Comics as Art
Few careers are as hard to define and defend as cartooning. Tell friends you want to dedicate your life to comics and they’ll look at you as if you just said, “I plan to attach license plates to giraffes.” Tell family and they’ll instantly conjure up images of you forever on their couch, doodling on the back of barista job applications. And tell anyone that you’ve been working in comics for 30 years and they’ll all quietly mutter, “Well, now, someone doesn’t want a credit rating.”
Yes, the road of the comics professional can be a tough one to travel, lined with illegal sublets and White Castle shifts. But as the people behind Fantagraphics’ Comics as Art: We Told You So know, it can also be a truly invigorating journey in which childhood passions become meaningful livelihoods, and an emotional connection with art becomes a mode for personal growth.
Compiled by comics historian Tom Spurgeon and related in anecdotal fashion, Comics as Art is an entertaining, engaging dialogue that captures comics at a pivotal turning point, when steroidal protagonists and stories about Moleman attacks gave way to mature themes and intimate reflections. But rather than a sonorous art-historical review of the form, this is a 30th anniversary celebration of Fantagraphics Books, the publisher that fueled (and in many ways founded) the alternative comics scene, as told by its founders and an endless parade of such renowned talent as Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Los Bros. Hernandez and Daniel Clowes.
The book’s title perfectly captures Fantagraphics’ primary mission—to elevate the comic book to a form worthy of critical respect. And no one speaks louder and longer on this subject than cofounder Gary Groth, who possessed a mature grasp of business even as a child. Groth proves a most engaging tour guide to the industry as he tells how he found his voice through comics as a kid, then ultimately had his say in the art as an entrepreneur. He also makes certain to point out all the private and industry milestones along the way—the birth of true comics criticism, the initial steps toward the graphic novel, and the shining moment when comic books received the same recognition and respect as novels and nonfiction. In many ways it’s a coming-of-age story, one that Jacob Covey’s art direction evokes cleverly. The opening chapters, which cover the co-founders’ adolescent introduction to comics, recall the fanzines of their youth, when kids pasted together their own manifestos about comics and cartoonists. Amateur sketches sit alongside newspaper clippings, while the text is occasionally broken up with odd yet always illuminating mementos. All of these elements are given equal visual weight, because, when it comes to comics fans, the arcane can be just as crucial as the essential. (Think of Marvel Comics, when exultations like “See Ish #342” would reveal that once Spider-Man liked his potatoes mashed, not baked.) The book’s design also embodies the adolescent’s drive to find a special identity through a specific art form; the layout captures the exuberance of burgeoning comic fans gathering all the facts and relics of their newfound love while focusing on the very works that first sparked that interest (including a startling Tintin outtake in which everyone’s favorite Flemish gadabout tries to blow up a rhino with dynamite). As the story progresses, the visuals follow the development of the company as well as of alternative comics. We witness the birth and cultivation of a new breed of artists who strive to break from such corporate mascots as Captain America by using the very conventions of comic books—serialized panels, ongoing stories, recurring motifs—to pen tales of exceptional intellectual caliber and philosophical import, once thought the domain only of “serious” literature. We also see the step-by-step making of perhaps Fantagraphics’ most important title (both artistically and financially), Love and Rockets, from seemingly unmarketable property to cult favorite to the standard-bearer of character development, complex narratives, and comic craftsmanship. With each successive page the artwork and ambitions mature along with Fantagraphics, as bravado begets experience, impudence gives way to patience, and foresight turns to reflection.
The result is a beautiful compendium for a museum exhibition that never existed, told in the verbose, freewheeling interview style Groth made famous in Fantagraphics’s own highly regarded comics review, The Comics Journal. Simply flipping through the pages, readers will feel they’re in the presence of a passionate collector showcasing his prized possessions, both silly and sublime. There are even endnotes to each chapter, for anyone wishing to study further or just delight in trivia. And it’s all put together with the great care and affection that are the hallmarks of Fantagraphics’s publishing history.
Those who don’t consider themselves “fanboys” may regard Comics as Art as self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing. They may see the book’s title as the most defensive on the shelf until someone publishes I Do TOO Have a Girlfriend. They may even assume the story to be of interest only to comic collectors who make the Collyer brothers look like nothing more than infrequent recyclers.
But that would be a shame. People who couldn’t care less about rock journalism loved the film Almost Famous, and one need not know Siegel from Shuster to enjoy the triumphant tale of Fantagraphics. Anyone who ever dedicated their days to the success of a band, toiled ceaselessly to launch a business, or gave themselves over to a dream so great that it took a small community to bring it to life will find their own story on these pages.
In the end, perhaps cartooning isn’t so difficult a career to explain at all. Like any art form, it’s about self-expression. Like any profession, it’s about self-fulfillment. And like any smart endeavor, it’s a good way to avoid strenuous physical activity.
Book reviewed: Comics as Art: We Told You So By Tom Spurgeon Designed by Jacob Covey Fantagraphics Books 300 pp., $19.95
About the Author — Francesco Marciuliano is the writer of the nationally syndicated comic strip "Sally Forth" and the webcomic "Medium Large." He is also the cofounder and head writer of the humor website drinkatwork.com.
Comics as Art: We Told You So By Tom Spurgeon
(Fantagraphics Books 300 pp., $19.95)