February 27th, 2012

Wilco and Popeye: Behind the Scenes with Frank Caruso

by Tea

I usurped Brendan’s usual blogging slot this week to talk to King Features’ VP of Creative, Frank Caruso, about the Wilco-Popeye partnership. Since the Wilco comic debuted on January 22, followed closely by the premiere of the “Dawned on Me” video, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about how such a cool thing comes together. Frank was kind enough to tell me a little bit about the process.

The concept was originally the brainchild of Darren Romanelli, who approached King Features and Wilco with the idea. There was a lot of synergy from the get-go: both Wilco and Popeye’s creator, Elzie Segar, hail from the state of Illinois, and Wilco has always had a lot of roots in Americana that seemed to mesh nicely with the iconic cartoon character. Meanwhile, Frank professes that he has been a “Wilco fan forever— and a Tweedy fan back to the Uncle Tupelo days,” so he was excited about the project from the get go.

The partnership was built around the idea of “Wilco Spinach” – which loaned the inspiration for the comic strip. “I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the strip,” says Frank. “A lot of people saw the comic and wondered what it was about, and then when the video came out, they thought, aha, it’s a teaser. But it’s really more than a teaser. It’s a story announcing the arrival of Wilco Spinach.” (A lot of people have been asking us if there’s a REAL ‘Wilco Spinach’ they can try, but we’re sorry to say it only exists in Cartoonland.)

Frank designed the comic with an international audience in mind: “it tells the story visually, without words,” he says. He also drew inspiration for the comic from the R. Crumb design for Big Brother & The Holding Company’s CHEAP THRILLS album, utilizing a similar radial panel layout.

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One of the most important parts of the project was fitting the band members into the comic strip and video. “Not many bands take this leap,” Frank says, and went on to list bands that have had themselves animated. “The Beatles did YELLOW SUBMARINE, which was a King Features movie, and Tom Petty did the video for ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream (which parodies LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND by Winsor McCay),’ and there was the rotoscope video for ‘Take on Me’ that A-Ha did in the eighties. But this was really the first time a band was stepping into the world of an iconic cartoon character.”

Frank loves creating caricatures, but a big part of this task was not just caricaturing the band, but doing so in way that made them fit in. “It had to feel like they lived in Popeye’s world,” says Frank. “The comic had to match a Segarish style, and the video had to match that Fleischery, rubbery style.”

Each band member’s likeness was carefully created with a character sheet, illustrating how they would look from different angles, just as would be done with an ordinary cartoon or comic character.  You can see how the character sheets turned out, here:

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Once the band’s caricatures were set, and the layout for the comic had been roughed out, Frank turned his looser, more conceptual art over to Ned Sonntag, who transformed it into the finished, final artwork.  Here’s one of Frank’s early rough sketches:

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Folks have just been loving the comic, so we’re happy to announce that you’ll soon be able to buy it on a tee shirt, seen here:

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The shirt will be available at Urban Outfitters’ stores. And there’s more cool Wilco-Popeye stuff in the works for those of you lucky enough to catch Wilco on tour!

(Just for kicks, we thought you might also like to see the neck tag for the shirts!)

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