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The Orange Won’t Peel – In which a publisher kicks to start

The Open

God, I’m getting topical.

The Feature 

Fantagraphics Books, the publishing beacon of alternative comics, must fund their “Spring 2014 Season” via Kickstarter, an effort publicized yesterday, resulting in an already sizable donation amount of (this writing) $64,489.

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A number of Op/Eds will circulate and analyze the matter in the coming weeks (no doubt about it), published by the likes of comics-comics websites, official news outlets and fluid Twitter release, yet it’s unclear exactly how the event will be judged. Most cartoonists seem in support of the move (a support I won’t negate or disagree with), and one can only assume that the self-appointed comics financial sector will dig beneath all that math, informing us of “the industry” and why it’s dying.

But what’s interesting, I think, is the statement this makes on comics as a whole and the thin line this community/medium tip toes. I mean, consider it, Fantagraphics – THE publisher of alternatively ambitious comic books – needs a group hug. Without it, an entire “season” remains unmassed, and a few important cartoonists will watch their hard work collect dust, awaiting next “season” (although, someone should report this – what if ((and a highly doubted what if)) the Kickstarter goal isn’t met, what happens to these projects?).The occurrence and Gary Groth’s quotes in this CBR interview remind of the fragile structure supporting our medium, especially in terms of what the absence of a particular figure (Kim Thompson) may bring both an art form and business. To dress it up, it’s a sad realization that even giants possess bruisable ankles.

It’s easy to interpret yesterday’s news depressingly, though, so I’d prefer to see this as a charming turn of events, more so about the romantic thrill of cutting it close and taking charge than of unquestionable necessity and doom. Maybe something similar to that of Hunter Thompson’s “edge,” an invisible scratch mark left somewhere in the desert sand, and Fantagraphics, or any publisher for that matter, is the individual flirting with it, pushing boundaries in the face of absolute demise. Living within crisis.

Take this Groth quote from the Kickstarter page explaining the publisher’s internal debate as to whether involve an outside investor:

“We have throughout our history flirted with the idea of looking for an investor, but rejected it on principle: unless someone invested in us in the spirit of being a patron of the arts —highly unlikely— that way leads not only to madness but to the slow erosion of the core principles the company was founded on.”

Some may categorize this as a a shallow decision based only on stale, youthful rationale, but Groth’s statement is a stance for the sort of trajectory Fantagraphics holds genuine, and while it may endanger the very production of the art Groth and Co. want to release, it means more to them to flirt with risk than to sleep with security.

Something about that strikes me as very “comics,” riffing on the self-reliant backbone supporting the art where literally one cartoonist, a sheet of paper and a pen can create something. Independence lies at the heart of this thing, and Fantagraphics’s self-effort to capture funding channels such DIY-ability. They’re not waiting on a series of business meetings or particular clearance as for what to publish. Instead, they’re running with it, offering you your very own “Groth Voicemail” for $40, as to navigate the course they want. There’s no denying the intimacy of that. Or the excitement of participating in something so mortal, so ground floor.

Or so well organized. I mean, I, too, am sick of the Kickstarter thing. It’s long been maxed out, run dry by the likes of Tony Harris, but even so, this publisher did a solid job of presenting its case. Glance at Fantagraphics’s campaign, and it’s clear that this is more so about an impact than launching some cheap dream formed by a born-again script writer. Pairing a 39-tall stack of books with the company’s Clowes-drawn shield logo was enough to give the impression of the totality at hand, and the letter from Groth, a man I would never expect to pay Kickstarter any attention,  spiked the whole affair with an eerie chill. The institution, and basically alternative comics, are on display now, and they’re asking for your support. Yesterday was a moment in which some of us – I know I did – stepped back and realized how much we love this culture and what we would feel if suddenly without it. It was a moment in which we realized how close we are, dangling along that edge.

There’s no doubt Fantagraphics will reach its goal of $150,000, probably even surpass it, but it’s important to still place this event in perspective – something the pundits will do in coming time.  What’s truly important to note is that we’re witnessing an established publisher flaunt itself like some upstart operation. It’s bold, brash and even a tad embarrassing, but almost in some way, the company exudes a fresh energy from it. A crisis could leave much worse.

The Exit

“He never spoke of ‘the industry’ again.”

Alec Berry went to sleep after publishing this. Follow him on Twitter @Alec_Berry

2 Comments

The first thing I thought of when I saw the “Gary Groth will do your voicemail” was “Who does he think he is, Carl Kasell?”

That’s an NPR joke for all y’all.

Anyway, this seems like the better post to piss in Fantagraphics’s wheaties than Brian’s nice one about supporting the Kickstarter. And I hope to be able to chip into the Kickstarter, but….

We’ve been through this before with Fanta. They’ve come hat in hand, asking to be supported before. Granted, it was maybe 10 years ago now, and was funnily parodied in PVP, but one has to wonder if perhaps Fanta’s business model is just unsustainable as is.

Their main problem is probably that by being as good as they were at what they do, they showed others how to do it and essentially became irrelevant. The Comics Journal has been supplanted by numerous online sites with smart and snarky criticism that looks at the medium as more than just punching guys in tights. They’ve shown that people will buy well written and drawn comics that strive for high art. They’ve shown that “foreign” comics will sell when well presented. And they’ve shown there’s a market for quality reprints of old quality strips.

And by doing so, they’ve shown everyone else how to do it. “Foreign” comics are released by Humanoids, Cinebook, the various manga publishers around, not to mention Dark Horse. Old comic strips are reprinted by Dark Horse, IDW, Hermes, and others. Publishers like Top Shelf, First Second, Drawn and Quarterly, and Picturebox are all putting out high quality artsy books. And in many cases, putting out books by Fanta regulars. Pretty much all of their big guns have put out books with other publishers in the past few years. Bagge and Beto have done work with Dark Horse and DC and D&Q, Sala with First Second, Ware with … whoever did Building Stories. Clowes has published elsewhere, I think.

And any other publisher would snap up the Disney or Peanuts reprints in a second.

So essentially, I take issue with the assertion that Fanta is the beacon of alt comix. Again, they’ve done what they do so well that they showed everyone else how to do it, and made themselves somewhat irrelevant.

Mind you, I think they’re great. I love Los Bros and many other Fanta creators and books, but perhaps the issue isn’t that alt comix are in trouble, but merely Fanta itself. They certainly have presence in bookstores (ie, Barnes and Noble carries their GNs regularly), so it doesn’t appear that they suffer on the distribution end. And their marketing people obviously have good ideas (hey, let’s do a Kickstarter campaign!). So it’s hard to say, from the outside, what the issue is.

It wouldn’t be a good thing if Fantagraphics got into so much trouble that they went under, but I’m not sure that the impact on the medium or the industry would be terribly dire if they did.

Although I hope some editors at DC or Marvel do the “Gary Groth does your voicemail”. That would be friggin’ awesome.

OK, enough BS from me. Go support the Kickstarter, despite my doom and gloom commentary!

My beef with Fantagraphics is that for all their ballyhoo about quality and standards, they put out enough porn through Eros Comics to choke a horse at another cash crunch in their history. I have no issue with porn, but the hypocracy was very offputting.

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