Community Spaces, Alternative Marketplaces: Indie Comics and Culture

Over the last decade, the growth of independent, “indie,” or creator-owned comics has broadened the comic book landscape and birthed a new wave of creators who aren’t adhering to conventional standards. The demand for non-superhero material from publishers outside of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) has empowered creators to carve out their own space in the market. Indie comics often refer to comics published by independent presses, such as Image Comics, Oni Press and Avatar Press, or comics that are self-published by their creators, either online or in physical print.

I wrote my master’s thesis on indie comics, it was titled “Independent Comics and Merchandise: Economics and Culture,” and in that study I examined the relationship between the publishing industry and consumer culture of mass media entertainment. Merchandise, as brand extensions of comics, functions as an additional tool to shape brand personality, the source material, as well as serving as a reflection of its creators. As the writer and creator of the independent Indonesian superhero comic ROSANA, I sought to gain a deeper academic understanding of the industry in which I work and participate.

In this essay, I take a broader look at some of the elements of indie comics culture that I discovered throughout my research: the way it embraces the queer community in a way that mainstream comics could never, and the way marginalized groups are making spaces for an “alternative marketplace” to thrive. I spoke to both creators and readers of indie comics to get a sense of what it means to be building this industry with their own hands.

In the Margins: Representation in Indie Comics

Independent comics, in particular, empower those often less represented in mainstream comics. In 2017, statistics showed that Koyama Press, an indie publisher, had women make up 44% of their creators; as opposed to the Big Two, with an abysmal average of 16-17% of women on their creative teams. I ran my survey for my dissertation in June 2019. Targeted towards comics creators and readers, there were 40 respondents total, 8 of whom were creators themselves, while the remaining 32 were exclusively readers. Of the 40 participants, 50% identified as men; 45% identified as women; and 5% identified as non-binary – reflecting similar ratios found in Koyama Press’s catalog.

LGBT representation is also more easily found in the indie comics sphere. In my survey, comics creator Tab Kimpton explains: “I think the quick reflective nature of them means they are far more topical. Traditional publishing takes 2+ years from concept to book, but an indie comic/zine can be made in the space of a week, keeping them relevant on what LGBT+ people are dealing with right now. I feel like indie comics have authors more reflective of the queer community, which is good for stories with authenticity.”

Creator identity inextricably influences the authenticity of content, which is a strength of indie publishing, whereby creators are empowered to take a firsthand approach when addressing issues or portraying certain experiences. Creating marginalized characters without anyone on the creative team to represent that perspective often exposes the careless approach that mainstream publishers tend to take.

Marvel recently introduced two new superheroes: Snowflake and Safespace. The backlash was swift:

It’s difficult enough for minorities to exist in these fandom spaces, but there is a different, even more frustrating type of disempowerment when mainstream media companies attempt to “give voice” to these underrepresented stories without actually hiring people from marginalized backgrounds to write their own stories for themselves. As a creator, there is a powerful freedom in creating something for yourself that other people happen to be able to enjoy, as opposed to creating something on behalf of someone else, who may or may not want it in the first place.

Diversity in indie comics stems from its roots in self-publishing: people creating zines, posting on Tumblr blogs, publishing stories made specifically for a certain audience in mind. Webcomics, a subsection of indie comics, are especially well-suited to carve out niches online. Monica Gallagher, writer-illustrator and the creator of Assassin Roommate, states that: “Webcomics were always more diverse than any other form of comics […] If you can just get your stuff out there, you’ll find your audience and you’re not waiting anymore for someone to tell you whether or not you’re allowed in the club.”

Aside from diversity in characters, indie comics also empower creators to produce stories outside conventional narratives. In “Comics in Dissent Alternative, Independence, Self-Publishing,” a study regarding the dichotomy between mainstream comics and “alternative comics,” Christophe Dony summarized:

“First, alternative comics, whether produced by small-scale structures or individuals — have rejected the oversimplified and action-packed narrative formulas of heroic fantasy that have often maintained a social, cultural, and political status quo in favor of a literary and/or artistic sophistication inclined to realism, satire, and more often than not, the examination of taboos.”

It seems only natural, then, that there is a connection between digital platforms and creative innovation; the less restrictive the market, the more opportunities there are for creators of all backgrounds to be more creative with their work. Peer support is the most important currency in indie comics—and I am going to explain what it means and how it works.

Economic Support is Social Support

Mentorship in the industry also extends to making the industry a more inclusive place for all identities. Initiatives to increase the participation and visibility of marginalized creators, are often led by industry leaders themselves, as demonstrated by MariNaomi’s Queer Comics Database. Tab Kimpton is also the founder of Rainbow Road Maps – a resource to make conventions more accessible for and inclusive of queer creators and readers. Kimpton spoke about the importance of Flame Con to the creation of Rainbow Road Maps:

“The Rainbow Road maps started after I went to Flamecon in NY and was floored at how it felt to know an entire con was made of people making LGBT+ content. We don’t have anything like that in the UK (Though there’s one in the works now in Bristol for this summer, though virus controls might delay it) so at Thought Bubble (2016 I think) I did a call on twitter and made up a map of people who sell stories with LGBT+ characters in it.

It’s done a couple of things for over the years such as:

– Shown that there’s a lot more people doing this than we realised, especially as it highlights authors who have characters like that in their work but don’t advertise it as much (not every stand can be as rainbow covered as mine!). Personally this has made me feel much less isolated as an author, for a long time it felt like I was the only one writing this stuff.

– Encouraged more people to write about gender and sexuality to become part of the community/list. To avoid people having to out themselves etc we made the list dependant [sic] on the work people can buy from you, not about how someone personally identifies. Own voices work is important and shows up predominantly on the list but we also need the support of allies writing characters too. It makes it more likely for readers of any gender and sexuality to come across queer topics and helps increase levels of acceptance.”

Even as someone who actively seeks out queer comics and content, to this day, I still find myself (gleefully) surprised whenever I stumble across a convention stand with visibly queer comics, such as The Pride. But as Tab says, not every queer story features these queer elements up front, which makes the Rainbow Road Maps an even more important resource in seeking out a diverse range of representation.

Twitter is a vital tool for any creator in the indie comics community. It’s where fans meet creators, where people make friends, share art, promote each other’s merchandise and boost commissions. A popular format for increasing visibility is for a creator to post a tweet encouraging other creators to drop the link to their comic or store in the replies to the thread, as seen below:

Referred to as the “trickle-down tree” by one creator, the act of making friends can be more important than the traditional idea of professional “networking” which often comes across as insincere in indie comics spaces. It bears similarity to the characteristics of interactions found in fandom spaces, referred to as participatory culture by Henry Jenkins:

1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. Strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. Some type of informal mentorship in which the most experienced members pass along their knowledge to novices

4. Members who believe their contributions matter

5. Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another and care about other members’ opinions about their contributions

More experienced professionals tend to be very open in sharing their knowledge with newer creators, seen through the plethora of resources on the Internet. One example is this database compounding information on standard page rates for artists all across the industry, since a lot of newer artists are often undercharging and undervaluing their work. Kimpton points out that, “we [indies] still have the same problems as the rest of the industry where people from more privileged backgrounds who already have the support/money to afford to go into freelance dominate.”

To ensure that the industry survives and thrives, everyone who succeeds must help another person succeed. This type of support requires the involvement of everyone in the community: creators big or small, dedicated comics fans, or casual readers liking, sharing, contributing to resources to grow the base.

Indie Comics’ Town Square: the Alternative Marketplace

Since indie comics are often isolated within their own bubble, the scope for producing products is limited. Merchandise and additional art are created with an audience in mind, often to the point of doing custom work, such as commissions or fan requests.

It’s Digital, Baby!

The rise of, specifically, the alternative digital market can be attributed to the variety of platforms available to independent creators. DeviantArt used to be the leading website for artists, but nowadays there are platforms specifically geared towards indie comics, such as Tapas or Webtoons. Of course, the most active platforms are the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and to an extent, Tumblr, despite the NSFW ban that struck down swaths of creative communities in 2018. Tumblr is also more geared towards fandoms for mainstream media such as films and television, but a lot of artists have gained a following for their work through the platform.

I remember following Ngozi Ukazu on Tumblr in middle school, when the first few chapters of omgcheckplease! were being published, month after month on her Tumblr page. Today, I can walk into a Forbidden Planet store and find the exact same comic, now professionally printed and bound, on the shelves. Noelle Stevenson is also one of the earliest artists I remember following on Tumblr, and now she’s won Eisner Awards for her comics Nimona and Lumberjanes and is the producer and showrunner for Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

However, these now big name success stories aren’t the norm in the industry. Most creators, even those who are regular tablers at conventions, or those with the most successful Kickstarter campaigns, aren’t doing this full time. For these people, a more sustainable way of building up their brand is to maintain a steady flow of income through the form of merchandise–this is where Patreon has changed the game.

Kickstarter operates on an all-or-nothing funding model, where a project will only be launched if it has met its funding goals. People who contribute to this funding are called backers, and who receive different rewards based on the amount they choose. For example, a $5 backer may get a digital card of the comic, while a $50 backer may get two print issues of the comic and exclusive merchandise. Patreon, on the other hand, is a subscription-based system where patrons pledge a certain amount of money per month for exclusive access to content by the creator on their Patreon page. On the page, they can interact with other patrons, reply to the creator’s posts and participate in polls. Like Kickstarter, there’s a tier system in place that determines what content a patron can access.

Kimpton shares some insight on the rise of these platforms, specifically in the empowerment of publishing queer comics: “The rise in crowdfunding has been a massive game changer over the years for LGBT+ books, and more recently enamel pin kickstarters have seen a huge increase. We’re also seeing a lot more people get regular support from sites like Patreon. We’re seeing more people use social media to post gag strips and less people post to their own independent sites and more commonly on Tapas or Webtoon.”

Crowdfunding is a great way for indie creators to start a new project, especially because of the financial safety net it provides. Creators don’t need to rely on projected sales figures to determine if they will be able to cover production costs, since the backers will be the ones investing the money for production. For most people, comics are a financial investment with little to no return. One of the artists I interviewed stated that one of the most successful tiered options for their comic Kickstarter was featuring the reader on a “walk-on role” within the comic. Rewards such as this one—or additional digital PDFs, WIPs, concept illustrations, wallpapers or other forms of reformatted art—are particularly successful because they often cost nothing extra to produce, but it’s a valuable reward for a reader, nonetheless.

Patreon, further, is considered one of the best options for creators posting NSFW content; even with crackdowns from its payment partners, there hasn’t been a full-on ban of NSFW content. A common pricing system used on Patreon is that the more explicit the content, the higher the pledge would be. Creators also often use polls to interact with their patrons, asking them what they’d like to see next. Polls are also popular tools for creators on instagram or Twitter—reinforcing the importance of tailoring your content to your audiences in the indie comics sphere.

Reclaiming the ‘Comic’ in Comic Con

If the digital marketplace is vast and intimate at the same time; it can be said that comic conventions are vast, intimate and crowded.

In many ways, conventions serve as the peak physical manifestation of the independent comics economy. It is a shared space in which creators and fans meet in person, often for the first time, all transactions occur under one roof, and everyone in the industry can be found interacting with each other. In the survey I conducted of 40 people, a majority of respondents (67%) said that they bought their comics merchandise from conventions.

Tabling at conventions mimics the physical display of handcrafted art marketplaces, whereby customers can walk around, meet sellers and discover new products they never even knew about. Even the physical set-up of the table itself is a type of art: the craft of standing out in a crowded place, marking an authentic space of their own.

Displays are often eye-catching and attention grabbing, showcasing the variety of merchandise on offer between the comic books they are selling. Prints, pins and badges are more easily visible than the books are and the prices are also often listed on handwritten notes, which add a personalized touch. Some creators also offer commissions for the day.

Despite its name, popular events such as San Diego Comic-Con or MCM London Comic Con focus only very little of their attention towards actual comic creators. A lot of independent creators struggle to even get a table at these commercialized spaces, mostly dedicated towards mass media and pop-culture exhibits, whether that be mainstream movies, anime, or games. Creator Eoin Marron took to Twitter to talk about frustrations with comics conventions.

Kimpton’s Rainbow Road Maps are only the beginning. For Thought Bubble 2019, Kimpton worked on a new project, mainly for people of color in indie comics: “I worked with some friends to create a ‘your convention in colour’ map highlighting creators of colour as they are not proportionally represented in UK conventions if you take the rough statistics of UK ethnic groups into account. There’s a fair bit of overlap between the two maps and intersectionality is vital to progress.”

I Hope I’ve Convinced You to Support Indie Comics

Indie comics need to carve out their own niche spaces in order to thrive, as regular mass-media entertainment spaces will always be slower to change and risk, even as they are moving in the right direction in terms of representation. Indie creators are responsible for taking these risks and leading the direction of the industry. They have the advantage of being able to create and publish bold, original content, which, in many ways, also serves as a pilot run for larger audiences. After the groundwork has been laid and the audience has been built, this becomes evidence that these stories are in demand.

Indie creators rely on their readers and supporters, not just to consume their content—but to actively participate in the creation of it. When I started ROSANA! in the summer of 2018, one of my first goals was to connect with other comics creators and readers. I found three incredible artists who I started the project with, Baji, Osa, and Chong, and became much more aware of how comics artists used their platforms to promote their work, share their knowledge, and just interact with each other. I used to go to conventions as a silent purchaser of comics, and then my academic research led me to talking to a lot of these creators and having conversations about their work, the state of the industry, and the challenges they’re currently facing. Now, I plan my conventions based on who I know (and would like to catch up with!) so, that’s why I place so much importance on discussing the social element of this industry, because it’s the core of it.

Nobody expects a large financial return when creating indie comics but we do seek out positive interactions, the ability to share and exchange ideas, to support each other’s works and to contribute to growing a community where people can keep doing and making the things they love.


Bibliography

Cole, Samantha, “Patreon Is Suspending Adult Content Creators Because of Its Payment Partners.”

Dony, Christopher, “Reassessing the Mainstream vs. Alternative/Independent Dichotomy or, the Double Awareness of the Vertigo Imprint,” Collection ACME, (Presses Universitaires de Liège: 2014).

Hong, Laura, “Twitter and the Comic Book Fan Community: Building Identities and Relationships in 140 Characters,” University of the Pacific Stockton (California: 2015).

Huls, Alexander, “The Small Publishers Boosting Female Talent in Comics.”

Jenkins, Henry, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One).”

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