I was reading the letter column in Wizard the other day (what? Yeah, I read Wizard, I've been reading it since 1992 -- you got a problem with that?), and a reader raised an interesting point: If you only read Dark Horse and Image, are you an "indy" comics reader?
It's something I have thought about myself a few times. I mean, I read a pair of "small press" comics regularly, but can either Moonstone's The Phantom or Bongo's Futurama Comics truly be considered "indy" comics, what with being licensed and all? The same goes for a lot of the Horse's output: they traditionally and still to this day make a lot of bread off of their licensed comic properties. But they are very often touted as the top dog indy publisher. And what about Image, which remains the poster child for creator owned work, the definition of indy?
The argument is one which works better reversed. Not "what is indy?" but "what is mainstream?" Marvel and DC plainly fit this bill, with their easily recognized armies of superheroes, just waiting for the right screenplay. Archie and his teenaged cohorts, too, is simply classified -- Archie might be a "small press" publisher as far as Diamond is concerned, but a publisher who is found on nearly every checkout line in supermarkets across the country is not indy (and is it just me, or do you also grab the Jughead Double Digest when on a long line at the checkout?). That still leaves a large swath of the comic industry in this country to look at.
The thing about the modern Dark Horse is that while they are still known for their license work -- Star Wars, natch, as well as Conan and Buffy -- which sell a lot of copies and no doubt produce a lot of profit, their catalog also includes a lot of strongly non-mainstream work. Hellboy is the closest thing they have to a mainstream non-licensed product, thanks to the movie, but if you ask a dozen people in the street, maybe two or three would know that Hellboy's a comic book character. Beyond that, it's a weird group of titles which cover a large range -- Umbrella Academy, The Goon, Rex Mundi, Grendel, Apocalypse Nerd and so on. That's pretty solid indy cred right there.
Image is the same way. Their days of mainstream are long gone -- does anyone who jumped on the bandwagon in the mid-90s really still remember or care about Spawn? And the other Image property with any real non-cartoon exposure (Withcblade) isn't even with Image anymore. They still serve as a sort of clearing house for creator-owned work, but even that comes with a catch, since you have to essentially pitch a series still. So Image is like the "mainstream indy" publisher -- like how you can find a sampler CD filled with a dozen "indy rock" bands all signed to one label, and who magically seem to pop up in the denoument's of hour long TV dramas. Not that there's anything wrong with that (other than the music, of course), since Image provides a higher profile for work which might not have gotten any attention otherwise, including Parade (With Fireworks) by Mike Cavallero, Dynamo 5, Mice Templar, Noble Causes, and Invincible. That sounds "indy" to me.
Beyond those two there are plenty of other publishers out there, toiling in relative anominity save for licenses and the occasional breakthrough which grabs headlines over at Newsarama or whatnot. IDW works hard chruning out the Transformers and Star Trek stuff, to the delight of fans, but also has 30 Days of Night; same with Devil's Due and G. I. Joe, responsible for causing no small part of the 80s nostalgia wave. Dynamite has stuff as varied as Battlestar Galactica and the Lone Ranger, and even little Moonstone has Kolchak, Buckaroo Bonzai, and Sherlock Holmes in addition to the Ghost Who Walks. These are certainly indy publishers, but I can't really see these titles as indy comics.
So what's the answer? There isn't one, of course. Indy is in the eye of the beholder. I might call Jim Valentino's Drawing From Life the epitome of indy comics, but Joe Bloggs down the street might consider it utterly corporate. I won't call Transformers: Beast Wars an indy comic because it is a license of the most popular boys toy of the year, but someone else might say "Well, Beast Wars is obscure enough, and the print run is small enough, so it's obviously independant." It's all a matter of taste and what you enjoy reading.
The moral of the story? Read what you like, and don't worry about whether something is "too mainstream" or "off the radar." As long as you think it's worth spending your hard earned money on, that's all that matters.
So what about YOU? What small press or "indy" stuff do you read?