Most people working in the Western graphic novel business received a press release from Fantagraphics Books this week. It begins:
"Fantagraphics Books Needs Your Help! Buy Books! Keep Us Alive! "
Fantagraphics has been in business for 27 years, formed around the critical magazine The Comics Journal. As they put it, "we are proud of our long-term commitment to comics as an art form and our dogged determination to push excellence down everybody's throats."
As you may imagine, this has yet to make them rich, and the company attitude of defiance and snottiness makes them few friends. I know otherwise tolerant and intelligent writers who will not buy Fantagraphics books, despite them publishing some of the best work in the Anglophone medium, simply because their hate of publishers Gary Groth and Kim Thompson know no bounds. And it's possible to see why, if I'm honest. The passion and commitment that has made the Journal at times essential also leads them into the mercurial, the infantile and the just plain nasty. They seem well aware of this, and seem to consider it the cost of determined elitism. The price of the pursuit of excellence.
"This is all very well and good but it doesn't mean much in the face of brute economics - and it's the wall of brute economics that we've just hit, hard. Due to two major financial obstacles over the last two years, we're hard against it."
Like Top Shelf, who experienced severe financial strain last year, their troubles were tripped off when a distributor of their works to bookstores went bankrupt two years ago. Seventy thousand dollars just evaporated.
Top Shelf appealed to the community via the internet for help. They named a specific dollar target they needed to hit to stay in operation, offered discounts and prayed for rain. They hit that target in less than twenty-four hours, as I recall. I've debated over the next sentence for about five minutes, as it's probably going to make me sound like an egotistical prick. Full disclosure: I was behind a lot of that. I ran a very large message board at the time, and still maintain an email list of some 5000 people, and I mobilised people to help. We at Artbomb also put a few thousand dollars in their pocket. Top Shelf is a publisher of distinction, and needed to stay around. So do Fantagraphics.
Perhaps interestingly, I'm told that Fantagraphics were dismissive of the event, making comments about doing business through charity, and that the Journal ran a disparaging article months later. To which you can't say much other than, well, whatever.
Fantagraphics took out loans to cover the shortfall, which are now due. And they can't pay them. They are now allied with the prestigious W W Norton distributor, who are doing an excellent job of getting them into bookstores. So much so that Fantagraphics have enthusiastically overprinted their catalogue of books -- printing copies in excess of current demand to meet expected future demand. This is the great mantrap of dealing with graphic novels. It's a young business, with little precedent to draw wisdom from, and it would seem W W Norton had no wisdom to pass along.
"...our anticipated profit is in fact sitting in our warehouse in the form of books. Loans must be paid in cash, not books. The only way to get out of this hole we've dug ourselves into is to sell those books. Which is where, we hope, you come in. "
Fantagraphics is a company of some thirty people, some of whom have now been laid off in the search for financial balance. Evidently, they've had to consider actually shutting down their active publishing and courting investors.
This isn't the first time Fantagraphics have hit a wall. In the late Eighties, when it became clear that adult literary graphics novels weren't going to break out wide, Fantagraphics launched a line of porno comics, which were taken up by the comic shop market with enough enthusiasm to stay the tide. The impressively bloody-minded Gary Groth appeared to quite relish being called a pornographer. Groth has been looking to book publishing as a model for longer than most, and was well aware of the literary giants first published by pornographers.
"If you've respected what Fantagraphics stands for and what we've done for the medium, if you've enjoyed our books, and if you want to insure that this proud tradition continues into this new and ominous century, we're asking you to help us now in our especial hour of need by buying some books. Put simply, we need to raise about $80,000 above our usual sales over the next month, and the only way to do that is to convert books into cash."
There's the dollar target. That's huge. If memory serves, it's about four times what Top Shelf needed to raise. But Top Shelf is two people, and maybe a decade's worth of catalogue. Fantagraphics, as noted above, is twenty-seven years and thirty people.
"We know we have tens of thousands of loyal readers: if even a fraction of you come forward and order two or three books that you've been meaning to buy, we'll be over this hump."
Or, as a well-known figure in American comics said to me in email yesterday: "Gary and Kim are pigs, but they don't deserve this." I don't know either of them at all. But without them, Robert Crumb's work would have faded into the mist years ago. Chris Ware would probably never have been published. Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Daniel Clowes. There's a disturbingly long list of people whom you wouldn't know without Fantagraphics, because, at those crucial moments, no-one else would have supported them.
"We already sell books by mail, so, as clichéd as it sounds, we really do have operators standing by. You can view out catalogue online. You can order by calling our 800 number or on-line at our web site (all ordering information to the side.)"
Some comics store retailers are asking why they're not being offered a way to help, why Fantagraphics are going directly to the readers rather than the direct market. The answer is very simple, and it explains Fantagraphics' current predicament too:
The comics stores never supported Fantagraphics. The vast majority of them never bought Joe Sacco books, or the beautiful reproductions of KRAZY KAT or LITTLE NEMO, or anything else. That's why they started producing the filth-o-comics in the first place. That's why they attacked the bookstore market with such energy. That's where their readership is. That's why I find the new Joe Sacco book racked with the new releases in bookstores, not buried in a half-arsed "graphic novel" section stored at floor level under the fat fantasy paperbacks. They always had a wider view than the hobby market, and the hobby market has no right to feel jilted and resentful now.
If anyone has the right to be pissed off, it's Fantagraphics, who have fought in their weird and idiosyncratic way over three decades for a better medium, only to be told that no-one cares.
Buy a couple of Fantagraphics books this week.