It's an undisputable fact that Seattle's own Fantagraphics Books is the best comic-book publisher in the United States. It may even be the best comic-book publisher in the world. This has been a truth for so long that it's easy to take Fantagraphics for granted: Seems like they've always been up there in their creepy serial-killer-looking house just off Lake City Way, publishing work by Daniel Clowes, Stranger Genius Ellen Forney, and the Hernandez Brothers that expands the medium. They've survived long enough to see comic books become accepted as real literature by all but the worst, most boring human beings in the literary world. They've survived chain bookstores, Amazon.com, and the e-book explosion. But right now, they're going through what might be the biggest, most difficult change of their entire history.
Last year, Fantagraphics copublisher Kim Thompson passed away. With founder Gary Groth, Thompson established the Fantagraphics aesthetic, editing and publishing only high-quality work from the finest cartoonists. Thompson also championed the translation and publication of international comics work, bringing Lewis Trondheim, Jason, Gabriella Giandelli, and many other beloved European comics artists to America. Thompson's death was a serious blow for the publisher. Aside from the obvious heartbreak of losing a friend and longtime coworker, Fantagraphics lost its chief translator and a major editorial force—Thompson was working on 13 upcoming releases at the time of his death. The company held a Kickstarter campaign to pre-fund the publication of its spring list of 39 titles (the $150,000 goal was reached in less than a week, and those Kickstarted books are just trickling out to bookstore shelves now).
But now that the crisis has passed, what's next? On Saturday, March 29, at 1 p.m., I'll be moderating a panel of Fantagraphics editors Gary Groth, Eric Reynolds, Mike Catron, and Kristy Valenti at Emerald City Comicon to discuss the company's plans for the years ahead. Wherever the publisher is heading, a survey of some of their most recent publications indicates that they're starting on solid ground.
Trina Robbins has been writing about women in comics for decades. In the 1980s, that was thankless work, but now that women are asserting themselves as creators and consumers of comics in numbers that are far too large to ignore, it's clear that Robbins was a prophet. The title of her new, profusely illustrated Fantagraphics volume, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013 reveals the ambitious scope of her work. Pretty in Ink uncovers the first known published comic by a female cartoonist, The Old Subscriber Calls by Rose O'Neill, and proceeds to tell a story that doesn't resemble any other comics history you've ever read, introducing characters like Dotty Dimple, the Pussycat Princess, Miss Fury, and Brenda Starr and discussing modern cartoonists—like Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi—who are practically household names. Robbins is a knowledgeable and sometimes understandably exasperated host: In a bibliography at the end of the book, she notes, "It's true that I have produced most of the collections of art by women cartoonists, but other writers are finally stepping up to the plate." You can almost hear Robbins mutter under her breath, "It's about goddamned time."
Fantagraphics has always been interested in mapping the history of comics. Their reprint series lovingly archives cartoons that have not always received the respect they deserve. Most notably, Fantagraphics is publishing chronological reprints of the entire 50-year run of Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts strip in a series of glorious, handsome hardcover volumes. (Next month, they'll begin issuing paperback editions of the same books with the 1950–1952 collection.)
But they bring more obscure work back to life, too: Sucker Bait and Other Stories collects short horror stories illustrated by an artist named Graham Ingels. Ingels worked at EC Comics in the 1950s, where he illustrated dozens of seven- or eight-page comics narrated by an old witch (who self-identifies as The Old Witch) with a penchant for outlandish twist endings. A cheating husband who uses fishing trips as cover for his many affairs is stuffed and mounted like a prize trout by his wife; a circus-performer husband who kills his wife with a trained elephant is then stomped to death by a zombie elephant.
Reading more than three of these stories in a row can be tiring; it's smarter to take your time and soak in Ingels's art. With the garish EC Comics coloring stripped out of the pages, the immense detail Ingels packed into each panel becomes more obvious. These are shimmering pools of black and white, populated by faces twisted in anger or fear or jealousy, a nightmare land where battles of evil versus eviler are continually unfolding.
Fantagraphics has championed the work of a long list of comics greats, including Stranger Genius Jim Woodring, for decades now. One of the first books to be published from the batch of Kickstarted titles is Peter Bagge's Buddy Buys a Dump: The Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from Hate Comics Vol. 3. Fantagraphics has published Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories since the 1980s, and Dump demonstrates how long a time that's really been. Once a twentysomething slacker, Bradley is now settled into domestic life with a wife and a child, and he even seems to be going through a bit of a midlife crisis, as demonstrated by his weird clothing choices (a sailor hat, an eye patch, and enormous boots) and even weirder career choices (he wants to get into the lucrative cash-for-scrap business). Bagge's humor is as sharp as ever, though it's obvious he feels less affinity for Bradley's world than he used to. (Bagge has lately been producing nonfiction biographies; last year's Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story was the best thing he's done in ages.)
But Fantagraphics wouldn't be Fantagraphics without some breathtaking new work by an artist from out of nowhere. Portland cartoonist Julia Gfrörer (her bio helpfully suggests that the last name rhymes with "despair") published her first book with Fantagraphics at the beginning of last year, and it's incredible. Black Is the Color is the story of two tubercular sailors who are cast out to sea in a lifeboat. They're doomed, of course, but not before one of them encounters a mermaid. Black reads like a modern sea chantey, where the mermaids gossip while they're off the clock and the ocean rolls with the hyperdetailed nervous energy of a high-schooler doodling in the margins of her notebook. It's a gorgeous book that Herman Melville and Robert Crumb would both love, and it wouldn't have existed without Fantagraphics to bring it into the world. If they keep finding and publishing work like this, everything is going to be all right.