Monday, July 26, 2010

A "Brief" History of Independent Comics

In my travels around the YA blogosphere, I came across a very admirable campaign, "I Support Indie Authors", promoting awareness of self-published prose authors.  And that got me thinking about the role of indie comics in the medium...and then it got out of hand.  Mea culpa.  If you're not interested in the history of indie comics, then you can stop reading at the cut.

Today, indie comics are a vital part of the comics field.  Conventions set aside "indie islands" for those creators.  Anyone who can run their work through a photocopier is considered published.  Creators come together in collectives to publish anthologies and support each other.  Comic book stores will happily sell self-published comics from local and not-so-local creators. The Internet has made it possible for any creator to instantly share their work with the world and sell books right off their website.  And indie comics have one major and important advantage over indie prose books-- their work is equally respected by the big corporate publishers.  In fact, it is a rare writer or artist today that starts out immediately with an established publisher.  But rather than looking down upon them disdainfully the way big book publishers look at self-published novels, the big comics publishers trawl the self-published comics looking for the next big talent!

Of course, it's been a long, strange trip to this point, but one thing is for sure-- they've earned our respect!

The roots of independent comics go back nearly as far as comics themselves.  In the "Golden Age" of comics-- the '30s and '40s-- comics were a sort of Wild West of popular culture.  Basically anyone who could hold a pencil could find work in comics, and just about anything went in terms of genre and content.  Though superheroes were the big sellers, there were also war, crime, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, adventure, horror, and every other genre under the sun.  By the 1950s, the comics readership was growing up, and a few publishers grew up with them.

First and foremost among the more "mature" comics publishers was EC (Entertaining Comics).  EC allowed its creators to develop their own unique style and to sign their name to their work--something no other publisher allowed them to do at the time.  Unsurprisingly, EC comics contained the best writing and art in comics of the era (and for the most part it still holds up today).  But what EC was best known for was its horror comics-- including such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science.  They were the first to publish horror comics, and theirs were the best-- the goriest, the most violent, and the twistiest endings ever dreamed up.  But this was 1950s America, and comics were a "junk" form consumed mostly by children and adolescents.  It wasn't long before the Moral Guardians came knocking.

Under pressure from the US Senate (no, really), the comics industry imposed a strict self-censorship code. But EC publisher William M. Gaines was unwilling to kowtow to the new censorship rules and EC died soon after--except for its satire magazine, MAD, which survives to this day.  Unfortunately for the Moral Guardians, the generation that read EC comics were the Baby Boomers, and once the 1960s hit, they were hippies and yippies and Communists and civil rights activists-- all of them questioning authority and the status quo.  A new generation of artists remembered fondly the visceral thrill of EC comics, and none of them wanted anything to do with what they perceived as sanitized pap of the mainstream comics industry.  So they went underground.

While there had been independent comics before, they really became a movement starting with R. Crumb's Zap Comix.  Coming out of San Francisco, sold in head shops and record stores, underground comix were about everything the Establishment reviled-- drugs, free love and promiscuous sex, drugs, radical politics, drugs, racial commentary, and drugs.  Feminists and women's libbers had their voice in Wimmin's Comix; the burgeoning gay rights movement had Gay Comix.  The underground was funny, violent, obscene, and shocking for the sake of it.

As '60s radicalism died out, and comic book distribution moved off newsstands and into dedicated comic shops, underground comix evolved into the modern independent comics movement.  Underground cartoonist Art Spiegelman and his French wife, Françoise Mouly (where comics have been a respected artform for much longer) started an art comics magazine called RAW in 1980, where amidst the work of their underground colleagues, Spiegelman serialized his father's Holocaust memoir Maus, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Meanwhile, a new generation of creators were self-publishing their work all across North America.  In Ontario, Dave Sim started his sword-and-sorcery satire epic Cerebus in 1977, and he still resists mainstream bookstore distribution of the trade paperbacks (side note-- while his artistic integrity is admirable, I cannot recommend his work due his rampant, galloping misogyny that rears its ugly head about halfway through.)  Other independent comics creations, like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ben Edlund's The Tick not only showed that independent comics could also have fun heroics, but they also found enormous mainstream success.

Eventually, in the old guard of comics publishers, namely Marvel and DC, creators were finally getting fed up in a big way with the editorial policies of those companies, and the fact that they did not own the copyrights to their work.  Finally in 1992, seven of the biggest artists at Marvel broke off and formed their own company, Image Comics, with a radical editorial policy: none.  Any aspiring creator could send their project to Image, and if it was accepted, they retained complete editorial control and all copyrights and subsidiary rights to it, while still benefiting from Image's high profile and status with comics distributors.  And if a creator's work is hugely successful, they can be made a partner in the firm, giving them a voice in how it's run.

More than any other medium, comics offer creators a choice in how to publish and distribute their work, and it adds to the richness and creativity of the field.  The role of indie creators in the comics field cannot be overstated, and as such their work deserves our support, and their struggle to get recognized and find their audience deserves to be honored.

If you would like to know more about the evolution of indie comics (and see interviews with significant creators), I recommend the documentary Comic Book Confidential.  If you want to know more about EC comics, the moral panic, and censorship of comics in the 1950s, read The Ten-Cent Plague.

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