STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
Here’s a question: Where do bandwagons come from? What chemical reaction causes someone to become the first superfan of the next cool thing? I’ve jumped on my share of bandwagons, sometimes early enough to get a pretty good seat, but I never stop to ask, who was here first? Who was that first teenage girl who decided the Beatles were worthy of manic shrieking? Or, which American kid first decided to stake his entire identity on the coolness of Hayao Miyazaki?
CLARE HENDERSHOT: It’s hard to be that first superfan, because it’s not trendy at that point. It’s lonely and obsessive. Yet they hardly notice, because their passion is all-consuming.
SH: And so it was with Tim Lapetino and George Opperman. George Opperman, the relatively unknown creative force behind the art of Atari in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
TIM LAPETINO: He was like my white whale. Anytime we were able to uncover anything it felt like magic. It felt like archeology and I was really chasing a ghost.
CH: On this episode of Cedar Cathedral, designer and author Tim Lapetino talks about his new book, The Art of Atari, and its enigmatic star, George Opperman.
SH: A quick disclaimer here before we get into the story. Every episode of Cedar Cathedral to this point has featured someone Clare and I didn’t know prior to working on their story for the show. We have a lot of talented creative friends, but we wanted this show to be about discovering and building a broader Great Lakes creative community than the one we were already part of. But this week is different. Tim and his family are close friends of ours, and we’ve even worked together on some projects—more on that later. But we want to be up front about the relationship
CH: Now let’s head back to Tim’s office, where you can sit on a couch surrounded by Tron memorabilia and play Atari 2600 games while you watch Tim work. Behind his desk is an enormous wall of popular culture from the 1970s and ‘80s, including pretty much every bit of product packaging ever produced by Atari.
ACT ONE: 'THESE GUYS WERE DOING WHAT I DID'
SH: As we said at the top, when Tim became a raging, diehard superfan of this George Opperman, he climbed aboard a lonely bandwagon. More like a Radio Flyer that he had to push himself. Tim became fixated on the artwork from the boxes of early home video games, specifically the games you could play on an Atari 2600 console in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when George Opperman was Atari’s art director.
TL: There's a particular moment in time where video games were sort of just starting to come into their own as a thing, and this illustration and this graphic design helped birth it. Helped explain it. Helped sort of champion it sitting on the shelf in a video game store and it really gave focus to what it was, 'cause people were like, "What is this thing? Is it going to ruin my TV?"
CH: Back when the games were just lines and dots floating across a TV screen, the box art was what brought them to life.
TL: This is a cool thing. Look, it’s going to be a game about Indy cars or space invaders destroying the earth. And this was a familiar way of talking and visualizing those things.
SH: Tim grew up with these games, and got into ‘80s pop culture nostalgia as a college student at the University of Illinois. But it was only after moving to Chicago and working as a graphic designer that he began to see early game-box art as an important chapter in design history.
TL: It just dawned on me, "Well, I'm a graphic designer. These guys were doing what I did.”
CH: So he turned to the Internet to learn more about the artists who created the art of Atari.
TL: And I couldn't find out. I couldn't figure it out. I looked on the internet and just felt like that seemed criminal to me, like who are these people? And so it started out with curiosity. So I just fell down the Internet rabbit hole and started researching this, not thinking I’m going to create a book about it, but I just want to know who these people are.
CH: This was 2010, and soon Tim wrote a blog post where he named some of the Atari artists he had uncovered, including illustrator Cliff Spohn. And that led to a breakthrough.
TL: Somebody read it. This woman read it and she said, "Hey, I grew up down the street from him. He's a family friend. Would you like me to introduce you?" And that was the Pandora's Box. I met him. We had this great conversation. He had all of these great insights and recall on why he did these things and I was so captivated by that information, but also that insight. I was like, "You know what? If there's other people out there like Cliff, there's a book. There's stories to be told here."
CH: Using Cliff as a connector, Tim started seeking out people from Atari’s early days, both for interviews and to see if they still had their old Atari artwork. He also started to frequent strange corners of eBay.
TL: It was an Easter morning and I said to my wife, "Can I have a thousand dollars?" And we're getting ready to leave for church and she's like, "For what?" I was like, "Well, there's this guy and he's selling a bunch of slides and negatives and transparencies." And it was binders full of this stuff and it was kind of a crazy thing to do because she was like, "What are you going to do with those?" I'm like, "Maybe I can do this Atari book," but it was years away, and so I bought that stuff. But that absolutely convinced me that there's something special here. I'm not longer just this nerdy guy. I'm now the Indiana Jones of video game art and I've just rescued something from destruction.
SH: The Atari bandwagon was still sufficiently spacious at this point that when Tim reached out to Cliff Spohn’s old colleagues, he had to plead with those artists to talk to him. Because, for one thing, his book was still just a dream, and for another, most of them didn’t share Tim’s belief that their early work was worth celebrating. Most of them, when they worked for Atari, were college students or fresh out of school. And they had long since moved on.
TL: All of them would talk about Atari really fondly at that time, but it's like a blip in their careers and it's one part of one thing that they did. And nearly all of them went on to other things. I think the emotion I got 90 percent of the time was shock and surprise that someone was interested in this part of their careers. These are people who've been working in their field for 30 or 40 years. None of them thought that this would be the phenomenon that it was. None of them thought that someone would be calling them up interested in talking about this. When you're making history, I don't think you realize that you are making history.
SH: This reminds me a little of the Folk Revival in the 1960s, when musicians who had given up their dreams of stardom decades prior were suddenly swarmed by adoring fans who had discovered their music and made pilgrimages down south to find them. The difference, though, is that those guys like Son House and Dock Boggs at least thought that what they done way back when was special, it just maybe failed to connect with a wider audience. These Atari artists had to be talked into the notion that game art was more than just a random freelance gig.
CH: Tim gradually made headway, though, collecting interviews and images and building momentum around the idea that he was going to write this book, and that it would celebrate an important moment in design and pop culture.
SH: And he discovered there was plenty of latent interest—other people who loved ‘80s pop culture and nostalgia, who loved Atari in particular. Who would want to read about George Opperman if only they knew about him. They just needed somebody like Tim to gather all the information. And so once Tim put it out there that he was going to do this, people got excited.
In 2014, the gaming website Polygon did a whole story on Tim’s book despite the fact that it still didn’t exist — there was no draft, no publisher, just an ever-growing trove of images stacked in Tim’s office in between the beer fridge and his collection of bobbleheads.
CH: Meanwhile, this was all a side project for Tim. And while he started making headway in his search for George Opperman, he ran into roadblocks elsewhere. Just as he and his wife Emily were having their second child, he had to close his six-year-old design studio because work had dried up.
SH: Money was tight, but Tim used his free time to shop his book around at the same time he hunted for a new job. And finally, the book got some real momentum. Tim started talking to actual publishers, like MIT Press. And then just as he was getting close with MIT, a potential disaster struck. Atari signed a licensing deal with a publishing company called Dynamite Entertainment, and that deal included a book on the art of Atari.
CH: That meant Atari wasn’t going to license its archives to anybody but Dynamite. In an instant, Tim’s book went from a near-reality to life support.
TL: It was kind of dumb what I was doing. I was just writing a book without a contract. I was just going to have this book ready because I thought it should be made.
SH: After all those years of work, suddenly Tim had one move left or his project was dead. He sat down to write the biggest email of his career to the folks over at Dynamite.
TL: ”Hey guys, here's a fun happenstance. I happen to have 40 percent of that book already written. How would you like to work together?"
CH: And finally, Tim got his big break. Dynamite said yes. And Tim got to work.
TL: This had already been germinating for years, so I was able to hit the ground running once I had the backing of a publisher who was really excited and believed in this book. They really let me go a little wild.
SH: Tim’s Art of Atari book finally came out this fall. I mentioned Tim is a friend; when Clare and I saw the book featured on an endcap display at Barnes and Noble, I pretty much lost my mind. The book is a big deal for Tim, both because it’s fun to have a book come out, and because his dream of celebrating these unknown Atari artists and designers has finally become reality. Which brings us back to the white whale, George Opperman.
TL: He was the guy that super creative and who had this huge impact on design and video games in the industry just by the virtue of how he got this creative ball rolling. Almost no one knows his name and I want to fix that.
SH: Chain-smoking George Opperman died of lung cancer decades before Tim started trying to find him. Tim interviewed almost everyone for this book, except the one guy he most wanted to talk to — the man who had led the art department and designed Atari’s famous logo.
TL: I felt like I was always two steps removed from this person that I will never get to meet.
SH: And yet, by introducing the rest of us to George Opperman, Tim succeeded in his ultimate goal. He also managed to start a conversation about the historical video game art as an essential chapter in design history, with Opperman as a central figure.
TL: We in design circles, we're not holding up George Opperman as one of the great identity designers, but in video games, people aren't talking about the gestalt of how do you lay things out. Those two worlds are so connected, but yet they don't face each other, and so I really wanted bring those two things together and talk about them that way. Critically look at video games in design.
SH: This holiday season, at fine booksellers everywhere, you can buy Tim’s book, and revel in all this vintage game art. Thanks to the passion with which Tim indulged his fandom, and his dogged effort chasing a story that no one else thought to chase, he’s brought to light a rich new chapter of design history. And if by reading this book you turn into a George Opperman superfan, it’s cool—the bandwagon is filling fast, but there’s still plenty of room for you to grab a seat.
CH: For more on Tim Lapetino and his book, visit CedarCathedral.com. Also, if you’re in Chicago, head to 57th Street Books in Hyde Park on Thursday, Jan. 5th to hear Steve interview Tim about the new book.
SH: Before we get to music, one more disclaimer, now that we’re no longer at risk of a spoiler alert. Over the last couple of years Tim has asked for my writing help with a couple of projects. First something he’s still working on called the Museum of Video Game Art. And then more recently, talking about the possibility of some followup game-art books at Dynamite. Nothing firm yet, but we are hopeful, and just in case something happens I just wanted to put that out there to be up-front about the relationship.
Now on to music. On every episode of Cedar Cathedral, we feature a great indie band from the Great Lakes. Today it's We Are the Willows, from Minneapolis — we played with these folks last summer in Chicago, and love them. The song is called To Me, From You, from the record Picture (Portrait). Both the song and the whole record are based on a long series of letters written by the grandfather of songwriter Peter Michael Miller to his grandmother during World War 2.
CH: This episode of Cedar Cathedral was produced by us, Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Tim Lapetino and to We Are the Willows. We’ll be back directly with another tale of artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes.