In 1976, a thoughtful 22-year-old comics fan named Gary Groth co-founded the publishing company Fantagraphics with Mike Catron and began editing their flagship title, the Comics Journal, a compendium of comics news, interviews, and reviews dedicated to touting the few works of genuine artistic merit being produced at the time. In the late 1970s, Groth would ride into Manhattan a few times a week from the magazine’s offices in Connecticut to sit in on press conferences held by the two giants of the business: Marvel and DC. “Ninety percent of the comics industry back then was centralized in New York,” Groth remembers. Besides the superhero publishers, stalwart underground cartoonists like Art Spiegelman still lived in the city, along with a handful of School of Visual Arts students, such as Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Kaz, and Mark Newgarden, who’d go on to form the backbone of the alt-comics movement in the Eighties and Nineties. And there was Groth, a young man who’d once published his own fanzine about The Fantastic Four, hanging out with veterans and up-and-comers and asking them the same question over and over: “Why can’t comics be better?”
This month, Groth’s company is publishing a fortieth-anniversary oral history called We Told You So: Comics as Art, which serves as both a celebration of how far the medium has come since the Journal launched in 1977 and a reminder of the part Fantagraphics played. “You write criticism to change things,” Groth says. “And then at a certain point you realize that criticism doesn’t do that. To change things, you have to do it yourself.”
For Groth, that meant taking a chance on publishing California brothers Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s offbeat social-realist masterpiece Love and Rockets in 1982. At the time, ambitious cartoonists like Spiegelman were converting their backgrounds in modern art and literature into pages that could’ve been sold in a Soho gallery, but the Hernandez brothers were more inspired by Jack Kirby and Archie, and produced work that clearly belonged in comics shops, even though it was more sophisticated and true to real life than any superhero book on the stands. Jaime’s small-scale stories about punk rock kids in L.A.’s Mexican-American neighborhoods, and Gilbert’s sprawling sagas of one curious rural Central American village, were unlike anything the medium had seen before, mixing real-world concerns with unexpected — and often unexplained — elements of fantasy. The characters and the one-of-a-kind personality that Los Bros Hernandez introduced in ’81 inspired other young artists to follow their lead — and often led straight to Love and Rockets‘ publisher.
Throughout the Nineties, Fantagraphics gave a home to some of comics’ biggest talents: Hate creator Bagge, Ghost World writer-artist Daniel Clowes, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth‘s Chris Ware, and more. These cartoonists pushed the medium forward with work that combined slice-of-life storytelling with distinctive graphic design, making the everyday experiences of going to work, feeling lonely, looking for a mate, and trying to make a lasting impact on the world as dramatic and visually dynamic as an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. All the while, Fantagraphics continued to produce the Comics Journal, which touted upstarts and challenged the mainstream, changing the conversation about which comics were important.
Comics as Art has been in the works for so long that at one point it was slated to be a thirtieth-anniversary release. Former Journal editor Tom Spurgeon (who co-authored the book with Michael Dean) says he realized early on that the project was going to be unwieldy: The first chapter alone ran thirty thousand words, roughly what the length of the entire volume was supposed to be. Spurgeon eventually stepped aside, after realizing this would have to be “a much bigger book, with a much broader focus.” The final version fills nearly seven hundred pages, combining vintage photos and original comics with impressively detailed reminiscences from more than two hundred writers, artists, editors, and publishers whose work has defined the form in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
The tale Comics as Art tells stretches from the dawn of comics fandom in the Sixties, via what Spurgeon refers to as “the zine kids” — teenage superfans like Groth, future DC and Marvel editors Marv Wolfman and Jim Shooter, and Sin City creator Frank Miller, who’d swap both thoughts and hand-mimeographed leaflets of their art and would then gather whenever they could in New York to talk about and even meet their favorite artists. The story picks up steam in the Eighties, when Fantagraphics was devising a template for a more literary comic book at the same time Spiegelman was creating his arty RAW anthology (where his landmark graphic novel, Maus, would be serialized) and Bagge was editing the punky Weirdo. Soon, Fantagraphics’ stature — or chutzpah — grew to the point that it began publishing some of the legends of the Sixties and Seventies underground, like Robert Crumb and Kim Deitch.
Spurgeon says that the biggest revelation for him while working on the book was how close to collapse the whole Fantagraphics/Comics Journal operation was for much of its existence. “It was like, if someone renewed their subscription, they could eat that night. That’s force-of-will stuff. It’s what Peter Bagge calls ‘a company running on anger and spite.'”
Over the course of its forty years, Fantagraphics has moved from Maryland to Connecticut to Los Angeles to Seattle — the last of which has been its home since 1989 — and weathered multiple lawsuits and market downturns that have almost forced the company to shutter. Groth resuscitated Fantagraphics’ fortunes in the early Nineties by starting a line of unabashedly pornographic comics under the Eros imprint.
Then all the years he and business partner Kim Thompson had spent extolling and repackaging classic newspaper comic strips like Krazy Kat and Popeye paid off when they secured permission from Charles Schulz’s widow, Jean, to publish the bestselling The Complete Peanuts in 2004. In Comics as Art, the deal and its impact gets its own chapter, covering how Peanuts bolstered Fantagraphics’ profile in the publishing world, establishing the company as equal home to underground legends like Crumb and a series so mainstream that each volume featured intros from the likes of Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Barack Obama. More importantly, having books that topped the New York Times bestseller list provided a much-needed infusion of revenue. According to Groth, “Maybe 3 percent of our books sell well, and then we have this vast mid-list. So it’s still difficult, but [our success is] nothing we could’ve dreamed about in the Eighties, or even to a large extent the Nineties.”
Cartoonist Dash Shaw, a former Brooklynite who attended SVA and grew up reading Fantagraphics titles like Love and Rockets, wonders if the struggles of the Nineties and Aughts kept the publisher from pursuing new talent with the same fervor it displayed when it first took a chance on the Hernandez brothers back in ’82. Shaw’s acclaimed graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button (an ambitious seven-hundred-page dissection of one dysfunctional family’s bummer vacation) came out via Fantagraphics in 2008, but he reckons that prior to that, “They really hadn’t been doing new people for about ten years.” The company has since released a wave of books by young artists such as Megan Kelso (whose The Squirrel Mother and Artichoke Tales fuse cartoonish whimsy and earnest fantasy) and Jordan Crane (creator of the poignant The Last Lonely Saturday), though Groth admits, “I don’t know if now they’re objectively better or if we’re just paying more attention.” Either way, the turns of fortune documented in Comics as Art speak to one of the biggest challenges for a cultural institution: remaining ahead of the curve.
Spurgeon says that in some ways, Fantagraphics has completed the mission begun by Groth with the Comics Journal: to prove that comics could sustain what he calls the “literary, adult strain” that prior to 1976 had only been approached occasionally by a handful of underground cartoonists and newspaper strips. “Now it’s sort of assumed that the battle has been won,” Spurgeon says. “I mean, people read Persepolis in their book clubs. The thing that Fantagraphics and the Journal have to deal with is being dismissed as irrelevant old men, more interested in Buz Sawyer reprints than someone that younger people might find more meaningful.” Shaw, though, is one of those younger people, and he insists, “They’re still putting out the best books. They’re still the most forward-thinking. From Love and Rockets to today, there’s still a lack of high/low distinction.”
If Comics as Art had come out when originally intended, the book would’ve missed both artists like Shaw and the arguments over contemporary relevance that have emerged since 2006. Instead, Groth is proud of the section that covers the new generation, which brings the story full circle. “I was there when the Hernandez brothers were twenty years old,” he says. “And now we’re publishing artists who were influenced by thirty years of their work. It kind of freaks me out.”
Compiling Comics as Art also took so long that Thompson died before it was completed. (“Whenever I page through the book and see his parts of it, he comes rushing back,” Groth says. “He’s such a living presence… until he’s not.”) The lag-time has also meant that some of the hubbub around more artistic comics has quieted, unlike in the early Aughts, when the likes of Ghost World and Jimmy Corrigan bubbled up into the mainstream. Clowes and Ware, both signed by Fantagraphics when they were relative unknowns, later helped push their publisher to get their work out of comics shops and into bookstores. But despite their success — which includes Clowes’s bestselling 2016 graphic novel, Patience, published by Fantagraphics — even popular artists like Shaw have come to accept that “Cartooning today feels more like a secret underground network of believers and understanders.”
We Told You So: Comics as Art is arriving into an industry at a different kind of crossroads, where the initial debate over whether the medium can have enduring aesthetic value has given way to harder questions about what happens next. “I think that people my age aren’t going to be the ones to decide that, though,” Spurgeon says. “It’s going to be whoever the next young, pissed-off Gary Groth is.”
We Told You So: Comics as Art
By Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean