SDCC: Remembering Fantagraphics' Kim Thompson

A warm and sometimes funny remembrance of Fantagraphics Books co-publisher Kim Thompson, who passed away June 19, was held on Friday at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Thompson's longtime partner and co-publisher Gary Groth was joined by Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds, "Love and Rockets" creators Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, and Dark Horse Comics editor Diana Schutz to share memories of their friend and colleague.

Old friends Groth and Schutz caught up with each other before the panel formally started, and Groth then opened the panel with an explanation that it was put together to serve as a tribute to his partner of 37 years and a chance to recognize his professional accomplishments and place in comics history.

Groth directed attendees to the page of tributes by a variety of creators on "The Comics Journal" website before opening up about his own history with Thompson. They met in late 1977, about a year into "The Comics Journal's" existence, and Thompson became a Fantagraphics partner in 1978. "We sort of hit it off immediately," said Groth. Thompson had grown up in Europe, where he was exposed to bande dessinee, along with Marvel comic books.

"He was an enormous comics fan; he was as big a comics fan as I was," Groth said. "And he immediately took to "The Comics Journal", and turned it into a magazine that offered criticism and interviews that he wanted to see." Groth went on to explain Thompson's history as a "letter hack" in the back pages of Marvel Comics during the early-to-mid '70s, which led to him directly corresponding with other notable fans of the period, such as Dean Mullaney.

Groth then asked Schutz to talk about her relationship with Thompson. She couldn't recall how they first met, but she recently realized he might have been present at another memorable meeting. "It was at the San Diego Con 1982 when Gary walked up to me and handed me the first issue of 'Love and Rockets' and said 'I think you might like to read this,'" Schutz recalled. "It dawned on me that maybe that guy who was standing next to Gary when Gary handed me that issue of 'Love and Rockets,' maybe that was Kim."

She then recalled how Thompson offered her a job at "Amazing Heroes," a bi-weekly magazine Thompson edited for 11 years. "That would've been maybe in 1983, maybe a year later. I was working at Comics & Comix in Berkeley, California, selling comics over the counter." Schutz noted that it was one of her first writing jobs, and that he gave similar opportunities to Heidi MacDonald and other women in the '80s. "There were not very many women who were interested in comics. It was not at all like it is today. In a lot of ways, we were ignored. So to be reached out to and asked for our contribution was a big deal."

Gilbert Hernandez also remembered there not being much fanfare when he met Thompson. "I don't really have much to say about meeting Kim because sometimes Kim would just stare and not talk," said Hernandez. "Since he was into Iggy Pop and Velvet Underground, I pictured this kind of scraggly character, but he was kind of a soft-spoken giant." Hernandez also noted that he opened up later, after the two got to know one another.

Jaime Hernandez agreed, describing Thompson as an enigma and noted the contrast between the quiet Thompson in person and the Thompson whose review famously disassembled Frank Miller's "Ronin" in "Amazing Heroes."

Reynolds echoed Gilbert Hernandez' description of Thompson."I probably worked for Kim for two years before we ever had a real conversation," the Fantagraphics Associate Publisher said. "It took a while for him to warm up to people. But once he did, you were golden."

Groth remembered an incident in Los Angeles where he and Thompson were meeting with writer Harlan Ellison soon after Thompson's review of "Ronin." "It was supposed to be kind of a make-up meeting," Groth said. "Ellison considered Frank Miller to be a really great comics auteur, and he took exception to Kim's review. And what happened was that our make-up meeting degenerated into an enormous argument between me and Ellison over Kim's review. As I recall, Kim never said a word." The argument turned into a shouting match at a restaurant, culminating in Ellison turning to the waiter and saying, "Go away, we're having an argument."

"Kim didn't like having arguments face-to-face, unless it was maybe with you," Reynolds said to Groth.

"It's just curious that on the one hand, Kim could write these scathing reviews," Schutz said. "And on the other call me up and say, 'Hey, I'm coming to Portland and I have somebody in tow I'd like you to meet,' or 'Hey, I have this Norwegian cartoonist; he's coming up from San Diego to Seattle, he wants to stop in Portland, he needs a place to stay. You have a house, don't you?'" That Norwegian cartoonist was Jason, who became a close friend to Schutz. She pointed out that Thompson's professional side didn't interfere with his personal relationships.

Speaking to that professional side, Schutz recalled working with Thompsons over the last three years for Dark Horse's reprint series of the work of Milo Manara. "I had contacted Kim because I really needed an Italian translator," Schutz explained. "I didn't know who to turn to, but I knew Kim would know. So we talked about it for a bit and he basically volunteered himself for the job, though Italian is not one of the languages he speaks fluently. But he has French and he has Spanish, and between those two and the various translations that had already been done, he said he could triangulate the work and do a good enough translation, a more than good enough translation."

Since she had worked with Thompson almost entirely over e-mail, Schutz wanted to hear day-to-day office stories. This segued into a humorous discussion of the legend of Thompson's bathrobe.

Groth confirmed that Thompson did indeed work in a bathrobe during the early years, especially when Fantagraphics was located in a three-story house in Connecticut. "We all lived in that house," Groth explained. "When he wasn't in the robe, he was wearing shorts."

"He stopped wearing robes to the office in the '90s," Reynolds said. "But if it wasn't a funeral or a wedding, he wore shorts or sweatpants. Period. It took very sophisticated fare to get him out of shorts."

"He had the smallest shorts I've ever seen on a man," Gilbert Hernandez said. "These were like Dallas Cowboy cheerleader shorts."

Groth then shifted to something that he wanted to include in his tribute on "The Comics Journal" but couldn't structurally get to fit in smoothly.

"I literally didn't know if Kim read fiction, which is an odd omission from my knowledge," Groth said. "I remember talking exactly twice [with Kim] about prose writers. One was probably over thirty years ago about [mystery writer] John D. MacDonald. And then literally a year ago, Kim startled me in the office by just turning to me at some point over in the kitchen, and he asked me what I thought of the last two volumes of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy. And it was just not a type of question I ever expected him to ask me. I was pleased, I was happy to talk about McCarthy for a few minutes." Thompson had read the first book, "All the Pretty Horses," and the two had a good discussion about the series.

That conversation got Groth thinking about Thompson's great strengths as a comics editor and how any limited consumption of fiction didn't affect those strengths. Groth observed that Thompson had an "intuitive understanding" and "preternatural sense of great cartooning." Groth assumed Thompson had developed this understanding while growing up in Europe where all of the great cartoonists typically write and draw their material as auteurs instead of dividing the jobs among several individuals.

Reynolds echoed this observation, stressing how Thompson's reviews so succinctly broke down what worked and didn't work in cartooning, "especially for a guy who wasn't a cartoonist himself." Again his review of Frank Miller's "Ronin" was used as an example. Reynolds also added to Thompsons fiction reading list: Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

Schutz stressed that he also loved a diversity of comics. "He was dedicated to good comics across genres," she said. "If he found something that he loved, that's all that really mattered. It didn't have to fit a particular slot."

"He had no guilty pleasures, that's for sure," Reynolds said.

"He loved pop culture," Groth agreed.

Gilbert Hernandez pointed out that Thompson was obsessed with director Brian De Palma. Groth was not, and the two got into such volatile arguments over his work during in '80s they swore to not talk about the topic again. Gilbert Hernandez talked about Thompson once revealing that he related to De Palma's work because it often featured characters who couldn't express how to fix a problem.

"He was a meddler," Gilbert Hernandez said. "He had to try to get his fingers into everything just to feel normal."

Thompson would also gather people for movie nights, where he would often subject them to odd selections to watch them squirm. Reynolds recalled a showing of "Irreversible" which opens with an 8-minute graphic rape scene in public while a small child crawls out a window and gets killed.

"I think he genuinely liked them," Groth said.

"Yes, but he knew others wouldn't," Reynolds responded.

Conversely, it was company meetings that made Thompson uncomfortable. "All I could sense was how much he wanted to not be in the meeting," Reynolds said. "It was keeping him from getting shit done."

That drive to work would go to all hours. Shutz pointed out that she would receive e-mails from Thompson at all hours, from late nights to early mornings. "He just seemed to be constantly, constantly working," she said. She stressed how tremendously clever he was and his ability to go beyond the simple translation, even relating a story of how far he would go for an answer.

During the translation of a story, a reference to a historical figure in the script had little to no relevance to a North American audience. "Kim would find some other character to put in place that would have meaning for an English audience, and would provide a page of explanation to me so that I would understand why he made this choice and why it was a good choice."

"He delighted in doing that sort of thing," Groth said.

"Kim deserves credit for so, so much that he brought to this industry," Schutz said. "But without a doubt, I don't think we would have the work in translation that we have today without Kim."

Gilbert Hernandez agreed, and pointed out that there would be no Vertigo or any other efforts from Marvel and DC at alternative-geared comics, or other publishers like Oni Press, without Fantagraphics. "Kim had a lot to do with that," he said.

Reynolds displayed a slide sent by multiple Eisner Award-winner Chris Ware to share. It was a postcard sent from Thompson to Ware on January 23, 1995, one of hundreds of postcards he received from Thompson before the prevalence of the internet. The short message suggested Ware spell Superman with a hyphen in the "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth" story of "Acme Novelty Library" so as to avoid getting "eviscerated" by Warner Bros. Thompson even made note that the "Super-man" spelling was not without precedent, as it spelled that way "on the newspaper in #1."

During those pre-e-mail days, Thompson would also leave memos for people on their desks for the next morning. He would use an electric typewriter and large yellow pieces of paper that he would fold in half and place for the staff to discover. Some of the staff would dread coming in to find these memos. Reynolds said he still has a folder of them somewhere but hasn't been able to find it yet.

"One of the reasons that Fantagraphics has survived through numerous struggles is because we're both incredibly stubborn," Groth said. "And when it came to the company and it came to publishing, our stubbornness was in perfect sync. It was almost as if we needed our combined tenacity to keep the company going through rough times."

A question from the audience was whether Thompson ever had to strongly persuade them to publish a cartoonist. Groth said that it was "only very occasionally" because their tastes overlapped so frequently.

"Yeah for me, for sure," Reynolds admitted. "Jason was one." Reynolds went on to explain how they had recently published several Lewis Trondheim books, which hadn't sold very well for them, and he thought Jason's anthropomorphic style was too similar. "I read 'Hey, Wait' and I thought it was pretty good, but I had no faith that Jason was going to become one of our very best authors, and he absolutely did. And Kim saw something that I could not see."

An attendee commented that Thompson never looked down on the erotica comics Fantagraphics published, and the artists that worked on those comics. "He wanted to make those comics as good as they could be, just like he did with the Fantagraphics stuff," Reynolds said.

Another attendee brought up Thompson's use of pop culture references, such as the Cone of Silence from "Get Smart." Groth didn't think Thompson had ever seen that show and commented how he would absorb pop culture by osmosis without having first-hand experiences with the source material. Reynolds relayed a story from Jason Miles who said he had received really good advice from Thompson that he later realized was dialogue from "Pulp Fiction."

A final fan question asked for examples of Thompson getting involved in books that weren't under his direct supervision as editor. While no specific examples were given, Groth explained how Thompson could not help himself finding a way to get involved in other books if he found the right entry point or was interested enough in the artist. He also juggled a lot of work in the production department, and Groth offered a final observation of Thompson's work: "efficient and disciplined."

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