Fantagraphics Goes Underground

fukitorcoverFantagraphics launched a little September surprise yesterday with the announcement of its FU imprint, which, according to the press release, is designed to "publish books and print projects appealing to a smaller, more rarefied readership." FU will publish small runs of unusual books, and will make those books available to select stores and at the ever-growing number of festivals around the country. The first two books are the collected Fukitor by Jason Karns (read his TCJ interview here) and Jonah Kinigstein's The Emperor's New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the "Art" World. The announcement piqued my interest because, as a publisher, one of the major struggles is dealing with the limited audience for beloved projects and the realities of an increasingly fractured market that may not benefit from standard book trade terms. Fantagraphics seems to be circumventing some of the cost of these labors of love by cutting out the trade distribution discount, outsourcing the production to just one person (designer Jonathan Barli)  and printing small runs, thus keeping overhead to a minimum. It's an interesting move, and leads off with two genuinely fascinating books, the first by a highly controversial cartoonist (and subject of much debate on this site) and the second by a longtime graphic critic of the art world, whom I published ten years ago in The Ganzfeld 4. I shot off some questions to Gary Groth to scratch my itch. 

DN: Who is the editorial director of this imprint?

Gary Groth: I am.

Why Fukitor? That seems like a particularly controversial choice.

Both books could be considered controversial choices. One is certainly a prime example of transgressive art and the other is a relentless attack on modernist art and beloved and successful artists such as Warhol, de Kooning, and Schnabel. I'm glad you asked me this because I've been wrestling with this for awhile. Jim Rugg, an artist I like and respect, was the prime mover behind Fukitor (he edited the collection). I am admittedly more ambivalent about it than Jim, who is a passionate advocate, but I ultimately concluded that its mockery and ridicule of the more idiotic aspects of pop culture makes it worthwhile (and funny). I know, of course, that that is not everyone's interpretation, and I don't discount the possibility that it is both a symptom of as well as a response to a rancid pop culture, which makes it a more difficult work to navigate.

I think it's a publisher's obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable "literary" comics or solid, "good," uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it's important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.

What qualifies a project for, uh, FU? For example, why is Fukitor more of a risk than, say, Twelve Gems? Or Kinigstein from that outsider artist you all published a few years back. The mission for FU as stated is hard to distinguish from the mission of FB as published.

There's really no point in publishing a book that's going to sell 300 or 500 copies in the mass market (which we have done, albeit unintentionally). Such a book literally loses thousands of dollars for the publisher, makes nothing for the distributor and the wholesaler, and, because of the return process, nothing for the retailer, and an inconsequential amount for the author.

By "that outsider artist," are you referring to Norman Pettingill and the book Backwoods Humorist? [Ed: Yes] That's a good case in point. It's a book I worked hard on and am particularly proud of —I wrote a biography of the artist and Robert Crumb wrote an intro— and it sold terribly. So, the question for a book like that comes down to this: Do you publish it in such a way as to make a small profit or that loses a significant amount of money? That particular book is problematic because it sold better than we expect an FU book to sell but much worse than a mass market book has to sell in order not to lose money.

FU is primarily for books that are simply not going to sell to a mass readership.

emperorsclothescoverDoes this signal a shift in FB’s trade publishing program away from riskier titles?

No, it absolutely doesn't. In fact, more like opposite: It allows us to publish less commercial work than we ordinarily could, which work could eventually, if we get enough word-of-mouth and good response from the FU edition, be turned into a book distributed to the book trade.

Are these print-on-demand projects? If so, are they digitally printed?

They are not print-on-demand. We are printing a set number, and going back to press if it's warranted.

Is there enough of a craving for these kind of projects to justify the production cost and editorial time?

The point is that you don't need an intense mass craving to sell 250 to 500 copies of a book.  At least that's my assumption. I could be wrong. But, I developed an economic model that were we can print and publish 250 to 500 copies of a book, keep overhead low, streamline marketing, and do all right. I think that's worth trying. We could have a much larger discussion about the realities of publishing. This is one effort to change those realities.

36 Responses to Fantagraphics Goes Underground

  1. Ant says:

    Intrigued to read Fukitor, remember the piece on t here a while back but the Kinigstein comic–wow, that drawing is right up my street. Just breathtaking. SOLD!

  2. Jeffrey Goodman says:

    Seems to me the logical premier book for the line would have been Zap #16. It would even have tied into the forthcoming Fantagraphics box set, and allowed those who wanted it to partake of the classic method of Underground Comix consumption, so to speak. I hope it’s something they consider as a future project, though! Sounds like a great idea and I’m looking forward to what FU brings forth!

  3. Sugarallupinmybowl says:

    A subscription is maybe worth considering.

  4. Ralphe Ostrander says:

    “Seems to me the logical premier book for the line would have been Zap #16”

    At a price of $31.25 it would be a bargain.

  5. Robert Cook says:

    Publishing Zap # 16 would take away the “specialness” of it being included in the Zap box…and make the $450.00 price tag perhaps a smidgen less easy to justify. (I’m wondering if each volume of the collected ZAP will be published separately later on in trade paper editions at more affordable prices? After all, most of those who would want to have the collected ZAP probably won’t–or can’t–pay the premium price for the box.)

  6. Robert Cook says:

    It seems passing strange to me that Jason Karns’ FUKITOR would be perceived as “controversial,” such that Groth is “ambivalent” and must “wrestle” with his decision to publish it. Fantagraphics just published the first volume (of three) of a biography/retrospective of S. Clay Wilson, whose work has been transgressive, offensive, pornographic, and respectful of NO boundaries or canons of good taste for decades. Wilson and his underground comrades were considered shocking in their day, controversial, in bad taste, obscene, and even possibly illegal, (the ZAP #4 obscenity trial), yet, today, these are the grand old men of comics, the august pioneers of a new way of making and selling comics, artistic revolutionaries who are today the subjects of retrospectives, biographies, and hosannas from all and sundry.

    Perhaps Karns is not the artistic equal of Crumb, Spain, Wilson, Williams, Griffith, Moscoso and the rest of the underground cohort, but then, who, in that time, saw any of them as anything but grubby little hippies, drug addicts and pornographers? Frankly, I prefer the idea of comics being disreputable and beyond the pale, something made by and for illiterate degenerates, rather than as “graphic novel,” whose creators work for the New Yorker and are interviewed at the NY Public Library and elsewhere.

    Mind you, I’m happy such artists can accrue unto themselves the just rewards of good work: attention, respect, and, hopefully, healthy remuneration. I just like there being a “punk rock” aspect to comics…comics that épater le bourgeois, as it were. (Along these lines, why isn’t Fantagraphics publishing english translation albums of work by phenomenal French cartoonist Mattt Konture? His drawings have all the electric energy the early–and best–undergrounds had in their day.)

  7. O says:

    Wow, white boys making alienating and horrifically racist comics! Never heard of that before, no siree! How TRANSGRESSIVE, Fantagraphics! What a great use of your resources! American underground media definitely needs more anti-Muslim rhetoric!!

  8. ngoc nguyen says:

    so… FU stands for Fake Underground?

  9. Nate A. says:

    Robert Cook’s comment above underlines the weird reasoning behind publishing FUKITOR. As he points out, S. Clay Wilson (and others in his cohort) were doing what FUKITOR does back in the 1960’s. Most of it is still in print, and a lot of it has “FB” stamped on the spine. Why add FUKITOR to the list? Is Karns really doing something new? Based on the issues I’ve seen, the answer is no. Rugg is a smart, and I as far as I can tell sensitive guy. So, maybe he’s found something in there I’ve been missing. I guess we’ll see. Regardless, making that book the first of a new line sends a pretty bad message to the comics community writ general. “Hey, remember that book so many people read as sexist and anti Muslim? We’re going to put that one at the front of the queue. You’re cool with that, right? Everybody?” The whole thing bums me out.

  10. David says:

    I wonder if Powr Mastrs 4 will be published in this line.

  11. Anthony Thorne says:

    FUKITOR looks hilarious and I’ll have to suss out how to order a copy internationally (I’m assuming Fanta will have a bunch up for mail-order retail at some point).

    I read the entire Jason Karns-inflamed comments thread above and expect that many will be burned out on revisiting that territory, but I thought this comment from Gary Groth was key –

    “I don’t discount the possibility that it is both a symptom of as well as a response to a rancid pop culture, which makes it a more difficult work to navigate.”

    Either category is fine with me. FUKITOR seems like the sort of thing you’d find stuffed in between the local sexploitation/horror film zines (with gory contributor artwork) and energetic but dopey home printed trash music review digests (with lots of naked girly shots) in an alternative record store somewhere, and doesn’t really require a lengthy MOME interview from the creator to justify its existence or defend every panel in the book. The accusations of racism aren’t necessarily on or off target, but given that US foreign policy and concurrent domestic propaganda has been based around treating the inhabitants of the Middle East as subhuman dogshit for at least the past 13 years I’m not going to be particularly surprised or outraged if Karns casually reflects the ongoing zeitgeist. FUKITOR is clearly not as nuanced or helpful to cultural understanding as FOOTNOTES IN GAZA, but with a title and cover like that, did anyone really expect it to be? I do love my Crumb collection but expect that at least a couple of my friends might have issues with the panels where big-titted sambo black natives cavort or a guy angrily uses a woman’s exposed butt cheeks as a punching bag. I don’t feel Crumb is particularly sexist or racist but he was reflecting the extremes of his imagination without apology, and Karns is likely doing the same. Possibly FUKITOR is an untroubled reflection of the soul of the youth of America today, but I would prefer to ignore those considerations and just concentrate on what seems to be its deployment of carefully-crafted gore and misogyny gags for crass comedic effect. Could this mean that some underground comics might be considered genuinely offensive, and not be for all audiences? No shit!

  12. Ralphe Ostrander says:

    Are these all the submissions you so joyfully and publicly threw in your dumpster?

  13. Sam harkham says:

    Seems pretty simple to me: you either enjoy fukitors humor and art or you don’t. Same with Wilson’s. Or Real Deal or Johnny Ryan’s or crumb’s or Flenniken’s or Victor Cayro’s. If you don’t like it, big deal, move on.

  14. Nate A. says:

    “Seems pretty simple to me: you either enjoy fukitors humor and art or you don’t. Same with Wilson’s. Or Real Deal or Johnny Ryan’s or crumb’s or Flenniken’s or Victor Cayro’s. If you don’t like it, big deal, move on.”

    My concern is that Fukitor is the sort of thing that causes people, especially Muslims and women, to move on past Fantagraphics, or even comics altogether. Also, whether it’s fair or not, publishers still function as gatekeepers. What they decide to release affects the market and the community as a whole. Especially one as small as the comics community. It seems totally fair to have a conversation about what the decision to publish Fukitor means for readers and creators alike.

  15. If you’re interested in a conversation, I wrote a Fukitor apologia about a year ago. I think the question of why publish or read this thing is worth having, but I definitely don’t side with the Tumblr-type Tulips that seem to be sprouting like the moral majority these days.

  16. DM says:

    Since when can’t we have anti-muslim comics, but we can gladly have anti-christian comics? There should never be any sacred cows that aren’t allowed for slaughter. There are comics for everyone, and Fantagraphics prints them all.

    What I’m curious about is why wasn’t Megahex published under this imprint. The bestiality between Megg and Ogg, Owl’s violent rape, Owl making out and about to have sex with a thirteen year-old, etc. are all pretty dicey stuff. I thought it was hilarious in the most tasteless way possible (and, with the art and pacing, expertly crafted), but it’s definitely not for everyone.

    Fukitor on the other hand, but it just seems to be dumb metal fun. It will sell a shit-ton of comics because of the direction a lot of small press tumblr zines are heading towards. Easy money. But if Groth had to wrestle with this one, how did chose to publish Megahex? Probably because it was on Vice.

  17. Anthony Thorne says:

    After reading an interview with Karns and seeing the long, choice list of gory 70’s Eurocult and trash exploitation films he cites as both personal favourites and as an influence, I now view the (yes, quite offensive) muslim-stereotypes-getting-murdered panels as being the equivalent of one of many deliberately discordant and obnoxious tonal notes, as if the book was an energetic 70’s rock instrumental album where every instrument was brash and dated and chosen for its sheer, nauseating in-your-face vulgarity. Karns puts exploding heads and buxom women being raped and rampaging robot Nazis and disembowelments into his artwork because he knows it’s offensive and he values the vulgar power of offensive imagery as something that works for him. I imagine that if Karns was truly a racist author he wouldn’t personally consider the anti-muslim stereotypes to be shocking or vulgar or offensive – he’d consider them to be normal, and the whole book would probably reflect an anti-muslim outlook rather than just a couple of pages (I gather). Showing redneck Yanks murdering the inhabitants of Fuckistan (or whatever it’s called) is genuinely crass and offensive and will probably be worse than upsetting to any reader who takes the panels seriously, but I don’t see a marked amount of difference between that hypothetical reader being offended and a conservative middle-aged parent unfamiliar with comics stumbling across the ‘Joe Blow’ sequence from ZAP and seeing the panels where two parents graphically perform incest with their children – or, to play a deliberately absurd devil’s advocate, a rabid ultra-Zionist Israeli settler being given issues of Joe Sacco’s PALESTINE that show the inhabitants of Gaza as sympathetic figures and the Israelis as obnoxious brutes enforcing apartheid. Karns shouldn’t have to justify his work within an indexed roster of cultural sensitivities where certain ‘offensive’ panels and imagery are considered okay, others are considered gross but acceptable, and others again are considered truly appalling and beyond the pale. The book’s entire aesthetic uses gross, shocking imagery to debatable artistic effect (I like what I’ve seen) and it seems somewhat futile to consequently take the project to task for being genuinely gross, or genuinely shocking. Despite the lengthy justification from Gary Groth above re sales projections and the market (which I don’t dispute), I find the press release does a better job justifying FUKITOR’s place in Fanta’s catalogue –

    “The Fantagraphics mission has always been to publish comics and cartoons that take risks and reflect the uncompromising vision of the artist…. [including] work by relatively unknown cartoonists that’s innovative, quirky, idiosyncratic, oddball, experimental, or downright crazy”

    This debate is a useful one to have, but I don’t think FUKITOR is an anti-muslim screed, and I don’t think Karns ever needed to enter the debate to try and justify his work. FUKITOR is offensive and not for all audiences, but I’m still keen to buy my copy of it and the guy can draw.

  18. brady says:

    that fukitor comment thread was epic. i for one wish we still had a fully unrestrained comment shitshow. anyway i’m not a comics maker critic or historian just a Regular Dude who likes to read the most maximum mind blowing comics with the small amount of time i can dedicate to the hobby…so i mentally file fukitor in the same category as s clay wilson and johnny ryan…ie. “why would i ever spend money or time on this? booooooring” and then i wonder why they’re doing this instead of like powr mastrs 4 or english norakuro or more sugiura or english versions of the mattioli pif strips or maybe some more krazy kat dailies or like a wicked sick collection of really early little lulu including the one where she gets high. or a comprehensive volume of the fort thunder minis (still ~85% totally unseen!). but to fanta’s credit i guess they just put out megahex so i can forgive. like an above person noted clearly megahex should have led the “FU” charge. fuck i would even buy a collection of real deal comix over this!!! for less than $500 anyway. fukitor is kiddie gore tumblr trash compared to that shiz. kna mean??

  19. Ralphe Ostrander says:

    “Also, whether it’s fair or not, publishers still function as gatekeepers. What they decide to release affects the market and the community as a whole…”

    “What I’m curious about is why wasn’t Megahex published under this imprint…”

    Bingo. Publishers are no longer gatekeepers in the sense of curating and disseminating quality work and educating the public about it.

    Now an author has to – themselves – have FIRST placed the majority of his/her/its work online for free, had an appropriately positive and voluminous response (number of “likes” and “followers,” gone “viral”) and then and only then will a publisher even look at their work.

    THEN the publisher shamelessly begs for money from the artist’s existing fans, friends and family (or if the publisher is Canadian, they fill out some paperwork) to pay for the printing of the book, which at this point is little more than a souvenir gimmick of the creative process.

    Now the artist STILL has to “promote” their work online, in person, or in whatever dimension artists are actually respected rather than exploited. If the book doesn’t IMMEDIATELY sell the artist is DROPPED like a poisonous turd and he/she/it will enjoy the remainder of their long sorry life struggling to reconcile whatever shitty day job they can manage (and its debilitating physical and psychological aspects) with their higher, unfulfilled ambitions, having also bitterly alienated any friends or family they once might have had.

    Perhaps after they die – or worse, in their final, ignominious days – they and their work will be half-remembered and the decrepit artist will be feted at a fetid Motel Six in an industrial park off an interstate hosting a gaggle of healthy, doe-eyed, weird-haircutted cartoonists who were “influenced” by the artist’s 50-year old attempt at immortality.

    Or, perhaps not. The artist “had his chance” and so did the publisher. Good times.

  20. DM says:

    That’s one thing that has disgusted me about publishers using Kickstarter. I’ve read that Kickstarter is just another avenue to get attention to a product regardless if money is available for production or not (for any type of product). It’s shameless. While I do think publishers curate their own sense of Identity by associating themselves with certain projects, I don’t like the idea of them being in the role of facilitator rather than actual publisher. Publishers should have ready capital at their disposal in order to get projects out there and promoted. However, I do feel Fanta’s recent KS is different because of the circumstances due to Kim’s passing (RIP). This was shit that was already in the pipeline, but something really fucking bad impeded it, not just shameless begging to put their name on some one’s hard work. If an artist is out there promoting the campaign themselves, they can do it anyway and keep all the money.

  21. Mike Hunter says:

    “Good times” indeed! *Sigh…”

    DM says:

    Since when can’t we have anti-muslim comics, but we can gladly have anti-christian comics?

    It it had been a bunch of Ku Kluxers — about to lynch a black guy — who were shown as sub-moronic, inbred Southern stereotypes, we’d have not heard a peep from the PC Police. Because it’s not “racism” if it’s whites who are targeted. (Specifically, white hetero males, those privilege-loaded epitomes of vileness and intolerance.)

    Personally, I think KKK’ers deserve to be drawn as vicious morons rather than morally upright citizens. And, looking at the continuing saga of “achievements” by Islamists, if anything, Karns was far too kind in his depiction.

    BTW, interesting how to the PC Police, showing Islamist terrorists as frothing fanatics = an insult against all Muslims. Therefore they must think all Muslims are terrorists, no?

    (And, I’d like to see those who froth at the mouth about how “racist” Karns’ depiction was parachuted down into the hands of the Taliban…)

    Fukitor… just seems to be dumb metal fun.

    Indeed it is! Not my cup o’ tea (I’d like my transgressiveness with more polish, as with, say, the comix of Irons), but isn’t utterly absurd to demand tasteful inoffensiveness of “Fukitor”? You might as well insist that Death Metal should be nonviolently pacifistic in its lyrics and album art; life-affirmingly “positive” instead of nihilistic.

  22. I think my take away from that whole long thread – what annoyed me, anyway – was not that it is racist and offensive. People can make what they want TBH. My issue was the denial that the portrayal of those characters was either of these things.

    It was just weak and slightly pathetic. Make bad taste trash, but be honest it’s bad taste trash.

    On another note – I think that the whole ‘Why is Megahex not leading the line?’ question misses the point. Because Megahex will sell more than 500 copies is the answer. Being in FU is not about content, it’s about commercial prospects.

    This is Fanta taking the opportunity to do small print runs and make them commercial – or at least that what it seems to me. This is just a different contract arrangement basically – i.e. we won’t distribute you or do big advertising because it will kill what return we get on the product.

  23. Anthony Thorne says:

    “My issue was the denial that the portrayal of those characters was either of these things.”

    Hopefully Karns has learned his lesson now and will refrain from responding to questions on this board. That’ll teach him!

  24. Dan Nadel says:

    Bless your heart, Ronnie!

  25. Nate A. says:

    It seems like a lot of the support for Karns is based less on his work than on a frustration with what Reece calls “tulips.” It’s as though just because his work rankles the PC crowd it must be saying something, or that because the PC crowd isn’t sufficiently committed to calling out misandry or anti-Christian rhetoric we ought to ignore what they’re saying about Karns. Even Reece’s defense (which he links to above) seems more invested in going after a certain brand of cultural criticism than with explaining why he thinks Fukitor is worthwhile. As he puts it:
    “Fukitor’s diegeses take place within a particular sort of mindset — a souped up, more explicitly rendered version of 70s and 80s action film heroics and grindhouse terror. It finds enjoyment there in the same way one might be entertained by the xenophobic worldview of Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action series, but makes it all sufficiently extreme that only a true psychopath could ever find it a plausible expression of otherness.”
    The thing is, while I don’t think anyone, even a psychopath, would see this as a plausible expression of otherness, I do think there’s reason for women to expect more from satire than a hyper-stylized iteration of dusty misogynist imagery. Ditto muslims. Does this mean I want to censor Karns, or that I think he’s racist. No, and I’ll actually read the whole of the book when it comes out before I make an extended argument. But I do think it’s a mistake to assume that people who don’t like his work are either too sensitive or too cynical to take seriously, or that they should just move along quietly and read something else.

  26. DM says:

    @Iestyn Pettigrew

    I know Megahex is intended for mass market distribution. From its publication history, it was always destined for that. However, what I was getting at is that with its’s content, it would have been a good way to bring attention to the line. A short run special edition giving a taste of what to expect from FU, and then a proper release. What I’m expecting is stuff that will rankle a few more feathers than an owl in a wig giving a werewolf crabs.

  27. @ Anthony Thorne I think you’re misinterpreting my comments here – I’m not calling him a racist, xenophobe or anything else. I’m pointing out that if you want to classify yourself as transgressive and edgy, all credibility, with me at least disappears when you begin passive aggressively defending your work because someone has said something that hurts your feelings.

    You end up sounding like a kid defending themselves when their parents are telling you off. It comes across as a bit pathetic. If you’re going to be punk and not give a shit then do it.

    Basically put, having seen excerpts and having read interviews with Jason Karns I can personally say that his drawing style, approach and general attitude make me think of a kid in school getting attention by acting up. Which is fine, but I’m not interested in that and it comes across as pretty fake when you then cry out that your work is not meant to upset people.

    @DM What I was trying to say, is that delivering a commercially viable work as a first for the line would be to introduce it with a product that is at odds with the intention of the whole thing as I understood it and would give out the wrong idea.

  28. My main concern is how easy or hard it will be to find a copy of an “FU” comic, what with the really low print runs. I assume mail-order from Fantagraphic’s site will be possible, and they said they will print more if a run sells out, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. Still, if something really cool comes along and I can’t get it, I would be a bit sad.

  29. Cleofis says:

    I think Molly Lambert’s conclusion in her latest Grantland piece applies equally well here re: Fuckitor.

    “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And just because something you did provoked outrage doesn’t automatically make it transgressive. Nothing could be less outrageous than reinforcing a fucked-up status quo.”

    That aside, Emperor’s New Xlothes looks p. great.

  30. Pingback: Small Press Expo 2014 from two perspectives | Robot 6 @ Comic Book ResourcesRobot 6 @ Comic Book Resources

  31. steven samuels says:

    “I’m wondering if each volume of the collected ZAP will be published separately later on in trade paper editions at more affordable prices?”

    Groth in an interview somewhere else said it’s wait and see for the time being. Depends on how the hardcover does.

    One also would hope that the limited edition nature of the FU line be used to explore some nooks and crannys of the original Underground that are considered potentially too poor-selling to reprint- Jim Franklin, Sharon Rudahl, Fred Schrier, etc.

  32. steven samuels says:

    Well, fuck. I should’ve read the press release:

    “Future projects include portfolios of drawings by Richard Sala and Guy Colwell, and a reprint of seminal underground/alternative cartoonist George Metzger’s Beyond Time and Again.”

  33. Robert Cook says:

    I’d love to see a quality reprint of Jim Franklin’s ARMADILLO comics, or just an omnibus of all his collected underground related illustrations, comics, and poster art.

  34. Robert Cook says:

    And a publication of THE COMPLETE MICKEY RAT couldn’t be too welcome! C’mon, FU, puts your money where your mouth is!

  35. John Sonnett says:

    Is the Colwell project different from the one already listed at amazon for Feb 2015?

    “Every issue of Inner City Romance—Guy Colwell’s ’70s underground comic book series about prison, black culture, ghetto life, the sex trade, and radical activism—is collected in this book, along with Colwell’s paintings and a contextual, autobiographical essay.”

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