Critic, editor, gentleman: Remembering Kim Thompson
It’s kind of impossible to overstate the influence Kim Thompson had on American comics. As co-publishers of Fantagraphics, he and Gary Groth transformed the way people thought about the medium, both in the pages of The Comics Journal and in the kinds of comics they published. If any one publisher can be regarded as the singular entity (and let me be clear, I’m really wary about staking that sort of claim) that made not just fans but the general public take notice and say, “Oh, hey, comics really are an art form and capable of greatness,” it was these guys.
As you might have heard, Kim Thompson died Wednesday morning after being diagnosed with lung cancer. I thought I’d try to cobble together a few words about Kim’s legacy. (And I hope you don’t mind me calling him by his first name; although we were only casual acquaintances at best, it just feels weird to refer to him in anything but familiar terms.)
Kim the critic. Most people associate The Comics Journal, especially the early issues, with Gary Groth and his firebrand essays. Or perhaps they think of writers like R. Fiore, Carter Scholz or former managing editor Tom Spurgeon. It’s easy to forget, especially because he stopped writing regularly for the magazine long before it reached its 300th issue, what a perceptive reader and critic Kim could be. He had an amiable style and conversational tone that aided his ability to get to the heart of what made a comic work or not. Here he is on Frank Miller’s Ronin (from Issue 82):
Ronin will teach the mainstream companies that they can make a huge amount of money without stealing their creators’ ideas, saddling them with unsympathetic and reactionary editors, and printing the material on toilet paper. Miller deserves credit for using his clout to effect this kind of change and he deserves credit for trying to do something different. I just wish I thought it was any good.
Kim the translator. Kim wasn’t the only person in the industry to trumpet European artists, but he arguably did more than anyone else to get them under the noses of American readers. Whether it was his trying to introduce the United States to Andre Franquin in the pages of Prime Cuts, Lewis Trondheim via The Nimrod and Harum Scarum, Jacques Tardi for the umpteenth time (and finally with success) or just translating Dark Horse’s Manara Library, Kim was extremely passionate about comics he loved, regardless of their country of origin, and worked tirelessly to help them reach new audiences.
Kim the editor. Great editors tend to eschew the limelight, lest they get in the way of the work or artist they’re trying to help. It’s only when you take a step back and look at a particular editor’s output that you begin to see just how significant his influence was. The line of titles Kim shepherded at Fantagraphics is really jaw-dropping. Here’s a quick sample: Hate, Acme Novelty Library, Palestine, Usagi Yojimbo, Castle Waiting, I Killed Adolph Hitler … the list goes on. That he was the driving force behind not only the great 1990s anthology Zero Zero but also the funny-animal comic Critters and the superhero-oriented Amazing Heroes (a companion magazine of sorts to TCJ) speaks to Thompson’s breadth of interest and eclectic tastes, as well as his ability to exactly what was needed to a project and no more.
Kim the publisher. It’s easy to forget just how avant-garde, how divorced from the norm, Fantagraphics was when it began publishing comics — and also how utterly hated, how downright loathed, it was by so many in the industry. You don’t attain that sort of disdain just because you looked at someone funny. But Kim’s legacy, and the legacy of Fantagraphics, matters not just because they were fearless in saying, “This thing you like is actually atrocious and here’s why,” but because they were willing to lead by example and say, “Here’s what we need to see more of.” In other words, he and Groth were champions of the medium at a time when it sorely needed championing.
Kim the extremely nice guy. In an industry filled with sharks and charlatans, Kim was a paragon of decency — unfailingly polite and friendly, and more than happy to talk insightfully about not just comics but movies, music art or what have you. I had the opportunity to interview him a couple of times, and I always enjoyed our conversations, even when they were just over email. It saddens me greatly that I won’t get the chance to talk with him again.