Some of the most interesting and liveliest art in mainstream superhero comics have come from of an indie army of alt stars, web darlings, and aspiring cartoonists whose unique thumbprints have yet to be molded by a house style. It’s a pleasant thing, this crossover of sensibilities, and a lot of the times it comes with a sense of humor, but it doesn’t come free from tension. Despite what the comic book cognoscenti will have you believe, “mainstream” and “indie” are two very different camps with opposing sets of rules, further divided by splinter groups. You may think these outmoded terms, especially in our age of such diversity, but to not admit that the world of American comics is split in two is just delusion dressed up as optimism.
Before this dovetails into a discussion about what is and what isn’t, allow me a few brief examples: Hellboy, Grendel and Nexus are all aesthetically mainstream looking, despite their independent and creator owned roots. They can easily fit into the Marvel line up as opposed to something like Boiled Angel or Grit Bath or anything from Fort Thunder. The world of comics has gotten pretty expansive in the past decade, but there remain the two dominant categories in which all of it is shuffled under. So if it seems as if I’m analyzing the issue with broad stokes, it’s because comics still identify themselves in the same way.
I don’t need to further explain the minutia of what makes both camps incomparable, but the fundamental differences are their respective visual expectations and editorial mechanisms. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, I’m just saying that it simply is. The last thing I want to do is to promote the rift. Instead, I’m here to point the rift out in order to celebrate the rare occasion when it is bridged.
Plastic Man started it. This was the first superhero comic that, back in 1941, had humor as a main ingredient combined with straight up super heroics. Most of it was slapstick by nature, which suited Jack Cole’s style perfectly, and it still retained a sense of adventure that featured a character with more personality than the entire National Publications line combined.
Then there was Harvey Kurtzman, the man who gave comics a satiric voice through the pages of MAD in the 50s. For that alone we should be thankful, as one of Kurtzman’s strengths was humor, but we should not forget his narrative verve and his “truth in writing” philosophy. When it came to MAD, though, superheroes were just another subject to be made fun of, a fairly easy and sterile target at that point, but one that yielded funny results under Kurtzman’s direction.
It wasn't until Marvel Comics came along, when Stan Lee made Jack Kirby’s monsters depressed and Steve Ditko’s teenagers neurotic, that superheroes got deeper, ironic, and actually pretty funny. I understand that the people at the DC offices looked down on Marvel and yet were perplexed by their ever-increasing popularity.
Lee kept his comical, pseudo-Shakespearean tone during the tail end of the 60s, but Marvel quickly turned inward, angst ridden, and formulaic. Not Brand Echh, Marvel’s MAD knock-off, was the only place they attempted to developed a funny bone. The occasional Kirby or Marie Severin piece was worth the read, but it didn’t have the spark that MAD displayed on its worst day. Discounting Howard the Duck, Marvel didn’t have a “humor” book until What The--?! during the late 80s, but reading that title is like watching a comedian deliver in-jokes to himself all night. It’s made worse if you actually get the references.
It’s worth noting that Kurtzman had his own project at Marvel/Epic called Strange Adventures back in 1990. This modest effort lampooned several genres to varying degrees of success, but it definitely utilized a set of artists that otherwise wouldn’t have worked for Marvel, such as William Stout and Robert Crumb.
The undergrounds and the alternatives are largely defined, but not limited to its levels of humor. And yet, they never flirted with the idea of crossing over, which was probably based more on disinterest on their part than anything else. Can you imagine how great a Punisher story by Spain would be?
Mainstream comics had their blips of art weirdos throughout time, but even guys like Mark Badger or Kevin O’Neill were too well versed in the superhero language to represent the avant-garde. When you talk about true blue alternative folks drawing capes for cash, there simply wasn’t any room or time for that kind of comic. Chester Brown, Mark Beyer and Kaz were too busy staking claim in their own territories to fuck around with the Doom Patrol. The closest you were ever gonna get was if Jaime Hernandez did a spot illustration for The Comics Journal.
This brings me to the clearest point of origin of the unholy indie/superhero marriage, Coober Skeber #2 from 1997. Edited by Tom Devlin, this unauthorized anthology was a portent of things to come. Marvel tried to put the kibosh on the book through legal means, but it didn’t stop it from circulating. Free from editorial restriction, and with contributors like Mat Brinkman and Ron Rege Jr., Coober Skeeber #2 is the prototype for this kind of material. It remains a milestone in its carefree but focused enthusiasm.
One of the stories from Coober Skeber was James Kochalka’s “Hulk vs. Rain”. This story caught the eye of writer Kurt Busiek, who showed it to Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, who then ran it in the Incredible Hulk 2001 Annual. I’m not sure why it took four years to get it colored and reprinted, but I remember it being pretty funny to see this 4 pager in the back of an actual Marvel comic.
Before Marvel fans at large saw Kochalka’s wuvable Hulk fighting the rain, DC fans got a little taste a year before thanks to Evan Dorkin’s World’s Funnest, Nov. 2000. This epic battle of the gods was a good enough excuse to get David Mazzucchelli drawing superheroes again and Frank Miller drawing Batman after a decade long hiatus. More importantly, and more along the lines of Strange Adventures, Jaime Hernandez and Jim Woodring were brought into the fold.
In the same year, Marvel let Peter Milligan and Mike Allred take over X-Force. By 2002, Peter Bagge was given an entire issue’s worth of whatever he wanted to do with Spider-Man. Dean Haspiel drew for Spider-Man: Tangled Web, Muties, and X-Men Unlimited. Haspiel and Dorkin even collaborated on a Thing mini-series. Something was going on. Was it possible for the underdogs to break through and make decent livings drawing superheroes on the side? This seemed like a good, natural step in making comics fun again, or at least more varied.
DC Comics had their own official collection of novelty acts in the form of Bizarro Comics. It was pretty alarming to see the names Sam Henderson, Danny Hellman and Ivan Brunetti in a DC line up. These stories were enjoyable, but by the second edition in ’05, Bizarro World, the concept’s delivery proved to be underwhelming. Both volumes suffered from a sense of restriction, probably due to the DC policy that doesn’t allow creators to write and draw their own stories unless the creators are incorporated. The tag-team feel of those books seemed arbitrarily fun at first, but it mostly worked against the promise of the book. Dave Cooper and Tony Millionaire should just be left to write their own stories is the point I'm trying to make.
That’s one of the inherent drawback of these things. What’s the point for these artists to be allowed to roam this territory if they can’t be themselves while doing so? The biggest criticism of this entire trend is precisely that: if these guys are asked to whip up something different looking, doesn’t a heavy editorial policy undermine their perceived value? Results and conditions may vary, but then why not get top grade talent to work on c-list characters under the company’s “adult” line under minimal restraint? Put Jason T. Miles on Dr. Fate, have Michael DeForge take apart Alpha Flight, let Lauren Weinstein revive Atari Force. Both sides of the fence deal in the ridiculous already, so why not grab these quaint ideas and take them further?
What we have here is a generation that grew up reading everything, absorbing all sorts of things at a rapid pace. That is what’s at the heart of this new trend. We all just love things and stuff, so it makes sense to mix those things up and see what sticks.
Back to the countdown. Next up is Project: Superior and its subsequent Superior Showcase series. In the wake of Bizarro, this book pretty much showed them how it’s done. At the prompting of Haspiel, co-editor/publisher Chris Pitzer curated this anthology with superheroes as the theme (additionally, Scott Morse was pulled in as third editor). Creators were allowed to do whatever they wanted and even thought the results are 70/30, its heart was in the right place. Curiously, Pitzer hasn’t gone back to print for the sold out and in-demand anthology, probably assuming that the contributors would reprint their stories elsewhere. This hasn’t been the case, which only makes the book all the more special (and the perfect opportunity for Ebay prices to skyrocket).
Currently we have Marvel’s Strange Tales series, est. 2009. It took several years and a handful of editors to bring these stories to fruition, but the results were worth the wait. Nick Gurewitch, Kate Beaton and Nick Bertozzi delivered the goods.
You may not get to see Johnny Ryan really let loose Prison Pit style, but you still get to see Johnny Ryan do something at Marvel. You may complain that Strange Tales didn’t feature Kevin Huizenga’s masterpiece, but at least he produced a fun little story that got him paid and gave him a bit more exposure. You can’t pay the rent with that last one, but it may’ve been worth it if a single Marvel Zombie went away being mildly curious about Ganges.
Corporate entities don’t have to allow this kind of work to occur and yet they’ve been letting it happen with more and more frequency. Is it good for business to have Wolverine be a crybaby who stuffs his face with hot dogs? I don’t think it matters and I’m not going to pretend like I know the answer to that one, but it at least offers something a little different and it employs these creators.
As a fan of the combination I’ve been talking about, I was driven to amass and edit the recent Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies collection. Editing that book was a terrific opportunity to not only work with characters I’ve enjoyed since childhood, but to work with many of my esteemed peers. Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen was kind enough to let us run hog wild with his characters. The overall results were fun and the contributors gave some of their best work to date. As the project was coming to an end, though, I felt a pang of guilt for having asked these busy, hardworking people to produce free work. How dare I? Just because I was used to giving away my content on the web for years, and most of them have as well, doesn’t make it kosher. I’ll make myself clear: Image Comics, the book’s publisher, has a royalties-based deal, meaning that there is no page rate and no up front money. Royalties were never really expected since the material originally ran as back up features and a collection wasn’t in the original plan. We all understood that deal and if anything, creators were always free to sell original art or sell their comps. Still, I couldn’t help but awkwardly feel that I had somehow contributed to the increasingly common industry-wide habit of Work-For-Free.
This raises an important issue, particularly for struggling indie set: cartoonists working for free with exposure as currency and the grooming of a hypothetical audience as a promise. This may be fine for younger cartoonists who are hungry and ambitious, but so is everyone else in comics, especially those who’ve already been around the block and haven’t struck gold (or reasonable employment). Blogs like Covered, Repaneled, and DC Fifty, TOO! are fun to look at, but when you take the legwork involved and measure it up to the compensation (it’s all free work), it doesn’t add up. Exposure is difficult to quantify, but maybe not so much when you consider the value of new eyes on your work. I’d like to hear some success stories from this business model, even though they’d probably be the exceptions to the rule. I should ask Dan Nadel if the numbers on Cold Heat went up after Frank Santoro’s Strange Tales story came out, at least to kill my earlier assessment regarding mainstream exposure having any cache.
But at least Frankie got paid. I can’t bring myself to make the connection between these penniless cartoonists, artists, and bloggers who express their love for these properties and their work acting as free advertisement for companies that wouldn’t normally hire them. I won’t make a comparison to peasants clamoring over royal attention, but it is a demented hierarchy whether we like it or not. It’s no longer fan art glamorizing the work of a few old bullpenners in the 70s, it is a couple of unstoppable empires. Is it really necessary to give these companies yet more face time rather than to our own ideas? Mainstream fandom is willingly hypnotized by and deeply involved with the corporate comics mechanism. You can hardly blame them; they learned their lesson back in the 90s and have pretty much sworn off anything “different”. So nevermind, PictureBox, I think I just answered my own Cold Heat question. Allegiance is a two way street, after all, and Marvel’s definitely going to be there for you every Wednesday for the rest of your life. My question is: where are the art blogs dedicated to Target and Chase?
There’s always going be the occasional oddball who is granted bits of fanboy affection, such as James Stokoe or Raphael Grampa, but those guys have crossover appeal, so it’s peculiar that they’re not given more assignments. Chalk it up to demand versus editorial leeway. While it’s too bad a guy like Jim Rugg does’t work in mainstream comics more often, with his multi dimensional and easy to digest style, all is forgiven when Gary Panter does his thing (thanks to Farel Dalrymple and Jonathan Lethem’s Omega: The Unknown series). That those Panter pages even exist should be reason enough to throw a party.
There are certain cartoonists that don’t need any company’s permission to do inspired, crazy ass shit such as Benjamin Marra and Josh Simmons. They don’t wait for an editor to tell them to do-their-own-thing-but-within-reason. No permission was required for Dan Clowes to do the Death-Ray. Although not as detached as his Black Nylon story, the Death-Ray indeed featured a guy in tights pummelling . Clowes has more than enough skill and empathy to pull off something like the Death-Ray without coming across as patronizing. It isn’t seeped in nostalgia nor is it a vicious commentary, it is simply a great, solid comic story.
Clowes gets it, but his imitators don’t; when Tomine draws someone in spandex it’s not to show us how absurd and fantastic it can be, it’s to heckle and point out how banal of a concept superheroes are to him. We don’t need that sort of cheeky arrogance in any genre of comics. If he despises it so much, Tomine should follow Sammy Harkam’s example and never draw this type of material under any circumstance whatsoever.
And therein lies the rift. It doesn’t matter if Brandon Graham redraws a Kirby page or how thorough Comics Alliance is at unearthing redesigned JLA fan art or if Brian Chippendale blogs about dissolving the Avengers, this rift exists and is very real. Jon Vermilyea can beautifully draw Baxter all he wants, but it’s not at the Big Apple con where he’s gonna be selling those papers at.
Don’t get bummed out, reader! It’s no big deal. It’s just what it is. Think of the indie superhero genre as a neutral zone. This mash up of sensibilities, which is comics’ most accurate representative of modern culture, can only happen in that specific space it created for itself, as if it had to exist. This is where Team Comix really happens. The comics industry isn’t really a place where, forgive the Morrissey quote, “everybody gets together at night and sticks custard pies in each other’s face.” It seems as if that were the case sometimes, but it is far from the truth. These superhero alt comics, corporate or not, make a fine enough substitute.
--Michel Fiffe, 2011