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Comics 201: Small, Mighty, and Super Weird; or, A Brief Guide to Indie Comics

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The 1980s was a time of great upheaval and change for Western pop culture. MTV was new and relevant, car phones were a thing, Return of the Jedi came out and they never made any more Star Wars films ever at all shut up and let me dream, yours truly was born, and comic books entered their ninth-grade-goth phase.

Honestly, comic books from the ’80s are probably the reason a lot of us had a ninth-grade-goth phase, so let’s bow our heads for a moment and thank James O’Barr for introducing us to black lipstick and grease paint.

A lot of the changes that happened to comics during the decade of hair metal and Rubix cubes comes down to two things: publishers got better at printing them, and writers got better at writing them. Better paper and a bigger color palette gave the overall quality of printed comics a huge boost, and the fact that mass printing was suddenly much cheaper and easier than it had ever been allowed the entire industry to take a significant leap forward. It also led to some deeply unfortunate color choices, but we’re focusing on the positives, here.

Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers had risen, and kids whose lives did not include a time before Superman were now old enough, literate enough, and angry-thirty-something enough to look at the comic stories they’d grown up with and think that they could do better. The really mind-blowing thing about all of this is that they actually did.

Fascinating. What does this have to do with indie comics?

I’m glad you asked, hypothetical new comics reader! See, when things become generally affordable, it means that more people have access to them. I was going to make a joke about Republicans and basic human needs here, but I feel like that’s unnecessary.

Underground and alternative comics had been on the rise since there was a mainstream to be alternative to, and the same printing technology that gave big publishers fresh caché also gave smaller companies a new competitive edge. This in turn gave the Boomer generation of comics writers a place to bring their work that offered both creative freedom and visibility.

Then came 1986, the year that brought comic readers such glorious gifts as indie powerhouse Dark Horse Comics, me, and a couple of books that turned out to be kind of important. There have been a thousand think pieces written on why Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns are seminal works in comics history, so I’ll trust in your ability to Google and spare you the long version. The short version is that their dark tone and serious subject matter created a shift in the public perception of comic books, and the sales numbers gave publishers a reason to take notice. The small printers and weird stories suddenly had a much bigger audience.

So is that what an “indie publisher” is? A small company that puts out weird stories?

Eh. Sort of. Terms like “indie” and “small press” have come to mean anything that’s not Marvel or DC, which doesn’t really mean anything. We already talked about the Creator Owned model and how that distinguishes independent publishers from the Big Two. That, plus the absence of any shared universe or continuity, gives creators greater leverage and more room to move. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but writers in general and comics writers in particular tend to be pretty weird people, so yeah, given enough leeway, they’ll put out some weird freaking stories.

Of today’s indie front runners, one of the oldest and hardest hitting is Dark Horse, who have historically kept their bills paid with high-profile and long-running franchise tie-ins. Star War , for instance. See also Buffy, Aliens, Mass Effect, and a slew of other spin-offs, based-ons, and inspired-bys. Dark Horse is also the publisher that gave Frank Miller a stage on which to perform the bizarre, hyper-stylized pantomime of his not-Batman work, but we can let that slide, since they were also kind enough to bring us Mike Mignola and Hellboy . Of course, now that the Star Wars comics have broken up with their long-time publisher to go steady with Marvel, Dark Horse may need to step up its game.

The most iconic member of the indie A-team is Archie Comic Publications , who’ve spent the last 75 years putting out books about a guy named, you guessed it, Archie. Like the Big Two, many of the Archie comics also take place in a shared universe centered around the quiet hamlet of Riverdale. Other denizens of Riverdale include rockstar trio Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The comics are usually only as weird as real life, but Archie has recently taken a turn into new territory with the death and subsequent afterlife of its title character. No kidding. Despite the generally cutesy overtones, the Archie titles have the profile and prestige to attract heavy-weight talent, including Saga artist/goddess, Fiona Staples.

Speaking of which, do you know about Saga ? Have you read Saga ?

Um, no.

Okay, so you should bookmark this page, go to your nearest comic book source, and get it.

What, like, now?

Right now.

It’s okay. I’ll wait.

I’m just gonna eat some cheese sticks and re-read Unbeatable Squirrel Girl .

Gotta love Squirrel Girl.

Oh, hey. You’re back.

OH MY GOD.

Done? Is your mind blown? Do you need more?

MY BRAIN WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.

Friend, meet Image Comics . You’re welcome.

If any over-enthusiastic strangers have recommended a comic to you recently, chances are it was from Image. Founded in 1992 by a group of disgruntled Marvel freelancers, Image has had its ups and downs, but the last few years have been resoundingly up. Whatever you’re looking for, Image probably has it. Saga has the Fantasy Space Opera angle covered, and Rat Queens is there for the more grounded – but equally strange – Sword and Sorcery adventure. Are you a dark noir mystery nerd? Try The Fade Out. Raunchy, heart-felt rom-com? Check out the gloriously titled Sex Criminals . The list goes on. And on. And on until it hits W and The Wicked + The Divine. Don’t ask questions. Just read it.

Okay, I’m done plugging Image. Let’s move on to the real weirdo of the bunch: Avatar Press. Where Image diversifies, Avatar sticks to dark genre books – but it does them well, keeping with one of the founding principles of indie comics: give good creators the room to make weird stories. Unless you’re a hardcore horror fan, if you’re only just wading into the murky waters of comics fandom, Avatar may not be the place to start. At least until you inevitably join the rest of us in the harem of Warren Ellis.

And then there’s IDW Publishing, who also employ the One Thing Well model. The difference being that the one thing IDW does well and does a lot of is licensed titles. If you’re looking for a spin-off comic from that TV show/movie/book/other comic, IDW probably has it. With a handful of original titles thrown in among the endless varieties of Transformers, IDW is the fourth largest comic book publisher in the United States, which is good for them, since I’m sure those licensing fees are a bastard.

Playing a slightly more genre-heavy variation on the franchise tune is Dynamite Entertainment, which specializes in exactly the same thing as IDW but with more customers over the age of 18 and a stronger creative line-up. It’s worth giving a shout-out to Garth Ennis’s grimdark superhero narrative, The Boys, and fantasy classic Red Sonja, currently written by the incomparable Gail Simone.

Aren’t there, like, a lot more indie publishers, though?

Um. Yeah. Printing costs and quality have only continued to get cheaper and better since the ‘80s, and the advent of the internet has, not to overstate the matter, fundamentally changed the way creators interact with their audience. Or rather, it’s changed the way audiences interact with creators. Some industry professionals seem to forget that being a dick to someone on Twitter is not the same as being a dick to them at a convention.

The point is that, in addition to dozens of other established companies, basements the world over have spawned fly-by-night publishing operations trying to get their comics into the hands of readers, and it’s easier than it’s ever been to do exactly that.

I’ve said before that just because a publisher is small doesn’t mean they’re not putting out quality work, and we’ll talk next time about some of the best underdog creators out there. This isn’t an exhaustive list of indie publishers, or even a list of the best indie publishers, it’s just some factoids about a few of the logos you’ll see as you browse the shelves at your LCS and maybe some titles you might like. Think of it like a YOU ARE HERE circle on a tourist map; it’s not the whole picture, but it’s a good place to start.

Cool? Cool.

Now go buy some comics!

P.S. One of those comics should be Saga, in case you missed that.

Catch up on past Comics 201 posts: Continuity, The Great Publisher Debate, Crossover Events, What To Know

Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.

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