Drawing on Life : Agoura Publisher Sees Redeeming Social Value in 'Alternative' Comics

Wyma is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Archie and Jughead wouldn't recognize the current comic-book scene. A parents group that monitors "hazardous" comics sprang up this year in Fresno, and in Illinois a comic-book store was raided on charges of selling obscene material to minors.

In the books themselves, the characters lust after one another, swear, make and lose friends and struggle with such problems as alcoholism, drug addiction, abandonment and teen-age pregnancy.

Some of these new "alternative" comic books are published by Fantagraphics Books of Agoura. Gary Groth, company co-owner, believes comic books are emerging finally as a bona fide art form, if only they can be defended from self-righteous censors and the intimidating forces of capitalism.

"For 50 years, comic books have been a junk medium created by hacks or enthusiastic adolescents who are taken advantage of by businessmen who don't care about making any sort of intelligent or literate contribution to American culture," he said.

But Groth, 32, of Westlake Village, contends that new comic books can draw readers who are disaffected by a sterile modern culture.

"I'd like to see the same people who are reading John LeCarre and James Dickey read comics," he explained in his company's cluttered offices.

Publishes Trade Review

Frantagraphics Books is a small company, publishing comic books, large-sized comics collections and the trade review Comics Journal. The most successful of the line is the "Love and Rockets" comic book series by Oxnard brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.

Each does his own drawings and stories--Gilbert's are often about people in the mythical Mexican town of Palomar, and Jaime's are about young Latinos in modern Los Angeles.

"We started publishing the Hernandez brothers in 1982," said Groth. "They're among the best of the new cartoonists. Their work is relevant. It isn't just super heroes blasting around the galaxy."

Within the industry, however, Groth is known more for the Comics Journal than for the comics his company publishes. Groth was a student at the University of Maryland when he and a friend wrote the first issue. The Comics Journal, which he has put out sporadically since 1976, features industry news, interviews with cartoonists, reviews of new comic books and opinion pieces on the comics business.

"It's a very independent magazine," Groth explained. "So far we've been sued for libel and defamation of character three times and won three times."

In the most recent suit, comic-book writer and novelist Michael Fleisher sued Groth and science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, charging that his reputation was damaged by statements Ellison made in an interview published by Comics Journal in 1979. Ellison had said Fleisher's work showed a "twisted mentality" and that Fleisher was "certifiable," meaning insane.

Fleisher filed suit in 1980, asking $2 million in damages. Last December, following a four-week trial in New York, an eight-person jury decided in favor of Groth and Ellison.

Dean Mullaney, co-publisher of Eclipse Comics, was one of several industry figures who gave depositions or testified at the trial. In a telephone interview, Mullaney termed both Eclipse and Fantagraphics "progressive" companies that avoid the super-hero genre while publishing new artists and pioneering high-quality products such as thick, oversize collections called "graphic albums."

Eclipse, situated an hour north of San Francisco in Forestville, puts out about 25 comic books a month, he said. Industry giant Marvel of New York publishes 50 to 60 a month, whereas Fantagraphics puts out 10 or fewer.

Called Sensationalist

In his deposition, given on behalf of plaintiff Fleisher, Mullaney said Comics Journal "uses controversy and sensationalism to sell copies of the magazine."

Mullaney and Groth have been at odds since the trial. Mullaney lauded the Comics Journal for exposing hypocrisy in the industry, but said it cannot be trusted for balanced reporting.

"It's more a fan magazine as a trade-news publication," he said.

Noteworthy, however, is the fact that editor Groth will run uncomplimentary assessments of his own company. A February, 1987, review of the Fantagraphics Books output found much of it to be "pretty bad."

Groth was an avid comics reader as a child and continued the habit as he grew older. There are tens of thousands like him, and this growing market of post-adolescent readers is responsible for the widening of subjects and styles in today's comic books.

Average Reader Is Male

"We did a survey a while ago and our average customer is a male between 18 and 25 years old," said Don Myers, manager of the Northridge outlet of Golden Apple Comics, a three-store chain. "It isn't just kids. Like any popular medium, there's a lot of schlock, but comics are getting better and better."

Myers, 28, who wore a purple Grateful Dead T-shirt and a skull-in-a-top-hat earring, said that super-hero comics such as Batman and Superman still outsell more literate comics about 2 to 1.

"But the super heroes aren't always what some people might think," he said. "The good and evil aren't black and white anymore. Take 'Batman: the Dark Knight.' It's Batman, but he's different. He's more of an anti-hero, jaded and not all goody-goody anymore."

Myers said "Love and Rockets" is popular because "It's about people who look like people you know." The realism of the series is "not uncommon at all these days, because there is an older audience, a more literate audience that can pay more. 'Love and Rockets' costs $2.25, contrasted with 75 cents for the cheapest comics. People grow into it the way I grew from the Hardy Boys to Faulkner."

Objects to Subject Matter

Not everyone is pleased with the expanding styles and subjects of comic books. Peter May, 28, of Los Angeles was in Golden Apple's Northridge store picking up a few titles before attending a wedding. May is disturbed by the violence and sex in many new comics, and he took examples from the racks to make his point.

"Here's 'The Punisher,' " he said, opening a comic book. "It's about a guy who punishes evil. It sells very well, but it's very violent. Here's a head with entrails hanging from it. This is 'Green Arrow,' who is like a younger 'Green Lantern.' Here you have this semi-clad woman. She's about to be cut up with a knife in a very gruesome way. Here are the drops of blood across the pages.

"There's a 'Hulk' here somewhere that talks about pregnancy," May continued. "If you're 14 and reading this, you don't know what's going on. If I had kids, I wouldn't want them reading this."

Alternative to Fairy Tales

At nearby Continental Comics, Jerry Perttula, 35, was shopping with his 4-year-old son, Jeremy. Perttula said he reads comics to his son "because they catch his interest. It's better than sitting down with an old fairy tale, which I don't like."

Comic books containing graphic sex and violence "are out there, but I exercise the power of the wallet and don't buy them," Perttula said. "I don't think there should be any restrictions put on them, because it's a form of art."

Myk Price, manager of Continental Comics, said that only once has he had a problem with selling an adult-oriented comic book to a youngster.

"The boy's mother brought it back and said she didn't want her son to have it. It was no big deal. She just exchanged it for something else."

Publisher Groth said stores specializing in comics--others in the San Fernando Valley include Pee-Wee Comics in Canoga Park and Passport Book Shop in North Hollywood--have encouraged the market's current variety.

"Until specialty shops became a force in the late '70s and you began to see alternative comics, you didn't have what's going on now--a rejection of and contempt for mass-culture values and a need to put your own values on paper," Groth said.

Descendants of Head Shops

The stores are descendants of the late 1960s and early 1970s "head shops," which sold underground comics as well as drug paraphernalia, Groth explained. Anti-paraphernalia laws drove head shops out of business, and alternative comics went into a period of decline. When they emerged, however, it was with a vision much broader than anti-Establishment views of the underground comics, he says.

Besides "Love and Rockets," Groth and his partner, Kim Thompson, publish several other comic-book titles, an anthology magazine for new cartoonists called "Prime Cuts" and graphic album collections of such modern cartoonists as Robert Crumb and Drew Friedman. They also publish Popeye, Prince Valiant and Little Orphan Annie graphic albums and a classic comics reprint magazine called "Nemo." Fantagraphics Books employs four people.

Shortage of Talent

The low quality of many comics--"semi-literate regurgitations of tired media cliches," he calls them--is a favorite topic of attack by Groth. Although he blames other publishers for playing it safe with super heroes and their clones, and for paying artists poorly, he acknowledges that a shortage of talent exists.

"We get a lot of submissions, most of them bad," Groth said. "Lots of it comes from people you think are 15, but they're 30. There's a lot of arrested development in this business."

Groth himself does not draw and is content to remain a businessman and the industry's principal First Amendment advocate. Frantagraphics Books labels some of its comics "recommended for mature readers," but Groth is against proposals by some publishers for a comic-books ratings system similar to that used in movies. Such a system would discourage creativity, he said.

He said he is doing in life exactly what he wants to.

"I go to eight or 10 conventions a year and deal with artists, some of whom are pretty interesting," he said. "That's all fine. But I spend a lot of my day on the phone with people who owe me money, or I owe money to. A lot of it isn't glamorous."

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