Coming up with catchy titles for articles is not one of my strong points as a writer. Never has been, and probably never will be unless I take some online course or something. When I was writing “Palmer’s Picks” monthly for Wizard magazine, I usually left that job up to my editor. For this special year-end edition of the column (which also featured a preview of 1997), said editor came up with “Pretty Good Year.” Not a bad title for a piece about a particularly challenging time for comics as a whole, but I can’t help hearing Larry David in my head whenever I see it.
This “Picks” was the third, and final, time that I would write one of these year-in-review/year-in-preview columns. Instead of the luxurious three pages I got for the 1995 review/1996 preview in Wizard #53, I was only allowed my usual two-page spread. Maybe the cutback was due to the tumultuous times in the comics business, or maybe it was the writing on the wall that the lifespan of “Palmer’s Picks” was nearing an end. There were less than ten more installments of my column after this one, so I never got a chance to write a wrap-up for the alternative comics scene of 1997.
I also didn’t conduct any creator interviews for this one (I did so for Wizard #53). In order to put together the second half of the column, which previewed new comics slated for 1997, I contacted the usual gang of indy comics publishers, but the new announcements this go-around were a little thin when compared to the robust roster announced for ’96. By this point in time, Kitchen Sink had devolved from one of the preeminent underground publishers to nothing more than a factory that spat out The Crow spin-off comics and merchandise. Fantagraphics was trying its best to navigate some rough waters—it was still a few more years before the bookstore market for graphic novels would explode and open up new avenues for the venerable publisher. The business was still dependent on plain-old comic books, and it was increasingly difficult for companies to find viable venues to sell their comics when more and more comic shops were shutting their doors.
Since there were fewer announcements in the preview section of this column, there aren’t that many orphaned titles. Here are a few that stand out: Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros finally completed his The Envelope Manufacturer as a graphic novel in 2016, eighteen years after the first issue appeared and about twenty years after it was first announced. Mark Schultz has yet to allow other artists to play around in his Xenozoic Tales world (not counting the old back-up stories drawn by Steve Stiles or the cartoon show tie-in comics from Topps), although he’s currently working away at a conclusion to the cliffhanger 14th issue of the original series, a comic that originally appeared back in 1996. Later this year, Fantagraphics will finally release its mammoth collection of Robert Williams’ paintings—which was mentioned in this column—but their planned Best of Arcade book is still nowhere in sight.
Pretty Good Year
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Despite all the craziness and upheaval in the comics industry in 1996, some of the most vibrant, memorable and exciting comics of the year came from creators who choose to work outside of the mainstream—the small presses and independent publishers.
Most of the year’s news involved artists who emulated Jeff Smith (who moved Bone to Image Comics late in ’95) and took their work to larger venues. A long list of self-publishers found refuge at larger companies, including Terry Moore, Colleen Doran, Teri Sue Wood, Drew Hayes, Martin Wagner and Budd Root. Also, Caliber Comics’ much-publicized Tapestry imprint was hailed as an all-ages line of comics, but it also served as a lifeboat for former self-publishers like Scott Roberts (Patty Cake), Jamie Gownley (Shades of Gray). Steve Stegelin (Boondoggle) and Rob Bihun (The Hoon).
Also in 1996, a handful of alternative stalwarts brought new projects to bigger audiences, while still maintaining strong ties to their indy roots. THB creator and publisher Paul Pope got a high-profile shot at the lead feature in Dark Horse Presents with his story “The One Trick Rip Off.” Terry LaBan, whose Cud Comics settled in at Dark Horse, found work at DC’s Vertigo imprint as writer of both the lead-off story in The Dreaming and the creator-owned espionage thriller The Unseen Hand. Vertigo also published The System, the initial offering from the Vertigo Vérité line, which showcased the unmistakable spray paint and stencil art of long-time alternative creator Peter Kuper. The larger circulations and higher production values of mainstream companies allowed these artists to realize new aspects of their work that the small press could not capitalize upon.
As a result of this shuffling of companies and general nuttiness, more comics readers were able to find and purchase comics by creators who were once considered to be marginal…or too weird for mainstream consumption. Let’s face it: Not many fans these days care who publishes a comic, as long as it’s exciting, fun to read and accessible. In the past year, there were more well-crafted comics on the stands than ever before. Series like TUG & buster, Scud the Disposable Assassin, Kane and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac found a wealth of new readers, all from good word of mouth and favorable press. Even idiosyncratic titles like Acme Novelty Library, Eightball, Fleener and The Sands saw interest from readers who wanted to try something new.
Oddly enough. a few comics gained exposure simply because they were ending. One of the most memorable comic books to call it quits this year was Los Bros Hernandez’ Love & Rockets. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez decided to end their long-running influential black-and-white comic collaboration to work on new individual projects. Happily, ’96 saw an increased amount of work from the pair. Aside from the spectacular 50th issue, Gilbert came out with Girl Crazy and New Love, and Jaime rendered the beautiful and well-received Whoa, Nellie!. This past spring also saw the conclusion of Vertigo’s ground-breaking Sandman, a series that spearheaded the current wave of non-mainstream comics at the big publishers. Also, two long-running and oft-delayed comics drew to satisfying conclusions: Dave McKean‘s personal Cages, and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s extensively researched Jack the Ripper epic, From Hell.
The spaces left by these series will likely be filled with comics by the new generation of creators making their way through the ranks. Female cartoonists like Megan Kelso (Girlhero), Jessica Abel (Artbabe) and Ariel Bordeaux (Deep Girl) are all poised to break out in a big way. Vocal self-publishers like James Kochalka (lames Kochalka Superstar), Steven Gilbert (I Had a Dream) and Joe Chiappetta (Silly Daddy) are intent on getting their comics out there, no matter what it takes, including being more vocal about self-publishing, as well as some negotiating their own distribution deals with bookstores like Borders or Barnes & Noble. And a few promising young artists, like Jason Lutes (Berlin) and Jon Lewis (Ghost Ship), have committed themselves to demanding projects. A number of fully realized young talents like Steve Weissman (Yikes!) and Andi Watson (Skeleton Key) have even popped up virtually out of nowhere.
Unfortunately, the fate of these new cartoonists, as well as many established ones, rests on you. It’s very important to be vocal about the books you want to buy and the series you want to read: otherwise there’s a good chance they won’t be around very long. Most fans don’t realize the power they exercise when they choose to buy, or not buy, a comic book. And even if you do buy a lot of small press books, there are other ways to make yourself heard. Take a few minutes to write some postcards to a few cartoonists. Even a short note is a measure of encouragement to somebody who works in isolation with little or no feedback.
If you keep buying good comics, they’ll keep making them. And here’s a quick look at a bunch of the cool comics that will be fighting for your wallet’s attention in 1997:
Drawn & Quarterly Productions
Nowhere—Cartoonist Debbie Drechsler’s two-color regular series features an ongoing serial about a young girl trying to fit in after moving to a new neighborhood.
No Love Lost—Small press sensation Ariel Bordeaux makes the jump from her mini-comic Deep Girl to full-size comics with this self-contained story about a bored and somewhat unromantic couple.
The Envelope Manufacturer—Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros pens this three-issue story about an envelope manufacturer struggling against mounting debts.
The Poor Bastard—This long-awaited collection of Joe Matt‘s autobiographical Peep Show series will finally appear early in the new year.
Maggie & Hopey Color Special—Jaime Hernandez’ most popular Love & Rockets characters are featured in this January one-shot, which will be followed by the regular series, Penny Century.
Artbabe—1996 Xeric Grant winner Jessica Abel brings her popular small press comic to Fantagraphics with issue #6. This is definitely one to watch.
Steve Ditko’s Strange Avenging Tales—In possibly the weirdest news, Fantagraphics has announced that it is the new publisher of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. Look for this series to debut in January, featuring some truly whacked-out cartooning.
On the graphic novel front, Fantagraphics Plans to release a mammoth, full-color coffee-table hardcover collecting the surreal paintings of legendary underground artist Robert Williams. Also be on the lookout for a new Holy Cross graphic novel, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed, by Mal Coney and Paul J. Holden, a Wally Wood retrospective, and a best of Arcade collection assembled by original editors Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith.
Kitchen Sink Press
The Crow—Following the success of Dead Time and Flesh & Blood, expect to see more Crow stories in ’97. Three mini-series are planned, but most of the creative teams and tides are still top-secret. Also be ready for some graphic novel collections of the various Crow mini-series from ’96.
The Spirit: The New Adventures—Some of comics’ biggest names have assembled to pay tribute to Will Eisner’s legendary crime-fighter. This four-issue full-color series will debut this summer with work from Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Geof Darrow, Kurt Busiek, Adam Hughes, Eddie Campbell, Mike Allred, Bill Stout, Mark Schultz, Dave Stevens and Jim Lee.
Xenozoic Tales—Details are sketchy at this point, but Mark Schultz has invited other creators to play around with his characters in stories that take place before his popular series began.
Go Power—The early years of Jay Stephens‘ popular Atomic City Tales will be collected at the beginning of ’97. Look for the regular series to continue, with a new storyline.
Also on the graphic novel front, Kitchen Sink’s collections of Scott McCloud‘s Zot! will appear quarterly.
Slave Labor Graphics/Amaze Ink
Mister Blank—Newcomer Chris Hicks makes a big splash in January with this cartoony, film noir-ish detective comic from Amaze Ink that should appeal to a broad audience.
Lust for Life—No Hope and Destroy All Comics creator Jeff Levine returns in February with this new series, which promises some observations on everyday life that are different from those in his earlier works.
Able—Artist Mark Bloodworth and writer William Harms come together for this “Fargo”-esque period piece set in WWII Nebraska, slated for release in March.
Waiting Place—Sean McKeever creates this high school drama, beginning in April, that should appeal to fans of Strangers in Paradise.
The Yearning—Sacramento artist Dean Chiang’s 96-page wordless story will be released as a graphic novel that should prove to be an interesting read.
If Tom Palmer Jr. was a beer, he’d be a Miwaukee’s Best