Originally founded in 1976 to publish The Comics Journal, a monthly publication devoted to news about the comics industry and criticism focused on the comics medium, Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books has grown to become one of the foremost publishers of comics, graphic novels and related works in the world.

“Our impulse at the time was to introduce or possibly impose different values on the comics profession,” Fantagraphics co-founder and co-publisher Gary Groth recalled, speaking with PW by phone about the early days of the company, when it only published The Comics Journal, probably the comics industry’s best known critical magazine. “We thought that if we just published criticism of the industry, that we could somehow reform it. I was hell-bent on elevating the medium.”

Since the first issue of The Comics Journal was published in 1976--a scrappy, controversy-courting monthly featuring news and a new level of critical commentary focused on the comics medium and aimed at lifting the artform beyond its historical focus on superhero comics and material for kids and adolescents. The Comics Journal took the comics medium seriously as an art form, and was one of the first to take the industry head-on over issues of creators’ rights and fair remuneration. Indeed in the years since, Groth and co-publisher Kim Thompson have grown the company into one of the world’s definitive publishers for comics artists.

The Fantagraphics publishing program began “almost by accident” in 1981, according to Groth, and over the last three decades has grown to feature some of the most critically acclaimed comics artists in the U.S. and from around the world. The Fantagraphics list includes the work of the Hernandez brothers (Love and Rockets), Daniel Clowes (Eightball, Ghost World), Chris Ware (The ACME Novelty Library), and Jim Woodring (Frank, Weathercraft) and has grown to include multi-volume archival reprint projects such as R. Crumb’s The Complete Crumb Comics and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. By championing the comics medium and the creators it has published, Fantagraphics has been instrumental in raising the profile of graphic fiction as an art form that transcends the superheroes and monsters that established the medium so many decades ago.

In 1982, Fantagraphics put out the first issue of the Hernandez brothers’ enormously popular and critically acclaimed series—and still ongoing—Love and Rockets, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Considered by many (including Groth) to be Fantagraphics’ flagship book/series (and one of their all-time bestsellers), Love and Rockets set the tone for much of what was to come throughout the remainder of the decade from Clowes, Bagge, Ware, and other artists, among the leaders of what was to become known as the indie or alternative comics publishing movement through the 1980s.

More recently, the company’s relationship with its distributor W. W. Norton has led to an “enormous transformation” in the words of Groth, transforming the independent comics periodical publisher into a book publisher as focused on the general book trade as it is on the comics shop direct market. Since 2003, when the partnership began, Fantagraphics sales have gone from “80-90% in comic book shops and maybe 10% through bookstores” to less than 40% in comic book shops and 60% through bookstores.

The increase in sales has allowed Fantagraphics to increase their publishing program to about 100 titles annually, a rate that has been steady for “the last three to five years,” according to Groth. New publishing projects include archival reprint projects such as the EC Library, which collects the classic EC horror and war comics of the 1950s in handsomely-produced artist-specific volumes; the Complete Carl Barks Disney Library, which revisits the Donald Duck comics of the grand master of American cartooning; and the masterworks of acclaimed French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, finally bringing American attention to this internationally acclaimed creator of steampunk fantasies and noir mysteries.

The Tardi books (which include The Arctic Marauder and Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot) are part of a larger effort at the publisher to put out more comics in translation, and over the past three or four years that effort has included the most recent English-language editions of Cabbie by Spanish artist Martí, The Adventures of Jodelle by Guy Peellaert and Pierre Bartier, and Is That All There Is? by Joost Swarte. Many of Fantagraphics’ comics-in-translation have been supervised and translated by Groth’s business partner and co-publisher Kim Thompson, who was diagnosed with lung cancer two months ago.

“He could translate four languages because he grew up in Europe, reading and loving the comics over there,” Groth says of Thompson. Since the diagnosis, Thompson “hasn’t been able to do any work on that, and we’re not sure yet when he’s going to be back in the saddle. We’re planning on continuing it, but to be honest, it’s probably not going to be as robust as it was.”

Long known for the quality of is books, Fantagraphics has a reputation for producing beautifully-designed volumes of archival quality. Indeed because of this reputation Fantagraphics has been slow to adopt digital platforms. But that may be changing. The publisher used last year’s 30thanniversary of Love and Rockets to release Los Bros. works in digital and Groth says there’s more to come.

“Last year we signed up with [digital comics vendor and marketplace] Comixology, who are transforming our books into e-books and making them available on various platforms,” Groth said. “I’m not sure if all of the Love and Rockets material is available, but a lot of it is. Every month we roll out more books, which comprise new titles as well as backlist titles. Our ambition is to get our entire backlist out, including books that are out of print.”

Does this conflict with a desire to create distinctive physical volumes with each release?

“One of the things we try to do with most of our books is to create beautiful objects. I think that gives us an advantage in terms of people wanting to buy the physical book rather than digital,” Groth said. “There are probably going to be more and more people who find the digital version adequate—who just want to sit down and read it. But I think there are always going to be readers who want a beautiful object in front of them and who can appreciate the aesthetics of that object. Right now, we’re looking at a future where they coexist.”