November 20, 2019
Tom Spurgeon, 1968-2019
By Douglas Wolk
Tom Spurgeon, the writer and editor of The Comics Reporter
, died November 13, at the age of 50. For the second half of his life, he was an extraordinary presence in American comics, as a chronicler of the medium and the industry around it, a critic, a convention organizer, and a nexus point for the comics community.
Born December 16, 1968, Spurgeon grew up in a media-immersed household in Muncie, Indiana: his father was a newspaper editor and reporter, and his mother ran a public-relations business. In high school, Spurgeon was his class president; in college, at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he was a lineman on the football team. According to the cartoonist Dan Wright, his friend for over 40 years, Spurgeon initially planned to go to law school after he graduated, but decided to attend Illinois' Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary instead. He never went into the ministry, but the pastoral impulse stayed with him.
After several years at seminary and a brief stint working for QVC in Pennsylvania, Spurgeon moved to Seattle, Washington, in 1994, to become the managing editor (and later executive editor) of The Comics Journal
. Eric Reynolds, then the magazine's news editor and now the associate publisher of Fantagraphics Books, says he and Spurgeon bonded quickly, and remained close ever after: "He was probably my best friend in the comic book business. He was a really good conceptual thinker, and had a really good eye for hiring talent for the Journal, but he was also a procrastinator. I was the reporter, and more detail-oriented than he was. But we complemented each other really well."
won four consecutive Eisner Awards for Best Comics-Related Periodical, from 1996 through 1999, and Spurgeon quickly gained a reputation in the comics community as a mensch and a wit. ("He pretty much won Halloween every year," Reynolds recalls. "One year, he was Big Boy, from Bob's Big Boy--he somehow made an actual giant hamburger that he took to a party.") Spurgeon could be difficult, and liked to argue, but seems to have rarely fallen out with anyone for good. If he challenged you, it probably meant he trusted you to rise to the challenge.
In that spirit, he convinced a number of his friends to make creative and professional leaps. As Dan Wright was approaching 30 and working as a graphic designer, he says, "I told Tom that I wanted to do something beyond a provincial approach to art. Tom said, 'you know, Dan, you should think about syndicated cartooning. You might have to learn how to write, but you've got the chops to do it.'" After Spurgeon mailed Wright books of classic comic strips to study, Wright developed a Christian-themed funny animal strip, initially titled Bobo's Progress
and later Wildwood
, and brought Spurgeon in to write it with him. It was syndicated by King Features from 1999, the year Spurgeon left the Journal
, to 2002.
Spurgeon collaborated on the 2003 biography Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book
with Jordan Raphael, who had met him as a summer intern at The Comics Journal
in 1995. Once the book was published, Raphael built this web site as a vehicle for Spurgeon's writing, funded by advertising. The Comics Reporter
launched October 11, 2004
, with Spurgeon's thoughts on a recent bestseller chart, an annotated pointer to a news announcement, an obituary for Christopher Reeve, and some slyly worded links to stories elsewhere ("Edmonton Paper Celebrates Four-Page Graphic Novel; Dave Sim Develops Face Tic").
The Comics Reporter
is where Spurgeon really made his mark, and he continued to post here almost every day for the rest of his life: news items, reviews, commentary, provocations, announcements of comics shows, and birthday congratulations to seemingly everyone associated with the medium. Some of his best writing here was personal writing, about the intersection of comics with his own life
. In his interviews
, he asked tough, complicated questions that almost invariably drew out long and thoughtful answers. Even his service journalism (holiday shopping guides
, tips for enjoying Comic-Con International
) was often a delight to read.
Spurgeon had strong opinions--his writing could flicker from withering dismissal to infectious awe in a few lines--and open eyes. He had a bottomless reserve of knowledge about and enthusiasm for every kind of comics he could get his hands on, including newspaper strips and editorial cartoons. When he mentioned creators on The Comics Reporter
, or linked to their work, they felt seen and championed. In particular, he made a habit of advocating for promising cartoonists who were just starting out, connecting them with gigs and raising their profile. He reserved some of his most stinging comments for his assessments of his own work, including The Comics Reporter
; nonetheless, it won Eisner Awards for Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
While The Comics Reporter
was running, Spurgeon continued to write elsewhere, sometimes about comics and sometimes not. (For a while, he wrote business articles for a pharmaceutical trade magazine edited by his friend Gil Roth.) Spurgeon began work on an oral history of Fantagraphics Books, We Told You So: Comics as Art
, in the mid-2000s; it spent around a decade in limbo before it finally appeared in 2016, co-credited to Michael Dean. ("That book was a great testament to our friendship," Eric Reynolds says, "because I think it would have ruined a lot of less strong friendships.") He also wrote the text for the 2011 art book The Romita Legacy
, about the artists John Romita, Sr., and John Romita, Jr., but noted in 2013 that he'd "never seen a copy of that Romita Legacy book--long story, all my fault."
For most of the early years of The Comics Reporter
, Spurgeon was living in Silver City, New Mexico, relatively physically isolated but a prolific correspondent. "Tom kept in touch with everyone--people from kindergarten and seminary and his college fraternity, and all the different lives that he'd lived," says Caitlin McGurk, Associate Curator and Assistant Professor at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. McGurk also credits her own career path to Spurgeon's encouragement: "Tom took me seriously, and the fact that he took me seriously meant that other people took me seriously."
In 2011, Spurgeon had a near-fatal medical crisis, about which he wrote a remarkable essay
on this site. His friends observe that his brush with death had a profound effect on him, and that after he recuperated, he became more serious about what he wanted to accomplish with his life. He moved to Columbus, Ohio, in March 2015, to take a job as executive director of the annual convention Cartoon Crossroads Columbus; he had friends waiting there to help him unload his U-Haul truck full of longboxes.
Almost immediately, Spurgeon became a fixture of the city's comics community. "Showing up was important to him," McGurk says. "Tom showed up to everything. If there was an obscure Turkish comics scholar giving a brown-bag lunch talk on a Tuesday, Tom would show up. At parties, he would find his place to sit for the evening, and he would just hold court."
Spurgeon had a broad range of enthusiasms he could discuss with the same robust, informed intelligence he brought to comics--history, movies, basketball, theater, horse-racing--but he was most interested in the people he was talking to. "No matter what the conversation was," McGurk says, "he would interrupt at some point and say 'how are you doing, though?' Emphasis on the you. He wanted to know about people's lives, even if he didn't know them very well."
In the Columbus years, Spurgeon wrote somewhat less for The Comics Reporter
; often, it was mostly links and images. One feature he took care to update, though, was "Comics By Request," in which he catalogued and commented on projects and creators in need of money. And, even more than before, he devoted his gifts to watching out for comics creators' health and well-being. An unrealized goal he often brought up with friends was starting a union for cartoonists.
Back in 2012, Tom asked me if I would write a short obituary for him if he were to die while The Comics Reporter
was still running ("like if I got eaten by a shark on my way to San Diego Con 2015," he wrote). It's strange to have words that aren't Tom's as the first ones readers encounter at a site whose voice was so completely and extensively his. It was a relief, though, to learn that The Comics Reporter
will be preserved by several different online archives. You may be reading this a few weeks after Tom Spurgeon's death, or years later, or long after everyone who knew him is gone. If you're coming to this site for the first time, I urge you to explore it, so you can see for yourself why we have reason to envy each other. You have our future, but we had Tom.
Photo Credit: Photo by Tony Amat Copyright 2013 SDCC
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