No love lost

Confessions, Romances, Secrets and Temptations:
Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics
By John Benson
Fantagraphics Books
$9.95, 112 pages.
On their web site, Fantagraphics Books announces their latest call for contributions as if it were a seasonal canned-food drive: “It’s that time again — the Fantagraphics Defense Fund is open for business!”

Considering that Fantagraphics fancies itself the “publisher of the world’s greatest cartoonists,” one would imagine some supervillain armed with a bio-engineered ball-peen hammer, and not sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, who filed suit against the Seattle-based comics publisher in December claiming defamation and “violation of right of publicity.”

Here’s the back story:

In 1980, comics artist Michael Fleisher sued Fantagraphics for publishing an interview with Ellison in which Ellison called Fleisher a “bugfuck,” among other names (Ellison swears he meant it in the best possible you-sure-write-one-hell-of-a-bugfucking-twisted-tale way). The lawsuit created a rift between Ellison and Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, which led Groth to rant against Ellison in the book Comics as Art and list Ellison as a “comics dilletante” on the cover of another collection. That pissed off Ellison, which led to the current litigation, in which Ellison calls Groth , “a scheming pathological liar and little more than an obsessively vindictive and petty man trying to be a mover and shaker.”

In short, it’s a twisted tale of name-calling and dickheadedness. Perhaps Groth’s in the wrong, but ultimately Ellison’s the villain. Fantagraphics, like most small comics publishers, has nearly always teetered on the edge of financial oblivion. If Ellison sues them out of existence, no one benefits: not the literary comics writers — who would publish the next Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco, or Charles Burns? — and certainly not the comics audience, who thanks largely to Fantagraphics may now proudly consider themselves literary connoisseurs instead of, well, geeks.

It’ll be these fans who Mighty-Mouse the day. Fantagraphics is asking readers to donate money directly to their fund, bid on a slew of collectors items on eBay, and generally order books they wouldn’t normally buy.

And with that, I can finally talk about the subject of this review: Confessions, Romances, Secrets and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics, the companion text to Romance Without Tears, Fantagraphics’s collection of 20 romance-comic stories written by Dana Dutch in the late ’40s and ’50s. Edited by comics critic and historian John Benson, Confessions takes the reader behind the scenes through transcribed interviews (collected mostly in the ’80s) and in-depth academic critique.

It’s a dull book, especially without Romance Without Tears handy, heavy on the technical lingo, historical minutiae, and office romances and squabbles, and there are only two reasons I can in good conscience recommend it:

• You’re writing a paper on comics history, in which case the book is essentially 112 pages of ready-to-be-organized data.

• You really, really want to protect Fantagraphics from the big bad Ellison, but you’ve just run out of titles to buy. 

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