The Origins of Independent Comics [1983]

Thursday, August 1, 2019
Word that my friends John Ostrander and Tim Truman’s character Grimjack—launched in 1983 for the Evanston, Illinois-based startup First Comics—has landed a big movie project reminded me of a series of features my friend and First editor Mike Gold assigned me to create for Grimjack and other First titles in 1983 and 1984: “The Origins of Independent Comics.”

At the end of the final installment, I declared in the third person: “Charlie … is looking forward to his piece of the action from The Origins of Independent Comics—The Movie.

In the hope that that hour has come round at last, and with a nod to Hollywood, here’s the full six-part series—whose text is available digitally for the first time here.

Part 1: (Published in comics cover-dated) December 1983
Wally Wood and Witzend

Every medium has its pioneers: The newspaper, Horace Greeley; broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow; animation, Walt Disney. The comics industry has its trailblazers, too—most recently, those responsible for opening what’s become its fastest-growing field, the direct sales market.

The so-called new publishers—including First Comics, of course—have a lot of people to thank, people who were among the first to produce comics for discerning individuals who seek out specific artists or writers, who have a more active involvement with the medium than merely buying what appears to be interesting … “the fan market,” as it’s called. People like Mike Friedrich, Dave and Deni Sim, Jack Katz, Wendy and Richard Pini … and, most importantly, Wallace Wood.

Here’s Charles Meyerson’s look back on what may have been the first professional direct sales comic book.

* * *

For me, it began with a small note on the letters page of Mad 112, dated July 1967:

“Have you heard about Wally Wood’s new magazine, Witzend, which features some of the best comic artists in the world … and sells for the amazing price of $1.00?”

It was signed “Wallace Wood” … and followed by an editor’s note: “No, we haven’t, and we resent our letter column being used for such crass commercial purposes as this plug.”

Crass it may have been, but it was one of the few channels open to promote what at the time was an expensive experiment. After all, comic books were still 12¢.

Wally Wood died in 1981—an untimely end to a career highlighted by work at EC, a career that encompassed nearly every major publisher. But Witzend is still published by his one-time assistant, Bill Pearson, also the editor at Charlton Comics:

“Woody thought if the artists did their best work, society would discover and support it. It was a naive idea at the time, because we had no distribution at all. We had no way to get it seen … and nowhere to sell it; it was all by subscription. We built a subscription list of about 3,000 names, eventually.” Pearson says little notes like the one in Mad and in Galaxy would win about 50 subscribers each.

THE CONCEPT ORIGINATED in 1966 with another of Wood’s assistants, Dan Adkins. “Dan wanted to put out a fanzine (a comics fan magazine), mainly to get his own characters out there,” Pearson says. A finished product made for a slicker presentation to publishers.

Limited-edition comics publications until then had almost all been projects by fans, interested mainly in writing about or drawing characters owned by Marvel, DC or out-of-business publishers. Witzend was one of the first efforts by professionals to publish their own work, featuring characters they created and owned.

Publicized mostly through those other limited-edition magazines, the first issue of Witzend came out in the summer of 1966. It featured work by Wood, and a collaboration by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta. “Most contributors got nothing except their work in print,” Pearson says. “It was very important for them to get their copyright on the material. Look back at those issues: our copyright notes were in 18-point type. We wanted to be sure everyone would see them … because at the time there was none of this ‘sharing the rights with the creators.’ It was a real breakthrough.”

The first issue went back to press twice, for a total run of about 3,000 copies. Witzend #7 (1970) hit a peak of only 6,000. “It was never a moneymaking venture,” Pearson says. “And when it became obvious I wasn’t going to be able to maintain a regular schedule, we had to give up subscriptions.”

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TWELVE ISSUES OVER 17 years is not a publication record to make others envious. Ah, but the contents!

Witzend #3 featured the debut of Steve Ditko’s “Mr. A,” a humorless, no-compromise crimefighter who showed some of us a side of Ditko we never knew. And it gave us an idea what Spider-Man might have been like without Stan Lee. (Issue #7 included a two-page “rebuttal”: A Pearson/Tim Battersby satire titled “Mr. E, Master of Mayhem by ‘Steve Diktato.’”)

Witzend #4 offered the debut of Wood’s “Wizard King” illustrated serial, which he later expanded (for his own series, Woodwork). The character design for “Wizard King” may have served as inspiration for Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest.

Witzend #7 cover-featured a story by the late Vaughn Bode (very much alive at the time), including characters which—along with Wood’s—would later serve as models for Ralph Bakshi’s animated film Wizards. And it featured early work by Berni Wrightson.

PEARSON SAYS CONTRIBUTORS thought of Witzend as “a showplace—a place they wanted their work to be seen.” Ditko, he says, was so enthusiastic he even helped with the envelope-stuffing and other routine work. Even after Wood left—selling Pearson his publishing company for the grand sum of $1—Pearson says Wood didn’t like to see an issue without some Wood work in it. (Pearson is quick to point out that, in addition to that single dollar, he agreed to fulfill Wood’s guarantees to subscribers—several thousand dollars worth of printing and postage expenses.)

To fans and pros in the 1960s and ’70s who were used to comics produced under the strict-standards of the Comics Code Authority, Witzend was another world. Women went naked or seminaked (some in fashions that might pass the Code today … but not then). Blood flowed more freely. Don Martin’s characters engaged in bodily functions you wouldn’t have seen in Mad.

At the time, I found it a little disturbing, at first. I had trouble accepting comics characters who did that stuff. But it grew on me; and Wood and Co. made clear they weren’t in it for popular acclaim or money.

Editorial, Witzend #2: “We will not have page after page of (ads for) absolutely essential products like pimple creams, two-mile binoculars or fetish pictures to hustle. We are counting on … your appreciation of our material.”

It was the foundation for a publishing revolution leading eventually to Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, the Pinis’ Elfquest, major concessions to creators at the established companies, and, of course, to the creation of First Comics. But, in Pearson’s words, “It’s an antique now. There are markets now paying for material that is pure expression by the artist. That was our whole thing: that artists could do their own work and writers could create their own stories.”

Does the new and growing market for creator-owned comics mean that independent, non-profit publications like Witzend are doomed? Pearson doesn’t think so: “There’ll always be people so interested in putting out their own product, from cover to cover, that they’ll still want to publish their own material—people who have to do every bit of it themselves.”

* * *

(Charles Meyerson is a reporter and the morning news anchor for WXRT radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago. He’s been writing about comics ever since 1964, when his first fan-letter appeared in Herbie #7.)

Part 2: January 1984
Mike Friedrich and Star*Reach

You may have a hard time believing it—after buying this comic at a store where the owner actually reads and likes comics—but there was a time when most fans bought their comics at places where the people behind the counter (and the magazine distributors behind them) didn’t know Superman from Spider-Man.

That was before Mike Friedrich founded Star*Reach—probably the first commercially distributed comic book specifically aimed at the fan market.

Star*Reach took the idea of creator-owned material championed by Wally Wood’s Witzend (see last month’s opening installment) and made it more available to fans than ever before.

IN 1972, FRIEDRICH was an experienced fan-turned-pro, with writing credits for Batman, Iron Man and Green Lantern, among others. Living in California’s Bay area near San Jose, he was then one of the few comics pros residing outside the New York area. That isolation from the heart of the comics industry may have added to his insight.

“For years, I’d been visiting Bob Sidebottom’s Comic Collector Shop, one of the first specialty stores in the country,” Friedrich recalls. “I’d picked up a lot about the problems of distribution through the standard system.

“At the time, DC and Marvel had no interest in providing material he could sell, beyond what they were already doing. They weren’t interested in his opinions because he was one store and he didn’t count. Being a comics store, he even more didn’t count, because he was dealing with ‘the fans.’”

That was also about the time Jim Steranko was shucking a praise-studded career as a Marvel artist and writer to form his own publishing company. Supergraphics, which now publishes the media-magazine Prevue. And the underground comix business was in full flourish, with creators owning their material and collecting royalties from publishers—like the book and record industries

So, Friedrich says, he began to sense opportunity knocking. “I had some contacts with artists and writers. I figured there was a big enough market through distributors like Bud Plant and Phil Seuling to put something out and see if it would work.”

STAR*REACH #1 came out in 1974, a black-and-white comic-book-size publication whose color cover featured the adventures of Howard Chaykin’s “Cody Starbuck,” a Han Solo-kind-of-guy (pre-Star Wars). The back cover featured Jim Starlin’s fable, “The Birth of Death.” (In a stab at equal time, Starlin also contributed a one-page account of “The Origin of God.”) In three reprintings, the Starlin piece won the front cover position.

A lot of stores displayed Star*Reach side-by-side with the undergrounds. But Friedrich says he tried to keep his distance: “I knew I didn’t have much of an underground market, because I was trying to do mainstream, fantasy/adventure material.”

Eventually, someone suggested Friedrich use the word ground-level to set his product apart from the undergrounds and the “above-ground” titles from Marvel and DC. He says it may have been a put-down, but he used it to promote Star*Reach Productions.

Now, he says, it’s useless: “For one thing, the undergrounds have pretty much disappeared. And the range of work from different publishers is now very broad. Ronin by Frank Miller … DC would not have published that 10 years ago. An underground publisher might not have published it 10 years ago, either, because it would have been too straight. An alternative publisher would have had to publish it.

“But that type of product now is an accepted part of DC’s product line. So you don’t need to create a distinction between yourself and DC. It gets created within each company.”

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STAR*REACH WAS HOME to the work of a lot of Marvel and DC’s most respected talent: Neal Adams, Len Wein, Dick Giordano, Steve Leialoha, Frank Brunner, Joe Staton, Lee Marrs and P. Craig Russell—whose series, “Parsifal” (with Patrick C. Mason), Star*Reach Productions later collected and reprinted in color. Same with Chaykin’s “Starbuck” series.

Star*Reach was probably the first of the ground-level or “direct sale” comics to use interior color. Issues 12 through 15 (the last before Star*Reach grew to magazine size) featured a few such pages.

Friedrich admits what he calls his biggest mistakes: He turned down the chance to publish what would become two of today’s most successful direct sales comics, Cerebus by Dave Sim and Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini. “I should have listened more to distributors. I should have been able to tell Elfquest had a market. I didn’t. Dave Sim had been working for me for a while, but when he proposed Cerebus, I passed. I take some credit for giving the Pinis and Dave advice on how to set up their own publishing companies, although, of course, they actually did it themselves.”

Eventually, the cost of experimenting with color and other money problems pulled Star*Reach under. In 1979, Friedrich left publishing reluctantly. But he says he doesn’t regret developments since.

After Star*Reach folded, he took his know-how to Marvel, as its first direct sales manager—developing the “Baxter book” and co-developing with Jim Shooter the “graphic novel” format. At the same time, he was using his connections to develop what’s become the comics’ first “talent agency,” Star*Reach Productions, to represent writers and artists who want to keep control of the material they create. He left Marvel last year to do that full-time. He’s now responsible for packaging the “Elric” adaptations published by Marvel and Pacific, as well as Eclipse’s DNAgents.

“I’M DEDICATED NOW to fulfilling a lot of the dreams I had in the late ’60s and early ’70s: Winning more control and responsibility for creative people.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am. I see more possibility for comics publishing than I believe has existed at any other time in the business. The relationship between publishers and the readers is much closer than it’s ever been. I see more publishers entering the field. Book publishers I’m dealing with are starting to look at the comics business as another avenue.”

And Friedrich claims a lot of the credit for that shift.

“I BELIEVE STAR*REACH paved the emotional path … to go in this direction. I was the first publisher to say that these specialty stores and distributors count, and that if you listen to them—you can make a lot of money publishing for their market.”

Mike Friedrich’s not alone, admiring his accomplishments. Just ask any of us who used to buy our comics from people who looked at us funny.

(Charles Meyerson wishes to thank Larry Charet of Larry’s Comic Book Store in Chicago for loaning him a set of the original run. Meyerson, of course, is still a reporter for WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago.)

Part 3: April 1984
Jack Katz and The First Kingdom

JACK KATZ is a hard man to reach. The only way I know to arrange an interview with him—aside from sending a letter to his post-office box—is to call Bud Plant, his publisher/distributor in California, and leave a message. But Katz is quick to call back. He apologizes for the secrecy, but he says it’s the only way to protect his magnum opus, the 24-issue graphic novel The First Kingdom.

“It is unlike anything ever written. My wife and I keep all the original artwork in two vaults. I take the script out a book at a time. Whenever I go anywhere, we take with us whatever I have at the time. I’m sorry I’m paranoid about this.

“I ain’t takin’ a chance on anything: Only one other person has seen (the unpublished issues), and his mind is totally blown. He goes around in a state of total stupefaction.”

Katz will say no more about it, except to tell you about the theft of other creators’ work and to mention “outrageous monsters in my past who have tried to steal the artwork legally.”

WHATEVER HIS REASONS for secrecy. at the age of 58, Jack Katz is responsible for a landmark in the history of independent comics. In extending “creators’ rights” to mainstream artists, Katz was probably the first to go a step further: Instead of showcasing the work of many, The First Kingdom put the vision of a single artist/writer on the direct-sales market. (Katz was among the first to use the phrase “graphic novel,” although his work is more like what is now referred to as a “limited” or “maxi-” series.)

“I started in the business at 16. I drew Bulletman. And Archie, just after it started. I ghosted it in 1946. Then I got a job at King Features, I did everything. Also at that time—although nobody knows it—I worked on someone’s comic strip.” Whose? Again, the secrecy: “That will remain sacrosanct, because I was very fortunate, inasmuch as he gave me that chance.

“In 1951, I decided to go out on my own. I did many, many jobs until 1966, when I dropped out completely. Then, I did everything else: taught, sculpted—everything except drive a truck.” Why not? “I could never concentrate; I started doing strange things like knicking people along the way and backing into other cars. I have a chauffeur: my wife.”

BUT BY 1970, Katz was back in comics, over at Marvel. “I did a ‘Sub-Mariner.’ Stan Lee took out half the pages because he didn’t like the story. I thought it was great.” Katz did work for Warren and the short-lived Skywald companies, work which included the forerunners of The First Kingdom. But he believed comics weren’t living up to their potential.

“Let’s say motion pictures haven’t been invented. It’s Christmas, and your father brings home a package about 14 inches high, 12 inches across. It’s a book. The cover is black, except it says King Kong: A Fully Illustrated Novel. Can you imagine what an impact that would have?”

Katz had an idea he thought would work in that format. “Around 1947, after the atomic bomb had been dropped, I kept thinking, ‘What would happen after a nuclear war?’ I kept it in my head for many, many years. The regeneration of man after an atomic holocaust: most of the people are mutated; they live much longer because the pernicious rays of the sun do not eat into our skin as much; there’s a continual dust in the atmosphere and that’s why people go around fairly nude.

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“UNTIL THE UNDERGROUNDS came out, there was no way. Then, I said, if an underground can take a chance on this kind of material, surely one publisher might take a chance on The First Kingdom. I took Bud Plant the first seven pages. The artwork was very crude. Remember, I had to learn to draw again in 1969, after a 14-year layoff.”

Bud Plant took the chance. “A damn courageous publisher,” Katz says.

And since 1974, as of this writing, Bud Plant has published 18 issues—magazine-size, with color covers and black-and-white interiors.

It looks like science fiction, but Katz says it goes far beyond that. “I’ve done a lot of reading on psychology, sociology. It talks about programming: why we need to program ourselves; why we cling so desperately to our bad habits; why, when a person does something very successful or very evil, he then goes about to destroy himself and his opportunity. That is the first 20 books.”

He says the last four books represent much more. And he won’t talk about them at all … even to those interested in turning The First Kingdom into a movie.

“PARAMOUNT ASKED for the manuscript. I refused. We had a tug-of-war. Who the hell am I, an unknown writer, not to give them the manuscript? Why, can you imagine all the money they’d give me? They’d even have Farrah Fawcett play in this thing!

“Those morons didn’t understand what this was all about. The only way you can get a serious idea across is to keep it secret until it has to come out. I would love to tell you; you’ll have to read it.

“The fellow who did Mount Rushmore ended up penniless. I think he owed about $30,000. He said, ‘I know those people on that mountain are as imperfect as myself. But they were the voice of a body of documents which said I didn’t have to take the same job my father did and because I was born poor didn’t mean God wanted me to be poor.’ He had a purpose.”

JACK KATZ HAS a purpose, too.

“I want to show the kids—the young artists today—they don’t have to be afraid.

“They can express themselves. They don’t have to put across mindless violence. Their precious lives, their ambitions, are very meaningful. They owe the legacy of their experience to the next generation … and they should have the courage to do this. This is why I’m doing The First Kingdom.”

(Charlie, who spends most of his time reporting history-in-the-making for WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago, wants to thank The New Fantasy Shop in Chicago and Rick’s One-Stop Comics in Oak Park, IL, for their help this month.)

Part 4: May 1984
Wendy and Richard Pini and Elfquest

Until Wendy and Richard Pini launched WaRP Graphics and Elfquest in 1978, the history of independent comics was dominated by professionals who had left the mainstream to keep financial and creative control over their work. The Pinis were among the very first non-pros to enter the independent field—and they’re certainly the most successful.

Coming from one of the few female comics fans of the 1960s, Wendy Fletcher’s letter in Silver Surfer #5 (1969) caught the eye of Richard Pini. “It was a very optimistic, kind of upbeat letter enjoyed the tone of very much,” he says. “So I began corresponding with her.”

THREE YEARS LATER, they married. Wendy Pini just about dropped out of the comics scene, devoting herself to freelance science fiction illustration …

… Which led her to a science-fiction convention in 1976. There she met Frank Thorne, who was drawing Red Sonja for Marvel. “He was such a delightful person,” she says, “we just kind of got caught up in his interest in Sonja.” Wendy rejoined comics fandom. For a couple of years she appeared at conventions, somewhat scantily dressed as Sonja, performing skits with Thorne.

Ah, but others coveted the Sonja role! And Wendy took some criticism from fans who thought her outfit didn’t enhance the image of women. All of that, she says, has no bearing on Elfquest, except that “it put me in the public eye. It challenged me to face criticism and got me a certain amount of notoriety. It helped me gain confidence.”

Eventually, she says, she and Richard asked themselves, ‘Why should we give Marvel free publicity when we can do something for ourselves?’”

THAT “SOMETHING” turned out to be Elfquest: in Wendy’s words, “a fantasy/romance/adventure, with a dash of science fiction. It’s about a tribe of elves seeking other members of its race and, ultimately, its origins.”

Wendy denies speculation (in Part 1 of this series) that Elfquest’s characters may have been influenced by Wally Wood’s “Wizard King.”

“The whole universe is Wendy’s,” Richard says. “We can show you characters who very strongly resemble those in Elfquest today. Neither of us saw “Wizard King’ until Seagate published the book, substantially after Elfquest started.” Wendy says she was inspired by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and by Walt Disney’s animation.

FROM INSPIRATION TO pulp was a big jump. Richard, who handles WaRP’s business and editorial chores, says, “We didn’t know squat about publishing. From Marvel and DC, we got polite ‘thank you’s. Bud Plant and Mike Friedrich said they really didn’t want to take the gamble.”

Eventually, they found a small independent publisher and cut a deal that—after months’ delay saw “Elfquest’s” first installment in Fantasy Quarterly 1 (March 1978).

“While we were 20% happy it was finally out, we were 80% disappointed with the way it looked,” Richard says. “But they did print and distribute it. We received a lot of positive feedback. And that encouraged us to try it on our own.

“We had to borrow a couple thousand dollars from my folks, who were skeptical but willing to take a gamble.” WaRP GRAPHICS printed 10,000 copies of Elfquest 2. They sold quickly enough to help the Pinis pay back Richard’s parents within a few months.

The only two independent comics distributors at the time, Bud Plant and Phil Seuling, bought the whole print run, Richard says. “When we went to do issue 3. they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take the same amount.’ Around issue 4 or 5, word began to get out. That’s when our print-runs started to grow.”

The print-run for the latest issue (17) was 85.000 After several reprintings, copies of issue 1 number more than 100,000.

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UNLIKE THEIR PREDECESSORS, the Pinis seem to have entered the field intent not only on keeping their creative rights, but also on marketing them.

Elfquest’s pages have included ads for Elfquest pewter figurines, T-shirts, an Official Fan Club, full-color reprints, art portfolios, a novel (from Playboy Paperbacks) and a role-playing game. Plans for an animated film are in negotiation.

For all its success, Elfquest will end—as a black-and-white, magazine-size comic—with issue 20, due late this year.

“It seems idiotic,” Richard says, “but one thing that’s always been important to us, as one measure of Elfquest’s success, is how well it breaks out of the comics market. As far as the direct-sales market goes, we’re successful. The newsstand market, we haven’t scratched.” Yet.

Beginning next year, Marvel Comics will begin reprinting Elfquest in regular, color format, for mass distribution. The reprints of the original editions will stop, but Richard says the reprint collections (in hard and soft covers) will continue. “I want to make sure Elfquest is always available to the person who’s just heard of it.

“TWO YEARS AGO, I left a job at IBM to devote full time to WaRP Graphics. A year from now, I don’t want to go sit on a street-corner and twiddle my thumbs with nothing to publish. WaRP itself, hopefully, will continue doing comic magazines. And I intend to try book publishing—small-run high-quality editions.” But no color comics.

“After some soul-searching and talking to Wendy, I decided that’s not what I want to do. I really like the black-and-white magazine format.

“I think the independent industry is the best thing that’s happened to comics in a long time. (But) if there’s any regret, it’s that there’s not enough true alternative product out there.

“THE PROPORTION OF off-the-wall alternatives is getting smaller every day, in comparison to the number that look like mainstream books.

“That’s not what Wendy and I were feeling when this independent industry was growing.

“Somewhere along the line, the number of titles suddenly grew like topsy, to compete for the fan’s dollar. When that happened in the mainstream (in the ’70s), you had things like the Great DC Implosion and Marvel cutting titles with a machete. I wonder if the same thing’s going to happen in the independent market.”

Charlie wants to thank One-Stop Comics in Oak Park, IL, for helping with research for this installment. When you’re in Chicago, you can hear him report the news on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM).

Part 5: June 1984
Dave Sim and Cerebus

Dave Sim has a mission: “My priority,” he says, “is to make sure that every month until March 2003 there will be a new 20-page segment of this 6,000-page story.”

That wasn’t always the case. For one thing, his Cerebus the Aardvark began as a bimonthly comic. And before the first issue appeared, late in 1977, his commitment was much more limited. In the words of his publisher (and former wife) Deni, “We said, ‘Why don’t we do three or four issues? If we’ve lost money by then, we can ditch the whole project.”

IN 1976, DAVE SIM was a 20-year-old high-school drop-out doing a lot of what he calls “cartooning for money—doing tire ads,” and working at the “Now and Then Books” comics shop in Kitchener, Ontario.

Not far away, 25-year-old office-worker/dancer/hamburger-slinger Denise Loubert was looking to launch a writing career: “A couple of friends and I were trying to form a writing group. I didn’t read comics. Then, my brother picked up a copy of Dark Fantasy (a collection of illustrated fiction assembled by the late Gene Day). I said, ‘Why don’t we do one of these?’”

She went to “Now and Then,” hoping to sell a fanzine she hadn’t published yet. She met Dave, who had done some of the illustration for Dark Fantasy. He agreed to contribute to her project.

THEY CAME UP with a company name, “Aardvark-Vanaheim Press,” and a mascot—an aardvark, of course—whom they named after their magazine: Cerebus. It was to have been Cerberus, after the three-headed dog of Greek mythology, but Deni misspelled the logo.

Unfortunately, Cerebus the anthology went the way of many projects back then: “We sent it out to be printed.” Deni says, “and the guy just took our money and disappeared.”

They never published the anthology, but her friendship with Dave endured.

“Deni had a regular job,” Dave says. “There was someone basically supporting me by feeding me and being emotionally supportive as well. After we started living together, it became obvious that comic books were what I wanted to do.”

DENI TOOK THE ROLE of publisher: “He needed somebody who could present it in an unbiased manner to the distributors. Also, I had a basic idea that artists shouldn’t have to deal with mundane aspects: who’s got their checks in, how are we going to get them out of people who didn’t, and what box of books got lost this month.”

“Even as a fan,” Dave says. “I knew I preferred any comic that said it came out bimonthly and then came out bimonthly … to any book that maybe was of better quality but didn’t come out when promised.” Irregularly published books “just don’t feel like the bandwagon most fans are looking for.”

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AS A CONTRIBUTOR to Star*Reach (profiled in part two of this series) and as an editor for Orb magazine in Toronto (as Dave puts it, “a fanzine trying to do it professionally”), he was convinced interior color didn’t work for non-newsstand comics.

Orb tried color, even though it didn’t work for Star*Reach. Basically, it didn’t sell more copies and it wasn’t necessarily more attractive.”

So Dave and Deni took the mascot of their ill-fated anthology and made him the star of a black-and-white comic book.

In the beginning, it was mainly a series of take-offs on Barry Smith’s Conan artwork and on sword-and-sorcery comics in general. But Cerebus was possibly the first serious comic-book-size competition for newsstand comics in the direct-sales market.

CEREBUS APPEARED a few months before Elfquest. Nevertheless, Dave says he owes a debt to Richard and Wendy Pini:

“Until Issue 15 or 16 (of Cerebus) I was basically just trying to do good comics. Seeing the enormous success of Elfquest, I became aware that it was very important to Wendy. It was a story she wanted to tell.

“I started looking at Cerebus and saying, ‘What do I want to say with it—which changed the book from a sword-and-sorcery pastiche to the statement of political or social values or the basic quest for truth, moving comics away from adolescent power fantasies.

“I DON’T READ a lot of comics. I try to read what is considered the world’s great literature. You find basic themes: politics, religion, how men and women relate. Those are the kind of things I’m trying to explore in Cerebus.

“You can build a constituency of just 20,000 people; you’re not as accountable to the marketplace as other media are.

“It would be tragic if that kind of medium weren’t able to broaden its horizons so someone could come along and say, ‘This is a pretty esoteric idea; I don’t know how many comics fans are interested, but I’ll be content with being able to say it to 5,000 very interested people.’”

CEREBUS’ “CONSTITUENCY” has grown steadily. Print-run for the first issue was 2,000; for the latest (#56, as of this writing), 20,000. Dave and Deni announced their marriage between issues 6 and 7: they announced their separation in #55. But Deni says their differences are personal, not professional, and Aardvark-Vanaheim goes on.

In addition to Cerebus, which became a monthly with #14, the line has expanded to include Arn Saba’s Neil the Horse, Bill Loeb’s Journey and Valentino’s Normal-Man.

Dave is working on his second deck of Cerebus-inspired playing cards. He’s writing commentary for a series of reprint anthologies, and his Cerebus art portfolio is a sort of pilot for what he hopes could become a short animated film.

HE’S EVEN WORKING on a color Cerebus story for Marvel’s Epic magazine. Dave says it could lead to a second Cerebus comic—in color.

Above all, though, he’s committed to telling Cerebus’s life-story, month after month, until just after the turn of the millennium.

“I will have traced maybe 20 years of the character’s life, finishing with his death in the final issue, because I believe there’s a need for a more naturalistic comic book.”

Funny that a sword-wielding aardvark could usher in an era of “more naturalistic” comics. But that could be Cerebus’ lot in the history of independent comics.

(Charlie Meyerson reports the news weekdays on WXRT Radio (93.1 FM) in Chicago.)

Part 6: July 1984
The future of independent comics

(In concluding our series on the origins of independent comics, we asked Charles Meyerson for his own analysis on what has become the most vital movement in the comics medium in the past four decades.)

INDEPENDENT COMICS still face some problems. But most new media have problems: Remember the battle among 78-rpm, 33 1/3-rpm and 45-rpm records? Eight-track tapes and cassettes? VHS and Beta video tape?

Independent comics are a new medium: different paper, different printing, different distribution, closer ties between creators and audience—the comic book you are now holding is as different from newsstand comics circa 1960 as Q’Bert is from I Love Lucy.

Despite the growing pains, comics are bursting with new companies, new formats and new ideas.

As Star*Reach publisher/agent Mike Friedrich said earlier in this series, “I see more possibility for comics publishing than I believe has existed at any other time in the business. I see more publishers entering the field. I see more small-press, alternative people coming in to publish.”

TEN YEARS AGO, the comics industry was facing declining sales, wondering how long it had to live. But a dedicated fan-market made it clear it would buy new formats and new material by favorite talent. The people who founded the independent comics field—including distributors such as Phil Seuling and Bud Plant—responded, turning the comics industry around.

Even so, to hear the critics tell it, all is not well. One after another, they’ve complained the fan-market is strangling the industry by supporting little but superhero comics.

Elfquest publisher Richard Pini: “There’s a lot coming out from Pacific and First and several publishers that is good product. But there’s a certain sameness to it.”

Cerebus publisher Deni Sim: “Comics right now are at a real crucial point. The publishers could be going into a real golden age, as far as creativity is concerned. Working together, we could introduce  … not just stuff that sells real good right now, but the kind of books that 50 and 100 years from now people will still be holding up and saying ‘This is art.’”

FIRST KINGDOM’S creator, Jack Katz, says he’s sorry about the drop in comics for younger readers: “The idea of comics is to broaden the imagination at the lowest level and then introduce the kids into the world of reality on the other. Television and all these other media are just stealing the kids’ eyes away. I need the kiddies to be introduced to comic books first, or else they won’t be able to follow the graphic novel.”

The independents may have other problems: As the big, established companies have entered the direct-sales market, the name-recognition and fan-following their characters have developed has given them an edge over newer, more experimental projects. The proliferation of glossy reprint titles, in particular, has upset First Comics publisher Rick Obadiah. In their newsletter to retailers, he called it “the big dump,” designed to “dry up available retailer and distributor capital … (to) pillage and rape the direct-sales market.”

Deni Sim: “I had two other titles I was going to put out this year, I can’t, because there’s no room on the market for them. On the other hand, (the established companies) are answerable to other people. I know very well that a corporation has to earn more money this year than it did last year, every year, to justify its existence.

“I have to make more money this year than last year, and they’re on a bigger scale.”

Dealers have some problems, as well. One of them, writing in the Comics Buyer’s Guide last year, objected to publishers pushing subscriptions. “By discounting subscriptions,” he wrote, “you are in direct competition with us. Do you or do you not want comic stores to carry your product?”

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BUT THE WONDERFUL thing about comics is that they combine words and pictures you can receive without any special high-priced equipment. And because the initial financial investment for most publishers is nowhere near the cost of a TV show, a movie or a video game, comics are an industry ideal for people who want to market ideas.

Witzend’s publisher, Bill Pearson, says those people are out there, “so interested in putting out their own product from cover to cover that they’ll still want to publish their own material.”

The trick is keeping the industry and the audience open to those people. Cerebus creator Dave Sim: “It would be tragic if … a medium where you can build a constituency of just 20,000 people weren’t able to broaden its horizons so somebody could come along and say … ‘Yeah, I’ve got a bizarre idea, and I think I’m going to stick with that, rather than come up with a new group of mutants.’”

THE COMICS INDUSTRY is much the same as other contemporary mass media: You have more choices than ever before.

With the maturity of FM radio, chances are your town has more viable radio stations than ever. With the growth of cable, you can watch more TV channels than there are hours in the day.

With the rise of the direct-sales, independent market, you have more comics titles to consider than fans have had at almost any time in thirty years.

The industry itself has some tough choices ahead. But the comics might not have survived to make those choices, if not for the pioneers of independent comics.

(Charlie—who still anchors morning newscasts for WXRT Radio in Chicago—has benefited from those who helped creators win the rights to their comics material, and is looking forward to his piece of the action from The Origins of Independent Comics—The Movie!)

Notes on the resurrection of this series, whose creation predates my ownership of a computer and therefore was written using a, you know, typewriter: These pieces were digitized using Google Docs’ ability to extract text from any graphic image—in this case, from scans of the published comic book pages. The process is impressive, but not perfect. Holler if you find typos. Also: As I recall, each of these installments was based on recorded interviews. If I ever find those tapes, I’ll digitize them and share them here.

Enjoy this? Check out the sequels: “Scapegoat in Four Colors,” a history of comics and censorship; and “Collecting Dust: A Guide to Preserving Comic Books.” And this blog contains lots more about comics and pop culture. Subscribe—free—by email to get the latest.

1 comment:

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