When Down Is Up: What’s Wrong With Indie Comics?
We’ve already discussed why “mainstream” comics are not that mainstream these days in my last “When Down Is Up” article. Let’s now look at the opposite of the mainstream at the so-called indie or creator-owned comics.
Both these terms were brought in use in the ‘70s and initially indicated comics that were released by small publishers. Back then, before our “everyone is one’s own Gutenberg” era, it also meant narrow readership, less money, and consequently limited resources of both creators and publishers. As I think about Francoise Mouly’s RAW and Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix, it occurs to me that independent creators were, in a way, ideological people, with bold and artful stories in their sketchbooks and rebellion in minds.
That’s the way readers are used to thinking about indie/creator-owned comics, a category that nowadays includes almost everything that isn’t from the Big Two. And that’s the case: these comics are so different, it’s hardly fair to put them under the same umbrella. Since the ‘70s, the industry had changed dramatically, and the words “indie” and “creator-owned” fail to describe the phenomena properly.
First, the problem with “indie.” Every form of human culture, including music, movies, and video games, has its indie creations. “Indie something” usually means “not affiliated with major production or publishing companies.” Consequently, characteristics of an “indie something” should be diametrically opposite to those of a “mainstream something.” Small sales instead of millions of sold copies. Limited availability instead of nationwide penetration. A dedicated group of readers instead of broad readership.
Now, given that last much Image has sold over 748k copies, IDW 380k, and Dark Horse 195k, isn’t it a bit odd to call them indie publishers?
The second meaning of “indie,” which works exclusively for comics, is “independent from corporate copyright.” It’s an important characteristic, considering that the corporate ownership of the characters and universes severely affects Marvel’s and DC’s stories. But then there’s Valiant, born-again after it was sold twice with the entire universe. The heart-warming story of the company’s new owners pursuing their dream and reviving beloved characters doesn’t make these characters less corporate-owned. Why then do we keep calling Valiant an independent publisher? By the way, the company sold 128,500 copies last month.
Besides, last year some Marvel titles were acclaimed by critics as mainstream comics made in indie-style. Indie didn’t actually develop some particular style of art, so roughly everything that doesn’t look typically superheroic and testosterone-fueled is indie. That’s why Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and All The New Doop fall under this category.
Also, black-and-white or tri-colored comics are common in the indie realm, since creators, especially graphic novelists, are limited in time and resources. At least that’s the explanation Scott McCloud gave when asked about Sculptor.
Moreover, searching for a niche, independent creators are apt to experiment. Take as examples the weird characters of Chris Sheridan’s Motorcycle Samurai, or Vassilis Gogtzilas’ The Bigger Bang—the cover resembles Vrubel’s Demon—or sketchy watercolors of Matt Kindt’s MIND MGMT. All of this can’t constitute a distinctive “indie-style,” so the phrase is rather a name for Big Two’s attempts to borrow some tricks from their neighbors in the industry, which is fine to me, but brings even more confusion to the vocabulary.
With indie as small press, indie as a copyright aspect, and indie as a non-glamorous approach to the art, the word becomes too vague. However, we rarely need to specify it, because by saying “indie” we usually mean “a creator-owned comics published by independent, i.e., smaller than DC and Marvel publisher.”
Indie and creator-owned are almost interchangeable words, but I find the latter more precise. It says nothing about the number of copies sold. Instead, it specifies who owns the copyright on the title, and this tiny bit of information also allows us to make assumptions about the story, art, and overall quality of the comic.
So, what do we usually associate with creator-owned comics? The first most obvious thing is a standalone universe. No shared continuity, no fifty-year backstory, and no need to be familiar with dozens of supporting characters. So picking up an unknown title is like starting a new novel. That’s why creator-owned comics are a good start for first-time readers (“It is comics like Saga that get new readers in your [comic shop] door,” Image publisher said at ComicPro back in 2008).
I’ve met people who had troubles with the way comics are made—they just didn’t know how to absorb all these captions, bubbles, and pictures all at once—and it’s much easier to get accustomed when character’s extended legacy and references to tie-ups don’t bother you. As Millar says, “Creator-owned is a great entry point for new readers who don’t want to follow 400 issues of Thor.”
The second important thing we expect from a creator-owned comic is a permanent creative team that works on a title from the beginning to the end. The teams are formed in different ways: for example, the writer might pay the artist from his own pocket, like Jim Zub. Or both could share the risks and the profits. The creatives work tightly together and contact one another directly, not through the editor, like in the Big Two. Consequently, collaboration goes smoothly: the penciler can discuss panel composition with the writer and offer specific solutions to better convey ideas, and the colorist won’t misinterpret everything at the end. Such a team won’t resort to creative shifts: as a small project, they don’t have DC’s base of fire-eyed freelancers, and it’s simply easier to work with people you know. As the result, they’ll deliver a consistent, thoughtfully designed story, or at least, this is the way it should work.
One more important issue about creator-owned comics, the one that helped them become all the rage in recent years, is a widely accepted belief that these stories are overall more engaging, daring, and smart than Marvel’s and DC’s. A big chunk of comics people—not only creators and small publishers, but critics and retailers as well—talk about superiority that smaller projects show in the creative field. These talks have some grounding.
The market of creator-owned comics is very competitive. Before bidding on a brand new title, publishers want to be convinced a project is worth its salt. Therefore, creators fall over themselves to make a real thing. In contrast to Marvel and DC, whose sales are backed up by well-known characters, new talents don’t have the privilege of failing. They strive to make a good start, sell more, and become noticed, and the only way is to write and draw utterly good work.
Also, creators should have big love for what they do—at least love is the only reason for a person to spend hundreds of hours on a work that brings you $40 per page at the best. This probably relates to writers at first place, since in creator-owned comics a writer usually does what a director and producer do in a movie, unless a writer is an artist and, therefore, takes care of everything, probably doubling these sad forty bucks. On the bright side, we always do things we love better than anything else.
There’s also an elite minority of creators who have already earned a name: Fraction, Vaughan, Simone, Brubaker, and others. It seems like all the doors are open for them, both in mainstream and creator-owned realms (which still could be just an illusion—if every successful novelist has dozens of rejected drafts, then every famous comics writer might have a pile of rejected pitches). Their fame does to their projects what Superman’s fame does to DC’s comics, i.e. draws attention and secures a decent number of sold copies. The important difference from DC is that star writers are less likely to risk their credibility because it’s their own names and their own reputations. Finally, well-recognized creators make better comics simply because they are so darn cool.
Thus, the idea of creator-owned comics’ excellence has a fair amount of sense. Often this applies to indie as well, since these two terms are almost interchangeable. So here’s what we expect every time we pay for a book that claims to be indie or creator owned: a standalone universe, a never-changing team, and specific quality of a story.
I know what you’re thinking. “Okay, so she’s another indie advocate who tells us it’s a fresh current of creativity in the world of worn-through tights and dusted capes. We’ve eaten a lot of this, thanks!”
Actually, I have listed all these expectations only to say: forget it! It doesn’t work anymore! Neither a freedom-flavored word “indie,” nor a much promising conception of creator-owned comics guarantee that you won’t deal with art changes and a clumsy story speckled with references to previous issues and tie-ins. Trying to flee from these complications of the Big Two to the world of small publishers and free-spirited creators won’t help.
Half of the blame lies with the terminology confusion. Almost every article titled “Top X indie comics to read” in the web contains such items as Army of Darkness, TNMT, or Star Wars, if the top had been posted before comics about Jedis became Marvel’s turf. It doesn’t matter if the authors of these lists didn’t have another word that fits the title or believed that everything that’s not DC or Marvel counts as indie. What matters is that in no way could one’s experience from a global entertainment franchise be compared to the experience from an authentic story. There’s the continuity issue, of course, even though they try to make jump-in painless these days. Star Wars comics are still made for Star Wars fans, no matter how you slice it.
Since I already know a lot about the galaxy far, far away, I can’t tell if Princess Leia does a good job as the first encounter with the universe, but I’ll tell you this: when I tried to read My Little Pony without watching the TV series, I got confused with so many ponies and quit at the middle of the issue. So the comics for a five-years-old put an end in the discussion about the continuity of franchises for me.
Moreover, since all these storylines initially appeared in other media, transition to comics doesn’t always goes smooth. Sometimes I have a strong feeling that creators don’t bother to make engaging story, hoping that fans would eat it as is, an assumption the Big Two often relies on. For example, as a big lover of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, I wasn’t able to make it to the third issue of Ash And The Army Of Darkness.
Also, at the shelves that say “Other publishers” or “Indie,” you can find titles that behave as if they were corporate. Tim Seeley owns the copyright on his creation Hack/Slash, and as long as the horror series went on, he was the only person in charge, hiring pencilers, colorists, and managing the plotline. However, for those who decide to start with first issues of the series, the story becomes confusing from the beginning, with the references to Hack/Slash vs Chucky, and a good part of things that pops up in characters’ talks is obscure. Also, the series has spin-offs, mashups, crossovers—including one with aforementioned Army of Darkness—and art shifts, which altogether is a disaster for a picking reader who looks for a shelter from DC’s continuity circus.
Then, there’s soon-to-end Witchblade and Artifacts universe, which is situated by Top Cow, the publisher, as an alternative to so-called mainstream superheroes. In fact, Top Cow’s world is a quintessential superhero realm: there are intersecting stories and events, one of which resulted in a reboot of the universe. It seems to me that Top Cow’s editorial board does all the decision-making, and, even being lead by Witchblade’s creator Marc Silvestri, the company makes some turns that resemble the Big Two’s approach.
For example, a post-reboot Chicago arc of Witchblade—my favorite one—contains several completely offbeat issues, drawn by another artist and written in a way that makes me think editors just told the writer: “Sara’s going to do this and that, and your work is to find an artful explanation for it.” (It’s a coincidence that the writer of the arc is Tim Seeley. I don’t have a grudge against him, I swear!)
When a comic sacrifices consistency and compels readers to solve continuity puzzles, it’s barely fair to use the word “indie.” It’s not bad, it’s just not what a reader might expect. Because of the vocabulary confusion, companies like Valiant and Top Cow are regarded as the indie, while the stories they make are one hundred percent corporate and could unpleasantly surprise customers who follow the lead of “Top indie comics” lists.
Moreover, the “one project—one team” rule doesn’t work flawlessly in creator-owned/indie comics. Non-corporate projects do switch artists, and yes, readers do care. Tony Moore left The Walking Dead almost at the start, but it took a while for fans to stop debating if Charlie Adlard makes a decent replacement.
To their credit, most of the teams seek to make a seamless transition, so that the whole thing looks like a change of a camera operator in a TV-show, not a complete recast. From Kurtis Wiebe’s statement about the sad events with Rat Queens’ lead artist it was clear that Kurtis would wholeheartedly strive to find the best guy, and as Stjepan Šejić took the duty, the series didn’t lose in visual consistency. Hannah might not have the same lovely pug nose anymore, but all the characters retain their personality, distinguishing features, and charm.
One more awesome example is Hellboy, or to be exact, the whole Mignolaverse. Mike Mignola should be familiar with a special kind of magic that allows him to discover artists who add flair to the series yet preserve it’s darkish mood and unique style.
Besides a picky choice of artists, it’s the great character designs that makes these changes tolerable and even exciting. But what works for eye-catching protagonists, doesn’t fit characters who need a superhero suit to stand out the crowd. For instance, Greg Pincus, a protagonist of Indestructible, pretends to be a superhero in a world that worships superheroes like A-list celebrities, and the way he is drawn—a walking disaster with hilarious expressions—adds to the gut-busting humor of the first arc. But as a new artist takes a shift, Pincus becomes just an average blond guy; his funny faces—his superhero costume—disappear. The same happens with female characters, and only the hair color and the context of the page allow us to tell one from another.
Thus, a lot of comics with “creator-owned/indie” reputation do everything we expect them not to do: change team members, tangle events in fiction universes, and exploit the power of fan love. The industry has evolved so fast and comics have become so versatile that terms we use now just can’t cover everything, yet we keep putting outdated words on new conceptions. When you tuck Witchblade and Sex Criminals into the same category, the category cracks and loses all its meaning.
Instead of trying to refine meanings of “creator-owned” and “indie,” we can use more specific words that would be able to indicate comics’ important features.
My suggestions? We might try to say “creator made” while referring to a comic made by a permanent team, with probably some minor variations. The heightened sensibility to rotating teams is like an allergy to peanuts: those without it can enjoy PBJ sandwiches, but it would be fair to put a caution notice on a box. Or print “hypoallergenic” with a large font so that the potential customers would know. The same way words “standalone” or “self-contained” could signal that readers don’t need to educate themselves about a universe in order to understand what’s going on.
Of course, it’s a hypothesis, and I don’t expect to see these terms in wide usage. But if we will learn to describe comics more accurately, if we won’t let stereotypes make us short-sighted, we’ll convey our opinions effectively and help other people to navigate through the enormous and complicated world of comics. With accurate words under our belt, we would be able to explain things we love more clearly. At the end of the day, preferences are the exact reason for all these “indie versus mainstream” confrontations to exist.