In the Dead Dog Derby of my mind to see which comics publishers will cease to be, the one that won in 2018 wasn’t one that had ever crossed my mind: Bongo Comics.
Established in 1993 by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Bongo was a kind of self-publishing – Simpsons, Futurama, Radioactive Man and more Simpsons spin-offs were staples of the line – but it also had forays into indie comics – books by Mary Fleener and Gary Panter under the Zongo imprint – and licensing with the Sponge Bob comics.
But at SD Comic-Con this year it was revealed that after 25 years the house was shutting down. Although longtime editor in chief Bill Morrison had left for MAD Magazine, this still came as a surprise to me. It may surprise you to know that The Simpsons is still on the air, as it is one of TV’s longest running series, but the comics have similarly been stealth sellers for decades. Individual issues didn’t chart much for Diamond, but the collections were often high on the Bookscan charts. And they also crossed borders – when I went to France five years ago I was told the licensed Simpsons collections were steady sellers.
But for whatever reason, Bongo is coming to a close today with their final issue hitting the stands. And the Film Springfield site has the fitting eulogy with a long oral history that includes quotes from Morrison, Batton Lash, Ian Boothby, Nina Matsumoto and many more.
Morrison has the main through line in the oral history but there is a lot of history to digest, including the startling tidbit that Coldplay can get you a last minute hotel room at San Diego Comic-Con.
Bill Morrison: “One of the projects I worked on worked on was Simpsons Illustrated, a magazine for Simpsons fans. Steve and Cindy Vance were the editors, and that magazine was the precursor to Bongo. We had a comics section in the magazine that expanded issue by issue. At the end of our first year, we did an annual issue that was all 3-D. At the end of the second year, Matt and Steve were looking for a theme for the second annual and someone hit on the idea of making it an all-comics issue and also printing it comic book size rather than magazine size. The result was “Simpsons Comics and Stories.” The sales on that issue were so good, it gave Matt the confidence to start an entire company based on his Simpsons characters. That’s how Bongo began. I was the Art Director, artist, and writer; Steve and Cindy were editors, artists, and writers, and Matt was the publisher.”
Bongo won Eisners and gave many creators their starts – including most famously, Gail Simone. In the superhero obssessed 90s, selling funny comics – even ones based on THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PROPERTY OF THE DAY – was a hard sell to comics retailers. I’m sure Bongo had the last laiugh there, but the publisher gave a home to many talents like Ian Boothby, Nina Matsumoto, and many many more.And the annual Treehouse of Horrors issue included everyone in comics, from Evan Dorkin to Geoff Darrow. Matsumoto has a moving story to tell:
Nina Matsumoto: “Before Bongo Comics, I seriously thought women couldn’t work in American comics. I grew up on manga and, of course, I saw many female creators in there. I was also into newspaper strips, where I also saw female names. But I never saw them in American floppy comics, so I just assumed that for whatever reason, women couldn’t work in that industry. I thought that if I were to work in comics, I’d have to either be a manga artist or draw newspaper comic strips. That is, until I bought a one-shot called ‘Lisa Comics’ #1 in 1995. Lisa was my favourite character, so naturally, I had to get it. At the back of that issue, there was an interview with a female intern at Bongo Comics. A woman! Working for Bongo! She wasn’t even an artist or a writer, but it still blew my mind. I didn’t think it was possible. It made 10-year-old me realize that this industry DOES hire women, and I COULD work in comics.
Bongo Comics will continue to be available in collected form, I’m sure, and also digitally, although the story reveals the interesting factoid that Bongo isn’t available on Comixology but rather their own apps. I never even knew this, and the user ratings seem to be not the greatest. Still, an interesting take on Bongo’s continuing trend of self publishing.
My own relationship with Bongo goes back to the 90s. When working as comics editor for Disney Adventures, it was decided that what kids wanted was Simpsons comics and not Mighty Ducks comics. I was tasked with trying to get Bongo to license some comics to Disney Adventures, a feat I managed with two phone calls.
Negotiating a deal between Fox and Disney in the go-go licensing era in a few days. Still one of my greatest accomplishments. (It helped that I had a long running friendship with Groening that went back long before the Simpsons, to be fair.)
I’m sad that Bongo won the Dead Dog Derby, but glad it gave so many people work and made so may people laugh (myself included.) And of course, the Simpsons will never ever die, and as long as they’re around, neither will the comics.
Will some other publisher license the Simpsons? In this nostalgic era, it’s inevitable, and given Disney’s purchase of Fox, licensing comics seems to be a preferred method anyway. I’m also told there may some day be comics based on Disenchanted, Groening’s new show on Netflix.
But for today, Bongo is no more.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.