Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Los Bros. Hernandez, Bill Griffith, Dan Clowes. It's often said that the success of Fantagraphics can be read in its lineup of creators. Yet equally noteworthy is the singular devotion to quality and critical rigor that underpins each moment of the company's history. Since the launch in 1976 of the often-controversial Comics Journal, Fantagraphics (founded by Gary Groth and Mike Catron and now helmed by Groth and Kim Thompson) has been central to the development of the alternative-comics movement, both supporting and publishing some of the best work in the form. This summer, the press celebrates its first thirty years with the publication of Comics as Art: We Told You So, an anecdotal and affectionate account of the Fantagraphics saga. I spoke with Groth to find out if the system still needs bucking. —NICOLE RUDICK
NICOLE RUDICK: You started your first publishing project, Fantastic Fanzine, in 1967, when you were fourteen. Less than a decade later, you began the Comics Journal. What first drove you from reading comics into thinking about them critically?
Gary Groth: It was during my college stint that I started reading widely for the first time. Before that, I was really just a fanboy. I read comics and comics-oriented books—Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard—but I hadn't really experienced good writing. What turned me around was a writing course I took at one of the colleges I went to. It opened me up to what good critical writing is. I think, too, I was going through a tough time politically. I had been alienated in high school and beyond, and I couldn't quite figure out why. At some point, I realized that I was alienated from my own culture, from American culture, the ephemerality and the transience of it. So reading value-laden criticism opened up a whole new perspective for me, anchored me in a way that I hadn't been before.
My first partner in Fantagraphics, Mike Catron, and I were both studying journalism during Watergate and wanted to be investigative journalists. We also wanted to be entrepreneurs. The logical thing to do was to produce a magazine about the one thing we knew more about than anything else—comics—and to apply our journalistic ambitions and my critical focus to that magazine.
NR: You incorporated as Fantagraphics in 1975 and took over the Nostalgia Journal, which became the Comics Journal, the next year.
GG: Right. We changed the name because we had no interest in nostalgia per se. We were primarily interested in comics. Looking back, there was no one at the time who treated comics as an art as dogmatically and tendentiously as we did. It sent shock waves through the industry. We just went at it hammer and tong and never let up.
NR: What was the attitude toward the Journal in its early years?
GG: There were a lot of working professionals who were just sort of appalled at our attitude and probably at our punkish disrespect for mainstream, predominantly superhero, comics in general. They didn't think it was legitimate to criticize comics in that sort of high-toned way. Mainstream creators took a certain degree of pride in their work, but it was pride in them from the perspective of hard-core fans, and they weren't really imposing standards on them, other than craft standards, which had devolved from the history of comics—and the history of comics is mostly just a history of crap. So when we came in and applied these "exalted" standards to comics, creators were, frankly, pissed off. At the same time, we championed creator rights. We thought that the industry had historically treated creators poorly, and so the same creators who weren't very happy with what we said about their work were also coming to us to complain about management. We would give them space to do that, which fanzines previously did not do.
NR: How is it viewed now within the field?
GG: Well, the field has broadened so much. That attitude has probably dissipated. Creator rights have changed and aren't as black-and-white as they once were. Back in the '70s and early '80s, creators working for the mainstream companies basically had no rights whatsoever. Now you can negotiate better deals with mainstream companies. You can get your royalties, and there are a lot of other publishers available to sell your work to. Back then, it was practically a duopoly between DC and Marvel. Now you don't have those intense and obvious injustices that you did back then. So I think the attitude toward the magazine is a lot more temperate.
NR: You published the first comic under Fantagraphics Books in the early '80s.
GG: Yes, our first comics that weren't in the Comics Journal were published in 1981. The comic-store market kept increasing in size so that it became possible to publish comics and make a living at it. There were a lot of independent publishers that came up from roughly 1980 on. Raw and Weirdo started publishing in 1981, and I think Pacific Comics—which published work by mainstream artists but gave those artists more rights than Marvel and DC offered—started about the same time. So the market itself allowed entrepreneurs to begin publishing different kinds of comics.
We published a brilliant historical graphic novel called Los Tejanos by Jack Jackson, an underground cartoonist; a humor title called Hugo; and a couple of collections by an artist named Don Rosa, who has since become one of the best Donald Duck artists published by Disney. Then, in 1982, we published Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets, which really put us on the map in terms of alternative work. The Complete Peanuts is our best-selling book to date, but we have over twenty collections by the Hernandez brothers in print. They've just been tremendous perennial sellers for us.
NR: Fantagraphics still focuses on alternative work, but you've also begun publishing a number of classic comics: Popeye, Krazy & Ignatz.
GG: Well, alternative work is the niche. We just see it as good cartooning, and it so happened that most of what mainstream comics publishers were doing was lousy cartooning. So it's alternative in the sense that it's an alternative to so much of this shoddy work-for-hire stuff that's being pumped out by the companies.
NR: And you were at least a decade ahead of any similar book-publishing ventures.
GG: There were underground publishers that began in the '60s, but they were mostly pretty moribund at that point, because underground comics were, if not dead, at least in retreat, by the mid-'70s. We started the Comics Journal in the worst historical period for comics. Mainstream comics sucked, and there were virtually no alternative comics. And by alternative, I include underground comics. Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith published a magazine called Arcade in '75, and the last issue wheezed out in '76, practically the same month we started the Comics Journal. So comics publishing was at a low ebb when we foolishly started the Journal.
NR: Was the publishing side a success from the start?
GG: It didn't do badly. We were actually selling more comics in the mid-'80s than you could sell today of the same comic. So it was holding its own. Nobody was getting rich, but we were at least breaking even or making a little bit of money for the artists, a little bit of money for us.
NR: In the '80s, comics experienced a boom and bust. Do you see the same thing happening today with the graphic-novel craze?
GG: Well, it's settled down. There are tons and tons of comics, and, as usual, only a minority of them are really good, and then you have tons of crap. But it's such an entirely different ball game now. You do have more publishers like us. Whereas we were virtually the only publisher doing this in the '80s, the '90s saw Drawn & Quarterly, Alternative Press, and Top Shelf, as well as a bunch of other companies that didn't survive. Usually, they were started by people who loved the form like we did and loved what we were doing and wanted to do something similar.
But the question is always, Are there enough people to sustain that kind of activity? Plus, it becomes much, much more difficult to do when there are so many people doing it. The audience does not grow in proportion to the number of comics being published. So it's actually harder now, but there are probably more worthwhile comics being published than ever before. I suspect that there isn't a big enough readership for "literary" or "art" comics today to sustain the current bandwagon boom that so many New York houses are jumping on, and we'll see a contraction in another year or so.
NR: What do you think of the Chris Ware phenomenon? Ware, who is still a Fantagraphics artist, has really become the standard-bearer for alternative work.
GG: I have mixed feelings about that. I think Chris is actually quite extraordinary and a brilliant artist. But I would hate to see people only look for comics that reflect Chris's aesthetic—the intricately designed panel arrangements that very purposefully lead the eye; the iconic drawing that has such a sophisticated graphic sheen to it. There are different types of graphic sophistication. Jaime Hernandez, for example, is just as sophisticated, but he probably doesn't get the attention that Chris does because Chris's work plays so powerfully against people's prejudiced perceptions of comics—that is, it's unlike comics that they've seen before, and therefore readers take it more seriously. Both artists' techniques are a means to a humane, expressive end, but Chris's is the more novel.