Remembering Tom Spurgeon

By | Thursday, November 14, 2019 Leave a Comment
Tom Spurgeon illustration by Nate Powell
By now, you've almost certainly read of Tom Spurgeon's passing. I don't think I've seen social media feeds of any person in/around comics that hasn't posted something about it. Hell, I've come across mentions from people I didn't even realize were on any social media in the first place!

That says a lot about Tom. About the length of his reach and the influence he had on the comics medium. Even if you didn't know Tom personally, you knew who he was regardless if you worked in webcomics, newspaper comics, superhero comics, indie comics... It didn't seem to matter if you were a creator or an academic or a journalist or a fan. It didn't seem to matter if you'd been in comics for decades or you were only just getting started. It didn't seem to matter if your favorite comic sold 100,000 copies every month or if your favorite comic was lucky if sales barely broke into double digits. Tom was there for it.

I don't recall when/where/how I first heard about Tom. I expect I read more than a few of his pieces before I started recognizing his name. But I don't need to tell you that his work stood out as always intelligent, well-informed, and really insightful. He seemed to be able to speak to every aspect of comics with an ease and fluency that was, frankly, staggering. When I first started writing about comics, I was focused almost exclusively on the Fantastic Four (Anyone remember That was me.) and my writing/research role models at that point were Peter Sanderson, Will Murray, and Greg Theakston -- guys who did some really elaborate, deep-dive looks but at incredibly specific niches within comics. As I transitioned to a broader, more generalist approach to comics, I took my cues more from Tom. Not so much his specific writing style, but his overall approach -- that comics as a whole are awesome and it's worth celebrating every aspect of them.

That was Tom's magic. He not only knew and understood comics at a deeply visceral level that very few are able to match, but he genuinely celebrated everything and everybody to do with comics. His warmth easily cut through any sarcasm he might throw out there, and he was of the opinion that, if you had anything to do with comics, you were by default a pretty great person and worthy of not only respect, but praise and support; Tom would do what he could to help in that. Despite his attention often being pulled in several directions at once, he would still make try to make time for whoever wanted it. I was amazed when I first attended CXC, the show that Tom founded and did much of the work for, that Tom was able to take time out to chat with people who were there and came up just to say "hi" or "thanks" despite his being absolutely exhausted; regardless of who it was, he made time for them between moderating panels and general show-running and whatever else he was taking care of. Why? Because they were comics people.

One thing Tom did for me, personally, was validate my work as a writer of stuff about comics. I initially thought of myself as a blogger, in the most insignificant and inconsequential way that is defined. When Tom linked to and talked about what I was doing, though, he did so in a way that showed he thought of me much more highly than that. He kept telling me, in various ways, "What you're doing has value." And while I frequently struggled (and continue to struggle) with what seems like a lack of interest in my work, Tom was there telling everyone else, "Check out what Sean's doing; it's worth your time." I don't think I ever talked about my doubts and insecurities with Tom, but he seemed to innately understand what I had problems with, and how he was able to use his platform to help ameliorate that.

And he seemed to do that with everyone. As I said, he was smart and knowledgeable about comics, but what endeared him to so many was his commitment to making things better for comics and the people in it. The Tweet that Tom has had pinned to the top of his feed reads, "i will save this comics industry to the ground." And that perfectly encapsulates Tom. There's a level of sarcasm there to deflect any indication of seriousness, but he really did want to save this industry in any way he could. That was a large part of why he moved to Columbus, Ohio and started CXC, I think. He saw it as a solid central hub for comics, and a place from which he could affect the most change.

As I got to know Tom, that aspect of him rubbed off more and more. He certainly had me striving to look at and talk about comics as a whole in the most intelligent and knowledgeable way possible, but I got to see, through him, that I could try to leverage whatever influence I had to help others. I don't have nearly the audience or command the level of respect that Tom did, but I can still try to help out comics folks in whatever humble way I can. Maybe it's backing their Kickstarter, maybe it's a review on Amazon, maybe it's a word of encouragement. I can't do that for everybody, of course, but I can try to help some folks at least.

Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents and Underground Classics
Up through about age 30 or so, my aspirations in comics were no higher than maybe be a footnote somewhere in the grand history of comics. I was happy getting a few letters published; there was now an "official" notation of some kind that I was a comics fan of some sort. Throughout my 30s, that expanded a bit so that I tried to get my name in records where it meant a little more. When I submitted pieces for Bart Beatty's three-volume Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents and Underground Classics, I made a point of choosing books that started with "A" and "Y" so I could be assured of getting in the first and last volumes, and several floating around in the middle of the alphabet, so I had a good chance of hitting the middle volume as well; thus, assuring my credits in all three books. That was largely ego-driven and I recognized that even then. But seeing and talking with Tom, that type of thing became less and less important. I mean, yeah, it was still cool to see my name in a book because I backed it on Kickstarter, but I became more pleased just to see the book see print. Particularly the ones which struck me as more important -- more historical or more original or what-have-you.

I don't have the connections that Tom had. I don't have the depth of knowledge or almost intuitive understanding of the industry that he had. I don't have the passion for comics that he had. I don't have the personality to do what he did. But I can take the lessons I learned from him, and try to encourage and support the comics industry in the same sort of spirit that he did. And, yeah, maybe most of the time, that's little more than spending my last $5 on someone's mini-comic at a show I've already spent way too much money at, but damn if they aren't trying hard to just make table costs and their enthusiasm alone is worth rewarding. And that might not seem like a lot, but that could also be the one thing that encourages a creator to keep doing what they're doing and they don't leave comics for a soulless ad agency just so they can pay the rent. And, really, do we another formerly creative individual ground down to drudgery graphics work because they didn't break even on the comics they used to be passionate about before they couldn't afford to make them any more?

I last saw Tom in person at TCAF earlier this year. We didn't get a chance to talk much, but he was his usual cordial and sarcastic self. My next "communication" with him was learning that my editors at Bloomsbury had sent him a draft of my webcomic textbook manuscript in the hopes that he might write a nice blurb about it. I didn't find out until Wednesday evening when I saw that he had said, in part, "Kleefeld is an ideal writer to chronicle the rise of modern webcomics... The longer you take to find and read your own copy is the amount of time I get to be smarter than you." Less than an hour later, I learned of his passing. Like many of you, I'm terribly saddened by his loss, but I am really glad he had a chance to read my manuscript before he passed, and I'm even more pleased that he liked it. He could've written something more generically approving, or not even provided a blurb at all. But he took the time to read it, and provide some effusive praise. Something I haven't heard about my writing in at least two years, given the writing hiatus I was inadvertently on. I'm sure that once the book is officially published, others will take issue with this aspect or that, and actual webcomic creators will laugh at my ignorance, but Tom said it was good, so I don't need much else in the way of validation.

But dammit, Tom, I didn't even get to say thank you for that, much less everything else you've done!

Even with just a quick scan of social media or comics news sites, you can see how many people's lives Tom touched. My experience is hardly unique in that regard. He was an extremely powerful force in comics, and his absence going forward is going to be felt for a very long time. But even though we're all incredibly sad at the loss of Tom, I think we should all take a moment to reflect on what he did, why he did it, and what we might be able to do ourselves to continue those ideas. Because, after all, comics really are a fantastic medium and there are some absolutely amazing people working in/around it. Let's celebrate that, and try to help others who love the medium so much that they want to make a life for themselves in it.

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