On Sunday, July 24, at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Fantagraphics Books publishers Gary Groth and Kim Thompson welcomed friends and fans to a panel celebrating their company’s 35th anniversary, which they made more of a party to celebrate a long — and ongoing — era of publishing comics, strips, graphic novels and books.
The enthusiastic audience was greeted by the co-publishers, who used slides to take a journey through a history of Fantagraphics’ 35 years of publishing a wealth of acclaimed material. (The first slide teased “Youthful Follies.”) Obviously, with such a distinguished history, Groth and Thompson could only touch upon the highlights — and not even all of them, at that. While many in attendance were familiar with much of the backstory and welcomed the opportunity to hear where the company is headed, it was good to look back.
Groth began with his own history, having been obsessed with comic books in his younger years. He wrote a number of fanzines in the ’60s and attended conventions, at that time the only ways to connect and communicate with other comics fans.
The next slide promised “Bitter Years of Early Struggle.” Groth studied journalism and, with Mike Catron, ran “The Nostalgia Journal,” which they intended to use to approach comics more critically, thinking this high-minded approach would bring them more advertisers, though it ultimately did not. In 1976 the publication changed from a tabloid to a magazine, saving it from cancellation. With issue #32 in 1977 it changed its name to “The Comics Journal,” at a time when the direct comics market was just taking off. Copies of the magazine were given free of charge to some shops, and eventually the good name of the publication spread. The magazine and its publishers became a part of the politics of the comics world, most notably when they supported Jack Kirby in the artist’s quest to get his original art returned from Marvel Comics. Of course, “The Comics Journal” is still published to this day and exists at the forefront of critical comics commentary and creator profiles.
Over the next few years, the Groth and Thompson decided to publish their own books and looked around for under-represented material. Early on they found “Love & Rockets.” The Hernandez Bros. had sent “The Comics Journal” a self-published issue of their book, leading to a review in the magazine and the publishers deciding to put it out themselves in 1982. It was also around this time that Fantagraphics published “Los Tejanos,” an important work by underground comix artist Jack Jackson.
With some success behind them — all while the publishers and employees lived as well as worked in a house in Stanford, Conn. — Fantagraphics “got greedy,” as Groth said, branching out and publishing comic strips of all kinds. Classics, indie comics, foreign material, even collections of old “Popeye” strips carried the Fantagraphics seal.
“Love & Rockets” was successful, and artists were soon coming to them for publication. It was during this era, around 1984, that Fantagraphics began publishing work by Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes, whose material came to them from a blind submission. The publishers met Jim Woodring in L.A. through mutual friend Gil Kane, and asked to publish his “Jim” strips, which at the time were self-published at a rate of about 50-100 copies for each issue. It was frequent that an artist would have work reviewed in “The Comics Journal” and a year later be published by the company. The slides showed covers of books by Vaughn Bode, Skip Williamson, Jules Feiffer and Ralph Steadman, all artists whose work has been published by Fantagraphics over the years.
Fantagraphics had long sought to collect work outside of traditional comics and get the material into bookstores. At the time it was thought that no one would want to read a comic longer than 24 pages, but the publisher forged ahead with the then-novel concept of graphic novels. Eventually they got into bookstores, specifically making books for that market, but the plan proved disastrous at first, as they could not ride the coattails of the enormously popular “Maus.” The publisher then acquired the rights to serialized comic strips and collected them into graphic novels, and this business plan worked well enough to span roughly 20 years, until they stopped doing it about 10 years ago. Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan” from “Acme Novelty Library” was cited as a strip that began as a series of one-pagers collected into a magazine format and eventually into a graphic novel.
There was also an interest in coffee-table books, like the Robt. Williams collection, which, it was thought, would not sell for $75 but actually did quite well. The “Love & Rockets” collections “Palomar” and “Locas” were also successful. Slides were shown of work that Fantagraphics published by Steve Ditko, Gahan Wilson and Bill Mauldin, whose “Willie & Joe,” according to the panelists, “ought to be done and done right.”
With reprints of newspaper strips, Fantagraphics’ most notable success came with “Peanuts.” Originally, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz did not care to have his strip collected in archival form, but Groth and Thompson convinced him, eventually getting Schulz’s approval as well as encouragement. Schulz’s wife Jeannie took over after the cartoonist’s passing and told them it was a huge deal to get them to publish the collections, though the books were a tiny part of the worldwide “Peanuts” merchandising.
Their collection of Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” was also quite successful. The original newspaper proofs were used, so the reproduction was great. So great, Groth said, that some people who were not originally fans of the strip got into it because the reproduction was so well done.
The next slide presented “Contemporary Graphic Novels.” Noted was Joe Sacco’s “Safe Area Gorazde,” a graphic novel which sold poorly at first but as a softcover edition did well enough that Sacco is now a big name in news reporting in comic form.
Also mentioned, and accompanied by slides which presented an image of the covers, were “Temperance,” the second graphic novel by Cathy Malkasian; “Weathercraft,” Jim Woodring’s first real graphic novel; “Bottomless Belly Button” by Dash Shaw; “Night Fisher” by R. Kikuo Johnson; and “Shadowland” by Kim Deitch and “Artichoke Tales” by Megan Kelso, two works by different generations of underground cartoonists.
Wrapping up the series of slides was, appropriately, one stating “The Future.” Here Groth and Thompson announced some of the work that will come out in the near future. One is “The Crackle of The Frost” by Lorenzo Mattotti, which will be a black-and-white graphic novel, though they plan to do a full-color work with the creator. Fantagraphics also plans to continue publishing work by Jacques Tardi and Ulli Lust, as well as the Norwegian strip “Simplicissimus.”
The big announcements were saved for the end of the panel, with two big projects that Fantagraphics plans to publish soon. By way of showing a slide of the cover of an issue of “Two-Fisted Tales,” it was announced that Fantagraphics will publish a complete collection the E.C. Comics titles, separated by artist and genre. There will be four volumes published a year, two at a time. The first two will be Harvey Kurtzman war comics and Wally Wood crime comics, which should come out in the spring of 2012. Next will be horror comics by Jack Davis and science-fiction comics by Al Williamson, in the fall of next year. These collections will include supplemental material such as essays on E.C. and its history. Upon this announcement, the grandson of Bill Gaines was introduced, sitting in the front row of the audience, as a means of approval from the family of E.C.’s legendary publisher.
The next announcement was that Fantagraphics will publish the complete run of “Zap Comix,” the revolutionary comics series that began in the late ’60s and showcased the work of a number of influential underground cartoonists. This collection will come in a slipcase and will include an oral history of the groundbreaking title. The collection is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2012.
During a brief Q&A session, it was noted that while the publishers love anthologies, they are a hard sell, and it is the same in Europe as it is in the U.S. Anthologies are a great way to showcase new cartoonists, but they generally do not sell well enough to keep them going.
At this point, the panel ended, and the party was over. With so much history and talent behind them, there is little doubt that Fantagraphics has another 35 years of quality material to look forward to, whether it be new, groundbreaking work or carefully assembled archival releases.