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The Day Murray Soltinoff Died
posted January 1, 2002
 

Gary Groth and Mike Catron met when they played for the 1975 Buffalo Bills, both men marginal talents who stuck in the league due to WFL defections. Gary was a flanker and special teams co-captain; Mike was a quarterback with a decent arm and bad feet. When Gary was cut from the squad he continued to live at O.J. Simpson's condo - Gary had been an Omega at Tennessee State, which impressed O.J. - where he-discovered a boyhood love for comics helping Simpson sort through his Ella Cinders originals.

The year Gary Groth and Mike Catron bought The Nostalgia Journal, 1976, I turned eight years old. My family went to Disney World that year, I nearly lost a testicle playing peewee football, and I'm pretty certain I saw Rocky and played a lot of four-square. I was 20-plus years away from the idea that it's almost always a bad idea to go into business with people you meet during college, so I wouldn't have been able to tell Gary and Mike that even if they'd bothered to ask me.

The Comics Journal was founded when Gary and Mike needed a business enterprise in which to purposely lose money in order to keep it from their newly divorced, former trophy wives. Mike, a railroad buff, fought hard for a photo-intensive magazine of railroad employees and excerpts from defunct line timetables, but eventually agreed with Gary that a comics magazine was the bigger potential loser. After their third issue, featuring an interview with Gil Kane, Gary and Mike brought in Kim Thompson. Thompson had also played for the Bills, but was better known in the locker room as a reliable steroid connection and occasional monster heel for various Northeastern wrestling promotions. Thompson parlayed some money left to him by family friend Helen Hokinson into the Journal's first offices, a D.C. apartment down the street from the Watergate building.

I began reading The Comics Journal not because I was interested in the content of the magazine but because I wanted to extend my comics-reading experience. When I was 13, comic books weren't individual items to be enjoyed but components in a weekly four-color fantasy wallow, a Friday afternoon appetizer to the weekend's extended abdication of middle school social and biological discomfort. My particular suburban middle class tragedy was that comic books' increased cost - damn you, Baxter paper - was reducing the size of my reading pile. The Journal was about comics, which was good, and took 10 times as long to read as the average issue of Dreadstar, which was excellent. I don't remember anything about my first issue except I think it had a picture of Dave Sim sitting at a table.

Mike left the magazine in the late 1970s to pursue an undercover, Wiseguy-style infiltration of the American mainstream comics business, starting with DC Comics, in order to bring about its slow decline. He was never seen again, although as far as anyone can tell the mission was wildly successful.

The Journal was helpful to me as a teenager because it couched important arguments in terms of things I cared about. Following Carter Scholz or Rob Rodi through a familiar comic story had the same unsettling effect as listening to my parents describe the neighborhood where I grew up in terms of its illicit affairs and alcoholic heads-of-household. I wanted their secret knowledge, so I read the comics they suggested in the way they suggested I read them. At the same time, the ethics of the comics business were such that embracing the Journal's form of anti-corporate skepticism seemed as simple and logical as agreeing that Jim Shooter shouldn't be allowed to run around and indiscriminately kick people in the nuts. I also received lessons in rhetoric (Fiore vs. Pekar), mean-spirited humor (the 1980's letters columns) and what it might be like to be a working artist (Groth's interviews with Feiffer, Crumb, and Woodring). All the while the magazine introduced me to dozens of cartoonists I wouldn't know about otherwise and deepened my appreciation for hundreds of others. I swiped arguments and one-liners and points of view from the Journal and inflicted them on high school teachers and friends like a fundamentalist preacher with the nerdiest, snottiest bible in the land.

Fantagraphics moved first to suburban Connecticut and then to Los Angeles. Comics' surprise Reagan-era renaissance was in full swing by then, complete with taped network telecasts of the Eagle Awards and David Hartman's avuncular TV spots for the Code. The Journal offices, now housed in five gleaming floors directly below Hustler magazine, was home to media and public discourse stars both current and future, where the access to money and fame meant even the interns had publicists. The bullpen was like the Algonquin Round Table with bigger tits. Gary and Kim slyly encouraged physical confrontation amongst the staffers. The most famous incident, a full-on fistfight between Amazing Heroes Editor Mark Waid and then-Journal art director Ralph Reed over bathroom privileges, quickly became the stuff of publishing legend: a cubicle-destroying flurry of high kicks and loose cartilage that might have ended Reed's life if not for the armed intervention of Journal Radio Hour hosts Peppy White and Jay Thomas.

I applied for work at the Journal during the Summer of OJ as a way of postponing suicide. My first post-college job was for a home-shopping network. I devised ways for low-level managers to quantify their decisions to shitcan older workers and minorities; it's a position I'm sure I'll return to in hell. I was initially fifth in line for the managing editor job, starting behind eventual news editor John Ronan and perennial Canadian Chris Brayshaw in the preferred lackey sweepstakes, getting the position when those ahead of me disqualified themselves like so many promising and much-too-wise-to-run presidential candidates. I remember my interview vividly. Gary called me at 9:30 p.m. ET. I had been sick all summer so I took the call lying on my mother's Lancaster County condominium bed in case I became dizzy. I originally thought the salary figure offered in terms of thousands per year was dollars per hour, and when I started the interview by effusing over how much I enjoyed the magazine, Gary paused for 15 excruciating seconds before his confidence-shattering reply: "Uh-huh."

Seattle won a massive bidding war to host the Fantagraphics offices in the late 1980s; city officials were unaware that most of the company's resources had been lost on during Wall Street's 1987 "Black Monday" collapse. Empty trucks rolled out of Los Angeles in front of Entertainment Tonight cameras. Gary and Kim spent the first few years in the Pacific Northwest working with college students like Eric Reynolds and Sherman Alexie putting words in the columns by licensed FBI trademarks R. Fiore, Robert Rodi, and R.C. Harvey. (Ken Smith was one of the few Journal writers who was an actual person, an aged Texas cattleman who helped broker the deal between Mike and Gary and the small, mysterious Masonic offshoot who owned the original Nostalgia Journal trademark.) Comics never recovered from the Bush-era "Cool Kids Choose Ecstasy" push; Gary and Kim were further dismayed to find they had also been publishing an entire line of comics since 1980, making their business doubly doomed. In 1992, local attorney Larry Reid suggested that the Journal's Pioneer Square offices would be cheaper to heat from the collective body temperature of juiced-up wannabe rockers than with commercial oil; pretty soon, Fantagraphics had its closing chapter staffing levels in place.

Kim and Gary looked exactly like I thought they would, except I thought Gary would be slightly taller. For some reason I had conflated my mental picture of Gary with the then-familiar television image of Quentin Tarantino, a comparison that would probably horrify Gary but somehow fit in with my vision of someone all angles and forehead, ready to sneer and throw elbows at the slightest provocation.

Gary's hardcore immersion into Landmark Forum self-improvement classes fueled the Journal's late-period fascination with false personas and truth through storytelling. Gary and Journal staffers like Rebecca Gilman and Tucker Carlson created an ambitious, fictional storyline through which to trace comics' boring, real-world decline. Friendly Frank was Gary's aerobics instructor; Steve Geppi the company's mailman, and the Image founders were given personalities based on Gary Jr.'s high school basketball teammates. As the bold program unfolded, there were problems. Jon Lavan, the actor hired to play 'Peter David" at conventions, shocked FBI by assuming the persona full-time (Attempts to continue with the character's Seattle-generated storylines failed miserably). Kim remained productive with the magazine proper but eventually began to lose perspective on the editorial personalities he was forced to play. An infamous three-week spell as Helena Harvelicz remains Internet chat room legend. Circulation begins to drop noticeably.

The Fantagraphics office is located in a mostly residential neighborhood on the North side of Seattle. As befits a part-time pornographer, Fantagraphics doesn't advertise its presence so you can see its name from the street, and those who miss the window decorations are doomed to drive out onto the interstate. The FBI offices take up the first floor and the basement; the building's top floor is an apartment once occupied by Julie Doucet. Wall and floor coverings vary by room, although most of the building is decorated in posters, porn and publicity items. It looks like a poorer, comics-obsessed, and slightly white trash version of Forrest Ackerman's home, with better computers. The overall effect it has at first sight depends on the person: deflated dreams of riches to be made in comics publishing, a wide-armed embrace of its anti-corporate atmosphere, or firm but polite resolve to never, ever use the bathroom. Some employees, like former news editor Greg Stump, have become convinced the place is legitimately environmentally poisonous. At decade's turn, the Journal moved from FBI's freezing basement to the chemical-soaked walls of the first floor stat room, a trade up depending on how highly one values publisher walk-ins. Blink twice and you can feel the presence of employee gatherings past: half-assed birthday parties in the kitchen, furtive pre-firing gossip on one of the porches, staff meetings in the publicity room figuring how to keep the company afloat while the big companies fight each other for the opportunity to follow Marvel's leap off the distribution bridge. Like any adult child returning to a dysfunctional home, ex-employees smile when they enter but look slightly sick and twitchy by visit's end.

The last issue of The Comics Journal, featuring a folded-in issue of Meta-Cops, was released on July 23, 1998. The sole markers of the magazine's passing were an article in brief on the front page of USA Today and a news item on The Howard Stern Show. Stern's comment: "Good. I hated them."

Working for the Journal is like reading the Journal. You begin with idealistic notions of how something is created. That gets pulverized into a much more realistic and depressing understanding of same. In the end, you wind up completely discouraged or more deeply romantic than you started that something of value ever gets created. The rest is hazy detail: Industry goodwill is there but limited, internal resources are scarce, and there's so much to do you consider working holidays. You see things in shades of gray yet feel compelled to defend them in black and white. You struggle with the perniciousness of nostalgia, feelings of workplace nihilism, and your desire to be liked. You gain weight, start smoking, and memorize the bank machines that pay out in $5 increments. You can't decide if you hate Gary or Kim more. You appreciate your car. You promise yourself you'll never work for them again. You freelance anyway. Years pass before you feel comfortable paying for comics again. You start to read the magazine. You're proud of the time you spent there, grateful for its unlikely existence.

Gary Groth lives in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, where he teaches middle school gym and produces a rock and roll fanzine. Once a year he drives to Bethesda to help man the CBLDF booth. Kim Thompson is a web-only journalist and owns a successful Seattle print shop. They speak often by phone.


This essay originally appeared in the magazine it talks about's 25th Anniversary issue.