Some in the industry think they're shooting themselves in the foot. "I love Fantagraphics, but they're a bunch of boobs sometimes!" says Chip Kidd, associate art director of jackets and special projects at Knopf, who's also largely responsible for Pantheon's stellar line of graphic novels. "The idea that Fantagraphics is a publisher but also puts out this comics magazine that dive-bombs its own productsit's just crazy! They'll run a review that rips apart something they just published!"
Maybe it's crazy, but it also smacks of a refreshing, near-extinct kind of integrity and idealism. As the publishing world grows ever more corporate and contracts to fewer and fewer outlets, Fantagraphics stubbornly keeps business truculent and personal. Let it never be said that they let profit get in the way of voicing an honest opinion.
Despite anti-authoritarian and self-sabotaging tendencies (and very little cash), Fantagraphics somehow made it through nearly three decades on passion and luck. Groth and Thompson happily admit they have no business sensethey only knew they wanted to encourage more people to follow the path of literate, iconoclastic figures like Crumb and Art Spiegelman. The first comic Fantagraphics published, in 1982, was the extraordinary Love and Rockets by L.A. brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and (initially) Mario Hernandez, which in part followed two punk Latino chicks from teendom through adulthood. Inspired by L&R, other artists flocked to Fantagraphics, and in the next few years the company published dozens of young talents who became linchpins of the burgeoning alternative comix movement.
In the '80s and '90s, alt-comix developed the same adversarial relationship with the superhero mainstream of pulp comics that indie rock had with heavy metal. Funnily enough, by the late '80s Fantagraphics had moved to Seattle, where the nascent grunge movement was coalescing around Sub Pop Records. But although there was a boom in independent comics, there was never really a comix version of Nirvana to explode the genre into the mainstream. Then the boom turned to a bust. "Every month we were losing ground, and there was nothing we could do," Groth recalls. Looking for a quick cash-flow fix in 1991, Fantagraphics turned to sex comics. "Porn came to us in a vision," jokes Thompson, but the Eros imprint pulled them out of their hole within a year and remains a profitable part of the company.
Groth believes the financial problems are worse this time around, and he chalks it up to a combination of poor management skills and bad luck. Fantagraphics lost about $70,000 when their distributor went bankrupt a few years back. But they immediately hooked up with W.W. Norton, enabling them to ride the most recent graphic-novel craze. Excited by the success of Ware, Clowes, and Sacco, Fantagraphics made a near fatal publishing error, printing too many books and leaving themselves severely short of cash. "One day I noticed all these bills imminently due and I saw what our receivables were," says Groth quietly, "and then the full impact of how fucked we were entered our consciousness." Although the duo was understandably worried that the comics community might spurn them, Groth and Thompson decided to make a public cry for help, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf, who had also been screwed up by distributor problems.
"It points up the inherent financial instability of publishing alternative comics," Groth suggests. The margins of profitability are very tight, he says, while the genre's fan base is compact. It's also hard to reach customers, since many comics stores shun alt-comix in favor of the bread-and-butter superhero stuff. And although mainstream bookstores are slightly more open to graphic novels these days, they still don't really get how to sell them. All this helps to explain why "every other remotely independent comics publisher has gone out of business over the last 16 years," Groth points out. "Pacific Comics, Eclipse, First Comics, Kitchen Sinkany company that had a staff and overhead has gone out of business, which makes it even more miraculous that we have 30 employees."
Thompson says, "Sometimes I literally think we're like the coyote who's run off the cliff and is not aware that he's run off the cliff yet. That's why we're still here."