Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Few Words About Kim Thompson

My reprint article today is on a few entries from the Ignatz line that Fantagraphics began and abandoned after sales didn't keep supporting it. Published in conjunction with Igort and Coconino Press, it was the quintessential Kim Thompson project. Thompson, who passed away yesterday after a short and brutal bout with cancer, made it his mission as a publisher to find a way to bring the great comics and cartoonists of Europe to American audiences. In the 80s, when this skilled polyglot (English, Danish, French, Norwegian, Dutch and some Italian, if I'm not mistaken) attempted to bring the work of the great French cartoonist to American audiences in the pages of Graphic Story Monthly, this mission seemed to be a quixotic one. The same thing happened when Thompson tried to get American audiences to appreciate the work of another great Frenchman, Lewis Trondheim. Both the comic series The Nimrod and translations of two Trondheim Lapinot albums (The Hoodoodad and Harum Scarum) proved to be tough sells for Fantagraphics.

Thompson never gave up, and he finally had a big hit with the works of fellow Scandinavian Jason. That success was concurrent with Fantagraphics getting the license to reprint Peanuts, which gave them the capital to take some risks. With comics establishing themselves in the book market, an audience slowly grew and allowed Thompson to translate and publish nine Tardi books (plus more on the way), plus dozens more of his personal favorites and new favorites like Ulli Lust. Even if he had had no other role in his comics career, simply by being an advocate, publisher and translator of these works would have marked him as a hugely influential person in the world of comics.

Of course, Thompson's influence goes far deeper than that. He became Gary Groth's partner at The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books very early in the game. He was intelligent and affable but also had a no-bullshit attitude that made him a perfect partner for Groth. Thompson was also never afraid of doing the dirty work, from the beginning with the journal to the countless number of comics and books that he edited and published. There are literally dozens of cartoonists who owe their careers to Thompson; Joe Sacco was about to quit comics before the success of Safe Area Gorazde, which Thompson happened to edit. When I congratulated Thompson on the book, he modestly said "It wasn't that hard. Sacco would turn in a page, I'd say 'Looks good, Joe' and that would be it." The fact of the matter is that it took guts for Fantagraphics to publish a book by an author who had never had any commercial success, and Kim made sure it looked good. If Kim Thompson believed in you, he pulled out all the stops to help make your book look as good as possible. He was a big booster of Carol Tyler (calling Late Bloomer one of the four best looking books Fanta had ever published at the time) and fierce early champion of Johnny Ryan.

I didn't know him all that well personally but always looked forward to saying hello to him at shows like SPX, where he always had a kind and encouraging word for me. The outpouring of emotion on the internet points to just how beloved he was. Some people act as a kind of bedrock in the lives of others, and Thompson obviously held that role for so many. That's why his death, though not unexpected, was such a gut-punch: someone dependable, stable and treasured has been removed from their lives. For fans of comics, especially American fans of European comics, this is an incalculable loss. Other translators will come along, but few will have the taste, editorial instincts and bold ability to translate jargon that Thompson possessed. He did everything idiosyncratically and his methods will never be duplicated. The publisher, editor, translator, fan and reader were all one and the same in Kim Thompson, and there are thousands of readers who should be grateful for the great works he helped bring into being or brought to American shores. I hope that an award or a foundation or a library is established in his honor, one that reflects what he did to make comics viable as an art form.


  1. I always thought the Trondheim books did really well for them. Shame. I used to bug Kim to publish the Lapinot books. He'd give me this weird look that was a cross between 'I know, I know' and 'you're crazy'. When he told me that they were finally going to do them as McConey I gave him the same look.

  2. Nice piece on Kim, I especially like the details, for example the Joe Sacco anecdote. In his matter of fact, straight forward way, Kim accomplished amazing things.
    I don't know if I'm one of the guys who "owes his career" to Kim, but he sure helped me along -- big time!