To the untutored eye, graphic novels appear to be enjoying a heyday. The mainstream success of Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, and now Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis further diminished long-standing prejudices about comics as mere kid stuff, as did the movie versions of Ghost World and From Hell. Yet many of the small publishers who built this city perpetually hover on the brink of financial disaster.
Last year, two small operations that specialize in highbrow comics—Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly—nearly 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 family—or 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 other—even 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 character—mostly 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.”
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 products—it’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 sense—they 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 Sink—any 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.”