Words and Pictures: What a Concept! An Interview with Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics Publishing


When the hip and savvy talk about Fantagraphics Publishing, there’s no doubting the superlatives that roll out. The NY Village Voice says, It’d be difficult to find more challenging and entertaining rabble-rousers amid the panorama of popular culture. Wired magazine proclaims, Fantagraphics publishes the best comics in the world.

Fantagraphics artists such as R. Crumb, Peter Bagge, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Jessica Abel among others continue to rule the marketplace and garner critical acclaim. Fantagraphics authors receive more favorable press attention than any publisher in the history of the medium. Their books consistently get positive coverage in TIME, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, and throughout the media. To probe their secrets of success and the thinking that propels them, we sat down—metaphorically—with Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for a little tête à tête. Eric describes himself as Fantagraphics Official Shill & Paid Apologist, so you can see he has a great sense of humor which is never a bad thing for an editor.

ERWA: Fantagraphics is involved in so many different projects that it seems to defy our definition of what an graphic publishing house is all about. How does a project essentially go from an idea or concept into a published form?

Eric Reynolds (ER): It’s pretty organic, really. Gary and Kim and I are obviously all big comics fans, first and foremost, and the line essentially represents our tastes. We each kind of pursue projects individually and twice a year sit down and hammer out a six month schedule based on what we’re each pursuing. Some of these books are no-brainers, like a book by an author we have a longstanding relationship with.

Others are pet projects we instigated ourselves. Many books are very simply agreed upon, while others have to be considered more carefully, and any number of factors can play into the final decision. But it’s essentially just one of us saying, “We gotta do this!” and we go from there.

ERWA: The company has a solid base in re-prints of classic comic strips and materials, so what about new projects and art? In other words, most businesses figure “Well, this sells, so something like it should sell, too,” but Fantagraphics covers both the nostalgic and the radically new. How does the new material submitted get evaluated?

ER: I’d be lying if I said we didn’t take into consideration whether a book will sell when evaluating a project, but I’d also like to think that we don’t let it be an overriding principle in determining what we publish. Basically, we have a mission to publish what we consider to be the best examples of cartooning in the world, past and present, and believe that there will be a market for such work. And so we try to represent this spectrum as best we can. Our only real concern is that we not become too reliant or focused on archival material, because the contemporary work is just as important for maintaining the medium’s vitality.

ERWA: Even in the “adult materials” category, styles and content vary widely, anything from the classic R. Crumb to the latest hentai stories and even quite “abstract” sensual imagery. Is there a lot of competition among graphic book publishers to “push the envelope” so to speak and move into areas formerly considered “taboo”?

ER: I would actually argue that there’s less competition or drive to push the envelope these days. If anything, the underground cartoonists of the 1960s and ’70s were so thorough in their annihilation of societal taboos that the medium to a large degree has gotten that out of its system. Besides, nowadays, transgression has very much moved into the mainstream. From mainstream television like South Park to the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, I’m not sure there are many taboos left to tackle.

ERWA: In works such as Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes, the graphic novel can explore BDSM and fetish interests, which is currently a hot topic among erotica writers. With all the explicit photographic and video materials available online, what is the special appeal, do you think, of such material in a graphic novel format? Is it a combination of storyline and illustration, artistic interpretation, or what?

ER: I’m no expert on this so I’m just speculating, but I would guess it’s some combination of the fact that you can depict just about anything in comics with no budget, and the fact that even the worst-written comics are probably more engaging than the best screenplays for adult films. And the visual nature of comics is probably a more visceral experience than prose erotica, for a lot of folks, anyway. Do adult films actually even get “written”, per se? I have no idea. But in the case of Velvet Glove, what appeals to me is the richness of Clowes’ world-building and those creepy Lynchian moments don’t make much sense of the face of them, but have an interior logic in the context of the novel that resonates with readers. It doesn’t function or satisfy as straightforward erotica, I don’t think. Though I wouldn’t argue with anyone who told me it did!

ERWA: What are some of what you consider the boldest new projects currently in development at Fantagraphics and why will they appeal to readers?

ER: With 50+ books a year it’s tough to pick favorites. There’s a few books coming out this spring that I enjoy particularly because they challenge the notion of what a graphic novel or comic is, and each is wildly entertaining in their own right. The first is Ellen Forney’s Lust, which collects all of her “Lustlab” illustrations for Seattle’s Stranger newspaper from the last three years. Every week, Ellen chooses a personal ad from the paper’s kinky section and essentially turns it into a single-image cartoon. Some are mini-comics, some are more reminiscent of psychedelic posters, etc. But they’re all great cartooning, full of life; collectively, they have the effect of humanizing or normalizing our human proclivity toward fetishistic behavior. Fetishes are perceived as some kind of aberrance in normal human behavior, and yet its quite common for someone to have a fetish. Ellen makes even the most prurient interest seem like a natural extension of human desire.

Then, there’s this book called Funeral oF the Heart by Leah Hayes, which is a collection of hand-lettered, illustrated prose short stories. She writes dark, gothic fairy tales, like a more contemporary Edward Gorey. Again, I like the hybrid of prose and imagery, working together to create something greater than the sum of its parts, in a way that both is and isn’t comics. And then there’s this book called Hall of Best Knowledge by Ray Fenwick, which is another crazy hybrid, and also completely hilarious. It’s essentially all text, but all the text is hand-crafted and ornately detailed, and is the story of an unreliable narrator that slowly unravels over the course of the book. I would call it “typographical comics” and it’s a form that Fenwick almost created out of thin air.

There’s so much more, I could list a number of things, like Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, which might be our big graphic novel of the year—at 700-plus pages, I mean that both literally and figuratively.

ERWA: Apart from the usual dictates of strong characters and storylines, what advice can you give to new authors who might consider submitting material to Fantagraphics? Is it better, for example, to try to work with an artist from the start to develop the material together or can a successful merge be made from a completed story?

ER: Anything’s possible and there’s certainly plenty of examples of the latter, but I tend to encourage the former approach if I have to choose. But more importantly, we simply won’t pair a writer with an artist or vice-versa. About 95% of the work we publish is work where the writer and artist are the same person, and we will not facilitate collaborations, which tends to be a more corporate approach to comic-making. We publish very few collaborations, and when we have, they tend to be more organic collaborations than your standard writer/artist division-of-labor involving pre-existing relationships. Good comics are about achieving a certain harmony between words and images and you can’t really force it. It requires being a writer, director, actor, stage blocker, storyboard artist, etc. It’s difficult for a hired artist to completely and fully realize what exists in a writer’s mind, unless that artist happens to be the writer.

ERWA: Finally, although we realize there is no perfect form, what are the elements that to you, personally, make up the best possible adult graphic novels?

ER: Good writing, good drawing, in the service of each other. Good drawing or writing by themselves don’t inherently make a good comic any more than good cinematography or a good screenplay necessarily makes a good film.

Visit Fantagraphics website: www.fantagraphics.com

William S. Dean
April 2008

“Getting Graphic” © 2008 by William S. Dean. All rights reserved.

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