I remember reading Daniel Clowes’ The Death-Ray and being really floored by just how off-beat and idiosyncratic the work was. The linework was so potent and unique, especially the inks—I’ve come to recognize Daniel Clowes inks on sight. The structure and the presentation of the narrative was so unlike what was going on at the Big Two, it was so…different. It was special, and it was good. It’s the same feeling I got when I read Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Peter Bagge’s HATE. The work itself was excellent, but what I noticed most immediately was the uniqueness of the work. These books were different and boundary-pushing and just plain smart. These books were made by people who knew what they were doing at places run by people who let them do it. And one of these men was co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books Kim Thompson, who by all accounts was incredibly hard-working, incredibly smart, incredibly well-read, and had a love of comix that both lasted his entire life and defined his life.
Sadly, last Wednesday Kim Thompson died. He had been sick for a while, but it was still a shock and it was still a tragedy. For people interested in serious-minded comic books, comic books that had strove to change lives, comic books with greater ambitions than to be enjoyed for five minutes and then quickly forgotten.
For nearly 25 years, Thompson had been the co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books and a contributor to The Comics Journal. It was in these two positions—as well as the role of editor and translator for a number of Fantagraphics titles—that Thompson became a leading figure in the growing-up of comics, and one of the most important people in the translation of foreign-language comics.
As a translator for Fantagraphics, Thompson was responsible for the introduction of Jason, David B., Jacque Tardi, and a number of other Franco-Belgian cartoonists into the American marketplace. It was Thompson who spearheaded the line of European comics for Fantagraphics, and it was Thompson who began the Europeanization of the American market. Thompson’s decision to translate foreign-language comics predates even the Moebius library and Akira translations that Marvel put out under their Epic imprint, or the Lone Wolf & Cub editions that First Comics (and later Dark Horse) did. And to set Fantagraphics’ line even further apart, Thompson focused not only popular cartoonists—as Marvel, Dark Horse, and, to a large extent, Archaia and Humanoids would do—but on budding cartoonists as well, cartoonists who were just then making a name for themselves but because of Thompson would go on to become…Names.
As an editor for Fantagraphics, Thompson worked alongside some of the greatest cartoonists of all time, editing the work of Chris Ware, Peter Bagge, and Joe Sacco. Thompson personally edited the first run of Stan Sakai’s criminally-underrated Usagi Yojimbo and Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. It was because of Thompson that we have Daniel Clowes’ Eightball, and more recognizably the collected versions of the stories contained therein: Ghost World, The Death-Ray, Art School Confidential, and Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Fantagraphics served as the patient zero of this epidemic of intelligent alternatives to superhero comix, the earthquake that begot the tsunami of readily-available and commercially viable alt-comics and foreign-language comics. It was primarily Thompson’s work as an editor that allowed him to deal one-on-one with so many of the world’s greatest cartoonists, to influence and affect them, and for them in turn to go forth and create such powerful works Building Stories and Footnotes in Gaza. Additionally, Thompson’s work as co-publisher put him in the position to affect even more change.
As a publisher, Thompson reportedly had his hand in every aspect of the publishing: from selecting books to publish, to working directly with the authors, to keeping an eye on the actual production of the books. It was in this dual role of publisher and editor that Thompson was not only able to work directly with Spain Rodriguez and David Mazzuchelli but was also allowed to give the opportunity to cartoonists to become the next Los Bros Hernandez or Daniel Clowes.
Thompson and his partner Gary Groth brought the world some of the greatest comics, foreign and domestic, brand new works and archival reprints. It was because of these two men that I can so easily get foreign-language comics. It is because of these two men that I can read every single Peanuts strip in beautiful, luxurious Seth-designed packages. They brought the English-speaking world the works of Jason, and they introduced us to Love & Rockets. Thompson and Groth brought back Carl Barks’ Duck comix, Krazy Kat, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. And through The Comics Journal, Thompson and Groth never ever let us forget that we should never settle, that we should try harder and be more observant and be more critical and demand—demand!—better stories, better art, more personal, touching, and affecting work. If there were any two people who directly and indirectly had the most profound impact on the world of non-superhero comics, Thompson and Groth are certainly in competition for those positions.
Each of these people that were translated, edited, and published by Fantagraphics: these creators, storytellers, cartoonists, these are the children of Kim Thompson and co-publisher Gary Groth. It is through Thompson and Groth’s direct guidance, leadership, and their critical analysis of the medium and its works that these children have shaped the world of modern comics into the great, beautiful, and glowing beast that it is today. It is these children and their children that have made the American comic market so diverse, the influence and influence-by-proxy of Kim Thompson that has made the modern day American comic market something wonderful and miraculous and something we can all be proud of.
And when I read these works, these children of Kim Thompson—Building Stories, Wilson, whatever Peter Bagge is doing nowadays—I will never forget where they came from. When I see English-editions of Franco-Belgian classics or bound collections of hard-to-find Crumb or Spiegelman in the graphic novel section at Barnes & Noble, even when they’re not published by Fantagraphics, I won’t forget who made that commercially feasible, and in turn: possible.
And If you like smart, idiosyncratic, off-beat comics…
If you like challenging comics…
If you like different, unique, life-altering comics…
Say thank you to Kim, and to Gary as well.
And never stop loving comix, for all that they are and for all that they can be.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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