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VS.! - Independent Comic Books

Written by Jude Terror on Friday, June 08 2012 and posted in Features
VS.! - Independent Comic Books

Outhouse writers ElijahSnowFan and Royal Nonesuch discuss all things indie in this edition of VS.!!

VS.! is a new column on The Outhouse that takes one trending topic, two comic book fans, and six statements about that topic, throws them all together, and finds out how everyone really feels!

The rules are simple. Your host, intrepid reporter Jude Terror, will make six statements about the topic of the day. Each participant will answer whether they believe the statement to be true or false, and explain why. The first participant will speak first on the first three statements, last for the last three.

At the end, we will tally up the number of times the participants agreed with each other. Then we will take it to the forums, where everyone will get a chance to chime in.

Hello ladies, I'm your host, Marvel Zombie and independent ignoramus, Jude Terror!

This week, two Outhouse writers are joining us. The first, ElijahSnowFan, is a columnist here on the Outhouse who writes what is usually an uplifting journal about his love of comics, Five Things I Think I Know. ESF recently had a lot to say about independent comics on the forums, so I invited him to VS.! to have a chance to definitively give his thoughts on the matter.

Our second guest is a man who got drunk and banged a promiscuous lesbian at my wedding, Royal Nonesuch! Royal is a longtime Outhouse contributor who currently holds the title of Senior Media Correspondent. He's written a ton of reviews of indie books, as well as movies and television shows.

This week, we have a third guest in spirit, because the idea for this topic and all six of the statements were created by one of last week's participants, GHERU. That topic, of course, is independent comic books, and I hope you're settled in because this is a long one.

One final note before we get started - as your host, it is my job to decide, after reading the answers, whether the guests have reached a consensus or not. Many times, this is not as easy as you might think, as the answer to "is this statement true or false" tends, a lot of the time, to be "a little bit of both." These guys took that to the next level. So while the words below are those of the guests, the prognosis is entirely mine, so send that hate mail my way.

And now, without any further ado, our first statement...

1. Any book not published by Marvel or DC is an independent book.

ElijahSnowFan: If I had been asked this question before 1992, I likely would've answered "true." While Dark Horse, for instance, existed before then, it is fair to say that they weren't exactly cultivating audiences with the main driver of this industry: superheroes. It's not a crime to say that, either. Superheroes have a special place in the fabric of this industry, with people who want to believe that a man can fly. I do believe there is no quicker way to make a killing in this medium than coming up with a superhero who the mainstream can embrace.

So while Dark Horse, meanwhile, certainly has a mission statement about how it operates and what it publishes, I absolutely was dubious about the shelf life of a company without a superhero line -- and clearly, they were, too, when they launched Comics' Greatest World, a superhero line which featured a very good character in Ghost and other nice concepts, in the early '90s.

The problem? That line lasted maybe three years. But... Dark Horse kept on keeping on. And no one can deny them their successes in converting publications into products that the mainstream masses could see, from The Mask to Sin City to Hellboy.

My answer now: "false, depending on the company publishing it." After 1992's formation of Image and their subsequent growing pains, I think it is absolutely fair to say that Image and Dark Horse, as well as IDW to a lesser degree, are full-service publishing operations. Creator-owned and licensed properties obviously make up the bulk of the work of these companies, but shifting times makes that no longer the concern that would have been 30 years ago -- publishers, creators and the license grantors can all profit.

Bottom line: I simply refuse to refer to companies that publish iconic characters and concepts like Star Wars, Star Trek, Conan, and GI Joe, $100 million movie properties like Hellboy and Sin City, and critical television darling The Walking Dead as "independent." That would be ridiculous. These are full-on publishers with strengths and weaknesses, same as Marvel and DC.

Verdict: False

Royal Nonesuch: Books like The Walking Dead, Sin City, and Hellboy absolutely are independent comic books because they are still the singular vision of a creator or a team of creators. That's really the litmus test of whether something is truly independent or not: how much oversight (not brought in by the creators themselves) there is, and who owns the property. The fact that they've been adapted into financially successful multimedia doesn't change that fact.

To get back to the original question, a comic can be published by neither of the Big Two and still not be independent.

Verdict: False

Consensus: Yes

2. There is a large audience for independent books that does not read Marvel or DC books.

ElijahSnowFan: That's an interesting question, and a tough one without me having any kind of sales numbers. Yes, I realize that there is an obvious answer, a short answer, which is likely "false." If a person chooses to parse words, maybe take the easy way out in answering this question, I could pin that answer on the fact that nearly everyone in this industry reads something, even if it is just one book, from Marvel or DC.

But one thing: I don't think that has to necessarily be the case. Star Wars and Star Trek are properties with followings every bit as large and devoted as readers of Marvel and DC books. There is obvious cross-pollination between fans and properties such as those and the Big Two, but it wouldn't necessarily surprise me to see that a Star Wars fanatic, someone who loves sci-fi, had little-to-no interest in Batman or Deathstroke and consequently didn't particularly care for DC's offerings, for example.

Here's my thing: You can do things to increase your audience size, the first of which is ensuring that people understand what you are doing with the properties and then, most importantly, ensure that you are telling good stories with the properties that increase the connection with the property.

An example: I'm not a devoted follower of Star Wars. Enjoyed the films, maybe checked out a book or two over the last 35 years, but certainly nothing serious. If George Lucas hadn't authorized the prequel trilogy, I likely wouldn't have given the franchise a second thought as time passed.

But when they did, my interest was renewed to the degree where I did buy Star Wars: The Old Republic, for PC. Loved it. Bought the sequel, as well. Enjoyed it, too.

But for those who had played those games and are OCD like me -- and I know those people are out there -- I was always bothered by this nagging question: "What the hell ever happened to Revan?"

And for years, I would periodically check around and see if that question ever got answered.

So make no mistake: When they published Revan last year as a book, I bought it the very first day. I sure as hell wasn't the only one. I would've bought that as a comic book. A graphic novel. A web comic. An audio book. A Direct-to-DVD offering. I didn't give a damn. I HAD TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO REVAN.

So again: Audience size is what you make it. It starts with telling compelling stories about characters. It will always start there.

Verdict: True

Royal Nonesuch: It's tough to say without access to (or inclination to search for) hard, raw sales data how large the market is, but there is definitely a section of comic book readers who do not read anything by Marvel or DC. These are people with no long-running affection for the major superhero franchises, but who read comics the same way everyone reads books. They're interested in the specific creative vision presented by the work. They see comics as another medium for expression, not as a delivery system for trademarked characters.

Verdict: True

Consensus: Yes

3. There is a strong enough market for comic books that if Marvel and DC decided to stop publishing comics, the industry would survive and even thrive without a long period of depression.

ElijahSnowFan: I think that is absolutely true. Maybe some might want to argue what the definition of "long period" is, and I'm not saying that the distribution method would be floppies. (Editor's Note: "Floppies" is a slang term for single issue comic books.)

But I do think, for many of the reasons I have listed, that there is an obvious market for sequential storytelling of characters in fictional universes. That is obvious. No one in their right mind can argue that there isn't an OBVIOUS demand for sequential storytelling with compelling characters, even if the stories have a definite beginning, middle and end, like Watchmen... wait, what? DC's doing what with who? Does Alan Moore know about this?

Verdict: True

Royal Nonesuch: The way the industry is set up right now is that the market needs Marvel and DC to survive. They're the two behemoths that keep the direct market, and, by extension, Diamond Distribution alive, and Diamond in turn keeps Marvel and DC afloat. It's a continuous feedback loop that the industry got stuck in a couple of decades ago, and has gotten comfortable with, and have done well with (if you can refer to struggling to reach 100,000 people in a retail distribution scheme that specifically caters to your product as "doing well.")

The good news is that it doesn't need to stay that way. The internet has just about forced comics to look into alternate distribution methods. Some publishers, such as Fantagraphics (as well as individual creators) were never direct market darlings, nor will they ever be, but have thrived nonetheless. The fact is, people want to read comic books, but many of them don't know it. It's a medium that's very open and very easy to figure out.

The reason more people don't read comics is that they don't know that there's something being published that will resonate with them. Comics (rightly) have the image of being nerdy, adolescent power fantasies, but if people who like relationship drama or mind-bending science fiction (or some combination thereof) aren't interested in that kind of thing, where do they go? Comics won't be saved by the superhero companies, no matter how many gay and biracial characters they feature (and loudly tell the world they feature). People need to be made aware of the entire spectrum of storytelling modes the industry is publishing. It does appear that a younger, hipper, more pop-culture savvy generation is receiving this message. Part of it wants corporate superheroes, and part of it doesn't.

If Marvel and DC decide to pull out, for whatever reason, then the industry would have to figure out how to survive. No longer being dependent on those two giants would force it to adapt. That could yield fascinating results, and it's conceivable that the comics ecosystem would flourish, albeit in a very different form.

Verdict: True

Consensus: Yes


4. It is reasonable to consider licensed properties -- Buffy, Star Wars, CSI, GI Joe, Transformers, ect -- "independent".

Royal Nonesuch: It's hard to refer to anything as being "independent" if there's a giant corporate overlord asserting itself into its creation. Whether it's a multimedia conglomerate, a video game company, or a toy manufacturer, licensed properties in comics will have someone looking over the shoulder of creators just as much, if not more so, than corporate superhero comics. Story approval, character likenesses, and even advertising have to go through a higher authority. Granted, there are varying degrees to this kind of thing -- Joss Whedon is probably a lot closer to the Buffy comics than George Lucas is to the Star Wars publishing, and do Ann Donahue and Anthony E. Zuiker even know that there are CSI comics? -- but while there's someone else who can tell you "yes" or "no" or "try again, that doesn't meet with our vision for the property," then how independent are you, really?

The fact is, "independent" is not a synonym for "not Marvel or DC." When a comic has to submit to some level of oversight from a (usually publicly-traded) rights holder, then nope. Not independent. In fact, licensed properties occupy a similar space to Marvel and DC's superheroes. They're really created to cash in on long-running interest in their characters and concepts. That doesn't mean that they aren't or couldn't be good, well-crafted pieces of entertainment, but corporate oversight is corporate oversight.

Let's take this one step further. What of Todd MacFarlane's Spawn or Rob Liefeld's comics? Or Alan Moore's America's Best Comics? In these cases, the rights to the properties are held by individuals who hire creators to work on them. That's the very reason they are "independent" comics, as they're not under corporate control, but they're also work-for-hire. "Work-for-hire" doesn't necessarily mean "working for Marvel or DC."

Verdict: False

ElijahSnowFan: I agree with this opinion, and truthfully, that last paragraph is one of the clearest explanations of comics today that I've seen in a while. There's nothing wrong with this, but Spawn hasn't been independent for years, from the second Todd McFarlane left the book. It's been a work-for-hire franchise, which by my definition of independent -- you own it, create it and control the direction -- means that Spawn hasn't been independent for awhile.

Again, there's nothing wrong with that. Oversight, protection of a property, is absolutely not the worst thing in the world. There's a great deal to be said for things like consistency in character, coherence in storyline and plot, and outcomes that serve to position and advance a property going forward.

For example, say Todd McFarlane decided to end Spawn after his initial run. Then he considers hiring Creator X to do it, and Creator X's pitch has Spawn returning as a mutant Buddhist who dispenses wisdom to mountain climbers in Tibet. For 50 issues. And McFarlane says, "Why, yes, that's interesting...but I'm sorry, that's not quite what I'm looking for. I do appreciate your take on the character though."

In other words, "independent" is not only not a synonym for "not Marvel or DC." It also means "taking responsibility for the property you created and own, ensuring that, should you choose to do so, stories can be told with the property going forward that you are comfortable with, if you aren't creating them."

Verdict: False

Consensus: Yes

5. The direct market, which many blame for the decline of the comics industry, has hurt independent creators.

Royal Nonesuch: It's hard to determine using anything other than anecdotal evidence. While the common perception of the comic book specialty shop is of a place that needs to carry only or mostly the long-running behemoths of the superhero world lest they go out of business, there are certainly good-sized shops that will have a lot for the independent reader. The fact is, independent creators have a lot of avenues they can pursue to get their work out there. Companies like Image and Dark Horse, bolstered by such successes as The Walking Dead and Hellboy, respectively, command a good amount of shelf space, but creators like Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine may not get much traction in there. They seem to do fine, though.

There's a little thing called the internet, which brings with it such a phenomenon as online previews and ordering. It's made it easier for a customer to order collections of Love and Rockets, which, by the way, has been running, in some form, for thirty years with little support from the direct market, directly from Fantagraphics if they so choose. The comics press may not be as diligent about covering the independent scene as it could be, but word of mouth is persistent and carries a lot of weight. Recommendations are easy to find, and, since a lot of independent creators can present their work as webcomics (which are only picking up more and more steam – Kate Beaton and Anders Nilsen scored pretty big successes last year by collecting material originally published on their websites), the internet makes sure an independent creator can get the word out about what they're up to. Aside from all this, the bookstore market seems to be a lot more receptive to more literate works published by Drawn + Quarterly and Top Shelf Comix than the direct market is.

The direct market may not help independent creators, but it doesn't necessarily hurt them either. So... maybe?

Verdict: Maybe

ElijahSnowFan: I think the answer to that is "no more so than if the direct market didn't exist at all."

Look at it this way: Love and Rockets wouldn't be on any spinner racks, right? (Editor's note: "Spinner Racks" is a slang term for comic book displays in civilian marketplaces.)

What I find at times is that there are maybe a few too many excuses for lack of "whatever" in today's world. Sites like The Outhouse and Newsarama and IGN didn't exist 20 years ago. You can so much more easily promote your work than before. There are ways now to get your work out there and get noticed. If you truly believe you have a product worth reading, then you will create it and you will find a way to get it read.

Then, the market will decide. The market doesn't help or hurt. The work, a creator's ability to promote it, to convey what you're trying to do, is the ultimate determinant of success. I've got a trade paperback of Chew sitting not 10 feet from me. It's sitting there because I bought it, and the premise is clearly one that is different, that is independent in the thought process. I got that through the direct market, same as I got an X-Men book that same day.

Verdict: Maybe

Consensus: Yes

6. Consumers who only read independent books are snobs and, conversely, people who only read Marvel and DC are mindless drones.

Royal Nonesuch: No to the first, and yes to the second.

Just kidding. Maybe. Who knows?

There is an unfortunate divide between the two "worlds." A lot of readers of independent comics started out as readers of Marvel and DC. Although (again, anecdotally) sometimes it does feel like there's more close-mindedness towards independent comics on the part of the Big Two reader. To paint with a giant, overly simplistic brush, Marvel and DC readers like their long-running franchises and will stick by them, even when they're not enjoying a particular run, out of a sense of "completeness," which is ironic considering those comics are never going to actually be complete in their lifetimes. A lot of times, these readers aren't so much interested in comics as a medium, so much as they are interested in that place where they can find Green Lantern and The Fantastic Four. Marvel and DC have pretty much dominated the thinking of a lot of the fans of the direct market-supported superhero properties, but those readers are open to other pieces of genre entertainment in comics, such as The Walking Dead, Invincible, and Hellboy. Still, how many Justice League readers will also check out the latest journalistic offering by Joe Sacco?

By the same token, how many Craig Thompson fans are rushing to the comics shop on Wednesday to grab the newest issue of Daredevil? There are a lot of fans of independent comics who started with independent comics, rather than get interested in them because they started out as superhero readers and wanted to see what else is out there. So are these fans who don't go near the Big Two "snobs?"

The fact is, "superhero" is a genre, one that descended from boys adventure and pulp fiction in the early part of the twentieth century, and which synthesizes a lot of other influences to create something that stands on its own. The fact that it dominates the industry is a problem for people who don't particularly care about all that. Not everyone wants to read every genre. Readers who enjoy the ennui of Optic Nerve or the surreal humor of Peter Bagge may not care much about superheroes. They also may not care about horror or science fiction. Does that make them "snobs?" No. It makes them people with a particular preference in the type of story they want to read. More to the point, they want singular stories, not constructs designed mostly with the purpose of keeping trademarks in the control of a corporate entity (and if they're good, hey, all the better).

Back to Big Two readers being "mindless drones:" the answer is yes, they are. Just kidding again. But (and this goes for everyone, regardless of what they read) why would anyone want to limit themselves to only one type of storytelling? Nobody watches only one type of film or television, do they? It's telling that some of the most acclaimed stories to have come from this milieu, such as Watchmen or Frank Miller's Born Again storyline in Daredevil, are hailed for being great due to the fact that they subvert or transcend that genre.

But let's address the premise of this question: Are there really any comic book readers left who only read Marvel and DC and nothing else? That's hard to believe. If superheroes are what people want, there are certainly superhero stories that aren't being published by Marvel and DC. One would assume that, if this type of comics reader does exist, they're the type characterized before: ones who care more about the familiarity of particular franchises than about the medium of comics. People are free to enjoy what they want, but it's honestly hard to believe anyone over the age of eighteen approaching comics this way. So, does this really happen? There are definitely comics readers who aren't interested in anything published by Marvel or DC, but are there really fans of those companies who never touch anything not put out by them?

(Editor's note - I had to skype with Royal Nonesuch and ask him to directly tell me whether he thought the statement was true or false, lest I mark it as "Who the fuck knows?" Royal told me the verdict was "Sure, why not?")

Verdict: Maybe

ElijahSnowFan: I love this question in the regard that it says a lot about people in how they answer it. (Editor's note: for instance, Royal's answer says that he was drunk.)

People love to attach descriptions to other people, and I loathe that aspect of society. Unfortunately, over the years there have been some examples of people who think that not reading Marvel and DC gets them some kind of Independent Merit Badge of Honor, or only reading Marvel and DC gives you a divine right to their properties.

Bottom line: They're all just comic books. Some good, some bad, some average. Just because a book is independent doesn't mean it's good. Just because a book has been published since the 1940s or the 1960s doesn't mean it services the mindless.

This medium has something for everybody. EVERYBODY. There are good runs and bad runs, horrific and exceptional takes on characters. But even if a book or creator or run is generally loved or hated, you will always find someone who feels differently about it.

That's what makes this industry great. You don't have to read just one thing and interpret it the same way as other people. If I've participated in a thread on The Outhouse Forums, especially if I started it, I tend to read every single response. I don't always agree with the responses, and sometimes there are Internet Slap Fights. But it's the difference of opinion and the opportunity to learn and understand different viewpoints, that make this industry great.

It's not that Batman is the greatest character ever. It's the fact that people are passionate about the character. People CARE. You can see how the character impacts other people, and interacting with people, even on the Internet, is still the best thing about being a human being.

So I think the answer to the question is this: If you are an independent snob, or if you only read Marvel and DC, you have absolutely missed out on some great comics in your reading. You have. You can take that for what it's worth. But in an industry where good stories aren't always easy to come by, keeping an open mind about books and concepts is the only way to survive for long.

Verdict: Maybe

Consensus: Yes

Final Score: 6 out of 6

Well, there you have it! Our guests reached consensus six out of six times, even if that consensus was that they refused to give me a definitive true or false answer. What are your thoughts, dear reader? Won't you join us on the forums or comment below?

Written or Contributed by: Jude Terror

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About the Author - Jude Terror

Jude Terror is the Webmaster Supreme of The Outhouse and a sarcastic ace reporter dedicated to delivering irreverent comics and entertainment news to The Outhouse's dozens of loyal readers. Driven by a quest for vengeance, Jude Terror taught himself to program and joined The Outhouse. He instantly began working toward his goal of forcing the internet comics community to take itself less seriously and failing miserably. A certified trash eater ruining the pristine field of comics journalism with his sarcasm and goofiness, Jude Terror is secretly friendly and congenial, so if you've got a complaint, why not just bring it up to him instead of subtweeting like a jackass, jackass? You can find him on Twitter or try your luck with an email, but keep in mind that he is notoriously unreliable and may not get back to you right away. Unless you want to send him free stuff, in which case he'll get back to you immediately.

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