July 2003

Karin L. Kross


Bob Fingermanís Beg the Question and Why Indie Comics Matter

I lied. In last month's column, I said I was going to give some unvarnished opinions about DC's Vertigo line, and the hits and misses that it's had over the last 10 years. That's going to have to wait another month, I'm afraid. Having paid tribute to one of the lights of mainstream comics publishers, it seems appropriate at this point to change the subject, especially given recent events.

A few days before last month's Bookslut hit the Web, and a few days after my deadline, the comics publisher Fantagraphics announced a crisis. Chances are, if you pay even the slightest grain of attention to the comics world, you heard all about it in detail, so an in-depth recap here is probably unnecessary. In brief -- owing to a bankrupt distributor and an overproduction of books, the company found itself in serious financial trouble. One frenzied web campaign (which campaign included an offer by Gary Groth himself to personally call and thank anyone who bought $500 worth of merchandise) and approximately one week later, Fantagraphics was out of the darkest part of the woods.

This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened; not long ago, Top Shelf Comics hit a rough patch, and was saved by an online appeal to the comics readership as well. (Ironically, Tom Spurgeon cast some aspersions on this in Fantagraphics's own Comics Journal.) That both Top Shelf and Fantagraphics are still going is a testament to the fact that their kind of comic books still matter, emphatically so, but newcomers to the form might wonder: why?

Just as one example, let's take a recent Fantagraphics offering, Bob Fingerman's Beg the Question. In this book, Fingerman has collected and refined his Minimum Wage comic book series, which tells the story of Rob and Sylvia, a young couple in love living in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s. Rob thinks too much, Sylvia is a little highly strung, and their friends are often annoying, but there's something endearing about their adventures, which could be those of any young urbanites in the last decade. Hijinks aside -- and there are many -- what really lingers is the nervy, loving relationship between the two protagonists, which somehow makes it through the ups and downs of moving in together, deaths in the family, abortion, insecurity and neurosis, bad jobs, and lots and lots of really good sex.

One might argue that you can just as easily get this sort of story in a first novel picked up at random at the bookstore. That's no reason why such a story can't be told in comic book form, though, which has its own unique strengths, combining the expressiveness of images with the written word. And this is why you need the alternative and independent publishers; Vertigo, for instance, for all its dedication to new and different writers and stories, rarely deviates in its publications from its fantasy/horror/sci-fi/superhero roots. Not that this is a bad thing; there's a place for it, of course, but there must also be a place in the comics publishing industry for the quotidian, the romantic, and the real. At least there must be, if there's ever going to be a day when an article about comics in a mainstream publication doesn't include some variation on the phrase "Comics aren't just for kids anymore."

Beg the Question by Bob Fingerman
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 1560975024
240 Pages