When the direct sales market was set up there was soon a steady supply of independent and small press comics to feed into the system. Publishers such as First, Pacific, Eclipse, Fantagraphics and Harrier were formed and allowed creators to keep their rights. Different sized companies offered different deals but the choice was fairly clear: small amount of money up-front but keep your rights (indies), or more money up-front and lose your rights (Marvel & DC). There were also plenty of small press comics out there written, drawn and published by one person or a small group.
In the early days of the direct sales market this all seemed to work okay as plenty of new readers were coming into the market, because comics were still distributed on news stands as well as comic shops. The comic market was retaining more readers because they had more “sophisticated” comics to progress on to, some published by Marvel and DC as well as the new indies. Top name creators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Howard Chaykin, Steve Englehart and Mike Grell were all being published by indies.
Small press creators had extremely popular titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus and Elfquest to try to emulate. Each sector of the market was profit-making to a greater or lesser extent. Over the years the indie and small press scene has gradually changed, and not for the better. The flow of established creators from Marvel and DC to the indies has lessened a great deal, with independent publishers such as Dark Horse, Boom, IDW and Dynamite Entertainment publishing a significant amount of licensed material. Image still overwhelmingly publishes creator owned material, most of which is by new talent as opposed to established creators.
The small press sector has to a large extent followed the lead of Fantagraphics, which has nurtured a self-expressive, semi-autobiographical style of comic strip. Creators often reveal their sexual preferences just to show how “searingly honest” they are ( Crumb was there decades before them and didn’t do it in a calculating way like today’s creators). Fantagraphics is a prime example of visibility over viability, its influence spreading throughout the self publishing field. If Fantagraphics’ books were making big profits they wouldn’t feel the need to publish their line of porn comics (I have no problem with porn comics but they sit uncomfortably next to comics which are meant to be very deep and meaningful and serious).
Rather than attempting to replicate the success of Cerebus, Elfquest and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles self publishing has become a not-for-profit pursuit. Small press publications are now generally perceived as a charitable exercise. If business is good comic shops will order a few more and feel that they are “doing their bit”. Now that the direct sales market is getting a bit tougher Diamond has decided to make it even harder for small press books to get into their catalogue. Mostly they have been replaced by graphic novels (often by complete unknowns) which retail at $16 or more, this can hardly encourage new readers.
Marvel and DC are the trendsetters sales-wise, and as their sales fall all other sales figures fall in proportion. Diamond are effectively choking off the possibility of new comic books coming through, so the market is locked into a failing model and unable to find new material to boost sales. Not that the small press is doing much to help its own cause, seeming to deliberately produce books of a non-commercial nature. Perhaps we now have a generation which has never known anything but the direct sales market and think that it will always be there no matter what they do either as distributors, retailers or creators.
To a large extent the indie/small press market is full of material for those already steeped in comic strips and is deemed a bit more intelligent than super-hero comics, but trying to use this material to attract new readers has failed to lay proper foundations. At the moment most comics are aimed at an audience in its late teens or early twenties, the amount of comics available to kids and pre-teens is tiny by comparison. The industry would have far more success if it sold comics to its audience from the time they are kids, a progressively higher proportion of them would still be into comics when they grow up. At the moment we’re waiting until they’re 16 or 17 and suddenly saying “Start buying comics!”
It is in the industry’s interest to nurture self published books, as they are a low cost method of finding new talent, in fact the talent takes on the financial risk themselves and are only too willing to do so. The new-comers are also able to produce whatever they want without any constraints being placed on them by a publisher. What is needed is some method by which retailers can make informed decisions on which of these ever-growing number of publications might appeal to their customers. The alternative is the current situation of Diamond refusing an ever larger number of new self-published books, and yes I know there are only so many pages in Previews, but since Diamond became the sole distributor to the direct sales market we have not had a self published hit. I think this is in equal parts due to Diamond’s policy and also to the evolution of self-publishing into a self indulgent, non-commercial hobby, as opposed to the proving ground for new talent and an indicator of a direction the comic market could take.
The profusion of self published books has mushroomed out of anybody’s ability to cope with. It seems that every fan wants to publish their own comic book, and bad writing and bad drawing are palmed off as being good for the medium because they’re not super-heroes. Even though the majority of books are awful it doesn’t mean they are failures, the creators have managed to complete and publish a comic book, which is no small achievement (of course completing and publishing a good comic book is a far greater achievement). While this is all well and good one cannot escape the fact that there is far too much sub-standard small press (and mainstream for that matter) work clogging up Previews and on-line sites and convention tables. If Previews had stuck to the original guideline of only rejecting small press work which didn’t achieve a certain level of quality instead of making editorial decisions (I know of comic professionals whose self published books have been rejected by Diamond) it might have a stronger small press line up.
To a certain extent once it was possible for small press books to enter the market it was always going to be a question of quantity rather than quality, but a mechanism needs to be put in place which can find the gems, and there will be gems in there (the first issue of Cerebus wasn’t great but it showed promise and got out there and developed). The current system has done little more than choke off the supply of indie and small press hits (Bone being the last small press book to take off), while indie publishers like Dark Horse and Image have primarily become launch pads for new creators rather than an alternative route for established creators.
The battle cry for creator’s rights which launched First, Eclipse and Pacific is now somewhat muted, with many creators just itching to sign up to Marvel and DC as their bigger advertising budgets get them much higher sales figures than the current indies. The small press scene has become just as formulaic as the mainstream, and it’s no longer a badge of honour to simply not do a superhero strip, in fact we now see that the general public actually likes superheroes!? They’ll probably be on our movie and tv screens for the next couple of decades at least.
The small press is no longer the first wrung in a career for those hoping to work professionally, it has become a hobby in and of itself, yet Dave Sim and Eastman & Laird all started out as small press creators. The hobby aspect of creating comics is gradually creeping further up the food chain, now full colour comics are produced as a hobby. While this is all well and good it does tend to once more flood the market, whereas previously one would assume that a photocopied comic was produced by a fan and a full colour comic produced by a pro, now there is no way of knowing (especially when a fan gets a good artist to produce the cover). We are left with that same problem of finding the diamond in the (very) rough.
Collecting comics is a hobby, producing fanzines is a hobby, but producing quality comics which are professionally distributed is a craft and a profession. If the comic medium in the UK and US had not shrunk so dramatically the two aspects would be kept apart, but conventions now often rely on small press publishers to buy table space at their conventions. While not wishing to chip away at the democratic aspect of comic production one cannot turn a blind eye to the effects it has on the market. The lines between fan and pro work have become terribly blurred and need to be bought back into focus.
If there were more direct sales distributors it would be fairly simple to introduce a system by which the smallest distributor had first pick of new small press books, next biggest distributor then could pick from small press books and so on (like the American football draft system). I think this would raise the standard of small press books instantly (but there is only Diamond as sole distributor to the entire industry so this idea is completely superfluous).
One should not lose sight of the fact that every small press book is (or should be) a new way of doing comics, with new content and a new approach. The majority of Marvel and DC’s lines are basically one approach to comics. Seen in this light each new small press book punches far above its weight and offers the entire market a possible new direction. The small press is an ideal place for innovation, but unfortunately there is too much imitation.