One of the things I like most about independent comics is there is a sense that anything can happen. Whether it is the death of a popular character (looking at you Kirkman!) or a plot twist that I never saw coming (Fear Agent anyone?), Independent comics always keep me guessing.
It is not just the stories where independent comics push the boundaries. For years, independent comics creators have sought new and exciting ways to get the reader’s attention and to earn our dollars. Below is a list of 7 Things That Independent Comics Did First:
1. The Graphic Novel
Sure, most comics published these days get collected every 6 issued and re-released as a trade paperback. It is so common that the Big Two (and many of the independent publishers have stopped writing their individual issues as anything that could stand alone and instead have started treating them like chapters in a book.
Before the trade collecting, both Marvel and DC often published original stories in a graphic novel format. But they were not the first. Chalk it up to the independents to be the first to free themselves from the 22 page monthly format.
Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories is widely considered to be the first graphic novel. Written in 1978, it predates Marvel’s line of “graphic novels” by 4 years. A solid argument could be made for Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s Blackmark published in 1971. While it did not cary the graphic novel name, it has all the characteristics of a modern graphic novel. Niether one of these was published by a major comic book company. A Contract With God was published by Baronet Books, a small imprint of Waldman Publishing. Blackmark was published by Bantam Books.
I am separating graphic novels from…
2. Omnibus Editions
Omnibus is a bit of a misnomer. A true omnibus should contain all the issues of a particular series, or all the work on a series by a particular creator. However, sometimes a series or a body of work by a particular creator is so massive that it cannot be contained in a single omnibus, so the omnibus itself is divided up in to volumes.
Today you can get an Omnibus of most Marvel titles dating back to the 1960′s and there are several omnibus and showcase editions of DC work as well (not to mention Dark Horse has created omnibus editions of several of its most popular titles). However, they owe it all to an aardvark.
Cerebus the Aardvark by Dave Sim and Gerhard was an epic, 300 issue, 6000+ page creator owned, self-published series that was divided up in to 16 story arcs of varying length. Sim realized that people would want to read an entire storyline, so he collected and published the stories in a series of “phone book editions”. These editions were much larger than anything on the market at the time (some well over 300 pages long). He offered these phone book editions direct to consumers who were clamoring for hard to find back issues, circumventing the direct market comic shops.
These massive editions proved that there was a market for an omnibus edition. Even if a reader had most (or even all of the issues) they would still be willing to purchase something where they were all together in a single location.
3. Creators Bill of Rights
Independent creators including Dave Sim, Larry Marder, Eastman and Laird, Scott McCloud came together one weekend in 1988 and hammered out a staggeringly powerful document. This short treatise called for the equivalent of a revolution where the power of the comic switched from the corporation to the creator.
For the survival and health of comics, we recognize that no single system of commerce and no single type of agreement between creator and publisher can or should be instituted. However, the rights and dignity of creators everywhere are equally vital. Our rights, as we perceive them to be and intend to preserve them, are:
- The right not to have our work published by publishers turned off by this.
- The right to full ownership of what we fully create.
- The right to full control over the creative execution of that which we fully own.
- The right of approval over the reproduction and format of our creative property.
- The right of approval over the methods by which our creative property is distributed.
- The right to free movement of ourselves and our creative property to and from publishers.
- The right to employ legal counsel in any and all business transactions.
- The right to offer a proposal to more than one publisher at a time.
- The right to prompt payment of a fair and equitable share of profits derived from all of our creative work.
- The right to full and accurate accounting of any and all income and disbursements relative to our work.
- The right to prompt and complete return of our artwork in its original condition.
- The right to full control over the licensing of our creative property.
- The right to promote and the right of approval over any and all promotion of ourselves and our creative property
If the earlier decision by Marvel to offer royalties to its creators (as well as return original art to artists) was a ripple, this was the earthquake that caused an eventual tidal wave!
Think I am being hyperbolic? It is because of this creator manifesto that we have Image Comics today. Image Comics (the largest independent comics book company in the United States) is founded on the principles laid out above. All creators own their own work and are not subject to the whim of the publisher. They own all their characters and decide how they will be used both in and out of the comics medium.
Image comics changed how comics were made and how creators were treated. However, without the Creators Bill of Rights it is doubtful that there would have been a framework for the Image Founders to build upon.
4. Web direct distribution to the consumer
In June 2001, Dick Giordano and Bob Layton, along with David Michelinie, formed Future Comics. One of Future’s goals was to revolutionize the distribution side of the comics business with the industry’s first, totally-autonomous Internet comics company, selling to readers and booksellers alike directly through the world-wide web.
That’s right. They were using the web to sell directly to consumers. It may not seem like that big of a deal today, with The Big Two are busy touting their day and date digital distribution. The iPad has apps that are creator or comic specific. Now, more than ever it is simple to click a button and get the content delivered direct to you, the reader. No more trips to the comic shop. No more worrying that a comic will be sold-out. No more hunting for back issues. Independent creators experimented with this a decade ago. Granted, it was in a different form, but the concept was still the same.
Independent creators were staking their claim to the distribution of their work. No longer would they be at the mercy of a single publication (Diamond). No longer would readers be limited by geography. Instead of having to go to the comic shop, comics would come to them!
Clearly Future Comics did not end up setting the world on fire or bringing Diamond to its knees. However, the concept was sound enough that ever since then, comics companies have been looking for ways to get their comics directly to readers using the web and Diamond has had to shuffle its deck chairs to maintain its importance in the industry.
5. Internet Profit
Back in the early days of the internet, back when we still called it “The Internet Super-Highway” and AOL reigned supreme, I remember looking up “comic” on the computer in one of the campus computer labs. I saw someone’s comic they had created for a class at another college. It was nothing too exciting. A couple of circles with crudely drawn faces talking to each other. I wasn’t impressed, especially since Marvel had just put the entire content of Generation X #1 up on their site!
Now, I had already bought Generation X #1 when it came out. But I could not deny the fact that it was exciting to contemplate the ramification of comics coming directly to me on the computer…especially since it was FREE!!!!
I checked back on the Marvel site every time I went back to the computer lab. Marvel didn’t put up another comic for the rest of the time I was in college. In fact, after I graduated I would go back to the site every so often, and there was the same Generation X #1 staring at me. Eventually they took it down. It would be years before they put another comic on line for all to see.
In the meantime, webcomics took off.
Goats and Penny Arcade debuted in the mid to late 90′s. By the time XKCD came along in 2005, the webcomic medium was firmly accepted and was a fertile ground for creators.
But, most importantly, those two early comics (Penny Arcade in particular) managed to change the concept of webcomics. They figured out how to give something away and make a profit at the same time. Marvel was not able to do that. DC was not able to do that. In fact, to this day they are still not able to do that! While Marvel and DC struggle to figure out how to maintain a digital presence, the webcomic market continues to explode. In January 2007, there were an estimated 38,000 webcomics being published.
Heck, even I have entered in to the webcomic world! (Shameless plug alert).
6. Black and White Sells
Marvel used to have a line of black and white magazines. They were mostly genre mags, specializing in comics with kung fu or sword and sorcery characters. These were never great sellers, and were usually cancelled after a couple of years. For Marvel, the real money was in color. They spent their money developing new coloring processes and investing in paper quality (remember Baxter paper?)
Then along came a couple of guys and their mutated turtles. Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may not have set the world on fire when it came to sales. However, they started a normal revolution. Within a couple of years, other companies (most notably Dark Horse) had sprung up to sell black and white comics with anthropomorphic animals as the lead characters.
I would leave this section here, but the story gets better.
In 1994 Jeff Smith released Bone. This little juggernaut turned the market on its head. The first issue went through over 10 printings. The collection of the first 6 issues sold over 100,000 copies. Sales of the individual issues doubled with each subsequent release. All of a sudden a self-published comic was selling in numbers as large as the big boys. Color was no longer king.
What Bone proved was that people would support a story instead of a format. It didn’t matter if it was cheap newsprint and no color, if the story was good, the fans will support it!
Fast forward to 2011. The highest selling graphic novel of 2011: The Walking Dead (a black and white book). The highest selling graphic novel of 2010: Scott Pilgrim (a black and white book). Fans still clamor for a good story. It doesn’t matter if it is full color and an sparkly paper, the story is what matters.
7. 3D Comics
There have been 3D comics for more than 50 years. As far back as the 1950′s, people have been donning funny cardboard glasses and gazing at the illusion of 3D comics. These were headache inducing images that were caused by off-setting blue and red images that, when viewed through the special geeky looking glasses, gave the fuzzy illusion of the comic floating above the page.
Like the 3D movie craze of the same decade, the fad quickly wore off. People wanted to see comics (and movies) in color and they wanted to be able to read the comic (or see the movie) without the resulting nausea.
Back in the early 1990′s Valiant came out with Valiant Vision. This was a new 3D process that allowed the reader to read the comic regularly without glasses. However, when donning the clear glasses (not one red, one blue lens like traditional 3D), the reader could see the full-color imaged popping off the page.
It was a short-lived experiment, but one that is ripe for a comeback. The 3D effect was achieved through the coloring process. While it was time-consuming and labor intensive in the early days of computer coloring, today it would be much simpler and cost-effective. In addition, with 3D movies still a major draw at the theaters, now would be a great time for a comic company to make another attempt at the process.
Since Avatar already released a3D comic one-shot, is it too difficult to conceive of an ongoing 3D Crossed series with the full-color gore and splatter coming right at the reader? One comic, two viewing options.