Defining ‘independent’ comics publishers

It may have been clear (albeit dangerous) enough in 1776, but figuring out what “independence” amounts to in the comics world is not as obvious. We call them “independent” publishers, “indie” publishers, or even “indy” publishers — and their comics the same. But each of us means something slightly different by “independent.”

And that’s been true throughout the history of comics. For example, there were “ID” comics in the 1950s — and I think the label came from a loose affiliation of suppliers of newsstand magazines that, in comics at least, pretty much identified themselves in the summer of 1947 and went away in the summer of 1958.

Those “independent distributors” put their marks on comics from the likes of DC, Hillman, Fawcett, Prize, and Marvel — which hardly marked those publishers as “independent.” I think in this case, the indication was that their magazines were distributed through an ID distributor — whereas Classics Illustrated comics, for example, were distributed directly by Gilberton and Dell comics were distributed via (yes) Dell.

That’s clearly not what we’re talking about when we talk about “indies” today.

Certainly, there have always been big comics publishers and little comics publishers. “Little” guys were around from the earliest days, especially when bandwagons seemed a logical transportation to publishing success. Sometimes, a publisher would try for entry to the nation’s newsstands via a number of formats, sticking with what worked best; Louis Silberkleit, for example, was involved with experimentations in pulp-magazine and book publishing in the 1940s, even while he and his partners tried heroic stories and teen tales in their MLJ line of comics.

But the readers in the 1940s didn’t call the little guys “indies.”

Nor is the matter necessarily clarified even today, and different readers consider a variety of different publishers to carry the identification of “independent.” My late husband, Don, and I decided to focus on this aspect of the field for CBG #928 (Aug. 30, 1991). We wrote in our special release then, “We have put together this issue with the hope of bringing to readers’ attention the varied world of so-called ‘independent’ comics. ‘Independent’ comics have brought us over the years comics in a spectrum which includes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Rocketeer, and Fish Police — that includes Groo, Dick Tracy, and Aliens — that includes Nexus, Concrete, and Love and Rockets.” (Speaking of Groo, our cover that issue was provided by Sergio Aragonés; thanks again, Sergio! But I digress.)

On the other hand, the guest editorial for the issue came from Dark Horse Comics President Mike Richardson, who opened his lengthy commentary with: “For years I’ve cringed at the comics industry’s use of the word ‘independent’ — the seemingly innocent and yet oh-so-damning adjective used to describe every comics publisher in the country other than Marvel and DC.” (That was, indeed, how the term was used in 1991.)

He concluded, “It’s time for comics publishers to step out from under the ‘independent’ umbrella and make their presence known in the industry. So what should replace the term ‘independent’ publisher? How about Tundra and Fantagraphics and Kitchen Sink and Dark Horse and Malibu and Mirage and Eclipse, and so on?

”
We provided an “editorial footnote”: “In all probability, CBG has been more responsible than anything else for spreading the term ‘independent comics.’ Why did CBG do this? Because the editors of CBG were asked to do so by publishers who were tired of being referred to as ‘the others’ (as in ‘Marvel, DC, and the others’), or, worse, ‘smaller publishers.’ We did not invent the term ‘independent publishers’; we merely acceded to the request of several publishers to use and popularize it.”

Nevertheless, we concluded by agreeing with Mike that the term had outlived its usefulness.

So what was the world of “independent” (which is to say “not DC or Marvel”) like, when we surveyed every such publisher we could get a response from nearly two decades ago? The publishers (and the year each was founded, when the publisher provided the information) were:

A Capella 1990
AC Comics 1969
Aja Blue 1990
Alpha Productions
Antarctic Press 1985
A-Plus 1981
Apple Press Inc. 1986
Archie Comic Publications 1939 (See what I mean about “not DC or Marvel”?)
Arriba Comics 1990
Blackbird Comics 1985
Brave New Words 1990
Breeze Comics 1991
Burcham Studio 1988
Caliber Press 1988
Catalan Communications 1984
Cat-Head Comics 1981
Comics Interview 1973
Continuity Comics 1973
Continüm 1988
Cottonwood Graphics 1988
CFD Productions
Dark Horse Comics 1986
Deadline 1988
Disney Comics
Double Diamond Press 1988
Dynamic Publishing 1990

The Art of Will Eisner, Kitchen Sink Press

The Art of Will Eisner, published by Kitchen Sink Press, 1982, sold at Heritage Auctions for $54. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions, ha.com

Eclectus Ltd. 1989
Eclipse Enterprises Inc. 1977
FantaCo 1978
Fantagor Press 1986
Future-Fun Inc. 1991
Graphitti Designs 1982
Harvey Comics Entertainment 1989
Heroic Publishing 1987
Innovation 1988
Jabberwocky Graphix 1975
King Hell Press 1989
Kitchen Sink Press 1969
Malibu Graphics Publishing Group 1987
Massive Comics Group 1991
Millennium Publications 1990
Mirage Studios 1983
NBM 1976
New England Press 1987
Page One Publishers & Bookworks Inc. 1989
Pure Imagination 1974
Rebel Studios 1991
Revolutionary Comics 1989
Rip Off Press 1969
Rubber Blanket Press 1991
Russ Cochran Publisher, Ltd. 1971
Slave Labor Graphics 1986
Special Studio 1990
Staton Graphics & Publishing 1985
Superstar Sports Comics
Surf Crazed 1989
The 3-D Zone 1987
Tome Press 1991
Touchmark
Tundra Publishing Ltd. 1990
Voyager Communications Inc. 1989
Vortex Comics 1981
Warp Graphics 1977
The World of Fandom Magazine 1987
Zen Intergalactic Ninja 1987

Nevertheless, despite our agreement with Mike and developments in the field that brought in dozens of new publishers (even while many from 1991 are not publishing today), we continue to do our best to point our readers to the field’s diversity. Moreover, it’s rewarding to note that even the bigger publishers today have evolved their own diversified lines.

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