Comics Uncovered: a look at the independents
Published: Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 22:11
It's no secret that even comic books have fallen to the schemes of big business, but does that understanding represent the entire medium?
No. Of course not.
If you recall my article a few weeks ago, comic books offer artists an opportunity to create and express with little barrier. It's as easy as putting pencil to paper and paying a printer, or in some cases, a late-night trip to Kinkos.
While this outlook seems a little idealistic, I feel such a model does exist. It may exist in various forms, but it's there, alive. What follows are three examples of the "independent comic book."
I feel it's appropriate to begin with Image Comics because it's arguable Image has created the most awareness in regards to independent comics.
Founded in 1992, Image spiraled out of a collective effort put forth by seven incredibly popular artists of the time.
Guys like Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen all held established careers at Marvel Comics. And not just established careers, but careers worthy of the label "superstar."
Their names were the biggest in the company and, all by themselves, with just their names on the covers of the books, they were moving tons of product. Marvel was raking in the cash with these guys doing the work.
Eventually, the realization hit the artists. They could take their names and talents elsewhere and sell just as many books, while maintaining an artistic control over their work. They weren't experiencing such freedom in their current situation.
A publishing company was founded (Image Comics) and the collective went on to make a lasting impact.
That's the brief version of the story. The point is, while the notion of independent publishing existed way before 1992, the Image guys – via the widespread knowledge of their names – brought the idea to a mass audience.
McFarlane sold around like a million copies of his Image comic "Spawn," and Larsen ended up with a cartoon series on the USA Network.
At the heart of it, though, was a model of publishing that guaranteed comic creators intellectual property rights as well as free reign over their stories. It was the idea of a publisher who could compete equally with either Marvel or DC Comics, the top dogs, yet offer books with the ability to go new places in terms of plot and artistic choice.
While the sales numbers are no longer as high, Image publishes what I'd say are some of the most exciting and visually appealing comics currently on the market. They are also artistically driven.
While all of the logistics scream "independent," Image still belongs to what is considered "mainstream" comics.
This is a really ignorant label for comics because they are so small in comparison to other media, nothing about them suggests "mainstream," but in the world of comics culture, companies like Marvel and DC are considered "mainstream."
Image, along with publishers like IDW, Dark Horse Comics and BOOM! Studios can also be considered as such. How? It falls to a matter of aesthetics.
Real indie comics present a package and look of, how do I put it, home made-ness. As if a guy hand stapled the book, or rather, the comic book came straight from the artist through self-publishing.
Image doesn't necessarily do this. While the intent of creation is the same, Image books run through a series of marketing moves and are printed in high gloss fashion. It's still, in a way, part of a corporate system. It's just a super friendly corporate system.
But, that's what Image Comics is. It was always designed to play in the same sandbox as the big boys, and it does so by presenting its books in similar fashion to Marvel and DC's output.
They're looking to catch Marvel and DC readers' eyes.
Some comic artists don't necessarily pay much attention to mainstream concerns, though. Some don't even concern themselves with comic books, per se.
Here we enter the discussion of the "graphic novel" or serious book publisher.
Fantagraphics Books entered the scene in 1976 after founders Gary Groth and Mike Catron decided it was time to establish the comic book as a legitimate art form.
According to the publisher's website, Fantagraphics, "specialized in seeking out and publishing the kind of innovative work that traditional comics corporations who dealt almost exclusively in super-heroes and fantasy either didn't know existed or wouldn't touch."
These innovative works could be characterized as dramatic, journalistic or satirical. Really, what happened was Fantagraphics stepped up and presented the thoughtful analysis that could be done on comics by publishing the trade magazine "The Comics Journal," and Fantagraphics published the actual work that inspired the thought.
Cartoonists like of Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge and Chris Ware have all had work published by Fantagraphics. All of these guys are considered serious acts who provide social relevance within their work, and they all have pushed the medium artistically.
Now, while the above acts published their comics as traditional, floppy comic books in the earlier days, Fantagraphics and the artists it represents, have made an effort to move away from the flimsy comic book format in favor of the bigger, bolder "graphic novel."
The shift in trends only makes sense when you consider the original intent of the publisher. In order to find respect and serious consideration, disguising yourself in the format of a hardback book doesn't sound like too bad of an idea. You know, because scholars read books.
But, I do think it's skewed Fantagraphics away from being a comics publisher to more of an actual book publisher, and I think Fantagraphics would be the first to openly tell you that. I mean, the banner reading "Fantagraphics Books" on their website kind of gives it away.
Either way, though, publishers like Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and Picture Box offer avenues for all kinds of alternative cartoonists. And, yes, I'd say all of these outlets uphold the original, idealistic idea of comics: free creative reign.
There's really only one form that gets as pure as it gets. That form is the self-published mini comic, or zine.
Mini-comics span back many years. You could probably take them all the way back to the underground comic zines of the 1960s. The concept is simple – pamphlets containing only a handful of pages that are, in most cases, completely put together by the artist.
The printing usually takes place under careful eyes either at a professional printer or at Kinkos, and the books are then hand-stapled and sold right out of the artist's house via a website or blog.
It's as homegrown as a comic book can get, and the process of it goes back to my original idea of the direct creation comics offer artists.
One hundred percent of the process of production and distribution comes from the actual artist behind the work. No one gets in the way. No manner of responsibility has to be traded off. It's just the artist literally making comics, from drawing to packaging.
That's romantic – in the literary sense of the word. So much so, it's an area where I'm finding much of my own attention and interest gravitating toward because it's a field so full of possibilities.
It's also becoming somewhat of a lost art. The move toward graphic novels and digital media seems to pressure the mini- comic toward a choice of death, yet, a certain sect of artists still keep it alive. I feel the need to investigate it.
The mini comic is freedom in narrative, visual style and business. That's something to respect.
Plus, in a world like ours, when do we ever get the chance to possess or experience the ideal? Not often.
Next time, can you buy both or only chose one side?