Fantagraphics Books, the Seattle alt-comics publisher whose stable of celebrated artists has enjoyed international acclaim while helping bring countercultural topics and aesthetic styles into the mainstream, is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and facing a cash-flow crunch that could lead to the collapse of the operation within a month's time, the company's owners announced last week.

In a lengthy e-mail sent out to comic book fans and other readers, Fantagraphics' owners said they need to raise about $80,000 in the next month to meet current loan obligations, and called on loyal readers to pitch in by each buying two or three books to help cover the shortfall. The situation "is so severe that this month we envisaged shutting down our active publishing, seeking outside investors, or similarly odious measures," the missive read.

"Basically, we're just on a fragile footing," explains Kim Thompson, Fantagrahics' vice president, who runs the company--which bills itself as the "publisher of the world's greatest cartoons"--along with founder and president Gary Groth. He describes the e-mail as a "plea for help" and says response in the first 24 hours has been very encouraging. In response to the crisis, Fantagraphics has already laid off five of the 30 people who work at the company, he says.

Fantagraphics publishes work by a slew of well-known comics artists, including Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, Peter Bagge, and Chris Ware. The company's flagship publication is The Comics Journal, which it describes as "the magazine people love to hate."

Though Fantagraphics has always been a marginal business from a financial standpoint, and has teetered on the edge of collapse several times in its 27-year history, Thompson ascribes the current troubles to the bankruptcy of distributor Seven Hills in 2001; $72,000 owed to the publisher "basically vanished," Thompson says, describing the loss as a "huge hit." The loss necessitated taking out loans to keep Fantagraphics afloat, and those loans are now due, Thompson adds.

Further problems ensued after much larger distributor W. W. Norton & Company picked up Fantagraphics' line in late 2001. Operating on a scale "we weren't used to," Fantagraphics overprinted many titles, and about $1 million worth of inventory in the form of unsold books remains on hand, Thompson says.

Larry Reid, Fantagraphics' former publicist and a well-known fixture in Seattle's arts scene, says the potential loss of Fantagraphics would be a significant blow to Seattle's artistic life. He said the company's relocation to Seattle in 1991 "helped to create a critical mass of countercultural influence and was an integral part of the grunge scene." Fantagraphics artists helped to change "rock, fashion, aesthetics, and visual sensibilities," Reid says.

Groth and Thompson have "integrity to a fault" and comics publishing "is not a business to them--it's a cause," Reid says. "I have nothing but admiration and respect for them both," he adds.

More information about the company and its offerings can be found at www.fantagraphics.com.

sandeep@thestranger.com