The Subversive Superheroes of Indie Comics
How self-published comics are giving writers more freedom and gaining readers.Some of the greatest movements in comics have happened beyond the limits of traditional publishing. Take the underground comics, aka comix, of the 1960s that took on subjects Superman never could have with their defiant depictions of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It was the provocative stuff of teenage delinquency, and though self-published comic creators may continue to push the envelope of conventional comfort, self-publishing has become the norm for a growing community of supportive readers.
“Self-published comics are as popular as they’ve ever been—at an all-time high,” says Anthony Composto, an assistant editor and writer at the pop culture site Monkeys Fighting Robots. “People are gravitating to smaller, underground works ahead of the mainstream comics. It’s on an incline and I see that continuing.”
There are a few reasons behind the rising interest in self-published comics. To an extent it has to do with increasing receptiveness to indie publishing in general, and the fact that social media has connected authors with readers more than ever before.“Readers seem to be moving towards a greater acceptance of self-published titles and a greater appreciation for work that is personal, creative, and the result of a more singular vision,” says Amy Edelman, the founder and president of IndieReader. “It is also easier these days for authors to share their work.”
But perhaps the most significant drivers of interest in self-published comics are the eccentricity and dissent that define the category. Before the blockbuster superheroes of DC and Marvel, there were pulp magazines, popular in the early 20th century, and penny dreadfuls, which date to the 19th century. The antecedents of comic books were bizarre and imaginative, and those sensibilities didn’t die off when Spider-Man was born—they’ve always been around, but now we have greater access to comics from a more diverse pool of creators as technology has made self-publishing easier.
“I first self-published [the minicomic] Mr. Lune: Good Morning, Good Night in 1995,” Eraklis Petmezas says. “Back then, most people didn’t even have home computers. I drew with ink on paper, and because back then you didn’t even really have scanners at your house, I’d go to Kinko’s and have them scan the work, and then pay to get it printed. It was pretty rudimentary, and printing all in color wasn’t even something that was really heard of.”
Beyond “Superheroes in Spandex”
Characters who weren’t “superheroes in spandex” were unheard of at the time, Petmezas says. Of Greek descent and a longtime vegan, Petmezas wanted to invent characters and situations that reflected his beliefs and identity.
“Mr. Lune, a character I still write, [is at the center of] a lot of stories about the treatment of animals and what they go through,” Petmezas says. “Also, historically there aren’t a lot of Greek characters in American comic books—with the exception of Hercules, but he’s kind of a goof—and I wanted to do something culturally meaningful, so I started a series [about the character] Kostas, a retired Greek detective who has bizarre adventures.”
Taneka Stotts, the publisher, editor, and founder of Beyond Press, also uses self-publishing to challenge the frequent lack of diversity and representation in mainstream comics. “My current project, [the anthology] Elements: Fire, was born from the notion that the comics industry doesn’t feel so inviting to creators of color,” Stotts says. “Librarians, publishers, and authors are listening, but in comics it’s still not enough. I found 32 people to answer my submission call, and from that 22 amazing stories were created for the book, [which focuses] on creators of color telling their own stories and leading their own narratives.”
Indie comic creators love the mainstream superheroes and the legacies they have spawned, and want to merge those legacies with other kinds of protagonists. Dennis Liu, for instance, self-published Raising Dion, illustrated by Jason Piperberg, to tell the story of a single African-American woman raising a son with superpowers.
“Raising Dion was about helping diversify comics with a strong female protagonist that was a person of color, while also telling a superhero story from the point of view of a parent, and not the superhero,” Liu says. “It also dives into the ethics of gene manipulation and racial perception.”
My Way or No Way
Liu didn’t pitch Raising Dion to publishing houses, fearing that it would no longer belong to him if he did. “The minute someone pays you to do something, it’s not yours anymore,” Liu says. “You lose your freedom and control, and that’s a hard thing to balance as an artist.”
Though plenty of comic creators first start self-publishing after being turned down by publishing houses, many find that they prefer the DIY method. “If you have access to a printer, you can and should publish your own comics,” says Katie Longua, the author and illustrator of Munchies and other self-published comics. “[Publishing on your own] offers the opportunity for a variety of voices and styles of work to see the light of day, [and] quality never becomes a barrier. People do self-publish some amazingly fancy books, but even black-and-white xeroxed hand-assembled minicomics are respected and have a very important place in the community. You have the power to tell your story exactly as you want, and no one can stop you. That’s what inspires me.”
Kathleen Kralowec, who self-publishes Electricity Is Her Element online, finds that operating without a publisher has helped her shape her creative vision and build an audience. “I’m making the decision about what page dimensions are best and what book will ultimately come out of it while gaining the interest of people who may buy the book later on,” Kralowec says. “I don’t have to worry about legalities or about how many sites I post it on, and though it’s a task to market it myself, the project affords me a lot of creative license that it wouldn’t have if I were going through a traditional publisher.”
This issue of creative license and, beyond that, creative ownership is particularly relevant for comic artists because there’s so little flexibility at the major houses. Mike Marts, who ran the X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy lines at Marvel for roughly 10 years before joining DC Comics to head the Batman catalog for another 10 years, cofounded the indie comic press Aftershock in part to give creators more freedom.
“[Comic book writer Joe Pruett] and I wanted to make a creator-friendly and creator-owned environment,” Marts says. “If it goes to a bigger publishing company, then the intellectual property is owned by them. We wanted creators to bring their projects to us so we could put the focus on them as the creators.”
It worked. Aftershock, which handpicks its talent, largely from DC and Marvel, now publishes top names in comics, including Amanda Conner, perhaps best known for her work on the Harley Quinn series at DC Comics.
DIY Distribution and Diamond
Many self-published creators arrange for distribution of their books on digital platforms such as Gumroad and Comixology, and will print copies on their own dime to sell on Etsy, at conventions, or in comic shops and bookstores. Getting books into stores is typically the biggest challenge—unless authors submit their books to Diamond Comic Distributors and make the cut.
“Diamond is the only nationwide distribution platform that exists in the comic book world and it’s notoriously hard to get into,” Kralowec says. “Many comic creators don’t even bother trying.”
There has been criticism that Diamond, as the retail gatekeeper, pays too little attention to indie works. Print manager Caitlin McCabe is disheartened by this perception, and says Diamond has proved its commitment to fostering new and independent talent.
“Our catalog is peppered with people doing this by themselves,” McCabe says. “I work on the print purchasing team, and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can get the spotlight on these indie creators. Outside of the catalogue, we give [indie comic creators] as much coverage as we can [by setting] up Web portals and hosting panels. All self-published comic creators can submit their projects to Diamond for consideration for distribution, and it is my hope that they will.”
No Money, No Problem
The next big challenge for comic book creators is the one that exists for pretty much any maker of art: how to make money. Kickstarter campaigns were hugely successful for Stotts and Longua, and selling at conventions has helped Kralowec recoup much of her printing costs. Sarah Horrocks, whose main comic project is The Leopard, which she describes as “a Giallo comic about a racist transphobic family cannibalizing themselves over the course of a weekend,” says she’s been turning a profit through digital sales, and makes her money back on printing quickly so long as she prints only what she can sell.
But making anything close to a living wage is generally out of the question for creators who solely self-publish. “When working in comics, it’s notoriously difficult to make a living doing just that,” says Kelly Williams, who has self-published minicomics for decades.
Christian Sager, who specializes in horror comics and partnered with Williams on the historical graphic novel The Cabinet, says that even though he often loses money making comics, he always feels that it’s well worth it in the long term.
“Every show and every sale is an opportunity to meet someone new who could become a fan, a friend, or a business collaborator,” Sager says. It can be frustrating sometimes, but that’s why it’s so important to make friends in the community. They’ll support you through it all and remind you to make comics for yourself first.”
Nicole Audrey Spector is a writer living with a dog and a man.