No seriously, what are Indie Comics?
Comic books come with a host quantifiers and qualifiers; alternative, mainstream, underground, subversive, independent, some are very easy to understand others are more nebulous. Independent seems to be one of the more nebulous terms. First let’s look at one of the dictionary definitions,
1. free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority.
“the study is totally independent of central government”
synonyms: freethinking, free, individualistic
2. not influenced or affected by others; impartial.
“a thorough and independent investigation of the case”
synonyms: unbiased, unprejudiced, neutral, disinterested, uninvolved, uncommitted, detached, dispassionate, objective, nonpartisan, nondiscriminatory.
So how does that relate to comics? Some say “indie” comics are non-super hero books, “art” books, but that’s more the definition of alternative comics. Alternative comics were born of the “underground comics” scene of the ’60s and 70’s, think Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. I don’t believe you can use story type or art style as criteria anymore, in this day and age creators of all types and backgrounds are creating all manner of stories for all levels of publishers.
smaller companies, smaller production budgets, smaller advertising & marketing budgets…
Instead I postulated that “independent comics” are books that created without the benefit of a large corporate entity supporting them, regardless of content or style. I think of it similarly to indie music and indie movies, smaller production companies, smaller production budgets, smaller advertising and marketing budgets.
Though this can cause confusion as well. Archie Comics does not have the same production or advertising budget as Marvel or DC (nor the giant influential parent company) but because they’re an “established” company with a long track record of putting out books (Archie Comics has been around since 1939) it’s hard to think of them as “indie.” In fact when Archie launched a Kickstarter in 2015 to help fund a company wide reboot of their titles it was met with derision, so much so that Archie canceled the campaign four days after launch and ran an update that explained…
While the response to these new titles has been amazing, the reaction to an established brand like Archie crowdfunding has not been. Though we saw this as an innovative, progressive and “outside-the-box” way to fund the accelerated schedule we wanted to produce these books, it became another conversation, leading us further away from the purpose of this whole campaign: to get these amazing books in the hands of fans faster than we could on our own. While we fully expected our goal to be funded, it was no longer about the books and how amazing they will be. We don’t want that. This is why we’re shutting this Kickstarter down today. – Kickstarter – Riverdale Reborn May 15th 2015
If Archie is small enough but too established, then where does that leave Valiant Comics (founded in 1990, and relaunched in 2005) they have established characters and fairly deep pockets but I was told at a recent convention they have to fight for shelf space in comic shops. Then you have the slew of mid-level (distribution number wise) companies like BOOM! Studios (celebrating 10 years in the business) or Oni Press (18 years old) again they have the years and the name recognition as well. So it’s not just about budget or age then. I would add that along with the budgetary angle there needs to be a sort of plucky underdoggedness (coined a new word!) to a company or brand that can give it that “indie” feeling. After all this thought and examination of the possible criteria I figured I had it figured out. So I asked a myriad of creators, publishers, fans, and reviewers what they thought the term meant and I was surprised by the responses I received.
Creators Weigh In…
Several of the creators I reached out to, ones who definitely fall into my definition of “indie”, are not fans of the word, in fact some think it’s actually harmful.
Eric Grissom – writer and creator of “Deadhorse”, “Planet Gigantic” and “Gregory Suicide”:
I am not a fan of that term. It usually acts as a qualifier of some kind, and often feels like it’s in a “less than” context. It is way too vague and doesn’t really tell you anything about the comic. I would love to see it go away. I think if you need to differentiate corporate owned properties from say creator owned ones, you should say “licensed comics” when talking about comics whose owner is not the creative team. My two cents anyway.
Tyler James – writer and co-creator of “THE RED TEN”, publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe:
Indie is a tough word… And one I actually try not to use that often when referring to comixtribe books, because I feel like its connotations can often be more a negative than a positive.
At its core is the word “independent” which suggests independence from a large publishing apparatus and support structure. Marvel and DC are clearly not indie.
But it becomes murkier with pubs like Image, who is now #3 in the comic market… Yet is very hands off on the content side and the books are independently produced and owned by their creators.
Some creators don’t consider Image indie, and I can see why… But as for the books themselves, books like Rocket Girl and Five Ghosts were originally Kickstarter funded (definitely indie) and did not change when they went to Image. Do we strip me then of their indie badge?
Finally, indie is often used to describe more of a vibe, tone or style… More raw, less mainstream, etc. Fraction and Aja’s run on Hawkeye was described as an “indie” take.
Anyway, that’s sort of my take on the word, and because of its murkiness, I tend to avoid it.
Jesse Post, Publishing Consultant for Letter Better Publishing Services:
I have a very specific and simple definition — it’s a comic made without any corporate assistance of any kind. A lot of smaller publishers today depend on licensed properties from larger corporations to help sell books; it’s a smart business strategy precisely because you’re gaining all the familiarity that comes with it. That’s a corporate comic even though it’s produced by one of the little guys. In the publishing world, it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to make a dent in consumer awareness without the help of a big company.
Bob Salley – creator and writer “Salvagers”:
I believe “indie” is best defined as a comic that is created from concept to print by an individual who is in charge of production and/or funding of the project and retains all rights to the IP.
“Indie” and “Creator Owned” could be considered twins in the industry, whereas, I believe true indie is the creator either splitting creation credit with others or funding it themselves and “creator owned” could be a project funded by a large publisher (IDW, Image or Dark Horse).
Jeremy Whitley – writer/creator, IDW, Action Lab, Marvel:
I have mixed feelings about this phrase.
It is widely used by people in the industry (especially people at the big two) to mean anything that isn’t from the big two.
However, I feel calling “My Little Pony” a property born in the 70’s and owned by Hasbro with a running weekly cartoon on tv an “indie” or “independent” comic is disingenuous. Though it would be difficult to argue the Thom Zahler’s “Love and Capes” which is also currently put out through IDW (the industry’s #4 company) would not be indie. Unless, of course, you are tying it to a question of superheroes. However, by most stretches of the word, it is hard to argue that most Image books are not indie, despite coming from the #3 company and often being produced by creators who established their reputations at Marvel and DC.
In short, it’s hard to define. Especially when you’re talking about IDW, Image, and Dark Horse. Or for that matter Titan, Boom, or Oni – who all have established licensed property on their roster. I think you can say that Marvel and DC as well as their subsidiaries are definitely NOT indie, while the guys self-publishing certainly are, but there’s a big gray area in the middle of that.
So Where Does All This Leave Us?
Every one of the people we interviewed had a slightly different definition of what Indie Comics are. One thing seems to be repeated though, what “indie” books are not. No big corporate support and no corporate licensed properties. Which may help focus the classification but it definitely doesn’t define it. As it was mentioned above Image is the number three comic book company in the industry but most of their titles are (or were) total independent projects.
So where does that leave us? Well for me it shows that sometimes when shouting the #supportindiecomics cry about a book I’ve loved I may have actually been insulting a creator or two. But it’s been with good intentions. There are way too many amazing books (and publishers) who just don’t get seen, either because they don’t have the budget, don’t have the backing or just haven’t been around long enough. I’m going to keep applying the label where I think it might call attention to those books and publishers. And continue to hope that it brings them to the attention of the comic book readers out there…
What do you think? Leave us your thoughts in the comments…