Kelly O
Started:

Fantagraphics Books with a business partner in 1976.

Is working on:

A 200,000-word retrospective of his scathing comics criticism, which will be published by Fantagraphics next year.

Enjoys:

Going out to the middle of nowhere and shooting guns at "objects" like "old refrigerators."

There's a certain sad rite of passage that thousands of children go through every year. These kids love comic books—they probably learned how to read thanks to comics—and they've spent years doodling and sketching and filling notebooks with their own comics, in the hopes of becoming a cartoonist when they grow up. And then the realization comes. Maybe it's inspired by a discouraging word from a friend or a teacher, or maybe it's a bolt of self-recognition—maybe even the first true occasion of seeing themselves objectively. They realize that though comics have been in their blood for as long as they can remember, they'll never be a good enough artist to draw comic books for a living. Most kids give up drawing entirely after that moment. Some take up prose. A few try to become comics writers. Others, outraged at the injustice of it all, give up on comic books altogether.

And then there's Gary Groth.

When that realization happened to Groth, here's what he did: He recommitted his life to comics, decided to forge his own path, and in so doing made more of an impact on the world than any one cartoonist ever could. "Comics were always regarded by just about everybody as kind of lame-brained," he says. For the first seven decades of their existence as an American art form, "most comics were just subliterate pap." The few gems that existed were treated "almost as mistakes" by comics publishers. "The question I kept asking," Groth says, "was why comics couldn't obtain the same level of artistry as great film or great fiction." He wrote about comics, read comics, met professionals in the business, and even turned down an editor position at Marvel Comics.

Three years later, he started a magazine of criticism called the Comics Journal—and then a publishing company called Fantagraphics Books. Most issues of the Journal featured unabashedly intellectual essays by Groth, who wrote scornfully about mainstream comics. When he reads the work now, Groth is impressed by "just how tenacious I was at hammering the same points over and over again: that we had to achieve a greater literary value. All this hackwork that defined comics had to come to an end." Comics had never seen anything like his criticism, which effortlessly melded the highbrow aesthetic of academia with the quavering fury of punk rock.

The Journal was also filled with Groth's interviews with the unheralded geniuses of comics history, those few talents (like Burne Hogarth and Will Elder) who managed to produce works of great artistic worth in spite of the crushing mediocrity of the commercial comics system. The Journal's archives now stand as primary source material for the comics industry of the 1930s through the 1960s. For a while in the '90s, readers of the Journal had a sense that Groth was running fearlessly into the burning house of comics history, saving what few first-person accounts he could manage to carry before everything collapsed to ashes. "I'd be lying if I said we had this great plan that we were going to preserve comics history," Groth says. "You have to realize the Journal came out ten times a year and I was just excessively scrambling to do these interviews."

For Groth, criticism and preservation weren't enough. He and his Fantagraphics compatriots Mike Catron and Kim Thompson realized that if they wanted the medium to achieve the artistry they believed it was capable of, they'd have to start publishing that work themselves. And Fantagraphics has done so ever since, introducing the world to some of the greatest cartoonists who've ever lived: the Hernandez Brothers, Dan Clowes, Jessica Abel, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory. Fantagraphics has produced beautiful archive editions that finally give strips like Walt Kelly's Pogo and Charles Schulz's Peanuts the respect they deserve. The publisher has almost collapsed on at least two separate occasions, but Groth never gave up, even opening a storefront in Georgetown when comics shops nationwide were closing.

Fantagraphics publishes an ambitious 90 books a year. This fall will see the publication of an archive edition of the complete Zap Comix, the anthology book that launched the idea of alternative comics, featuring early work from Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, and others. Also this fall, Groth announced the creation of the Fantagraphics Underground imprint, which will annually publish a dozen short runs of comics that "wouldn't sustain a mass audience." Groth explains, "I would see work that would just be impossible to put into the book trade. Barnes & Noble is not going to stock it." But he thinks the value of these books can't be denied, so he's inventing a whole new model to advocate for these cartoonists. The imprint harkens back to Fantagraphics' bratty punk rock roots; it's not an accident that its referred to around the office as "FU," and when Groth tells me the name of one of the imprint's debut titles, Fukitor (pronounced fuck-a-tore), he can't repress a dirty teenage giggle.

The world that Groth demanded when he started Fantagraphics in the 1970s has largely come true. "In a certain sense we did win, because comics are now recognized as a form that's capable of literary achievement," he admits. "When we were fighting this fight in the '80s, one of my goals was that comics should be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and now they are. So that's a triumph of a sort. I'm happy about that." Innate pessimism kicks in: "Simultaneously, we're living in a world where superheroes have become coin of the realm" in movies and on television, where the same "stupid brainless aesthetic" he argued against from the start "has simply migrated and become more ubiquitous." You can hear the anger rising in his voice. "Pop culture has become so stupefyingly banal that it's caught up with comics." He rolls that sentence around in his head for a second and then adds, "It's kind of terrifying when you think about it."

There's always more work to be done. And Groth, along with the sharp, energetic staff he's assembled at Fantagraphics headquarters in the second-creepiest house in Lake City, is leading the way. recommended