How best to honor Tom Spurgeon?

Tom Spurgeon died this week. Although he was not in great health, this was a shock for all of us who were lucky enough to have him in our lives. It still hasn’t sunk in for me. I half expect to see him at the next Columbus comics event. He always showed up.

Our city and a much larger community are reeling from the loss. The only positive I see is that so much of the good Tom did has not vanished along with him. We have his lifetime of often-brilliant writing. We have friendships that exist because of the people he brought together. We can learn from his example about how to love art, appreciate artists and sneer at bullshit.

Tom Spurgeon
Tom Spurgeon

I became aware of Tom in the late 1990s when he was editor of The Comics Journal. He was the person behind the issues of the magazine when I became a devoted reader. As I told him more than once, his Comics Journal helped to shape my tastes.

The Comics Journal #194, Fantagraphics

The first issue I picked up was #194 in spring of my junior year of college. I got it at Uncle Sven’s Comic Shoppe in St. Paul and I devoured it. I learned of the cartoonist Seth because the letters page had comments about the previous issue, which was an interview with Seth. The articles and ads in that issue inspired my reading for the next few years, introducing me to artists whose work I still adore.

The fact that I was a comics fan and a lifelong comics reader was secondary to all the serious stuff that people list in their official bios. I was a largely closeted geek. I was first and foremost a news reporter. After college I moved to New Hampshire to work for a newspaper and then to my native Iowa to cover the statehouse for a group of newspapers. In 2008, my wife enrolled at Ohio State University for graduate school and so we moved to Columbus and I got a job covering business news for The Columbus Dispatch.

Tom Spurgeon moved to Columbus to take the job as executive director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, or CXC, a comics festival that made its debut under his leadership in 2015. At the Dispatch, I occasionally wrote about comics, and I wrote a preview of the first CXC.

I loved the first CXC. It was held in a small art space and had a ridiculously talented cast of special guests, including Jaime Hernandez, Art Spiegelman and Craig Thompson.

In 2016, I became a volunteer with the show. My job, among other things, was to act as a gopher and driver for Ben Katchor. It was great.

Sometime after that, I got to know Tom. One of our longest early conversations was when I interviewed him for my book about comics retail. I got my first taste of how he could go off on entertaining tangents. It also became clear that he and I shared a fondness for comics of the 1970s and 80s and for the wonderful and weird trappings of comic shops. We shared a mutual appreciation of Dan Spiegle, a criminally underappreciated artist.

Blackhawk #268, DC Comics. Art by Dan Spiegle.

Soon after, I asked him to write the foreword for the book and he agreed, even though we barely knew each other at that point. Somehow, I had obtained the Spurgeon seal of approval, which turned out to be essential for others to take the work seriously. He gave me some of his credibility and expected nothing in return.

He later asked me to take on a greater role with CXC. The best part of this was that his “ask” took the form of a long afternoon at a coffee shop in which we talked about CXC a little and a lot about everything else. We had a few conversations like that since, and I thought we’d have many more.

The outpouring of affection for Tom this week has not been surprising. He did for many others what he did for me. If he saw something or someone he liked, he helped out.

He was one of the funniest people I knew. Just read his Twitter feed for years of wit and self-deprecation.

He was one of the best writers and critics I knew. If anyone wants to publish a collection of his work, I’ll buy one for me and others for my friends. To get a sense of this, read his essay about illness and near death from 2011, one that has been shared a lot by people coming to terms with his death.

Now, let’s get to the point. A bad thing has happened. A good person is gone. What do we do?

The answer is simple. We support good work. We tell others about it. We help others without expecting anything in return.

One of the ways I’ve been dealing with the loss of Tom is re-reading Don Rosa’s Disney comics. He and I had talked about our mutual affection for Rosa’s work. I remember he had a Rosa hardcover in his bathroom, which I thought was cool.

son of the son
Walt Disney Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: “The Son of the Sun” (The Don Rosa Library Vol. 1), Fantagraphics

As a parent of two elementary school age daughters, I can see we are living in a renaissance for comics aimed at children. I’ve read my kids all of Don Rosa’s stories, and I think it’s a unfortunate that his work is not better known. He is a star, and a legend for a certain kind of comics fan, but there are millions of readers whose lives would be better if they knew of his work.

Fantagraphics has done a great thing by publishing a 10-volume series that contains every Don Rosa Disney story. More people should read them, and I want to try to do my small part to encourage that.

These next few weekends, I’m going to go through those books with my daughters and we will pick out our favorite stories. I’ll write about them in several installments here, with commentary from my 8-year-old, a critic whose humor and insight would make Tom Spurgeon proud.

The image at the top of this post is by Nate Powell, used with permission. He’s great. Buy all his books.