Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 23, 2011

Fantagraphics Acquires Gaines Library; Will Release B&W EC Books By Author; First Book: Kurtzman War


Fantagraphics announced at its company panel today at Comic-Con International that it has reached an agreement with William M. Gaines Agent, Inc. to publish one of the great founts of quality comics in the medium's history, the EC Comics Library.

The second major part of the announcement is that Fantagraphics plans to break with the tradition of presenting material from that publisher's lauded comics series such as Tales From The Crypt, Weird Science and Two-Fisted Tales as direct replications of the comic books or collections of same, and will instead format the books as (primarily) single-author books designed to throw the spotlight on specific creators in that company's roster of illustrative and comics-writing giants. The intention, says the publisher, is to present the material to a new generation that may not have been exposed to the EC Comics except in fits and starts, and to better underline specific artistic achievements of creators like Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood and Bernard Krigstein.

The first four books, to begin publication at that rate per year in 2012, are:

* Corpse On The Imjin And Other Stories. This will reprint all of the Harvey Kurtzman written-and-drawn war stories from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, as well as Kurtzman-written war work for EC "non-regulars" such as Gene Colan, Joe Kubert and Russ Heath.

* Came The Dawn and Other Stories. This is a Wally Wood collection, but of his tightly-wound suspense stories rather than perhaps more traditionally lauded work.

* Untitled Book Featuring Jack Davis' Horror Stories. Another great artist and another perhaps unappreciated source of comics stories for that artist, this time all written by the great Al Feldstein.

image* Untitled Book Featuring Al Williamson's Science Fiction Stories. This is exactly as it sounds, and promises 174 pages of material from Weird Fantasy and Weird Science.

CR talked to Fantagraphics co-publisher and series editor Gary Groth about the acquisition. He says that while he didn't wish to share details of the deal process in a way that might potentially run counter to the right-holder's desire to have such information made public, that it was another signing long in the making. Although Groth didn't indicate one way or another if this was a factor, recent EC publishing partner Gemstone (with Russ Cochran) made news in 2009 by admitting that its status was in a state of flux.

Groth said that Jacob Covey will design the books for Fantagraphics, although whether this will include an overall series design or whether the company will design each book from the group-up, and to what extent each strategy might be employed, is still being debated in the office. "I'm leaning toward treating each individual book as an individual book, customized to the individual artist," Groth stated. "I want to get away from treating EC Comics as this kind of cultist monolith. I want the stories to stand on their own." Groth admitted that the one thing that may eventually lead to more of a series design is the opportunity that comes with exploiting the still-popular EC brand.

The books will be in black and white. Groth indicated that support material in each volume will include at least an EC history and some sort of written profile on the featured artist, although additional and more selectively focused pieces are possible for each book.

Groth indicated that Fantagraphics has access to the pre-trend (the company's early days, starting in 1944), new trend (the glory days of the early 1950s) and new direction (mid-1950s post-Code efforts) offerings from the company -- essentially everything save for the Warner-owned MAD. Groth says that while the publisher will certainly focus on the best material from the company's obvious heyday, they will be open to using material from the early comics and will pay particular attention to the later comics, as they have a more direct artistic continuity with the new trend era.

The acquisition of this publishing effort makes for the fourth such tricky, massive series for the Seattle-based publisher, following in the footsteps of books featuring Peanuts and comics efforts starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Those efforts of course join any number of stand-alone efforts and archival series put onto the market by Fantagraphics. Asked if overtaxing his company's resources is a concern on any level, Groth readily admits they're reaching the limits of current production and announced plans to hire one and possibly two new employees by year's end. "I don't think I've ever worked longer hours in my life," the publisher said.

Groth claims a personal connection to the EC material that goes back to his days as a fanzine maker and comics collector, when he and a friend pooled resources and bought a complete run of the classic New Trend material. As a maker of quality comics just out of the future publisher's direct, historical grasp -- Groth grew up too late to read the book as they were published on the stands -- the EC comics had obtained an undeniable imprimatur of quality through a still-active fandom and some of that era's best writers about comics. "In that era, the early 1970s, EC really did represent a standard that hadn't been achieved since. Even today, with all of the changes of the last 30 years, they represent a significant benchmark in quality comics." Groth calls the work by Harvey Kurtzman in the first planned volume the finest work both written and drawn by the cartooning and cultural icon during his long and distinguished career.

"I assume there's a generation of comics readers out there that are either unfamiliar with EC Comics or only dimly familiar with them," Groth said of his decision to re-purpose the material into author-driven books, which he says was part of his original proposal. "I want to introduce EC Comics to a generation of readers."

imageGroth knew William Gaines, and interviewed him for a seminal issue of The Comics Journal. Asked if he had any insight into Gaines based on that contact and the fact that he himself has been a publisher of comics for decades now, Groth demurred. "I spent a great afternoon with Gaines for that interview," Groth told CR, "But I'm not sure I came away with any brilliant insights. EC was very much in the past for him, even though he could talk fluently about it. He remembered all the stories. He was very generous, loose and casual."

"The more I think of Gaines, the greater a publishing figure he becomes," Groth continued. "EC couldn't have existed without Gaines, specific books couldn't have happened without Gaines. He nurtured a lot of books, and had a sense of quality that virtually no publisher could match with the possible exception of St. John. Although he was somewhat paternalistic, you can see that from today's point of view, Gaines was incredibly generous to the artists by the standards of back then. He's a remarkable figure in comics publishing. I think among mainstream publishers he still might stand alone."

"It's an honor to be publishing books that William Gaines published."

images -- in color -- taken from previous reprints: Kurtzman, Williamson, Wood

posted 11:30 am PST | Permalink

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