Kim Thompson and Why I Dig Comics
Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
I never met the man and outside of the comics community – even for most comic book fans – his name is largely unknown. Thompson was the co-publisher of a comic book company called Fantagraphics, and quite frankly, were it not for the work of him and his business partner Gary Groth, I may not have stayed a comics lover past my childhood. And consequently, there might not be Dig Comics – my film/TV project dedicated to getting America to read comic books.
I was an avid comics collector from the time I could read until the age of 16. Around that time, I started paying more attention to girls and “partying,” and “serious” film and literature. Those distractions came easy because up until then, comics meant nothing but Marvel superheroes to me. And I was getting bored. How many years could I sit through the same fights, the same characters who never grew old? There was no real danger. Characters never really changed. Even death was impermanent.
Naturally, maintaining the quality level of writing and art became less possible, as the brand managers could not allow most creators to stray from the “winning formula” of good and evil archetypes and standardized graphic design. Yes, of course, there have been writers and artists who distinguished themselves. But as time passed, those were less frequent. The unchanging nature of the superhero formula makes it tougher and tougher the longer it persists. So, by age 18, I had pretty much given up on comics.
But then, something unexpected happened. A friend began to introduce me to “alternative comics.” Of course, I resisted at first. Comics were superheroes, nothing more. And if the art didn’t look like Jim Starlin or John Byrne or Frank Miller, then why bother? But my friend kept pushing me. And quickly, I realized I had a whole new world before me. I was being offered stories about people I could relate to. Street kids looking for the next thrill; adults struggling with their love lives; “racy” humor that tested the borders of good taste; “serious” animal characters with real human philosophical questions; depressed and lonely people navigating a world they feel lost in. Many of these books had nothing fantastical about them. Some were way more far out than anything Marvel had ever produced.
And the art! What a range! Titles like Los Bros. Hernandez’s Love & Rockets would mostly stick to an almost Archielike deceptive simplicity, telling a character’s story with just a few lines of expression on a face. But then the mind-blowing Frank by Jim Woodring delved into images so surreal, my brain had to learn how to take it in – slowly. The whimsical curvy lines of Peter Bagge’s Hate had me laughing before I read a word of dialogue. And the pissed-off scrawl of Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits seethed its hilarious anger at me. And imagine – all this stuff was in black & white! Boy, I was growing up, I tell ya…
Kim Thompson helped bring all of these works to us and many, many more. For over 30 years he made sure that singular artists, creating their own vision in their own way, had a venue to strut their stuff. Characters grew old and died. Or only appeared once. Or whatever. Fantagraphics has always championed comics as an art form, rather than an intellectual property to be endlessly licensed and exploited. And in such an environment, readers have possibilities, new adventures, the chance to stretch the consciousness. I was no longer bored with comics. Kim Thompson had offered me a new way to see them.
But Thompson did much more than that. Having grown up in Europe, he translated, edited and published several works from places like France, Italy, and Scandinavia. Yes – another whole new world of comics, literally, came to my brain. Crime noir tales like Jacques Tardi’s West Coast Blues, Jason’s weird off-center anthropological Sshhh! And so many others, even manga from Japan. I’ll say it again – literally a world of comics, tirelessly nurtured and imported to my benefit and to the benefit of so many others.
And the funny thing is, Kim Thompson also started as a Marvel comics fan. In fact, his fan letters appeared in several letters columns as far back as the early 1970’s. He edited superhero fanzines. He wasn’t closed off to superheroes at all. In fact, it’s because of works published by Fantagraphics and so many other smaller publishers who expanded my comics horizon, that I can still enjoy the occasional superhero comic. Without them, I probably would never have stepped into a comic store again and there would be no reason for me to even consider making a film like Dig Comics. After all, Dig Comics is NOT about an insulated niche culture of hero fetishists. It’s about a great big world which EVERYONE can enjoy.
So thank you, Kim Thompson, for your part in my own growth and evolution. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee may have gotten me started on the path, but you really went a long way to making sure I continued the journey. May the next page you are now turning to be equally as rewarding. I look forward to humbly honoring your legacy.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.