By now everybody knows about the death of Kim Thompson last Wednesday at the age of 56 from lung cancer. He had only been diagnosed earlier this year. It's not news to anyone anymore, especially now with the internet where everyone finds out about an event seconds after it happens. Everyone of note has said something, and now I'll use my own sliver of bandwidth to say my thing about his miniscule impact on my life as a cartoonist.
Practically everyone I know in comics has dealt with him in one way or another. For the three people that don't know, he was first and foremost co-owner of Fantagraphics. Started in Gary Groth's one-bedroom apartment, they became the publisher of literally half of all creator-owned comics and long out-of-print works. Without them there would be no Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf, Picturebox, Koyama Press, Alternative Comics, Secret Acres, etc, as anything but hobbies.
Sure there were precedents for the work they did. There was Raw Books and the underground, to name a couple. It wasn't until they came along that it was common to see comics that in their words were “an art, not a commodity”. It all started with Comics Journal. They were considered the enfant terrible of the comics world simply for having the gall to apply critical standards to comics. The lowly art of comics wasn't (and to some extent still isn't) considered valid let alone applicable to the same standards as film or literature. It didn't help that every one of their writers was involved in some kind of Mailer/Vidal-type feud. Or was it more like pro-wrestling?
Thompson was one of those critics. As the years went by, Fantagraphics started publishing more and more of the type of comics they championed in the pages of the Comics Journal and such vitriol wasn't necessary. Thompson became Fantagraphics' “good cop” half. He edited Amazing Heroes, a kind of gentler version of Comics Journal that was also articulate and also not just regurgitated press releases, but for those who preferred heroic fantasy.
I worked with him very briefly. In the comics canon, my own career is a pebble in a pond. I contributed a few stories to their flagship anthology Zero Zero in the 90s and was a regular in Measles, their attempt at doing a kids' comic, before I had a series of my own. He was kind enough to include the first few issues of my solo book in their catalog even though he didn't publish it himself, and point me to the critics I should have the book sent to. Even as a consumer of comics and not a cartoonist, sometimes I would order comics and I'd get personal replies. People that worked with him in the office say he was “hands-on”, and even though books were getting major distribution and making Times bestseller lists, he would still often unload trucks and fill orders himself despite there being plenty of subordinates for such a thing. Imagine Si Newhouse personally taking lunch orders for New Yorker staff.
There was also a Comics Journal message board online, kind of continuing the bile of the magazine, and Kim was again hands-on, posting on threads and humoring people nowhere near as educated, often they never even read the comics they were criticizing, and responding to them like they were equals. There was the usual trolling and sock puppetry one would expect of message boards, though not as much, as Kim moderated as the voice of reason.
I said something on the TCJ Message Board once, I forget what it was, and Kim and I had a particularly nasty exchange. I was afraid to talk to employees there for a few days. I was doing something for one of the FB anthologies at the same time, and I sent Kim my latest pitch. My note said something like “Regardless of what you think of me…” and he had no idea what I was talking about. When I told him it was something on the message board he replied “Oh, that? That’s nothing compared to the arguments we have every day at the office.”
A couple weeks ago I did a comics show where almost everyone else involved was at least 15 years younger. I realized they're the first generation to do comics without a chip on their shoulder, without having to defend the fact that they do comics to family and friends, who went to college at the same time there were several schools with programs that dealt with comics academically and not condescendingly. None of that would have been possible without the legacy Kim Thompson created at Fantagraphics. Though not the first to do what they did, they did it more frequently and longer, and made more inroads to art and literature circles. The “serious” aesthetic in comics I bemoan still is much more palatable to the masses, and their continuing from what underground comics were doing has allowed for giving legitimacy to the subset of comics I identify with. I would say Fantagraphics being an early pioneer in espousing comics as an art form is indirectly responsible for my doing work for corporate behemoths yet still able to retain my own copyright.
I won't even mention the inroads he made in bringing all sorts of foreign comics that would otherwise not be known to North American audiences and using his polyglotic (is that a word?) skills to translate them himself. In addition to complete versions of several classic comic strips.
What are we to do about this loss? I'll tell you what I'm doing, I'm going to continue drawing cartoons. At the risk of perpetuating a cliché, I'll say that's what Kim would have wanted.
Speaking of which (after all, self-promotion is why I started this blog in the first place), besides working on some things coming out later this year, some of my old stuff is now available for the kindle as well as electronically through ComiXology. It will also be available on the Nook and the Apple iBookstore.
For those of you unfamiliar with my work (if so, how did you find out about this?), Magic Whistle #0, the free online sampler I mentioned a few weeks ago comes out on Amazon next week, featuring all sorts of things I did that are now out of print. It's online and did I mention it's FREE?
The reviews are already in!
The “intellectual scatology” I do isn't for everyone, those who like superheroes might not like it, but fuck them.
I should also mention magicwhistle.com is finally up this week. It's 90% complete. It's gone through various webmasters sometimes through other peoples' bandwidths and I didn't realize until recently I had control myself all along.
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