Art In Quarantine: Gary Groth

Photo by Chris Anthony Diaz

It started as a throwaway line at the end of an email to TCJ's editor, Tucker Stone: "Do you think Gary would agree to be interviewed?" Now having spoken with Gary Groth on a variety of topics related to distribution, comics and running a publishing business during a pandemic I should have expected the response I received from Tucker, "He's into it."

I talked with Groth for about an hour and I can tell you this: Gary Groth doesn't truck with half measures. My question to Tucker was nonchalant, disposable. Groth views much of what the general public (and the major players in the mainstream comics industry) see as 'comics' as disposable. The issues facing the comics industry and publishing -- which Groth has devoted nearly a half-century to cultivating and shaping -- during this pandemic that's some serious shit. As serious as a heart attack or contracting COVID-19, something Groth knows a lot about. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. -- Keith Silva 

The Comics Journal: Tell us about your experience contracting COVID-19.

Gary Groth: I got the virus. I tested positive for it on March 18. I started coming down with symptoms the previous day. I called my insurance health provider. They told me to get tested immediately. I was in a high-risk category because I am old and I have asthma. So I went in had one of those drive through tests. I isolated which I was already doing. I got the positive results six days later. I wish in retrospect I had some brutal war story to tell you, but the symptoms were relatively mild. It felt like I had a flu. I had all the symptoms, fever, headache, cough—the fatigue was probably the worst. I felt like I was drag-assing all the time, but I was never truly incapacitated. I worked every day. Answered emails every day. So I was lucky. The first thing I did, the night before I had the test, was I put my asthma inhaler next to the bed. I imagined myself waking up in the middle of the night not being able to breathe. Which has happened without the virus. It’s a terrible feeling. It never reached the respiratory stage and my asthma never kicked in. I can’t explain that.

How has your recovery been?

 It was a straight trajectory of getting better every day. The symptoms vanished in about two weeks from the outset. I’ve heard some people got better and then they got worse. It ping-ponged back and forth, but I didn’t experience that. I kept getting better every day. In the last week I was getting better at such minuscule increments that I thought it was going to be like Zeno's Arrow, I thought I would never get 100% better. I was like 94% better and then I was like 95% better and then I was 96% better, but finally I got over the hump and the Washington department of health considered me fully recovered. A funny thing, I can tell you, [to administer] the test, they jam a Q-Tip up your nose. They jam it so far up your nose it feels like they’re jamming it into your brain. What they don’t tell you, and I haven’t heard this, is they jam it all the way up there and then they wiggle it for ten seconds. That is the weirdest part.

What does the Fantagraphics office look like and what part of the business remains open?

A friend of mine at the New York Times sent me a photo of what the New York Times office looks like and it is completely empty. It’s so eerie. And that’s what our office looks like. We set the majority of our staff up remotely. Everybody is working quite smoothly from home. There are literally three people working in the office. When I’m in the office that makes four of us, one of whom works at night, so there are really three people who work during the day. It’s a four thousand square foot house so it’s easy to socially distance with three people in it. It’s very very quiet. There are two floors. The floor I work on, I’m the only one working on it. In some ways, it’s incredibly peaceful. I get a lot of work done. Warehouses that serve the consumer have been designated an essential business in Washington. We have a warehouse in Seattle that serves as our e-commerce hub. And we currently have one or two people working there depending on the number of orders we receive. So we’re maintaining our consumer sales. Our store was closed down sometime in March, but our e-commerce is functioning. At the moment, we haven’t furloughed anybody and we have not cut anybody’s hours. But everything is so uncertain that could change tomorrow. Our goal is to keep everybody employed at the maximum number of hours and so far we’ve done that.

How has this crisis affected Fantagraphics publishing schedule?

We have not changed our publishing schedule at all. The process we undertake is the same as every publisher. We have a schedule right now that goes through the fall season through December. The same goes for many others in the book publishing business. We’re now planning the winter season, which is January 2021 through April. So far we have not postponed or cancelled any books that have been scheduled through 2020. I understand some publishers have and I understand the reason for that. Ultimately, we decided it was a mug’s game to keep postponing books because we don’t know when this virus is going to abate and we don’t know when businesses are going to get back on track. So we thought the best thing we could do was keep to our publishing schedule and keep cash flowing. Our authors want to see their books published and they don’t want to see their books delayed indefinitely.

Have you experienced publishing delays due to the pandemic?

We had about six books delayed because we print a lot of our books in China. I don’t think I have to explain that any further. We had about six books delayed by about a month each. So that was the only significant delay. We have at least one or two books in Malaysia and Singapore that have been delayed due to shutdowns. So we are suffering delays. Theoretically, all of the authors have been paid in advance. Any delay to the book coming out means the author won’t yet receive royalties. That’s the standard in book publishing.

Have you put contingencies in place -- as far as publishing goes -- as this crisis drags on?

Absolutely. We’re assuming depressed sales. We know sales are going to go down. The problem is nobody knows how much. 10%? 20%? More? Nobody knows the answer to that at the moment. As this continues and we start getting a handle on sales during the period when so many bookstores and comic stores aren’t open, we’ll be able to make better projections. I have to tell you, everything is uncertain. Nobody knows when these stores are going to open. Nobody knows how slowly stores are going to open up. No one knows [what] restrictions are going to be on stores when they open up. There are so many variables and every single variable has unknown and unquantifiable factors involved. So it’s an almost impossible goddamn situation. And the only thing we can do is forge ahead and try to make as good as a decision as we can virtually on the fly. I’ve been doing this for forty-four years and we’ve gone through some really, you know, bizarre times, terrible times and I’ve never experienced something quite like this before. Most crises in the history of comics, in my lifetime, have been, at least, comprehensible and at least rational. You know why they occurred. You may not like why they occurred because usually they occurred due to a combination of bad players and greed and self-destructive tendencies in the comics market. This is a crisis in the book trade and the comics market. When there was a crisis in the comics market, it did not affect the book trade. This affects everyone.

What do you make of what’s happening with Diamond and the distribution of monthly comics?

Some of this is speculation, but its speculation founded on knowledge and experience. I think the reason Diamond shut down is because so much of their business is based on periodicals. Diamond stopped paying us for a couple of weeks. They made [a] bizarre announcement, ‘we’re not paying you.’ O.K.? And now they’re paying us on this complicated payment schedule where they’re paying us one quarter of what they owe us for X amount of time and then they will catch up later and I assume they’re doing that for their own internal cash flow reasons. So our cash flow from Diamond has turned into a trickle. We use Diamond for all of our books. We sell a substantial amount of books through Diamond. They supply the comic shops with our books. They’re very important to us. Now the book trade is not shut down. Our book distributor W.W. Norton & Company has never stopped distributing books. I understand the reason Diamond would stop shipping comics, 90% of the comics stores were probably shut down. And comic stores are essentially slaves to periodicals. Bookstores that are shutdown are still doing business and that’s because they are not selling $4 floppy comic books. They’re selling $20, $30, $40 books. I think it’s safe to say periodicals are the wrong product to sell during a pandemic. Now, I think, periodicals might be the wrong product to sell at any time. Many of us have been speculating for at least the last 20 years as to why periodical comics are still being published. The only reason that I’ve been able to come up with is [it] keeps the brand in front of people, DC and Marvel. And that’s why they crank out these comics that really don’t make any money. And Marvel being owned by Disney and DC being owned by AT&T, they have enough money to crank out these comics and if they don’t make money, lose a little money, or make a tiny profit they don’t really care. It’s this sort of break even arm of a larger corporation. That’s a theory. It’s a tremendous amount of work to keep this brand in front of a dwindling audience of aging fans, a minuscule number versus people who see the movies, which is where the money is. I don’t know if this model has made sense for 20 or 25 years. Maybe the current crisis is going to force them to recognize that it simply doesn’t make sense at all. I would certainly not be unhappy if 95% of the periodicals vanished tomorrow. But I felt the same way 30 years ago so that’s nothing new. I wouldn’t be surprised if this didn’t prompt Marvel and DC to end the periodical format. I wouldn’t be shocked if they discontinued it. But corporations live by inertia so maybe they’ll ride this out and keep cranking out their $4 comic books. An argument in favor of periodicals is that you amortize the cost of the worth by putting out these periodicals. You could make a viable argument for that, but it’s still a tremendous amount of work, logistical, administrative and bookkeeping to put out theses periodicals rather than simply edit graphic novels, 150 or 200 page Superman or Batman or Justice League book or whatever. [Periodicals] is such a perverse little niche market and becoming a smaller and smaller niche market. I feel badly for all the stores that hitch their wagon to this periodical market, but there are some stores who I know who have tried to liberate themselves from that and they do carry periodicals, but they’ve become sellers of books and graphic novels. I think those are the stores that are best situated to weather this.

What do you read into DC’s decision to distribute on their own comics through Lunar and UCS and what does that mean for the comics industry?

I’m not sure anybody knows what it means because it’s such a bizarre decision. I’ve been trying to come up with a reason for why they’d do that. I don’t see how they can make any money doing it. I don’t know how many comic book stores are functioning. Most states are shut down. And the brick and mortar business is severely depressed. Given that reality, how many comics can these two new distributors actually sell to the existing accounts? Why DC would do that? I can’t figure out. I had one theory that they have some long-term strategy that no one knows. I can’t imagine what that long-term strategy is. And then there was another possible reason staring me in the face that I finally concluded might be the most plausible reason, which is that DC is just incredibly stupid. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.

What do you see for the future of the comic shop?

I think the comic shops like every other retail business is going to struggle. Most of the comic shops are closed. So I assume what they’re doing is online business. They’re getting a little bit of cash in there, but that’s almost a zero sum gain. I mean, the amount of labor and work you have to put in to mail order, especially if you have to do it on an extemporaneous basis, you’re just cranking this up for the pandemic. I don’t think there’s any real profit involved. It might be able to keep their employees employed, but there’s no real profit. Maybe [they can] pay their rent. Hopefully they can stay in business until they can reopen under severely depressed circumstances. I would not be surprised if 25% of the comic book stores go out of business. The best comic shop owners, in my experience, are really scrappy individualists and that’s one of the reasons they became comic shop owners. They tend to be social outliers. I have some confidence that those people are going to get through this. And I want to include indie bookstores as well. These are people who are incredibly committed to the whole concept of books—books as an object of knowledge, wisdom and art and they’re devoted. It just so happens they express their devotion through commerce. I certainly hope those comic stores and those bookstores survive.

Can comic publishers lose a fourth of the retail outlets and still survive?

I think anyone who survives is going to have enough cash reserves to get through this or getting enough help from their respective government or by coming up with enough schemes to keep cash flowing. That’s going to be on a case-by-case basis. It depends on the size of the company. First Second is owned by Macmillan and my guess is Macmillan will survive this so First Second is probably going to survive this. Everyone is so individual. IDW is, I think, primarily owned by some capital investors in New Jersey. They might look at it and say we don’t need this shit. They’re not selling any books, the book trade is collapsing, do we want to prop them up for another year until the book business comes back? You never know.

How does Fantagraphics survive this?

We’re hoping to get some government assistance. We are hoping to ramp up our own consumer sales. Which is the one thing we have the most control over. You’ll be seeing a brand new, completely redesigned website unfurled in about six weeks, with a much more serious outreach to consumers. So we’re hoping to increase our e-commerce substantially. We’re doing an awful lot of virtual marketing. We’re still selling books to bookstores that are still open. We’re selling books to bookstores that are online. We’re hoping libraries and bookstores gradually reopen.

Are you worried about Fantagraphics?

Yeah. I think I’d be foolish not to be worried. That is the right answer. I wish I weren’t in a way and just had nerves of steel and slept soundly every night. You know? I’m worried at the best of times. You can imagine how worried I am now. Every day I’m worried. I’m thinking about what we can do to for sales, how can we reach people, sometimes it’s so daunting, it seems hopeless, other times I’m much more optimistic that I can get through this. This has become the new normal.