Final dispatch from the Comics Reporter: Tom Spurgeon, 1968-2019
When Tom Spurgeon was a boy in Indiana, his father, Wiley Spurgeon, an executive editor overseeing sister newspapers The Muncie Star and The Muncie Press, would regularly bring home King Features Syndicate promotional packages, thick books containing potential strips the paper could add to its comics page.
“And at a certain point, Dad started … not just reading these promotional packages himself, but handing them to me, and then Tom, and saying, ‘What do you think about this comic?’” said Tom Spurgeon’s older brother, Whit. “Tom would have been about 10 at that point, and he was already Giant Brain. We knew he was going to be smarter than all of us. I was 14, and he was already taller than me. It was like, ‘What happened with him? It’s like we gave him the super milk or something.’
“I remember we loved [the comic strips] Shoe and The Far Side. And this was never a syndicated strip, but early on my dad brought home [B. Kliban’s] Never Eat Anything Bigger than Your Head & Other Drawings, and we thought it was hilarious. So Tom and I were exposed to all of this [material] early on. … And, more than that, we were asked for our feedback.”
It’s an exercise that would come to shape the second half of Tom Spurgeon’s life. Prior to his Nov. 13 death at home in Columbus at age 50, Spurgeon, writer and editor of The Comics Reporter, existed as an indomitable force within the world of comics, a celebrated critic, an industry chronicler and later, in his role as executive director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), as a convention organizer and community builder.
“Here in Columbus, we’ve been trying to do this ‘comics town’ thing for a long time, and it’s something Tom and I had talked about for years before he moved here,” said Caitlin McGurk, associate curator and assistant professor at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, which will hold a public memorial for Spurgeon on Saturday, Dec. 14. “Things in the city were starting to jell, and there were great, talented people here that had been making it work, but when Tom moved here, it legitimized all of it. That was when the rest of the comics world started to take notice [of Columbus].”
Spurgeon moved to Columbus in March of 2015 from Silver City, New Mexico, largely to take the position with CXC, friends and family said, though he had previously expressed a fondness for the city following a week-long 2013 visit. “It's a nice city, Columbus,” he wrote on The Comics Reporter. “It has all the Midwestern city virtues without the haunting, melancholy presence of a now-faded industrial past.”
And it’s a city in which he’ll remain. In addition to preserving a digital archive of The Comics Reporter website, the Billy Ireland will become the final resting place for Spurgeon’s ashes, which he willed to the museum so that he might carry on alongside the comic art and artists that defined much of his existence.
Growing up on the north side of Muncie, Indiana, a Midwestern city that bore some scars of that “faded industrial past” (Spurgeon’s grandfather ran the Muncie Gear Works factory), Spurgeon would often immerse himself in fantasy worlds.
In addition to an early obsession with comic books, which he would fuel with weekly trips to the local Village Pharmacy corner store, Spurgeon was also an active Dungeons & Dragons player, usually serving in the role of Dungeon Master during weekly Saturday games. (He continued to design quests during the years he lived in Columbus.)
“There was never any question who was going to be the [Dungeon Master] … because even as a young person Tom had such command of storytelling, and such an understanding of the mechanisms of plot,” said cartoonist and childhood friend Dan Wright. “Tom didn’t just read things; he digested the mechanisms of them and could riff on them. He was not just regurgitating what he had encountered somewhere. He was thoughtful and creative with that information.”
It helped that Spurgeon could convey these ideas in an almost poetic manner. Wright recalled Spurgeon introducing him to the music of Ted Hawkins in the ’90s, with Tom describing the California street singer's voice as an instrument that appeared to resonate “from the middle of the Earth” — a vivid phrase that compelled Wright to hunt down every Hawkins song he could find.
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The Spurgeon boys, including youngest brother Dan, were also active in the local theater scene. Wright said he first met Tom and Whit while attending a young actors workshop at Muncie Civic Theatre, where the friends also crossed paths with novice actor turned cartoonist Jim Davis. “I remember when I was 12 or 13, Jim came to the theater and said, ‘Hey, guys. I’m thinking about syndicating a comic strip. What do you think of this?’” said Whit, now an actor for film and TV living in Los Angeles. “And he showed us the first 20 Garfields.”
While Tom bowed from the stage earlier than his older brother, he maintained a fondness for the craft, even penning theater reviews for The Stranger during the years he worked for the The Comics Journal in Seattle. Whit recalled one holiday season when the alt-weekly tasked Tom with reviewing every small theater production of “A Christmas Carol.” “And Tom said, ‘There was one OK one and the rest were different levels of dreadful,’” Whit said. “But one was so bad that the last line of his review, which is my favorite Tom statement, was, ‘Give yourself the gift of not going.’”
It’s a forthrightness the brothers shared with their mother, who ran a public relations business and who maintained a degree of candor even while assessing the creative pursuits of her children. After Whit played the role of Puck in a high school presentation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his mother offered a less-than-glowing assessment. “She goes, ‘You were really good, but Shakespeare is hard,’” Whit said. “And then she paused and goes, ‘But I don’t think that was your best performance.’ It was very gentle, but at the same time it left me perplexed for the next 12 hours or so.”
As a critic, Spurgeon could be cutting, owing in part to his keen intellect and an acute, vicious sense of humor. He reviewed Laurenn McCubbin’s first book, XXX Live Nude Girls, and his words were scathing to the point of offense. “I was getting a lot of attention for the comic, and there was a vocal minority who thought I did not deserve that attention,” said McCubbin, associate professor of Comics & Narrative Practice at CCAD, who grouped Spurgeon among that crowd and kept a distance from him for years following publication of the review. “I would scowl at him from across the room at comic shows. ... But when he moved to Columbus, he reached out, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be living here. We should talk.’ And we did, and he was like, ‘I want to apologize to you. I used to be a real dick, and I’ve changed the way I approach this stuff. I still didn’t like that book, but I didn’t say it the right way.’”
But even a harsh review from Spurgeon carried weight, and receiving a mention in The Comics Journal, or later on The Comics Reporter,generally served as a validating moment in the career of an unknown artist. For years, cartoonist Noah Van Sciver submitted self-published comics to Spurgeon for review, never receiving a word in response. Eventually, Van Sciver penned an intentionally cruel letter, including with it a drawing of Spurgeon designed to make the critic look “as stupid as possible,” Van Sciver said. Spurgeon ignored this note, as well.
“Every cartoonist was intimidated by him because he held a lot of sway in the comics community ... and his opinions were so respected,” said Van Sciver, who eventually became friends with Spurgeon, even living with the critic for a short time after moving to Columbus in 2016 (he has since departed the city). “And I don’t know who fills that role now, which is a thing I’ve been struggling with a lot. It’s a big void. … You can tell a big chunk of the comics community is gone.”
“There’s no one else in the comics industry like him,” Whit Spurgeon said. “I’ve been trying to think of a parallel from the fantasy realm … In Camelot, Tom would not have been Arthur or Lancelot. He would have been Merlin, right? He would have been the guy who knew all the secrets and who was completely irreplaceable. Once he’s gone, some of that magic is, as well.”
While friends and family generally described Tom’s childhood as carefree, his teenage years were shaped by a tragedy that remained with him through his adult life.
In September 1985, Spurgeon’s best friend and high school debate team partner, Ethan Dixon, 16, was shot and killed alongside 15-year-old Kimberly Dowell in a still-unsolved murder. Interviewed for a 2014 Star Press article marking the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, Spurgeon said, “It was such a dramatic event with dramatic ramifications that happened to a bunch of teenagers, where the smallest thing is dramatic.”
“Tom had some problems with drinking in college, and made some decisions where, if you removed grief from it, it might look like a young man going off the rails,” said Wright, who spent the day prior to the shooting shopping for comic books in Indianapolis with Tom.
Initially, Spurgeon had planned on attending law school after graduating from Washington and Lee University, a small, conservative school in Virginia, but he instead entered Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois. Whit attributed part of the decision to ethical quandaries Tom viewed as inherent in the legal profession (Whit recalled Tom saying, “I don’t know if I could defend a person that I knew was guilty”), and Wright suggested that seminary offered Spurgeon a chance to move toward a career he would ultimately find more personally fulfilling.
“Tom could have been the junior senator from Indiana. He had that capacity, and law school would have been the track to get there,” Wright said. “But I don’t think he was passionate about being a lawmaker. I think Tom was more passionate about writing and criticism, and I think seminary offered him a chance to explore questions of the heart and questions of the soul rather than the questions of the mind.”
After several years at seminary, Spurgeon briefly worked for QVC in Pennsylvania before he received a career opportunity that would return him to the passion he’d tended to from childhood. In 1994, he relocated to Seattle to accept a job as managing editor, and later executive editor, of The Comics Journal, working alongside kindred spirit Eric Reynolds, then the magazine’s news editor and now the associate publisher of Fantagraphic Books.
“We hit it off immediately, and I connected with him more than any other Journal staffers I had worked with in my short time there,” Reynolds said. “He was a funny guy to get to know, at first, because he didn’t look or act like a normal comic book fan. He was this big, hulking guy who looked more like a football player than a comic book nerd, and he had this interesting background, having been with [QVC], along with those years he spent in seminary, which were interesting facets for someone who’s coming out to Seattle to work for an underground comics publisher. So he had all of these contradictions about him, but in a way that I ultimately came to appreciate.”
Whit similarly described his brother as a “stealth nerd,” since Tom also maintained an interest in and adeptness for sports, even playing lineman for the college football team at Washington and Lee.
Spurgeon’s wide, deep comics knowledge had a transformative effect on The Comics Journal, which won four consecutive Eisner Awards for Best Comics-Related Periodical, from 1996 through 1999.
“The Journal has had its ups and downs … but I thought Tom really helped revitalize it,” said Jeet Heer, a national affairs correspondent with The Nation and the author of In Love With Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman. “During the period he was editing, the magazine really broadened its scope. He took on the field [of comics] as a whole rather than specializing in one subset, like superheroes. ... And he had a depth and historical awareness where he could dig into a work on its own and then place it where it stands in relation to everything else.”
Whit Spurgeon said his brother would describe his comics knowledge by saying that on any given subject (1900 to 1920s strips, alternative comics, etc.) there might be a handful of better-informed scholars, but he said no one could match the breadth or depth of information he contained, which extended to trade news and industry gossip. (Van Sciver recalled Spurgeon once bluntly asking, “Who do you hate in comics?”)
This knowledge was on full display on The Comics Reporter, which Spurgeon launched alongside business partner Jordan Raphael in October 2004. (The two had previously collaborated on the 2003 biography Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.) The site would become an almost-daily repository for Spurgeon's criticisms, personal essays, news stories, long-form interviews, industry gossip and more.
Though Spurgeon rightfully earned a reputation as a tough critic — “He could really cut you to the bone with a subtle, pointed criticism,” Reynolds said — his friends described him as effortlessly compassionate. Caitlin McGurk said it wasn’t unusual for Spurgeon to stop a person in the midst of a conversation to pointedly ask, “But how are you?” And once, when McGurk was in the midst of a depressive funk, Spurgeon arrived at her door with armloads of home-cooked, frozen meals.
“My mom died when I was 12, and Tom also had a really early experience with death when his best friend was murdered. … After having those experiences, we are people who maybe approach friendship different than non-traumatized people do, where it really becomes a family thing,” McGurk said. “We’re both really about chosen family and giving all to our friends and all to our community, and he really shined in that.”
Reynolds recounted a recent experience he had in combing through the thousands of emails he and Spurgeon had exchanged over the years, where he was struck by how often Tom had inquired about his well-being. “My father passed away a year ago this Halloween, and [Tom] was constantly reaching out, like, ‘Hey, are you OK?’” Reynolds said. “He’d lost his father in 2001, and they were very tight, and he just wanted to let me know he was there for me. There were a lot of people doing that at the time, but I noticed Tom was still doing it long after everybody else had understandably stopped.”
Friends also described Spurgeon as naturally self-deprecating and responsive to outside criticism. McCubbin recalled the time she took Spurgeon to task in a 2016 article for The Guardian that addressed the absence of any female nominees for the Grand Prix, generally considered the most prestigious prize in comics. In his time at The Comics Journal, Spurgeon oversaw the curation of a list documenting the 100 best cartoonists of the century, “and there were like four women on it,” McCubbin said.
“He was like, ‘Oh, yeah. We did a terrible job,'” McCubbin continued. “His ability to be like, ‘We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we didn’t bother to find out,’ and to actually be responsible and acknowledge that… I mean, how many people can admit they’re wrong ever?”
In the years that Spurgeon served as executive director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, he made inclusion a priority, both in terms of panelists and exhibitors.
“That definitely became a focus, shining a spotlight on underrepresented voices, whether it was new cartoonists or even older cartoonists that he felt were overlooked,” Reynolds said.
In Columbus, Spurgeon made it a point to attend every comics event — even if it was hosted by someone he didn’t particularly like — because he believed that part of building a thriving community was being present. Once in attendance, rather than circulating, he’d stake out a single spot for the duration, remaining stationary as visitors orbited him. Van Sciver recalled seeing a photograph of Spurgeon dressed as Daredevil/Spider-Man villain the Kingpin from one Halloween. “And it was so perfect, because that’s what he was,” Van Sciver said, and laughed.
Since Spurgeon’s death, McCubbin, who generally loathes public displays, said she has made a focused effort to attend every local comics event as a small way of carrying his mission forward.
Others expressed similar sentiments, noting that filling the void both within Columbus and the comics world at large is something that will require a concerted group effort. “I’ve been reminded again and again by my friends and the community here … that the best thing to do is to live out the things that Tom was trying to do himself,” McGurk said.
Prior to his death, Spurgeon had started brainstorming a number of big-picture ideas, including creating a union for comics creators and launching what McGurk termed “a comics house” in Columbus to serve as an artist’s residency. “Tom, his phrase was, ‘Can we do better?’” McGurk said. “It was this constant focus on how we can do better for cartoonists, how we can do better as an industry and how we can do better by each other.”
Several interviewed said this communal focus sharpened with time, tracing it to a combination of the natural softening that tends to happen with age, as well as to a 2011 near-death experience that Spurgeon documented in harrowing detail in an impassioned, introspective essay on The Comics Reporter.
“As much as I continue to get better, as much as smiles greet me at the doctor's office as opposed to calm looks of concern, as much as I feel stronger and more capable and filled with more energy every time I get out of bed,” Spurgeon wrote, “I can't say with 100 percent certainty, ‘I'll be around this time next year.’”
“I think after [that illness], the whole family wondered how long we’d have Tom,” said Whit, who added that his brother experienced another potentially fatal medical emergency in 2015 due to blood clots. “I like to tell people, ‘You know, we’re lamenting that we’ve lost Tom at 50, but we could have lost him at 40, or we could have lost him again at 45. I’m just thankful that we had him as long as we did.'”