Written by Charles Brubaker
I never expected to become a publisher. Oh, I’ve self-published my own comics many times through my Smallbug Press label (a name I registered because a printing company I used back in 2017 required I have one). But there’s a difference between self-publishing, where you print your own work, and publishing another creator’s work. That happened to me this past August, when I released Arnold: The Complete Collection Volume 1.
Arnold was a comic strip by Kevin McCormick that ran in a small number of newspapers from 1982 to 1988. The strip featured bizarre antics of a middle-school boy and his friend, two weird characters in a world that’s just as weird to match. Very few characters appeared on-panel. In addition to the titular Arnold and his friend Tommy, the only other character to appear prominently was Mr. Lester, their teacher. There were technically other characters as well, like Heather (who disappeared like Lyman in “Garfield”), but they mostly just yelled from off-screen, never appearing on-camera.
I didn’t grow up on the strip, having been born over a year after the comic ended its run, but I was (and still am) obsessed with newspaper strips. In addition to reading the ones in my local newspaper growing up, I also sought out any comics I could find online. I eventually found an old message board dedicated to comic strips (remember message boards?). One strip was mentioned by several members: Arnold.
The more I read about the strip, the more intrigued I became. Finding samples proved to be hard as the strip ended before the internet became commonplace, but I managed to contact someone who xeroxed newspaper clippings and mailed them to me. I was hooked by the bizarre strip that seems to defy common decency. Arnold frequently wrote letters to Miss Manners, asking questions such as whether it was rude to do an impression of an anteater during dinner (which involved inhaling meatloaf with his nose), resulting in him getting a response asking if he was ever dragged through a cactus. Arnold’s antagonism towards the cafeteria ladies (who frequently refer to him as “Ratso”) got to the point that the ladies grabbed Arnold and force-fed him mayonnaise, whom he refers to as the “White Death”.
That this was serialized in the 1980s also made this more hilarious to me. The strip came out when Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County and Gary Larson’s The Far Side were taking off in the mainstream, so there was clearly a market for strips that pushed the envelope. Perhaps Arnold went too far for the editors as it never made a huge splash in the world of newspapers.
Not that readers didn’t notice. The newspaper strip gained a cult following among college students. It was especially popular in Detroit where it ran in the Free Press until the bitter end, when a giant bird grabbed Arnold and flew off, never to be seen again. Kevin McCormick even acknowledged his Detroit audience by creating a special drawing for the paper and running a short letter thanking his readers.
Over the years I managed to track down more and more strips through microfilms, newspaper clippings, and scans, but to my disappointment the strip never received a proper book collection. I contacted a few acquaintances with experience in reprinting complete runs of newspaper comics, but they all told me Arnold was such a niche title they didn’t feel it would be worth the investment. Well, as the saying goes, “if no one will do it, do it yourself.”
I had contacted Kevin McCormick before for an interview that ran on my blog, but getting his blessing for a book reprint took some repeated inquiries. I eventually got his attention on the matter after his daughter expressed support for the project. After consulting Nat Gertler, who specializes in reprinting obscure comic materials (including those by Charles M. Schulz), I put a contract together and we signed an agreement.
As it turned out, that was the EASIEST part of the project. The actual hard part was finding the comics. I was able to acquire scans of the proof sheets (a set of sheets containing a week’s worth of strips for newspapers to cut and paste into their page layouts) from King Features Syndicate for most of Arnold, but not for every single strip from the original run. They had most of the dailies, but half of the Sundays were missing, and some of the dailies had missing weeks as well. I also got lucky and managed to find original art for three of the strips from different collectors on eBay. With each original costing $100, it wasn’t the cheapest of investments, but collecting comic strip original art is already a worthwhile pursuit of mine. Those three strips (dated 1/6/1983, 2/16/1983. and 6/21/1983) have the sharpest reproduction among the weekday strips.
Finding the missing dailies was considerably easier, thanks to microfilm I was able to scan and sufficiently clean, using Photoshop to remove any dust and artifacts along the way. In extreme cases I had to Frankenstein a single strip together by stitching parts together from different sources.
The Sundays proved to be the hardest to track down. I found old newspaper clippings of the Sundays on eBay over a better part of the decade, and Kevin McCormick sent me camera captures of Sundays from his original pieces, but he didn’t have everything. He had given some originals away over the years, and others had been damaged by squirrels that had snuck into his attic).
Luckily I was able to get in touch with comic strip historian Allan Holtz, who possessed many of the early Sundays in his own collection. But even that proved to be a challenge because, as Allan explained, “the printing of the Sundays was truly awful. The word balloon text always seemed to be washed out and full of printing losses, and the coloring was a sickening miasma.” I knew that very well, from my own experience dealing with newspaper clippings, and applied many of my own Photoshop techniques, including redrawing missing lineart and manually erasing artifacts. There was one strip that I spent an entire week cleaning up. Thankfully later strips didn’t suffer from nearly as many printing issues and I was able to get them presentable relatively quickly.
The first of three volumes came out in the last week of August 2023, after five years of attempts,, marking my official debut as a “publisher.” The reactions have been favorable, with many writing they’d been waiting over 30 years for this book to happen. This production was very much a labor of love. As I noted earlier, I had always wanted to have an Arnold book collection and ensure that this strip was preserved, so I took the initiative to make it happen. There are a number of other forgotten comic strips I’d like to see reprinted, and I wonder if I have the drive to do this further while keeping my own comics going. Time will tell, but first I need to get the other two volumes out.
Charles Brubaker is a cartoonist and animator who draws the “Lauren Ipsum” comic strip; previously he created “Ask a Cat” and “The Fuzzy Princess” and contributed to MAD Magazine and other publications. He lives in Tennessee.