We’re going to slip, just a little, into mainstream territory, and talk about one of my favorite comics from the early 1990s: The Maxx, created by Sam Kieth. In 1993, I was living in the Bay Area and shopping at Comic Relief—now closed, but once the greatest comic book store in the area. I found Love and Rockets there, discovered the new Vertigo titles that were just coming on the scene, and fell in love with a bizarro comic about a homeless man, a scantily-dressed social worker, and a nightmare-Outback full of predators and prey.
A few weeks ago, a friend who works in a bookstore (and often pulls trades of indie comics for me) handed me a stack to look through. Along with a lot of spandex superhero stuff I didn’t need, and the first two trades of Tank Girl, which I bought, was a single, scuffed, graphic novel with a purple and black cover. Volume 1 of The Maxx.
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Now in its 25th year, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards have announced their nominations for 2013. Voting is still open to industry professionals, and the winners will be revealed at the June 19th gala held during Comic-Con International: San Diego. The nominees as selected by a panel of judges who have chosen from titles submitted during the January open reading period (whether work is printed or online, it needs to have first appeared between January 1 and December 31 of the previous year). This year’s judges are reviewer Michael Cavna (“Comic Riffs,” Washington Post), academic/author Charles Hatfield (Cal State Northridge), retailer Adam Healy (Cosmic Monkey, Portland, OR), author/educator Katie Monnin (Teaching Graphic Novels), cartoonist/critic Frank Santoro (Storeyville; TCJ), and Comic-Con International registrar John Smith.
A huge number of nominees are independent and small press companies, not affiliated with DC, Marvel, Vertigo, Dark Horse, or IDW. Though Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Fatale (published by Image) and Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye (published by Marvel) each garnered five nominations, they share that distinction with Chris Ware’s Building Stories, published by Pantheon.
Sharing the next spot on the list, with four nominations each, are all indies: Boom!/kaboom with Adventure Time, Monkeybrain with Bandette, and You’ll Never Know, Book 3: A Soldier’s Heart (Carol Tyler’s memoir comic), published by Fantagraphics. Speaking of Fantagraphics, they lead the pack with a grand total of 24 nominations—seven more than Image, who came in second on that list.
The nominees you might be most interested in are:
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Tony Millionaire’s Billy Hazelnuts is a child-like fantasy, at once impossible but also intricately detailed. The story focuses on the love triangle between two children — a young girl inventor and scientist, and a literary boy who first tries to woo her with poetry — and a boy-type creature the mice made out of trash. The mice are hoping for a hero to save them from the woman with the rolling pin. The boy is hoping to learn enough science to make his love poetry more appealing to the object of his affections. The girl mainly wants to be left alone with her work.
[Outside the Frame] Richard S. Carbonneau’s “The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons” Illustrates Failure
This well-designed collected edition of Carbonneau and Ng’s webcomic about the life of occultist Jack Parsons looks like a magical grimoire the book’s subject would have been proud of. An overlooked gem that deserves more attention. (from MTV Geek)
Publisher: Cellar Door Publishing officially released this graphic novel by Richard S. Carbonneau and artist Robin Simon Ng in 2010. I met the creators at that year’s New York Comic Con, where I picked up the book. They had a booth, copies of the book, promo materials… but less than three years later, it’s almost impossible to find. Amazon doesn’t carry it. Neither does Powell’s, or any other retailer that might have listed it online. Luckily, it’s still available in its original webcomic form (we’ll get to that at the end).
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In 2005, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo published the first Trese comic. Not a cop, but working with them, Alexandra Trese and her faithful assistants solve the crimes that can’t be brought before a judge. Manila is her city, left to her by her father and his father before him, and she’s going to protect the people in it by whatever means necessary. When you live in a Manila where all of the old Filipino folklore is true, that involves making deals with some monsters, and destroying others.
Originally the Trese komiks were photocopied ashcans, passed around through fans and sold whenever you could find the author or artist to buy one. The graphic novels are published by Visual Print Enteprises, a small press in the Philippines. Their financial success, popularity, and awards led Tan and Baldisimo to sign with Flipside Publishing Services Inc., which is currently releasing the individual issues as eBooks. But even now, as huge as the komik’s creators are at home, they’re still considered outsiders, unknown by most US readers.
Those of you who are just hearing about Trese for the first time have been missing out on something amazing.
When I started this column I talked a little about what independent comics were, but not how we got here. Presently there are two major “mainstream” comics publishers in the United States: DC and Marvel. DC also produces comics under the Vertigo imprint. There are a handful of other large publishers, also working in the superhero genre, who are considered mainstream for a combination of size and content (though some of their titles are “creator owned”): Dark Horse, Image, Valiant, and so on. It wasn’t always this way.
Before there was the independent comics of today, there were the alternative comics of the 1970s and 80s. Before that, we had underground comix, bringing all of the sex and drugs and violence the Comics Code Authority (formed in 1954) banned from mainstream comics. Before that was twenty years of transition from comic strips to comic books to angry parents and preachers burning comic books in defiance of their wicked depictions.
We call that the Golden Age of comics.
Archaia Entertainment has a promising new comic on the horizon with Charles Soule’s Strange Attractors. The book is a love letter – partly to New York city, object of affection for so many writers and artists, and partly to math, which Soule credits with the power to keep chaos at bay. From the publisher:
A young graduate student discovers that his aging professor has been saving New York City from collapse by a series of “adjustments,” ala the Butterfly Effect, only to be informed that he must be the one to take over keeping the city alive. A grounded sci-fi thriller in the vein of Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau.
Strange Attractors (no, not this one) is written by Soule with art by Greg Scott, colors by Art Lyon and Matthew Perez, and includes beautifully intricate maps by Rob Saywitz. The story ventures into urban fantasy, in the sense that it needs the city to be its own character, another living, breathing, part of the tale. Without New York City being so intrinsically New York, there’s no story here. There’s otherwise little “fantasy” in the plot, which is very nearly science fiction. It must be, because of course such events couldn’t be occurring at this moment, keeping the greatest city in the nation alive and running… though, it could be true. Very nearly true, anyway.
It’s that doubt which puts the story into the realm of science fiction. Call it a potential future, and leave it at that.
Daniel Clowes is an American cartoonist most well known for his book Ghostworld, which was made into a movie starring Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch, and Art School Confidential, a movie based on some of his comic strips. Clowes co-wrote the screenplays for both movies. He’s also created advertising campaigns, movie posters, and several covers for the New York Times.
Fans of his cartooning know him as the creator of Wilson, Mister Wonderful, and the long-running series Eightball, where half of his comics first appeared (including Ice Haven, Art School Confidential and The Death Ray). His work is solidly in the camp of the independent – small press, off-kilter, strange, and decidedly not mainstream. He got his start drawing for Cracked and then scored space in an issue of Love & Rockets, before finding a home for his first series Lloyd Llewellyn with Fantagraphics. They also published the original Eightball issues, though other companies later reprinted portions of them.
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As I’ve mentioned before, Archaia Entertainment continues to publish some of the most beautiful work in indie comics today. Produced under the direct supervision of The Jim Henson company, Tale of Sand illustrates some of Henson’s most surreal moments of imagination. It’s a gorgeous book, combining a lost screenplay (written by Henson and his long-time writing partner Jerry Juhl between 1967 and 1974) with the art of Ramón K. Pérez. The complex visuals and recursive chronology add layer after layer to the tale.
The holidays are a time to be thankful, to remember what was good about the year, and to give to others. Personally, I am thankful that I get to read ground-breaking comic books and talk about them every week on a Hugo-award winning fan site. While fans of mainstream comics had several reasons to be disappointed with the decisions made by the DC and Marvel – Before Watchmen, the New 52, Marvel Now!, and the Batgirl firing/rehiring of Gail Simone are just a few of the controversial choices - 2012 was a great year for independent and small press comics. I looked back over my notes and put together a list of my favorite comics in case you missed something you’d love.
If you didn’t happen to find these great titles under the tree, you can always get them for yourself now (I won’t tell).
They’re listed in alphabetical order because all of these books are amazing, and it’d be difficult to rank them any other way. I’ve already reviewed a couple here at SF Signal (Click on the links to read my full reviews):
Archaia Entertainment not only produces some of the most beautiful work in comics today, but they helpfully allow you to search their titles by genre (see the list here) so you can pick out a new book based on what you’re in the mood to read, even if you’ve never heard of the creators. Fantasy, Noir, SciFi/Adventure, Horror, and even Historical Fiction comics are neatly organized for your reading pleasure. That their catalog includes works from Jim Henson, Alethea Kontis, and a guy who wrote about a missing shoggoth tells me they’ve got a good sense of what genre fandom wants to read.
A prime example is volume one of Rust, by Royden Lepp.
This past August, Digger by Ursula Vernon won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, beating out comics published by Vertigo and IDW, including such heavyweights of genre comics as Fables, Locke & Key, and The Unwritten. Before that, Digger had won the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards in the categories of Outstanding Black and White Art (2005, 2006) and Outstanding Anthropomorphic Comic (2006). It was also nominated for the 2006 Will Eisner Comics Industry Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition.
Now available as six trade paperbacks from Sofawolf Press, the series began first as a collection of illustrations, then as a webcomic through the Graphic Smash website, before Vernon started her own website to host the comic online. Digger has evolved, over the last several years, both in how the comic was presented to its readers and in Vernon’s drawing style.
But how does a comic that first became popular six years ago end up winning the Hugo in 2012?
Richard Sala is a prolific artist of the weird and fantastical, with a varied collection of tales that feature detectives, witches, zombies, fairy tales, cat women, and more. Beginning with his 1984 Night Drive, Sala has drawn a new comic title nearly every year. His work has appeared on RAW, BLAB!, and even serialized as an animated cartoon for Liquid Television. Today, I want to take a look at his series Delphine.
Ethan Young, whose comic Tails I reviewed in my last column, is a Chinese-American artist born and raised in NYC. He’s worked on a wide array of illustration projects, including: comics books, storyboards, t-shirt designs, video games, character designs, print ads, book covers, album covers, logos, and much more. Thought there are similarities between himself and his cartoon namesake “Ethan” – who takes his work at an animal shelter, relationship troubles, and veganism from Young’s own background – the two are different enough that you can’t know the artist simply from reading his work.
Young was kind enough to sit down and answer a few of my questions via email…
When you buy a comic from a mainstream publisher, a single issue or graphic novel produced by a team of big-name writers, artists, colorists, letterers, editors, and so on, you can generally expect that the book won’t be terrible. You may not like the style of art or you might feel the story was weak – or, worse, sends the characters off in a direction that doesn’t feel true to who you think they are – but you can usually agree that some effort was put into producing it. As you venture into the land of alternative and small press comics, you can’t always be sure of what you’ll get. Will the art look like it was done by a small child who’s only recently been allowed to play with sharpened pencils? Will the story feel like it was written by someone who’s never actually read a book before?
You take chances with independent comics because that’s the best place to find something new. There are brilliantly written but poorly drawn web comics, and beautiful but weakly-scripted art comics, and a range of titles in between. Some creators make stylistic choices, to be sure, and there are many comics by first time creators who will certainly get better. There is, above all, potential. It’s huge field. Anything could be out there.
Sometimes you need a little fun in your life. A moment to enjoy some good old fashioned science-fueled ass kicking. A happy ending would be nice too. I’d been a little down at various points this year, buried under work and research, and needed something to brighten my day. Enter Atomic Robo – written by Brian Clevinger, drawn by Scott Wegener, and published by Red 5 Comics.
Deciding to write a bi-weekly column about alternative, small press, and creator-owned comics was easy. I love independent comics. Every week I enjoy new work from the bigger-but-not-mainstream houses like Fantagraphics, Oni Press, Red 5 Comics, plus web-only comics such as XKCD, A Softer World, Secret Asian Man, and Hark! A Vagrant. I adore comics anthologies, like the annual Best of American Comics and Secret Identities, The Asian American Superhero Anthology. I go to comics conventions, read the blogs of other comics critics and historians, and get excellent recommendations from my comics-reading friends.
Finding enough material to talk about wouldn’t be a problem.