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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.

digcomicsKim Thompson died yesterday.

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…

KimThompson-byLynnEmmert

Kim Thompson, with two Eisner Awards (photo by Lynn Emmert)

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.

3 New Comics for New Readers – June 13, 2012

Wednesday is New Comics Day! Each week, The Comics Observer picks brand new releases worth checking out that should be suitable for someone who has never read comic books, graphic novels or manga before.

These are out today! If you like what you see here, click the links to see previews and learn more about them. Then head to your local comic book store, or check out online retailers like Things From Another World and Amazon. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook.

For a full list of this week’s new releases, see comiXology and ComicList.com.

The Massive #1 by Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson

The Massive #1
Written by Brian Wood
Illustrated by Kristian Donaldson
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Genre: Action/Adventure
32 pages
$3.50

In a post-war, post-crash, post-disaster, post-everything world, the environmental-action trawler Kapital scours the earth’s oceans for its mysteriously missing sistership, The Massive. Captain Callum Israel, a man who has dedicated his life to the ocean, now must ask himself—as our planet dies—what it means to be an environmentalist after the world’s ended. Callum and his crew will come up against pirates, rebels, murderers, and thieves as they struggle to remain noble toward their cause. Can you save a planet that’s already doomed?

* The perfect follow-up to Wood’s DMZ!

The Massive is a book to keep an eye on in 2012.” —IGN

At the end of the world, the story begins.

New York Mon Amour by Jacques Tardi

New York Mon Amour
Written by Jacques Tardi and Benjamin Legrand
Illustrated by Jacques Tardi
Translated by Kim Thompson
Published by Fantagraphics Books
Genre: Crime
84 pages
$19.99

A quartet of big-apple-centric stories by Tardi including “Cockroach Killer” and “Manhattan.”

Many years ago, Jacques Tardi was introduced to American audiences with “Manhattan,” a grim and grimy story of depression, madness and suicide in New York City whose appearance in the premiere issue of RAW magazine was instrumental in defining both that magazine’s virtuoso aesthetic and its dark sensibility. Three decades later, New York Mon Amour collects “Manhattan”and three other tales of the Big Apple — rendered by Tardi with just as much panache and you-are-there detail as Paris or the trenches of World War I in his other books — in one spectacular volume.

Aside from “Manhattan,” the centerpiece of the book is the graphic novel “Cockroach Killer,” written by Benjamin Legrand. This violent,surreal conspiracy thriller, starring a hapless exterminator named Walter, features a striking two-color black-and-red technique unique in Tardi’s oeuvre, and remains one of the cartoonist’s most startling, confounding works. New York Mon Amour is rounded off with two short stories written by Dominique Grange: “It’s So Hard” (starring John Lennon — but not that John Lennon — and never before published in English) and “The Killing of Hung” (a story of revenge and redemption).

New York Mon Amour is a crucial and unique addition to Fantagraphics’ acclaimed Tardi collection.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
Written by Chris Hedges
Illustrated by Joe Sacco
Published by Nation Books
Genre: Non-fiction, Journalism, Travelogue
320 pages
$28.00

Two years ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges and award-winning cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco set out to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in America that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. They wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like in places where the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is the searing account of their travels.

The book starts in the western plains, where Native Americans were sacrificed in the giddy race for land and empire. It moves to the old manufacturing centers and coal fields that fueled the industrial revolution, but now lie depleted and in decay. It follows the steady downward spiral of American labor into the nation’s produce fields and ends in Zuccotti Park where a new generation revolts against a corporate state that has handed to the young an economic, political, cultural and environmental catastrophe.

[Note: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt mixes prose with short comics interludes.]

New Graphic Novels, Comic Books for You – 10/14/09

Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?

Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of October 14 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.

[And yes, I’m nearly a month behind. You don’t have to rub it in.]

Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.

Blood + Water – $17.95
By Judd Winick & Tomm Coker
128 pages; published by DC Comics’ Vertigo Books; available at Amazon.com

Adam Heller is dying, but before he can take the big dirt nap, his best friends offer him a chance at immortality and he takes it. Now Adam is a vampire living it up on the wild side and it’s everything he could ever want. But the eternal party crashes to a bloody halt when an ancient monster awakens from the dark, forgotten places of the world and comes looking for Adam. The startling reason this monster has come looking for him may be the most horrifying realization of all.

I read this story when it originally came out in individual comic book issues back in 2003. (I can’t believe that was 6 years ago.) I find Judd Winick to be kind of a mixed bag as a writer, but this was one of his good ones. And as I recall Tomm Coker’s art is even better. It was so solid, I was kind of surprised a sequel never materialized. Maybe this collected edition is a hint that one is finally coming. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a preview. If anyone finds one, post it in the comments below.

Heavy Liquid – $24.99
By Paul Pope
240 pages; published by DC Comics’ Vertigo Books; available at Amazon.com

“Pope has embellished his stylish love story with heart-stopping action and adventure. …Pope’s drawing and page design … is both technically assured and wonderfully expressive.” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

“This has the potential to attract a large audience, including serious readers, science-fiction buffs, artists, and would-be graphic novelists.” —SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL

In a future where New York has evolved into a sci-fi metropolis, “S,” a man addicted to “heavy liquid,” a substance that is both a drug and an art form, finds himself trapped in a mystery littered with love and drugs. This new edition features bonus sketch material, new coloring and more.

Another one from Vertigo’s vaults, this was originally released in early 2000. Paul Pope is one of the art form’s more exceptional storytellers and artists and this has been on my must-get list for some time. It’s great to see this re-released. DC Comics has a pretty skimpy preview here in PDF.

The Fixer and Other Stories – $19.95
By Joe Sacco
216 pages; published by Drawn and Quarterly; available at Amazon.com

“Sacco is one of the most astute war-zone correspondents working today” –Rolling Stone

“A searing and amusing look at the motley collection of reporters, war profiteers, criminals, soldiers and hapless civilians trapped in war zone.” –New York Times

“Sacco doesn’t try to lay claim to the truth. He’s simply telling one man’s story, and it makes for an excellent book.” –Washington Post

“Sacco demonstrates that the narrative arts, including comics, can gather up complicated social truths with a gradual patience that often eludes the camera.” –Boston Globe

Using old-fashioned pen and paper, award-winning cartoonist Joe Sacco reports from the sidelines of wars around the world. THE FIXER AND OTHER STORIES is a new softcover that collects Joe Sacco’s landmark short stories on the Bosnian War that previously comprised the hardcover editions of THE FIXER and WARS END.

It must be re-issue week. This reprints material from 2003 and 2005. Joe Sacco is living proof that comics can do and be anything. Even journalism. And fortunately he’s real good at it, too. It’s sorta kinda like NPR in comics.

Blackbeard: Legend of the Pyrate King #1 – $3.50
By Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Robert Napton, Jamie Nash and Mario Guevara
32 pages; published by Dynamite Entertaiment

Dynamite presents their most ambitious undertaking yet – BLACKBEARD: THE LEGEND OF THE PYRATE KING #1! Under the stunning John Cassaday, producers Eduardo (writer of The Blair Witch Project) Sanchez and Gregg (producer of The Blair Witch Project) Hale are joined by Robert Napton and Jamie Nash to present the ultimate adventure tale of a bygone age, when pyrates ruled the waters!
Beginning with his childhood and carry through to his bitter end, Blackbeard’s legacy has never been explored as deeply and illustrated as beautifully (by Mario Guevara) than now!

I don’t really consider a comic by the makers of The Blair Witch Project to be all that big of a selling point, but Dynamite has had a pretty decent track record with properties like The Lone Ranger, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes. I think this is their first comic steeped in history and based on an actual person, and I’m sure liberties will be taken. But it looks like a fun ride nevertheless. Check out the preview at the publisher link above.

MOME Vol. 16 – $14.99
Edited by Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds
112 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at Amazon.com

Since its inception in 2005, Mome has served as a comics McSweeney’s. Whether exposing new talent like Eleanor Davis (author of the recent Stinky by Toon Books); featuring short stories by contemporary graphic novelists like Dash Shaw (The Bottomless Belly Button); bringing the work of international superstars like David B. (Epileptic) to American audiences; or introducing the work of legends like Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) to a new generation of readers, Mome is the most acclaimed, accessible, frequent, and reasonably priced anthology on the market despite it’s high production values and mostly color format.

This issue features several of our favorite alternative comic artists of the last 15 years, bringing us great joy. Archer Prewitt is the first, with an all-new “Funny Bunny” strip created in between his active musical career. “The Moolah Tree” is the new Fuzz & Pluck graphic novel from Ted Stearn, following Fuzz & Pluck and Fuzz & Pluck: Splitsville, beginning serialization here. We are equally proud to debut new work from Renée French, whose work is also featured on the front and back cover of this issue. And Nicholas Mahler debuts to ask “What Is Art?” (translated by secret weapon Kim Thompson).

Also: the second chapter of T. Edward Bak’s “Wild Man – The Strange Journey – and Fantastic Accounts – of the Naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, from Bavaria to Bolshaya Zemlya (and Beyond)”; a new “Cold Heat” story by the team of Ben Jones, Frank Santoro & Jon Vermilyea; Dash Shaw interprets an episode of “Blind Date” into comics form; and new stories from Lilli Carré, Conor O’Keefe, Laura Park, Nate Neal, and Sara Edward-Corbett, with incidental drawings by Kaela Graham.

This highly regarded quarterly anthology is a great survey of some of the industry’s greatest and most innovative creators. If you’ve always wanted to sample quality alternative comics, here’s your first stop. Here’s a great big 12-page preview (PDF).

You Are There – $26.99
By Jacques Tardi & Jean-Claude Forest
192 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at Amazon.com

The satirical masterpiece that ushered in the graphic novel era to European comics, finally available in English—the beginning of an ambitious publishing project introducing one of Europe’s most beloved cartoonists to American audiences. One of the earliest full-length, standalone graphic novels to be published in Europe, and certainly one of the best and most original, Ici Même was serialized in the adult French comics monthly (A suivre) in the early 1980s and then released in book form. A quarter of a century later, this dark, funny, consistently surprising masterpiece has finally been translated into English.

An unexpected yet smoothly confident collaboration between the darkly cynical Jacques Tardi and the playful fantasist Jean-Claude Forest (of Barbarella fame), You Are There is set on a small island off the coast of France, where unscrupulous landowners have succeeded in overtaking the land from the last heir of a previously wealthy family. That heir, whose domain, in a Beckettian twist, is now reduced to the walls that border these patches of land he used to own, prowls the walls all day, eking out a living by collecting tolls at each gate. His seemingly hopeless struggle to recover his birthright becomes complicated as the government sees a way of using his plight for the sake of political expediency, and the romantic intervention of the daughter of one of the landowners (who has her own sordid history with the politician) engenders further difficulties, culminating in an apocalyptic, hallucinatory finale.

Set in Tardi’s preferred early 20th century milieu, You Are There is drawn in his crisp 1980s neo-“clear line” style, gorgeously detailed, elegantly stylized, with impossibly deep slabs of black. You Are There is a feast for both the eyes and the brain.

As we cover in our documentary Dig Comics, the perception of comic books and their corresponding growth (or lack thereof) is notably different in countries other than the United States. This past summer, Dig Comics director/writer/host Miguel Cima discovered firsthand that France has a healthier, more diverse industry. This release from 1979 was apparently a significant moment in the growth of that industry. Here’s an even bigger 19-page preview (PDF).

The Act-I-Vate Primer – $24.99
Edited by Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, et al.
160 pages; published by IDW Publishing; available at Amazon.com

In the tradition of the acclaimed and groundbreaking anthology, Flight, the ACT-I-VATE Primer showcases a wide array of stories and talent -18 innovative creators, 16 intriguing properties, one beautiful book – and all-new, never-before-seen stories and art!

act-i-vate.com is the premier comic art collective on the Internet, featuring many renowned cartoonists who produce all-new material on a regular basis. The ACT-I-VATE PRIMER is a PRINT EXCLUSIVE anthology by many of the Act-I-Vate creators. None of the material in this book will appear on the Act-I-Vate website for at least one year from publication date.

There is a lot of good comics work being doing online and Act-I-Vate.com is one of the best hubs to find it. This anthology is another fine sampler. Here’s a 16-page preview.

That’s it for this week. Tougher than usual to whittle it down to a halfway digestible list. Yay comics!