Small Press Month: A Brief History of Indie Comics

By | February 16th, 2015
Posted in Columns | % Comments
Banner courtesy of Mark Tweedale

A big part of Small Press Month, aside from promoting exceptional small press books, is raising awareness about various aspects of this segment of the industry. A big part of that has been providing historical context through abridged histories. In previous weeks, articles focusing on Underground Comix and Alternative Comics have covered the late fifties through the eighties. Today, it’s time to look at Independent Publishers, which will bring the series to the present.

The last segment left off at the end of the Black and White Bust in 1987. Demand for alternative comics was falling fast, and their sales never completely recovered to the 1986 numbers. Some of the companies who invested too heavily on books that were no longer selling went under, but others like Fantagraphics and SLG weathered the lean times.

In 1989, the industry experienced another, much larger boom. This time it was centered on mainstream comics, and it was fueled by numerous causes that are far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, printing superhero comics was equivalent to printing money at the time. Some small publishers like Malibu took advantage of the demand and began printing mainstream comics. Companies usually known for other products, like sports card producer Topps, opened a comic publishing division. Then there were also brand new companies, like Jim Shooter’s Valiant and Defiant.

In 1992, “TMNT” co-creator Peter Laird created the Xeric Foundation to provide some creators the help they needed to get their work noticed. The annual award was a grant to self-publishers to subsidize upfront costs of printing. The Xeric Foundation helped to launch the careers of notable cartoonists like Jeff Lemire, Adrian Tomine, Tom Hart, Gene Yang, Farel Dalrymple, Jordan Crane, and Brian Ralph, just to name a few. The grant may not have produced a work with the cultural impact of “TMNT,” but that shouldn’t be how we gauge its success. Without the Xeric, it’s possible that we may not have works like “Essex County” or “Optic Nerve” available today.

Arguably the two most important small press books to come out of the boom were 1991’s debut of Jeff Smith’s “Bone” and the November 1993 release of Terry Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise.” Smith produced “Bone” mostly through his Cartoon Books imprint with a short stint (#20 through #28) at Image. Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise” began as a miniseries through Antarctic Press, a company that had been around since 1984. Moore soon moved “SiP” to his own imprint, Abstract Studios. (if you missed last week’s Small Press Spotlight on Abstract Studios and Moore’s new book, “Rachel Rising”, you can find the two part article here and here.)

The mid-nineties were a very odd time for the comic industry in general, and the small press in particular. Not since the dawn of the medium in the early thirties had it been so easy to sell comics. With such high sales numbers, it’s hard to draw a clear distinction between small and large press. New companies with less than a dozen books and unreliable release schedules could still sell comics hand over fist. Perhaps because of the frenzy, most of the important events in small press history during this era had more to do with the environment than individual titles or creators.

In 1994, conventions dedicated to small press comics were independently created on both sides of the United States. The Small Press Expo (SPX) took place on the East coast, and the Alternative Press Expo was held on the west. Both were the result of the larger, mainstream publishers dominating the longer running NYCC and SDCC. These focused events allowed self-publishers to market themselves to an interested crowd without being hidden behind massive booths belonging to Marvel or DC. Creators also used them to network and learn from each others experiences. Over the years, other conventions dedicated to the small press have popped up across the country.

At the same time, Marvel was trying to cut costs by purchasing companies it used to do business with and remove some middle men. One of these acquisitions was the comic distributor, Heroes World in late 1994. Marvel’s intention was to market its books exclusively through Heroes World and streamline its shipping department. Unfortunately, the deal did not go as planned. Despite being the country’s third largest distributor, Heroes World was a regional distributor, not a national one. The process of expanding its business model proved too daunting, and Marvel ended the experiment by closing Heroes world in 1997.

Continued below

In the meantime, Marvel’s actions sparked a distributor war in the comic industry. At the start of the decade there had been around 20 different distributors, and they would compete with each other to carry as many titles as possible. This setup worked out for everyone – it was easy for self-publishers to be picked up, retailers were offered great discounts, and readers had ready access to a wide variety of material.

Now, distributors were worried Marvel’s experiment would be successful and other large companies would follow suit. To stave off this doomsday scenario, the larger distributors began seeking to lock publishers into exclusive contracts. DC signed with the largest distributor, Diamond. Dark Horse and Image soon followed them, which sounded a death knell for the smaller, regional distributors. By the time Marvel admitted it had made a mistake with Heroes World, it was too late. Capital City Distributors, once the second largest comic distributor, had been purchased by Diamond in 1996. After signing Marvel, Diamond had exclusive rights to distribute over 75% of the comic market.

This simplification was a double edged sword to the small press. On the one hand, if Diamond carried their book, they had instant access to every comic shop in the country. On the other, Diamond now had less incentive to offer every title it could. There were (and are) still some small distributors around, such as Cold Cut, which began business in 1994. Some former Capital City staffers reorganized and started a new distributor called FMI. Both of these focused on back-list items and indy titles too small for Diamond.

This restructuring of the distribution system coincided with the industry-wide bust. Many of the publishers who had risen quickly fell just as fast. Malibu and its catalog was purchased by Marvel in 1994. Valiant was sold to Acclaim and all of its titles were relaunched in 1996, limping along until a final cancellation in 2002. Topps closed their comic division in 1998. Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996.

The contraction and slow-to-stagnant growth that followed hurt the small press, but also gave them a little more room to shine as well. Because Marvel was releasing fewer issues per month, more publishers were able to appear in Diamond’s top 300 list each month. From 2000 to 2004, about 1 in 3 titles on the list could be considered small press. Compare that to 7 out of 300 in 2013 and 2014.

The hard times led some innovative publishers to find new outlets for their material. Dan Vado’s Slave Labor Graphics partnered with Hot Topic to sell some of their ‘gothy’ books like “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac”. At one point during the six years or so the counterculture store sold SLG books, Vado remarked it accounted for more book sales than the direct market. Hot Topic stopped offering SLG books in 2008, but they still stock some titles from other publishers, usually with exclusive covers.

Despite the weak market, new publishers were continually entering the fray. In 2002, Ted Adams’ Idea and Design Works released its first comic, Ashley Wood’s “Uno Fanta”. Its success prompted IDW to produce some more comics. Further successes snowballed, and this small publisher became a top five publisher in less than a decade. The full story of IDW’s rise will be chronicled in a separate article later today.

The internet and the webcomic platform hasn’t been mentioned yet despite being a powerful force for small press in the modern era. This omission has been entirely intentional for two contradictory reasons. One, there is very little hard information available about the audience for or impact of these comics. Two, if that information was sought and collected, it would no doubt be voluminous enough to be worthy of its own month-long series. Still, there is one element to the digital age that cannot be ignored: Comixology.

Comixology was founded by David Steinberger, John D. Roberts, and Peter Jaffe, with the website opening in July of 2007. At the start, the digital comic platform spurred some fear that it would devastate the print industry the same way Netflix destroyed video rental stores. Fortunately, a better analogy is to eReaders. While exact numbers aren’t widely available, anecdotal evidence indicates the cheaper digital versions allow readers to try more books, which leads them to purchase physical copies of the better ones. Because there’s no warehousing or overstock like traditional distribution, Comixology is able to keep all titles available at all times. This puts small press books on the same footing as major publishers and acts as a second distributor, getting books from creator to reader.

Continued below

The next big change for independent comics came when Diamond announced revised qualifications for distribution. For a long time, Diamond required each item listed in their “Previews” catalog to have a minimum order of $1500 wholesale (a little under $4000 retail). They raised the wholesale minimum to $2500 (a little over $6000 retail) in January 2009 because the price of business had increased, and the new minimum reflected the cost to them of stocking, packing, and shipping a title. At the time, that meant retail (and customer) orders for one prominent book wouldn’t be fulfilled – James Turner’s “Warlord of IO” from SLG.

Websites and readers alike proclaimed Diamond to be the devil, out to destroy the small press. At least one person expected this to mean the end of anything but graphic novels. The surviving alternative distributors used this moment to promote themselves, offering to carry any book rejected by Diamond no matter how little they could make off of it. Haven Distribution (formerly Cold Cut) received a lot of coverage at the time, going to great lengths to remind readers and retailers that Diamond wasn’t the only game in town.

Over time, though, this change amounted to very little. In the December 2008 edition of “Previews”, the section devoted to the ‘other’ publishers was 138 pages. In January 2012, it had fallen only to 111 pages, and at least half the drop was due to IDW moving to the Premiere section. By January 2015, the section had actually grown to 160 pages. While this simple analysis doesn’t account for any change in the number of single issues versus OGNs offered, a casual glance through “Previews” shows a healthy number of single issues are still available.

In the last few years, independent comics have had other ups and downs. After rapid growth, Haven Distribution extended itself a bit too far and closed in 2011. The same year, Peter Laird decided to quit offering the Xeric award to cartoonists, saying the internet had opened enough avenues for creators to share their work that the award was no longer necessary. In 2012, Valiant comics returned with a vengeance. In the last year, SLG and Last Gasp turned to Kickstarter to make up shortfalls and maintain their release schedules. Last fall, Jared Smith launched the Small Press Previews website, a resource providing readers and retailers previews of upcoming releases and helping them track release dates.

That brings us to the present day. When a historical summary like this concludes, it invites speculation about the future. While predictions are tough to make, right now the coming years look bright for small press. Marvel and DC still dominate the market, but non-superhero work from the other large companies has proven successful, and a growing market for diverse titles is leading more readers to small press offerings. It may seem disheartening when established names like Last Gasp or SLG have to turn to Kickstarter for help, but it’s encouraging to know both campaigns exceeded their targets with time to spare.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this look back and/or learned something. If you haven’t already, you can also check out the other articles in this series. They’ve been researched thoroughly, but if you spot a mistake or an omission, please share it in the comments or contact me by email.

//TAGS | small press | Small Press Spotlight

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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