As with many other folks associated with comics, Tom’s death shocked me and is taking some time for me to process. While I only met Tom once and so wasn’t by any means close with him, he has been a presence in my entire comics career. And it’s been a complicated presence.
I created my first mini comic in 1996. That means that as I was putting myself out there and trying to get to know the alternative comics world, Tom was the editor at The Comics Journal, which was, at that time, the only place that talked about comics as a serious art form and talked about the kinds of comics that I was interested in. But it wasn’t a friendly place. To me, it was like a boys’ clubhouse where the default mode of interaction was the insult. My impression was always that Gary Groth had made a name for himself going after Marvel and Jim Shooter. Yet that same “blood and thunder” with which he attacked the establishment was then brought to bear on naïve twenty-somethings photocopying their work and mailing it out. The criticism that was offered was not in any way constructive. And again, Tom was the editor at the time. So sometimes Tom was the one writing the reviews. Many of us my age got our first negative reviews from Tom. He was the one who told us that we sucked, that we were crude, that our ideas were simplistic and not very interesting. And you may say that maybe these things were true and that an artist needs to be able to deal with negative criticism. Perhaps, but, and I am biased here, there always seemed to be a glee that the TCJ reviewers took in destroying an artist’s hopes. There was a cruelty to it. So in my mind, Tom Spurgeon was the Kingpin of this ogre attitude.
Comics had never been an inviting world for me. I loved the comics themselves of course and I loved seeing new things in the comic book store, but I never felt comfortable in the stores themselves. When I began buying comic books regularly, there were two stores in my area. One was run by a grumpy man who never smiled and who accused me of lying and trying to steal. I stopped going to that store. The other was staffed by a young guy who liked to prove how cool he was by belittling the intelligence of the kids who came in. That was the store I went into the most. I figured being made to feel dumb was better than fearing that someone was going to call the cops on me. Years later, the sexism in the imagery displayed in the stores started to disturb me and I would feel unclean just walking into a comic book store. So when I discovered mail order, and later the internet, and when bookstores started stocking graphic novels, I never set foot in a comic book store again.
But still, I loved comics and I knew there must be others who had a passion for the art form and wanted to talk about it like I did. While The Comics Journal roiled with bitterness and anger, there were articles and interviews that shined though. In fact, Spurgeon published Bart Beaty’s column, “Euro-Comics for Beginners,” which was one of the most consistently excellent parts of The Journal. So when The Comics Journal Message Board started up, I was still hopeful. But, as almost anyone who was there at the time will tell you, that rosy ideal of mutual intellectual and artistic inquiry didn’t materialize. Basically, it was Twitter decades before Twitter came to be. But I kept posting there. I kept trying. Mostly, because I had nothing else. Like many comics fans, I didn’t have anyone else in my life who was into comics the way that I was. So I was willing to put up with the abuse for those rare moments when we would actually talk about why we loved the comics that we loved. And sometimes I decided to fight back, and thereby added to the abuse. But after awhile, I would just log in and scroll through the endless threads about which actor should play which superhero in which (at that time) hypothetical movie and check on the discussions about comics that inevitably would devolve into personal attacks within a post or two.
And as I said, Tom was the moderator and editor. So for me, he was the face of the disappointment I felt over the comics community. When I thought of how fucked up it was, how immature and self-hating everyone was, I’d think of Tom.
But then he left. And I moved on in my life, also. I still created comics, still showed up at the Alternative Press Expo, but my drive to connect and get noticed had been curbed. And then I became a father and life took a busy turn.
Years later, The Comics Reporter appeared. In the beginning, the reviews Tom posted were not significantly different in style from the ones he had done before. But the site slowly morphed into something else. It became more about news, more about connecting to other sites, other reviewers, other artists. The Comics Reporter became a hub. And, for all Tom’s disdain for “team comics,” his site became a place that tied a community together.
Since I didn’t know Tom personally, I never knew for sure what his thought process was, but I always got the impression that he wanted to recreate himself, that he wanted to do things differently than the way he had done them in the TCJ days. And so his site stopped its reviews for the most part and instead honored artists on their birthdays, provided links to new creators, and gave advice for how to survive a con. He started his “Five For Friday” and encouraged everyone to submit replies. Instead of a bitter stop sign, the site was an encouraging arrow pointing forward. Tom Spurgeon became constructive.
My interpretation may, of course, be all wrong. Plenty of people have very different impressions of Tom and his legacy. But for me, he is still that symbol of everything that crushed my young enthusiasm, while at the same time being an example of the fact that we don’t have to be defined by who we were. There is always a chance to go in a new direction. Healing can happen. It takes strength to do it, but it is possible. And so while you may disagree with my narrative, it provides me with hope. It’s the narrative of a hero.