Today on the site, we present an excerpt from the long-awaited We Told You So: Comics as Art, an oral history of Fantagraphics put together by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. This particular chapter covers the years from 1978 to 1984, when the company was headquartered in a three-story house in Connecticut, and began publishing comics as well as criticism. Watch out for appearances by Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Jack Jackson, Gil Kane, Art Spiegelman, Heidi MacDonald, R. Fiore, Bud Plant, R.C. Harvey, and Carter Scholz.
Groth: I knew nothing about Connecticut, had never set foot in the state before. But, New York was too expensive (although I don’t know if Brooklyn was more expensive than Connecticut at the time) and Connecticut sounded like the kind of place we could rent a house rather than an apartment.
Thompson: The move to Connecticut was a pretty big deal in one way: At that point we both quit our day jobs. I was a general office worker. Gary was doing freelance typesetting. He didn’t so much quit a job as stopped doing it. At that point we realized we had to do this as a full-time job or not do it.
Groth: When we got to Connecticut, we rented a house. It was only the two of us at the beginning. We worked in a basement in the house for about a year, but the basement flooded at least once, causing havoc with comics, files, everything on the floor (which was everything). So, we moved to this huge three-story house, in an exclusive section of Stamford. Everybody thought I was nuts, since I was the one who engineered this move, but I thought we needed more space and I thought it was something of a deal. It had five bedrooms, two living rooms, three sundecks, a ground-level “basement” that wouldn’t flood, a two-car garage. It was in this area surrounded by other huge houses, owned by TV-network executives and doctors and lawyers. We clearly didn’t belong there.
Dwight Decker, editor: Some people called it the Ski Lodge because it somewhat resembled one, built into a hillside so the second-floor back door was at ground level while the first floor/basement had a front door. It was well back from the street and pretty well surrounded by woods. There were other houses in the area, and I wonder if there was a potential conflict with zoning laws since Gary was running a business out of his house and there were UPS and other delivery trucks making frequent stops.
Kenneth Smith, cartoonist and writer: Every closet and shelf-system was crammed with reference copies and Fantagraphics publications. The living room was rather shadowy and very amiably laid out, nearly a conversation pit. It must have been a fun place to work, even with hell-on-wheels deadlines over everybody’s heads. In retrospect, I guess I wonder why there weren’t more tables and working surfaces. I know I always have a shortage of unencumbered surfaces, not to mention shelving.
Thompson: It was the same thing, different place. We just lived in a nicer house.
Steven Ringgenberg, editor: It was in a beautiful neighborhood and I liked to go running when I lived there.
Groth: We shared a really long driveway with one other house. Five of us lived in the house. The office was on the ground floor in a large wide-open space, which included a bedroom and a sauna. Yes, a working sauna! The living rooms and the kitchen and two bedrooms were on the second floor and on the third floor were two more bedrooms. Our neighbors put up with us for six years. I don’t know if they knew quite what we did. I think they probably thought it was some drug-dealing operation, and the fewer questions asked the better.
Decker: Because housing was so expensive in Stamford, Gary sublet bedrooms to a couple of people who had nothing to do with Fantagraphics and worked elsewhere (I can’t remember if it was more than one). I can only guess what they thought of the mad goings-on.
—Interviews & Profiles. The University of Guelph profiles Wendy creator Walter Scott.
“A lot of the first Wendy comics were inspired by the punk scene,” says Scott, whose artistic influences include Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Matt Groening and Tanya Linklater.
They also drew on his experience of what he calls loss and yearning, as well as issues of identity that stemmed from the push and pull of hiding and exposing his aboriginal roots.
“I wanted to create a character enough like me but different enough — to talk about my experiences but not have to be me. That difference allowed me to open to other people,” he says.
Ben Navotny profiles Laurenn McCubbin.
How do fine art and comics compare as industries in which to work? How do the opportunities compare, and how do the chances of getting exploited compare?
There are a lot of similarities, in that they are both very white, and in both there is a stratification of worth. The people whose work is perceived to be worth more in comics and in fine art — there’s that five percent in either that people are going to pay attention to. It’s hard to get attention. It’s hard to do something new because, again, in both fields there are standards that we already think of that people need to reach before we will actually consider them artists. There are weird cliques in the working world of both. The indie kids of comics and the warehouse gallery kids are very similar. The superhero kids and the blue chip artists are very similar. And then the people who consume these arts, they like the things that maybe are not the great art. They’re not getting the good stuff because it’s not part of our common parlance. But, boy oh boy, do they love it when somebody draws photorealistically at a really large scale. That’s the thing in fine art that drives the fine art people crazy. “Why do you guys keep liking this stuff?” And in comics it’s, “Why do you guys keep liking Jim Lee?” No one makes money in either field. It’s hard to make money in comics; it’s hard to make money in fine art. Very few people do it. It is a very rarified group of people who actually can make a living at this. And the people who do work their asses off. Which is not to say that the people who don’t don’t also work their asses off!
Steven Cuevas profiles Steven Weissman.
“[Trump]’s more like a professional wrestler character,” explains Weissman.
“When I drew comics about President Obama or Hillary, they seem like real grown-ups with real grown-up problems,” he says. “You can relate to someone who seems to have some real (inner) conflict. I don’t see conflict in Donald Trump. You just sort of see this ego.”
—Reviews & Commentary. Chris Mautner writes about Moto Hagio’s Otherworld Barbara.
Barbara is dense with ideas as well. Influenced by Noam Chomsky, Ray Bradbury, Carl Jung, genetics, neuroscience, and more (there’s even a joke reference to Last Year at Marienbad), Hagio explores identity, aging, and our flawed perception of reality. But the high-minded philosophical explorations are grounded by the fraught emotional landscape of the characters. As mentioned before, broken or dysfunctional families are familiar territory for Hagio (she has spoken publicly about her own issues with her parents), as are characters who are so emotionally reserved they could fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Here, though, the anger over neglect from parental figures (and adult authority in general) constantly threatens to spill over into violence — it is frequently suggested that the withdrawn Kiriya could do Tokio real harm — as though despite the relative lack of blood on the page everything is building inexorably toward a tragic climax.
Brian Nicholson writes about Ron Wimberly’s Prince of Cats.
It’s a take on Romeo and Juliet, told from Tybalt’s perspective, with a primarily black cast, built around the author’s realization that the way the characters in the play act violently, indifferent to death, never seemed surprising or weird to him, presumably because growing up in New York City, he witnessed people who lived the same way. Some of them are white, but race doesn’t factor into their interactions: They are all living inside this milieu, sharing the same assumptions about codes of behavior.
In order to tell this story, Wimberly works out an elaborate system of cultural reference. The language is a mixture of iambic pentameter and Notorious B.I.G. allusions, but with the opening scene-setting text ending on a Langston Hughes reference. It takes place in the 1980s. 1980s New York, in comics, is also partially defined by the work of Frank Miller in Daredevil, which he filled up with ninja. The swordfighting is played up in a way that recalls the Wu-Tang Clan’s love of kung fu movies, but also present in the mix is Walter Hill’s The Warriors, which itself had a structure partially modeled on The Odyssey. This, then, creates a good deal of artifice, despite the fact that it is talking about some of the realest stuff there is: Both in terms of hip-hop’s insistence on “the real,” or notions of “real shit” meaning the threat of a body count, and the archetypal story we are all supposed to relate to.
Magdalene Vissagio promotes a movement in comics she calls “The New Sincerity.”
For a crop of comic creators who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, every genre convention was questioned and every piety challenged, where the snarling, gun-toting heroes of Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld formed the gold standard of the medium. Today, there’s a growing emphasis on comics simply being…fun. My own miniseries Kim & Kim aside, it’s not hard to point to the books joyfully pushing forward without a hint of ironic distance: Squirrel Girl, Lumberjanes, Jonesy, Jem and the Holograms, the aforementioned Teen Dog, The Backstagers, and to a lesser extent, Charles Soule, Javier Pulido and Ronald Wimberly’s run on She-Hulk.
Stylized, youthful, increasingly female and often queer, these books are almost (read: explicitly) a deliberate slap in the face to a toxic fandom culture and a broken business model that has focused exclusively on 45-year-old white dudes. And I find it interesting how much these books joyfully and deliberately dance right past everything we’ve always been told American comics are supposed to be—serious literature—while wearing a Walkman and a high-top fade.
—Misc. For The Paris Review, Kevin Huizenga adapts an excerpt from the new translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s novel The Return of Münchausen.
Though Krzhizhanovsky wrote for some twenty years, Soviet censorship and World War II conspired against him, and none of his fiction was published in his lifetime (he died in 1950). “A fantastical plot is my method,” he once wrote. “First you borrow from reality, you ask reality for permission to use your imagination, to deviate from actual fact; later you repay your debt to your creditor with nature, with a profoundly realistic investigation of the facts and an exact logic of conclusions.” In Münchausen, Krzhizhanovsky borrows from the life—both real and legendary—of Baron Münchausen to spin his own absurd tale involving the baron’s post–World War I perambulations in Berlin, London, and Moscow on a diplomatic mission. Bizarre and fantastic, Münchausen (or is it Krzhizhanovky?) defends imagination above all else.