I don't even remember meeting Tom. Like everyone reading this, I was reading Tom long before meeting Tom. Oddly, my first interaction with Tom was about a minicomic I sent him under a pseudonym, which he reviewed on the Comics Reporter. He wrote some very kind things about it. I guess he will never know that was me. He'll never know how encouraged I was, though maybe I should not have been so encouraged.
Barry and I really got to know Tom over three days at the Center for Cartoon Studies, the three of us participating in their annual Industry Day (which was three days long). Tom moderated a panel we were on with Charlie Kochman from Abrams and literary agent Bernadette Baker-Baughman. We were honestly intimidated by Tom at that point. Everyone had always talked about Tom being such a welcoming person, such a great ambassador, which he surely was. But Tom's advocacy had some sharp edges. Plus, he was a big guy and he knew plenty that we didn't. Tom could easily have been an asshole, and in every previous, brief meeting at shows, we braced ourselves at his approach, certain he would tell us what we were doing wrong. He always told us what we were doing wrong en route to telling us how much he loved our comics.
I feel pretty stupid being scared of him now and have felt stupid about that since those days at CCS. I vividly remember dinner at James Sturm's house with everyone and Tom, and somehow babbling for a good hour about kid's comics and what was good about them, our formative comics experiences (prior to the indie comics explosion of that time) and Swamp Thing--with Steve Bissette in the room. I knew plenty of comics cranks then and can't remember a time when I did not. There's a common thread of bitching and moaning among comics cranks, but they end up reminding you that they love comics as much as you do. That night, at dinner, it was obvious to me that one has ever loved comics, or will ever love comics like Tom Spurgeon loved comics.
When Barry and I got home, Tom asked us if we would be the subjects of one of his holiday season interviews. We exchanged phone calls and e-mails for weeks. Tom sent us the full transcript and it clocked in at something around eight thousand words. A lot of those talks were very intimate and personal and filled with the things I would only think of sharing with my closest friends. Somehow, Tom had become one. We never expected Tom to run anything like that transcript on the Comics Reporter. He didn't cut a word. We were terrified at first, but somehow, kind of like coming out the closet, it brought us closer to so many people in the comics community.
In his introduction to the piece, Tom mentioned our Scuttlebutt blog, writing, "I've even fallen a bit in love with their occasional, rambling blog posts, particularly the post-show pieces, the best of which have made me come as close as I get to believing in a comics community." Of course, there's a comics community. The comics community remains in great need of support and advocacy and shaping. It's a lot worse now without Tom.
I'm reminded now of the night we lost Sparkplug publisher Dylan Williams. Sure, Dylan was a publisher, in the same way, that Tom was a comics journalist. This community would not exist as it does now without their like. Unfortunately, there's no one like them and the comics community is now without them. Losing these people as friends is devastating enough, but the loss to comics, to the community we love so much, the community that is as much a part of us as we are of it, is incomprehensible.
The night we learned Dylan was gone, we were all at SPX, and there was no better place to be because we were all together. The night I learned we'd lost Tom, I was alone, but all night, people wrote me to tell me they loved me, and I wrote the same to them. These were all people who knew and loved Tom. It felt like Tom's parting gift to us. Tom said, repeatedly, and often randomly, that the best people one was ever likely to meet were comics people. I believe he was right all along. I am really going to miss obsessing over whether or Tom Spurgeon was mad at me. I am really going to miss him.
Tom said that everything looks 17% more pathetic by fridge-light.
I think about that line every time I open the fridge when I’m failing to write something and filled with self-loathing. That fridge-light was like a bat signal for Tom; somehow he sensed it across the Atlantic Ocean. My phone would buzz. “HOW IS MY ROLE MODEL HAYLEY CAMPBELL? Are you getting some writing done? You know how I worry.” As I ate ham straight from the packet I’d tell him it was going terribly, or it was going okay but my life was collapsing, and he’d tell me to keep going. “I'm counting on this book to improve my mood during one of the 17 times I bottom out in the first six weeks of its release. Go be a genius and write,” he’d say. And even though I was no one’s role model or genius by any measure, that was Tom. In the words of my dad Eddie Campbell, “Tom had a way of making one feel like you are something important, even when you know you're just a wanker.”
Tom was a lifeline in the fridge-light. He checked in on me every week, more or less, for years — a constant source of unprompted encouragement and hope. “If it ever gets to be too much you let me know and I'll jump in the action canoe and try to paddle up to wherever you are but I may be a few waterfalls short.” He was the receptacle for my dumbest thoughts and fears because he was kind and he cared. He got the unedited version of every catastrophe or bad date and in solidarity, he’d tell me something pathetic from his own life that he hoped would balance out the misery, but really it was Tom putting his finger on the scale to lift me out of my slump. Always, always, he would make me laugh. He regularly summarized chapters from his unwritten memoir BAD AT FUCKING. He somehow made life-threatening flesh-eating bacteria hilarious though it broke my heart to think of him in pain, or gone, or eaten.
We talked a lot about death, not because he was dying but because that’s what I’m writing about and most of the thoughts and fears I dumped on him were about death, about losing people I love. In November last year, he went to the funeral of a woman he had known since he was three years old, who was also his ex-girlfriend. “I actually haven't processed it yet,” he said. “When I was driving home I was thinking about when I might be able to talk to her about it.” I’ve picked up my phone several times since he died, wanting to tell him something stupid and funny or to tell him that my friend has died and I’m sad.
Twitter gave a platform to modern-day Nazis and hate-speech and Trump but it also gave me my friendship with Tom, so in the final audit of whether it was all worth it, I say: absolutely. In January this year, he gave me a place to stay while I was traveling across America interviewing people for the book I still haven’t finished. My boyfriend and I arrived on his porch at midnight, slipping on thick snow, exhausted and stiff from 12 hours in a car and a week of subsisting primarily on gas station snacks, still greasy from the pepperoni pizza we’d bought just so we could pee in a slightly cleaner bathroom six hours ago. We looked like stinking bags of shit. Tom opened the fridge to grab us some beers he had waiting. I thought we looked 17% more pathetic in the glow. He asked us how we looked so great.
I knew Tom Spurgeon for my entire adult life. I think I first started talking to him online, on the Comics Journal message board, sometime in 2001—the year after I graduated college and probably no more than four or five months after I started reading comics seriously. I can't separate him from comics, or comics from my life, or my life from him. It's all intertwined in ways both simple and extremely complex.
But Tom was one of my best friends for many of those years. I turned to him in the middle of deep personal crises at least as often as I did to ask him what he thought of this or that comic, or to gossip about this or that cartoonist. (No one had hotter goss, or was funnier in delivering it.) If you ever had the good fortune of feeling his thoughtfulness and caring first-hand about something business-related, you can imagine how good it felt to have him to rely on when the thing you were talking about was your own heart and what mattered most to it.
Tom was harder on his own work than anyone else would even think of being. It wasn't a pose and it wasn't born of depression or anything like that—he would just survey what he was doing with Comics Reporter, with CXC, with his overall project of making comics a more just place for the makers of comics, and find himself wanting. Think of how many times in the past few days you've heard him described, accurately, as irreplaceable, as leaving behind a hole in the industry that can never be filled, and you'll see the kind of standards he must have been holding himself too. That was as inspirational in its way as any advice he ever gave me or any time he let me cry into my beer with him at a convention.
Tom was my mentor, that much I can say for sure. Ever since I started taking comics seriously, which is the root of my entire life—my entire life—Tom was there with history, with insight, with an inspiring work ethic, with prose I adored, with a nose for the parts of comics that were hardest and therefore most rewarding to unpack and analyze. There's maybe two other people on the planet who've influenced my career and how I conduct myself as a writer as much as Tom did. Maybe.
I adored his yearly Comic-Con guides, which were as massive and silly and unwieldy and easy to lose yourself in as the show itself. I read them for years after I stopped going to Comic-Con. I always said they were the next best thing to being there and I meant it.
Being Tom's friend meant hearing his unvarnished opinions, which were often scathing and hilarious. I often think about the turn of phrase he used to describe some old hand at one of the Big Two with dubious ethics, as "defending Julie Schwartz's chase around the desk sexism like it was a stylish scarf the man wore." His sickest burns were always directed towards people he thought were, in one way or another, grifting the art form and industry and community he adored and to which he devoted his entire life. I've aped his baroque way of slamming people as much as I can. But since I am an asshole I've done so publicly; Tom, not an asshole, worked diligently to make his points publicly consumable to better advance his causes, even when the cause was just "please make better comics." He cared so much and had no wish to hurt anyone. He wanted to leave the place better than when he found it.
When he had that horrible health scare a few years back he called me from his hospital bed. "I just wanted to say I valued your friendship," he said, things like that, and his repeated use of the past tense scared the living shit out of me. He'd accepted the fact that he might die, but I didn't. I still don't.
Tom had a way of talking about art that made me want to talk about it that way myself. He had an eye for work off the beaten path, and I don't just mean his historically important love of minicomics or the piece he wrote about Fort Thunder. He could come at a book from an angle I never thought of or anticipated, but it would become my entire frame of reference for that book. His review of Footnotes in Gaza is one that sticks with me—he honored that book by digging into the deep uncertainty embedded within it, and uncertainty is not where most critics live.
Boy, he could write about acting, too! His theater background meant every once in a while he'd deliver some astutely observed praise of a character actor on like Boardwalk Empire or whatever that would shift the entire gravitational field of how I wrote about acting in my tv and film criticism around it. He did it like it was nothing for him.
I hear his voice all the time these past few days. It's stuck in my head. Tom had a midwestern accent and a lisp that when combined always made him sound like he was talking through a shit-eating grin. He wasn't, of course—he could be very dour and pessimistic when these things were warranted, and sometimes even when they weren't—but god was his a pleasant voice to hear. He would inflect his sentences to just kind of stop, the aural equivalent of word balloons with no terminal period. Huh, Tom talked in word balloons—I've never thought of that before but it's true, that's how he sounded. Seems like I'm going to keep hearing it. It hurts, but I don't mind.
He was always entertained by how much I enjoyed the hotel bar at SPX. I'm not sure he ever put together that I enjoyed it so much because that's where he and I most often got to hang out.
In recent times I wasn't as in touch with Tom as I used to be. This was on both of us I guess, though looking at it now it was mostly me getting upset about some stupid bullshit we'd have laughed our way through in two minutes while catching up at some show or other. I feel so goddamn dumb about it now, but Tom would probably tell me not to worry about it and then ask how my kids are doing.
The last few times we talked he told me how great it was to see my partner Julia at a show, he shared recommendations of his favorite books from the past few years, he paypalled me some money to try and buy back one of my web domains from squatters, and when i told him he did not have to do that he told me "Your writing is important to me!" That was the last thing he ever said to me.
Tom, you were important to me. I love you.
Tom was a friend or at least I felt he was which was part of his gift. As people have said, he was a curmudgeon, but when you would bump into him at a show he smiled and asked how you were with real genuineness. He could be brutally honest but he wasn’t mean. If he criticized you for something, it was considered. The criticism wasn’t a reflection of him as it so often is with people, it was well-thought out. And that was because he honestly cared. He cared about the art of comics and he cared about the business of comics and he especially cared about the people in comics.
There was nobody else in comics who could talk to all the factions. He knew who the major players were whether it was comics strips, superhero, mainstream alternative, underground, indie, mini comics, whatever. He knew who the new voices were. Of course, it was his job to know and like anyone he had his biases but he understood the work. He didn’t dismiss the work or the person. And believe me, I tried to get him to! I honestly don’t think we’ll see someone like Tom in comics ever again. There won’t be a person who knows EVERYBODY and can speak to them on their terms.
I’m sure many people did what I did earlier which is look at their email correspondence with Tom. There were some funny back-and-forths that petered out like they do. There were instances where Tom illuminated something for me in one pithy sentence. Usually there were great deep deep insider jokes that a small handful of us would get. Sometimes he would flat-out dismiss my line of inquiry with a gentle “I’m not playing that fool’s game” kind of nudge.
Talking to Tom was a pleasure. You could be bitter and idealistic in that short convention floor conversation and he was right there with you.
The first time I met Tom Spurgeon was at the Eisner Awards in 2012.
Oh, I knew who he was. I’d discovered The Comics Reporter soon after I began our comics collection seven years earlier, and it quickly became essential daily reading. His lists of new releases were helpful, his reviews and interviews were incisive and comprehensive, and when he said “Go, Read” or “Go, Look” then goddammit I went and read or went and looked. And, inevitably, bought.
But I’d never met the guy. He won an Eisner for his site that year, and I went up to him to introduce myself shyly and offer congratulations. He looked down at me and said, “You write really well. You should do more of that.” I felt like I’d won an Eisner, too.
Almost a year later he came with Jen Vaughn to visit my library, while in town for MoCCA Fest. I’d heard about those people who, whenever talking with someone, make that someone feel as if their conversation is the most compelling thing ever. Tom had that gift. In conversation, he appeared 100% focused on the topic at hand. And, god, did I want to impress him. I didn’t expect that he’d write about his visit; that’s not why I wanted to impress him. I wanted to impress him the same way I’d wanted to impress my dissertation advisor in grad school: because he was brilliant, he was knowledgeable in a way I’d never achieve, he had that suppleness of thinking and peculiar perspective that caused comics to snap into an entirely different focus than that of the rest of us, like when the optometrist slides up the perfect lens during an eye exam. Tom was the Distinguished Professor of Comics. Not of Comics Studies: he didn’t need to come at comics with theoretical frameworks and methodologies. He knew the language of the medium, and he spoke it fluently. He knew the history of the medium, and could speak it as if it were his own history. He dazzled.
(As it happened, he did write about his visit, ending with “I would like 10 percent of whatever Green decides to do next and hope to God that nothing she wants puts me in her way.” That gave me more credit than I deserved, but once again he’d made me feel like I’d won a prize.)
Unlike so many other fortunate people, primarily cartoonists, I didn’t have many more substantive conversations with Tom. My contact was via The Comics Reporter, which was very nearly as good as a conversation: the same humor, analytic brilliance, and comprehensive knowledge, without the stress of my having to keep up. But I kept thinking that we’d get another chance to sit down, to catch up, to trade stories, to talk comics. To talk about what we loved. To talk about what he loved. To talk about comics, the most fun thing to talk about in the world.
Reading Tom online for these past nine years has been a one-way conversation. It’s almost more than I can bear to realize there’ll never be a two-way conversation again.
Tom was a rascal and a delightful scamp and I’m going to miss catching up, gossiping, and complaining about the horrors of having a human body. He would periodically ask me, “Are you good? Are you happy?” and his brows would fold with genuine concern for my well-being. I felt like he was an older brother to us cartoonists - always teasing while also rooting for us to thrive. I hope he knew how much that support meant to so many of us.
I’ll miss his ridiculous sense of humor. We had an ongoing “bit" where he would pretend to hate my work, and he'd tweet things like, "at TCAF this weekend I will sign all copies of Lisa Hanawalt's book with detailed instructions on how you can get yourself a better book." When my first book came out, we joked about him writing a negative review of it. So, of course, he wrote a perfect parody of Pete Wells’ infamous NYT review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant. It confused the hell out of people! It was such a weird, messy prank and it still makes me laugh really hard when I think about it.
I’m sure Tom would squirm to see all of us eulogizing him (and so somberly too, wouldn’t this whole thing be better with more jokes? Maybe a roast?). But internally I think he would have loved being so cherished, and having his own kindness, generosity, and big heart reflected back at him.
Tom seemed to be such a down to earth guy-- I was happy when I'd get a little tipsy ( a LITTLE?!? ) at SPX or somewhere and he'd just smile at my ranting, never giving the look of someone just waiting for me to stop talking. Even if he was thinking it, he never showed it. I appreciate that, my good man, and dear god you'll be missed.
Tom was a good friend who was always fun to hang out with at shows. Always good for a laugh, always good for a scoop.
I've spent the last week angry. Angry at Tom. Angry at Tom for dying. Angry at myself for not really doing anything to stop him. Because I knew, and because everybody knew. He knew it himself. He ended one of his most successful essays
Tom almost died eight years ago and so he got to experience an approximation of the Tom Sawyer fantasy of living through one's own funeral, of finding out what everyone would say about him after he died, which is the only consolation right now I can think of, that he knew how much people cared about him, how many people he'd touched. He wrote a beautiful, life-affirming essay in response to his almost-death, and everyone told him how much they loved him. He looked so healthy after that. He seemed transformed by his brush with mortality, ready to take full advantage of his second chance. And we all ate it up, anxious to believe in the lies we tell ourselves about how we can change and how we can make things right and how we can make things good. And of course nothing had really changed at all. And I hadn't changed either.
People who'd visited him in Ohio told me more than once that he was possibly close to death, and when I saw him at SPX a couple years back I was frightened by how unhealthy he looked. I told him I was worried about him and that lots of people were worried about him — he needed to take care of himself. He said he knew and he would. I knew even as he said it that he wouldn't do anything, but I was too repressed and too scared to tell him again or to follow up as often as I should, to risk embarrassment to try to save his life. I'm sure other people tried harder to save him. I don't presume to know how hard Tom himself tried. I know he struggled. I'm flailing wildly but I mean only to blame myself. I failed to do enough and I'm angry at myself.
Tom got mad at me all the time. Not really all the time, we usually got along incredibly well, but every few years I'd publish or write something on the Comics Journal site that would make him irate to the point where he could no longer listen, not even to acknowledge my complete and immediate surrender, which I almost always offered. He was like a bull seeing red. He'd send a half-dozen emails to me in an hour, all before I had a chance to respond. In one he admitted that he was angry beyond reason and it was no use for me even to try to reply. It was always over small petty stuff, or so it seemed to me (conveniently?), and a couple hours or days after it started, he'd be over it entirely, out of nowhere, and it would suddenly be like nothing had ever happened. Sometimes he'd say he'd been wrong and sometimes he wouldn't, but all was forgiven and it was over, never to be talked about again. When I did occasionally mention these outbursts to him after we'd made up, expressing how glad I was that we'd gotten past them and that we were still able to be friends, Tom agreed but was obviously uncomfortable and it seemed best to move on. I always found the times he'd gotten angry bewildering because I loved and admired Tom so much and never wanted to hurt him even the slightest. (Until this week. I want to write something that will make him angry enough to write me again, to see red, to refuse to accept my surrender. I know this is irrational.)
I owe so much to Tom, both good and bad. I don't think I ever would have done anything so stupid as to spend a decade-plus involved in the "comics press" if it wasn't for Tom. He edited the Comics Journal when I first started reading it and first started obsessing over comics in a serious way, first understanding all the possibilities of the form, which always either went unfulfilled or were fulfilled without anyone in the larger world even noticing. This is one of the things that is so romantic and so idiotic about comics, that it is an art form capable of such profound heights but one that almost everyone despises and disregards as trash. There is a terrible ugly sublime beauty that comes with so many incredibly talented people wasting their lives and their abilities working on this art form simply for the love of it and the internal satisfaction it brings, with no earthly reward to meet them. This of course mirrors the situation of humanity in a larger sense, one that has nothing to do with comics, which anyone with half a brain can recognize. And of course Tom had more than half a brain.
I haven't said anything about how kind Tom was to me, how supportive and funny and smart, but that's been said by so many people already. But yes, he was kind to me. He was supportive of me and countless others, far more than anyone should have expected. He was funny and smart and he had clear integrity and good intentions. And but yes, he was also spiteful and lazy and he sometimes did stupid impulsive things, and sometimes he wore his good intentions like armor, and he'd admit to all of this before anyone else could point it out because he was unusually honest. Weeks or months from now I will be able to be more philosophical and mature, to appreciate what he gave and what he represented and to be grateful I knew him. But I'm not there yet. He inspired me to follow him into a life of stupid romantic idiocy (not that I needed much inspiration) and now he's dead and I should have stopped him. Maybe we could have stopped him. I don't think that I could have stopped him but we will never know and now he's gone. Good intentions are not enough, and if we really want to honor Tom, who knew it better than anyone, we have to admit that.
The years Tom edited the Journal lined up exactly with the years I was in college, 1995 1999. Y2K, when the Journal and everyone was looking back over the 20th century. I remember there was a sense of history and tradition, of connecting different kinds of cartooning into a larger current, and awe for the accomplishments of the great master cartoonists, but also Spurgeon and the magazine were enthusiastic about new, younger cartoonists…it was exciting and inspiring.
A few years later when my own comics were first coming out Spurgeon’s kindness and interest meant a lot to me. I think it helped that I was also from Indiana, and also not very punk rock, and that we both had a complicated relationship growing up with Christianity. The first time I met him we talked about his time in seminary. Later he wrote a newspaper strip about animals going to church...amazing.
This year, because I have a book out, I saw more of Spurgeon than I had in a long time… I saw him at San Diego, SPX, and CXC, but by far I talked to him the most at SPX. We had dinner at the hotel, in the awful, new remodeled restaurant, and I sat at the end of the table near him. The two of us talked while the rest of the table had their own conversation about I don’t know what. I paid attention when Eddie Campbell showed off his Kate Carew book—she talked to Picasso and Presidents, she drew great, but I hadn’t heard of her. Tom and I talked about depression and the internet and made dark jokes about our lives and our futures. The usual stuff, but also we weren’t really kidding around. I talked to Annie Koyama that weekend about her schemes for helping cartoonists with resources and mentors, her thinking out loud, and about the comics ecosystems, stores, and publishers, and I ran this by Tom and wanted to hear his take. More and more I realize I don't know what's going on in comics. I wished for a State of the Industry issue like when he edited the Journal. He looked at me and his eyes flashed a little and I could tell he didn’t have the energy to have that kind of conversation. Or about the thing about SPX and Amazon. He cared a lot about the same things and CXC was his way of building toward something, but then he felt like he wasn’t proud of himself, was hard on himself, was failing his own ideas of how it should be. He seemed to be struggling and seemed to want to talk about it. We talked about depression and disappointment. I don’t think he said “depression,” but that’s my diagnosis because he joked more than once that he slept 16 hours a day. He said this a few times, a midwestern way of saying depression: tired. Then he described having a “nervous breakdown,” earlier in the year, not being able to breathe or move, and having a vision. He said he saw Alvin Buenaventura’s head hovering above him, lips moving but producing no audible words. This made an impression, felt ominous. He wasn’t joking. I don’t actually know him well enough to tell when he was joking, or exaggerating, or what was getting left out of the picture about his life.
It was the kind of conversation that ends with both people saying “anytime you need someone to talk to…” I know this is strange to write into a memorial, but this conversation stuck with me. I hoped to talk to him again and hear how things were going. I remember he talked a lot about how much he missed writing his comic strip, Wildwood, that he did with his longtime friend Dan Wright. It seemed like that was one thing he really wanted to have in his life again.
He had so many people in his life, a lot of projects. He was good about when people needed help he would announce it and direct attention to those who needed it. He was good at knowing a lot of people and keeping track of what to talk to them about. He deeply loved comics and the people in comics, it probably can’t be overstated.
Learning of Tom’s death brings up some rather selfish thoughts, “who will publicly remember my birthday now?” “who will write about my comics?” While I admit to the utter childishness of this response, I know I’m not the only cartoonist having such thoughts as we process our loss and grief. It is because Tom was so very good at seeing our work. Tom focussed his laser eye, intelligence and wit upon a small section of the comics world that few people cared much about, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. He took our work seriously and wrote about it with care and honesty. As an artist, it is important to be free to create, but it is almost as important to be seen with clear eyes and interpreted charitably. Tom did that in The Comics Journal, and later in his blog The Comics Reporter. It was always a pleasure to talk with him about comics, to read his words and to listen to him hold forth. I can think of very few people who were more generous with their native gifts than Tom Spurgeon.
If you set out to learn about the comics, what you might ultimately come to realize is that there are a small number of key individuals spread out behind-the-scenes whose work is pivotal but largely unknown. They perform crucial functions, but rarely get any of the accolades from the “fans,” little praise, no money — sometimes just the opposite: they get hostility. Retailers, con organizers, marketers, archivists, editors, librarians. They are instrumental, they hold comics' institutional memories in crucial areas taken for granted, and they are getting older, getting sicker, they are struggling, there aren’t enough structures in place to help them, and there may be no one ready to replace them and who can do their job when they’re gone.
If I understand that at all, it is only that because of Tom Spurgeon. Tom would talk about all of those people, and he’d make sure you knew they were out there, and that they’d need our help very, very soon.
There are a number of comics that I read with “Tom likes this, pay attention” in my head — you can probably name more than I can: "Death of Speedy," Popeye; for me, most of all, Jules Feiffer’s Sick, Sick, Sick. When I think of Tom as a writer, I first think of his Artbomb review for Sick, Sick, Sick, and the beautiful sentence with which it concludes: “Sick, Sick, Sick is one of comics’ foundational books, a study of a time and place so crystal clear it feels like a party you once watched in your pajamas from the stairs, or the missing dialogue from a silent moment with your exhausted father as he let the car idle in the driveway, lights off, a hundred feet from the door.”
But what always mattered more was that he wasn’t just a fan of the comics as objects; Tom’s writing was constantly human-facing. Who else worried as much about cartoonists getting older, their mounting health care costs? Who else would cover as much as he did, and then turn around and apologize constantly — constantly! sincerely! — about not paying enough attention to webcomic artists? Who else cared as much about the plight of editorial cartoonists not just in the United States but overseas? Every tragic event, every cartoonist suffering anywhere in the world, he'd pay attention to it, care about it even if it was about comics which weren’t immediately consumable … Because it was still comics, those were still people engaged in comics, and loving comics for him meant loving even them, too.
One of my bucket list “things to do in comics” was to write something for or with Tom — one time, I involved him in a pretty bizarre misadventure (Tom: “This has been lunacy on my end”), but beyond that, it didn’t happen. But Tom and I did exchange a small smattering of emails over the years. I'm sure other people got treated to more. But re-reading them now, almost every single one ended with Tom expressing some sentiment of warmth towards me. And I never once understood what I’d possibly done to have ever earned that. Our e-mails must have been more exciting for me than for him — but I know he was doing the same thing for so many other people writing about comics. Supporting them. Making them feel like writing about comics meant they were part of something greater than themselves. We were in a community. Writing about something as silly as the comics was foolish… but it didn’t have to be lonely.
There was an e-mail from November 2010: he was talking about how a lady cartoonist wrote him an e-mail that just said, in its entirety, “SUCK MY DICK.” But here’s the thing about that, the fucking perfectly Spurgeon-ish thing: he then immediately added of her behavior that it “may be my favorite reaction to anything I wrote ever, but there are less-funny stories out there.”
That was the Tom who lived in my head and who I hope will continue to live there: even when he was describing some lunatic cartoonist being a weird creep at him, he just sounded to me kind of bemused, steady, and that he cared about other people with “less funny" stories than he cared about himself. And this wasn’t some performance in a public post — this was just a random e-mail to a doofus.
A lot of people on the internet drone on about how they “love comics." It’s not hard to find, and if you’re cynical, that phrase comes to mean nothing. Nothing. But when we say that Tom loved comics, I don’t think we mean it in the same way. Because Tom also wrote the Team Comics essays (a “horseshit” “meta-marketing gimmick”). About Marvel marketing meetings (“gigantic men in "Spider-Man" jackets sporting long, greasy hair and wearing sunglasses. They looked like the guys from New Jersey with whom I attended college; guys with names like Pietro and Vincenzo, whose fathers were in "shipping."). He wrote an essay about his struggles with his weight that included as an aside, “certainly a lot of comics people are lumbering super-mammals.” He wrote to me once about what it was like trying to make sure the comic festival that he worked with had an anti-harassment policy: “it’s fucking amazing how people think.”
It’s not love if you can't admit who the person you love is-- that’s just a fantasy with a timer on it; eventually, a bad break-up, a messy divorce. Tom didn’t love some fantasy of comics-- he knew who we were: dumb, exasperating lumbering super-mammals. And he loved us all anyways (except for people who made comics based on their D&D sessions, my recollection is he had words for them). He would review a comic called Runes of Ragnan, and tell you it was “incredibly stupid and relentlessly awful”, but the next paragraph? “I would want to hug the person that bought this comic because it resonated with them. I would like to make them a sandwich and spend the afternoon watching local wrestling on TV with them and loan them my record albums. [...] It makes me want to cry, this ugly but beautiful black velvet painting of a funny book.”
I didn’t know Tom well, other than through his writing and those e-mails and the online squabbles I’d delight in seeing him wading around in (where you could somehow *hear* poor Heidi MacDonald ripping the hair out of her head; or just jousting with Brian Hibbs over … who even understood what anybody was debating, once they were a couple hours in???). The Tom in my inbox or in my head might not have been the one other people had to deal with; we all contain multitudes. He made mention of a religious background, but I don’t know how much he saw all the good he’d do as service in a religious sense. I know I’d be a little happy every time he’d mention his brother, who became a sort of lovable supporting character in Tom’s reporting, always mentioned with such a palpable affection; but I don’t know what his day-to-day was like. Sadly, It’s been my experience and my observation that sometimes the kindest of us are that way because they have had to suffer and have had sorrow more than the rest of us. But I didn’t know Tom’s struggle beyond the health issues he shared with us (because “my hope is that by publishing it some of you will start getting check-ups again if, like me, you'd stopped"). I don’t know how that guy was that funny, either-- the same essay: “Hospital gowns and nurse's uniforms are the original cosplay.”
But I did get a chance to meet Tom in about 2005. It was just on the floor of a Con, so not the ideal time or location. But he said something I always remembered. Not word-for-word, but. Someone we were with had brought up the subject of “comics journalism,” and Tom talked about having a discomfort with that phrase — because the foundational idea of journalism is you’re expected to adjust your behavior on what you read… and people in comics will never do that. They will never take in information and then adjust their desires based upon what they’ve learned.
And I’ve thought about that a lot over the years since — it's about comics, but it's not just about comics. And I’d mention it to other people. And it was a thought that lived in my head. But being a fucking moron, I missed the more important point — I didn’t learn the lesson I should’ve. The thing that was obvious: Tom knew that about people, knew how futile it could all be… but then, he went and did comics journalism anyways. He’d be there for people who needed help fundraising. He’d point you to events in your city. He’d find the tiniest bloggers writing about obscure minicomics, and urge you to read what they’d written. He’d remind you how people were being mistreated, people were being worked exhausting hours, people were in physical distress from their labor, needed help, needed self-care, needed money — all while did-nothing executives at corporations made pirate fortunes off of their work. He saw the wall in front of him, but he did it all anyways. It didn’t stop him.
Getting older, death gets less scary — but mostly because the idea of time taking away all the people you love gets so much scarier. I don’t work in comics. So I can’t imagine what it must be like for people in comics who have now lost someone who advocated for them, who celebrated them, who took them seriously even when they were off-the-grid or just getting started, who chided them so affectionately, who urged them to try harder and care more, who laughed with them or laughed at them but both in a spirit of kinship. I can’t guess what that's like for you. And I wish there was someone in comics who we could all read who would explain this moment in a way that would be reasonable, and calming, and considered, and make us all feel connected with one another, part of a greater thing (an artform? a sustained hijinx?) made by, loved by and of people, strange, often-infuriating, confused, confusing people…
We had Tom for that. Now, what the hell do we do???
Tom and I were part of a shitty club that neither of us wanted to be part of, the one that includes people who almost died but made it, even though we still suffered chronic illness afterward.
He approached his experience with an almost childlike wonder while I continued to joke about it hard. That cliché about seeing the world in a different way after such an experience and trying to seize the day hit home for both of us and I know he worked hard to do more for the community after that.
Running CXC seemed to give him a new lease on life or at least a renewed interest in seeing what could be done for a community that he loved.
His kindness to so many of us will not be forgotten.
Tom was a discerning reader, but he also loved comics. Not just what the cognoscenti approved of, but ALL comics. He found as much joy in a DC 80-page giant as he did in a Little Orphan Annie strip; he was enthused for Irwin Hasen's Dondi as much as he was for an experimental Warren Craghead comic book. I felt like that encompassing love of the art form really came through in his tenure at the Journal, and then even more so with The Comics Reporter.
There's more I could say, but this is the main thing that is staying with me at the moment.
God-DAMN-it, Tom, why didn’t you take better care of yourself?
This may seem inappropriate at first glance, or even callous; but I’ve read a lot of what’s been written at FB and, what I will imagine, will be said here; and I wanted to say something that I suspect is felt by others too but is being left unsaid and, having made it to 77 through some will-he/won’t-he-make-it health problems of my own, I feel is a valid call for me to make, without diminishing in any respect the good feelings I have for Tom or my gratitude the support he gave my work over the years or the fucking loss to – the raw, gaping hole torn in -- the community which I/we all feel in his passing.
So around 1995 or thereabouts, I was pouring through an issue of The Comics Journal (which I only discovered about a year before) and saw an ad for a job opening at the magazine. Eric Reynolds was leaving his position as TCJ news editor to become the Fantagraphics publicity director. Working two part-time jobs and unsure of my post-college direction, I leapt at the opportunity, and sent a letter to the company.
Fast forward a few months. I hadn’t heard anything about the job and assumed at this point I wouldn’t. I was in a Lancaster, PA. comic store, rifling through the back bins, when the owner called me over to the register. “There’s someone here you should meet. He’s the managing editor of The Comics Journal.”
It was Tom of course. He was in town because his mom had moved to the area a few years back. He shook my hand warmly, saying “Oh yeah. Gary wanted me to try to track you down to interview you about the news editor job.” I am not someone who believes in fate, but it did seem at that moment as though clouds were parting just for little ole’ me.
We had dinner that night at a local brewpub (back when such things were an anomaly) and Tom proceeded to regale me with all manner of hilarious and amazing stories about his adventures in the comics industry. I learned to cherish these interactions as the years went on. I don’t think it’s been said enough how great and funny a storyteller Tom was, how he seemed to have an endless supply of great tales that he’d deliver with a wave of his hand and without seeming catty.
Anyway, I didn’t get the job, but Tom offered me the chance to start writing some freelance reviews for the Journal, which I jumped at — even though I was a relative newcomer to the magazine, I completely resonated with its mission.
That being said, I had no idea what I was doing (still don’t really) and am quite sure I drove Tom crazy during his tenure with my constant questions, phone calls and emails, not to mention my sloppy prose. He proved to be a patient and encouraging editor, though which is not to say he couldn’t be cutting -- he once compared something I wrote to the type of fannish piece you might see in Comics Buyer’s Guide (he was right).
In addition to being a thoughtful editor, he was a really great writer and critic, knife-sharp in his analysis, able to pull out what made a challenging comic worthwhile or worthless in a few short paragraphs. I admired how his coverage of the industry was guided by a strong moral compass and a rock-firm belief that the people who made the comics and how they were treated and compensated, mattered more than the work itself — and Tom cared deeply about the work.
I didn’t get to see Tom as much as I would have liked — usually only at comic book shows like SPX where it’s a quick chat or three amidst the aisles and maybe if things work out drinks and/or dinner later. I have fond memories of the times we did get actually get to hang out a visit to Seattle where my then-wife and I dragged him to a Magic: The Gathering store (he was an incredibly good sport); talking on his porch with other cartoonists and friends during a CXC; a recent dinner with him last summer in Columbus.
It’s not hyperbole to say I owe everything to Tom. All of these reviews and interviews and piles of words that I’ve put together over the years about this medium are all entirely due to his generosity, guidance and kindness. That he would consider me a peer and friend, and would take time to seek out my opinion or just to ask how things were going, meant the world to me. I am going to miss him so very much.
He said his favorite movie was Local Hero.
When I saw him at SPX, he smiled. He told me he wanted to do interviews about books from the 2010s. A month later, I emailed him my idea. “Do you mind a messy survey?” he replied. “Start with a spine and then drop follow-ups there?” He sent the questions over within a day.
Tom used to say he would read everything an artist had done before he conducted an interview, so I decided to read everything I could from the artist of the book I'd wanted to talk about before Tom interviewed me. I thought I might have it done by Veterans Day, but I didn't. He's not gonna run these until the holiday break anyway, I thought. It's not even Thanksgiving. We have plenty of time.
TAKE MY JOB, read the subject line. I was 24 years old, and Tom Spurgeon was giving me his superhero column in the Comics Journal. I took it, and I fucked up so badly that only one column was ever published.
If he remembered that misplaced trust, he made no indication of it when I met him in person for the first time. He was sitting in the hotel lobby in a gleaming white suit like a kingmaker; he furrowed his brow and called my by my online name. Me and him and Chris went down to 9th Street, where they ordered sandwiches and I had exactly three potato skins. Tom laughed, and he wrote on his site that I had strange dietary habits. I told him Jim Shooter and Howard Zinn were the only cancellations for the con so far. He said: “I like to imagine they're out fighting crime.”
It's so funny, you talking to me — someone who doesn't know anything about the world.
Very often, in recent years, the Comics Reporter would shudder awake at the appointed time and spit out posts that were empty. I'd made it a habit of checking the site every morning, because it was one of the clock towers in the city that was the internet of people who wrote about comics. You could learn every street back then; every clothing store and artisanal cheese shop, all the people who were driven or devoted or bored or crazy enough to write about these things every day. You could check your time and position by the guidance of the tower. They gave him so many awards that he had to tell them to stop. Empty posts were like seeing the town with boarded windows and cold doors, but I checked the site every morning, to catch that occasional lovely scent on the wind, to know he was working.
I'm sitting on your porch in Columbus. It's an evening in early autumn. I'm nervous all the time now. There's six or seven people on the porch. Your brother is in the parlor, rehearsing a skit, and the voice he's doing cuts through the wall and everyone laughs.
Maybe eight or nine times: that's how often I'll have seen you in person for all of your life. You'd driven me in your car, the night before, shuttling from spot to spot to put out any fires the show needed stopped. I was reading comics when you handed Kevin Czap that big check. You let people stay in your house for weeks, months at a time. You had this Christian idea that to do good was to engage with people one-on-one and do good by them.
You sit down in your chair and smile. You tell me you're tired.
Tom, did I ever tell you how happy I was?
Comics are nothing more and nothing less than the sum of the labor of the men and women who produce them. Tom never lost sight of that. Creators are owed respect and remuneration, over company or character every time. That the inverse is so often true is a judgment against the market and its masters.
Comics isn’t really different in that respect from a lot of other fields. But comics is our field, and therefore our responsibility. I don’t know if Tom ever said as much in as many words, but that is what I learned from his writing and his example over the decades I knew him both as a reader and a loose acquaintance. Everything I have accomplished in this field rests firmly within his shadow.
I knew Tom (a.k.a. “Spurge”) for nearly 25 years. When I met him in 1995 during my summer internship at TCJ, I could not have predicted the many ways that our lives would continue to intersect over the coming decades, more to my benefit than his. In roughly chronological order, Spurge was my editor, my roommate, my co-editor, my travel buddy, my Stan Lee book co-author, my Comics Reporter business partner, my client (sort of)—and, throughout, a loyal, true, and trusted friend.
Spurge had so many good qualities that it’s hard (impossible, really) to know which ones to focus on.
Spurge was smart—scarily so. Without really trying (he was never an asshole about it), he would make me feel outmatched in our discussions of virtually any topic, whether it was comics, movies, music, or even politics, history, and religion. In all my years of graduate school and law school, and then working with lawyers at the top of my profession, I’ve rarely met anyone who could match Spurge for sheer intellectual horsepower. When he was younger, Spurge had several opportunities to put his abilities to financially profitable use and had even enrolled in law school at one point (he withdrew before it began). But Spurge didn’t want that life; making a lot of money was not a priority for him. Spurge wanted to spend his time doing the things he was passionate about, and that desire led him to a life in comics.
Spurge also had the rare ability to infuse his writing (and editing) with his passion and intelligence. Both were on vivid display in virtually everything he wrote, from his early TCJ articles, to his chapters in our Stan Lee book, to his impressively prolific 10-plus years posting news blurbs, reviews, commentaries, features, and interviews on The Comics Reporter website. Spurge’s writing was always unmistakably Spurge. As an editor, he was also skilled at bringing out the best in his writers with clear, cut-to-the-chase advice. This is from an August 2002 email Spurge wrote me when I was muddling through my own chapters of the Stan Lee book:
Your initial chapter drafts are fine, but seem a little light. One thing that occurred to me you might do is make it more Stan-centric: explain about companies that aren’t Marvel by comparing them to Marvel, or explain why a smart older kid like Stan Lee wouldn’t read Superman (or why he would, or mention he’d write the character in 64 years), etc. Stan is our window into comics!
Also, remember to introduce the reader to not just Kirby and Simon but also Schomburg, Everett and Burgos. (Schomburg you have to concentrate on the covers). I think we're on a REALLY good tack by having all these more substantial professionals bump into Stan's bio with a graph or two. It paints an accurate picture of Stan as one of the guys, even one of the lesser guys when it comes to the comics business.
Kick ass! Make it fun! Don’t just explain it, explain why it’s so interesting! This needs to be the kind of story we could sit in a bar and hold someone’s interest with for 20 minutes. If you need energy to do that next paragraph, think one of two thoughts to lead you in:
“Stan’s an asshole because he...”
“Even though he’s an asshole, Stan probably doesn’t get enough credit for...”
This next part goes without saying if you were ever lucky to have met Spurge for even a few minutes—he was hysterically funny. For those who knew him, if you had two friends in your life who could make you laugh until you felt pain, then one of those friends was undoubtedly Spurge. Whenever I came up with a jokey setup that I thought was worthy, I would send it to Spurge, knowing that his response would be pure gold. One time, I sent him an email asking whether he thought Stan Lee yelled “Excelsior” when he was ejaculating. Spurge’s response:
Yep. Plus his toupee pops off. And a well-lettered sound effect erupts from the area his genitals are bumping Joanie's.
It’s no secret that life wasn’t always perfect for Spurge. He had his share of problems, but who doesn’t? Spurge struggled with deadlines and crippling anxiety on some of his longer writing projects. He bailed on at least two books that I know of. Near the end of our own book collaboration, I had to hound him several times a day to finish his chapters so that we wouldn’t blow the deadline. I always viewed these shortcomings as the price he paid for his extraordinary talents. I never held them against him for too long (he beat himself up enough), and I don’t think anyone else did, either.
Spurge’s weight was another issue, one that he dealt with for most of his adult life. In that first summer of 1995, Spurge once gave me his wallet so that he wouldn’t be able to buy any food and, like an addict trying to go cold turkey, instructed me not to give it back to him no matter what he said. Not even a day later, he demanded that I return his wallet, and belligerently insulted me until I finally did so. For his close friends, it was hard to watch him struggle with the effects of his obesity, but harder still to know how to help him, even if we also recognized that it wasn’t necessarily our place to do so.
When Spurge nearly died in summer 2011, I drove out to Silver City, New Mexico with my friend Gus to visit with him during his recovery. Things looked bad for Spurge, but his brother Dan nursed him back to health, and Spurge was in relatively good shape for a while. A few years later, he moved to Columbus, Ohio for what would be the final chapter of his life, running the CXC comics festival. It was inspiring to see how this last job gave Spurge renewed purpose and a new community of comics friendships.
I can clearly remember the phone call I had with Spurge during that terrible summer of 2011 right before they wheeled him into the operating room. He was afraid of dying, which was entirely understandable given the circumstances. But what distressed Spurge even more was the thought that, if he did end up dying that day on the operating table, no one would care. Even though he chose to devote his life to the small fish pond of comics, I think he still wanted to know that his life mattered.
Well, Spurge, you died last week, on November 13, 2019, at the too-young age of 50. And even though you weren’t here to see any of them, the hundreds upon hundreds of tributes that were posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites to mark your passing show that people did care and that your life mattered a whole lot.
You mattered to me, too. Thanks for being in my life, Spurge.
I really loved him. A real friend. The kind of guy that would give you the house key and say you are welcome anytime. I stayed at his house a lot this year. I had a little room upstairs. When I would get up in the morning he was at his computer as always. I would put on coffee and bring him a cup. (His coffee cup was The Thing’s face- yknow Ben Grimm) He would say “Thank you, buddy”. Then I would turn on the TV and we would watch old reruns. He’d be working on his blog but we would still keep talking - about comics of course. He knew everything and everybody. And I think maybe that’s what I will miss the most. Just having a friend who was so knowledgeable and intelligent about this form. He was a master conversationalist. I always felt like he was sort of interviewing me - trying to find out what I really thought. We would also bicker and fight like an Odd Couple reunion.
//// That’s as far as I got before the grief sunk in. The above is what I wrote on my social media. Now a week later I found the following letter in a notebook. Dated August 7th, 2019. Dearest Tom, Been trying to write for weeks, months, but I just don’t even know where to begin. Nothing has been particularly troubling or bad yet I can feel the slow march to a winter despair. All of which started those weeks in Columbus. Remember when we were looking for your glasses? It’s been like that for a few weeks. Panic and then relief and then self-lacerating admonishments to get it together.
Here’s a long rambling account of breaking up with one’s longterm partner and in the process finding out that you really like them more than you ever knew. Thanks for being there for me back when it happened in May. It was probably better that I was staying with you and not home in Pittsburgh when it did happen. I look forward to being in your house again. Maybe I can get there early before CXC and help set up stuff for other people staying. I still have those air mattresses you gave me. And the fan. How’s the lawn mower? I can mow the lawn and help out unless it got stolen again. I kid. Anyways. I’m sure you are knee deep in planning for the show. You sounded in good spirits during recent email exchanges. You can do it!
Thanks so much for hosting me back in May. It was a fun time. A healing time. I enjoy your company and I’m glad we can be friends. I’m working on trying to be the upbeat, bright person you remember. And I’m glad you tell me that I was an upbeat, bright person when I’m in the dumps and crying my little Catholic heart out. That was a rough time you saw me going through and I’m humbled by how kind and caring you were during that stretch” You’re a good friend, Tom. I’m lucky to be your pal. I’d hoped to write a nice thank you card earlier but I couldn’t figure out to use my words until now. xoFrankie
I never sent it. I like to think I expressed all this to Tom when I saw him a couple months after writing this unsent letter. We had a good time at CXC 2019 and I stayed at the house along with his brother, Whit. I’m taking his passing very hard. This is as far as I got cobbling something together just to bear witness to my loving and dear friend whom I miss terribly. My sincere condolences to his brother Whit and the rest of the family and everyone else too who is having a hard time with this. Tom wants us to cheer up and get it together.
My first interaction with Tom Spurgeon came, like everybody else's, through his writing. At his best, which was frequent, Tom was a great writer, funny and self-effacing without ever pulling punches or losing a modicum of insight. But just as important to me was the massive amount of not-great stuff he wrote, the one- or two-sentence blurbs that existed not to make a point or throw weight behind a book or cause, but to prove out Tom's claim to the title he'd wrought for himself: the Comics Reporter. If the ecosystem that produces important comics in the US has a heartbeat, I'm worried that it may have stopped last week. Tom testified to the existence of a comics industry, a comics community, that was never mentioned in the pages of Wizard or the pixels of CBR. A world bound together by something separate from commercial viability or mainstream media notice - by, the realization slowly dawned by people like Tom, who gave up a great deal in time and energy for the reward of said world simply existing. Something that makes comics not-worth-quitting-as-a-teenager. For all of us whom shuttered publishers' backlists and yearly festival pilgrimages were not enough, there was Tom, and far too often Tom alone. He was the staples in our spine.
Drawing Tom's notice as an active participant in the world he represented and reported on daily gave me more than the feeling that I'd arrived. It gave me certain knowledge of it, because after he linked or interviewed me I'd invariably get a few nice emails or tweets from people who I'd long known of or looked up to, mentioning that he was the road they'd walked down to my doorstep. The outsized footprint Tom created for himself was the reason for that, of course, but I also wonder if people would have been as kind, or said hi at all, if the tone Tom himself took hadn't always been so kind, so desperate to create his corner of this medium as a place where people found each other and saw each other and held each other up. I've made the needlessly cruel joke that Tom's website should have been called "Me and my Friends", but the reality is that his magnanimity and the tenacity that was its mirror image meant that one name often being accurate didn't do anything to preclude or jeopardize the real one.
And Tom always felt like a friend, though we were mere acquaintances. He was the first person in comics I ever bought a drink for, before I was even using a legal ID. I emailed with him before I emailed with people in comics who I ended up being much closer to, people who I always felt greater kinship with - because Tom was the one who'd made the space that felt safe for me to enter, holding no key besides a shared passion for the medium he gave everything to. Tom's interviews with the people who did end up real friends, not just acquaintances, were what made me feel I could email them. Tom reached down and pulled me up by interviewing me, giving me my first exposure to anything resembling the "public eye" - one that I'm almost certain he was ultimately disappointed by my handling of. But the point is that Tom's shining a brief spotlight on me didn't make me important or special. It was and is a testimonial to him, his caring, giving spirit, and his investment in pulling up people who cared like he did, who stood even the barest chance of contributing anything at all to the form he cherished. What he did for me, he also did for hundreds if not thousands of others in his time with us. How deserving anyone was of the boost he gave them never seemed to matter. It was being the booster someone - anyone - needed that made him who he was.
I moved away from reading Tom's writing in recent years. The setbacks and self-defeating ways our little section of this medium is constantly beset by seemed too closely counterpointed by his own personal struggles for me to comfortably bear, and in his final years his writing seemed to intertwine them more and more. But I couldn't help catching up with The Comics Reporter every few weeks, and whenever I did, the occasional half-caught whisper that its author wasn't well was drowned out by ringing choruses of shrewdness, wit, and the general good spirit that anyone who's read Tom's work can recognize. For a time I also tired of Tom's voice as a critic, one he'd wielded less and less recently. That voice, the same that'd done more than any other to birth a community that often feels as sardine-close as family, always resisted the authoritative pronouncement in favor of the personal statement; "seems like" were Tom's latter-day watchwords. It wasn't until learning of Tom's death that I was struck all at once by the certainty that what his voice was at the end was exactly what we need more of: observational, passionate, principled but philosophical in hardship, above all embracing ambiguity as a condition imposed by living in the present. Tom was so alive, and he made everything he mentioned, everything he touched, feel alive to anyone who listened to him. He was issue #1 in a one-part miniseries. We will not see his like again.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scene-stealing performance as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley always reminded me of Spurge, and I mean that in a good way. Hoffman infused the supporting role with a subversive charisma that doesn’t exist in the source material, like a mash-up of Oscar Wilde and John Belushi, part prep school snob, part lovable frat guy teddy bear. The energy he exuded combined a seething, bon mot dropping, overeducated elitist kind of attitude with a self-effacing, life of the party goofball belligerence. Hoffman’s voice as that character even sounds like Spurge, to me anyway.
I’ll miss the overwhelming depth of thought and genuine heart Spurge always brought to whatever topic he made his focus. I’ll also miss how he would sometimes just get bored with whatever he was going on about and just hilariously derail his own thread, maybe because he’d rather be funny than to give even the appearance of beating a dead horse. The infectious and malevolent Spurge chuckle, his self-heckling tone shift, brow sarcastically furrowed, voice raised up an octave to signal it’s now “nerd court voice” and nothing he said previously should matter anymore. This never failed to annoy me, but it was also always funny.
Most of my Spurge anecdotes aren’t appropriate for prime time, but one of the tamer ones I still remember vividly: once at a party at his Capitol Hill apartment, we were grousing about how broke we used to be in the 90s. When I confessed to him what I netted at Fantagraphics in my first year, he started laughing so hard he wept, tears flowing down his face, the booming roar of his laugh/howl eventually shifting into silent hyperventilating as he struggled to breathe. At some point, he managed to get his bearings long enough to toss a one-dollar bill at me in mock sympathy. I remember being legitimately worried he’d have a heart attack if he didn’t stop laughing. I’m almost certain I kept that dollar.
I’m glad he won all the Eisner Awards for his work on the Comics Reporter, which was a daily destination point for me and everyone else in this industry, and I’m glad that his five-year run as editor of The Comics Journal rates as high as it does for everyone who cares, and that his Stan Lee biography won for him all the acclaim it did while he was alive. He knew that his voice mattered to all the people he respected while he was still alive, which sounds like the definition of a life worth living. I will miss his writer’s voice, as will everyone else, but it’s the sound of his voice and his laugh that I will miss the most.
You knew you were special to Tom if he worried about you -- and so many people in comics were special to Tom. I remember him greeting people at shows with “How are you? I’m worried about you.” That’s a sort of unnerving thing to hear from anyone — what am I giving off to the world that would make someone worry about me? And what am I missing, should I be worried about myself too? It wasn’t until just recently that I came to really understand the question; time is a luxury, especially face-to-face time at a comics show. It was the quickest way for him to find out anything that was wrong, and how he could help you, specifically.
Tom and I became friends after his health scare, after he recovered from emergency surgery and a coma, and as he was just starting to re-enter the comics world. I’d only met him once before that at a show. I don’t remember what we said to each other, but he took a picture of me at my table and I was on the Comics Reporter. I look miserable in it. As we grew to know each other better it was something he’d always measure how I was doing by — he hadn’t seen me grimacing that way since, so things must be looking up.
Tom’s writing became my memories. Sometimes I’d participate in something — a show, a panel, an anthology, whatever — and I’d skip reading his site for a few weeks because I just didn’t want to see what he would have had to say. I didn’t want the language around whatever failure I’d imagined it to be seared into my brain. And nothing was too small for Tom to write about. If you’d changed the size of the paper you were working on and you told him, you’d probably find yourself in a byline in a convention report. It could be hard to keep up with. When there was something bigger going on in comics that he’d written on and I was clueless about it in conversation he’d toss off a “hey, thanks for reading” and we’d both laugh. Now, years on, I see that Tom was cataloging the moments that fed histories. I know so many other artists and writers who can recount in detail the first time they were on the Comics Reporter. I wonder how many stuck around just because they were thrilled with the sense of legitimacy. I wonder who else grew to see their work as worthwhile because that was finally reflected back at them. I’m grateful to have all those moments, good and bad, preserved.
The last time Tom and I had a long conversation was in the spring of this year. We’d been playing email tag, trying to get a call on the books. When we finally got a hold of each other, Tom was at home. Frank Santoro was staying there, too. Tom always seemed to have comics houseguests. Even during the hectic days of the first CXC shows, he was still playing host -- I feel like I was always there too, drinking on his porch, leafing through the books in his living room, spying on his Eisner awards in the cupboard.
Over the last couple of years, we both got busier, had bigger worries, had a harder time keeping up with each other. When we spoke, I told him how I was cutting down on shows for the year because I needed some time off for health concerns and didn’t think I could do CXC. I was a little off balance because after a year of chronic migraines I’d just had an hour-long MRI that turned up patterns that showed I had brain damage. “Brain damage? Well, I could have told you that,” he said. It was the kind of joke you earn the right to tell because you’re so close to someone. It was the kind of joke you’re so relieved to laugh at because you’re so frightened to think about what could happen next. And we just kept laughing, remembering old stories, telling each other new ones, commiserating over dumb industry things and getting excited for what was coming, like we used to. He said if anything changed for me he would do whatever he could to get me to the show, and I decided to take him up on it. I never would have guessed that I was going to see him for the last time.
“I’m not worried about you, Skelly,” became his send-off whenever we were saying goodbye. I never quite believed it, because I knew when he said “I’m worried” what he really meant was “I want to make your life better.” To have done all the work he did would have been enough for anyone to feel accomplished as a comics journalist. But Tom wanted to lift cartoonists up, share his home with them when they needed it, chronicle their lives and their achievements, to bolster a sense of dignity and importance around their work. We’ll always have writers, but we’ll never have another Tom to worry about us.
I worry that pretty much everything I could write here is going to be echoed by many others: Tom was an inspiration; being recognized by Tom made us feel seen by the larger comics industry; Tom made you feel like he really had considered not just your work but your personal well-being; Tom was someone you would have paid money just to hear them talk on a variety of topics. Obviously, that just speaks to his strengths as a person and a critic. And the truth of the matter is that reading the avalanche of similar messages on Twitter and Facebook in the hours and days after his death warmed my heart more than I can say, so I’ll just speak my truth and not worry about trying to innovate in a fucking memorial for my friend.
Doing the math, I’m realizing that Tom Spurgeon is someone I looked up to for half my life. His journal run started when I was 19, and even though I’d been reading for a few years at that point? His Journal run was my Journal. He was insightful, funny, and sorta mean all at once. When I first started “hanging out online” I found the TCJ messageboard, which he had instigated (for which he later apologized) and moderated. It was the wild west of the internet, and though it later turned into a cesspool, “the messboard” was a place I loved to go and make jokes with people who liked the same stuff I did. When he started The Comics Reporter, it was my browser home page for years. Getting a review or an interview on TCR felt like I had made it.
All that would be enough to make me sad that he’s gone, but I feel lucky enough to have somehow become his friend in the last 10+ years. At some point, it was just the way it was—we went from making jokes online to making sure we had a chance to catch up in person, if possible. We always caught up at shows—sometimes over a meal and some times we would just stand in the corner of the SPX show floor and trade quips, gossip, and genuinely talk about the news in our lives. He’d be tickled to engage in snarky gossip, but you could also feel his pleasure at the tales of your new job, or family talk. I was selfishly pleased that he included me in his “Hey, I didn’t die” tour around the country visiting comics pals after his coma and related health problems. He opened his house to dozens of cartoonists over the years while running CXC, but it still thrilled me to sleep in his damned attic last year, because that meant I got to spend more time kibitzing with Spurge and Chris Pitzer and whoever else was crashing there too. It also meant that I got to experience some of that devastating Spurgeon wit—because one of the nice things about being friends with him is that he would make fun of you to your face, instead of just behind your back. Despite the relatively small gap in our ages (I don’t think I even realized that he was only 6 years older than me until I read his obituary) Tom was my Salty Comics Uncle, and I’m more crushed that he’s gone than I can even say. Goodbye, buddy. We miss you.
One of the things that Tom did that never stopped pissing me off was when he would talk about how old he was, and how much older he wasn't going to get. He'd do it in a conversation, he'd ditch it in a rare ungainly sentence as an aside in an essay, he'd throw it out there in a reply on twitter. Over and over again, he'd needle you with it, reminding you of what was coming for him, what was coming for all of us. And now it is finally here, and I'm annoyed with myself for all the times that I thought to myself--stop it Tom. What's going on? Why are we doing this? My wife turned 49 the same day Tom died. He was 50. He wasn't old. This wasn't supposed to happen. And it's been driving me crazy all week and every time I hear that phrase that there was nothing you could do about it that sounds cheap and weak. It makes me feel like I let him down.
I came to the comics internet and found my way into this world because of Tom, Dirk Deppey & Heidi MacDonald. When I started blogging, Facebook wasn't useful for promoting what you did, Twitter hadn't completely taken over and you couldn't read this stuff on iPhones. The only thing that mattered was an RSS feed and who linked to your site. And when those three people linked to a site, that meant it was worth paying attention to. From my perspective, Dirk would find you and canonize you, Heidi would beef you up with warm bodies, and it was Tom that would legitimize you. He'd link to you and it would come with these surgical dissections of whatever you wrote, and sometimes they hurt. But in those early days, for me at least, they were always these wry, supportive gestures--here this kid goes again, here's something weird he said. And when Tom did those kinds of posts, that's how you would end up getting somebody comics-famous showing up in the comments, telling you to kill yourself or try to fuck your girlfriend. He sent people who had a pedigree. When those three linked to you, you were for real, and the lights came on. For a window of time, they were the gatekeepers and tastemakers, and I can remember sitting in my apartment the night the three of them all linked to something that I had written at the same time and I realized that getting attention from all three of them like that was what I had been chasing for years, and now I didn't have anything else to achieve. I told my wife I'd won the Triple Crown. I didn't know what else to say.
In the time since then my relationship with Tom became an actual friendship, and it was built around long, rambling email interviews that I tried to re-read last week and could not make it through, both due to my revulsion with myself and the way I answered his questions and because reading them reminded me of how we had built those interviews, through long and painful and annoyed email conversations, and how every time I finished one of them and it went live on his site I would be so fucking angry at him (and he would be so intensely disgusted with me) that I knew it was the last time I was ever going to talk to him. I'd watch as he backed me up against people who were better friends to him than I was because I'd said something that was off base, out of line, or just wrong, and I'd let my embarrassment and shame curdle into a resentment towards the two of us, as if he was the reason I'd gone so far off the beam, as if the things I said were partly his fault, simply because I had said them to him. I think the only thing I ever apologized to him for was how long it took me to respond.
And then, things would cool off, and we'd start it back up again.
One of the things that has gotten me through this past week but also buried me in shame and confusion has been reading about all the different sides of Tom that all of these people in comics got a chance to see. Reading how gentle and kind he was with people who needed that and craved that, how he'd sit in patience and love, how he'd crack wise and call bullshit, how he'd reach out at the exact right moment to those people who needed him. Somewhere around the 5th or 6th story that was nothing at all like mine I decided that there was nothing wrong with my weird, ever-antagonistic relationship with Tom--it was just the relationship that he and I had. It wasn't going to be the way he dealt with Sean, or Joe, or Eric. It was the way he and I dealt with one another. And down at the bottom of it, I believe there was a core of respect and amusement that sent us back to one another, endlessly. I look back at our emails over the last eleven years and while I can see the point when the volume lessened--the point when I had a child, he crossed a line, and I took a job with a publisher, a choice I believe he was always disappointed in me for making--the intensity of them did not waver. He and I blocked each other on social media, then we unblocked each other, refollowed each other, all the while emailing back and forth and never acknowledging this behavior--and I think most of the time we were only mad at each other for imaginary things, for unspoken venom, for misunderstandings. We were doing our big stupid deal. When I logged into Facebook this past week to see what people were saying about Tom, it was my first time in almost a year. And some time a few months ago, Tom sent me a friend request, again. I don't remember when we unfriended each other this last time--he and I had done that to each other more than once. Why did we do that shit over and over again? Why can't I take any of that back?
I loved him. I love him. He was funny, sure, yes. But the thing that is lost is not just that, it's that behind all that humor and kindness and wisdom was a guy who never stopped caring. I argued with him because he was the only one out there worth getting into a fight with. Everybody else I just roll over for so they'll go away, but with him it mattered, because he did the work. Tom was the guy who put in the hours, who actually read every page of the books, who read and understood every single word of the reviews, he had a point, he had a philosophy. He cared about this stuff not because he wanted to get something out of it or out of the people who made it but because it was an artform that he loved and because he could see how much was being sacrificed by the people who were making it, how much they were leaving on the line--their health, their security, as well as any hopes and dreams that weren't directly tied into the hope and dream of making a comic. Even when they didn't know that's what they were giving up--even when they were people who didn't realize that the choices they were making were gonna see them living off whatever the Heroes Fund and Gofundme could scramble together for them--Tom knew that, and he gave them everything he had. And that's why he's gone: because he gave us everything he had. For that, and for everything, he deserved so much more.
I first met Tom Spurgeon in 1996, shortly after being hired to write news for The Comics Journal early in his tenure as the magazine’s managing editor. My work desk, surrounded by shelves and stacks of old comic books, was a few yards away from Tom’s in Fantagraphics’ basement; frequently, it was just the two of us down there. For better or for worse, I could see right away that there would be no escaping this large man whose intellect was as imposing as his size.
Fresh out of journalism school, I imagined that I knew how to write — a notion I was quickly disabused of merely by watching Tom work. He could think as fast as he could type (I can’t give a words-per-minute estimate here, but rest assured it was impressive) and he seemed, from my green perspective, to know just about everything there was to know about the history of comics. On top of that, he was as funny and insightful and scathing on the page as he was in conversation. As a result, the prose Tom dashed off effortlessly was better than what most of our writers could manage regardless of how much time they spent on a piece.
To say that Tom improved my reporting would be a massive understatement. A more accurate description would be that I was only able to keep my position thanks to his intervention and mentoring. I learned so much from the time I spent working under Tom that I still use to this day, as both a teacher and an artist, and I will forever be grateful for the influence he had on my understanding of the comics medium. He was brilliant enough that I felt compelled to do my own investigations just so I could catch the full dimensions of whatever he was writing about — whether it was a dead-on parody of an insipid column in the Comics Buyer’s Guide or a lucid appreciation of a cartoonist I had never heard of.
Spending two years in a dusty basement with Tom Spurgeon, while ultimately an obscenely lucky assignment, was not without its challenges. When Tom was “on,” going to work felt more like shooting the shit late at night in a college dorm; when he was grumpy, his foul mood completely dominated the atmosphere in the room. Although my favorite issues of the magazine are from Tom’s run, I was glad when he finally left the Journal to create something he could completely call his own with The Comics Reporter. He seemed to lighten up personally and found a deeper, more generous voice as a writer.
What I most admired about the role Tom occupied in the comics industry was the way he was able to blend the rigor and breadth of his critical perspective with the warmth of his support and genuine concern for the people who make up that community. Not an easy balancing act to pull off, to be sure, but he made it look easy. It goes without saying that Tom’s death leaves a gaping, irreplaceable hole in the world of comics — he was a truly great guy, and it won’t, and already doesn’t, feel right without him.
Noah Van Sciver
Once while Tom and I were driving from Columbus to Chicago together he told me that he wouldn’t be here for another ten years, so I knew I’d probably be writing something like this someday but I didn’t know it would only be three years later. It may be too early for me to attempt to write something about the man but I’m gonna give it my best.
Tom was a great friend to me. I moved to Columbus in 2016 and he let me live in his house while I looked for my own place. As roommates, we immediately settled into a smart ass routine with each other. I would be in the guest room drawing and he would be right outside the door writing on his computer, often complaining about me on social media while I was a mere 10 feet away. His home was on a nice little street, surrounded by rough neighborhoods, an oasis, and there was nowhere to go on foot so we just hung out with each other mostly. Read comics, watched TV.
We’d end every day with some beers on his porch, where he’d educate me on Stan Lee’s life, or fill me in on some new comics gossip, or try to convince me to like Doonesbury. But our favorite game was the “if you could only own 10 comics which would they be” conversation. Then eventually that was whittled down to only 5 comics. He gave me some surprising answers. A lot more Prince Valiant than I would’ve thought….
Tom liked to believe the best in people and was hurt when he watched from his window as a neighborhood kid that he had been paying to mow his lawn walked right into his garage to steal his lawnmower, never to return with it.
He was one of the biggest supporters of crowd-funding campaigns and Patreons (don’t ask him about his own Patreon by the way) and he did his part to spread the word about whichever artist was in need. During times when I was in financial trouble, he found work for me. Whenever there was a comics-related event you could count on him being there. Even if it was just a drink and draw meet up at a bar several miles from his neighborhood, he’d be there.
We took on a brotherly attitude towards each other and when the time came for me to move out of his house I could tell that he was sad to see me go. We began to meet up for drinks around town and we managed to still see each other frequently. He was at the party where I first chatted with my partner, Amy, and made fun of how I was acting around her, to my embarrassment.
Then a few months later, realizing that she was becoming important to me, he invited us both over to his home for dinner so that he could talk to Amy and get to know her. He approved.
Tom was not always an easy man to be friends with and if he didn’t like you he could be very mean. I’ve witnessed him turn away while a young cartoonist talked to him because he wasn’t interested in seeing or hearing them at all. His criticisms of comics could also be incredibly biting, and devastating. I know this firsthand, in fact, because he hated my comics for a long time and didn’t mind telling me about it several times.
I, like many others, still haven’t come to face the reality that we’ll never see him again. We’ve lost a major part of our community. One that was intelligent and sarcastic but with a levelheaded voice who was dedicated to bringing our art form further legitimacy, no matter how long he had to sit in front of his computer writing, and we’re all going to feel this void.
I always wanted Tom to like my comics, because he liked quality work. He gave my first book a not-totally-positive review, and it stung for a long time...so I pushed to get better, and I found over the years that he was the ideal audience— one who carefully reads and reflects upon my progress. As a cartoonist, this alone cannot be taken for granted. But Tom was so much more than just a reader, he actively helped, and saw me as a whole person, from posting on the Comics Reporter about my birthdays, births of two babies and my life-saving neck surgery. More recently he helped re-launch my career... remembering a strip I did 15 years ago, he put my name in the running for having a weekly in the Village Voice and actually negotiated a good salary... $500 for a quarter-page, which is unheard-of in the indie-comics world. He had a sense of fairness, he didn’t want me to get ripped off. And I am just one person in the vast network of cartoonists he helped.
It strikes me, after his passing, that he cared so much about cartoonists as a whole—I was really touched when he posted about my neck surgery, and helped to get me a fair wage for my comic strip. I was thrilled that my last book made him cry... People in our community often are poor, have physical or mental health issues. I imagine Tom suffered a lot. I want to use his memory to try to be helpful and kind, to be a good reader and a good person and a support to cartoonists who could use a hand.