Fantagraphics' Groth Discusses the State of Comics

Tue, June 21st, 2011 at 11:58am PDT | Updated: June 21st, 2011 at 12:19pm

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

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There are few people in comics today who have had as much influence over the field as Gary Groth. As co-founder and one of the publishers and editors of Fantagraphics, Groth has worked with a who's who of independent comics. As the editor of "The Comics Journal," Groth has probably annoyed or angered just about every professional in the field at one time or another, but he's equally notable for being a strong voice in the continuing push for creators' rights and in helping to recognize the work and careers of cartoonists who might have otherwise been forgotten.

Groth remains a man with strong opinions, and CBR News sat down with him to discuss Fantagraphics, the publishers' continuing quest to re-present vintage comic strips beautiful, archival formats, the recent changes to "The Comics Journal" and the state of the industry as a whole.

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CBR News: The biggest change in comics in recent years is probably the shift from pamphlet comics to graphic novels. From your perspective, why has this change been occurring, and how has it changed opportunities for cartoonists, especially alternative and independent cartoonists?

Fantagraphics has steadliy diminshed their individual issue output, opting for more and more graphic novel projects like Gilbert Hernandez's Fritz books

Gary Groth: It's even more acute in alternative comics than it is in mainstream comics. They still publish comics at Marvel and DC and so forth. For alternative comics, the comic book format is pretty much dead. We publish literally three or four a year for unique and anomalous reasons. By and large, nobody publishes alternative comic books anymore. The reason is fairly obvious; since the reader knows it's going to be collected in a graphic novel, there's very little reason for them to buy a twenty-four page comic of something he's going to get a year or two down the line as a graphic novel, and in the way it probably ought to be published anyway, collected in a single work. I think it's just an inevitability of the rise of the graphic novel as the dominant form of alternative comics. I don't know how accelerated that's going to be for mainstream comics. It feels like it's headed that way. Mainstream comic books might last much longer. That's more of an addictive habit than alternative comics have ever been because mainstream comics come out on a monthly basis and alternative comics almost never did. Mainstream comics have that habitual angle going for them which is probably what's keeping them alive.

I would imagine that because alternative comics were also sold in head shops, music stores and indie bookstores, all of which have been dying out, that hasn't helped.

Yeah. A substantial percentage of our books are still sold in comic stores. Probably forty percent of our books are sold in comic stores -- maybe 35 percent, but somewhere around there. The share we sell in comic stores has been declining very slowly over the past few years. I'm not sure exactly why that is. It could be that there are in fact fewer comic stores selling our books. It could be the nature of what we're publishing, that the books we publish sell better in mainstream outlets. I have to confess, I don't pay as much attention to the comic market as I did ten years ago.

How has the Borders bankruptcy and their problems and the closing of stores affected the book trade?

I don't think it's affected us. I think whenever something happens like when Borders closes, something comes and fills that gap, even if that something is only Amazon. Borders didn't affect us at all, because Borders didn't buy many of our books. As you probably know, the book buyer at Borders was apparently obsessed with manga and bought almost exclusively manga. Of course it would have been nice to have been sold in Borders for all those years, but we weren't. Trying to be sold in Borders was like beating our heads against a brick wall, so when they went under, we didn't suffer at all. Barnes and Noble is still strong. We're strong with independents. There are a number of chain stores in the South that we sell pretty well to, like Books-A-Million. Amazon is either the first or second largest seller of our books.

So from your perspective, the market hasn't declined, it's just shifted online.

You couldn't tell by our overall sales that anything has happened over the last few years. Our sales are pretty stable.

The other big topic of discussion right now is digital releases. Fantagraphics is in the business of creating beautiful, well-designed volumes that can't be replicated online...

I think that's one of our strengths, although we are planning on making our books available on every digital platform. I think one of our big strengths is that many of our books are art objects in and of themselves. And many people, not everybody, but many people want to have that object and don't necessarily want to read it as a download or on a Kindle or Nook or iPad. I think that's probably helped us sustain our sales, the fact that the books are beautifully designed and great to actually hold in your hands. I think we have that advantage over, say, a prose novel.

And Fantagraphics definitely has that advantage over many comics where the coloring doesn't match the paper and binding may be poor...

Where the books are basically hideous and it doesn't matter if you hold it in your hand or read them on a Kindle.

Having said that, I just read "Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley," which is a great book and beautiful, but can't imagine a great online market for it.

Fantagraphics' "Peanuts" project kick-started the current classic comic strip reprint craze

I think that's right. I think that's true of all of our books. I mean, some of our books have higher-end production values than others. Some books just don't warrant that art object treatment, whereas others do. We published a $125 Gahan Wilson collection that's three volumes in a slipcase. Each volume had a die-cut. The slipcase itself had a plexiglass wall to it. It was a magnificently done book in terms of both production and design. But you could read Gahan's cartoons on a screen. That could be done. Some people would probably opt to do that. To one degree or another, all of our books can be read on a screen.

We're cognizant of that and we're certainly moving in that direction. I think what the future is going to hold is that books are going to be on multiple platforms, in digital and in print. I don't think one is going to necessarily overshadow the other. They can be available in various formats. We've been literally working on the digital formats for the last year, just working out all the bugs and talking to the various platforms. I'm sure by this time next year, a lot of our books, if not the majority of them, are going to be available digitally.

You've been spending a lot of time working on various reprint projects recently, and reprints of classic work has been one of the big growth areas in comics. Why do you think it's happening now?

I don't think I have a good answer for that. I've thought about it, and I can't quite figure it out. It seems to have started when we published "Peanuts." We started "Peanuts" about eight years ago. It seems like only yesterday. After we published "Peanuts," the gigantic "Calvin and Hobbes" book came out, and "The Far Side." Suddenly, reprints of comic strips that you never would have expected to have achieved any remote success seem to have flooded bookstores. I can't quite figure it out. I mean, obviously "Peanuts" was successful because it's "Peanuts." It's one of the most successful strips in the history of the world. Why "Rip Kirby" would come out, I haven't the slightest goddamn idea. Why would somebody buy a "Rip Kirby" collection now as opposed to ten years ago when it would have been completely impossible to imagine that? I really don't know.

It's possible that the snowball started with "Peanuts." That got a tremendous amount of media attention and reviews. Maybe subsequent reprint collections just piggybacked on the success of "Peanuts" in terms of getting more press attention and just building this interest in comic strip reprints that previously had been dormant. I don't know. That's my best guess. Newspaper reprints are a big part of our line. "Pogo" is going to press soon. We publish "Captain Easy," "Prince Valiant," "Buz Sawyer" and others. They vary in sales, some do better than others. On the whole, I would probably say they do better than brand new graphic novels. Why that is, kind of puzzles me.

Since I have you here, I feel I should ask -- "Pogo" is coming out this fall?

[Laughs] I swear to God!

Along those lines, putting together a collection like "Mickey Mouse" or "Donald Duck" or "Prince Valiant" is very different from working with cartoonists who are alive today.

In a way, it's entirely different, because with a new work you're just taking on a new piece of fiction or journalism or whatever. It's brand new and you can work with the artist, who's presumably alive. You're reading that work for the first time yourself and discussing it with the artist. The fact is, most of the new work we get in we don't really tamper with, so there's not a lot to be done. It's submitted to us completely finished and we either like it or we don't like it. We usually accept it as is. Or somebody has some pages and we might work with them on it, but minimally.

When you're doing an archival work, you have to know the work and have the historical context of the work. You have to know all of these nuanced and treacherous historical issues surrounding the work. Like with "Donald Duck," for example; there were different versions of stories. There were stories that were redrawn because Disney didn't like some of the material in them, so the question is, do you go back to the original or were they redrawn for a good reason? In the case of "Donald Duck," every strip has to be recolored. You base the recoloring on the original comics, but Barks didn't like all the coloring in the original comics. So you have to research what he didn't like and then try to change it to his liking. You have to proofread the coloring itself. You have all those historical issues that you have to be aware of.

Turning to "The Comics Journal," the monthly magazine stopped publication and now you're editing an annual print version of the magazine. What was behind that decision?

Fanta's "Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley" hardcover was recently released to critical acclaim

It was partly financial and partly editorial. Financially, sales had been going down, as they have with virtually every magazine being published, for the reasons we all know. Partly there was an editorial fatigue where I was finding it increasingly difficult to fill eight issues a year and to choose cover features for eight issues a year with what I personally thought was worthy of a cover feature, that I wanted to have written about. There was this constant tension between what it takes to sell a magazine eight times a year and what I felt was my editorial obligation as to what I should put on the cover and what I should feature inside the magazine. Sales had been declining so much, we decided it would be better to put out one volume a year that I was incredibly pleased with than eight issues a year, only half of which I was really happy with.

And "The Comics Journal's" online version was relaunched recently.

Right, under Dan [Nadel] and Tim [Hodler], which I'm very happy about. I think they're doing a great job.

What do they bring to the job that the website needed?

I think they bring a real editorial focus to it. They have a point of view, which is a point of view that I share to a great extent, and they just bring a really laser-like focus to it which we could not do here. Previously, the website had been up for a about a year and there were three of us who were sort of editing it but not devoting as much attention to it as we should. We tried to create a website that followed the editorial direction of the magazine but was self-perpetuating. It just didn't work, because I think we just weren't devoting the kind of editorial attention to it that we had to. One thing that Tim and Dan can do is devote that focus to it. And since their editorial instincts are exactly what the magazine has stood for over the past thirty-five years, I think it's just a really great fit.

I did want to to hear your thoughts on this, that with "The Comics Journal" as a magazine closing, with the shuttering of "Mome" as a regularly published anthology, Fantagraphics feels like a different company than it has been. Not editorially, but different in a way that I think is very indicative of where the comics market is now.

You may very well be right. I mean, I can tell you that Kim and I and Eric Reynolds, who is our associate publisher, we're pretty much doing exactly what we want to do in terms of what we publish and our priorities and our aesthetic values. They're the same as they were. What you might be seeing is how the change in the market has affected our strategy for doing what we're doing.

I think you might be right. I think that our core is still very much the same in the sense that if you look at what we publish -- when we started publishing "Love and Rockets" and then Dan Clowes and Pete Bagge. We started publishing Robert Crumb, I think, in '87. If you look at that trajectory and then look at what we're publishing today, I think you'll see continuity. Now, we're publishing Roy Crane and Floyd Gottfredson and Leslie Stein and Dash Shaw. I think that you can see a consistency in what we think qualifies as worth publishing and what we want to publish, how we regard the aesthetics of comics. I think what you're probably seeing is a change in strategy, which can change the feel of the company. I loved it when we were publishing eight or nine issues of "The Comics Journal" every year, because "The Comics Journal" was our flagship publication, our anchor, and it reflected our values in a very direct and dogmatic way. We don't quite have that forum anymore either with the website or the annual magazine. The other thing is that what you're talking about is pre-digital. The digital world changed things too.

Fantagraphics has had a bookstore in Seattle for a number of years, now. Has having a store changed anything that you've done?

No it hasn't. [Laughs] Mostly it's just fun to have a bookstore, to echo "Citizen Kane." We have events there every month. We usually have one of our artists come in and we have a small gallery space where we can exhibit original art. The artist can come in and have a talk or give a Q&A session. Usually, it's a terrific, festive atmosphere. We get a nice crowd. It's just a great vibe. It's a great social setting. And that's really the main reason we have it. We can highlight our authors. It's great to have a space that sells every single one of our books that's available. It's a nice social space, but it hasn't really affected the way we what we do.

I have to say, it's not very profitable, but it's a great destination point. People really appreciate it and love coming to it and it's a great social space. That's really the only reason to have it.

The Gahan Wilson slipcase hardcover collection was not lacking for special features impossible to reproduce in a digital edition

To talk more broadly about comics, you were a big fan of the Silver Age.

Yeah. When I was younger.

It seems like DC Comics especially is trying to go back to Silver Age characters and themes, and I'm curious, as a former fan, do you think that's good? Or was the Silver Age just a lightning in a bottle kind of situation?

I'm afraid that's the case. I have so little interest in what Marvel and DC do and in their current output and current superheroes. I literally don't read them. I have to give myself priorities in terms of how I spend my time and I have too little interest to spend any time reading that stuff. I grew up reading comics in the Silver Age and I consider myself somewhat fortunate because there was so much good stuff coming out then. But it was of its time. I can still go back to that stuff and appreciate the work, especially the work of people like Kirby and Ditko, but I have absolutely no interest in that stuff today. This whole renumbering gambit, which I've read a little about, just seems so pathetic. Just another attempt to juice up a stale franchise.

As the publisher of "Love and Rockets," which ended and then relaunched with a second volume with a new number one many years later, do you have any advice for the people at DC as far as what they should expect from renumbering?

[Laughs] I don't think I do. Good fucking luck.

I'm not even sure what that's supposed to accomplish. It seems like a pitiful attempt to con more people into buying the same old shit. I probably shouldn't be so cynical. I'm sure that some brilliant talent could breathe some life into this stuff. Like I said, I'm not one to talk. I haven't read this stuff, but it just seems so completely uninteresting to me, and in a way, it's idiomatically alien to me. We get a box of comics from DC every so often and I'll look through it. Stylistically, the work kind of repels me. It's too frenetic and manga-influenced. I'm way too old for that stuff. I wish I could be a more cogent commentator on that stuff, but then I'd have to devote time to actually looking at it.

In recent years, we've seen a number of battles over copyright. You've been on the side of creators for a long time. In the eighties, you were a major voice fighting for Jack Kirby to receive his creative credit and to have his artwork returned. Have you been keeping current with the struggles of the Kirby family and Siegel family, and do you have any thoughts on how you think it'll end up?

I can tell you how I hope it shakes out. I think these artists deserve a piece of the action. They're well within their rights to challenge the ownership of these characters that they created, and mostly of course it's the heirs that are doing that. There's a three year window where, at a certain juncture in the copyright, the heirs of a creator can lay claim to a part of that creation. If anyone deserves it, obviously Kirby is first in line. I believe that Joe Simon litigated and won something related to "Captain America." I don't know what he won.

Joanne Siegel and her heirs are still fighting. Did you read that open letter that Joanne Siegel wrote that was released posthumously? It was quite moving. I mean, I hope that the creators or their heirs get something that they deserve based on current copyright law which gives them the right to challenge the companies that have been exploiting the characters for so long at this juncture. I've been looking at the Kirby lawsuit and I've been reading some of the depositions that I've been able to find and those are fascinating.

It's fascinating to read how Marvel worked.

Right. And how much autonomy Kirby was given in creating the stories that he did. So, I don't know. I hope that these creators get their share. It certainly wouldn't harm the corporations to give the families a piece of the action. They should see this as part of doing business.

What do you think of the current state of copyright?

Well, I was not in favor of the copyright extension act that happened a few years ago. I think there are very good reasons why copyright ends at some point and work goes into public domain and becomes part of the larger, freer culture.

I ask this somewhat cynically, because you are working with Disney, which has been the prime mover behind copyright extension for decades. Mickey Mouse would be in the public domain if it weren't for that.

Fantagraphics' "Mome" anthology is no longer published on a regular basis

That's right. Like I said, there are very good reason why copyrights eventually end and work goes into public domain. I have to say that working with Disney has been quite good. They've been great to work with, so I have no problems with that.

Disney, of course, owns Marvel Comics, but instead of using their own publisher to release these books, they're licensing them to you. What was the thinking behind that decision?

I haven't the slightest idea. It was never brought up. I've literally never asked them, "Why would you want us to publish them rather than Marvel," so anything I give you would be an inference. When I was negotiating with them, to tell you the truth, I hadn't even thought about it.

You approached them about doing these books, is that correct?

Well, yes and no. I approached them first. They put me on hold for about a year and then they called me back. My inference was that they were considering the best way to publish both Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I gave them a proposal. This was about three years ago. They basically said, "We'll think about it," and then they got back to me about a year later and said, "We want you to do it." I did not ask them what their thought process was. I assume that they just considered who would do the best job of putting this material together, and I think we have a really good track record. That's my self-serving idea of what their process was.

I mean, these are very elaborate books. I mean BOOM! [Studios] had a Disney license. I don't follow this stuff closely enough to know what they lost, but my understanding is that Marvel will be resuming publishing some of the Disney stuff that BOOM! was. I think BOOM! was generating new material, and it makes sense to me that Marvel could probably just as easily generate new material as anybody else. But these books that we're putting together really are complicated books that take an enormous amount of research and editorial work and production work to get right. I think we have established ourselves at having a really great track record doing this for old archival work.

As a final question, are there any cartoonists, either living or passed, who you feel still haven't gotten their due?

There's a sports cartoonist by the name Willard Mullins. He's one of the great cartoonists of the Twentieth Century, but he's a sports cartoonist so he's sort of segregated into this niche of a niche. Not too many people know who he is and very little of his work is available. The thing is, I don't care about sports at all, so when I look at his work, I have to appreciate it purely as a great work of cartooning. I'm too ignorant of sports to really appreciate the content, but I appreciate the cartooning, the sheer beauty of it all. He's one I would say is very little known.

We're publishing "Barnaby" by Crockett Johnson. I don't know if he's under-appreciated but I think he's not very well known. We hope to change that.

Someone like Ronald Searle is not as well known as he should be. He's one of those guys who I would have loved to have interviewed. I think he's still alive. He's a great English cartoonist. He influenced a whole generation of cartoonists like Arnold Roth and Ralph Steadman. He worked in the thirties and maybe even the twenties. He had that beautifully playful, decorative cartooning style that you see most evident in someone like Arnold Roth. He was fantastic. He's one of those guys I would love to do several books of. He's not as widely known as he ought to be.

I love Virgil Partch's work. A cartoonist who worked in the thirties, forties and fifties. Mostly magazine gag cartoons. He did a newspaper strip called "Big George." Very, very funny, oft-kilter cartoonist. A quintessentially wacky cartoonist from the fifties. He signed his work VIP, so he's known as VIP.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure I'll think of more over the next day or so. [There are] a lot fewer now than there were ten years ago.

For all our talk of obscure comic coming back into print, there's still huge gaps in the field.

I know. It's amazing. I think I know almost everything there is to know about comics and cartooning and I'll pick up a book by a cartoonist that I've never even heard of and go, "Holy shit, how did I not know about this person?" There's always something to discover.

TAGS:  fantagraphics, gary groth, mickey mouse, disney, floyd gottfredson, peanuts, the comics journal

 
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