The King of the Sunday Funnies

Peter Maresca's quest to preserve the look and feel of America's original Sunday comic strips by becoming an "accidental publisher"—and printing unusually large books

Peter Maresca calls himself "an accidental publisher." The accident began when in 2004, with the approaching centennial of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, he decided "the world needed to see these masterpieces in the original format before they went the way of all cheap newsprint." That meant making a book of incredible proportions (16 by 22 inches). He took his project to the usual art book publishers, and while all appreciated his zeal, they felt it was impossible to publish and distribute such a large book. "The only option was to publish it myself."

The Nemo book was the first of other equally large volumes documenting the Sunday Funnies, including the most recent Forgotten Fantasy: Sunday Comics 1900-1915, a gorgeous collection, including Lyonel Feininger, Winsor McCay, George McManus, Gustave Verbeek, and more, making Maresca and his Sunday Press the veritable reliquary for a slice of America's most fragile pop cultural artifacts.

After a few days spent luxuriating in this coffee table-sized extravaganza, I contacted Marersca for an interview about why and how this latest volume came about.

But first, what prompted you to accidentally make these enormous books?

There is probably a big "dorky collector" factor. I've been collecting comic strips since 1970. All collectors love to show off their treasures, and here was a way to share my collections and not have to worry about over-handling and damaging the material—or having masses traipsing through my house.

How difficult has it been to maintain the qualitative standard you've created in these volumes?

I'm not sure how to measure the difficulty, since I have never published in any other way, but production probably takes more hours per book than most in this genre. Restoration has to be incredibly detailed, since at full size you can see right down to the dots and screens of the original printing process. And a lot of time is spent traveling. I work closely with the designer, so in most cases this means meeting with Philippe Ghielmetti in Paris. I also feel the need to oversee the press checks in Asia, in order to be sure the colors are just what I'm looking for—imagining what the page might have looked like on the original newsprint while keeping just a hint of the aged yellow feel.

In the best of circumstances publishing is hard (like comedy compared to death), but at the scale you are doing it, how has your venture profited?

Anyone with business sense might have stopped after the second book. But there was much more I wanted to make available, so the success of the Little Nemo book and sales of foreign rights have subsidized the production of the other books that have not been as successful. I guess if I can make the books I feel are important and keep from losing money, I consider that profitable. Though I hate to think about what my hourly wage might be.

Let's talk about the latest, Forgotten Fantasy: Sunday Comics 1900-1915. This has so many lost and indeed forgotten works. What were your selection criteria?

The idea from this book came out of a discussion with Art Spiegelman after my second book, Sundays with Walt and Skeezix. I was seeking his advice on what to do next, as there is no way the market (or collectors' bookshelves, for that matter) could support full-size collections of every worthwhile comic strip, but I wanted to be sure all were represented in this format. So the plan was to create an anthology series of books: Giants of the American Comic Strip, covering all the great comic strips through the 1950s.

The first volume was to start with the earliest color Sunday comics in 1896, when the medium was inventing itself, to 1915, when syndicates and creative formulas were firmly in place. But I discovered there was too much wonderfully rich material in these early years and we needed to split it into two volumes. The obvious thematic subset was that of the Fantasy comics. So much of the beauty and originality of the early comics is found here. Plus, given the awareness of Little Nemo, starting with this fantasy volume would create an accessible bridge to the more esoteric material of the formative years of comics. But I did not realize until we had assembled the final contents just how essential this book would be in telling the story of America's first great form of popular culture.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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