In his mind, Gary Groth can still see him. Standing in the back doorway of the converted Lake City house that’s been the Fantagraphics headquarters since 1989, Kim Thompson looked like he was drowning. The 56-year-old editor and translator lingered in the entrance and gasped for air.
He looked like he was drowning because he was. Hours later, at Virginia-Mason Hospital, doctors pumped three liters of fluid from his lungs. The prognosis that day in February 2013: cancer. Thompson’s death four and a half months later left Groth heartbroken and groping for a way to keep alive the business the two men had built for 35 years.
Founded in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, Fantagraphics boasts a roster of some of the best known and most admired writers and artists in underground comics: Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco. And a sideline in publishing classic cartoon collections like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and Walt Disney’s Donald Duck make the company a go-to source for comics worldwide.
Still, margins are slim. Over the years Groth and Thompson had weathered Fantagraphics feast and famine, but when Thompson died and left 13 foreign-language books untranslated—about a third of their scheduled output for spring and summer 2014—business prospects became even more dire. Anemic sales in 2013 didn’t help.
Groth, 59, isn’t exactly a luddite; in 2012 he embraced comic books on tablets and Kindles. But he is still an old-school guy prone to referencing Cormac McCarthy plot devices to explain business principles. So he surprised even himself by stabbing at the keys on his Apple until he had an account and an audacious campaign on kickstarter.com.
In a video plea, Groth asked fans to donate and help reach a goal of $150,000—the amount he thought he needed to take over Thompson’s translation duties and catch up on bills that could sink the company. And he called on authors, artists, and other allies, who contributed items as premiums to donors: signed copies of books, original sketches, and the chance to go shoot guns at a gravel pit with Groth.
The gambit worked. Ten days in, Groth and Fantagraphics’ campaign blew past the $150,000 mark and had crested $200,000 in donations as of early December. Groth was relieved. His company could produce its 2014 lineup, and he could finally relax.
Not that he did.
“You might think I’m sleeping better,” Groth says. But he and his staff of 20 must meet the promises made in the Kickstarter campaign—gathering the premium gifts, connecting with donors and artists—in addition to the regular work of editing and publishing books. “I usually don’t look this tired.”