Friday, December 7, 2007

Indy Cred

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?


rob! said...

ive found i have to hunt indy stuff down more because my store doesnt sell much stuff like that, so they dont order much.

i just read Zombies Calling by Faith Erin Hicks, which was a lot of fun:

...and Red Eye, Black Eye by Thor Jensen, which i also liked.

...but i have yet to find an "indy" series that i love to read the way i used to for Scott McCloud's Zot! or Mark Evanier/Dan Speigle's Crossfire--two books i read as regularly and passionately as any DC or Marvel.

Diabolu Frank said...

I think it depends on how you define "indy." If you mean independent of the big two, or super-heroes, then Dark Horse qualifies. That's about it, for my money. They're undeniably corporate, with their fat thumbs holding a hefty piece of the intellectual property rights of most everything they "originate" with creators. Otherwise, when not licensing outside media or importing material, they're just a boutique publisher for big shot creators like Frank Miller. That ain't indy by most measures.

You can cast the net wider if you play loose with genre. Is horror or sci-fi really indie, barring left-of-center execution. Are IDW or Oni all that far removed from Dark Horse? When most people think "indy," they think "art," or at least navel-gazing free from commercial concern. Those types of comics rarely last more than a handful of issues, same as their publishers.

Personally, I consider "indy" anything owned by the actual creators producing the work, using "work made for hire" as my main qualifier for that which is "corporate." Nothing makes it more clear you're "the Man" than profiting off another's back, especially in perpetuity. I'm quite fond of Image's model, which safeguards the public from absolute dreck by not slapping the "i" logo on just anything, but not infringing in any way on creator's rights in exchange for an office fee and access to successful printing, solicitation, and distribution channels. The books aren't always indy, but the model is.

Luke said...

rob! -- Crossfire is coming back, at least for one anthology. Many Happy Returns from Happy Harbor Comics has a new Crossfire story, along with new Journey by Messner-Loebs, and Licensable BearTM. I like Journey quite a bit, so I am going to try to get my hands on this thing just for that.

And I don't know what this says about me, but the indy/creator-owneed book I miss the most? ShadowHawk.

Frank -- I think you are probably right. The Horse was never a "creator owned" haven like Image is. And Image still is the best deal, by my reckoning, that you can have as someone doing creator owned stuff. When Jim Valentino (full disclosure: big fan of his work) took over as publisher, he really seemed to push the envelope as far as what bounds were available to content, and Larsen seems okay with continuing that trend. There's heroes, yah, but there's things as divergent as horror to memoirs to historicals -- and Image doesn't get to pocket all the profits forever, either.

Diabolu Frank said...

It's not like Dark Horse is such a bad deal, as it allows lesser known comic creators the potential to better exploit their ideas across media. Plus, you get to do so with upfront money and less responsibility for the non-creative aspects of the effort. Image can put a body in the hole pretty quick.

For me, I can't see bothering to create characters and concepts I feel are strong enough to support a book, only to give them up as a whole or in part to a publisher forever. However, I can handle my business, whereas creative types seem to have problems with that sort of thing.