The way Tim Jacobus tells it, he wasn’t always going to be the cover artist for Goosebumps, the horror-for-kids R.L. Stine series. He and another artist, Jim Thiesen, took turns on the first two, but Scholastic ultimately went with Jacobus, and he ended up illustrating covers for over 100 books. Until he didn’t.
“It wasn’t that I stopped,” Jacobus said after I asked why Goosebumps books published after 2000 were illustrated by other artists. He’d agreed to talk with me as the 25th anniversary of the first Goosebumps book was coming up. Welcome to Dead House, the first book Jacobus provided art for, was first published in July 1992. “What happened was there was a pause right after the Series 2000 where they weren’t putting out Goosebumps books.”
That “pause” is complicated. Author R.L. Stine’s contract fell through with Scholastic in 2000, following legal disputes between Scholastic and Parachute Press about the Goosebumps brand. In 2003, Scholastic bought the exclusive rights to Goosebumps, and the series came back in 2008.
“Everybody was kind of going their own way,” Jacobus said, “Things were being worked out between R.L. Stine and Scholastic, and when they went back to do it, I just wasn’t invited.” Brandon Dorman has served as cover artist since the franchise returned, but Jacobus doesn’t come across as bitter. He chalks it up to business as usual.
According to Scholastic’s Goosebumps publicist Tracy van Straaten, that seems to be more or less it. When asked by email why Jacobus didn’t come back, van Straaten noted the eight-year gap, and that Scholastic brought in Dorman for Goosebumps HorrorLand in 2008 “as is common practice for a series re-launch.”
The whole thing “seemed like a normal progression” to Jacobus. He and Stine still speak. “We communicate through email mostly,” Jacobus said, “but I’ve seen him, I’ve talked to him. A couple years ago we did a comic convention up in Calgary, Canada together.” And even though he wasn’t asked to return, he considers his relationship with Scholastic to be fine despite not having worked together in years.
“I wish I had a really cool story to tell you that there was all kinds of drama and fistfights and stuff, but,” Jacobus paused to laugh, “that’s not what it was.”
One unusual thing about Jacobus’ deal with Scholastic is that the company owns all the Goosebumps cover art. The only original piece that Jacobus has in his possession? The cover he did to his autobiography, It Came From New Jersey. Stine had a similar autobiography released titled It Came From Ohio. Everything else is in Scholastic’s archives somewhere.
“Most publishers that you worked with, you would turn your artwork in, they would take all kinds of photographs and scans and everything of your art,” Jacobus said. “And then, after a certain amount of time, maybe three months, six months, you would get your artwork back.” Scholastic offered Jacobus a bit more money to retain the art on top of the standard flat rate. It’s a decision Jacobus remains mostly fine with to this day.
He’d even take another crack at it given the chance. The process, as he describes it, was relatively painless. The art directors at Scholastic rarely had negative feedback, and if they did, it was usually to combine elements of one draft with another. It really just depended on what Stine gave him to work with.
Sometimes that wasn’t much. “R.L. Stine was writing the books at the same time I was doing the covers,” Jacobus said. “He would give me anywhere from a couple of paragraphs of material about what the book was on, or it could be as little as just a couple of sentences, and then I would come up with three different ideas and I’d submit ‘em.”
Of his Goosebumps covers, Jacobus said he was particularly fond of Egg Monsters From Mars as well as The Curse of Camp Cold Lake and The Night of the Living Dummy III. The first because making an alien egg on a kitchen counter interesting is difficult, the second because the skull reflected in the water pleased him, and the third because all of the dummies are on the cover together.
All of his Goosebumps covers had a couple things in common stylistically, but each was unique. “The point of view I always tried to drop to the floor,” Jacobus said of his process. He’d also constantly warp the perspective. Instead of drawing straight lines, he’d draw curved lines — “very Escher-like” — in order to make it more dramatic. And he was even more deliberate with colors.
“I really tried very hard to not repeat color schemes,” Jacobus said. “Every one of the Goosebumps covers had its own set of colors. Different variations.” He compared this to Mexican food. “I’m using the same six ingredients, but I’m mixing them up in a different way and hopefully it tastes different when you get it.”
Despite no longer doing the Goosebumps covers, Jacobus isn’t exactly wanting for work these days. He’s been a creative director at a company that does animations and other work for corporate clients for 15 years or so. That’s on top of still doing freelance work like album covers or book covers for self-publishing authors. He recently completed posters for a government-sponsored reading campaign in the Netherlands. He stays busy, but hasn’t worked directly with Scholastic in some time.
When he did, the work itself was fairly standard. “The paintings are 20 inches by 20 inches,” Jacobus said of the physical Goosebumps covers. “They’re on #80 illustration board, which is a thicker board with a little bit of tooth to it. They’re acrylic-based paintings. I did ‘em with brush and airbrush together. Back then, everybody was doing traditional art.”
“I put in hours and hours, and weeks, to create something that people are going to react to in three seconds,” Jacobus later told me when I spoke about first seeing a Goosebumps book in the wild and getting hooked.
“And they’re either going to like it, or they’re not going to like it,” he continued. “They won’t warm up to it, they won’t do anything, they’re going to have an immediate visceral response. That’s what I was doing on the Goosebumps covers.”
As for his legacy as the original Goosebumps cover artist, Jacobus has no regrets. When I asked whether he was typecast because of this — whether it had negatively affected him — he mulled this over for a moment.“There was a time where it was a negative thing,” Jacobus said. “Right after the Goosebumps series was over, it was difficult because that’s all I was known for, and people were trying to get away from it. It’s like there was a transition going on, so I had to spend a lot of time kind of reinventing myself.” That’s when he moved into digital art in a serious way, though he still does both digital and traditional to this day.
“It was tough for a while,” he admitted. “It’s like coming out of the ‘90s in a hair band. Nobody wanted hair bands at one point, and everybody wanted grunge. But now it’s a great thing. A great thing to tell people, ‘Yeah, I did this in the past.’ If you see my full portfolio, I can do a lot of different things. It’s not that I can only do one style, or I refuse to do anything else. I’m wickedly proud of being part of the Goosebumps series and doing what I did.”
- Welcome to Dead House Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
- Stay Out of the Basement Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
- Be Careful What You Wish For... Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
- Piano Lessons Can Be Murder Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
- Egg Monsters from Mars Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
- The Curse of Camp Cold Lake Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
- It Came from New Jersey! My Life As an Artist Tim Jacobus/Scholastic Corporation
Rollin Bishop is an Austin, TX-based writer and editor who regularly covers video games, internet garbage, and comic books. He can be found on Twitter at @rollinbishop or wherever you download podcasts. (That last bit is a joke.)