Thursday, November 14, 2019

On The Passing Of Tom Spurgeon

Critic, writer, and show organizer Tom Spurgeon died on November 13th, 2019. He was fifty years old. He loved comics. Comics loved him back. What follows is a series of personal anecdotes, thoughts, and memories of Tom.

** Most people in creative fields are lucky to have a single successful avenue for expression. Tom wound up having five in his lengthy, expansive career. He was one of the best-ever editors of The Comics Journal and in general a long-time champion of minicomics in particular. He fulfilled a dream when he wrote the syndicated comic strip Wildwood. He wrote an excellent biography on Stan Lee and helmed a history of Fantagraphics, that while troubled in its final execution, was superb in the portions that he wrote and organized. He launched the single-most-important comics blog and news site, The Comics Reporter, and kept it going through thick and thin--though rarely in a way that he was satisfied with. Finally, he became Executive Director of Comics Crossroads Columbus (CXC), a remarkable show in partnership with the Billy Ireland Library at Ohio State. Let's unpack some of these.

** In my opinion, Tom is the greatest comics critic of all time and its second-best interviewer (behind only Gary Groth). He matched his catholic tastes as a critic and reader with a relentlessly searching and demanding critical acumen that celebrated excellence and hated mediocrity. His willingness to go deep and celebrate comics in all its forms is what made him unusual. You were just as likely to read about an editorial cartoonist or an EC artist as you were about a French alternative cartoonist or someone from Fort Thunder at the Journal or the Comics Reporter. His reviews were often grumpy and curmudgeonly, but he never went for cheap heat. He was direct and sometimes harsh, though he was willing to change his mind from time to time. He was perhaps the earliest advocate of comics-as-poetry in the form of Warren Craghead.

His Sunday interviews at the Comics Reporter need to be collected. He went far and wide and went deep with so many comics veterans and up-and-coming cartoonists. I was lucky enough to be interviewed twice by him, once for art comics in 2012 and once to discuss Acme Novelty Library #19. In both instances, it was clear that he clearly delved into what I wrote and pushed me in interesting directions. He was demanding. When a story arose, he wanted documentation, names and dates. As much as he knew and wrote about and documented, you could fill a hundred books with the gossip and unsourced data that was in his head that he chose not to print. Tom had a powerful sense of integrity and wasn't afraid to get into conflicts because of it.

** Indeed, I chuckled at the number of remembrances of Tom today that contain some variation of "Tom and I didn't always see eye to eye..." or "We argued all the time". However, those anecdotes were inevitably followed by an affirmation of the respect and love people had for him. For Tom, comics was too important to not take criticism seriously, even if it meant hurting feelings. That didn't mean that he didn't care about people.

Indeed, The Comics Reporter was the single biggest nexus for connecting cartoonists and writers in need with a network that could help them. I can attest to this personally, as Tom not only posted notes with regard to financial crises that I've faced over the past decade, he also personally contributed on more than one occasion.

Tom did piss people off, and recently. He had a tart tongue and knew how to zing people. Of course, his most popular target was himself. Tom was famously self-deprecating, and this wasn't a pose. It was something he struggled with, I believe. At the same time, when Tom gave you a compliment, it felt earned. He said nice things about me all the time on TCR, and "hearing" compliments is something I struggle with. But when Tom said it, I listened and took it to heart. At the most recent SPX, when he congratulated me on the slate of programming and gave specific comments on certain panels he liked, it was the most profound compliment I received in a weekend full of overwhelming thanks and praise.

** Let's talk a little more about The Comics Reporter. In an age of twitter, facebook, Instagram, and other forms of social media that make it easy to connect writers and artists with an audience, that site's influence was less pervasive. In its heyday, and pretty much up until he went to work for CXC, The Comics Reporter was required daily reading. A link from Tom meant that you were going to get read. I was incredibly grateful to Tom when he started linking my work at sequart.com because that's when my writing started to get taken seriously. When sequart died and I started my own blog, I asked Tom for some industry-related advice, and he was kind enough to give it to me.

Tom went to bat for a number of creators in a multitude of ways. Anytime he went an editorial route, his opinions were incisive and well thought out. He didn't just report the news; he was an educator. He was crucial in making sense of the past fifteen years of comics' expansion and boom time. Tom had grand plans to expand it further that never came to fruition, much to his own frustration. He was down on himself for what he considered to be TCR's mediocrity, and I told him that even in this more vestigial form, he was still conveying more information than anyone else. Tom felt that burden of imagining a project and it never appearing quite as one hoped. But he did it anyway.

** Tom somehow wrote Wildwood while writing a biography about Stan Lee and freelancing for the Journal. He kept up The Comics Reporter while writing his book about Fantagraphics. That he wasn't able to finish it the way he wanted turned what should have been a classic into something that was highly self-congratulatory. Tom had a way of getting at the facts of what made something important with no patience whatsoever for frippery or self-promotion.

** I think the project that he was simultaneously proudest of and most troubled by was CXC. It is unbelievably hard to put together a comics festival. There are a lot of moving parts, especially when you're working with the grinding gears of a college bureaucracy. He seemed constantly weary when I saw him. However, the joy in his eyes and the genuine emotion in his voice when he was able to bestow the Emerging Cartoonist award (which includes a significant cash prize) showed exactly what comics and the people behind them mean to him. It meant a lot to him to give Katie Skelly, Kevin Czap, Kat Fajardo, Keren Katz, and Carta Monir both recognition and financial support. What a marvelous list that is: cutting-edge, diverse, and possessing the same kind of community values that Tom did.

Still: I know that Tom got blowback about any number of issues. Logistics proved difficult at times. I know that he did his best, but I also know that like everything he ever did, it wasn't quite like he pictured it. It doesn't matter, though, because what he did, working with a lot of different people, was still warmly received by so many people.

** Tom Spurgeon loved comics. He loved its shitty history and calling it out. He loved what comics is becoming now, and he loved what he saw as its future. He used his influence and power to lift others up, especially later in his career. Even his meanest reviews were never personal, even if some seemed dismissive. The targets of negative reviews tended to forgive him because of his sincerity and advocacy. He helped a lot of people in a multitude of ways, including me. I modeled my approach after his. He never steered me wrong. Without his example, his advice, and his direct help, I wouldn't be writing today. He loved comics, and comics loved him, and so did I.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this touching tribute, Rob. I met hundreds of folks related to comics during our time together, and Tom is someone who stood out because of his warmth, gregarious nature & of course his generosity with our family.
    He was an amazing man & an asset to his communities and he will be missed. I'm very sorry for your loss.

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    1. (above comment is by Lou Jent -- I thought it would identify me as such)

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  2. "Tom Spurgeon died on November 13th, 2020". Does he know he will die next year?

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