Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kim Thompson, 1956 - 2013

Robert Boyd


Kim Thompson as drawn by Adrian Tomine from "Shamrock Squid: Autobiographical Cartoonist!" by Peter Bagge and Adrian Tomine, 1997

For four years (1989 to 1993), Kim Thompson was one of my two bosses. Along with his business partner Gary Groth,  he co-owned and co-ran Fantagraphics Books. Kim Thompson died yesterday. He was 56 years old.

With a small publisher like Fantagraphics, there is really no distinction between publisher and editor. There were many times I unloaded trucks full of books with Kim. He was in the trenches every day. When I started there, I was 25 years old and Kim definitely seemed like my "elder". He was the right age to be a mentor. (Now six years difference seems like nothing. It makes his passing all the more shocking.)

I realize that the readers of this blog might not understand why Kim Thompson was an important person--not just to me, but to art. The world of comics and the art world are distinct, intersecting only occasionally. The thing to remember is that for most of their existence, comics have been an art that existed primarily to make money.  Some of the comics nonetheless were excellent pieces of art, but economic imperatives constantly drove the business side of comics towards assembly line production, corporate ownership of creative work, and marketing to the lowest common denominator--all of which mitigated against artistic quality. In the 60s, the underground cartoonists for the first time published comics whose main reason for existing was not economic. But this was a short-lived flowering--by the late 70s, underground comics were nearly extinct.

But at the same time, comic book stores were popping up all over the country, as well as specialized comics distributors. Now it's hard to imagine spaces more uncongenial to "comics as art" than comic stores, which for the most part were run by corporate comics fanboys for corporate comics fanboys. But the door was opened a crack for small publishers, and publishers sprung up to take advantage of the opening. Fantagraphics, which had published a fanzine, The Comics Journal, started adding comics to their publishing program in 1981. (Kim started working for Fantagraphics in 1977, I think, and became co-owner in 1978.)

Comics as art were revived at that time, thanks in large part to the publishing efforts of Fantagraphics. They published Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Peter Bagge, Ivan Brunetti, Carol Tyler and so many other great cartoonists, and are still doing it today. When you compare the publishing achievements of the underground comics generation (a brief brilliant flame) to Fantagraphics (and its peers, like Drawn & Quarterly), it's hardly a contest. Fantagraphics is one of the greatest publishers of comics in any language of all time and one of the strongest promulgators of the art of comics in existence. And Kim Thompson was crucial to that 30+ years of artistic success.

Any artistic form needs its impresarios and enablers. Art dealers, curators, publishers, editors, etc.--without them, art can't flourish. Kim encouraged and cajoled many cartoonists to produce art they never otherwise would have dreamed possible. I imagine that if Fantagraphics had not been there in 1982, Jaime Hernandez might have gone on to a successful, respectable career as a penciller for Marvel and DC. Instead, he has created a body of highly personal comics art that broke many artistic barriers and places him in the pantheon of great artists of his time.

When I started working for Fantagraphics, I lived with Kim and Gary Groth. For them, there was little distance between their private lives and their work lives--Fantagraphics bought a house that they both lived in, along with me and Kim's brother Mark. Once Kim acquired a girlfriend (Lynn Emmert, who subsequently became Kim's wife and who wrote moving journal entries detailing Kim's last months), he moved out of that testosterone-packed environment. Prior to that, he wore a daily uniform of sweatpants and a T-shirt. Lynn gradually converted him to dressing like a responsible adult. Still, his casual wear set the tone for the Fantagraphics office--Tom Spurgeon once wrote that the dress code there was "pants."

Despite his aging fanboy wardrobe, Kim was a model of maturity. I remember when we had an upcoming issue of The Comics Journal with a Lynda Barry interview (November 1989). In it, we also ran an interview with Paul Chadwick. At the time, I complained that we should not be interviewing Chadwick because he was, to my mind, "totally mainstream." And Kim wisely pointed out that Chadwick may seem mainstream to you and me, but for many comics readers he is a radical alternative to what they're used to. He shook me out of my snotty smugness.

Another thing I remember about Kim with fondness was his love of music. He was always eager to be hip to whatever was happening right now. In our common work area where The Comics Journal was produced, Kim had a stereo and an ever-growing selection of CDs. It was the loudest office environment ever--and the selections would range from the Pixies to John Zorn to Body Count and beyond. (I was appalled the day Kim brought in Use your Illusion.) And he liked to see live music; we saw Neil Young and Sonic Youth together, for example. But his greatest love was 70s glam rock and especially David Bowie. Once a bunch of us went to Rebar, a dance club in Seattle. When the DJ cued up "Young Americans," Kim joyfully shouted out, "This is the Motown of our generation!" as he danced.

Kim and I stayed in touch over the years, mostly through email. Our last correspondence was in January, discussing how to translate the title of Joost Swarte's Passi Messa. I suggested "Not This, That" but Kim wrote:
Yes, but graphically the two have to be the same length for it to work in the layouts.

You could say "Not This, But That" but it doesn't have the prescriptive implication. "Zo" means "in this way" but "this" can just mean "this thing."
"Not Like This, But Like That" gets the sense across, but then is clunky and unwieldy.

Well, we've got five months to figure it out. Maybe there's some popular expression I haven't remembered.
Tragically, he didn't have five months to figure it out. He never was a smoker, but somehow it was lung cancer that got him in the end. The same thing that got my dad. Kim was sort of a father figure for many young editors and designers who passed through the Fantagraphics offices as I did. We all learned so much from him. I'm lucky to be able to say that he was my friend and mentor.

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4 comments:

  1. I thought of you immediately after hearing, Robert. You knew Kim FAR better than I. Frankly, you're the person closest to me who was closest to Kim, and you and I have lost too much touch since KSP closed -- a fact that's really hammered home by Kim's passing.

    I'm very sorry to be writing this meager note. And I'm sorry for comics. And sorrier still for the loss you feel.

    Your pal,

    :Chris

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    Replies
    1. Chris,

      I was just thinking about Skin Eater the other day, coincidentally. Heh, thinking about it now is brightening my day a little... Thanks for the note.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for writing that, Robert. Kim will be sorely missed.

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  3. Thanks for sharing that, Robert. I still remember the packet of Fantagraphics stuff you sent me shortly after you started working there, as way of announcing your new gig. Great remembrance of those times.

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