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The traditional Superhero is finally beginning to break its stranglehold on American comics.
There have been times when I have wondered if my local comic book vendor actually likes me, or if the meaning of the smile on his face on my arrival to his shop is because I single-handedly pay the monthly electricity bill… My vendor is always quite happy not only to provide me with my standard monthly serials as well as new or interesting books to make sure I leave the store with my wallet a little lighter than I originally planned. This is traditionally how the comic industry works in America. Your local comic book shop is not only the place where you purchase your favorite monthly titles and browse new ones, but is generally the place where you can socialize with other like minded individuals. It is one of the few places where it is socially acceptable to chat about all “geek” issues, such as comics, sci-fi, and anime with strangers and friends alike without fear of ridicule from your more unimaginative co-workers and classmates. (Unless you are working for NASA perhaps.) However as much I enjoy my local comic book shop is there is an ongoing tendency I have noticed that I do find strange - The lack of support for independent titles.
An independent comic is defined as either a book not released by a mainstream comic publisher or has a more realistic plot line; as opposed to the industry standard of “superhero” related themes such as American comic avatars such as “Spider-Man,” “X-Men,” or “Superman.” Independent comics are otherwise known as small-press, self – published, alternative, or underground comics. My personal definition of independent comics is of any comic serial, single issue, or graphic novel that breaks away from American mainstream industry standards in terms of publishing independence, subject matter, or maturity level of the intended audience.
It is important to note that in Europe most comics are written for an adult audience, focusing only on real life themes and as a whole would be considered “alternative” by American standards. Also in Japan the comic or “manga” medium as a whole is much more widely accepted and the diversity found in comic serials there ranges from everything from children stories to obscure pornography.
Even the modern comic superhero is now changing. From the moment Frank Miller reinvented the concept of the superhero in “Dark Night Returns” we have seen a darker, more realistic trend in mainstream comics. The recent string of successes of comic book “anti-hero” based movies such as “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight” shows that the 21st century audience expects more depth in our characters than ever before. It is not enough to be strong and fearless anymore, our heroes need to be flawed and human as well. Hollywood and the video game industry are fully aware of the money-mmmmmmm aking potential of comic book adaptations. As comics are now gaining a social acceptance in mainstream media not seen before, the question is can the industry still appeal to the child inside of us all as it has for generations and grow- up at the same time?
Even though the comic market is a mature one, it still has the characteristics of an emerging market. It is dominated by a small group of publishers that push generally a standard tried and tested product. There is room for so much more in terms of growth and change. No one says it better than Scott McCloud, writer of “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,” and the most well known advocate of the potential that comics have not reached:
“Comics are a powerful idea, but an idea that's been squandered, ignored and misunderstood for generations. No art form has lived in a smaller box than comics for the last hundred years. It's time for comics to finally grow up and find the art beneath the craft.”
The next step is to completely break away from the traditional protagonist vs. antagonist plot scheme. The prime example of a work that breaks free from this plot leitmotif released by a major publisher is Neil Gaiman’s 1989 – 1996 serial, “Sandman.” It was released by DC comics’ alternative sub-label “Vertigo.” and has been called the “comic book for intellectuals.” The main character Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, frequently has no external conflicts for entire story arcs. There are many issues where Morpheus himself is not directly involved, and merely connects a well---- old story. “Sandman” also exhibits a level of detail into mythology and philosophy that many critics feel has not been equaled in comics since. After reading just one issue of this title one can see the future of comic books is not with the superhero, but is being limited by it.
This is where the independent comic movement steps in. It has been alive since the 60’s, breaking the traditional barriers of traditional plot motifs and overused social stereotypes and bringing real life and originality into comics; testing the limits of what we expect to find when we think of a comic. Free from publishing houses that do not want to overstep boundaries for fear of hurting there bottom line. These independent artists, writers, and publishers have been showing us that when you combine pictures and words into one medium, you can enhance both instead of adding a few clichés to fancy action sequences. However since Diamond Comic Distributers, the largest comic distributer in the United States, has raised its order minimum to publishers to $2,500 US dollar retail value, it will be harder for new independent comics to break into the market.
Luckily the Internet is helping to circumvent the vendors and distributers and bring fresh material directly to the masses. Mostly left alone by the conventional professionals, webcomics is flourishing with solid amateur talent. Some use webcomics to try and build a reputation as an artist/writer, or for pure professional enjoyment. There is even an emergence of professional webcomic professionals, who base their income solely off profits from web advertising and the selling of paper versions of their online serials.
Good examples of quality webcomics include:
· Chris Onstad’s “Achewood,” a New York Times bestseller in print serial form, is a surreal trip into dark, dry humor and social commentary.
· Jesse Reklaw’s “SlowWave,” which is based on public submissions of real life nightmares, gives the reader a unique look into the human mind.
· Sarah Ellerton’s “A Phoenix Requiem, “is a ground-breaking fantasy graphic novel project in the spirit of the popular “Final Fantasy” series.
Phoenix RequiemIf one starts to review European graphic novels there is one ongoing trend; that of comic travelogues. The comic format is perfect for accurate, first-eye perspective visualizations of personal experiences; especially when trying to explain a scene or situation that would be so foreign to the reader that a visual aid helps. There is no better example than the Canadian Guy Delisle’s “Shenzhen: A travelogue from China.” I myself have been an expat living in the exact same Chinese city and I could not imagine a more accurate depiction of living in the city, or a better explanation of the term “culture shock.”
I still remember the first time in my adult life someone handed me a comic. I had the stereotypical condescending smirk on my face with the stereotypical reply, “You still read comics??” I changed my tune so quickly after realizing how diverse comics had become and the potential it now (or probably always) possessed. Comics have long surpassed the stage where they are merely “kids books” and nothing exemplifies this better than the independent comic movement.
Other Notable Examples of Independent Comics:
Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor,” which is a semi -fictional, semi-autobiographically narrative of Pekar’s life. It spanned 39 issues over a period of almost 30 years and has been worked on by over fifteen different illustrators. He manages to take what would normally be considered as mundane ramblings into quality stories using excellent storytelling skills and a heavy douse of wit. It spawned a self- titled movie, “American Splendor“in 2003 about Pikar’s life. Also his “American Splendor: UnSung Hero,” a biography about one of his co-workers at the veteran hospital in Cleveland where he worked. It narrates his Vietnam War experience and is one of the most overlooked pieces in comic history.
Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is part biographical and autobiographical story about his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and how that affected his personal relationship with him. It was a thirteen- year project and was both written and illustrated by Spigelman originally for RAW magazine, (1972-1991) but can be now be found in a two - part graphic novel form. It is one of the most accepted pieces of comic book literature of all time in terms of content and subject matter. (It was part of my English 202 class in college, and is used in English and Literature classes throughout the country.)
Brian Micheal Bendis’ “Jinx.” Bendis is the leader of a new generation of comic book writers. “Jinx” is the title that kick-started his career. He both wrote and illustrated the five -part series that was started in 1996 under Caliber Comics then with Image Comics. It is a dark crime noir about a female bounty hunter and two grafters who “find” a fortune in dirty money. It is a perfect example that independent comics can be “hardcore,” full of action and plot twists you would expect to see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, as well as creative.