The Comics Industry Seen From Two Different Places
♦Tripwire’s Contributing Writer TIM HAYES takes a look at two books that recount the history of two very different comic institutions, 2000AD and Fantagraphics…
Thrill Power Overload Redux
Written by David Bishop, updated by Karl Stock
We Told You So
Written by Michael Dean and Tom Spurgeon
Anniversaries prompt retrospectives, and a pair of fortieth anniversaries on opposite sides of the Atlantic have triggered new histories from comics institutions with stories to tell, recording for posterity the impact of those unheralded but pivotal 1970s hot-spots the London offices of IPC Magazines, and the Virginia home of a young Gary Groth.
The history of 2000AD has been mapped lately by the documentary Future Shock and Steve MacManus’s autobiographical The Mighty One, but to mark the comic’s actual birthday Karl Stock has updated David Bishop’s book Thrill-Power Overload with six new chapters, detailing events since the book’s first appearance in 2007. MacManus recalled the view from the editorial office and concerned himself with events he was actually in the room for – and in any case was out of the picture by 1991 – but the updated Thrill-Power Overload has a storied list of 2000AD creators chipping in, with art on almost every page. It shapes up as the official authorised history of the comic and its publishing decisions, character by character and prog by prog.
Although some of these stories have been told before (and Stock’s chapters were printed in the Judge Dredd Megazine ahead of this publication), the book has room for telling details – about 2000AD’s first in-house mock-up under the title of AD2000, or the early conception of a vampiric future-cop named Judge Dread whose name wasn’t quite right. It spells out the workplace frictions from volatile creators jammed into the old-school IPC system too, with Pat Mills and John Wagner making an early exit after an argument over profit-sharing, and Judge Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra angrily walking away from the character as soon as he appeared. “2000 AD was created in the 1970s, the time of The Sweeney and punk rock. The paradox was that the atmosphere within IPC was like the 1950s,” notes Mills of his time spent chafing against the powers that were. True to form, he’s still steadfastly following his own star at the other end of the book.
Meanwhile, far to the west… One month before the AD2000 mock-up was presented to IPC bosses, entrepreneurial 21-year-olds Gary Groth and Mike Catron bought the assets of a Texas fanzine called The Nostalgia Journal and named their publishing entity Fantagraphics. What happened to that company over the next four decades can barely be encompassed between the covers of any one book, but Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean have manfully wrestled many of the details and much of the spirit into We Told You So, a hefty 600-page oral history of the publisher with a cast of hundreds – a book which is itself appearing almost ten years late after a host of obstacles and delaying factors, several of which are woven into the tale.
Oral history has its drawbacks as a reading experience, but might be the ideal way to try and corral in one place the sprawling, profane, profound, occasionally contradictory experiences of cartoonists as varied in temperament as Daniel Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Joe Sacco, Robert Crumb, Benjamin Marra and many, many others – plus war stories of The Comics Journal, its aggressive anti-mainstream journalism and occasional court appearances. The format certainly gives proper exposure to the personalities of company publishers Groth, Catron and the late Kim Thompson, instinctive advocates of comics as art.
Between them, the two books bear witness to a few zillion man-hours of creative thought by some of the most gifted cartoonists around. Comics creators don’t get to tell their stories in parallel with each other often enough, so here’s a whole herd of them doing just that. Both enterprises have bruises to show too: 2000AD survived the contraction of its core audience and some wayward 1990s brainstorms before finding a sympathetic new publisher in Rebellion, while Fantagraphics overcame a clutch of near-bankruptcies by stretching out into pornographic comics, launching The Complete Peanuts series, and a Kickstarter campaign following the death of Thompson which tapped a wellspring of affection and support.
The differences between the two enterprises are plain as well. 2000AD, for all its punky origins, sits comfortably within the UK mainstream without touching the sides, and Thrill-Power Overload is a record of creativity going on within the gaze of a profit-driven commercial publisher, boards and directors and all. Fantagraphics rose up out of the cartooning soil, and its story is full of artists and writers driven by raw self-expression while sleeping on the floor. Thrill-Power Overload has no period photographs of the staff; We Told You So has many, and it’s hard to imagine either group getting on very well in the other’s place of business.
More than anything, both books catch the voices of a bunch of people who think comics are worth worrying about, an outlook common to Mills, Groth, Wagner, Thompson, Alan Grant and the others, along with a willingness to face a lily-livered comics industry head-on. “I was bored of being at war with such a sad bunch of losers who wished we’d drop down dead,” recalls one of them. It was Pat Mills, but it almost doesn’t matter.
Thrill Power Overload: 4/5
We Told You So: 5/5
Both books are available now from all good book shops