Friday, January 4, 2019

REVIEW: We Told You So: Comics as Art

This is a review of the Kindle edition.

In 2016, Fantagraphics Books celebrated its 40th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, published We Told You So: Comics as Art by two comics journalists and former Fantagraphics employees, Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean. An oral history clocking in at 500 pages (the print edition), it’s an in-depth and compelling insider’s look at the company’s history consisting of direct-quote reminiscences from present and former employees, cartoonists, industry pros and more. For most, the book may seem a bit esoteric, self-indulgent and “inside baseball,” as readers are given insight into Fantagraphics  behind the scenes during the company’s founding and history, operations, personalities, and its most illustrious, notorious and even insignificant moments. But it's a fascinating read for someone like me with an interest in publishing, and who grew up with Fantagraphics and particularly the Comics Journal, its storied, once-flagship magazine of “news and criticism." I witnessed the company's growth and many of its battles firsthand as reported in its pages and other comics news reports of the day, and knew many of the players by name and reputation, so reading this oral history brought many of those memories back to vivid life.

Fantagraphics was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth and Mike Catron to publish their comics adzine/fanzine, the Nostalgia Journal, which was soon renamed the Comics Journal (TCJ). Kim Thompson joined the company about a year later; following Catron’s departure soon after, it was Groth and Thompson who would become the guiding pillars of the company. (Thompson passed away fairly suddenly in 2013.)

The first magazine-format version
of the Comics Journal (#37)
While I wasn’t quite at the ground floor of its founding as a reader, I grew up with the company aesthetically, discovering TCJ with issue 38 (cover dated 1977), shortly after it had changed its name to the Comics Journal and become a monthly magazine. Starting with that issue, I own nearly the full run of the magazine, which today are scattered around my various boxes of stored comics and periodicals.

And what a ride it’s been, transforming over the years from fanzine and news magazine provocateurs, alternative comics publisher, pornographers (more on that below), to respected book publisher. Today, Fantagraphics is home to some of the world’s leading alternative comics artists like the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World and Eightball), Chris Ware (Acme Comics Library), and stewards of the complete works of iconic cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Robert Crumb and Charles Schulz (that’s quite a lineup!).

The book covers many of the highs (and lows) of the company’s history. While TCJ began as a traditional fanzine of mainstream (i.e., superhero) comics, it soon became the enfant terrible of the comics industry as Groth and Thompson began the rather quixotic quest of holding comics to a higher artistic standard, while also providing more in-depth coverage of the personalities and business practices of the industry. (The lengthy interviews were particularly a distinct feature of the magazine). Along the way, Groth, Thompson and the magazine made many enemies (a phrase I don’t use lightly), earning reputations as elitists (and worse), which they seemed to revel in and embrace, often initiating attacks that some considered personal and vicious. The feuds (and related litigation) the company engaged in back in its prime are legendary and well documented in the book. In the days before the internet and social media, it was like watching flame wars and trolling occur in slow motion over months or even years, as people battled through letters and editorials each issue.*

[In full disclosure, I should add that I even got into the act—TCJ published a critical essay and a review by me in issues 101 (August 1985) and 108 (May 1986); I also had a couple of pieces of art published in Amazing Hereos, its sister magazine that contained more traditional coverage of mainstream comics.)*

Love and Rockets #1
1982 brought a major sea change when its founders decided to put their money where their mouth was, by publishing their first (creator-owned) comic book series, one that reflected their own tastes and values. This was the groundbreaking Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers (Jaime and Gilbert), re-packaging and re-releasing the first issue the brothers had already self-published and sent to Fantagraphics for review. (I own this first issue and its initial full run as well!) While Love and Rockets didn’t start the independent comics movement per se (Cerebus the Aardvark and Elfquest had launched in the late ‘70s), it became the flagship for both Fantagraphics and the “alternative” comics movement—a term the book amusingly makes clear was a somewhat contrived marketing ploy lifted from the music industry by a Fantagraphics publicist, which the publishers weren't really comfortable with. But the term stuck and proved to be an apt description.

From there, the company began expanding its comics line with artists like the above-mentioned Clowes and Ware, as well as, Peter Bagge (Hate), and many others; and expanding into other diverse comics including translated work, collections, etc. Many of these cartoonists were not money-makers, but Fantagraphics published work they felt deserved exposure.

However, as the internet became a primary source of news and online discussion for comics, much like the mainstream magazine market, TCJ sales declined, making their comics and book publishing even more important to the company’s bottom line. While the company always lived on the edge financially, two particular episodes brought the company to the brink of collapse, only to be saved by some out-of-the box thinking. The first was the collapse in the late 1980s of a speculator boom in the comics industry that caused the market to tank, particularly small independent publishers like Fantagraphics. Fantagraphics’ solution was to launch a line of “erotic” (i.e., pornographic) comics in 1990, under the imprint Eros Comics, that helped the company weather the storm for the coming years.

With the enthusiastic support of Charles Schulz widow
and estate, Fantagraphics published the full run of
Peanuts in 25 volumes (plus a 26th bonus) from 2004–16
The second incident came in 2004, when Fantagraphics' book distributor went bankrupt, leaving the company suddenly $70,000 in the hole. The company desperately reached out to readers (and their catalog mailing list), explaining the situation and asking people to make a purchase from Fantagraphics’ deep inventory to boost their bottom line. Readers and the industry came through, infusing the company with $100,000 inside of a month.

The book also covers the company’s physical moves over the years, from the east coast and New England, to Southern California, to its present home in Seattle—a seemingly perfect fit as it arrived there along with the burgeoning alt-rock movement that was emerging; and the parade of often eccentric and low-paid interns and employees who crossed the company’s doorstep. The book is full of insider reminiscences that also covers the personalities and chemistry of Groth, Thompson and the people who worked for them for little pay.

While the company still retains its gonzo quality, it also seems to have grown up a bit, no doubt due to the mellowing with age of its principal owners. It’s found some stability and focus with its book publishing and has pretty much moved on from (or perhaps more accurately given up) trying to change the mainstream by focusing on just putting out comics and books that reflects the company’s values. Indeed, underscoring the challenges of comics publishers that do not publish "traditional" continuity-driven periodical comics or the like, Fantagraphics' bread and butter today comes from the more broader book market, not the narrower direct-sales comics market. Other such "boutique" comics publishers have followed in their footsteps.

Despite the nostalgia for classic comics from a more innocent time before they got wrapped up in stifling continuity and being fodder for licensing, franchise films and TV shows, we are today truly living in a "golden age" of comics, with a diversity of comics for all tastes, paralleling the fragmentation of audiences we’ve seen in television/streaming services/broadcast media. While Fantagraphics did not single handedly create the alternative comics market, it certainly played a big role in making that happen.

Postscript: During the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con, Fantagraphics announced that the print version of TCJ was returning in 2019, having ceased publishing as a magazine in 2011 and continuing as a website.


* In 1981, realizing that the mission of the TCJ had moved beyond the mainstream, it introduced Amazing Heroes, a more traditional (and less controversial) comics magazine that covered the industry in a more sanguine and positive manner as a compliment to the more hard-hitting TCJ. (The 1980s and ‘90 were a golden age of sorts for comics magazines and zines, which I collected as enthusiastically as the comics themselves, each with its own personality, such as the weekly tabloid-format Comic Buyer’s Guide (CBG), a dependable source of more traditional news, reviews and information that acted both as a fanzine and industry trade journal which served as a nice complement and counterpoint to TCJ. Between the CBG and TCJ, I felt both provided a fairly comprehensive view of what was going on in the industry. There were other great magazines as well during this period, such as Comics Interview, Comics Feature and more).

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