There’s a story that Gary Groth, co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books, likes to tell about meeting legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb in the 1980s. Groth had spent several meetings badgering Crumb to agree to let Fantagraphics collect all of the comics he had ever published into collected volumes. At the time, the idea of creating anthologies to honor an artist’s work was a foreign concept in the comic book industry. Publisher friends basically told Groth he was crazy and that no one would buy such a collection. “It’s wonderfully liberating just to be that naive,” says Groth.
It was that naivety and a desire to create a landing spot for alternative comics that ran contrary to the content produced by Marvel and DC that drove Fantagraphics. And it still does today. Groth finally convinced Crumb to agree to the project, which would become The Complete Crumb Comics. But there was one problem: Crumb wanted a $5,000 advance. “It was like asking us for $5 million,” Groth says. But Groth believed in the importance of the project, so he borrowed the $5,000 from his parents and gave it to Crumb, who used the money to dig a well on his property.
The Robert Crumb story highlights all the quintessential elements of what Fantagraphics represents. There’s the relentless approach to connect with artists who Groth, along with co-founder Mike Catron (who left the company in 1985 and returned in 2012 as an editor) and co-owner Kim Thompson (who joined in 1977), believed in for the quality of their work over the impact to their bottom line. There’s the difficulty of balancing the creative aspect of publishing comics and the financial aspect of keeping things afloat.
Since the early 1980s, Fantagraphics has been at the forefront of publishing alternative comics. Some of their most notable work include Crumb’s complete collection, Love & Rockets, Eightball, Black Hole, Ghost World, the launch of an adult-themed imprint titled Eros Comix and the publishing of The Comics Journal, a news and criticism magazine. As the comic book genre has become more accepted by the mainstream, Fantagraphics find themselves at the forefront of publishing the most well-sought after, critically acclaimed, and creatively inspiring work in the field, even if making it all work financially has always been and continues to be a challenge in this industry.
Fantagraphics turned 40 this year, and to commemorate the anniversary, they are releasing a 696 page oral history of the company titled We Told You So: Comics As Art by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. The oral history project itself reflects the frantic nature of how things happen at Fantagraphics. Commissioned 12 years ago for the company’s 30th anniversary celebration, the project was pushed back a decade because there wasn’t enough time to transcribe and edit everything.
Groth was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1954 and moved to Williamsburg at two years old before relocating to Washington, D.C., where he discovered comics while reading in a doctor’s office that he went to once a week for allergies and asthma. When he was 12, Groth told his father, Howard, he wanted to be a publisher. “He never deviated from that goal,” Howard says. Between 1967 and 1972, Groth published 15 issues of a zine called Fantastic Fanzine. Towards the end of that period, he attended Rochester Institute of Technology for printing technology but dropped out after a year, moved home, went to a few community colleges, and worked full time as a clothing salesman. In 1974, Groth and Catron incorporated and used the name Fantagraphics via the Fantastic Fanzine imprint.
From an early age, Groth devoted all of his time, energy, and money towards chasing his passion. Some people work around the clock to make their dreams come true, at times it seemed like Groth went above and beyond that. When he was 20, he organized a Rock N Roll Expo with the intent of raising money for his publishing company. Instead, the venture failed and he and Catron had to sell parts of their comic book collection just to make rent. In 1977, Fantagraphics launched The Comics Journal, a comic book criticism magazine, but making ends meet was difficult for Groth and Thompson, who had joined the team by that time. “We used to be so broke we’d go to the post office to pick up our mail praying that enough of our Comics Journal subscribers had sent in their two dollars in cash that we could go out to dinner,” Groth says in the book.
Groth never imagined Fantagraphics would go into the business of publishing comics, but in 1982, the company published Love & Rockets, a series produced by Gilbert, Jaime and Mario Hernandez (better known as The Hernandez Brothers). The series has been hailed as one of the most influential comics of all time, and is what Groth calls the company’s flagship title. “It was an aesthetic revelation,” Groth says. Fantagraphics moved its operations from Los Angeles to Seattle in 1989, and along with The Comics Journal, continued to front the alternative comics movement, publishing iconic work like Daniel Clowes’ Eightball, Peter Bagge’s Hate and Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library.
While the company has rarely sustained long periods of financial stability, and Groth admits they’ve been on the verge of going out of business at least a half dozen times over the 40 years, the prospects of shutting down operations was always too terrifying to consider. Whether it was taking out loans or raising money from friends and family, Groth and Thompson always found a way to forge on. Groth laughs now when he remembers cartoonist Art Spiegelman, curious about how the company managed to stay afloat, asking him in the 1980s if he was independently wealthy or had a trust fund. “From an outside perspective, what we did made no practical sense,” Groth says. “Yet we felt strongly about it to continue doing it.”
Despite the financial landscape, Groth continued to steer the company in a particular direction that was counter to the pop culture landscape—with a giant chip on his shoulder. In the 1980s, Groth was extremely cynical about the conformity of American pop culture, specifically the way corporations were co-opting the ideas of creative people and spitting out junk, and Groth made his thoughts known through his editorial at The Comics Journal. “I think it was a necessary component,” he says of the company’s defiant attitude. “I don’t think we could have done what we did without that driving force for the first 25 years of the company now it’s not as essential as it was. It’s still there, but it’s more in the background.”
Having stayed in business for 40 years and continuing to be at the forefront of the alternative comics movement, Fantagraphics has given birth to several generations of creatives who grew up wanting to be part of this collective. Ed Piskor, a comic book artist who is working with company on the Hip-Hop Family Tree series, first discovered Fantagraphics when he was eight, when he picked up an issue of Anything Goes!, an anthology series that Groth created to raise money to help with the company’s legal bills. One thing led to another, and soon Piskor had his first batch of Fantagraphics books which included The Complete Crumb and Love & Rockets.
“There’s an early part of your creative life where you have to just buy everything and develop some tastes,” Piskor says. “That was an important thing: to grab new comics. At that time, Fantagraphics was the only place to get really interesting stuff.” In high school, Piskor would submit comic strips to Fantagraphics in hopes of being published. Earlier this year, when he attended a 40th anniversary celebration of the company at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, he marveled at some of the names he was standing next to, which included the Hernandez brothers and Daniel Clowes, some of the most influential artists that have worked with Fantagraphics. It was like being part of the 1992 Dream Team, Piskor tells me. “It’s super cool to be part of the pantheon,” Piskor says.
The fact that creatives in the industry see working with Fantagraphics as a badge of honor is extremely gratifying to Groth. “It warms my heart,” he says. “I appreciate that because we tried to build something that had a lot of integrity to it, and I appreciate the fact that so many artists can see that. I like to think there’s an aesthetic kinship among the artists we publish.”
Thompson passed away suddenly from lung cancer in 2013 at the age of 56, which created both a financial and editorial void at Fantagraphics. He was often the good cop of the company, balancing himself against the more outspoken, perfectionist workaholic role that Groth played. “We both started off as fans in very different ways because he was in Europe and I was in the United States. [But] we were pure fans,” Groth says. “We both started developing more mature, critical faculties. I think I introduced Kim to the concept of comics being a greater art, being a higher art. He embraced that. He had a rapid fire mind and he had his own idiosyncratic takes on things and often he really added something to the mix that no one else saw. I think we often miss those off-kilter perceptions that he would offer up that could be quite helpful. There was more editorial strength with both of us than just one of us.”
Groth admits that while he can’t pinpoint exactly what they’ve changed since Thompson’s passing, the company is more judicious with its spending and is in a better place financially than they’ve ever been. “Creatively, we’ve been on fire,” Groth says. Along with Crumb, Fantagraphics also has The Complete Peanuts anthology in their catalogue. Love & Rockets and Hip-Hop Family Tree have continued to produce new stories this year. Clowes, who has seen his previous work Ghost World and Art School Confidential turned into Hollywood films, released a new graphic novel with Fantagraphics this year titled Patience, the rights which were just acquired by Focus Features.
Groth started Fantagraphics because he wanted to make comic books a more legitimate in the eyes of general culture, less marginalized. Forty years in, when I ask him to take a moment to reflect, Groth—while struggling with even letting himself stop to think about the impact of his company because figuring out what’s next for Fantagraphics is truly the only thing on his mind at all times—allows himself to celebrate, just for a few seconds. “We’ve been remarkably successful in proving the aesthetic legitimacy of the [comic book] form,” Groth said. “We wanted to emphatically prove that comics and cartooning were every bit as good as any artform and I think we’ve gone a long way towards doing that.”
And then, it was back to work.