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A Short Interview with Gary Groth and Kim Thompson
posted December 31, 1999

Who They Are: The co-owners and primary editors of Fantagraphics Books, the nation's largest publisher of alternative comic books.

Why They're Important: Fantagraphics grew out of the late-'70s detritus of the underground comix movement, when the head shops were regulated out of business and many of the artists moved on to more respectable jobs or dropped (further) out altogether.

Starting with a magazine, The Comics Journal, that applied sophisticated arts criticism and aggressive industry reporting to the American comic book and comic strip industries, Groth and Thompson helped spawn a second, more artistically significant arts comic movement.

Currently the eighth-largest comics company in North America, Fantagraphics publishes a significant number of the most important cartoonists in the world, including Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Jessica Abel, Charles Burns and Seattleites Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and Roberta Gregory.

TOM SPURGEON: After basing your company in the New York area and then Los Angeles, you've recently celebrated your 10th year in Seattle. How did you end up here, and why have you stayed?

GARY GROTH: It's mostly Pete Bagge's fault. After expressing my dislike of LA, he became a one-man Seattle Chamber of Commerce and kept lobbying for us to check it out. We did, we liked what we saw, we moved. When we moved from LA to Seattle, it took four tractor trailer trucks. Now, it would take ten. But inertia's not the only reason we've stayed. I like the scale of Seattle -- large but not too large, busy but not too busy, cosmopolitan but not too snooty about it -- and it's got everything a civilized city should have (bookstores, video stores, theater).

KIM THOMPSON: We fled New York because it was expensive and cold in the winter, and we fled Los Angeles because it was expensive and culturally foul. We figured Seattle was the only livable, affordable big city with a decent climate (i.e. no sweltering summers or freezing winters), which turned out to be true, so we have no reasons to flee. Also, we've put down familial ties, and can't conceive of a life without Scarecrow Video.

SPURGEON: Is there a Seattle comics community, and if so, what's your place in it?

GROTH: The Seattle comics community seems more scattered now than it did seven or eight years ago when it was really buzzing with portentous excitement. We've settled comfortably into our position as the old fogey hipster outfit who publishes old fogies like Peter Bagge and Jim Woodring.

THOMPSON: I guess it's a community, although "loosely knit" would be the kind way to put it. We're the drunken, bitter old uncle whom you humor because he might leave you something in his will.

SPURGEON: Robert Crumb or Art Spiegelman? Defend your answer.

GROTH: Crumb. I think his brand of self-conscious cartooning yields greater truths than Spiegelman's brand of self-conscious cartooning.

THOMPSON: As a thinker, Spiegelman. As a drawer, Crumb. As an editor, Spiegelman. As a liberating force, Crumb. Ultimately, if pressed to the wall, Crumb, because without Crumb there probably wouldn't be a Spiegelman, but without Spiegelman there'd still be a Crumb (although he probably wouldn't have gotten any New Yorker gigs).

SPURGEON: As an avenue of artistic expression, what do comics offer that no other medium can?

GROTH: The only thing comics has to offer is itself, a form unlike any other with its own unique properties and characteristics. At their best, comics yield ineffable and sublime pleasures that no other form can provide.

THOMPSON: It's the only visual narrative medium that (a) is (usually) controlled by a single vision and (b) happens inside your head, like music or prose. Comics are more interesting than movies because they leave more holes for you to fill in yourself, which is why Charlie Brown is more "real" than Travis Bickle.

SPURGEON: Will art comics be more marginalized or less marginalized 25 years from now?

GROTH: I couldn't tell you if art comics will be more or less marginalized 25 days from now. Insofar as it's hard to imagine how they could be more marginalized than they are now, I'd say that they'd have to be less marginalized, otherwise they'll be dead.

THOMPSON: I fear more, I hope less, I think probably about the same.

NOTE: This introduction and interview was done for something called The Stranger Guide to Seattle: The City's Smartest, Pickiest, Most Obsessive Urban Manual, from Sasquatch, which I've never seen. The thing I remember most about that book is that I was also given the assignment to write some hip bar reviews. So I would go to the worst dives I could, and drink a couple of beers and talk to Three-Eye Otis and Hunchback Annie because I thought it would be really funny if young people came to these horrible bars because they read it was cool in a book.

I do remember learning soon after publication that none of my work was credited. I think this piece got in there.