The comics world has been understandably and justifiably reeling since news broke of the untimely death of Tom Spurgeon on Nov. 13th, 2019 at the far-too-young age of 50. The tributes that have been pouring in on twitter and facebook have run the gamut, with everyone from indie luminaries to guys who inked a few pages for Marvel or DC once upon a time paying their respects, and taken in total all of them show the remarkable reach Mr. Spurgeon had in every corner of the industry. I don’t have any personal anecdotes about him to share, never having met him in face to face, but we did correspond online occasionally and I found him to be more than helpful and encouraging in my early days of comics criticism, as well as sharp and insightful in his plainly-stated suggestions for improvement. He called it like he saw it at all times, and while that occasionally ruffled some feathers, the fact remains that he made time for those who reached out to him, and everything he said, no matter how brusquely delivered, was done with the aim of getting people to “up their game” and deliver the kind of work he knew they were capable of.
He also backed up the talk with literally decades worth of quality work on his own part — a superb interviewer as well as critic, Tom was arguably the best editor The Comics Journal ever had, the trailblazing mastermind of “must-read” news website The Comics Reporter, writer of the syndicated strip Wildwood, author of a terrific “warts and all” Stan Lee biography, and executive director of CXC, probably the most innovative comics festival in the country in that it annually brings together small-press and self-published creators along with established “Big Two” superstars, truly showcasing everything this diverse medium has to offer.
So, yeah, the term “Renaissance Man” definitely applies in this case, as Tom was known, liked, and respected every bit as much at San Diego Comic-Con as he was at, say, SPX or CAKE. His love of comics encompassed everything from newspaper strips to minicomics to super-hero stuff, and he was a meticulous historian and tireless champion of creators’ rights who had a strong and abiding passion for exposing the industry’s seedy ethical past — and present. If you worked in comics, in any capacity, this guy was on your side.
Of course, when a person is as intimately involved in so many facets of “the scene” for so long a period, not everything is going to come together quite the way one wants it to, and Tom took some heat for never launching the “new” journalism project his Patreon was ostensibly established to help fund, but I think most subscribers were cool with the idea that their cash was going into the considerable amount of work he already had going, and while the Fantagraphics “doorstop” anniversary book he started out overseeing turned into something of an overly-obvious “victory lap” once he stepped away from it, the segments that bore his stamp of authorship clearly stood out from the rest of the contents. CXC itself also didn’t necessarily live up to his lofty expectations, but most attendees have lavished the event with praise over the years, and Tom is to be credited for establishing important standards such as a “zero tolerance” policy for harassment at the show well before other festivals saw the necessity of such things.
To say it wasn’t always easy for (and with) Tom is undoubtedly true, but he went where his razor-sharp instincts took him and along the way he broke important stories, gave many cartoonists valuable exposure, founded outlets that evolved into industry cornerstones, nurtured many a career, and shone a light on historical injustices and discrepancies that desperately called out for it. I’d be very hard-pressed indeed to name a person who did more for comics, and the people who make them, than he did — and if it weren’t for the example he set, truth be told, I’m not even sure I’d be doing what I am today, since he consistently demonstrated that doing it yourself, and doing it your own way, was always the best way to go in the comics world, and that if you stuck to your principles, you’d earn the respect of your peers.
Tom certainly earned a hell of a lot of it himself, and even a healthy amount of admiration, to boot — he certainly had mine, and his passing leaves a void that I don’t think will ever be filled by a single person. I wish I’d gotten the chance to know him better, but I knew him through his exemplary work, and that work not only spoke for itself, it spoke volumes — about his ethics, his standards, his abilities, and his genuine love for the comics medium.