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Last year, two small operations that specialize in highbrow comicsTop Shelf and Drawn & Quarterlynearly folded when their distributor went out of business. They survived by appealing to their fans to buy their books. Several weeks ago, another company found itself in a similar situation: Fantagraphics, the big bang of the alternative comix cosmos. Their roster has included luminaries like Ware, Los Bros Hernandez, Roberta Gregory, Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, and Clowes (since departed to Pantheon). But critical acclaim doesn't pay the bills. Several weeks ago, Fantagraphics started groveling for dollars. The owners sent out an urgent plea via the Internet asking readers to purchase $80,000 worth of books (above usual sales) to cover their immediate debt, caused by overprinting.
"I guess it's a tradition now," Fantagraphics president Gary Groth says with a rueful laugh. "Begging people to buy books instead of actually marketing them."
The money poured in and collapse was averted, but only after some serious bitchiness on the comics bulletin boards and blogs. "I really couldn't give a damn if Fantagraphics went tits up," one cartoonist posted, continuing, "I've no interest in running to the rescue of a company that belittles some of my interests in comics." These sour responses didn't surprise Groth, who revels in his reputation as the bête noire of the comics world. (Clowes once satirized him as "Mr. Anger.") Since he started publishing The Comics Journal in 1976, Groth has become a grand provocateur: He has loudly scorned lowbrow superhero comics and frequently penned manifestos calling for higher artistic standards.
Small and wiry, Groth looks relatively laid-back as he sits in a Manhattan café, shoveling salad into his mouth between questions. Opinionated and erudite, he's as capable of discussing Rick Moody as Krazy Kat. And he has no qualms about using highfalutin language to get a point across, which is how he's earned the tag "elitist." In a forthcoming Comics Journal essay he rants about his hatred of the scene's rah-rah sensibility and the need for a more critical mindset in comics. After setting the tone with quotes from philosophers Hans Magnus Enzensberger and E.M. Cioran, Groth complains that, as they achieved a modicum of success, "young cartoonists who considered themselves bona fide artists became insiders at alternative conventions, beach parties, award ceremonies, and in their local comix communities. The usual deceptions essential to greasing the social machinery quickly followed, the first being that they constituted one big, happy familyor one big, happy family circa 1954. No disagreements allowed." Asked to elaborate, Groth sighs, "It's like some big Andy Hardy movie where everyone's pitching in and being supportive of each othereven if the other guy is doing dreck. People aren't going to get better at what they do if they live in this cocoon of reciprocal backslapping."
With that kind of caustic attitude, it's amazing that Groth's never had his lights punched out. In its 27 years of existence, Fantagraphics has been sued (and cleared) three times for libel and defamation of charactermostly famously in the '80s by comic book writer Michael Fleischer because of comments made by SF novelist Harlan Ellison during a Comics Journal interview. The case dragged on for seven years and polarized much of the comics industry. Groth recalls, "There was one convention where [Fleischer] recruited people to draw for him and sell the drawings for his legal fund, and I created an ad hoc group of artists to draw opposite his artists. The room festered with venom and hatred until the guy who ran the convention finally told us we all had to leave!" To make matters worse, Groth and Ellison had their own falling-out during the lawsuit. In 1994, Fantagraphics made the bad feelings eternal by publishing The Book on the Edge of Forever, a tract that cruelly documents Ellison's long-promised but endlessly delayed science fiction anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, which he's been editing for more than 30 years.
Kim Thompson, Groth's longtime partner at Fantagraphics, says that readers do sometimes confuse the company with the comics. "You hear from people who say, 'I've never bought a Fantagraphics book because you guys are such assholes.' That's just strange to me. If Adolf Hitler put out the next Garrison Keillor book, I'd still buy it!" A few moments later, he recants. "OK, that's an extreme example. But these are people who say, 'You wrote a nasty article about an artist I like 10 years ago in The Comics Journal, therefore I'll never ever buy Love and Rockets.' And there are probably comics stores that don't stock our stuff because they think Gary and I are dicks. But let's face it, if you're a shop that has any claim to carrying alternative comics and you're not carrying Eightball or Acme Novelty Library, that's stupid."