Insight: Independent Publishers

It’s time for a Sunday feature! I have a 2016 Election special coming up sometime this week, but for today we’re looking at my favourite part of literature; comics! Hooray, next week I’ll be posting my review for X-Men: Apocalypse, until then though I thought I’d give people a look into a part of comics the mainstream hasn’t really covered; the indie scene! Now granted, the full indie scene is gigantic and I’d struggle to cover it in a 15,000 word thesis let alone one of these posts, but today we’ll be talking about the three major independent comic publishers and a look at some of their work!

Dark Horse Comics: Founded 1986

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First up is Dark Horse Comics; Dark Horse launched all the way back in 1986, with a business model aimed at publishing stories the big two (DC & Marvel) wouldn’t have given the time of day. Originally Dark Horse’s success was fairly limited until they stumbled onto a real money maker; licenced properties. It’s no secret that the most popular comics released under the Dark Horse imprint are mostly expanded media for popular television and film series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Predator, Aliens, Indiana Jones, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Terminator and up until 2015 Star Wars all had major comics series published under the Dark Horse banner.

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This business model might seem odd to some; many people have fairly negative attitudes towards popular media getting comic tie-ins, but interestingly critical acclaim for series like Buffy, Angel and Avatar has been commonplace. In addition many of these series are backed by the original creators, Joss Whedon has been lead writer on a number of the Buffy and Angel comics. Also worth noting is just how big an impact Dark Horse had on Star Wars, when the Star Wars film universe was dying a cruel and painful death under George Lucas’ direction of the god awful prequels, Dark Horse Comics was keeping the fandom interested by presenting amazing stories like Star Wars: Legacy (Seriously check that out, Luke Skywalker’s great grandson vs a new Sith Empire).

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It’s not all adaptations and expansions though; in conjunction with this model Dark Horse was able to give writers a chance at launching series outside the norm; Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 are two of Dark Horse’s most notable wholly original series, so successful that both books spawned film franchises. Flaming Carrot Comics operated on the Dark Horse label from 1988 to 2002 and produced the 1998 cult-classic film Mystery Men. Usagi Yojimbo a popular series about an anthropomorphic rabbit who is also a samurai (Even had a number of crossovers with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and of course the most well-known of Dark Horse’s series The Mask, yup that movie with Jim Carey that also spawned a popular animated TV series? Originally a Dark Horse release.

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At this particular point in time Dark Horse has carved itself a pretty solid niche, some might complain that a low number of wholly original series means they aren’t as “good” as Marvel and DC, but it’s important to understand that Dark Horse’s model is about giving writers and creators an avenue to work in without restrictions. As far as independent publishers go Dark Horse has produced high quality content for 30 years and continues to do so.

Recommended series:
Sin City
300
Usagi Yojimno
Star Wars: Legacy
Star Wars: Republic
Hellboy
Buffy: Season 8

Image Comics: Founded 1992

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In the late 1980’s a group of talented artists/writers got pissed off at Marvel’s business practices, namely the rules regarding merchandising and creator control. Among this group were Todd McFarlane (the creator of Spider-Man villain; Venom) and Rob Liefeld (the creator of Deadpool), this group decided to create their own comic company and so in 1992 Image Comics was found, the primary idea behind Image was that creators would have total control of their work and not be subject to Marvel’s practices, ironically by the late 90’s Image had started enforcing many of the same policies.

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Easily the most popular character to come out of Image Comics was Spawn; if you’re unfamiliar with Spawn you apparently missed the 90’s. Spawn was everywhere; 1997 saw a Spawn feature film, there was an animated series on HBO and the comic at one point was outselling Batman and Spider-Man, historically the two biggest sellers. Spawn was Todd McFarlane’s creation, amusingly it’s fairly obvious that Spawn’s design is based on the three most popular characters that McFarlane had been an artist for; Spider-Man, Venom and Batman. Spawn wasn’t the only good thing to come out of Image though; Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon holds the honour of being the longest comic ever 1992-present to have the same writer and artist on every issue, given that it recently celebrated its 200th issue that’s a pretty big deal. Other notable series include; Youngblood, Witchblade, Gen13, WildC.A.T.S. and The Darkness.

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Originally Image was conceived as an alternative to Marvel & DC, instead of using Dark Horse’s model of operating outside the big two’s primary market, Image competed directly and throughout the 90’s kicked a lot off ass, figuratively speaking. Unfortunately disputes between creators, led to most of the original founders leaving the company, perhaps most disappointing was the loss of series like Gen13 after creator Jim Lee rebranded them under his own company Wildstorm comics. Wildstorm would eventually be acquired by DC comics in 1999, who have seen fit to bury it worse than Vince McMahon buried WCW. Towards the end of the 90’s Image seemed destined to fail, until Jim Valentino’s diversification initiative started to pay off; moving Image away from direct competition with Marvel and DC, allowed new creators with ideas not typically featured in comics to produce new material and this produced huge dividends in 2003 when Robert Kirkman launched The Walking Dead.

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The critical acclaim for The Walking Dead not only saw a rejuvenation in sales, but an expansion on Image’s part into the world of TV. After Kirkman’s success more and more established creators started relationships with Image, producing original content without oversight from their publishers. This meant that creators such as Ed Brubaker (Batman), Scott Snyder (also Batman), Jonathan Hickman (The Avengers) and Mark Millar (Marvel: Civil War, Kick-Ass) were able to produce entirely new series without having to cater to a predetermined market. This led to a change in how Image comics was viewed; no longer being the haven for angst-ridden artists fed up with the big two, it instead became known as the place for alternative, critically acclaimed graphic novels.

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While Image does still produce a number of proto-typical superhero series (Spawn and Savage Dragon haven’t stopped printing since 1992), the diversification initiative has seen the rise of widely praised series like Wytches, Black Magick, Bitch Planet, The Wicked + The Divine and The Mice Templar. With a number of upcoming limited series in the mix, Image has successfully reshaped itself as an imprint offering a range of standard superhero output alongside more artistic and diverse products.

Recommended series:
Spawn
Savage Dragon
Wytches
The Wicked + The Divine
Witchblade
Chrononauts

IDW Publishing: Founded 1999

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IDW is the youngest of the major independent labels currently operating; founded in 1999 IDW occupies a similar territory to Dark Horse although they also chip into the market share currently held by Image. IDW’s bread and butter are comic expansions of licensed media, much like Dark Horse, currently IDW offers Star Trek, GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony, Doctor Who and Ghostbusters. Despite these series being expansions, much like Dark Horse, IDW’s production of these series has been held with high levels of acclaim. In particular the Ninja Turtles series launched in 2011 has been praised by critics for returning the Turtles to their darker roots as a noir-action series.

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In addition to series based on film and television, IDW holds rights to a number of video game adaptations including Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid and Dragon Age. Added to that they are the current producer of Magic: The Gathering comics and Mage Knight comics, based on the popular card games. While IDW’s primary output is licensed adaptations they’ve also been responsible for a number of award winning original series; 30 Days of Night, Locke & Key, Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, Kill Shakespeare and The Life and Times of Savior 28. IDW’s original content is predominantly made up of horror/thriller series, although Savior 28 was a particularly notable parody and critique of the typical superhero genre.

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IDW’s early success had a fairly major impact on Image comics, although Image’s reinvention as a home for original series ended up cutting into IDW’s market share. Currently IDW’s most popular series are licensed adaptations, particularly notable is their long-running Transformers series. IDW’s most direct competition is Dark Horse Comics, the two publishers occasionally traded series, with IDW holding the rights to Joss Whedon’s Angel series, until 2008 when Dark Horse acquired Angel. Similarly IDW’s acquisition of Star Trek annoyed both DC and Marvel, who had both held the brand at various times, with DC having recently reacquired it after the purchase of Wildstorm, only for IDW to snatch it out from underneath them.

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Despite a relative lack in wholly original series, IDW has seen growing success through smart business decisions. Despite launching in 1999, they’re currently regarded as the fourth largest publisher and have access to a large library of books and licensed material unavailable to their competitors. Film adaptations have been lined up for a number of popular series, with the SyFy channel taking particular interest.

Recommended series:
Locke & Key
30 Days of Night
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Spike Vs Dracula
The Life and Times of Savior 28
Transformers
Ghostbusters

So that’s it for independent publishers, there are a large number of other independents operating in the world today. Honourable mention goes to Oni Press who published Scott Pilgrim the series that inspired the award-winning film starring Michael Cera. To find the titles recommended visit comiXology.

Online Comic Store: http://www.comixology.com

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