Wizard published another year-end extravaganza in their January 1996 cover-dated issue, which featured the usual year-in-review articles and a preview of the year to come. Similar to the last time this happened, the editorial department had some requests for my part of the magazine. “Palmer’s Picks” for this issue focused on a recap of the year-that-was for alternative comics, but instead of picking out some of the best comics from the previous year (as I did with my column in Wizard #41), I was asked to put together a preview of what was in store for the next year.
This meant I had to make a lotta phone calls! The first half of this column was a pretty decent run-down of some significant events in the small press side of the industry, peppered with some quotes from people in the know like Larry Marder, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and Paul Pope. I also had to riffle through my Rolodex to call all my contacts at several companies that don’t exist anymore like Kitchen Sink, Black Eye, and Slave Labor Graphics. And I also called up some companies that are still in business today, including Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly.
This was a somewhat frustrating time, especially for alternative comics. There were a lot of amazing things being done with the artform, but the business side was in freefall. Companies were cutting back and even closing up shop, leaving a lot of creators stranded. It was tougher for self-publishers to gain any ground, and a lot of them had to rethink their plans, which meant some promising series were never able to make it to the end of their run. Thankfully, most of the creators I talked to for this piece were pretty upbeat. While they could see the writing on the wall, they felt that comics as a form of artistic expression was in no trouble at all.
Part of the fun of looking back at these old lists of upcoming comics is picking out all of the things that never came to fruition. In keeping with the format of the original column, I’ll break these down one by one:
- Zot!: The planned four-volume reprint of Scott McCloud‘s sci-fi superhero comic didn’t get started until 1997 with a full-color paperback of the first ten issues. Only two of the other three books in the series collecting the black-and-white issues saw the light of day. The entire b&w run was finally collected in one volume in 2008 by HarperCollins.
- Snarf: Kitchen Sink did manage to resurrect their underground horror anthology Death Rattle for a five-issue run, but the revival of the long-running oddball humor anthology Snarf never happened.
- Xenozoic Tales: Mark Schultz‘s sporadically-published comic saw its 14th (and final) issue published in 1996, but the promised series of comics opening up the world of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs to other artists (in stories written by Schultz) did not see the light of day.
- Optic Nerve with partial color: The fourth issue of Adrian Tomine‘s popular comic series (released in 1997) did not mark a format change to partial color. That didn’t happen until issue 12, published in 2011.
- Peep Show full color collection: I remember being surprised when D&Q publisher Chris Oliveros mentioned that Joe Matt‘s autobio comic was going to be collected in full color. It made sense because Matt had a side career coloring comics, but it was not meant to be. The first six issues of Peep Show did get a black and white reprint in 1997 when The Poor Bastard was released.
- Fantagraphics tours: The promised signing tours pairing up popular Fantagraphics cartoonists sounded great, but sadly these events to celebrate Fanta’s 20th anniversary never happened.
- Fantagraphics graphic novel line: Instead of starting up comic series from new cartoonists that would only last a few issues, Fantagraphics decided to switch their focus to original graphic novels. The new line began in ’95 with Minimum Wage, and continued with Young Hoods In Love, Invasion of the Mind Sappers, and Suckle. The rest of the line that was announced in this column didn’t fare so well. Renee French‘s Another Peeled Frog became The Ticking and was eventually published by Top Shelf in 2005. Al Columbia‘s Peloria never appeared, although his Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days came out in 2009. Pages from Jeff Johnson‘s unfinished Sad Brat Bad Star appeared in a 2013 book of the same name that collected several earlier works.
- Tyrant: Sadly, Steve Bissette’s dino comic was not “back on track” in 1996. Only issue 4, the last in the series, was published in 1996.
- THB trade paperbacks: Paul Pope talked up his THB A and THB B books, but his self-published comic remains uncollected to this day.
I was allowed an extra page for this column, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Going through my original notes, I notice that there are quite a few books slated for 1996 that I decided to leave out. Good thing I did, because all of them were never published! Kitchen Sink was supposed to reprint Frederic Wertham’s notorious Seduction of the Innocent in 1996, annotated with notes from his biographer. Matthew Guest had an untitled book slated for Fantagraphics’ graphic novel line. It looks like the first third of it materialized in 1999 for the first and only issue of Kitchen Sink’s anthology Mona. Fantagraphics also planned a translation of Alberto Breccia’s Cthulhu Myths (which might eventually end up in their new Alberto Breccia Library series) and a Best of Arcade book with selections from the underground anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith.
Pressing On In ’96
By Tom Palmer Jr.
The small press isn’t so small anymore. If there’s one thing that became increasingly apparent in 1995, it’s that there’s a bigger audience out there for small press and alternative comics than anybody can imagine.
In the past, small press comics were generalized as shoddy, black-and-white comics that followed the trends of the mainstream companies. But various alternative comics of recent years have expanded to include the innovative black-and-white artwork of creators like Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte) and Seth (Palooka-Ville), as well as the lush production of Chris Ware‘s Acme Novelty Library and Peter Bagge‘s full-color Hate. The small press now has something to offer for everybody: realistic drama in Terry Moore‘s Strangers in Paradise, experimental works like Chester Brown‘s Underwater and Jim Woodring‘s Jim, highly original comics-journalism like Joe Sacco‘s Palestine and Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, and even super-heroes like Don Simpson‘s Bizarre Heroes and Jay Stephens‘ Atomic City Tales.
More and more creators are bringing their work to the small press. Established artists have been attracted to the freedom of experimentation the small press provides. Creators like Tyrant‘s Steve Bissette and Stray Bullets‘ David Lapham have taken their work in exciting new directions. Innovative new artists have also appeared on the scene with fully realized talent, like Paul Pope with THB, and Adrian Tomine with Optic Nerve.
People outside the industry have recognized the accessibility of non-mainstream comics. One of the most widely acclaimed movies of the summer was Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, a documentary based on the life and creations of legendary underground comics pioneer Robert Crumb. Aside from critical acclaim from The New Yorker and The New York Times, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Life Magazine‘s summer cover story on dreaming featured Rick Veitch’s dream-inspired Rare Bit Fiends. Peter Kuper‘s Give It Up!, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short stories, was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, and Kuper was featured as “Hot Comic Book Artist” in Rolling Stone‘s annual Hot List for 1995.
Comics from smaller publishers are also rapidly expanding into other media. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s chilling From Hell is set to make the jump to the big screen. An abundance of home pages for alternative comics have recently popped up on the World Wide Web. They range from a number of fan-based creations that spotlight Jeff Smith’s Bone, Dave Sim‘s Cerebus, and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez‘s Love & Rockets to slick presentations from publishers like Fantagraphics and Cat-Head.
The past year was full of exciting developments and fresh new faces, and 1996 will hopefully continue these trends. While some may fear that the future of comic books is uncertain, most believe that the medium itself will survive. Tales of the Beanworld creator (and consultant to Image Comics) Larry Marder says, “As long as there are people who create comics, and as long as there are people who read comics, there will always be comics.” In fact, many creators believe the sky’s the limit as far as the small press is concerned. Rare Bit Fiends creator Rick Veitch succinctly states, “We just might be moving into a Golden Age of alternative comics.”
Generally, the offerings from alternative companies and self-publishers for the upcoming year will probably further the trend towards diversity that was apparent in 1995. A growing number of creators who were once identified as strictly autobiographical artists, such as Palooka-Ville creator Seth, are taking the step into fictional stories. Other artists, like Chris Ware and The Biologic Show‘s Al Columbia, are attempting to expand the capabilities of comics as an artform by experimenting with new methods of storytelling and design.
One of the things that is vital to the survival of the small press is the emergence of strong new talents. Paul Pope, creator of THB, one of the big breakthrough comics of 1995, realizes this: “I definitely think there is a strong need for intelligent and painstaking artists to come forward with work that is highly personal and individualistic.” However, as Steve Bissette states, it can be very hard to spot the next big thing. “There’s no telling where it’s going to come from. That’s the beauty of breakthroughs; they sort of catch you upside the head. They’ve been in your peripheral vision and you didn’t really recognize they were there.”
There seems to be no shortage of new talent set to break through the market in 1996. Fans of offbeat superheroes like Madman are sure to flock to Jay Stephens’ Atomic City Tales from Kitchen Sink (as well as his Land of Nod series from Black Eye). Al Columbia’s disquieting and darkly humorous comics from his Peloria graphic novel and the continuation of The Biologic Show are sure to find a huge audience. Storytellers like Jason Lutes (Berlin), Tom Hart (The Sands), and Jon Lewis (Ghost Ship) have the potential to take the art of comics to a new level. Self-publishers like Charles Vess (The Book of Ballads and Sagas), Marc Hempel (TUG & buster), and Rob Walton (Ragmop) also seem to be ready for something big in the next year.
Even though it is impossible to predict what the new year will hold, part of the fun and excitement is seeing where comics will go next. Hopefully, the small press will continue to play an important part in shaping the future of comic books. Here’s a rundown on 1996’s part of that future, from several small press publishers.
Kitchen Sink Press
Kitchen Sink has a number of top-notch comics planned for the upcoming year. Some of the highlights include a series of graphic novels collecting Scott McCloud’s Zot!, the revival of two popular anthologies, Death Rattle and Snarf, and the resurrection of Will Eisner’s most famous creation, (most presumably The Spirit, but Kitchen Sink wouldn’t say), with different creators working with Eisner on new storylines. Other titles to watch for include:
The Crow: Deadtime—Crow creator James O’Barr supervises while other creators take their turn at his character with Deadtime, the first in a series of mini-series, featuring John Wagner writing, and newcomer Alex Maleev on art. Look for creators James Vance, Kyle Hotz and O’Barr himself on other mini-series.
Atomic City Tales—Jay Stephens brings his wacky superhero stories to Kitchen Sink this spring in a regular series (with breaks between story arcs).
Xenozoic Tales—Creator Mark Schultz will release a new issue of his popular series this year, and will launch a series of three mini-series at the end of the year featuring the work of other creators.
Drawn & Quarterly Publications
A number of Drawn & Quarterly’s popular creators will see their work collected in book format this year. Adrian Tomine’s rare minicomic work is collected in 32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Minicomics, which should be out for Christmas of 1995. Dirty Plotte‘s Julie Doucet collects some of her best dream stories for My Most Secret Desire, which will also feature new work (including eight pages in full color). The spring release of It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken collects Seth’s story of his search for a lost New Yorker cartoonist and presents his work in a two-color format. Also, by the end of the year, the first six issues of Joe Matt’s unflinching autobiographical Peep Show will be collected in full color.
Drawn & Quarterly will also publish work from a group of new creators in the coming year. The summer will see the launch of a series of square-format books, featuring complete stories from up-and-coming talent including mini-comic creator Ariel Bordeaux and Finnish cartoonist Penti Otsamo.
Many of Drawn & Quarterly’s regulars, including Chester Brown’s Underwater and Seth’s Palooka-Ville, will continue with new storylines. Some of the line will be upgraded in the fall of ’96: Issue #4 of Optic Nerve will be in partial full color, and Palooka-Ville will become two-color with issue #10.
1996 marks the 20th anniversary of Fantagraphics, and there are several big events planned. The biggest surprise is that Love & Rockets, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s pioneering alternative series, will end this spring with issue #50. Both creators will return in the summer with two all-new, separate series (both of which are currently untitled) in partial color. The birthday celebration will continue with a series of tours, each featuring a different pair of creators (possible match-ups include Los Bros Hernandez, Jim Woodring and Chris Ware, and Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes).
The biggest highlight on Fantagraphics’ schedule is its monthly series of new graphic novels profiling the work of promising new cartoonists. Some books to look for in the next few months include: Bob Fingerman‘s Minimum Wage, Ho Che Anderson‘s Young Hoods in Love, Carol Swain‘s Invasion of the Mind Sappers, Dave Cooper‘s Suckle: The Status of Basil, Renee French’s Another Peeled Frog, Al Columbia’s Peloria (featuring Pim & Francie), and Jeff Johnson’s Sad Brat, Bad Star.
Slave Labor Graphics and Amaze Ink
Slave Labor, along with its Amaze Ink imprint, is dedicated to publishing the work of exciting new cartoonists. Some of the new faces and comics to watch for include:
Replacement God—Zander Cannon‘s light-hearted fantasy series for Amaze Ink is already creating a buzz.
Johnny The Homicidal Maniac—Jhonen Vasquez is also quickly gaining wider recognition for this darkly humorous book.
Scarlet Thunder—This realistic examination of two superspeed characters from Amaze Ink looks to be a sleeper hit.
Ghost Ship—True Swamp creator Jon Lewis launches this new series that will feature characters from True Swamp as well as all-new characters in separate stories.
Little Mister Man—Acclaimed mini-comic sensation James Kochalka bursts out with this hilarious dysfunctional superhero story.
Black Eye Productions
Black Eye’s schedule looks very promising, considering the variety of highly personal comics it has on tap for 1996.
Berlin—Beginning in late spring, this ambitious series from acclaimed Jar of Fools creator Jason Lutes revolves around a journalist and an artist who meet on a train to Berlin.
Dear Julia—Brian Biggs presents this story of a man on the edge of his sanity. He believes he can fly, and intends to prove it while eight stories above a San Francisco street.
The Land of Nod—Jay Stephens returns to the humorous characters and storytelling that began his career with this quarterly series that begins in the spring.
Pickle—Dylan Horrocks continues his unusual exploration of New Zealand history and the comic book industry. A Pickle collection featuring previously unpublished material will be published this summer.
The Sands—New Hat‘s Tom Hart finally gets his own continuing series this spring. In the first storyline of the series, Hart tells the story of an older couple and the junk shop they run in a secluded desert town.
Some of the big names in self-publishing have some very exciting plans for the upcoming year.
SpiderBaby Grafix: Tyrant will be back on track in ’96, and creator Steve Bissette hopes to release four or five issues this year. Also look for SpiderBaby Comics, a series that will reprint all of Bissette’s creator-owned work.
King Hell Press: Following the release of Rabid Eye, the first collection of Rare Bit Fiends, Rick Veitch will serialize a new storyline, Crypto Zoo, which is drawn from dream diaries he wrote at the age of 20.
Horse Press: The prolific Paul Pope will release both THB A and THB B, collecting the main storyline in one trade paperback while presenting new material in the other. He also plans a comic magazine Buzz Buzz, and Super Trouble, a THB remix that will first see print from the publisher Kodansha in Japan.
Cartoon Books: The enormously successful Bone series will continue under the Image Comics banner, while Jeff Smith hopes to bring his creations to other media in the near future. The hardcover collections will also continue focusing on storylines, instead of representing the paperbacks.
Aardvark-Vanaheim: After the highly anticipated 200th issue of Cerebus, Dave Sim follows up with a new storyline, “Guys,” which might mark a return to the humorous stories of previous issues. Also, be on the lookout for a collection of the popular “Minds” storyline.
Tom Palmer Jr. isn’t really a sleaze. He just plays one on TV.