Sunday, April 29, 2018

In the Panel Colony: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books

Cover art for We Told You So: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books, by Daniel Clowe.

Fantagraphics, the most important American publisher specializing in comics for the past forty years, was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth, a 22-year-old fanzine publisher and convention organizer, and his business partner, Mark Catron. They were joined a year later by Kim Thompson, a comics enthusiast with a special interest in bringing the work of European creators to the attention of readers in the U.S. Thompson immediately demonstrated his devotion to this mission by reaching into his own pocket to save the company from bankruptcy before hardly anyone had ever heard of it. Soon, enough people had at least heard of it to get mad at it. For the first few years of its existence Fantagraphics didn’t publish its own comics; it didn't start until 1979, by which time Groth, Thompson, and company had cleared a beach head for themselves with The Comics Journal, which published industry news, reviews and critical essays, and long, often very long, interviews with star creators. It saw itself as the only serious magazine dealing with the art of comics, and it probably was the first such publication that has no interest in providing what’s now called fan service. The underground wave of the ‘60s had rolled back, ambitious attempts to restart a movement (Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s anthology series Arcade, Mike Friedrich’s “ground level” Star*Reach) had died or were circling the drain, and RAW and the rise of the direct market were not yet on the horizon. Arriving when the comics scene was at a low point, TCJ called out the big companies and the easily satisfied fans who it saw as conspiring to keep American comics in a glossy, four-color rut. The Journal’s tone was often combative, and it was downright apocalyptic in its exchanges with those rival publications, such as Don and Maggie Thompsons’ Comics Buyers’ Guide, that it saw as serving the status quo.

By the mid-1980s, CBG and others who met Fantagraphics in the Thunderdome would accuse the magazine of using its fancy line of patter about high critical standards as an excuse to bash the competition while shilling for Fantagraphics’ own comics. This argument would have stood up better if not for the fact that, starting with the appearance of the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets in 1982 and continuing with Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff and Hate, Daniel Clowes’s Lloyd Llewellyn and Eightball, Terry LaBan’s Unsupervised Existence and Cud, Joe Sacco’s Yahoo and Palestine, Dennis Eichhorn’s Real Stuff and Real Smut, Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits, and more, Fantagraphics was unquestionably the driving force in new comic books that pursued a personal vision outside the superhero genre while steering clear of the rarefied, art-studio air of much of what came out of the RAW factory. (It would be nice to have a more succinct name for this stuff, and TCJ did try to come up with one. Terms such as “art comics” and “new wave" – or “nuwave” – comics were tossed around before everybody more or less settled on “independent comics,” because ‘90s.)

Left to right: Groth, Catron, & Thompson. (Photo: Getty)
We Told You So: Comics as Art: An Oral History of Fantagraphics Books, credited to a couple of TCJ’s former managing editors, Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean, is a big, square, physically rickety tome (graced with a cover illustration by Clowes) whose pasteboard covers threaten to separate from its 696 pages every time you open the book. One might be tempted to think that it was special-ordered so the surviving founders (Kim Thompson died in 2013) could hand out copies as Christmas gifts. Then one remembers that some of Fantagraphics’s other forays into prose publishing, such as the thick novel Laura Warholic by the great eccentric writer Alexander Theroux (who has also written short books about Al Capp and Edward Gorey for Fantagraphics) had a similar disposable feel to them. For years, when it still seemed like the impossible dream, Fantagraphics editors and writers preached on the necessity of getting comics collections into proper bookstores, both for the economic health of the creators and for the creative respectability that would confer on them all. Now that the battle has been won, with shelves and shelves of “graphic literature” in Barnes & Noble, it’s almost as if Fantagraphics wants to show its commitment to its original bread and butter by denying the “real” books the kind of sturdy, handsome packaging that it has always lavished on its reprint collections of Robert Crumb and George Herriman, Peanuts and Popeye.

Of course, that would be more of a gestural statement than most publishers have any interest in making with their merchandise. But Fantagraphics, in the embodiment of Gary Groth, is an outfit that took pride in putting out a bunch of frankly pornographic comics, its “Eros” line, to save itself from yet another financial hole, the statement being that providing its readers with wank material was more honorable than the slightly-more-honorable route of compromising its artistic principles by trying to produce a hit superhero property. (The fact that some of the porno books, such as Gilbert Hernandez’s psychedelic head trip Birdland and Terry LaBan’s priapic Western tall tale 99 Girls, were pretty good comics is gravy.) Groth, whose two-fisted personality suffused the magazine for much of its existence, is a compelling, frustrating character whose voice lives on in thousands upon thousands of words published by the Journal, in his editorials and his often long-winded side of the interviews he conducted with creators – including those with whom he was very much at odds. Groth was a fan of Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel in the ‘60s, and TCJ found a perfect moral cause to hammer away at when King Kirby went to war with the corporate behemoth over ownership of his artwork. But too often, Groth seemed to want to think that creating bad comic books – or, at least, making money off them – was a “moral” issue itself. In a 1992 interview with Spawn creator/ Image co-founder Todd McFarlane, who (like Kirby) built up a fan base at Marvel and then went off to try to seek purer creative expression and get better paid for it elsewhere, we’re told at the outset that, when told by Groth that he’s “morally idiotic,” the good-natured McFarlane took it well and even toasted his interlocutor for his “wit.” It’s hard to know which speaks worse for the interlocutor, his thinking that a mediocre self-starter doing well for himself with what talent he has is immoral, or believing that the phrase “morally idiotic” is witty.

Groth could take things very hard, his writing was overcalled and bludgeoning, and as he proved in the infamous Carol Kalish episode, he was not especially good at picking his battles. (Kalish, a Marvel Comics executive who died unexpectedly of a brain aneurism at the age of 36, had been eulogized in glowing terms in much of the comics press. Groth, who, as he wrote, had “no reason to believe [she] was anything other than decent and personable in her personal relations,” nonetheless decided that this display of tender sentiment would not stand and churned out an editorial reminding everyone that Kalish had “devoted her professional life to expanding the hegemonic power of a corporation that already owns all the distributors and most of the retailers.” Groth, to his credit, didn’t actually write that anyone who accepted a paycheck from Jack Kirby’s tormentors deserved to die before they were forty, but that seemed to be the direction he was headed in.) And especially when he veered away from comics, Groth’s tastes in art seemed to be, to use a word he might appreciate more than he understood it, decidedly middlebrow; call me a snob, but for some of us, nothing undercuts a cultural revolutionary’s standing faster than finding out that his idea of a great ‘60s movie is The Graduate. But a lot of people with hipper taste and sharper ways of expressing themselves could benefit from a little of Groth’s sheer cussedness. As the promoter of personal/art/independent comics, in the face of erratic financial rewards and slow-to-come cultural validation, he chose his lane and stayed in, with the pedal to the floor. So as the guiding force he kept the lights on, one way or another, he gets credit for having published a lot of great comics that might otherwise have never made it into print and republishing a lot of great comics that had been gathering dust in Charles Foster Kane’s storage barn. (Dan Clowes’s cover illustration for We Told You So shows Kim Thompson sitting in front of a laptop, Mike Catron on the phone, presumably assuring someone’s lawyer that Gary didn’t really mean any harm, and, in the foreground, Groth glaring at the reader with a copy of The Comics Journal in one hand and a gun in the other.)

R. Fiore, arguably the best writer TCJ ever generated in-house, once reviewed Tony Hendra’s book Going Too Far in his “Funnybook Roulette” column, saying that anyone who ever read the National Lampoon during its salad days would flip through Hendra’s book being reminded of things they had forgotten being curious about. For those of us who used to wander into the comics shop eager to snatch up the latest issue of The Comics Journal, reading We Told You So will have a similar effect. (One thing you may remember having been curious about is why R. Fiore never seemed to write for anyone besides TCJ; the bastard doesn’t even blog. In his testimony, he chalks it up to his determination to live an “effort-free” life.) This is gratifying, especially given how many times you may have had to wander in and out, because the magazine was not always perfectly scrupulous about meeting its eight-issues-a-year deadlines; trying to catch a new one on the stands was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling that I was stalking my newsagent. The wiry undercurrent of in-jokes, unstated grievances, competing agendas, and unsolved mysteries that ran through the issues gave TCJ a cultish clubhouse feeling that made it impossible to take the magazine itself as seriously as Groth wanted the readers to take its critical agenda, which is all to the good.

With all its gossip and bitchiness and hairbreadth tales of bounced checks and dragging the company back from the financial abyss again and again, We Told You So is a timely reminder that what made Fantagraphics so exciting when it was coming up and securing its place in the sun was the way it combined genuine creative excitement with the kind of disreputability that sells dirty comics and inspires pissing matches and, if you really do your job right, solvency-threatening lawsuits. Fantagraphics still publishes great comics new and old, but the air of disputability has evaporated, along with the cultural stigma that was still attached to comics until very recently; the bulk of the “magazine” is online, and most of the new books come out not in stapled, serialized pamphlet form, with that faint feeling of samizdat, but in proper volumes that are sold, yes, at Barnes & Noble. It’s a victory, and the victory that Fantagraphics was always fighting for. But at the risk of sounding like one of those lunatics who’ll tell you that Times Square just isn’t the same now that you go there after dark without taking your life in your hands, I miss the old circle-the-wagons atmosphere that leapt out of TCJ’s very pages. A great comic is still a great comic. But cultural respectability affects a vibrant, punky creative scene like a spinal tap.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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