As you might recall, Goosebumps was a phenomenally successful 1990s book series about preteens finding soft-core terror in the suburbs. The characters had names like Lucy/Lizzy/Billy/Andy and the author, R. L. Stine, had an unusual commitment to describing outfits. To be honest, it was hard to know what made Goosebumps so popular, except that they had mind-blowing covers.
Tim Jacobus was the New Jersey native behind those covers. In 1991 the children's book publisher Scholastic asked him to tender for a new series of horror books. He got the job, and over the next decade Jacobus illustrated the full series of nearly 100 books.
Also over that decade, a nine year-old version of myself tried to copy his style. There was something so cool about those candy-colored, fish-eyed depictions of American horror. And ever since, I've wanted to talk to the guy. How did he and R. L. Stine get the formula so right? I called him up to ask him exactly that.
VICE: Let's start with your background. How did you get into illustration?
Tim Jacobus: In high school all the best art was on album covers, and especially if it was by a guy named Roger Dean. He did these surreal covers for Yes, and I wanted to paint like him. I was very lucky that one my tutors had been in the Marines, he was a tough guy, and my dad related to him. So this guy said, Hey, your son has some talent. I think if he tries, he really has a shot. That convinced him, and I set my sights on illustrating books.
Because you only get better with the sheer numbers, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, paperbacks were doing numbers. My first two books were called Fugitive in Transit and Brains Incorporated for a science fiction company called Daw. There were a few years where I had no money, but slowly I could buy socks and underwear. Then somehow work became consistent, and I stopped thinking every job would be the last.
How did you first hear about Goosebumps?
The first I heard was that Scholastic were trying out four copies of children's horror by a guy named R. L. Stine, but no one really thought they would work. I did the cover for Welcome to Dead House and got the job because I used lots of color. They thought colors would appeal to young readers. Then I did a few more, and one day I got a visit from some friends. Their kids were in middle school, and we got talking about what we'd been up to. I said, "Oh, I'm working on a series called Goosebumps." And they were like, "No, seriously? We buy tons of them. This is a really big deal!" Not long after that I started seeing them everywhere.
What did you think of the book themselves?
Well, they're not Thoreau, but they're good. And they got a lot of kids reading who would have otherwise never picked up a book.
Tell me about the style. The illustrations were all really slick; everything was glistening and warped.
For Goosebumps I used a mixture of paint and airbrushing, which provided that sleek, finished look. Then the distorted perspective thing really started with the Goosebumps book Egg Monsters from Mars. It was a kitchen scene, which was going to be hard to make interesting, so I warped the cabinets and the tiles. Then that sort of became the look.
What was your method for these paintings?
I always got up at 5 AM, and they used to take 30, maybe 40 hours to do. I still work early, and music is always on. I still listen to Yes, and I love progressive rock. I'm seeing Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree in June.
Nice! Did you get rich illustrating Goosebumps?
I didn't. They paid me fine, but my payment wasn't attached to sales. It didn't make any difference whether they sold a million copies or ten. I don't live in a mansion.
Does R. L. Stine?
Yeah, I've been to his house, and it's a real nice place. He lives in Manhattan in a very nice place.
Did you become famous?
No one would recognize me walking down the street, but it's weird that I can talk to you, or someone from the other side of the world, and I say Egg Monsters from Mars and they know what I'm talking about. That blows my mind.
So what's the secret to a fad?
It's all timing. I'm not diminishing what R. L. Stine did, but it was just hitting the right thing at the right time. They put us together, and something happened; it was electric. But I don't know the formula. I don't even believe that if we got together again it would be close to successful. You need the skill and the dedication to get lucky, but in the end there's an element of magic.
Some examples of his non-Goosebumps work. This is a piece called 'Whale'
How did you feel when it ended?
I was sad. I don't want to call it depression, but yes, I was very sad. I sensed it was coming, and there was talk of Hey, this won't go forever, but I didn't expect it to end as abruptly as it did. We were doing the Goosebumps 2000 series, and I was 95 percent of the way through a cover. Then they called me up and said Yeah, don't turn it in. It was the early 2000s, and Goosebumps was over.
When you look back at the experience, what's something that you might warn others against?
Maybe just the idea of a creative job. You have to be a certain type of individual because it's not easy, it's just not. There's tons and tons of rejection in a creative career, and you have to learn how to deal with that early and constructively. To be perfectly honest, if my own son wants to be an illustrator, I'd tell him no. It's a hard, fickle life. Having said that, though, I wouldn't go back to the Goosebumps years. I've done that, and I'm 56 now. I'm thrilled to see what happens next.
Interview by Julian Morgans. Follow him on Twitter.
See more of Tim's work at timjacobus.com.