected in bookstores…mostly in the few chains left. It used to be such a great section, pre-recession. Now, I think the section on Poets Who Quilt gets more attention than the Humor section.
JS: That’s because the Poets Who Quilt section is way closer to the front of the store. Oh, how I hate them.
RK: We always thought Baby Blues should be sold in both the Humor and Parenting sections. But retail planograms only allow for books to be displayed in one category. Or so we’ve been told.
I’m not opposed to repackaging for kids. I don’t know about new books from scratch, like a graphic novel. That’s a tremendous amount of work to fit into a syndication schedule—and Jerry writes two strips. A kids board book might be intriguing. My mom suggested an adult coloring book.
JS: Oh, great. Another rival syndicate’s (The Daily Cartoonist is owned by Andrews McMeel) plot to kill me. Well, I’m wise to you guys. Wait- – is Rick in on this, too?
TDC: Who comes up with the book titles? Is that “work with your book editor” thing or between the two of you?
RK: Titles are generated by us. It usually works this way: Jerry looks at the year’s worth of strips to see if there’s a visual that prompts a title, or line from one that can be used or condensed to title length. He’ll send me several ideas. That’s the germ of the process. From there, one may hit perfectly, or it can be a negotiation over wording, or we chuck ‘em all and try to find something else that works better.
JS: Our next title was going to be “Garfield Hits The Big 4-0”, but that sneaky Jim Davis stole it from us.
RK: We used to have some of the longest titles among collection books. The last few years, we’ve really tried to simplify them.
TDC: Ever had a suggested book title rejected?
RK: I don’t think so, but we did have a book concept rejected.
Back when the collection books were closer to a square format, we wanted to do one that was like The Beatles’ “White Album.” It would’ve had only “Baby Blues” and a number in gray on a white cover. It was rejected mainly for concern over returns of books that had dirty white covers from handling by browsers in stores. I still love that idea, though.
JS: I think “Go The F%#@ To Sleep” would have made a great title for a Baby Blues book… if we had thought of it first. That one would probably have had some trouble getting that through the editorial process in one piece.
TDC: Twenty-eight years is a long career in almost any other industry, but Baby Blues still feels like a newer comic. Do you think that’s just a reality of what happens in syndication or a testament to the creators’ genius?
RK: Let’s say the latter.
JS: Yeah. Let’s. But also, newspaper comics do age glacially. It’s odd to feel like a newcomer when your feature is the same age as “The Simpsons.”
I’ll also mention that Rick and I still work really hard on the details of creating Baby Blues. Every strip isn’t a masterpiece, but every strip is as good as we can possibly it make that day.
TDC: If our research is right, BB launch in only 20-30 papers. Is that right? Do you recall a moment or event that lead to its breakthrough?
RK: I’m pretty sure we launched in 50 papers. I think the first breakthrough came a year after we launched. Several big papers dropped the strip. They were deluged with angry readers protesting the drops. Luckily, we didn’t know that was commonly done to test the strength of a strip. We were reinstated in all the papers that dropped us and gained a reputation of having very passionate readers. And that was pre-WWW.
JS: We’re very fortunate to have those passionate readers, who now span generations. It’s weird meeting adults who remember reading Baby Blues as kids.
RK: That’s true, although there have been a couple outliers (Zits, Hagar). Maybe it’s more a function of being able to survive those early years until the strip reaches some tipping point. It’s a mystery to me.
JS: I’m sure there’s a mathematician somewhere who could come up with a formula that predicts the success of a comic strip based on the number of years the cartoonist is able to survive on Ramen noodles.
TDC: When you’re travelling, does the TSA require you to check your Reuben Award(s)?
JS: I won mine in 2002 when the Reubens were held in Cancun, Mexico. As a result, I was held in a Mexican prison for three years, charged with attempted smuggling of ugly statuary. I don’t want to talk any more about it.
RK: I think there are TSA rules about traveling with two Reuben statues in close proximity. There is a risk of creating a critical mass of cartooning energy. We’re required to contain them in pencil-lead-lined cases, which are quite expensive. As a result, we don’t fly anywhere together with them.
TDC: What’s the worst syndicated comic?
RK: Every syndicated comic is beautiful in its own way.
JS: “Nancy” from 1983 to 1995.