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Seminal publisher and critic Gary Groth talks past favorites and new discoveries

Posted by Rob Cline | Mar 17, 2016 | Arts & Entertainment, Mission Creek

Mission Creek Presents: A Conversation with Gary Groth

FilmScene — Wed., Apr. 6 at 7 p.m.

When it comes to comics, Gary Groth is both a champion and an iconoclast. Equally committed to the notions that comics deserve the full range of critical attention and that superheroes are simply ridiculous, Groth has earned the status of legend in the industry through his ongoing work with Fantagraphics Books and The Comics Journal.

In this email interview, Groth reflects on his career, and considers whether anything redemptive might be done in the superhero genre (his answer won’t surprise you). He also has a few suggestions for what you should be reading right now.

Little Village: 2016 is the 40th anniversary of Fantagraphics Books and The Comics Journal. As you look back over four decades of dedicated and acclaimed work as both a publisher and a critic, are there moments that stand out for you as times when you accomplished a key goal or moved the needle in terms of how comics are viewed by readers, critics and creators?

There are certainly flashpoints I could cite: Publishing Love & Rockets #1 in 1982; signing on previously unpublished and unknown cartoonists Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes and Joe Sacco in rapid succession (1982-1986); publishing The Complete Crumb Comics beginning in 1987; championing Jack Kirby’s fight to reclaim his original art (and his dignity) from Marvel in the mid-’80s; publishing Chris Ware in book form for the first time in 1993; publishing The Complete Peanuts beginning in 2004; publishing The Complete Zap Comix in 2014.

But, really, when you refer to “moving the needle in terms of how comics are viewed by readers, critics and creators,” which was nicely put and certainly one of our primary goals, I think it’s the sheer critical mass of what we’ve accomplished over the years — the long, tenacious, inch-by-inch slog to force the public, the book establishment, the critical establishment, the comics establishment, to take comics seriously as an art form and to take its place next to fiction, film, music et al. in the public consciousness. There’s no one thing that did this; it was a long, hard fight.

We fought this war on two fronts: The Comics Journal, which was a relentless (pre-internet) forum of contentious and contested discourse about comics, and the comics themselves. We’ve been criticized for having a conflict of interest by publishing a critical magazine about comics and publishing comics, about which there is some truth of course — but I’m firmly convinced that it took both to transform the public’s perception of comics.

Your work has included a commitment to preserving comics history through interviews. Are there conversations you particularly remember or treasure? Moments of insight that taught you something new about comics or shaped your ongoing critical work?

Most of my critical insights about comics were extrapolated from writers and critics who wrote about other forms, because there were so few critics who wrote about comics who had a fully formed critical grasp of comics. Don Phelps would certainly be an exception to that, and his eloquent writing about comics was always a guidepost. My frequent conversations — and debates — with Gil Kane helped hone my attitudes toward the form.

Looking over the interviews I’ve done, there are different slants to them. Some were contentious, closer to debates than interviews, such as Todd McFarlane or my illuminating (to me) one with Scott McCloud and Steve Bissette about creators’ rights. [There were] those that were more journalistic or historical in nature—I think my interview with Kevin Eastman is a high point, but there are a number of interviews I did with Silver Age artists like Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert. I love the interviews where we get into the nitty gritty of the art and the art-making and explore the philosophical disposition of the artist: Robert Crumb, Ralph Steadman, David Levine, Burne Hogarth, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, off the top of my head — Jesus, six artists who are so utterly different from each other!

Your disdain for superhero comics (and the related media that increasingly spins out of them) is well documented. Is there anything artistically redemptive (or even just interesting) that could be done in the superhero genre that might be worthwhile for the wider art form?

One should never discount the possibility given the infinite potentialities of art — but I doubt it. The genre is so intrinsically adolescent that it’s hard to conceive of it as ever getting past that built-in limitation; if Alan Moore couldn’t do it, it’s doubtful anyone could. I can certainly see where artist and writers could construct (or deconstruct) something clever and ingenious and amusing where the genre is bent or rearranged, but that’s not necessarily the same as a mature piece of art and has the faint whiff of desperation to it.

One observation spanning the last 40 years: Superheroes dominated the landscape when we started the Journal in 1976, which is why we railed so shrilly against them. Over those 40 years, literary comics (for want of a better term) have come to prominence, but so have superheroes in the wider culture — not in comics, but in movies. In 1976, no adult would be caught dead watching a superhero TV show or movie — the genre was considered so juvenile that it wouldn’t even be watched on television. Now, it’s the gold standard of pop culture. Which tells you something about how pop culture has evolved over the years. Sadly.

What’s being published right now (by Fantagraphics or by others) that’s exciting to you? Any new creators you think we should engage with right away? Veterans doing vibrant work at the moment?

I have to say, truthfully, that I think we’re publishing, qualitatively and quantitatively, the best books in the company’s 40 year history NOW. I’m not even sure where to begin. Of course, we just released Dan Clowes’ Patience, his first full-fledged graphic novel in over five years, and among his most ambitious and substantial.

We just published Ronald Searle’s America, a gigantic coffee table book collecting all of this British master’s drawings and cartoons and occasional commentary that he did for American magazines in the late ’50s and early ’60s; we published and immediately sold out of and are reprinting the legendary Argentine graphic novel The Eternaut by Francisco Solano Lopez and Hector Oesterheld, a post-apocalyptic science fiction story and political metaphor originally published in the late ’50s and never [before] translated into English; the first volume of our 10-volume series collecting the Italian Guido Crepax’s work came out this week, and about time that this comics master has been translated into English; we recently published a graphic novel titled Leaf by our first Chinese cartoonist, Daishu Ma, an understated, wordless comic about our contemporary urban paradise; we continue publishing collections by two of the finest humorists in the history of comics — Gahan Wilson (his latest, Gahan Wilson’s Out There, collecting his Fantasy & SF gag cartoons, as well as his short stories) and Charles Rodrigues (his latest, Gag on This, possibly the most funniest and most offensive cartoon collection ever published); original graphic novels by young cartoonists such as Liz Suburbia, Noah Van Sciver, Julia Gfrörer, Leslie Stein, Dash Shaw and Simon Hanselmann; we just released Frank in the Third Dimension, our first 3-D book, composed of a series of Frank tableaux by Jim Woodring; and a graphic novel for September release that I predict will be heralded as THE debut graphic novel of the decade, Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monsters, an absolutely stunning tour de force that reads like a combination of drawing by Robert Crumb, Otto Dix and George Grosz and writing by Robert Musil and Joseph Roth. I can’t even begin to describe how good this is.

We are publishing an oversized original art collection by Jaime Hernandez, one of the most masterful draftsmen and storytellers to emerge in the last 30 years, and let us not forget Blubber, Gilbert Hernandez’s current comic book that brings the subconscious and the id back into independent comics with a vengeance. Oh, and did I mention that we’re publishing our first pop-up book in September, Zahhak, an Iranian fable, written and drawn by Hamid Rahmanian and breathtakingly engineered by Simon Arizpe, which surely pushes the art of three-dimensional books?

I could go on and on, and I guess I have. But I am excited by what we’re doing and I feel especially pleased that after 40 years of toil and struggle, we are still on our game.

Rob Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 195.

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[…] Publishing | Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics and editor-in-chief of The Comics Journal, talks about his 40 years in the business, his favorite comics interviews, and his thoughts on superhero comics, and offers some suggestions for recommended reading. [Little Village] […]

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