Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Indie Scene

Last week I reviewed Marvel and DC, the two biggest comic book publishers in the United States.  While these two companies control the vast majority of the American comics market, there are literally dozens of smaller companies that cater to every literary taste under the sun.  The bread and butter of these companies is typically non-superhero fare like crime, horror, and sci-fi books, but just about every genre under the sun is represented somewhere.  Marvel and DC cover some of these areas too (primarily in DC's Vertigo imprint and Marvel's Icon imprint), but the majority of their output is increasingly focused on superheroes as their corporate owners use the comics publishers as R&D houses for future film and TV projects.  This means that if you're looking for something outside of the capes-and-tights set, then you're likely going to have to look outside the mainstream.

I could probably write a half dozen more posts on the topic of indie publishers, and I still wouldn't cover them all.  In addition to the established publishers, many creators, both old and new, are taking advantage of new crowd-sourcing options like Kickstarter to fund independent, self-published books.  This has led to an explosion in independent offerings beyond anyone's wildest dreams of a mere decade ago.  Add to that the possibilities for self-publishing brought on by the digital revolution and online comics, and you have a veritable explosion of new and exciting titles to check out.

In my opinion, the father of indie comics is Will Eisner.  Eisner's career began in the early days of comics, and he was nearly sued by National Comics at one point because his employer ordered him to create a character that was a thinly-veiled rip-off of Superman.  Eisner eventually set out on this own and created The Spirit, a masked detective character that ran in newspapers from 1940 to 1952.  Eisner's Spirit strips were ground-breaking in that he, not a company or syndicate, had complete ownership rights to the character from the beginning.  This creator-owned aspect would become a cornerstone of indie comics.  Eisner would go on to invent what is today commonly referred to as the "graphic novel", a stand-alone story printed in a larger format than a standard periodical comic book, usually on better paper stock with a square-bound spine.  His stories, including his groundbreaking Contract With God trilogy, focused on urban life, familial relationships, and religion.  For more on Eisner, I highly recommend the book Eisner/Miller, which features transcribed discussions between Eisner and Frank Miller on topics ranging from comics history to storytelling techniques to technical tools of the trade.  The book was published right around the time of Eisner's death in 2005.  DC currently holds the rights to Eisner's Spirit strips, and they are available in a series of hardcover archival volumes.

One of the most famous covers of The Spirit from the October 6, 1946 issue by Will Eisner.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't include a mention of Dave Sim in any discussion on indie comics.  Sim self-published Cerebus the Aardvark for 17 years, from 1977 to 2004, ending the title with issue #300.  No other independent comic book has ever achieved this kind of longevity.  The book initially started as a parody of Conan the Barbarian, but soon metamorphosed into a highly experimental and ambitious saga, as Sim used the book to comment on aspects of society such as marriage, religion, and politics.  Don't let the fact that the character is a cartoon aardvark fool you.  Back in college, I jumped on board the Cerebus train starting with issue #200, and I can assure you that it is a thought-provoking and challenging read.  It also features amazing art by Sim and background artist Gerhard (whose work began in issue #65).  The entire series has been collected in trade paperbacks which fans refer to as "Cerebus phonebooks" because they look like, well, phone books.

He meant to grab his umbrella instead of his sword before leaving the house.  The titular hero of Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark

While many independent publishers came in went in the 70's and 80's, Oregon's Dark Horse Comics has stood the test of time.  Started by comics shop owner Mike Richardson, Dark Horse has been the home of several popular and acclaimed series in different genres, including Mike Mignola's Hellboy horror/mythology series and its spin-off B.P.R.D., Frank Miller's Sin City crime series, Peter Lenkov's R.I.P.D. about ghostly cops that pursue rogue spirits, Gerard Way's Umbrella Academy about a dysfunctional family of adopted superheroes, and Miller's historical epic 300 about the Persian invasion of Greece.  Dark Horse is also an industry leader in publishing comics based on licensed properties, and currently makes books based on Star Wars, the Whedonverse (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible), and the Aliens film series.

The first appearance of Big Red himself, Hellboy, in Mike Mignola's Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #1 (1994) from Dark Horse Comics.
Our next indie spotlight, Oni Press of Portland, Oregon, prides itself on its lack of superhero titles.  Some of their most popular books include the supernatural Western The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn, the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley about a slacker 20-something (that's redundant, isn't it?), Greg Rucka's carefully researched spy thriller Queen & Country, and a series of short stories featuring Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob characters.  Oni has even published a comic based on Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen character!

Licensed to kill:  Queen & Country's Tara Chace kicks more ass than James Bond and Nick Fury put together!  Author Greg Rucka meticulously researched the real world of espionage for this series.  Cover to Queen and Country #1 (2001) by Tim Sale. 
The Internet was abuzz on Monday afternoon with the news that Archaia Studios Press was merging with another indie publisher, BOOM! Studios.  And while BOOM! started out strong, I frankly don't think they have published much of note in the last couple of years.  Archaia, on the other hand, is a powerhouse.  They've produced a strong assortment of progressive sci-fi titles, but they really excel in making all-ages books that both kids and adults can enjoy.  Some of Archaia's most popular and critically acclaimed all-ages titles include David Petersen's Mouse Guard series about a society of mice living in medieval Europe, Royden Lepp's retro sci-fi series Rust, and Cow Boy by Nate Crosby and Chris Eliopoulos about a kid bounty hunter in the Old WestArchaia's books are typically some of the best looking volumes that you'll find on the market, both in terms of art and production value, and all of the above get my highest recommendation if you're looking for something that you can enjoy while introducing your kids to comics.

And don't you come around here again Walt!  David Petersen based his comic on characters that he and his friends created for role-playing games.  Cover to Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 trade paperback by David Petersen (2008).

The final publisher that I'll mention has a bit of a storied history.  Image Comics started in 1992 when a group of Marvel's hottest artists (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, and Jim Valentino) defected over what they saw (probably correctly at the time) as a stifling editorial environment.  The early Image books all featured superhero stories and sold very well initially, with Todd McFarlane's Spawn being the breakout hit of the group.  However, perennial lateness among many of the initial titles caused sales to fall off, and offers from Marvel and DC lured away some of the creators, particularly Jim Lee, who took his books to DC and is today one of the company's co-publishers.  Image diversified its offerings and steadily bounced back from its initial troubles, producing comics from all walks with a decidedly adult appeal.  Today Image is probably best known as the publisher of the hit post-apocalyptic comic book series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman.  Other best-selling Image titles include the space opera Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples about former soldiers from opposing sides in a galactic civil war who are trying to raise their daughter while evading both armies; Chew, a quirky crime comic by John Layman and Rob Guillory about a guy who receives psychic impressions from anything he eats; and Fatale, an occult noir by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.  With the recent move by DC to scale back its Vertigo imprint, it seems that Image is poised to take the lead in providing diverse adult comics entertainment.

Not your daddy's space opera: the cover of Saga #1 (Mar 2012) by Fiona Staples.

This overview just scratches the surface of what the modern indie comics scene has to offer.  I haven't even mentioned other publishing houses like IDW, Valiant or Top Shelf, or defunct publishers like CrossGen, all of which have made some remarkably good comics.  I hope that this brief article illustrates some of the diversity that the comics market has to offer, in addition to some of the excellent offerings that Marvel and DC produce month after month.  As always, these titles and more can be found at your local comics shop, or through online retailers such as In-Stock Trades and Amazon.  If you need any additional information or are looking for other recommendations, feel free to leave a comment.  Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't help but notice you didn't mention my favorite indy comic Veggie Dog Saturn (it's okay, Cerebus is a close second).