FOR ALL THE NOISE every summer over superhero movies and the pop culture Costco that the San Diego Comic Con has become, the comic book world is still a small one. Compared to the vast number of book imprints, record labels, and even television networks, there are only a handful of comics publishers. (There are fewer movie studios than comics publishers, but that’s because very few people have tens of millions or hundreds of millions to fund a movie.) Last week’s new releases list cites 57 publishers, from mighty Marvel offering 25 titles on down to lowly AC Comics, with their lone offering, Crypt of Horror #18.
That’s why the death of Fantagraphics co-founder Kim Thompson hits the comics world so hard. It’s a small world. Everybody knows everybody in comics publishing. These people have stood at their convention hall folding-tables, stacked high with comics, staring at the other publisher with the folding-table stacked high with comics, for decades. Friendships, grudges, slights, favors, and competitors are remembered for a very, very long time. And Kim Thompson, whom everybody liked (as far as I know), will be remembered for a very long time, for his unique impact on the American comic book, which is somewhat substantial. (Fantagraphics has posted an obituary here which gives a good sense of his life and accomplishments.)
I first met Kim Thompson at a convention, sometime in the mid-1980s when I was late for a Peter Bagge signing. I recall asking him all the questions I would have asked Bagge. In person, Kim was a shy, circumspect, and humble man. The Kim Thompson you got via e-mail was something else. I will not reprint here his quite direct inquiries into where my very late book for Fantagraphics is at the moment, but I hope you will take my word for it that they are not humble or circumspect.
Kim Thompson was born in 1956 to American citizens living abroad in Denmark, and arrived here in the US in 1977. That same year, Kim joined Gary Groth to help put out The Comics Journal, begun in 1976. The Comics Journal was the first forum for nothing but discussion, criticism, and journalism about comics to rise above the level of the zine (not to discount those incredibly vital fan networks). There would be no comics section here at the Los Angeles Review of Books, or anywhere else, without The Comics Journal. They were not the only comics-oriented publication, but they were the only one with actual journalistic standards that hired writers of depth and knowledge. A lot of those aforementioned friendships, grudges, and slights started in the pages of The Comics Journal. It’s easy to slam a comic, but then you have to stand across the aisle from the publisher or artist who created that comic, for three long convention days over a hot summer weekend in a hotel somewhere, and then at the hotel bar that night. Again, it’s a small, and sometimes uncomfortable, business.
But Thompson and Groth, to their credit, never pulled any punches. Fantagraphics currently has up on their site an exchange between Kim, Gary, associate publisher Eric Reynolds, and designer Jacob Covey that gives a nice sense of what it’s like to have your work mulled (mauled?) over by the Journal. In this case, the strip in question is Dilbert:
Kim Thompson: It’s blossomed into a relentless examination of deception and self-delusion in the workplace and beyond, based on the premise that 90% of actions taken are taken for reasons that are selfish, idiotic, or both, and boiling them down to their most basic absurdities.
Gary Groth: That’s the problem: the strip is essentially gutless, so generic and so absent specificity as to be meaningless. Selfishness, sloth, and idiocy are its constant (easy) targets — vices to which no one can object — and executed in such a cutesy, innocuous way that they prompt a reflexively knowing and self-satisfied smirk.
That’s not from any article. That’s just interoffice e-mail, water-cooler talk at Fanta. Cartoonists are rarely held to such high standards, but that’s exactly what the Comics Journal did every month.
Critical magazines have a way of stimulating creativity. From the heated, hyper-talkative culture of the 1940s and 50s Partisan Review, a Saul Bellow emerged to embody its aesthetic. From Cahiers du Cinema and its attempt to create a new critical language for film, the French New Wave filmmakers appeared. In a similar way, from the Comics Journal intelligentsia, a literary comics (later, unfortunately, dubbed “graphic novels”) movement began. In 1982, Fantagraphics published Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets. Later, they published Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, Jessica Abel, Carol Tyler, and Roberta Gregory. It introduced readers to European comics and classic American titles long out of print. A contemporary, global, and historical sensibility was emerging from one house. Kim and Gary were never alone in that movement, but they had an edge that seemed to leave the flakier underground comics publishing world behind. Their taste and pragmatic business sense (unbelievably, for an indie, their comics came out on a schedule) meant that most of the leading lights of the 80s and 90s literary comics scene were all published under one roof for a long time.
A critical culture, the comics themselves, and then there was one last great innovation from Fantagraphics. It’s not one that they invented, but it’s one that they proved more than anyone else could be a success. At Fanta, the cartoonists retained copyright of their work. There are no work-for-hire contracts. As with much larger publishers like Marvel and DC, you can see Fantagraphics’s legacy in bookstores everyday, but there’s one thing you will never see: You will never see an 85-year-old cartoonist, or their children, or their grandchildren, going to court to wrest copyright or ill-gotten licensing fortunes from Fantagraphics to pay their bills.
A theory of comics as literature, put into practice to great success, and an ethic of treating artists with common decency are the legacies of Kim Thompson. Few people are proven as right as Kim was in most everything they believe. His life was cut short, but it had dramatic impact on the small world of the comic book. I’ll never see him standing over a folding-table full of comic books again, but I’m grateful to publish with his company, and my shelves are full of his life’s work. Thank you, Kim.