Pushing the Limits

Japanese comics master Yoshihiro Tatsumi has a word of caution for readers of his new book The Push Man and Other Stories: “Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.”

Adrian Tomine, the editor of this revelatory collection of Tatsumi’s late-’60s manga (just out from Drawn & Quarterly), seconds the author’s concern in a recent interview: “Some of the content of these stories is pretty surprising, especially considering they were originally published over 30 years ago.” Among The Push Man‘s street-level protagonists are tongue-tied laborers who mutilate their prostitute girlfriends, a wife-abusing hit man with a weak stomach, a taciturn projectionist who traverses Japan to screen porn for corporate officers, and sewer workers who search for wayward treasures as they slog through underground streams clogged with rats, garbage, and aborted fetuses.

Not your father’s funny papers. Indeed, Tomine writes in the introduction that “Tatsumi’s work was comprised of compact, elliptical short stories which, like the best modern prose fiction, were simultaneously satisfying and open-ended.” (In contrast, America’s underground comix of this same era generally wallowed in spectacular depictions of sex and violence, as in R. Crumb’s autobiographical fantasias of shtupping mountainous Amazons and beheading repressive nuns.) Tomine says that Tatsumi’s lack of mainstream success “allowed him to be almost rebellious in his style.” But like the book’s title character, a subway worker whose job consists of shoving riders aboard overcrowded trains, Tatsumi’s countrymen are far too worn down for rebellion. Where Italo Calvino found humor and perseverance in the lumpen city dwellers of his poignant Marcovaldo stories, set in the working-class tumult of postwar Italy, Tatsumi’s blue-and no-collar toilers have grown up under the cloud of utter defeat suffered by their entire nation in 1945.

Tomine, a widely accomplished cartoonist himself (Optic Nerve, Summer Blonde), stresses Tatsumi’s sense of economy. “All of the stories hint at much more than they make explicit, which rewards repeated reading,” he says and as an example points to “Telescope,” a complex tale of voyeurism entwined with primal coercion. As with most of the 16 stories, it is told in eight spare black-and-white pages, and the final three panels are starkly beautiful evocations of the stillness that marks the boundary between life and death.

“Tatsumi devised a style that employed detail on an ‘as needed’ basis,” Tomine observes. “His characters are defined and expressive, but also simplified visually in a way that engages the reader far more than had they been drawn in a photo-realistic style.” Often these trenchant portrayals speak for characters too inarticulate to express their own stillborn hopes, a motif carried into every aspect of the art. Tomine emphasizes that Tatsumi “often draws very detailed backgrounds initially to set the scene but then eases up on this kind of detail as the scene progresses. Sometimes there are no backgrounds at all, but the stories all have a very specific, believable atmosphere.” In “Projectionist,” the socially stifled, middle-aged title character begins his journey amid a welter of calligraphically festooned paper lanterns and signs for bars and brothels. His trade, rendered only in quick flashes of breasts or thighs on a portable screen, has the execs mopping their brows while a secretary chokes with embarrassment. When he returns home to his frustrated wife, their sterile apartment building is reduced to a composition of blank, abstract shapes.

A fearless spelunker of the id, Tatsumi delves beneath the button-down uniformity of Japan’s legions of office drones. “Bedridden,” one of the longer pieces, plumbs the depravity of a salaryman who imprisons a deformed and crippled sex slave—never revealed amid her den of quilts and pillows—in his shuttered apartment. Speculating on why their homely, fortysomething colleague refuses to join them for aprés-work drinks and geishas, his officemates shrug, observing, “Yeah, he’s creepy.” When his secret is discovered, he tries to justify his vile behavior: “You must’ve heard of the ancient Chinese custom of footbinding—women were re-shaped to please men.” Shortly afterward he falls victim to a co-worker lusting to take over as the woman’s ninth “master.” This nightmare is realistically grounded by mundane street scenes edged with sagging awnings and a government ministry clotted by the weary queues of bureaucracy.

Tomine calls the now 70-year-old artist a trailblazer, noting that “there weren’t a lot of examples for him to follow in the world of Japanese comics in the ’60s.” He speculates that “it was probably Tatsumi’s own personality and convictions that led to his somewhat ‘underground’ sensibility, more than any external influence.” Japanese pop culture often seems a candy-coated parade of Hello Kitty plushies or garish anime depicting provocatively posed, doe-eyed schoolgirls, but these stories, done on the cheap back in the day, reveal an artist who was making comics that weren’t just adult, but truly mature.


American Gods

Alex Ross, one of America’s preeminent comic-book artists, recounts the genesis of his 1997 Uncle Sam comic. “[Writer] Steve Darnall and I both felt that our culture was at a crossroads of its own selfishness,” he says from his studio near Chicago. “The American spirit was at a very low ebb,” he adds, pointing to the profligate Clinton economic boom as “a blinding factor.”

Asked to do a cover painting for this issue of the Voice — a riff on the finger-flipping patriot deemed too provocative for the hardcover edition of Uncle Sam — the chronically overscheduled Ross hesitates, then chuckles. “If you’d asked for anything else, I’d have had to say no. But I’ve wanted to get that one out there for a long time.”

“Uncle Sam represents the government,” Ross says, “and our current government is giving us the finger. But you can turn that around and see the true spirit of the nation giving it back to a government that is telling its citizens, ‘We know what’s best — don’t question us.’ That finger is definitely a fuck-you back at this government.”

He elaborates: “Everyone’s asking why are we in Iraq? We were sold a bill of goods. This is a show of strength to scare the rest of the world — go after the obvious bad guy. It’s like Batman going after the Penguin because he can’t find the real villain, the Joker. Batman would never do that just for show — that kind of thing only works for lone justice anyway, not with countries. [The administration] is feeding its ego by trying to send that kind of cowboy justice out into the world. You can’t take vigilante philosophy onto that kind of scale.”

Alex Ross’s “Uncle Sam”: A surreal journey through the history of empire

Uncle Sam sends the top-hatted patriot on a journey of wrenching revelation. Ross chillingly animates a lawn jockey, paints an unflinching, ghastly portrayal of a lynching, and uses the painfully clashing colors of azure sky against bloody corpses to highlight the cruelty of the Indian Removal Bill of 1832. Enraged at what has been wrought in his name, Sam grows to Brobdingnagian proportions and challenges his cynical contemporary doppelgänger to a fight, using federal buildings in Washington as a boxing ring — a wild invention that allows this synthesis of man and culture to regain his original ideals. Uncle Sam is a warning about the hubris of empire; if our society must now be seen through the scrim of 9-11, a citizen could do worse than give it a serious read.

Ross painted the cover the next day, then left his home near Chicago to start a book tour promoting Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross (written and designed by Chip Kidd, just out in stores from Pantheon; see below for local events). In addition to taking the down-on-his-luck, red-white-and-blue icon on a chutes ‘n’ ladders ride through American history, Ross is most renowned for his hyper-realistic renderings of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and many more. Just as he scrupulously followed James Montgomery Flagg’s original 1917 design for Uncle Sam, Ross’s respect for the history, the “essential purity,” of the original comic-book superheroes borders on reverence.

To fully appreciate Ross’s achievement, it’s necessary to look at the artists who came before him. Although their figures were often stiff or rubbery, the best of the early practitioners showed an intuitive grasp of the limitations of a medium that went through an elaborate, collaborative process before hitting the streets in wire-wrapped bundles. Even the most skilled draftsmen had to hand lithe pencil drawings over to an inker, who, while making the lines solid enough for reproduction, hopefully didn’t flatten the life out of them. Next came the colorist, who used a limited palette to fill in the outlines. Even if these artists meshed well to create dynamic, colorful pages, the whole shebang was then shipped off to the printers — inevitably a gang of thieves driven by economies of scale to shove anything legible out the door, color match and registration be damned.

Ross’s new Justice League of America: reverence for eight decades of American idealism

Comic books began as the scheme of an unemployed Bronx salesman wanting to keep huge, capital-intensive newspaper presses from sitting idle during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Ever since Superman burst upon the world in 1938, espousing faith in democracy, the triumph of justice over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for the common good, the comics have proved a keen expression of America’s garish, idealistic — and contradictory — soul. If the Man of Steel was a role model for millions of young fans, offering them refuge from an ever more threatening world, some grown-ups considered the cheap magazines a menace. In 1954 their most vociferous critic, a New York City psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, wrote that comic books were “not poetic, not literary, have no relation to any art, and have as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin, or marihuana, although many people take them, too.” (Is this a great country or what?)

One of the originators of the art form, Jack Kirby, was born on the Lower East Side in 1917. Co-creator of Captain America, he depicted the flag-clad superhero busting one on Hitler’s chin almost a year before the U.S. entered World War II. The young artist believed “comics were a common form of art and strictly American.… America was the home of the common man, and show me the common man that can’t do a comic.” Alas, both Mythology and another new book, Arlen Schumer’s The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (Collector’s Press), contradict this appealing sentiment by proving just how uncommon great comic-book artists actually are.

Though artistically and financially devastated by the good Dr. Wertham’s ’50s moral crusade, comic books were experiencing a renaissance by the early ’60s. Schumer, an illustrator, lecturer, and comics historian, points out that a handful of artists (including a stronger-than-ever Kirby) turned this bastard medium’s limitations into strengths through strong figure drawing (a skill long atrophying in American fine art), innovative compositions, and sophisticated graphics. Schumer captures the era with a tenfold enlargement of a tiny Carmine Infantino panel of the Flash sprinting out of a ranch house, a perfectly proportioned figure in a landscape; Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man slaloming between skyscrapers, his body torqued into beautiful arabesques; and Joe Kubert’s Sgt. Rock, carved out of deft brushstrokes that convey war-weariness and the burden of keeping his men alive. (This month sees the release of Kubert’s Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place, a half-century after he first brought the character to life. Kubert has illustrated Brian Azzarello’s compelling story with spare, scabrous depictions of the nihilism of war.)

With dense, informative layouts Schumer shows how these artists helped define the decade. He relates Tom Wolfe’s description of LSD proselytizer Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.” Kubert evokes the My Lai massacre by having Sgt. Rock confront a soldier who has just murdered unarmed German civilians. By contrasting the noble, duty-bound Rock against the heavily armed soldier’s arrogant pose, the artist succinctly portrays the gulf between America’s motives in World War II and in Vietnam. Kirby thrusts the Fantastic Four into the “Negative Zone,” a universe of coarse black-and-white half-tone collages, where the colorful atomic mutants drift amid asteroids searching for a planet-size intelligence named Ego. “I began to throw my mind out in all different directions,” Kirby says in the book. In 1966 he upped the ante with Galactus, whom he called a “true god.… Everybody talks about God, but what does he look like?… I drew him large and awesome.” The humanist spark that drove all of Kirby’s work is echoed in Galactus’s own dialogue: “I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man!… It shall one day lift you beyond the stars or bury you within the ruins of your wars!” Kirby needed such vast themes to keep pace with the art he was splashing across the colorful two-page spreads opening many of his stories: Layered scenes of destruction, creation, and war, they verge on incoherence but are as controlled and improbably gorgeous as Jackson Pollock’s allover murals.

It’s not known if Kirby was a fan of abstract expressionism, but any art form can be judged by who steals from it. If Roy Lichtenstein simply scaled-up and tweaked the compositions of Irv Novick’s original panels, Robert Rauschenberg dug deeper and found the vernacular beauty of crummy printing processes: What were his polka-dot bedsheet grounds but homages to the crude benday dots of the Sunday strips he collaged on top? Warhol painted Superman, but it’s his grim Marilyn icons and car crashes, with their flailing colors barely constrained by screen-printed black outlines, that owe their shocking beauty to the raw coloring and printing pioneered by the comics. According to writer Mark Evanier, Kirby claimed Lichtenstein once came around looking for a job. He didn’t get it, because “Jack seemed to think the guy’s work wasn’t very good, either then or when he started selling paintings for large sums.”

Schumer closes Silver Age with the artist who pushed furthest beyond the limits: Neal Adams. Best known for rescuing Batman from the camp hell of ABC’s popular TV series by returning the Dark Knight to his somber, vigilante roots, Adams is, simply put, one of the greatest draftsmen this country has ever produced. “Neal Adams changed everything,” says Alex Ross in Mythology. “He defined what realistic, dynamic storytelling in comics would be for all time.”

Not that Adams will own up to it. During a recent interview a deep, broad accent comes down the phone line as he recounts the tale of some Frenchmen visiting his studio: “Ahhh yez, America does zree forms of art — your musical comedy, jazz, and comic books.” Adams laughs, and says he replied: “It’s something you take into the bathroom, and if you take a nice long shit, you can finish a whole comic book.”

Neal Adams’s Green Lantern traverses America’s racial, class, and political divides, circa 1972: “I had, I must say, some little, small thing to do with moving through the ’60s and discrimination in America.”

If not false, his modesty is at least disingenuous; minutes later he speaks of putting his “heart and soul” into Green Lantern comics for $45 a page when he could have been making hundreds doing advertising layouts. In 1970, Adams and writer Denny O’Neil sent Green Lantern (a test pilot made nigh-on invincible through an alien power source) and a hippie Robin Hood named Green Arrow on a journey to discover America. Green Arrow teaches his straitlaced friend that the law is not always on the side of justice, as they bring down a cruel slumlord in one issue and defeat an army of goons protecting a greedy mine owner in the next.

Adams displays his chops throughout the series in judiciously detailed drawings of trash-strewn tenements, stunningly natural figures, masterful foreshortening, and emotional portraits that, in another epoch, would’ve earned him a place at the Court of the Medici. In an iconic panel, Green Arrow stands before posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and decries their assassinations: “Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!” Three years later, John Dean told Richard Nixon there was “a cancer… close to the presidency,” as Tricky Dick came to personify everything Adams’s characters railed against. Adams created dramatic layouts — X-Men plunged diagonally down pages, entire sequential scenes played out within the silhouette of Batman’s cape — energizing stories that passed the ideals of superheroes on to a new generation. Even though these tales were “printed on toilet paper,” Adams recalls, “kids fucking loved them!” He sounds like a superhero himself when he emphatically adds, “I am for justice, I am for democracy, I am for helping the other guy. I am my brother’s keeper.”

Chip Kidd, designer of Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross, has a deep appreciation for the period from the dawn of comics up through Adams. He compares the shortcomings of the earlier era to Maria Callas’s voice, which, while not technically pretty, has “some weird, secret ingredient that makes it really special.” But Mythology makes it clear that Ross’s smoothly modeled paintings could not have withstood the degradations of back-in-the-day printing; his art needs fine screens, glossy stock, and dead-eye registration to work its illusional magic. If superhuman beings zooming about in tights and flowing capes are, on the face of it, absurd, the verisimilitude of Ross’s portrayals stubbornly insists otherwise in the translucent shadow of Batman’s cape, the Sandman serrated by streetlights shining through venetian blinds, or the Flash, in perpetual motion, an indistinct scarlet blur.

The critic Robert Hughes has noted that while America is ostensibly one of the most religious nations on earth, it has “produced very little in the way of original religious art.” In 1996, Ross, a minister’s son, took superheroes who’d been around for 60-odd years and (with writer Mark Waid) gave them the gravitas of religious myth. Their four-part series Kingdom Come envisions Armageddon: the original generation of superheroes squared off against their power-drunk offspring to decide humanity’s fate. Ross portrays Superman as paralyzed by the enormous responsibility of being the world’s greatest superpower; finally, though, he consults with the UN and goes to war (after painstakingly building a broad coalition).

The world’s greatest superpower, staggered and confused: “Kingdom Come”

Some of these apocalyptic battle scenes are reproduced in Mythology — fantastic beings blasting and slashing each other amid compositions that reveal their underlying structural grace after repeated viewings. Ross’s work gains power from the cumulative effect of painted panel piled upon painted panel. It isn’t a cinematic experience — though he has much more feeling for these characters than any mercenary director — but an unfurling frieze of fantasy made manifest. On a smaller scale, Ross excels at capturing emotion: Captain Marvel, driven mad by the malevolent Lex Luthor, decks Superman with a thunderbolt, then flashes a grin conveying lunacy and pitiless power. After a climax of near biblical destruction, “the gods work with mankind towards a common good.” In an age when America’s most implacable enemies (both at home and abroad) are besotted with religion, Kingdom Come feels eerily prescient.

As with Adams’s work, it is the stories Ross chooses to illustrate that make his work important. Asked if he viewed the Uncle Sam comic as an act of patriotism, Ross replies that it’s “an act of humanitarianism.” (He knows whereof he speaks: Ross has donated more than $350,000 from the sale of his original art to such charities as UNICEF and the Reisenbach Charter School in Harlem.)

Kidd supplies many close-ups of Ross sketches and paintings, giving an idea of why a Batman scene fetched $65,000 at Sotheby’s. Virtuoso pencil sketches, the result of long life-drawing sessions, and vivid gouaches fashioned from sure brushstrokes and airbrushed hazes make one realize that even modern reproduction techniques take their toll on original art. Still, Ross can be criticized when his photo references get in the way of his imagination — compared to a pastiched, flatly lit final version of Superman before Congress, a quick, preparatory ink sketch is more organic and convincing.

Mythology closes with a bang. Co-written with Kidd, “The Trust” is an eight-page roller-coaster ride of terrific, economical storytelling and propulsive visuals. For the general reader, who knows little of Batman and Superman’s long, prickly history, the concise dialogue (kept to a minimum to free up the art) provides all needed backstory. Ross launches the Man of Steel through the air like a titanium missile, Batman trailing behind on the Batrope, the silken cord making graceful arcs and taut diagonals that seamlessly knit the action together; the backgrounds hurtle by. Colors are vibrant and expositional, subtly defining aspects of each character and scene. A work of art, “The Trust” ends too soon, but it ends right, a reminder that comic books, like baseball and rock ‘n’ roll, are one of America’s joyous gifts to the world, created for the young but with reverberations for the ages.

Alex Ross and Chip Kidd appear at Barnes & Noble Union Square on November 20 at 7, and at Midtown Comics (200 West 40th Street) on November 21 at 5.

Ross will appear at an exhibition of his original art at Illustration House (110 West 25th Street) on November 22 at 6 (a benefit for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art).

A book party for Arlen Schumer’s Silver Age of Comic Book Art will be held on November 21 at 7 at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, at 34th Street.


Graphic Content

To the untutored eye, graphic novels appear to be enjoying a heyday. The mainstream success of Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, and now Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis further diminished long-standing prejudices about comics as mere kid stuff, as did the movie versions of Ghost World and From Hell. Yet many of the small publishers who built this city perpetually hover on the brink of financial disaster.

Last year, two small operations that specialize in highbrow comics—Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly—nearly folded when their distributor went out of business. They survived by appealing to their fans to buy their books. Several weeks ago, another company found itself in a similar situation: Fantagraphics, the big bang of the alternative comix cosmos. Their roster has included luminaries like Ware, Los Bros Hernandez, Roberta Gregory, Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, and Clowes (since departed to Pantheon). But critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills. Several weeks ago, Fantagraphics started groveling for dollars. The owners sent out an urgent plea via the Internet asking readers to purchase $80,000 worth of books (above usual sales) to cover their immediate debt, caused by overprinting.

“I guess it’s a tradition now,” Fantagraphics president Gary Groth says with a rueful laugh. “Begging people to buy books instead of actually marketing them.”

The money poured in and collapse was averted, but only after some serious bitchiness on the comics bulletin boards and blogs. “I really couldn’t give a damn if Fantagraphics went tits up,” one cartoonist posted, continuing, “I’ve no interest in running to the rescue of a company that belittles some of my interests in comics.” These sour responses didn’t surprise Groth, who revels in his reputation as the bête noire of the comics world. (Clowes once satirized him as “Mr. Anger.”) Since he started publishing The Comics Journal in 1976, Groth has become a grand provocateur: He has loudly scorned lowbrow superhero comics and frequently penned manifestos calling for higher artistic standards.

Small and wiry, Groth looks relatively laid-back as he sits in a Manhattan café, shoveling salad into his mouth between questions. Opinionated and erudite, he’s as capable of discussing Rick Moody as Krazy Kat. And he has no qualms about using highfalutin language to get a point across, which is how he’s earned the tag “elitist.” In a forthcoming Comics Journal essay he rants about his hatred of the scene’s rah-rah sensibility and the need for a more critical mindset in comics. After setting the tone with quotes from philosophers Hans Magnus Enzensberger and E.M. Cioran, Groth complains that, as they achieved a modicum of success, “young cartoonists who considered themselves bona fide artists became insiders at alternative conventions, beach parties, award ceremonies, and in their local comix communities. The usual deceptions essential to greasing the social machinery quickly followed, the first being that they constituted one big, happy family—or one big, happy family circa 1954. No disagreements allowed.” Asked to elaborate, Groth sighs, “It’s like some big Andy Hardy movie where everyone’s pitching in and being supportive of each other—even if the other guy is doing dreck. People aren’t going to get better at what they do if they live in this cocoon of reciprocal backslapping.”

With that kind of caustic attitude, it’s amazing that Groth’s never had his lights punched out. In its 27 years of existence, Fantagraphics has been sued (and cleared) three times for libel and defamation of character—mostly famously in the ’80s by comic book writer Michael Fleischer because of comments made by SF novelist Harlan Ellison during a Comics Journal interview. The case dragged on for seven years and polarized much of the comics industry. Groth recalls, “There was one convention where [Fleischer] recruited people to draw for him and sell the drawings for his legal fund, and I created an ad hoc group of artists to draw opposite his artists. The room festered with venom and hatred until the guy who ran the convention finally told us we all had to leave!” To make matters worse, Groth and Ellison had their own falling-out during the lawsuit. In 1994, Fantagraphics made the bad feelings eternal by publishing The Book on the Edge of Forever, a tract that cruelly documents Ellison’s long-promised but endlessly delayed science fiction anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, which he’s been editing for more than 30 years.

Kim Thompson, Groth’s longtime partner at Fantagraphics, says that readers do sometimes confuse the company with the comics. “You hear from people who say, ‘I’ve never bought a Fantagraphics book because you guys are such assholes.’ That’s just strange to me. If Adolf Hitler put out the next Garrison Keillor book, I’d still buy it!” A few moments later, he recants. “OK, that’s an extreme example. But these are people who say, ‘You wrote a nasty article about an artist I like 10 years ago in The Comics Journal, therefore I’ll never ever buy Love and Rockets.’ And there are probably comics stores that don’t stock our stuff because they think Gary and I are dicks. But let’s face it, if you’re a shop that has any claim to carrying alternative comics and you’re not carrying Eightball or Acme Novelty Library, that’s stupid.”

Some in the industry think they’re shooting themselves in the foot. “I love Fantagraphics, but they’re a bunch of boobs sometimes!” says Chip Kidd, associate art director of jackets and special projects at Knopf, who’s also largely responsible for Pantheon’s stellar line of graphic novels. “The idea that Fantagraphics is a publisher but also puts out this comics magazine that dive-bombs its own products—it’s just crazy! They’ll run a review that rips apart something they just published!”

Maybe it’s crazy, but it also smacks of a refreshing, near-extinct kind of integrity and idealism. As the publishing world grows ever more corporate and contracts to fewer and fewer outlets, Fantagraphics stubbornly keeps business truculent and personal. Let it never be said that they let profit get in the way of voicing an honest opinion.

Despite anti-authoritarian and self-sabotaging tendencies (and very little cash), Fantagraphics somehow made it through nearly three decades on passion and luck. Groth and Thompson happily admit they have no business sense—they only knew they wanted to encourage more people to follow the path of literate, iconoclastic figures like Crumb and Art Spiegelman. The first comic Fantagraphics published, in 1982, was the extraordinary Love and Rockets by L.A. brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and (initially) Mario Hernandez, which in part followed two punk Latino chicks from teendom through adulthood. Inspired by L&R, other artists flocked to Fantagraphics, and in the next few years the company published dozens of young talents who became linchpins of the burgeoning alternative comix movement.

In the ’80s and ’90s, alt-comix developed the same adversarial relationship with the superhero mainstream of pulp comics that indie rock had with heavy metal. Funnily enough, by the late ’80s Fantagraphics had moved to Seattle, where the nascent grunge movement was coalescing around Sub Pop Records. But although there was a boom in independent comics, there was never really a comix version of Nirvana to explode the genre into the mainstream. Then the boom turned to a bust. “Every month we were losing ground, and there was nothing we could do,” Groth recalls. Looking for a quick cash-flow fix in 1991, Fantagraphics turned to sex comics. “Porn came to us in a vision,” jokes Thompson, but the Eros imprint pulled them out of their hole within a year and remains a profitable part of the company.

Groth believes the financial problems are worse this time around, and he chalks it up to a combination of poor management skills and bad luck. Fantagraphics lost about $70,000 when their distributor went bankrupt a few years back. But they immediately hooked up with W.W. Norton, enabling them to ride the most recent graphic-novel craze. Excited by the success of Ware, Clowes, and Sacco, Fantagraphics made a near fatal publishing error, printing too many books and leaving themselves severely short of cash. “One day I noticed all these bills imminently due and I saw what our receivables were,” says Groth quietly, “and then the full impact of how fucked we were entered our consciousness.” Although the duo was understandably worried that the comics community might spurn them, Groth and Thompson decided to make a public cry for help, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf, who had also been screwed up by distributor problems.

“It points up the inherent financial instability of publishing alternative comics,” Groth suggests. The margins of profitability are very tight, he says, while the genre’s fan base is compact. It’s also hard to reach customers, since many comics stores shun alt-comix in favor of the bread-and-butter superhero stuff. And although mainstream bookstores are slightly more open to graphic novels these days, they still don’t really get how to sell them. All this helps to explain why “every other remotely independent comics publisher has gone out of business over the last 16 years,” Groth points out. “Pacific Comics, Eclipse, First Comics, Kitchen Sink—any company that had a staff and overhead has gone out of business, which makes it even more miraculous that we have 30 employees.”

Thompson says, “Sometimes I literally think we’re like the coyote who’s run off the cliff and is not aware that he’s run off the cliff yet. That’s why we’re still here.”