After “Palmer’s Picks” got the boot in Wizard #74, I wrote two more articles for the magazine that centered on indie comics. The first was this feature in Wizard #77 examining the future of the small press, specifically the large number of indie comics that were seeking refuge with bigger companies like Image Comics.
I had been involved in Wizard‘s year-end coverage since 1994 with special installments of “Palmer’s Picks,” so it was nice that this article was part of the extra-sized issue capping off 1997. And thanks to the subject matter, it can also be seen as a pseudo epilogue to the run of “Palmer’s Picks.” After all of the ups and downs in the comic book business throughout the ’90s, it made sense to examine if there really was any place left for a lot of the comics that were championed in the pages of my monthly column. And the “Small-Press Gems” sidebar was a nice opportunity to once again give some ink to a few deserving books, although this time I had to run my choices by Wizard editorial first. I was also instructed to write the blurbs like snappy elevator pitches, which explains why no creators are mentioned, with the exception of Jhonen Vasquez.
Since this was an article in Wizard, it had just enough depth to skim the surface of the topic at hand without being too boring for the casual reader. The editorial team at Wizard was attempting to make the magazine the comic nerd version of Entertainment Weekly (known for its bite-sized articles on all facets of popular culture) and Maxim (known for its crude humor and half-nekkid cover models), so that should come as no surprise. Looking back at the whole thing, it might have made sense to talk to a few of the lesser-known creators who were trying to survive in the tough market, or maybe even try to uncover the real reason why so many books were looking to jump to bigger companies. But I think an examination of the intricacies of comic book distribution would have really tested the attention span of the typical reader. All in all, it’s an entertaining read with some decent pull quotes.
It’s interesting to see how even back in the late ’90s, Image Comics was—knowingly or unknowingly—laying the groundwork for what the company would become today. The ideas expressed by Image partners Jim Valentino and Erik Larsen in this interview are arguably what helped the company adapt to a changing marketplace. I’m pretty sure if, instead of seeking out creators with something new to say, the two of them were just looking to add more superhero books to the Image roster, they would have never taken a chance on The Walking Dead or Saga.
Also of note is that this article illustrates how few options there were for an indie artist in the ’90s. It was pretty much self-publish your comic and distribute it through Diamond or luck out and get a small company to give you a chance. Today there are so many more ways for creators to been seen: web comics, small press festivals, the bookstore market. You young whippersnappers don’t know how good you got it!
A Small World?
With large publishers snatching up more and more independent titles, does the small press still exist?
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Imagine a motley crew of long-haired world-shaping sorcerers, talking robot guns and wise-cracking dinosaurs. Guests on the next “Oprah”? Nope. Marvel’s newest mutants? Sorry. They’re the stars of the latest wave of small-press books to make the jump to a larger publishing company.
What’s going on here? Even if you were the world’s greatest psychic, you’d never have predicted that Image Comics—the industry’s third largest publisher, known for its colorful high-profile superhero books—would count such diverse small-press books as the mystical fantasy Starchild, the political satire of Ragmop or the introspective autobiography of A Touch of Silver among its diverse line of comics.
And the trend isn’t just isolated to Image. Small-press company Caliber Comics picked up several self-published books like Dreamwalker and Patty Cake to form its creator-owned Tapestry imprint. Sirius Entertainment has increased its profile by recruiting a number of small-press books, giving titles like Poison Elves, Wandering Star, Poe and Sheba a chance to shine. And for fan-favorite comics like Bone and Strangers in Paradise, it’s a case of been there, done that—they’ve already made the jump to bigger waters at Image, only to recently return to their self-published roots, refreshed with higher visibility and sales.
It used to be easy to identify a small-press book (if it was black-and-white, and didn’t feature superheroes, chances are it came from the small press), although they were often hard to find in comic stores. Now these books are easier to find, and tend to look more like their higher-profile competition, complete with glossy covers. With Image and other companies helping the small-press find a higher profile, you have to wonder, what qualifies as a small press book these days? And is the small press, as we’ve come to know it, in danger of becoming extinct?
Changing Its Image
A few short years ago, small-press comics were the comic industry’s best-kept secret. Self-published comics like Dave Sim‘s Cerebus or Martin Wagner‘s Hepcats trudged along with little or no attention from the mainstream—only a small but loyal cult following kept them going. Small companies like Fantagraphics or Kitchen Sink Press gave cartoonists a chance to let loose, but with little or no financial reward. Most superhero fans ignored anything that wasn’t in color, and small-press books—being predominantly black-and-white—got lost on comic store shelves.
“There used to be a large number of stores that were completely out of touch with the industry,” Strangers in Paradise creator Terry Moore remembers. “It didn’t matter what your book was—if they didn’t know about it, they wouldn’t try it.”
Sure, Cerebus cultivated a growing following and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exploded onto the scene, spawning cartoons and toys. But neither of these two blips on the small-press radar really brought other small-press books to the forefront. That all changed in the early ’90s, when Jeff Smith‘s Bone hit it big. Here was a comic nobody had heard of, but through sheer word-of-mouth, this lighthearted fantasy adventure started racking up sales figures rivaling those of Marvel and DC titles. Suddenly, the small press was the place to be.
Bone‘s enormous success cast a huge spotlight on the rest of the small press, and it wasn’t long before the lines between the mainstream and the alternative crowd started to blend. Small-press creators like Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), Terry LaBan (Cud) and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) garnered some freelance work from Marvel, DC and Image, while Sim’s tenacious aardvark Cerebus actually popped up in an issue of Todd McFarlane’s high-selling Spawn.
With mainstream attention like this, it’s hard to figure out just what exactly qualifies as a small-press book nowadays. “I don’t think there’s a good definition of what a small-press book is,” says Brian Michael Bendis, creator of Jinx. “Is Bone a small-press book? It’s outselling some of the Marvel line! I think the way to tell if a book is part of the small press is to look at the intent of the creators. Are they trying to have a mainstream hit or are they just trying to do something for themselves?”
Others feel that the whole term of “small-press” is becoming obsolete. “Maybe the best way to describe a small-press book is to call it a personal book,” Moore proposes. “It’s personal as opposed to several guys sitting around trying to think of something that appeals to the masses.”
Things have certainly gotten more complicated now that mainstream companies like Image have started publishing small-press comics. Instead of giving books like Jinx or ESPers a boost of color to fit in with the rest of the company’s titles, Image has kept the books’ black-and-white format.
For Image co-founder Jim Valentino, the man behind Image’s new wave of non-superhero books, it’s okay that the new cousins of Spawn and WildC.A.T.s don’t sport vibrant hues. It gives the company a way to expand its offerings from the usual superhero fare. “I’m a big fan of superhero comics,” says Valentino, “but I love pizza too. I just don’t want to eat it every day.”
Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen, who took Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil under his wing, is also open to expanding the boundaries. When it came to bringing more books to Image, he didn’t care about color or popularity; he only had one thing in mind. “I just wanted to publish some good comics,” he says. “It didn’t matter that they were small-press books. If Image wants to survive, it has to diversify its line of books. Why shouldn’t we be doing comics people like?”
Small Fish In A Big Pond
With a big company like Image throwing its considerable muscle into the alternative ring, and more and more small-press creators popping up out of the woodwork, it seems the small press no longer lives up to its name.
“All you have to do is look at the market shares,” Doran proposes. “The alternative books—if you include Image’s black-and-white stuff and DC’s Vertigo line—is at least a quarter of the market. None of these comics sell big amounts, but there are a lot of them out there.”
If there’s one thing the small press’ growth has proven, it’s that fans are more receptive to trying new comics, no matter what they’re about or who publishes them. “Think about it,” Bendis says. “As a movie fan, do you care if a movie comes out from Paramount or Warner Bros.? Hell, no! If I bring Jinx to a bigger company, it only means that it gives me more of an audience and allows me to focus on the book more.”
With so many small-press titles floating about out there, however, this section of the market is starting to get a little crowded. New self-publishers keep pumping out books month after month, making it harder and harder for that one special comic to make its presence known. Many small-press creators even acknowledge that there’s a definite danger of oversaturating the market.
“There’s an awful lot of comics out there that shouldn’t be published because the overall quality is poor,” Larsen says. “Those kinds of books hurt the people who are doing black-and-white comics that are really good. Some people see these comics and write off all black-and-white comics as garbage, and that’s not true at all. It bothers me when there are good comics coming out that aren’t building any audience.”
Valentino also realizes that the small press is flooded. “Is there too much small-press stuff out there?” he asks. “I would counter that there are too many X-Men books. When I look at a comic, I look at craftsmanship in terms of idea and execution. There is just as much crap in the small press as there is in the mainstream. Its just your definition of crap that’s at question.”
While many creators share these concerns, some add that aspiring comic artists need a chance to grow. “Sure, there are a lot of hacks out there, but who are we to criticize them?” Moore asks. “I think they should have an environment to make small-press books: that’s what the arts is all about. I wish the business side was a little more supportive of avant garde material. The next thing you know, you’ve got the next Kurt Busiek or Mark Wald. You’ve got to give people enough time to grow up in the industry. It’s not good for an art medium to shoot people down in their first three or four attempts.”
Of course, just like everything else, it’s survival of the fittest in the small press. If you’re good, people will take notice. If you’re not, well…let’s just say you’ll find out pretty quickly. “The market will weed out the bad stuff,” Doran predicts. “Either the creators will push harder and the books will get better, or they’ll just go away.”
One of the biggest factors threatening the small press is the possibility of fan apathy. When a small-press book makes the leap to a bigger company, it runs the risk of alienating some die-hard fans. Once Bone and Strangers in Paradise joined Image (see “Jumping Ship” sidebar), they had to contend with readers saying they had “sold out” or that the quality of the comics would go down. The same thing has happened to the new group of Image books. While some fans have voiced their negative opinions, the creators have stood their ground. “Nobody’s sold out,” Bendis states. “When my fans first heard about Jinx being published by Image, they thought it was going to be in color, or I was going to have a WetWorks crossover. But when the book came out and it was just the same as before, they realized I was just trying to do better for myself. When R.E.M. and U2 went from big college-level rock to mainstream rock, their college audience said, ‘Screw you,’ but they did nothing but make better music.”
If sentiments of selling out don’t break the small press down, some think a gradual breaking up of the partnerships and friendships that previously existed will. The small press used to be almost a family unto itself, with each member struggling to keep his book aloft while extending a helping hand to another creator in need. Apparently, those times have changed. “I don’t see the buddy system that used to be there,” Moore says. “I think that the small press is divided and conquered. The books and the creators seem more like islands; they’re all on their own and it’s sink or swim by yourself.”
Doran acknowledges that it’s been hard for the small press to stay together from time to time, but she feels things are okay now. “A few years ago, people thought that you had to self-publish or else you weren’t truly one of the faithful,” she says. “But I don’t see any of that lately. People are just happy to hear that you’re surviving and your book is still around.”
With so many obstacles in the way, the future of the small press as we knew it is a little shaky. There’s the threat of overcrowdedness, making it difficult for certain books to get the recognition they deserve. Not to mention the sheer amount of sub-par books, which can easily turn readers off to the whole small-press community. But enough people are confident that there will always be room for personal comics amongst the mainstream. “I think they’ll still be around,” Larsen says. “The people who do these books are so incredibly committed to getting the word out there. They are the people who truly love comics more than anything else.”
In the immediate future, though, small-press creators are just working on creating a better place for their books. “It’s my hope that people will feel less like drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘I like this kind of stuff and I don’t like anything else,” Smith says. “It’s the best of times and the worst of times right now for the small press.
“There’s definitely a feeling of acceptance toward small-press books by the general comics community at large than there ever has been. But I also think it’s that much harder to get people to risk spending their money on your book. Readers just need to take a chance and check out a lot of the great stuff the small press has to offer.”
Tom Palmer Jr., assistant editor for Wizard’s sister magazine ToyFare: The Toy Magazine, can press about 12 pounds. That’s pretty small, ain’t it?
Everywhere you turn nowadays, there’s news of some small-press creator seeking refuge at Image, but for Jeff Smith and Terry Moore the trend is yesterday’s news. They’ve already played among the big boys, only to recently return to their self-publishing roots.
For Smith, taking the mega-popular Bone to Image Comics over two years ago provided an opportunity to try something new. “It was like taking your guitar and plugging it in,” he recalls. “It was an experiment, and it definitely worked out in the end.” According to Smith, he was able to increase his profile with the Image “I” on his cover and ensure that the Bone story got told at a time when the industry’s future was uncertain.
It was a similar story for Terry Moore, who moved his fan-favorite Strangers in Paradise to Jim Lee’s Homage Comics line in ’96. “My readership can only grow so much as an independent book,” Moore says. “Anything Jim Lee prints goes into every store in the world, so if anybody could have helped me bust the ceiling that independent books have, he could. I’ve had tremendous response from people who never tried Strangers in Paradise until it became an Homage book and now they’ve been won over. I count that as a real success.”
While it may have shocked a few people when Bone and Strangers in Paradise joined Image, many were just as surprised when Smith and Moore announced they’d be returning to self-publishing. Being in complete control of their books was the main reason for the publishing switch. “Publishing Bone myself was just as much of my identity as the actual comic book,” Smith admits. “I think other people knew that just as much as I did. When I went back to Cartoon Books, there was this wave of goodwill directed towards me. People really like that I’m doing it myself again.”
Wizard’s Top Five Small-Press Books You Should Be Reading
Bacchus: What happens when all the ancient Greek gods get old and die? That’s the question posed by Eddie Campbell Comics’ long-running Bacchus series. Set in modern times, it features Bacchus, the salty, old god of wine, as he sets off on globe-trotting adventures, or simply passes the time telling stories to a captive audience in some seedy bar. Grab on to this satirical Bacchus before last call.
Black Hole: Think you’ve got it bad with zits and trying to fit in with the “cool” crowd? If only the teens in Fantagraphics’ Black Hole had those kinds of problems. Ya see, there’s this nasty, mysterious plague going around that disfigures teens or turns them into horrible monsters. The crisp artwork helps tell this bizarre horror story/sick-and-twisted romance comic. Think “Beverly Hills, 90210” meets “Outbreak.”
Mister Blank: Who do you trust? For mild-mannered Sam Smith, that’s a tough question to answer. Should he follow the bizarre Doctor Ixcel or the mysterious Mr. Locke, head of the faceless corporation N Industries, where Sam works? Our hero’s got zero time to figure things out, as he’s quickly thrust into the middle of a loony adventure. You’ll have little time to catch your breath from the non-stop action in Amaze Ink’s Mister Blank.
Scud: Wimps like the Punisher and Boba Fett have got nothin’ on Scud. Y’see, Scud’s part of a series of robot assassins set to self-destruct upon killing their original programmed targets. But after seriously wounding his initial prey, Scud realized he didn’t want to die. So the lovable killer became a freelance assassin, earning dough to keep his original target alive in the hospital. Nothing can top the fast-paced, mad-cap cartoon violence of Fireman Press’ Scud.
Squee: Remember all the really weird stuff that went through your head when you were a kid? Well, Jhonen Vasquez, creator of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, does and he’s packed it all into Slave Labor Graphics‘ Squee, his new book that features the misadventures of the big-eyed, manic title character. This one’s got it all: bloodthirsty grandparents who want to kill their grandkids, the demonic Tickle Me Hellmo doll and strange, grunting men in overflowing public toilets.