Fantagraphics Co-Publisher, European Comics Champion
by BK Munn
Kim Thompson, the co-publisher of the trailblazing U.S. comics juggernaut Fantagraphics Books, died of lung cancer June 19, according to a statement released by his friend and partner Gary Groth. Thompson was diagnosed in February and publicly announced his withdrawal from active work at his company at that time.
Born in Denmark to Danish-American parents, Thompson had a peripatetic European childhood and developed a critical taste for both American and European comics. When he moved to the Washington, D.C. area at the age of 21, he met Gary Groth and Mike Catron and became involved in the production of their Comics Journal magazine. Thompson rescued the ailing publisher with a cash injection using an inheritance from his grandmother, becoming a co-publisher when Catron left to work for DC Comics. Together, Thompson and Groth went on to establish the Journal as the preeminent North American voice for the comics as art movement, eventually launching a line of comics under the Fantagraphics banner that soon including the groundbreaking Love and Rockets by Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez, and kick-starting the so-called “alternative” comics phenomenon. As Thompson told interviewer Ana Merino in The International Journal of Comic Art in 2003, “Maybe in the back of our heads, we had the idea that maybe someday we would publish comics. And then we started publishing comics, and of course we had no clue how far that would go.”
Thompson established himself as an important critical voice early on, first as a letterhack interested in 1970s Marvel Comics and fanzines, and later as a reasoned, historically-aware critic in the pages of TCJ. Thompson became editor of Fantagraphics’ Amazing Heroes magazine later in the 1980s, where he nurtured a generation of comics critics and introduced superhero comics fans to a wider world of comics from other countries. He also edited two of Fantagraphics many efforts at publishing comics anthologies: Zero Zero and Critters. After many fits and starts, Thompson’s efforts to bring the classics of Eurocomics to the U.S. in translated form finally started to bear substantial fruit during the past decade, with large swaths of work by Jacques Tardi and Jason part of his legacy as publisher and translator.
Largely responsible for the production end of Fantagraphics’ voluminous output, especially in the early years of paste-up and typesetting, Thompson was nevertheless a seasoned editor and talent scout, credited with shepherding the careers of everyone from the Hernandez Bros to Kim Deitch, Dave Cooper, Al Columbia, Spain Rodriguez, and Joe Sacco, but it may be his perseverance in pushing European comics on an indifferent anglo audience that he will be remembered for. As Thompson told critic Chris Mautner in 2010, “I think European comics have mostly been successfully sold in terms of their more adult content, which in some ways is more universal. The cartoony work is somehow more… idiosyncratic. In a weird way, except for Tintin, Americans seems to be a little leery of the European cartooning style. And there was always a lot of resistance to the European “album” format, which I think reminded Americans too much of a children’s book.” Despite this reticence, Thompson eventually transformed artists like Marti, Tardi, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Guy Peelaert into strong sellers in the art comics market.
Thompson will be missed as a champion of comics art and a beloved friend and cohort to many in the industry. According to Fantagraphics, Thompson is survived by his wife, Lynn Emmert, his mother and father, and a brother.
images: Kim Thompson by Peter Bagge (“Prisoners of Hate Island” from Hate #1) and Valerian by Jean-Claude Mézières (Amazing Heroes #160)
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