June 28, 2013
Kim Thompson, 1956-2013
Kim Thompson, the iconic co-publisher at and co-owner of Fantagraphics Books, a major figure in the development of North American literary, art and alternative comics, and a well-liked editor, translator and writer about comics, died June 19, 2013 of causes related to cancer. He was 56 years old.
"It would be difficult to overstate the influence that Kim Thompson had, along with Gary Groth, in the modern graphic novel industry," Drawn and Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros said in a statement presented to CR
. "Along with Art Spiegelman's and Francoise Mouly's Raw Books, Kim and Gary were instrumental in building the foundation for what was then called 'alternative' comics." Writer and one-time co-worker Mark Waid: "No one can convince me that Kim Thompson wasn't one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in American comics over the last 30 years, nor can they assure me he ever got his due." Longtime close friend and co-worker Eric Reynolds: "A lot of folks in comics thought of Kim as the more silent partner between he and Gary, because he kept a lower public profile than Gary. But he was a towering presence within Fantagraphics, as anyone who has ever worked here could tell you. He is one of the great influences in my life and I'm gonna miss his deep reservoir of knowledge and wisdom in more ways than I can even fathom. He made me better."
"It seems wrong to attempt to sum up his accomplishments so soon," the cartoonist Seth told CR
. "It's almost too early to appreciate the importance of his influence on the world of comics. He should have lived to a grand old age where time would have clearly written out his legacy for us. At the end of a long life it's more blatantly evident just what one has done. Kim was still in mid-career. Not that I'm implying he didn't fully accomplish a life's work. If anything, he did more in 50 years than most people do with 90 or 100."
Kim Thompson was born on September 25, 1956 to John and Aase Thompson. He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. Thompson's father was a systems analyst, and worked for a variety of employers under contracts of up to a few years in length. The elder Thompson's most consistent employer was the US Army. The Thompson family lived in several different places according to where that work took them: France, Martinique, Thailand, West Germany and Holland. Thompson's mother was Danish, which brought that language into his home as a primary along with English. This was the baseline from which Thompson would eventually come to know and use several languages and employ them in comics translations and business dealings with European comics publishers, creators and printers.
As a small child, Thompson enjoyed a variety of European comics, primarily Tintin
and various Disney funny animal comics. He would occasionally see a superhero comic book purchased at one of the Post Exchanges on the military bases where his father's employment was centered. Thompson became obsessed with Marvel comics as a young teen. This was at the tail end of the initial 1960s Marvel glory years, and the company had instituted a thorough reprints program in several titles. This and the occasional mail-order company allowed Thompson to purchase some version of most of what Marvel had published in its recent burst of Lee and Kirby-led creativity, and thus to grasp the entirety of that company's modern, superhero-driven output. As the company moved into the 1970s, they began to feature younger writing talent at about the same time Thompson was paying close attention to individual styles and approaches on the comics page.
Thompson wrote letters to various Marvel comic books in the 1970s. A list provided by a contributor to Thompson's page on the public-sourced news site Wikipedia gives him credit for publishing commentary in Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man
, Captain America
, Conan the Barbarian
, Incredible Hulk
, Iron Man
, Marvel Spotlight
titles. Thompson also traded letters with other devoted, engaged, and actively-commenting fans, and at one point belonged to a circle of fans that traded letters and writing, a collection of individuals that included several folks that would eventually become the movers and shakers of the emerging comics generation.
"Back in the 1970s, Dean Mullaney -- later co-publisher of Eclipse -- approached several of what were then called Marvel 'letterhacks' (i.e. frequent contributors to Marvel's various letters columns) to correspond privately with each other -- through snail mail, of course, because in those days that's all there was. Looking back, it was like a precursor to chat rooms," the writer Robert Rodi wrote to The Comics Reporter
. Dean Mullaney added in a different correspondence, "Our pen pal group in the 1970s included Kim, Ralph Macchio, Rob Rodi, Mary Jo Duffy, Jack Frost, Jana Hollingsworth, and me, among others." He added, "Most of us aspired to become comics pros. What particularly fascinated us, in general, were the new group of writers at Marvel who were expanding comics in entirely new dimensions -- writers such as Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Steve Englehart and Doug Moench."
"Love of that era's Marvel Comics was what united us, but our conversations ranged very far afield," Rodi reported. "We were geographically, socially, and culturally very diverse -- though as our group became more enmeshed, Dean realized that we were all male. He asked what we thought about asking Jo Duffy and Kim Thompson to join, and we all agreed. Kim accepted at once, and made up for the disappointment of actually turning out to be male by bringing great wit and élan
to the circle, and a knowledge of European comics that put the rest of us in the shade."
Another member of that general, active fan community was the late prominent Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald, like Thompson's eventual business partner Gary Groth a devoted fanzine maker. Thompson seemed to have been only lightly involved in that specific comics culture relative to his letter-writing habits, contributing to a few publications here and there such as Omniverse
. The Fantagraphics blog in 2011 threw a spotlight on one whimsical effort here
Thompson's entry into the world of comics may have been slightly atypical for his fan peer group, many of whom took more established office-job and freelancing options with mainstream comics companies. Thompson used an acquaintance in that larger fan community to meet Gary Groth upon moving to the United States in 1977. He immediately began working for the fledgling company, called Fantagraphics, then based in the larger DC area from which company co-founders Mike Catron and Groth hailed. To be as specific as possible, the company was located in the spare bedroom of Groth's College Park apartment. Both Catron and Groth have described in subsequent interviews that Thompson basically just showed up and started working. Thompson contributed money to the struggling company that next year, a small amount of cash diverted from an educational fund given to him by his grandparents. Although there have been differences of opinions expressed as to whether or to what extent this constituted Thompson's actual, formal bid for part ownership, it was clear he was wholly invested with the company within months of beginning to work with them. He had found his life's work.
In those days, the business of Fantagraphics was The Comics Journal
. Thompson quickly became a presence within the magazine as a reviewer and interviewer. According to former TCJ
managing editor Milo George, Thompson's first credited issue of the magazine was #37, the first "modern" issue of the magazine from its Nostalgia Journal
and tabloid format beginnings. As a critic, Thompson took a rigorous look at some of the higher-end genre work that had attracted him to American mainstream comics in the first place, including a famously tough review of writer Don McGregor and artist Billy Graham's Detectives, Inc.
Marshall Rogers's work on this book is a huge disappointment. Oddly enough it is not so much a case of McGregor dragging Rogers down to his level as it is of Rogers being out of his depth.
Rogers, who studied as an architect before turning to comics, had produced some handsomely designed work for, coincidentally, Detective Comics, as well as a handful of other mainstream projects before turning to this. Unfortunately, Rogers simply cannot draw very well anything that cannot be broken down into blueprints; in a story where the human element is not only the core, but virtually the totality of the story, McGregor has been saddled with an artist who is incapable of drawing the human face and figure. Rogers' work in this area is at times staggeringly bad: there is not one body in Detectives, Inc. that is not stiff, cold, and awkward-looking, and they all have heads that are too small, making them look nine feet tall. The facial renderings are horrendous: every character is afflicted with a blank, unfocused stare, a mouth that hangs limply open, and gestures that generally don't seem related to one another (in one, panel, Rainier's ex-wife is shown facing the 'camera,' but her nose is in profile). For some reason, every single character in the book has this incredibly long, thin nose -- even the blacks, who look like curly-haired Caucasians with zip-a-tone all over them. Worse, no one looks the same from panel to panel.
One memorable piece he contributed to the Journal
in those early years was the magazine's first full-length interview with the cartoonist Dave Sim. Thompson championed Sim's comic book Cerebus
almost from its conception, and would remain convinced of the cartoonist's skill -- if not various, specific beliefs Sim held -- for the remainder of his days, even offering to publish certain works of Sim in recent years (Sim debated and then declined the offer). The Sim interview ran over two issues, and featured a cut-in-half cover. It was likely not
the first interview in the magazine anticipated as "The Comics Journal
doing what they do with this specific cartoonist," given the publication's impressive run with a variety of mainstream comic book figures ranging from the fully-invested executive to the strictly iconoclastic creator, but the Sim piece was early as the magazine began to secure a reputation for longer, more serious talks with an emerging generation of cartoonists increasingly looking to the comics medium in terms of its opportunities for personal expression. The choices made by the publication were not automatic, even though they look inevitable in the rearview mirror. Thompson and the rest of Fantagraphics ran the risk of routinely alienating the professional community on which the magazine depended for advertising revenue, a significant chunk of its readership and access to interview subjects.
For critic Jeet Heer, Thompson's writing contributions were directly vital to the magazine's growing sense of mission. "When I started reading The Comics Journal circa
1980, Kim Thompson was among the most important 'voices' in the magazine, along with Carter Scholz, Gary Groth, R. Fiore, and Dale Luciano," the writer told CR
. "What characterized Kim's criticism was clarity of expression, candidness, and an erudite familiarity with the cartooning traditions of many nations -- which was even more rare 30 years ago than it is today. He was equally good as a negative and positive critic. He could acutely debunk certain over-praised works and locate their problems -- say Don McGregor's Detectives Inc.
or Frank Miller's Ronin
. But he could also pinpoint the reasons why Harvey Kurtzman's war comics have stood the test of time, an analysis that went to the brass tacks of the storytelling including sharp observations about Kurtzman's sound effects."
Thompson's early work at The Comics Journal
was the starting point for a significant, career-long sideline in writing about comics: for the magazine, for other Fantagraphics publications, and later on-line. While the majority of Thompson's time in comics was spent away from the writing-about-comics camp, particularly as Fantagraphics expanded, Thompson's writing has always been welcome and still has its fans. "Kim was a generous writer," current TCJ.com co-editor Dan Nadel wrote The Comics Reporter
. "He seemed to want to educate the reader by explaining, in a very matter of fact way, not only what made a particular comic work but also the context -- historical and aesthetic -- in which it worked. And best of all he really knew and could describe that context." Nadel mentioned he was a particular fan a series of "Editor's Notes" for the Fantagraphics blog that Thompson wrote about various subjects tying into new releases, sometimes employing an interview format. Nadel was constantly on Thompson to contribute to the flagship publication itself.
It appears Thompson's last major piece of writing for the Comics Journal
site was this obituary for Moebius
, his last piece of critical writing for the Fantagraphics blog was likely this piece on New York Mon Amour
, and in terms of The Comics Journal
's print iteration a major interview by Kim Thompson with Jacques Tardi
ran in the recent The Comics Journal
Fantagraphics moved from College Park to Connecticut in 1979 in order to be closer to the industry that their lead publication covered. The company and its growing staff settled into a large house near Stamford where many on staff both lived and worked. This included Kim Thompson.
Asked how Kim fit into the young company's overall culture, particularly its three-headed brain trust of Groth, Catron and Thompson, Mike Catron told CR
, "Kim was the noodge
. Kim was always into everybody else's business. Whatever projects Gary was working on, or what I was working on, or whatever anybody was doing, if Kim suddenly took an interest in it he would find a way to insert himself into it in some capacity. He was vitally interested in everything that Fantagraphics did, even if it wasn't one of his books. He made no bones about it and he did that because he wanted to make sure that the project was as good as the vision he had for it, even if it wasn't his project." Catron laughed. "And it sometimes drove people crazy."
The publisher remained vastly under-capitalized. Its owner-employees and the incrementally-growing staff worked past many of the issues brought on via operating so close to insolvency by investing an enormous amount of personal time and effort. This had started in Maryland -- during which Groth, Catron and Thompson also held day jobs -- and continued in Connecticut. "No one worked harder than Kim, and he expected everyone to hold themselves to the standard he held himself to," explained Tom Heintjes in a statement to CR
. "I remember when I joined Fantagraphics in May 1984. They were still in the house in Stamford, and several of us lived in the house because we couldn't afford rents elsewhere. So everyone pretty much slept or worked. Kim was a machine -- setting type, copy-editing, coordinating deadlines with creators, paginating books, working with printers, some of everything. Gary was a big-picture guy, establishing the overall vision, but Kim was the guy with his sleeves rolled up, working on the nuts and bolts. He would lie on the floor and make sure the books' signatures worked out correctly, all those production-related issues. Pretty much his 'work uniform' was a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt. It was many months before I saw him wear anything else... I think it might have been the party we threw when we were leaving Connecticut to move to California. He worked very intensely, which we all had to do because of the small staff and the large amount of work."
One highlight of the Connecticut era for the company was starting the magazine Amazing Heroes
, in order to take better advantage of the opportunities to serve superhero fans that had formed under the growing direct market of hobby and comics shops. The cartoonist Frank Santoro, a fan of the publication, described Amazing Heroes
in succinct terms for CR
: "It brought the same high-brow approach to comics that the Comics Journal
had but did so without making fans feel silly for liking superheroes." Thompson would later in an interview for the unpublished Comics As Art... We Told You So
company history admit to slightly less lofty goals: to cadge ad revenue that was going to other publications, a mission he says Amazing Heroes
largely accomplished. The publication remains a curious bridge between straight-up fanzines and ad zines and the slicker, once hugely profitable, men's magazine-reminiscent Wizard
The in-house instigator for the Amazing Heroes
project was actually Mike Catron. He had difficulties from the magazine's founding in terms of keeping up with the necessarily strict deadlines. The magazine soon fell to Thompson, who with a series of co-editors kept the publication, which generally ran from 64 to 88 pages, on a startling, at-times bi-weekly schedule for almost a dozen years, including several over-sized specials and theme issues. To do this and remain as involved with other aspects of the company is one of the major feats in modern comics publishing production history and speaks to Thompson's terrifying facility as a writer/editor and to his general work ethic.
Calling it "the comics news magazine for unabashed hero-worshipping fans," the writer and academic Charles Hatfield remembered Amazing Heroes
as a key part of the company's history and something for which Thompson should be better known. "The eventual death of Amazing Heroes
in 1992 was an inevitable sign of Fantagraphics' growth, but for quite a few years the magazine provided, again, a smart alternative to the adzine and Buyer's Guide
sort of journalism that had come before it. Amazing Heroes
was the not-so-hardnosed cousin to The Comics Journal
, good cop to the Journal
's proverbial bad cop, and a brighter, friendlier mag. Maybe it was a compromise, but it worked: it helped Fantagraphics navigate the direct market, and positioned the company relative to what was going on in the weekly world of comic book retailing. That was vital. I'd say Amazing Heroes
was the unacknowledged other part of the Journal
's history, though officially and editorially the two magazines were just that, two separate magazines. The Amazing Heroes
previews were mouth-watering coming attractions for months and months of promised comics, and I remember poring over some of them with pure, uncut enthusiasm. AH
also ran smart interviews and nostalgic comic book history, tastily written, without condescension or bias. Kim's long, long editorial run on that magazine, an under-acknowledged part of his career, was a great, gracious balancing act."
Mark Waid worked on Amazing Heroes
for a brief period starting in 1986, after Fantagraphics had moved to the greater Los Angeles area. He recalled the publication and its reflection of the broader tastes of Kim Thompson in an e-mail to CR
was Kim's long-standing thorn in Gary Groth's side, a publication Gary loathed partly because he was very cynical and elitist about mainstream comics, partly because it was the company's main source of revenue. But Kim never let it rattle him and, on occasion, would confess a secret joy in being able to get under Gary's skin with it. A good-natured 'sin,' because -- as I admired -- Kim was almost wholly without malice. He was positive, he was a problem-solver, he didn't have much use or time for grudges, and his smiles and laughter were genuine. When I came to work at Fantagraphics for about seven minutes in 1986, Kim was my boss and became my friend in short order; in one another, we'd found a kindred spirit who could enjoy Greek literature and the TV show Moonlighting
in equal measure, to Gary's eternal disparaging despair." (Amazing Heroes
contributor Heidi MacDonald told CR
the TV show she and Thompson discussed most was Hill Street Blues
Fantagraphics moved more fully into comics publishing in the early '80s, starting with the stand-alone Flames Of Gyro
featuring neighboring Connecticut talent Jay Disbrow and quickly moving into a selection of high-end genre comics. This meant opportunities for Thompson to edit actual comics content, another significant, career-long contribution he would end up making to the industry in which he worked. While Kim's editorial duties would eventually include work with cartooning luminaries such as Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Stan Sakai on both solo titles and more than one iconic comics anthology, he started out in Fantagraphics editorial much more modestly and in some instances remained so: Thompson was credited as an associate editor or editorial coordinator on early Fantagraphics comics efforts such as Dalgoda
, perhaps a reflection of the collective ethos of the company. He would later hold not-quite-full-editor titles on Fantagraphics anthologies to which he provided material and assistance without being the publication's main driving force, such as a contributing editor title on the humor-focused Honk!
Thompson arguably became first known as an editor when he became the driving force behind the funny animal anthology Critters
, which for its longevity and the general quality of its features during a sustained period of anthropomorphic comic books being published in the US remains one of his specific, lasting legacies. Thompson tapped artists comfortable working within that tradition such as Stan Sakai and Mike Kazaleh, accessed a few key works from other countries, and even at times encouraged contributions comics-makers known for other kinds of work entirely, such as the cartoonist Ty Templeton, as described here
. Like much of what Fantagraphics published, Critters
represented a specific idea that Thompson wanted to see made real. It's worth noting that any number of Fantagraphics projects over the years -- including many of those directed by Thompson -- came down to that kind of simple application of taste and desire to see made real via sweat equity. When outside observers spoke of "Kim books" and "Gary books" within the company, they often were making distinctions of aesthetic preferences -- but Gary and Kim's taste overlapped, and so this dichotomy occasionally shortchanged both men. What that easy split might be said to describe is that when Gary or Kim were invested in a project it was frequently left to the individual co-publisher to see that it was completed. Some Fantagraphics creators contacted by CR
for this obituary felt they barely worked with Kim Thompson; others felt he was the only
person with whom they worked. Fairly early on, Thompson operated in a sphere that allowed him s share of projects tailored to his individual tastes and concerns, supported by others in the company directly and tacitly but primarily indebted to his energy and persistence for their execution. Kazaleh told CR
, "Regarding Critters
, Kim liked funny animal comics and thought they were underrepresented in modern comics, and I thought so, too." Sometimes it was a simple as that, and as complex and unforgiving as executing dozens of issues of a comic book: the solicitation, the support, supervising the art direction, any advertising or promotion that could be secured on its behalf.
"The most prominent of the Critters
regulars today is probably Stan Sakai," the writer Bob Heer, a fan of the anthology, told CR
. "His Usagi Yojimbo
series had appeared a few times before, but Critters
was the home for its first extended story which quickly led to the launch to its own series which continues to this day, several publishers and re-numberings later, while Critters
remained the home of the occasional short story by Sakai right up to the final issue." Citing that Sakai's work was among his favorites, Heer noted that the #1 slot probably went to Freddy Milton and Gnuff
. "Milton is a Danish cartoonist heavily influenced by Carl Barks, and about half the issues of Critters
feature his original series about a family of dragons. The Barks influence is obvious, but there are also a lot of unique touches in the detailed characterization and world building that make it more than just a Barks-inspired knock-off. There are about 300 pages of Gnuff
published in Critters
, which I think is the only time they've been published in English, and it's well worth seeking out just for that." Heer went on to cite Tom Stazer's Lionheart
, JP Morgan's Fission Chicken
and Steven Gallacci's Birthright
as examples of the variety of work that the anthology published. "Basically no house style, but rather creator-driven work that represents a strong point of view and passion for the project."
ended in 1990 having published 50 serial issues and a related one-shot. Its legacy is felt in a variety of ways beyond the work itself and those like Kazeleh and Templeton with their various comics projects and Sakai with Usagi
that continue to work. Publisher and cartoonist Zack Soto read Critters
as a young comics fan. He told CR
"I really liked the tone and variety Kim Thompson brought to the table with Critters
. There was a good mixture of different approaches to the material, and it was mostly pretty fun. Kim was already promoting European comics and cartoonists in the book, in addition to a stew of post-underground and 'indy'-leaning stuff. I was a big fan of Fission Chicken
, the work of Steve Mellor, Gnuff
& Usagi Yojimbo
, all of which I doubt would have seen much of an audience in the US without Critters
." Soto also pointed out that as the series' main editor, Kim was able to write about the process of making comics that fascinated him. "Kim also took chances and playfully experimented with the form of his anthology, and talked about it
in the editorials, laying his decision-making process bare. Not just the final run of the series when it became a weird housing for a few different serials, but cool single theme issues and doing stuff like the Alan Moore/Ty Templeton collaboration with tip-in flexi-disk. I don't know. It was really a product of the times, and it had a playful attitude and a lot of good work between the first and last issues."
"Kim was smart, level-headed, had a very dry sense of humor, and did not suffer fools gladly," Kazaleh told CR
. "I liked Kim, and we would usually hang out whenever I came to the Fantagraphics office in Agoura -- later Thousand Oaks. I mostly drew whatever I wanted and Kim would print it, except maybe for the time I wanted use a comic strip on the back of Har-Har
#1 that would've ripped off George Herriman and Bob Dylan at the same time. Kim thought that might not be a good idea, and I guess he was right."
Like many staffers of the Connecticut and California periods, Waid remembers a friend both in and out of the office. "I have many memories of Kim, all of them good, even though he made it my first task on staff to fire my predecessor, who didn't know I'd been hired to replace him. Thanks, Kim
. My favorite may well be the Friday afternoon he and I cut out early, just the two of us, to catch a first-day Thousand Oaks showing of Marvel's blockbuster feature film, Howard the Duck
. The look on his face as the end credits rolled probably perfectly mirrored my own, and we both staggered silently back to Kim's car. Once the silence was broken, I don't know who laughed louder -- me at Kim's (prescient) description of how George Lucas must have been replaced by an LMD with no taste, or Kim at my contention that casting Harlan Ellison as the title character was a sketchy move. Either way, we milked more joy out of the ride back to the offices than that movie has given all the rest of the world in the 27 years since."
Heintjes: "Kim delighted in work pranks. He preferred to work into the wee hours and sleep late, and I was an early to bed, early to rise kind of guy. So he would run out yards and yards of galleys of Comics Journal
copy (back when it was set on a Linotype machine) and festoon them around my desk and the entire office I shared with Gary. So that's the sight that would greet me upon rolling out of bed. In one of the issues of the Journal
where we were keeping up the drumbeat about Marvel's mistreatment of Jack Kirby, we got Frank Miller to write an essay, and Frank wanted to proofread it before it went to press. So Kim added a headline that replaced Frank's original. It read something like 'GIVE JACK HIS ART BACK, YOU FUCKERS!' And that's what we sent to Frank. Frank called back and sounded very shaken, asking if we had already sent them magazine to the printer."
"Kim also enjoyed getting out of the office for diversions," Heintjes noted. "We bowled, saw movies, went out to eat, just regular coworker stuff. He played music loudly while he worked, usually punk and alternative rock. He was a lot of fun to be around, although if someone held an opinion that he found dumb, he didn't hesitate to tell you, often pointedly. But that was just Kim -- what he lacked in people skills, he more than made up for in wit. Kim was a unique guy, and I'm the better for having known him. It's still hard to believe he's gone."
Former comics industry regular and writer about comics and arts more generally Robert Boyd told CR
that he considered Thompson a mentor, and that Thompson's style when it came to providing this example, "was Socratic method with a twist. You know the Socratic method involves the teacher questioning a thesis of the student, and in the asking and answering, wisdom is conveyed. In my case, Kim's excellent bullshit detector would go off whenever I asserted something pretentious or uninformed or overly broad or dogmatic. He called bullshit (usually in a very witty way). So even though I learned a lot of publishing stuff from Kim (and Gary), it was this no-bullshit skepticism that I really valued with Kim and sought to apply to my own assumptions. I was infinitely pretentious then; I'm slightly less so now in part because of Kim."
Thompson, Groth and Fantagraphics moved to Seattle just as the city was becoming a national destination point for young people and a youth culture into which the publishing house slipped extremely well. They employed movers for this trip, deciding not to replicate the cross-country, self-directed caravan from Connecticut to California which included several white-knuckle moments including Thompson's accidental destruction of Heintjes' car.
Seattle would be Thompson's final home.
Kim Thompson's Fantagraphics office in Seattle was until very close to his passing right behind Gary Groth's, near the heart of the Lake City way three-story home into which the company settled upon arrival. It was on the building's second floor (the third floor was rented), in a smaller room with the company's old-fashioned news files placed along the far wall. Until he had regular use of a computer, Thompson worked most hours facing his typewriter, situated next to the legendary Fantagraphics rolodex. When computers became ubiquitous, Thompson could frequently be found sitting just to the left of his door, right outside the central stairway connecting, basically, the company's editorial and business aspects. He was never tethered to his office, and while respectful of other staffers' duties would frequently travel to them to deliver a note or ask a question. Thompson was a constant presence in the office, seven days a week, frequently for long stretches of time. Because of his sometimes-odd hours during the early Seattle years he took to leaving notes on his employees' desks or in their mail slots with comments, questions or criticisms -- the dreaded yellow sheets of paper, a kind of pre-email email. Although the complicated business of keeping the company afloat made hard definitions when it came to tasks impossible, and Thompson's duties always overlapped with Groth's, he was in many ways still the company's de facto
production manager in addition to being wholly involved as a publisher and as an editor. Thompson became, for example, a primary mover behind the mail-order catalogs when the company very much depended on the income raised that way to survive. He was the kind of hard worker where entire positions could be spun off of tasks not everyone in the office was aware he did.
Thompson helped supervise the production department's transition from print-out based submissions to the company's different printers to computer-assisted and finally digital-only send-ins. This included a variety of different supervisory strategies, from slipping in certain jobs with art directors that had a spare couple of hours between primary assignments to enabling independently-minded workers with a kind of ongoing light-hand to grind through book after book on things like the Eros line, which were key to Fantagraphics' financial survival. Early 1990s Eros art director Jim Blanchard told CR
that "the majority of comics and books I worked on with Kim were for the Eros and Monster Comics imprints, so the 'standards' for 'quality' were lower than for the rest of the Fantagraphics Books line. I sort of appreciated that -- made my job easier." He noted to CR
that Kim's approach as a supervisor was different for different lines, and that was also true in that Kim was used as a translator for a significant chunk of the pornographic material. "Kim was definitely hands-off, because he knew I could handle art directing those books. It was more about getting the multiple titles out the door and to the printer, rather than polishing and fine-tuning them, like [the late Fantagraphics art director] Dale Yarger did on the stuff he worked on. I think Kim felt the same way about translating the European porn stuff: a little more leeway for having fun and adding in jokes to the captions/word balloons. Not to say we didn't want to do a good job on Liz & Beth
or Talk Dirty
; we were still conscientious and giving it our best shot."
Calling Thompson one of the smartest men he ever knew, Blanchard told CR
that this was apparent in how he approached his job at Fantagraphics. "As far as his smarts, you could just sense it being around him. His kind of nervous laugh told you he already knew what you were thinking, and was one step ahead of you. I remember him constantly
catching grammatical/spelling/punctuation errors -- consummate proof reader -- he had a very thorough knowledge of pop culture and music, too." Longtime Fantagraphics art director and Fantagraphics-published cartoonist Pat Moriarty also chimed in that he remembers Thompson's skill as a kind of floating office proofreader: "He could proofread like no other; it was practically inhuman how quickly he could spot subtle or obscure grammatical errors. Even when writing today, I still sometimes think of the feeling of having Kim Thompson looking over my shoulder as I'm at the keyboard. The thought makes me write a little more carefully." Joe Sacco underlined this point, telling CR
that this was beneficial to the creators with whom Thompson worked. "Kim was my editor. I used to work as a proofreader, but he was ten times better, someone you could trust entirely to make sure your writing was error-free."
Fantagraphics' presence in Seattle first galvanized and then Balkanized the cartooning community: a public tiff between Thompson and the now-solely writer, then-mostly cartoonist Ed Brubaker over Brubaker's work was one such noticeable instance in that art community's development (Brubaker wrote positively of Thompson on twitter following his passing
). Like many people in comics, there was very little separation of work and private life for Thompson, even though the days of living in the same building were now gone. Thompson still became friends with many of those with whom he worked, and remained so after they left his employ and even the city. He shared musical enthusiasms with several Fantagraphics workers at a time when the city was awash in young people for whom music was everything. Thompson's extensive knowledge of and passion for movies was something he also shared with younger employees, at one point in the mid-1990s hosting irregular Film 101 viewings in his home. Thompson was a devotee of the city's Scarecrow Video retailing/rental institution, a mere five-minute drive from the Fantagraphics offices, and saw movies at the city's film festivals and multitude of art-movie houses and big-box theaters.
One major life change came to Thompson during the Seattle years: he fell in love and married. Thompson met Lynn Emmert through Peter and Joanne Bagge; the Bagges had known Lynn through her sister Patti. Emmert relocated from Chicago to Seattle at roughly the same time the company made the trip up the Pacific coast. Emmert was a comics fan. Thompson and Emmert lived together for a period as boyfriend and girlfriend; they married in 1996 in a ceremony attended by a small group of family and friends, followed by a larger reception in which the bulk of Seattle's thriving cartooning community came to pay tribute and celebrate that union. They were residents of a condominium about five minutes drive from Fantagraphics beginning in Fall 1994. The couple eventually settled into a small, idyllic house in the Northgate neighborhood, a place set slightly back from the road. Their pet dog Ludwig accompanied Thompson to work in recent years. In their Northgate home the couple hosted social events and had both employees and older friends in for things like movie nights and dinners.
"Meeting and marrying Lynn changed Kim quite a bit, in that it helped make him a more 'regular' person, particularly in a social sense," the longtime Seattle area resident Peter Bagge told CR
. "He always was very much an 'Asperger' type, which was more pronounced in his bachelor days, when he wasn't the least bit self-conscious about his childlike eating and dress habits -- which simultaneously contradicted his huge intellectual capacity." The couple remained close for the duration of their days together; and it was Emmert that took on primary care responsibilities as Thompson succumbed to the cancer that took his life.
Other changes in the last two decades of Thompson's life may have been less overtly noticeable. Increased access to the Internet in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s gave Thompson more of a public profile than he had perhaps enjoyed in the past. His sharp and acerbic wit, his desire to correct and his fierce pride in his company and its accomplishments made him a brutal opponent in on-line discussions, and an entertaining figure to read. Milo George noted that the on-line Thompson was an extension of the man he knew at work. "Once you got to know Kim a bit, you would realize that his beatdowns of online opponents should be read with a goodly amount of the kind of good-humored spirit of correction you would expect from an editor's note on your manuscript." For Robert Boyd, the on-line Kim Thompson was a way to access the writer's voice he remembered from the earlier days at the Comics Journal
and in the office. "I always thought Kim was a fantastic prose stylist and had a great way of arguing a point. (Gary was the Hogun the Grim of comics criticism; Kim was Fandral the Dashing.) Even his memos -- awesomely long in some cases, and usually typed right on your typewriter while you were at lunch or after you left work for the day -- were masterpieces. I'm sure no one has ever considered this, but I'd gladly pay cash for a collection of Kim's best writings. For many of us, the tragedy of Kim (aside from his way-too-soon death) was when he walked away from regular writing. His occasional blog posts in recent years were a breath of fresh air."
It was earlier in the Seattle period that Kim solidified his place as an important editor of comics, working with a number of the company's formidable early-alternative talents and with the first generation of 1990s-emergent post-alternative cartoonists. He was well known, as testified to by many in the Comics As Art
manuscript, for his ability to cajole and backhanded-flatter work from the various top-line alternative talents. Although some close watchers of art comics have criticized houses like Fantagraphics for their relative lack of editorial input on various comics projects, the approach used by Thompson and others at the publishing house hewed close to the tradition of newspaper syndication editing. There were suggestions and advice early on and subsequently whenever asked for. As the cartoonists developed an understanding of what making a comic was all about and what they wanted to do on the page, they were more or less left alone. By 2011, Thompson joked that his work with the Hernandez Brothers had become collating the pages when they arrived and getting them off to the printer. There were few, if any, content restrictions from a censorious standpoint, even in terms of what Thompson might prefer for a specific project. An early story in the anthology Zero Zero
by the cartoonist Jeff Johnson (now Jess Jonsin) was named after what was apparently Thompson's sole request: "No Erect Penises."
In large part due to Thompson's flexibility as a multi-tasker, his commitment with Groth to their artists and their combined skill in facilitating several solutions for problems on the ground, the 1990s comics publications that Fantagraphics produced reflected a variety of idiosyncratic creative choices extending from content to the paper used to the format of the comics themselves. As the comics industry transitioned from a direct market-driven "carry everything" shop ethos to a more complicated overlapping network of targeted shops, direct order, convention sales and even bookstore distribution models in addition to the shops, and many publishers suffered -- including, at times, Fantagraphics -- for the complexity and pressures of this new sales landscape, the company's bottom-line output became more bold and more ambitious rather than more conservative and guarded. When Peter Bagge moved from black and white to color issues of Hate
, the company accommodated the high-selling publication by helping with an in-house coloring process in a way that might not have been entirely bottom-line reasonable considering the equipment and resources on-hand but served the work, and the cartoonist, and made for a better comic. Thompson and the company became increasingly creative in working with cartoonists, and some worked in a variety of formats and even for different Fantagraphics lines from the moment they began publishing.
Nowhere was this bottom-line flexibility and willingness to facilitate the production desires of certain artists used to better effect than with Chris Ware. In 1993, Fantagraphics began a relationship with the emerging alt-weekly superstar, whose work had also appeared in RAW
and in a forgettable-only-by-relative-quality one-shot with Eclipse Comics and Thompson's old friend Dean Mullaney. Ware's ACME Novelty Library
appeared in what seemed like a different format every time out (there were several repeating formats), a remarkable thing in an industry when not only were things like this kind of production routinely off the table from a sheer capability standpoint but arrived in an era where publishers often valued making the maximum amount of money by working in standard templates approved of by their retailing partners. Ware's work quickly became an award-winning favorite, and ACME Novelty Library
remains a defining comic book of that era.
In 1995, Thompson began editing the art-comics anthology that bridged a relatively fallow and transitional mid-to-late 1990s period in alternative comics publishing: Zero Zero
. "By then Fantagraphics' identity was definitely grounded in alt-comix, and Zero Zero
was a glorious, freeing project, an anthology with underground, newave, and alternative roots (and international branches) that, until its last few issues, kept up a heroic schedule, coming out somewhere between bimonthly and eight times a year," the writer about alternative comics Charles Hatfield told CR
. "Zero Zero
boasted a wild, almost forbidding range of stuff, yet came close, I thought, to summing up Kim's taste in contemporary adult comix. It did what I like comics anthologies to do: it published often; it offered lots of bang for the buck, stressing range, variety, and sheer comics content over aesthetic ultra-refinement and coffee table values; it included serials as well as one-off comics; it adopted new artists while also championing veterans; and it had personality and standards -- Kim's -- despite its profligacy." Hatfield noted that Zero Zero
, which he described as a magazine with a magazine's concerns, was also Fantagraphics' last major attempt at a traditional comic book format anthology. The company's next significant anthology, MOME
, was a journal designed to be sold in bookstores as well as in comics shops.
's legacy is tied into the quality of the publication, the range of cartoonists represented. Hatfield: "Check out Zero Zero
in the Grand Comics Database, or work your way through a stack of them if you can find them: the breadth and quality of the magazine are terrific. Ted Stearn, Richard Sala, Dave Cooper, Kim Deitch -- they all had substantial serial projects in the magazine. Stephane Blanquet, Dave Collier, Mack White too. Scary comics -- apocalyptic. Urgent. Great stories by Joe Sacco and David Mazzucchelli were in Zero Zero
. Doug Allen, Penny Van Horn, Al Columbia. Cripes, it was a hell of a magazine." Noting that it was the place where he encountered European cartoonists like Aleksandar Zograf, critic Jeet Heer said of Zero Zero
that "Editorially, like many of the best Fantagraphics anthologies, it was a half-way house between Weirdo
, more committed to narrative accessibility than either of those two stellar magazines, perhaps lacking their radical zeal but solidly loyal to the tradition of comics storytelling."
Heer's comment about European cartooning in Zero Zero
touches on another major through-line to Thompson's career: his longstanding attention to European comics, including his work as a translator for many of them. European comics expert Bart Beaty told CR
that Thompson was a major figure in North American translation and European comics publishing in English. "Kim was one of a very small handful of people that were responsible for knocking down the barriers that existed between comics in Europe and in the United States. Today, when translations of European material are quite common, it is somewhat difficult to recall that in the 1990s there was virtually nothing appearing in English that had originally been published in Europe -- unless it was translated and published by Kim. His fluency in multiple languages, and his very broad tastes, made him a central figure in expanding the notion of what comics were and could do over the past decades."
Thompson began trying to publish various world cartoonists through Fantagraphics as early as the 1980s, bringing them into Critters
and later anthologies (Tardi appeared in Pictopia
, for example) and in 1982-1983 helping to facilitate the release of two volumes of the Survivors
series. He also spearheaded coverage of those comics in both the Comics Journal
and in Amazing Heroes
. Art Spiegelman told CR
that when he and Francoise Mouly presented several New York-area comics peers with the European comics work that they planned to publish in Raw
, of Gary Groth and Kim Thompson it was Thompson seemed more immediately comfortable with and amenable to what they had planned. Fantagraphics was slower and more deliberate in publishing work of that type than Raw Books was. The release of five issues of the Jose Munoz/Carlos Sampayo masterwork Sinner
(Thompson as editor, Spiegelman as consultant) are remembered with great fondness by more people than perhaps actually purchased them at the time. A few one-off graphic novels, such as Ana
, failed to catch fire in the pre-bookstore market days. As Jim Blanchard mentioned, the Eros line was a home to work from creators such as Francisco Solano Lopez and Matthias Schultheiss as well as English-language cartoonists, and certainly an anthology such as Graphic Story Monthly
(where Thompson was a consulting editor) was a place where that work could be introduced to North American readers.
In the mid- to late-1990s, as the French-language comics market was beginning to see the fruits of its own art comics revolution, Thompson tried to bring one of that movement's leading lights to North American audiences in a more sustained way. Fantagraphics published some of the French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim's Lapinot
books in album form as the McConey
series, and later published a bunch of his black and white shorts in the more traditional alt-comic book series The Nimrod
-- one of the great alternative comic books of that entire period. Neither effort caught on with the intended audience to the extent Thompson might have hoped, although both efforts had decided fans and it was clear by this point that Thompson wasn't going to stop trying bringing the fruits of this work to North American shores.
"Kim's publishing decisions could seem very idiosyncratic from the outside," Beaty explained. "It was clear that he published things that he loved and that he loved the things that he published. Every time I saw him I would rattle off a list of 20 things that I thought Fantagraphics absolutely should be translating, and he'd just laugh at me and tell me that my dream publishing line would be bankrupt in six months. He was probably right. Still, over the last few years he seemed to throw caution to the wind a little bit, bringing out books that needed to be in English even if their market opportunities seemed a bit slim." Starting with a book plan around the cartoonist Jason starting with Hey, Wait...
, Thompson began to piece together a way to publish European cartoonists he thought were necessary for audiences to see without putting his company at significant risk by diverting its resources. When Fantagraphics survived a number of late 1990s and early '00s financial crises related to distribution and climbed to slightly higher ground with the Complete Peanuts
project now in-house and a solid book distribution deal with WW Norton, Thompson intensified his European comics efforts, culminating in a series of beautiful collections of translated work by Jacques Tardi, one of the great living cartoonists and something of a non-factor for North American comics buyers until these recent works. The series has performed solidly, if not spectacularly. "His dedication to the Tardi translations is a good example of this," Beaty told CR
of Thompson's dogged persistence. "For ten years Kim and I would talk about why Tardi didn't sell in America, often with a sense of bafflement. The recent run of Tardi translations seemed to be evidence of his determination to simply make it work, almost out of sheer force of will." Thompson was also heavily involved with the Ignatz line co-published with Coconino Press, which brought both North American cartoonists and many younger European stalwarts into a high-end line that might conceivably satisfy fans of smaller chunks of material while guaranteeing publishers a bigger per-unit sale. It is hard to imagine such a line being possible a decade earlier no matter how devoted Fantagraphics might have been to deluxe formatting, and that it processed through so many issues before winding down without any thought of danger or damage being done the publisher was a testament to Thompson's late-period skill and the relative health of the publishing enterprise he co-maintained.
By the time of his passing, Fantagraphics was publishing through Thompson any number of European cartoonists: some high-profile, some much less so, some modern and some very much in the classic cartooning vein. Thompson described Fantagraphics' efforts in a comments thread on the site Hooded Utilitarian
two years ago thusly: "... we've put out recently or have scheduled David B., Fior, Franquin, Hergé, Macherot, Mezzo/Pirus, Tillieux, and Trondheim, and, moving to the Franco-Belgian 'cousins' (some of whom are very much part of that tradition) Swarte from Holland, Martí and Max from Spain, Lust and Mahler from Austria, Ott from Switzerland, and Mattotti and Giandelli from Italy." Many of those projects were possible because Thompson's fluency with several languages allowed him to work with artists and their representatives directly and to reduce the costs of each work by setting up co-publishing agreements. Much more importantly, it gave Fantagraphics access to a world-class translator: Thompson himself.
The critic Joe McCulloch told CR
that he came to primarily think of Thompson as a translator rather than as an editor or even a publisher. "Years ago Kim posted a series of articles documenting his translation process for the Martin Kellerman book Rocky
... In those posts, Kim hemmed and hawed exquisitely over the trials of bringing Swedish comedy to the comics heartland: do you swap out a domestic band's name for an American equivalent? How far do you push the language, the fidelity, so as to retain some humor? Kim was basically in favor of humor in comedy, which could not be said of a few of the manga translations still thick in those days -- translator/fans would preserve every honorific, as if creating a reading experience analogous to visiting in human society as a robot with a dictionary loaded in its head, incapable of appreciating any human emotion or connotation, save for a private self-loathing at where your education had gotten you."
"Kim's ethos, however, was cased in a bottomless harrowing of the soul: how can this book communicate? Where is the line drawn between necessary violence to the text -- in the manner of a hedge trimming that alerts the unwary driver to incoming traffic -- and the substitution of translator for author? Always, Kim struck me as an invisible man, mindful of the prejudices of English monoglots and the ten thousand distractions that pull them away from a text, and dedicated to massaging those kinks just so a steady understanding of Tardi, of Trondheim, of B(eauchard), of Milo Goddamned Manara was possible. When I felt the urge to criticize Manara, I did not think of the glass of my ignorance separating me from him, I thought only of him; such was Kim's transparency."
As mentioned by McCulloch, Thompson was able to take on a rare outside major project and recently fulfill a longstanding desire to work with the editor Diana Schutz at Dark Horse by taking on work with volumes of their Manara Library
and Manara Erotica
series. As one of the few editors to work with Thompson that wasn't Thompson himself, Schutz provided to CR
into their working relationship and a focused glimpse into what Thompson was like in that role. Unsurprisingly, there was a blurring of tasks. "He was such an incredibly clever guy. He and I worked almost entirely via email on Manara, but it wasn't as simple as Kim sending me a translation and then signing off on the job. Right from the start he'd requested being more involved than that, and I was happy to give him that involvement. So, I'd edit Kim's translation longhand, and send him a copy of those edits for his comments, which I would then incorporate into the final script for Tom Orzechowski to letter. And then, once a given story was lettered, it would go back to Kim yet again for a final pass."
"Because translation is far from an exact science, Kim and I could argue back and forth over the use of a single word, its meaning and connotations, better potential choices... but it was always about the work and how to make it better. Kim was a perfectionist, like me, and we were happy to butt heads until we were both satisfied. But Kim's contributions went beyond straight translation, too. For instance, Groucho Marx showed up at one point in one of Milo's Giuseppe Bergman stories, and I wanted Groucho's one or two word balloons to have the flavor of real
Groucho lines -- something Manara couldn't exactly do in the original Italian, but that we could in English. Kim, of course, was able to write the line in Groucho-speak.
"Translation can also require a certain amount of arcane knowledge and research. Manara often makes literary and historical allusions in his writing, and Kim would spot all of those. He and I were especially happy with his translation of Manara's adaptation of The Golden Ass
, originally written by Apuleius in the second century; this demanded a certain amount of classical language, which seemed almost second nature for Kim.
"I can't begin to tell you how much I learned working with him, and how proud I felt when he emailed me that we were 'a good team.'"
Kim Thompson was enthusiastic about translation generally, and could talk about the strengths and weaknesses of his peers and classic assignments that fell to translators past. In 2010, he even organized a roundtable of comics translators that ran at a previous iteration
of the on-line Comics Journal
. That group was Helge Dascher, Camelia Nieh, Anjali Singh and Thompson, talking with moderator Kristy Valenti.
Asked to appraise Thompson's strengths as a translator, peer and panel participant Dascher told CR
that Thompson, "really cared about creating a vivid reading experience." She cited a moment in the roundtable where Thompson described himself as an "unfaithful translator."
When I translated the first chapter of Trenches I did with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, and Art Spiegelman said, 'What I try to do, is I try not so much to translate as to write it the way I think he would have written it in English to begin with if he had been writing it in English.' I think that sort of sums it up. You junk all the stuff you know is in the way, because it was in that language to begin with, and just go for, when necessary, the spirit, the meaning of it.
.Dascher noted Thompson had several strengths. "He was great at wordplay and finding inventive solutions to problems that could seem intractable. An English reader reading You Are Here
can't begin to imagine what a trick it was to pull off that translation. Voices came easily to him. ... Above all, he was a fantastic reader. He could 'go with the spirit of it' because he had such a good sense of where that spirit lay. And something that was great about him was how much fun he got out of his own solutions. He knew when he got it right."
The extra attention was frequently noticed. The writer and critic Douglas Wolk wrote CR
of his admiration for a specific translation effort, a text piece in the 2006 edition of the Spanish cartoonist Max's Bardin the Superrealist
published by Fantagraphics, by calling it "a terrific piece of creative translation -- he managed to replace one set of puns, allusions, rhymes and high-and-low diction with another. Preserving both the sense and the tone of Max's writing has to have been tricky, but it's a very funny book in English, too. (Thompson's rendering of the colloquial 'cielo santo' in a bit about Bardín scaring off demons with prayer: 'Oh jeez!')"
Not everyone was always enamored of Thompson's approach. Beaty: "As a translator Kim had his critics. The most common charges against him were that he sometimes made all of his characters sound the same, and that he made minor changes to books to 'Americanize' them. In one of the Trondheim books, for example, the characters play Mille Bornes. Kim changed that to Monopoly. Both are annoying games that everyone knows how to play but no one really enjoys, so it's essentially the same joke, but the context of Parisian life is somewhat lost. To me this was no great sin. I would have preferred 'Mille Bornes' be left in so that American readers would wonder about it, but I also know that almost every great comics translator -- think Anthea Bell on Asterix
-- changed things to make the jokes funnier for the audience who was actually reading the translation. The more translation I've done myself, the more I've come around to this way of thinking."
Determining Thompson's overall contribution to comics through almost 30 years of writing, translating and fevered editorial production may prove more elusive than identifying many of the individual achievements to which he could lay claim within comics.
As Fantagraphics' longtime co-owner, co-publisher and everyday office presence, Thompson certainly shares in the broad strokes of what the company has achieved as a team effort. This is true in general terms -- the company's amazing list of published artists and titles -- and in more specific projects with hard-to-measure contributing elements, say the office debates and back-and-forth arguing that preceded the company's groundbreaking Misfit Lit show. With more than three decades into its long run, some of Fantagraphics' achievements -- and thus, Thompson's -- are more difficult to see for how they established an indy-comics orthodoxy that few folks question today. As Ben Schwartz points out in this piece for LA Review Of Books
, the simple, unlikely premise of Fantagraphics as a place to house and publish sophisticated comics for a discerning, adult audience becomes part of Thompson's legacy, as do many of the beneficial strategies employed to execute that company's mission, such as a rigorous preference for contracts where authors keep their copyrights. Its unlikely survival during crises both public and private should also be considered Thompson's legacy.
Drawn and Quarterly creative director Tom Devlin expressed admiration for a specific through-line he saw in Thompson's career: the ability to pick work according to his personal taste as opposed to some sophisticated sense of its sales possibilities. Devlin communicated to The Comics Reporter
that the almost wholehearted rejection of conventional wisdom displayed by Thompson in a project's conception or execution stunned and delighted him. "I have two favourites: Duck Bill Platypus
by Kyle Rothweiler, which ran first as a feature in Critters
, and Unseen Peanuts
by Charles Schulz, a Free Comic Book Day comic from a few years ago [May 2007]. I haven't read the Rothweiler comics in years but when I read those comics years ago they slayed me: Pogo
-esque but even more obtuse -- and such an odd time for those comics to exist. Unseen Peanuts
is another story. Since Fantagraphics was doing The Complete Peanuts
these long lost strips were now being restored to print. Ostensibly a marketing tool, Kim used the format for an extended essay on why these strips that Schulz himself cut from his collections over the years really should have been cut. He goes strip by strip and examines why they didn't work or were redundant or why they just weren't funny. It's a completely odd choice and so
Kim and it is absolutely one of my favorite comics in the past several years. It was always clear that what Kim published was something he loved and more importantly something that nobody else would have ever published."
The critic Rob Clough noted to CR
that one connecting thread was that Thompson sometimes favored great cartooning with potential mainstream appeal, and that the way the art form has developed may reflect Kim's tastes and impulses more than most. Speaking of his attempts to bring Lewis Trondheim and Jacques Tardi to North American audiences, he wrote, "Thompson wanted to bring the works of these artists into English, not just because they were outstanding artists, but because they represented a kind of mainstream appeal that he thought should
gather an audience if only they gave it a chance. Thompson wasn't so much advocating for the avant-garde
, but rather for comics anyone could read and enjoy." The writer Sean T. Collins spoke more adamantly about the relationship that Thompson had as an editor exposing those artists to certain audiences, the persistence he showed in going to certain cartoonists time after time. "If all he ever did was be the guy responsible for getting Jason and Jacques Tardi across to North American audiences, Kim would be a hall-of-fame editor. Recognizing that those cartoonists could communicate to American readers, translating them, devising a release pattern that played to their immediate strengths while slowly, over the course of multiple books, revealing the breadth and depth of their abilities and interests -- masterful work. I can't decide which is the more impressive: Jason, an unknown quantity on these shores, or Tardi, legendarily un-breakable on this side of the Atlantic. But you'd be hard pressed to find two stronger concentrated runs of work than what Fanta has released by them, and Kim's responsible for it. A hero."
Thompson started as an admirably skilled editor and became more of one as the years passed. Peter Bagge recalled a working relationship with Thompson that improved in recent years. "I couldn't help noticing how on-top-of-it he was on the last project I worked on with him, my recent collection Other Stuff
, Bagge told The Comics Reporter
. "He was much more hands-on than in the past, though he may have simply been compensating for my relative indifference when it came to making the collection a cohesive whole. Either way, I was amazed at what a good job he did, and I was thrilled with the results. He also was more 'engaged' with working with me than ever before, and refreshingly easygoing, too -- we used to bicker and butt heads a lot
during the Hate
days, I regret to say." Taking several moments to think of the exact word to describe how Thompson had changed in the pair of decades since his departure from the company and recent return as an editor, Mike Catron settled on "polished," as if to indicate that in many ways he was still the same man, he had just become better at all that he did for the company even as there was more of it to do.
"When I returned and we were back working together, it was an amazingly seamless reconnection between the three of us... and with Peppy [Preston White] the four of us... we all fell back into familiar rhythms from years ago. Kim had by then taken on much more responsibility than when he and I worked a long time ago: Fantagraphics put out more books and had more employees, more responsibilities, those kinds of things. But the thing of it is that Kim was able to step up to that. I think that Kim having all of that on his shoulders made him a little less goofy, a little less spontaneous. We used to have time to do wild and crazy stuff... there was less time for that later on. But I think that was a trade off he was happy to make. We were doing the kinds of comics we always wanted to do. It was a dream come true. That was his dream. And he lived it."
As Thompson grew older and the newer employees became 20 to 30 years younger than he was, he perhaps found fewer direct friendships in the office and took on more of a friendly uncle persona. "His infectious giggle is one thing that will always resonate in the walls of this office," current Fantagraphics employee Jacq Cohen told CR
. "As focused as he always was on work, he'd come by our desks almost every day to tell a funny anecdote." Thompson put on full display his array of personality quirks, employees citing his love of puns and his deadpan sarcasm. Cohen's co-worker Jen Vaughn mentioned that "Kim had a little dance he would do anytime he was supremely pleased with a review but mostly for Swedish fish and sugar cookies. It was mostly a shifting side-to-side on his toes while wide-steepled hands would bounce off the fingertips."
Asked after Thompson's personal development over the years, Gary Groth turned slightly philosophical. "I think he became more Kim. It was either Aristotle or Socrates who admonished become what you are, and by God, Kim became what he was." He added, "I think he loved European comics even more than I imagined and I think he fulfilled a dream by producing so many English translations in the last three or four years of his life. I don't know if he changed so much as he increasingly did what he most wanted to do, which is probably the most one can hope for at the end of one's life."
On March 6, Thompson announced through the company web site that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was taking a leave of absence in order to better pursue treatment. "Once he got that diagnosis, he never really came back," Catron told CR
. "For Kim that was incredible, because he was never out." Thompson had been sick since just before this year's Emerald City Comic Con several days before the announcement, and there are various anecdotal reports among friends that he may have been more tired than usual for a small period of time before becoming sick. Thompson's illness before the diagnosis alarmed several longtime co-workers who could not remember Thompson sick at all, let alone so sick he could not come into work or answer e-mail. After a brief period of apparent recovery and slightly better health at the start of treatment, Thompson's energy continued to deteriorate and the cancer spread. By early June chemotherapy was ended, and energies were focused on how to make Thompson more comfortable for his remaining days.
Despite some rumors to the contrary, no environmental cause has been nailed down for Thompson's cancer, nor has its exact, initial location in his body been identified with 100 percent certainty. There were elements of cancer in his lungs. Thompson was not a smoker.
Between his leave of absence and the announcement of Thompson's passing, a wave of ex-employees, friends and admirers sent Thompson and Emmert letters, made phone calls and visited him both in the hospital and at home. Fantagraphics employees and Seattle cartooning community member supported Thompson and Emmert in various ways available to them, such as driving Thompson to doctor's appointment, or bringing to their home prepared meals. On the convention and festival circuit, Fantagraphics employees and freelancers reported being pressed for details about Thompson's health by a wide array of well-wishers, and those within the circle that received on-line updates from Emmert commiserated over the particulars.
Peter Bagge told CR
that Kim remained devoted to work, and that it was his understanding that Thompson was even speaking about returning to work while very sick. He recalled traveling with Thompson a few years earlier. "During the drive I asked Kim what he contemplates doing if and when he ever got burned out on Fantagraphics. Seeing how I contemplate a change of careers every single day, this didn't strike me as an odd question to be asking him or anyone. Yet Kim reacted at first with stunned silence, and then said, 'Why would I want to do something else?' It was obvious that he never thought about doing something else for a single second."
The announcement of Thompson's death came from Fantagraphics approximately eight hours after his early-morning passing June 19. Spearheaded by Gary Groth, it was the kind of group effort to which Thompson at one point would have significantly contributed. An obituary, the formal publication of close-friend reminiscences, and a near industry-wide period of mourning and testimonials followed.
Charting the aftermath of Thompson's passing is still very much in its early stages, as friends struggle to process his absence in the midst of one of comics' busiest times of the years. In the immediate sense, Thompson will simply be missed when his friends and peers see each other on the convention circuit. "SDCC is going to be particularly difficult," Dean Mullaney told CR
Fantagraphics had been operating without Thompson since his initial illness. Eric Reynolds told The Comics Reporter
that a statement indicating a portion of Thompson's workload had passed to existing employees such as himself, Gary Groth and production manager Jason T. Miles was a fair one.
As Thompson was actively involved in the production of certain comics works with his company, his passing will have an impact on the company's production slate in the near future. "I believe there were 14 of Kim's foreign language books scheduled in the next season," Gary Groth told CR
. "We intend to publish a couple of them, but there's no way we can handle the majority. Some will be postponed to publish at a later date and some, sadly, will be cancelled." Groth stressed positive news for one of Kim's most well-received recent projects. "We certainly hope to continue publishing Tardi, who was among Kim's favorite cartoonists."
Asked how Thompson's death changed the ownership profile of Fantagraphics either short- or long-term, whether or not Thompson's share of the company returned to Groth or passed onto Emmert, Groth declined to go into detail. "I think it's a little too early to go into the details of this."
Thompson's passing brings into bold relief not only his individual accomplishments but his extended partnership with Gary Groth. It was suggested to Groth by CR
that a key to their longtime working relationship was that each one could function as his own man, but that they shared a commonality of cause and basic values. "I think that sums it up, broadly speaking," Groth said. "We both had a single-minded and unwavering allegiance to what Fantagraphics is and a near-total agreement of what that meant that any other differences [became] more trifling in comparison."
Peter Bagge observed, "Gary was more the public face of Fantagraphics, and more of a lightning rod, while Kim was the 'behind the scenes' guy: always at the office, in charge of production, giving employees their daily marching orders etc. Gary was the 'Dad' and Kim was the 'Mom' of Fanta, at least in the traditional Ozzie and Harriet sense of those words." One former Fantagraphics staffer speaking to this site as long as they were not attributed suggested that there was a strength just in having two people with equal authority at Fantagraphics, that some people might simply prefer working with Kim or with Gary and could choose to focus their efforts knowing the full weight of the company was behind either man.
Asked from the perspective of his own longstanding publishing partnership at Raw how Thompson might have functioned with Gary Groth over the decades, Art Spiegelman mostly demurred. "I'm too far away to be an authority on this, but my guess is that I've only found Kim to be supportive... I never found him cranky, let's say. He was supportive in terms of moving things where he wanted them to be moving, which was a high caliber of comics based on his tastes and what he drifted towards. We weren't always easy people to accommodate at Raw but whenever we needed something he was always front and center with no reward except for comics publishing being its own reward. It's hardly a brilliant insight, but Kim seemed adoptive of something he respected."
There was also something to be said for Thompson as an exemplar of a generation where one or two people might be involved in every aspect of a publishing house. Joe Sacco told CR
of the comfort he felt taking a variety of questions to Thompson: "For any business-related matter I'd turn to Kim and he was always prompt and exact with his answers. For an artist, that sort of straight-talk behind the scenes of creation is very important and reassuring."
Asked a follow-up question about their overlapping skill-sets, Groth admitted that he wasn't all the way certain where their strengths and weaknesses fit together. "Observers, some who have worked closely with us for years, have posited that Kim was the detail-oriented guy and I was looking at the big picture, and that these qualities complemented each other, but I suspect it's more complicated or nuanced than that," Groth told CR
. "After all, we could hire an anal-retentive employee and we could hire a Big Picture Guy, so I think it must've been more than that. In terms of administration, I think we were both equally skilled -- or unskilled. It may have boiled down to the fact that we both had the same objectives but that we also each had our own aesthetic obsessions, which almost always overlapped, and that between the two, we covered the range of great cartooning better than any other publisher could. I don't think Kim would've gone after the complete reprinting of Humbug
, for example, or Gahan Wilson or Bill Mauldin or the Disney books; and I wouldn't have sought out Jason or Tardi or the other Euro comics Kim championed."
Thompson remained bullish on Fantagraphics, and proud of the cartoonists they published. Bart Beaty: "The last time I saw Kim was at a Tony Millionaire signing at the Fantagraphics store. The Tardi books were just beginning to come out, or just on the verge. I remember saying to him that this was the final nail in the argument if anyone wanted to suggest Fantagraphics didn't have the deepest talent pool in the history of comics publishers: Crumb, Tardi, Barks, Schulz, Ware, Clowes, Los Bros, Sacco -- the list just went on and on. Kim told me that they had to do it. Tardi was a top two or three living cartoonist in the world, so Fantagraphics just had to have him in their stable. He was absolutely right."
Although Thompson did not do a public interview after becoming sick, he had been more active in generating publicity for certain works over the last decade and a half. It was clear from many of those discussions that Thompson had an idea how far he and comics and his company had come. In terms of comics generally, he told this site in 2011, "The industry has changed far more radically, and for the better, than I ever could have imagined, in terms of the respect accorded to comics, the level of work being produced, comics' place in the market, the whole ball of wax. You have to bear in mind that when we started cartoonists were literally wondering whether Americans would ever be willing to read comic books that ran beyond the length of an issue of Giant-Size Fantastic Four
." And while the industry hadn't developed in a way he might have once posited best, his survey of the art form's remarkable transformation was generous and hopeful. "I think a solid core of high-selling mainstream-y genre comics would be nice, but it really hasn't happened -- except for arguably the manga phenomenon, and I don't get the impression that the success of manga has bled back into non-manga comics -- and 'art comics' have achieved enough big successes now, Persepolis
in particular, that we may be stuck with the image of book-sized graphic novels as being serious literary work... or archival collections of initially mainstream work that have since acquired the patina
of art... I don't think American comics will ever have a Stieg Larsson or Stephen King. I know even Art Spiegelman is now pining for more vulgar, populist fare to shake out some of the graphic novel stuffiness -- which he realizes he himself is to a large degree responsible for! -- but it may just not be in the cards. We may be stuck with comics as art."
What might his own company's place be in that world of comics moving forward? Asked about the array of talented cartoonists represented in his company's catalog during that same 2011 interview, Thompson let loose with a fiercely proud response. "... Since we've had the Pogo
license for five years now, it was more the one-two combination of Barks's duck stories and the acquisition of the EC material that gave me a sort of 'holy shit' moment of realizing that if you take, say, the Comics Journal
's Top 100 list of yore and go down it, Fantagraphics is now so dominant it becomes almost ridiculous. I think the current Fantagraphics list is unambiguously the greatest list of cartoonists ever to be assembled under one publishing roof, period. I'm open to rebuttal, but, y'know, c'mon." Thompson's was a confidence earned over an adult lifetime of seven-day work-weeks and fostered despite every real-world indication at various points along the way that it may never be justified. No one denied its authenticity.
"One small comfort I have is that I know how proud Kim was of his legacy, he knew he built something important and he did not lack modesty on that front," Eric Reynolds told CR
. "And nor should he, because he was one of the most punk rock self-made men I'll ever know."
Joe Sacco: "I think we all know that without Kim and Gary we wouldn't have the flourishing comics industry there is today. More personally, Kim Thompson and Gary Groth believed in my work. I'll always be indebted to both of them for that. The sales of each issue of Palestine
dropped from one to the next, but they stuck with it 'til its run was complete. I don't think anyone else at that time would have considered publishing the kind of work I do."
"The connection I had with Kim is that I always saw him as an abettor of good things," Art Spigelman told CR
Kim Thompson was given an Inkpot Award by Comic-Con International in 2001, and in addition to sharing in the publication of numerous awards winners and nominees in the major comic book awards programs such as the Eisner and Harveys, he was himself a nominee by name in a Best Editor category in the former program's 1996 iteration.
"Kim was the brightest, smartest, most well-read man I'd ever met," Waid told CR
"He was as familiar with Proust as he was with Englehart, he spoke many other languages fluently, and because of his upbringing and travels, he was truly a citizen of the world. That said, he loved living in America for many reasons, not the least of which was this one: 'It's the only country on Earth where you can order a pizza at three o'clock in the morning.'"
"I always wished Kim would write a book about Euro comics. His emails all felt like pages in that book," Helge Dascher told CR
"He preferred to bring the comics into print -- the book could wait."
Seth: "Kim's work as fan, writer, editor, critic, translator and day-to-day publisher changed our medium in broad, deep and sweeping strokes. If you were alive and interested in the art and business of comic books from the 1970s until the present day then you already know how intimately Kim was involved in so many of the things that changed that medium. I don't need to make a case for his importance."
A memorial is still in the planning stages. Gary Groth told CR
that, "We're working on our preferred destination for contributions, but I haven't firmed it up yet." That information will be announced at a later date. A panel at this year's Comic-Con International is in the early planning stages as of this filing. While at least one ex-Fantagraphics staffer had posted through social media of an event commemorating Thompson's life planned for either August or
September, it looks like that day will come sooner rather than later. "There will definitely be a memorial in Seattle in August," Groth told CR
Kim Thompson is survived by his parents, by a younger brother, Mark Thompson, by his wife, Lynn, and by the publishing company that will in some significant way reflect his taste and personality for the remainder of its days. Thompson touched hundreds of lives, and helped facilitate a reinvigorated avenue of expression for an entire art form that has had an impact on millions. He will be sorely missed. Years after his passing dozens of men and women who knew him will on some level fundamentally disbelieve that Thompson somehow isn't
still in his office, at his desk, continuing to work, seeing to his life's passion.
as always, all art used in context and (c) their respective rights holder; some of the background information employed here was derived from work done by this author that went into the unpublished book
Comics As Art... We Told You So, which incidentally, I believe was a title supplied by Kim Thompson. Personal knowledge also played a small role here and there. All other information was I believe provided exclusively to this site, although I wouldn't be surprised if some writers have recycled or re-used material in the days since providing
CR with a quote or two.
posted 8:30 am PST
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