Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Life Well Lived: Memories of Kim Thompson

I think that you’ve lived a life worth living if you:
  • Lived and died doing what you loved for a living;
  • Left the world a better place because of your contributions;
  • Made a tangible impact on at least one person who is better off for knowing you;
  • Have people praise you when you are alive, as well as when you are no longer with us.

There are plenty of other people who knew Kim Thompson better and for longer, who worked closer with and lived closer to him, but I think I knew well enough and worked with him long enough to say with good certainty that Kim nailed it on all four of the above points.

For those unaware, Kim Thompson is the co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books Inc., alongside his friend and business partner of 35+ years, Gary Groth. Kim passed away Wednesday, after a short battle with cancer, and I count myself blessed to have worked with both men, almost exclusively with Kim for the past two-and-a-half years on what will total nine books by the end of 2013 with their company.

The first thought that comes to mind when I think, “Kim Thompson!” is that the man was blessed to have spent his entire professional life doing what he loved – working in the comic-book field, producing a ton of quality comic books and graphic novels (including a number of translations, and “foreign” artists that may never have seen North American shores without Kim’s efforts).

Like, he got to do it full-time. For a living. That’s frickin’ cool.

I met Kim for the first time at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2001. More on that a little later, but I remember sitting there at the Eisner Awards that year, just dreaming about one day being able to be a working part of the industry, enthralled by the love of the medium that was present in that room.

I haven’t gotten to do it for a living, and the fact that Kim did so only amplifies my respect for him. The fact that he and Gary have conducted themselves with such integrity, especially in contrast to the players who birthed the industry back in the 1930s, is even more impressive when you consider the conditions under which they (heck, almost anyone) labours in this industry.

You may have gleaned this, but (other than living off of the usurped intellectual property of a few of the founding fathers in comics) making a living in comics ain’t easy and can be downright perilous. It’s, to date, a print medium featuring non-moving (in literal/comparative terms to movies and video games) imagery. That’s a major strike against you in the 21st century. I have a 13-year old son who loves the superhero movies and video games, but barely touches a comic book. Most people in the comic-book industry probably feel either like King Sisyphus (expending all that energy rolling that rock up the hill, always worried that it might roll down again at your first sign of weakness) or Moses, who didn’t make it into the promised land because he tapped a rock instead of shouting at it. It can feel like that thin of a razor’s edge. And you don’t dare divide the number of hours worked into the compensation. The thought of such an hourly rate would drop you dead from a heart attack on the spot.

I belabour this point only to make the point that you are only able to survive in this industry if you absolutely love what you are doing. And there’s little doubt Kim did.

Kim and Gary chose a path of quality product over fat profit margins, and were leaders in standing for what they believed was right in an industry with a history of publishers who used and abused those who made them millions with their creations.

Choosing that path meant, on many books, no doubt, slim to little profit margins, but they always aimed for the highest quality in everything they published, pushing the limits of production, spending the extra money to make the physical product that much more special. A number of my books have numerous little “flourishes” that a publisher more invested in their bottom line wouldn’t have bothered with. They, however, took immense pride in seeing the realization of their efforts; that moment when they finally held the book in their hands and would show me what they had done.

That’s a lot of “we” and “they” for a piece on Kim’s passing, but (for me, at least) tough to separate the two men. They did, indeed, have some similar personality traits – at times, like mischievous kids in Junior High – but you could easily discern that they also were opposites in a number of areas, but were blessed that those complimented each other perfectly, and their business, perfectly.

As mentioned, my first encounter with Kim was at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2001. It was my first convention outside of my home country of Canada, and it was an eye-opener for many reasons. Not just because of its scope, but because all my heroes of the Silver Age of Marvel Comics were there (for one of the last times), and because my first-ever article on comics was published by TwoMorrows in an issue of Comic Book Artist.

Somehow, this led to a meeting with the pre-Kim Thompson other half of Fantagraphics, Mike Catron (now happily – for me – back at Fantagraphics and editing my work). He was filming seemingly every panel at that SDCC. And somehow he looped me into helping man his camera so he could film more panels.

One panel that I ended up filming was a (I want to say 25-year look back at the history of) Fantagraphics panel with Gary, Kim and Mike on the dais.

Mike pretty much introduced me to the entire comic-book industry at that Con. Back then, other than that first article, I had made a few contributions to Alter Ego, but was mostly known for a Steve Ditko site I had started in 1998 that led to, that summer of 2001, being the web-designer/master for Steve Ditko and his co-publisher’s internet site for their self-publishing efforts (a site that lasted until they read that first article o’ mine in early September).

As Mike was introducing me to Kim and others, that designation of mine caught the ear of Gary Groth, who turned his eye to me and 12 years-to-date of association was born.

Most of my original interaction was with Gary, but once my first Ditko book began to really come together in 2007, I was blessed to work with both, either together, or (since 2010) almost exclusively with Kim editing and shepherding my Ditko and Everett books into existence.

Kim left numerous impressions on me. First, he had a wonderful balance of Gentleman and fiery pursuer of quality at the expense of your ego. That’s not easy to accomplish.

What I mean by that is he clearly loved his craft so much that his genuine goodness as a person helped him get the best out of people like myself – almost nurturing in a fashion – but could also be tough if you crossed a line, in terms of the quality of your work, or if you exhibited a lack of diligence in living up to your obligations in producing it.

Kim and Gary aren’t arrested adolescents; they are professionals who put their living on the line every day. It’s a difficult industry to rise above an earnings threshold, and quality work and ambitious respecters of the process are table stake expectations. You may not be Joyce, Wilde, or Wolfe, but you’re not going to take them down with you below a certain level of quality that they have set the bar at achieving on all projects.

Kim had that balance down pat, demanding a good job, but also able to be an understanding person when life has its ups and downs that, especially in an industry where many can’t make it as their sole livelihood, can impact the work you do.

He hit me hard on my very first book, I Have To Live With This Guy!, from back in 2002 (deservedly so), and I lived with it through to my 2008 book for Fantagraphics – Strange and Stranger: The World Of Steve Ditko – and beyond. I was determined to show him growth in my writing with each new project, and that I could produce. Publishers love producers, especially ones that don’t give them a lot of grief. And he was kind enough to acknowledge that each project got better. I was just re-reading an email exchange tonight, from June of 2010, regarding the introduction to the second volume of the Steve Ditko Archives. He had flipped me his edit, and I virtually begged him for commentary on its quality. He said:

“Worked for me, some good insights. Solid. Not too hard to work on, your effort definitely showed.

Zoom zoom,


That was a big accomplishment in my book, as was the copy for the distributor catalog for one of the Ditko Archives (in 2011) where he said he barely had to change a thing.

Back in 2008 and 2010, I thought I was the BMOC when both Gary and Kim proofed my first Ditko book and then my first Bill Everett book, the latter exchange done whilst on my honeymoon, a two-week cruise of the Caribbean. Gary went first and when he was done, I told my new bride, “Ok, Kim’s going to go over, but probably just a few extra things.” Wrong. Kim was that good of a proof-reader and editor.

After that exchange, I really doubled-down on producing quality work because I knew what was expected from Kim. In November of 2010, he took over the “Blake Bell franchise”, as he called it, because Gary was tipping the scales a bit more at that time, and we worked exclusively together on all my books since.

I’m jumping all over the place now – how Kim would not approve – but many more memories are coming back that represent the man even as I write. Amongst them:

It became a running joke that he chose all the titles of my books from Strange and Stranger and Fire and Water, to all the Ditko and Everett Archives. (For those, I’d give him a bunch to choose from, but he’d then pick ‘em. Why mess with success?) I only hold the belt for coming up with The Secret History of Marvel Comics.

He was quick to embrace an idea he loved, even if it cost him more time than he budgeted for. I came up with this crazy idea for the first Steve Ditko Archives of having the “Fanta Generation” of “alternative cartoonists” write essays on those pre-Code Ditko stories and we’d intersperse them through the book. Seth, Dan Clowes, Gilbert Hernandez, Dash Shaw, etc. , even Frank Miller. And he diligently went after every one of them. We let it go when we couldn’t get enough to sign up in the timelines we needed them by, but I appreciated his tolerance!

The man also took care of me. In other words, he made sure I got paid on time. That’s a big deal in this industry, especially for someone of my “stature.” (I.e., I’m not exactly going to “take down” Fantagraphics with me if I stopped producing books about comic-book creators born before the Great Depression.) And, over the past three or so years, I’ve really needed to get paid on time, and he was always able to deliver and understand the whys, and sharing a sympathetic note amongst his insanely busy schedule.

He'd forward me emails from comic-book creators who had nice things to say about my books, and he sent me the email telling me about my first Eisner nomination for my Fire and Water Bill Everett book. That took me right back to that 2001 SDCC on Eisner Awards night, thinking about how I’d like to be Jill Thompson, running up to that stage with such incredible enthusiasm. It wasn’t the award/nomination that was of interest; it was being part of a “family” and I am thankful to Kim (and Gary) for allowing me to be a part of theirs.

That’s what made that email from March of this year so shocking. It was the note that he had cancer. We followed up with an exchange about how he was going to beat this, and I still remember that feeling when I saw that update, the one where it dawned on me for the first time that he wasn’t going to conquer this. My step-father passed away even quicker from cancer back in 2000, so it shouldn’t be a shock, but a world without a vital Kim Thompson producing comic books and graphic novels still seems like a world that has been knocked off its axis. The world will right itself, but will feel just different enough.

So, he lived his whole life doing what he loved to do; he left the world a better place because of all the fantastic books he brought to all of us; he made a tangible impact on me as a writer and editor; and I am one of those people who praised him while he was with us and am praising him now as a professional and as a man.

A life well lived.

1 comment: