The 25th anniversary of Fantagraphics Books this year is definitely something that should make you think if you are into non-mainstream comics. Anniversaries are probably just a matter of convention and, essentially, perhaps not a big deal, but Fantagraphics was so instrumental in the spreading and shaping of independent comics during this period that it's not an exaggeration to say that this publisher was of tremendous influence on the entire scene. Some people even worry about the fact that it was just one or (more precisely) just a few publishers who basically ruled the field. But, then again, it's hard to blame Fantagraphics for this situation. You have to give them credit for discovering some of the scene's most innovative and profound artists (such as Dan Clowes and Jim Woodring) and steadily publishing important authors such as R. Crumb and Bill Griffith, to mention but two. It's also for the benefit of all that they were putting out the only regularly published magazine devoted to comics criticism. Plus, Fantagraphics showed concern for the history of comics and published a lot of reprints… I discussed all this and more with the company's founders, Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, during my visit to their headquarters in Seattle.
How do you feel about the fact that Fantagraphics is now among the few -- perhaps the only -- publisher of your size devoted to alternative comics in North America?
Thompson: Kitchen Sink went under few years ago, and Last Gasp stopped publishing comics, so it's essentially us and Drawn and Quarterly in Canada, and then there's a lot of small ones like Top Shelf and Highwater... In some way it feels good to be unique and in some other ways it's a worry, because it's like being eighty-five years old and realizing that everyone you went to school with is dead! (laughs)
Now you're the "carrier of the torch," but isn't that a responsible situation just as well?
T: I know… Sometimes you think about selling everything and going on to something else, but who WOULD publish these comics then? Well, Drawn and Quarterly does a really good job of it, and there's a smaller ones, and I think that someone would fill the vacuum…
What do you think about the alternative comics scene outside of Fantagraphics?
T: I think that Drawn & Quarterly cartoonists are very important. In a way they are similar to Fantagraphics cartoonists. It's hard to draw a line -- in terms of quality and the intrinsic nature of the work, we could be just as well publishing Chester Brown, and Drawn & Quarterly could just as well publish Jessica Abel. I don't know any big difference between the two companies…
Canada and US are basically the same cultural space?
T: The difference between Canada and US is basically like Belgium and France, at least culturally. Drawn & Quarterly is publishing American cartoonists (Archer Prewitt and Jason Lutes, for example), we publish Canadian cartoonists like David Cooper, and we used to publish David Collier, before he went to D&Q… That's a case of Canadian loyalty, I guess.
What were the beginnings of Fantagraphics like? How it all started?
Groth: The first thing we published was The Comics Journal, in July 1976. My then partner (Mike Catron) and I dropped out of collage… At that time I was studying journalism, but at that time -during Watergate--- everybody was studying journalism, because everybody wanted to be like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford [in All The President's Men]… Except that I wanted to be a REAL journalist, and it was really unsettling time in my life. I'm not really academically oriented, I didn't like school and I didn't like the pace of studying journalism. We cast around and tried to figure what we could do. Since we both knew the art of comic books, and we both were interested in journalism, we started publishing The Comics Journal…
Was that the first magazine devoted to comics criticism?
G: Not quite, but it's the only magazine devoted to serious comics criticism that sustained itself for a long period of time, and most of the magazines that came out with comics criticism were essentially fanzines. They were "fanish" in the worst sense of the word, they were essentially gushing about their favorite artists, almost always mainstream -- superhero artists, Marvel and DC stuff…There were a couple that broke that rule, like Graphic Story Magazine that came out in the mid to late sixties. It was really the first to try to impose critical standards on comics, and to write intelligent criticism on comics from a more mature point of view… There was also another magazine, called Inside Comics, that came out in the early seventies, and I forget how long it lasted, barely more than a year, I think… It was the first one to really practice journalism that got behind the scenes of the comics industry… That'd never been done before. The Comics Journal really combined both of those mandates. We wanted to practice serious criticism AND serious journalism.
Have you published monthly right from the start?
G: Originally it was a bi-monthly. I was 22, and I had a full-time job, which I would kind of get through quickly, and the magazine was put together in my two-bedroom apartment… In one bedroom we had a little office, and the other was my bedroom. Kim came on about a year after we started publishing. It was a mutual friend who brought Kim over to the apartment. Kim had just got back from Europe because his parents lived in Europe for a while. He was a comics nut, and he said, 'Gee, if you need some help with the magazine, just let me know…' And I said, by God we need help. At some point we just ran out of money, the magazine was losing financial steam, and Kim actually put in something like $1,000 or something…
And became a founder?
G: Right. We became partners. That money saved our asses, because we weren't able to continue. At that point we changed the magazine from a tabloid to a magazine format.
How did you start publishing comic books?
T: It developed mostly accidentally. The only thing that Gary and I really planned to do together was The Comics Journal, and we fell into publishing comics just because no one was publishing comics that we wanted to see published. As it turned out, when we started publishing comics in the early eighties, there was just this new generation of cartoonists, ready to explode on the scene, and really take comics up to the next level. We were just lucky enough to be there to accept them and publish them and let them out.
Do you remember the circumstances of the first comics getting to print?
G: I received the package from the Hernandez brothers, who sent us their self-published Love & Rockets #1… I was so excited about it -- it was the kind of comics that I really wanted to see more of. The scene usually works like that: the people you never heard of just come out of the blue. So I wrote back and casually said, 'if you'd be interested in us publishing this, let me know.' Through publishing The Comics Journal we learned about distribution, we had a printer, and we figured that we should publish comic books. And the Hernandez brothers said --Why not? And it was probably equally casual on their part, so we started publishing Love and Rockets in '82. We also started publishing Jack Jackson at about the same time… Jackson got in touch with us, and I remember that we sent him about $100 every month, so that he could write and draw. That, to us, was a tremendous amount of money, it was an enormous part of our budget And twelve or fifteen months later he had a book that we published, Los Tejanos. And somehow it seemed like we were comics publishers, and more artists were coming to us. Suddenly we were more alert to artists. We published Peter Bagge in 1984, we published Dan Clowes shortly thereafter…
What was your initial reaction, when it became obvious that Love and Rockets was a success?
G: It was a minor success… By our standards, it was just fine. At that point I was twenty-five, and the Hernandez brothers were three and five years younger then me, so we were all basically kids, and thankfully none of us needed much money to live. The Fantagraphics office was set up in Connecticut back then, and it was a gigantic five-bedroom house, with our office in the basement. Five of us lived in the house, so we would split the rent, and to live up there you didn't need much money… It was great. All we concentrated on was publishing The Comics Journal and few comics books.
When you remember these times, can you remember the impulse that drew you to do all these things?
G: I wanted to change the face of comics. We really had those "let's change the world" ideas, and through The Comics Journal we would polemically support the work that we found was meritorious, and insult the work that we found was lousy and mediocre…
Were there any political ideas behind it?
G: Yeah, The Comics Journal, from the very beginning, took a political stand -- I think it's complicated, because it's not a conventional political stand. It was very idiosyncratic and personal, and based on the conviction that comics is an art form…
Were you inspired by the struggle of the underground comics authors in the sixties?
G: When we started The Comics Journal, the underground comics scene had almost died - it was '76, and the undergrounds had their heyday between '68 and '72… In that short period of time so many incredible artists surfaced, but it was all downhill after '72… Arcade, which was published in '74 and '75 was really the last gasp (no pun intended) of the undergrounds. And you still had some underground comics in the late '70s, Bill Griffith was still working, and Harvey Pekar started publishing in '75, so you had the vestiges of underground comics and the people that were inspired by them. Head Shops were closing up, and the whole underground network was collapsing. When we started The Comics Journal so few underground comics were coming out that we reviewed about one underground comic an issue. I don't think we really recognized it at the time, but where we were all heading was towards the ethos of the underground, where the artist held control over his work and felt a sense of responsibility towards his work and to himself as an artist. We started seeing it happening to the next generation of artists, to people like the Hernandez Bros, and Dan Clowes and Pete Bagge and Chester Brown in the '80s… Still, in the'80s, we started to publish underground work, like Robert Crumb's books…
It must have been very exciting watching all these things emerging, a new scene coming out of the ashes after the undergrounds were almost forgotten…
G: Yeah. At that time I didn't have financial responsibilities or any worries, and I was watching artists who were in a similar situation, and who were just kicking ass, doing the best work in their lives… And Crumb was doing Weirdo on the West Coast, which was in '82 or '83. Raw started , and it was all happening at the same time, like an explosion. I don't think that we realized it at the time, because it takes some distance to realize what's happening in the present. I had a very journal-centric view of things, because The Comics Journal, for the first ten years of Fantagraphics, was my main focus…
An important thing about The Comics Journal was that it also concentrated on the history of comics… At that time, nobody was methodically paying attention to the history of the form, right?
G: Yes, and we also started Nemo magazine, in '82, if I remember correctly… And that was a magazine dedicated to the history of the newspaper strips. It ran for thirty-one issues, which is a pretty amazing run; every issue was just packed with extraordinary newspaper strip material. Rick Marshall, who edited the magazine, was incredibly knowledgeable about newspaper strips, he had a huge personal collection that we -- through the reprints -- presented to the great network of people…
How did the company grow to what it is today?
G: Well, we never had a plan, because as businessmen we were amateurs. And still are. We just started taking on more work. Our ethos was: If there's good work to be published and we can do it financially, we should do it. We always had occasional projects that did nothing but make money, so that we could publish the work we wanted to. Somehow we started publishing a magazine called Amazing Heroes, which was a superhero oriented magazine. We had a staff on that for eight years, and that made money to finance the other stuff we were doing. We were so excited about discovering new cartoonists, and publishing classic work as well - "Popeye," "Little Orphan Annie," "Little Nemo"… We were just nuts about finding all the great work to publish…
I wonder if it's an interesting combination of invention and some sort of business sense that built Fantagraphics? In many countries I've met gifted artists without the business sense to collect money and produce projects that would promote their work. And on the other side, there's a lot of production every where, which is just kind of… over-commercialized. So I guess this could be a pretty solid measure, after all, of what Fantagraphics has been doing…
G: Financially, it all seems like common sense to me -- you just need enough money to cover your expenses. We didn't have rules of how much money we should make. People who know what they're doing have all kinds of charts and graphs and spread-sheets, and they've got rules in terms of how much return you have to make on your investment, how much money in the end of the year you have to have… We didn't care about all that, even though we knew that you have to make as much money as you spent. If we did that, we were cool, as we didn't worry about the surplus money… So we kept on a really rudimentary level and just indulged our taste in comics.
Maybe people can learn from your case. As I said, many "cultural" initiatives fall apart because they can't find a proper way to support themselves…
G: You mean even though they had good intentions? It's true, but we don't really have this business sense, either. I can't explain it properly, but it seems obvious to me that you just have to keep paying bills… We always managed to do that, one way or the other. We got into a number of crises too. We started the Eros Comics line because we were on the edge of bankruptcy; this happened between '89 and '91… The market was tightening up, while we functioned on a very narrow margin. We didn't really have extra money, so the crisis was catching up to us, and somehow we realized that we just had to continue… In situations like this, the question becomes what will you do to stay alive? Publishing good books isn't going to keep you alive, and we had this bright idea that "sex sells," so we started to publish erotic material and within a year we came back to square one, which really saved our asses.
Is Eros still bringing money?
G: Yes. It's not as profitable as it was between '91 and say '93 or '94, but it's still fairly potent…
When I speak to comics-types in Europe, I understand that many of them are quite keen on Fantagraphics production…
G: I'm not sure, I know that our comics get over there. I notice that artists we published are known by the cognoscenti of comics… I know that The Comics Journal is well regarded in Europe -- at least it seems that we get more compliments from Europeans than from Americans…
Perhaps because Europeans love to read long, analytical articles that could be found in The Comics Journal?
G: And Americans don't.
But I think that European interest in alternative stuff is also generated through the emergence of small but agile comics publishers all over the Continent?
T: Yeah, there's a new generation of small publishers in Europe -- France has L'Association and few others like Cornelius, Vertige, and Rackham, there's ReproDukt in Germany, the Strapazin gang in Switzerland, etc. They even reprint some of our authors, so even though the quantities are very small (press runs of two or three thousand or something like that) there is some progress.
Which Fantagraphics author has been most frequently translated in European languages?
Thompson: That's definitely Dan Clowes. And Peter Bagge is second. There's a lot of interest in Chris Ware, but the problem is that his work is technically very difficult for adaptation. As a result, there really is no European edition of Ware's work. Plus there's the color that makes it extremely expensive to do. And on the top of that there's a lot of text in the color so you can't even use the same film negative. And -- to top that too -- Chris is very picky to work with . Everything has to be perfect, he's barely happy with the way he does it himself! I know that L'Association wanted to do a collection of Chris Ware's work few years ago, but it never happened because they couldn't agree on certain format specifications and Chris never had the time to devote to it…
And how about the markets outside North America and Europe? How about Asia?
T: Asia is tough enough to crack, as they have their own comics tradition. It's strange, because Asia is so heavily fascinated by American culture -- movies and music and everything, but they simply won't publish American comics! They just won't! Although one small Japanese publisher has started publishing Dan Clowes and wants to do Peter Bagge and Jim Woodring…
Is it because they want something very special when it comes to comics?
T: I don't know, it might be because the style of Asian comics is so specific, so they just might not be able to read American comics. The only non-Asian cartoonists that are successful there are the European cartoonists that Kodansha commissioned especially to do comics for the Japanese, and they did it in a specific format, and with very heavy interference from the editors. I know that Lewis Trondheim was supposed to do Fly for them, and he just gave up because they were messing with it so much. They're extremely controlling. But DC Comics in the fifties and the sixties were the same way, everything was generated by the publishers and editors, the writers and artists were just hired…Of course, alternative cartoonists don't like to work that way. If somebody tells to the alternative comics "change a comma," they would climb up a tower and start shooting people!
What is your opinion on the rich tradition of comics in North America? It seems that there have been several generations of exceptional cartoonists to emerge in this part of the world.
G: Gee, there's such a tremendous body of work in history of comics, and not that much good work on the history of comic books until you hit the sixties… The era of newspaper strips from the turn of the century through the fifties was amazing, considering the number of distinctive and singular talents that worked throughout that period. The comic books had occasional extraordinary cartoonists like Harvey Kurtzman, other EC guys or Carl Barks. And then the underground movement seemed like one of the most creative in the history of the century. In a mere four years you had probably twenty or twenty-five different artists who emerged with a distinctive style. They never imitated each other, and there was a great diversity among them. The stereotype was that they were all about sex and drugs, but that's a crude generalization. They had very distinctive sense of humor and seriousness and style.
But how was it possible in the first place, even from the turn of the century, that so many good cartoonists were emerging in the States, and in so many different newspapers? Is it connected with the history of the journalism here since there were so many small newspapers all over the country, compared to Europe?
G: I don't know, but my theory would be more along the lines that in the beginning every art form is cloudy. There is this incredibly creative period that eventually narrows down to a set of commercial parameters after a while. Even the history of film begins with Chaplin, Keaton, and a lot of tremendous artists of the silent era, and who in the forties and fifties could match those guys? The earliest ones were good directors, and innovators, and gradually they were succeeded by more traditional narratives and more traditional styles. The same thing happened with comics in the teens, twenties and thirties, you got this explosion of graphic artists and narrative storytellers, because nobody really knew what he was doing. They didn't know the audience's expectations. They didn't have the newspaper people to tell them what they had to do because the owners didn't know themselves what they should do. All these creative artists did what they wanted. I think it's what caused this enormous explosion to happen at the beginning of the century. And in the way it was similar with underground comics, because they were pushing the form, at that point, they wanted to throw off all these commercial shackles.
On the other side, the best comic book artists were working in such a STORY medium that they were considered craftsman instead of artists.
How was it to struggle with the commercial side of the business, I mean to deal with the people who are outside comics, like distributors and shops?
G: We just publish what we want to publish, and then we say, here it is, distribute it. So from our standpoint it is a very fundamental business relation.
How did you come to acquire authors like Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and Chris Ware?
Groth: Speaking of Jim Woodring, Gil Kane, who is a mutual friend of ours, told me that there was an artist working at his animation studio who was a great guy and terrific artist, and that we ought to get together. So he arranged for us all to go to dinner, and I met Jim. We got on really well together, he showed me couple of his mini comics that I loved. Jim is just a terrific guy, so intelligent and enthusiastic and generous, and he had some material already done, which combined new work, could be enough to publish in a series or comics, so I suggested that we should publish it as a regular (or irregular) comic and see how it went… And it was around '86 or '87, when we published Jim #1. Pete Bagge -- I forgot how we exactly met him, but I do remember that he drove from New Jersey to our house in Connecticut...
What I really wanted to ask is how do you choose the artists that you publish, especially those who are considered the most representative of Fantagraphics stable?
Thompson: I don't know, it's very instinctive. We're not particularly fond, at least as publishers, of fantasy or horror fiction and the like, we are much more into satirical work or slice of life stories. But even so I can't really detect any common thread between stories by Peter Bagge and Jim Woodring, or Dan Clowes' and Chris Ware's work. Each has an individual vision, but that's sort of meaningless cliché.
What were the reactions of the people from mainstream comics circles to Fantagraphics? Did they feel threatened by your activities?
G: No, they felt threatened by The Comics Journal, but not by the comics we published. My recollection is that the reaction [to our comics] was fairly muted. I remember an artist who became the editorial director at DC, a really sweet guy, and we advertised Love and Rockets #1, I remember him walking up to me at a convention and saying -- if the insides of this book are as good as the cover that I saw in the ad, it's going to be dynamite... It was Jaime's cover to the first issue. But after the book came out, he walked up to me at a later convention and just sadly shook his head. He didn't think that work lived up the promise of the cover. So I think that reaction was sort of muted... But, I think future issues certainly proved him wrong.
Why do you think they were afraid of The Comics Journal?
G: They were afraid because we attacked them every month (laughs). A lot of creators have a love/hate relationship with us because we would often attack their work and point how pathetic it was while defending their rights, as artists, against the corporate bullying that Marvel and DC were so good at. They liked that part, but they weren't comfortable with our highfalutin esthetic attitude, so they had very mixed feelings. Michel Fleischer sued us in 1979 for 2 million dollars, and it really polarized the comics industry. There were those in Fleischer's camp who wanted him to sue us into bankruptcy. We definitely had our own group of artists who were supporting us; although, there were an awful lot of mainstream artists who were supporting him.
How do you perceive the alternative scene as it is now, comparing to the early 80s ? What's different about it?
T: I think it's more established now. The idea of a comic like Love and Rockets was insane when we started in 1982. It was not a mainstream comic, it was not an underground comic, it was just something entirely new. And now almost any comic that comes out has a certain debt to Love and Rockets. From '83 to the early nineties, we thought that comics could be integrated into the larger American culture. Big publishers started publishing comics, big magazines and papers were reviewing comics, and we hoped that cartoonist would get to the level that at least they are in Europe, or something close to it, but it never happened.
How do you explain that?
T: It's a very big job, and comics have a very long reputation for being just adolescent crap. I don't think it was possible to move. Although articles about comics still do appear, writers are still surprised that comics can be anything but stupid and childish. And this is ten or fifteen years after Spiegelman's Maus… Many things that at the time I thought had a huge impact simply vanished, and most people still don't know who Art Spiegelman is and almost nobody knows about Love and Rockets…
G: Also, there simply aren't any qualified critics of comics. You have critics of fiction, film, theatre -- although even these are getting more and more dumbed down -- but none of these writers know enough about comics to write about them intelligently. Those that do, academics mostly, can't write readable English. So it's a Catch-22 situation.
At this point, is there any other magazine except The Comics Journal, which concentrates on writing critically about comics?
G: No. There's a new magazine, an academic magazine (I forget the title) that is devoted to analysis of comics. But, I never considered The Comics Journal to be an academic magazine. I wanted it to be a popular magazine, publishing popular criticism... I think that good criticism should reach a wider audience, an intelligent, discriminating and literate audience that is fast fading, of course. But what you can see now is academia taking over the popular culture. It's not a surprise, as popular magazines are so stupid that there's no point reading them. Good critics of popular culture are becoming an endangered species, and that was the case thirty years ago, and so it is now... And I think that in a way Journal has kept that tradition alive at least in terms of comics. We have been publishing good literate accessible criticism.
How did you get to that formula of publishing those big interviews, thirty or forty pages long? Was it something that Comics Journal originated? It's interesting because it gives a lot of space to artists to express their opinions and speak about their work. I don't remember that I saw such long interviews anywhere else.
G: Playboy used to publish interviews in the sixties and seventies that were very long, but, you know, most of these things did not develop as full-blown ideas. Like I woke up one day and said, "I think we really ought to start publishing long in-depth interviews!" These are things that certainly evolved, and when we interviewed artists who really had a lot to say I didn't want to cut the article to conform to what people perceived as a conventional magazine standard. Given the attention span of most consumers, I think the trend is to keep cutting material, keeping it shorter and easier to read. I always hated that idea, and I have to admit that I take a perverse liking to publishing things that go against prevailing trends. The more we interviewed people, the more we interviewed good people who had things to say, the less I wanted to cut them. In Journal number 38, we did an interview with Gil Kane. He is so intelligent, and outspoken that we just ran a whole thing... And people liked that. The other thing is that I like to publish what I would like to read, and I enjoy long interviews.
T: I think that The Comics Journal has been crucial for the evolution of American comics. As much as people hated it, complained about it and everything, I've heard of a lot of people who literally grew up with Comics Journal, and that was what first gave them the idea that comics could be something different… Some twenty years ago they picked up an issue because [the] X-Men or Superman were on the cover, and when they flipped to the back there was Robert Crumb. It just completely opened their eyes.
What's going on with the comics criticism scene recently? What's the situation?
T: I don't know if that many great critics, or even very good critics are working today. There's a kind of critic that re-shapes what you think about the media, and I don't know if we have those. I think we mostly have reviewers who basically say this is good and this is bad, and we have academic critics, whom I find unreadable for the most part.
Is it normal to find a comics review in some other magazines and journals in US, outside of The Comics Journal?
T: It's not unusual (Hey! That's Tom Jones' song!) to find a review of comics in alternative culture magazines. But they are usually pretty simple or pretty stupid, in the same way like, say, rock album reviews, which are like: "These guys really rock!!! Track number two and track number seven are great!" I mean, most of it is really badly written and is probably only an excuse for the reviewers to get free beer or free albums. Comics criticism tends to focus very heavily on the writing, and that's logical because by definition a reviewer is a writer, and so he understands writing. But I would love to see reviews by more people who understand the graphics. Very often you'll read a review with twenty paragraphs about what's the story about and whether it's interesting or not, and at the end it'll say, "Oh, and the art is good too!"
How is the policy of Fantagraphics changing, evolving over time?
T: It has certainly changed a lot. I would say, for instance, that in the late eighties or early nineties there was a period when we were able to put out almost anything that was good, and to sell enough copies to at least break even or make a little bit of money out of it. So, as a result, we published anything we like. Unfortunately, since '97 this is no longer true. Only the really established cartoonist or really brilliant breakout, amazing cartoonist could get a book.
What is the procedure when you consider works by new cartoonists, who want to publish with you?
T: The procedure these days is very simple: we say NO (laughs). We just look at everything, and 99. 99% we reject automatically. If we find something that's really exciting, Gary and I would show it to each other, and decide if we can actually make a go with it.
I noticed that in your last several catalogues you listed a lot of books that are just distributed and not published by Fantagraphics, and these are not necessarily comic books.
T: Basically, the reason why we did that is that we have the comics mail order business, and we thought about ways to expand it. We have the entire infrastructure in place, and we may as well try to sell other related things. If we put comics in the context of the rest of the culture, then even someone who's not exclusively interested in comics could get this catalogue and there'll be these other things that he can understand, books about movies and politics, etc. So he might order one of those "normal" books, and he might also order a couple of comics.
How would you describe the culture that comics belong to?
T: I guess that it's an alternative culture. Comics are in the same line with alternative books -- books that are about things that are scary or weird or horrifying, strange music and art movies and non-mainstream politics.
How about the market for that sort of literature? How many people do you imagine could be a target audience?
T: The thing is we have a lot of different audiences. For instance, we put out the classic comics reprints like "Prince Valiant," and the audience for that is predominantly older than the rest of our audience. These are people who are in their sixties or seventies or even eighties, and were reading "Prince Valiant" when they were kids. And then there's erotic material, which of course has a different audience. And there's a big gay audience, so it's actually a bunch of overlapping audiences. And everything is in the catalogue. There'll be customers who are interested in three or four different things, as well as those whose interests are very narrow. For example, there are people who would buy just about any Robert Crumb item every time that they get a new catalogue
I still think that people everywhere, the US included, think about comics as something made for children. How do you explain those prejudices, which are still present after more then 100 years of the existence of comics?
T: Because comics WERE made for children, starting with Superman and Batman in the late thirties and onward. All the way to the underground comics movement, with few excerptions, it was very specifically produced as children's literature, and people grew up reading those. Even Harvey Kurtzman said that comics earned that reputation. They did it to themselves. In a way it's not like people had the wrong impression of comics; people were right. They do know crap when they see it!
But at the same time, doesn't the "outsiderish" position of comics free it from the overwhelming influence and demands of mainstream culture?
T: Yeah, comics are free. The cartoonists can complain about how little money they make, but they are almost totally free, in a way that almost none of the other media is. Not movie directors, or for the most part writers, or musicians… Look at someone like Chester Brown doing Underwater. Basically it was a failure, almost a disaster, but he was able to do it, and the fact that he was able to do something so completely off from what he had done before is amazing. When we started publishing Love and Rockets, it was about cute girls running around. And Gilbert was doing, well, science fiction stories. Then suddenly we got a third issue, and it's the first Palomar story, "Heartbreak Soup," and suddenly there it was. As long as it was something printed on paper, Gilbert could do anything he wanted with it. There was that enormous flexibility, which still exists, and which means that you can still do things that are genuinely amazing or surprising.
Do you think that at least people (if not mainstream culture) will realize the potentials of comics or that they are just not capable of -- or willing to -- comprehend it?
T: It's hard, especially because the culture is getting more and more commercialized. You are just going through more selective outlets, and the audience might not even be exposed to comics any more. I remember that the writer Tom De Haven wrote an essay about how comics have seemed to decline in people's estimation. He wrote about comics for Entertainment Weekly and, as a reviewer, he would get tons and tons of review copies. So he went up to his local college library, and he just set out a lot of the review copies he got. A lot of these were comics. He came back a week later, and the books were all gone, but nobody had touched the comics! Everybody thought that it would be so uncool to read the comics.
And even at the peak of the alternative comics, in the eighties, titles like Hate or Love and Rockets, which were probably the biggest of the alternatives, were selling maybe a total of 20,000 or 25,000 copies, at the very top. But when the undergrounds were out, Crumb's comics were selling over 100,000 copies…
Well, even in my country, in Serbia, which is of course a small country, the print runs of the comics and rock magazines were much higher back in the sixties, compared to today. Do you think that video and computer games and other popular media are "stealing" the attention of consumers everywhere?
T: Probably… In the forties and fifties kids were reading comics because it was the easiest entertainment. The problem is that after that you had TV, you had movies and video games, and those are even easier. You just sit and stare at them. So why would they bother doing work reading a comic book?
Does it also mean that popular culture is becoming more simplified as time is progressing?
T: Probably. Nothing really seems to get any better…
When I came to US, I was really astonished to see how big Pokemon is. It was everywhere, with all the merchandising and stuff. Still, I can't say that I know what is it really all about or what's the relation between characters.
T: Right… Because that's for little children, that's a little bit different. And there's always something for little children that they get completely obsessed with. A few years ago it was Teenage Ninja Turtles or whatever…
But even Ninja Turtles had some recognizable plot, and with Pokemon it's really difficult to distinguish…
T: That's because the Ninja Turtles were actually created by two cartoonists who had a story to tell, no matter how stupid the story was. I mean, they really had something they wanted to say, while Pokemon is completely corporate created. Basically it's a machine to make children buy cards and toys and T-shirts. So it's very cynically created that way.
I also noted that some mainstream, high-run magazines, like Nickelodeon and even the new Mad, have recently hiring some alternative cartoonists.
T: Yeah, Nickelodeon, of course, is a children's magazine, and children magazines always had comics in one way or another. But, yes, alternative cartoonists are popular as illustrators. Someone like Kaz or Charles Burns or Tony Millionaire, that generation, for some reason they're hip, they're what art directors like. I think it's because that generation of art directors probably grew up reading underground comics. And the editors were interested in comics as well, so that's why you have things like the stories published in Details, which are really nice. And some of these cartoonists are published in The New Yorker, because Francoise Mouly works there, and Spiegelman is a consultant, which is good, although that never really seems to reflect itself in actual books or comic books being bought. The readers seem to enjoy the cartoonists work as the "scheduled spice" in the magazine they normally buy, but it's not something they'll buy on their own. It's a paradox of something like "Zippy the Pinhead" - Zippy is very, very well known, it's a syndicated strip, it's everywhere, literally tens of millions of people read Zippy every morning in their paper. But we did a Zippy magazine, and we couldn't sell it! We sold only, say, 2,000 copies. It seems like people are happy to read comics if they are for free. Especially if you think that competition to comics is television, which is also free.
It seems like a lot of work, but I still hope that readers' consciousness could change in the future, considering comics. At least there are more and more outlets for alternative cartoonists.
T: Yes, you would think so, but, as I say, my feelings in the last five years have actually gone back down again. That's what worries me, and I don't know what to do about it… Every time there's a big, commercial movie coming out, the movie reviewer says, "It's a comic book movie," and it's like one more little chop in the people's mind, to reassure them that comic books are stupid, bad, flat entertainment.
How many people are employed at Fantagraphics?
T: About two dozen.
And how many books do you publish a year?
T: The statistics are changing. The last couple of years we cut back drastically, but I'd say maybe twenty books and then maybe fifty or sixty comics, plus, of course Eros… Some cartoonists would slow down or leave. For example, Peter Bagge used to do three or four comic books a year, but he stopped doing them, but we got new cartoonists… Anyway, I would say that it's a pretty slow rate for a while, and we are just focusing on cartoonists that we know are doing okay.
As you have met a zillion alternative cartoonist through all these years, can you describe what sort of people they really are? Is it hard to collaborate with them?
T: Not especially, as long as you let them have their own way (laughs). Most of them are disappointed when they realize how little will they get paid. Now, we don't really interfere a whole lot in what they do, so as a result, there are not as many difficulties. We accept everything as it is if we like the work. And that's the big issue with comic people, they don't want anybody to change their work, I guess just like most artists. We never even push much for anything, there are just vague editorial suggestions. Like, we might try to stop somebody from doing stories that went on for five years, which never works (laughs), so we gave up in even trying to do it.
What's the potential of alternative culture, anyway?
T: The interesting thing is that alternative culture gets taken into the mainstream. If you look at music, grunge and rap and alternative music wind up on the Billboard magazine Top 100 or Top 10 or whatever, and even in movies, you got some pretty extreme and weird stuff coming out.
You mean that alternative culture tends to be adopted by the mainstream culture?
T: Yes, we do! Otherwise it just vanishes if it stands on the sideline for too long.
How do you think we can resist the mainstream takeover, then?
T: I don't know if there's a need to resist it. I'm not sure that going mainstream necessarily corrupts that much.
Well, I can agree that there are a number of artists who were part of the mainstream and who actually did great things.
T: Yeah, I don't know if The Beatles were any more mainstream than the garage bands of the same time that never got anywhere. I think "Peanuts" is as bold and original and compelling in artistic vision as anything that Fantagraphics has ever published. Or is Pulp Fiction more compromised than Reservoir Dogs? You tend to get sort of "alternative happy," because something alternative is "good" if nobody reads or watches or listens to it. And if it gets wider exposure, then there is that click, and a lot of people are reading or watching or listening to it, and then it becomes "bad." You ought to resist that idea, I think. Even in the world of alternative comics they would say that when Peter Bagge was selling only 5,000 copies, he was "hipper" and "cooler" and "more exciting" than when he was selling 20,000. And when he was selling 20,000 copies, he was actually doing the same work, but people would go "it may as well be an Archie comic." I resist that, and Fantagraphics is often put on that end of things, like, we are too successful, too mainstream, we lost the excitement, we lost the edge.
Some people think that the problem of most alternative publications is that they are very often made to be left on a shelf, in very self-isolating manner.
T: It's maybe also because if you are a small publisher, you can't be that selective. And then again you might get lucky, there's a number of times when we published a work by a cartoonist just because we saw potential in it. If you look at the very first issue of Lloyd Llewellyn, people thought we were crazy. They would say, "this is just mediocre work, why are you actually publishing a comic book of this?" And four or five years later, with Clowes' Eightball, his potential was pretty much realized. But then again we've also had the same thing happening the other way around. We put our faith in a cartoonist, and he just never had any further to go… So sometimes we are just guessing.
And how do you see the relation between comics and academic culture? In New York I was Ben Katchor's guest at the School of Visual Arts, and it was a sort of a surprise because I don't know any academic institution in Europe that has a comic drawing class.
T: It's a mixed blessing that in American academia they pay attention to everything. You can think that, if they have an academic program focused on comics that you feel sort of honored, then you flip to the next page of the catalogue and see that they also have a program focused on sit-coms, or the very worst that culture may have to offer.
But do you think that here in US, at least generally speaking, academic circles are more open to popular culture than in Europe?
T: I don't know how open they are in Europe, but I guess they are really snobbish about it, as many European say, and it's all probably true.
As someone who worked in the field of comics for decades, what do you think could be the development of the form in the future? Is it really going to evolve in some way?
T: I don't know if comics are going to go any further or just remain the way they are. It's impossible to predict. It might be more of the same for years and years, but I'm getting more pessimistic, I just don't see that a big breakthrough may ever come, so that suddenly Americans could buy magazines with comics in them on every newsstand. Or even in way that is at least to some degree now in Europe. Though the internet is a very good tool for promotion and advertising, you can't make money on the internet itself. You can't really buy internet things, but you can see something and buy it, and they ship it to you, so it's essentially a marketing tool.
I think that internet speeds the travel of information. Now two friends could write messages to each other and then forward them around, spreading the information to an unlimited circle of people, in no time. In terms of promotion, it's fine, isn't it?
T: Yes, and it's cheaper than using paper. We do a catalogue that is reaching 60,000 people, and it costs us $40,000 to print. When you put the catalogue on the web, 10 times more people can see it, and it doesn't really cost you a dime (except labor and maintenance, of course), and that's good.
I wander if you have any vision about what could come out in the future from Fantagraphics. How will it develop?
G: We hope to continue what we are already doing, to publish new cartoonists and to support the cartoonists we have already established. The Comics Journal is solid, but I would like to branch out and to publish other kinds of books. I think that we might be doing that within the next two, three, or four years. Comics do not have a certain future in this country; comics in general have an uncertain future, good comics particularly. One of my favorite theories is that comics might go the way of poetry, which is to say a very small audience of people who recognize good work.
It's almost like that already!
G: It is! It's getting to be that way, and, of course, most poets could not make a living off their poetry. They have to teach or to do other things, and most cartoonists have to do other things to make a living in this country. Definitely, they cannot support a publishing company with its warehouses and employees. In the last decade I wanted to branch out of comics and wanted to publish fiction and essays. These might not have much more future than comics, but that's one of the things we're interested doing. Maybe publishing books on film. But the whole shape of culture is changing so fast, God only knows what form of culture we will have in the future, and how is it going to be exploited commercially. But I think that book publishing will survive in the 21st Century…
Yes, I don't believe that anything can match books…
G: Me neither, but that's an increasingly old-fashioned attitude. I like books. I like the feel of books. I like what they represent, and I even have distrust of hi-tech... I mean, I know that there are going to be books on computer, you're going to pop it into your computer and read it on the beach…
But it'll probably be like the relation between TV and the radio. Since they invented TV, people haven't stopped listening to the radio. Now these two mediums exist simultaneously. So in the future you'll probably have E-Book and the book on paper.
G: Right, exactly. Usually one technology does not completely snap out another technology, they usually co-exist… But of course, with that kind of competition, it makes publishing a much more marginal activity. If our sales were cut in half, that would be catastrophic in a way that we would have to scramble to some other way to make a living, but I certainly love that tactile sense of a book, and that's what I want to do.
To end, a personal question: how do you feel every day when you go to the Fantagraphics office?
Thompson: It's like any job… Some days I'm excited to go to work. I know that I'll be doing these fun things, it seems like the best job in the world. Other days I just drag myself in because there are all these problems to confront, and things are not going well, so it's not much different from any other job. Except there are those rare days, when you feel you're work on something that's affecting other people's lives and may be remembered for fifty or one hundred years…