A History of Indy Comic Books

“Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?”
– Pig-Pen (A Charlie Brown Christmas)

Spurred by changes in the comic book industry during the Sixties, a handful of small start-up publishers outside the mainstream began to sell comic books exclusively through comic book specialty shops in the Seventies.  Encouraged by the early successes of these “independents” and a new direct-market distribution system that catered to the specialty shops, more small publishers and some larger publishers went into the Indy comic book business in the early Eighties.  Before mainstream publishers like Marvel and DC appreciated what was happening, the compound force of these alternative publishers had carved out a permanent niche for independent comic books in the comic book fan-collector market.  The Indy Revolution was under way, and by the time it ended comic books, for good or bad, would never be the same.

You Say You Want an Evolution?

When printing technology began to improve in the fifteenth century, so did the quality and variety of cartoons.  Humor cartoons became popular, political cartoons became powerful communication tools, and, before the end of the eighteenth century, cartoonists were exploring new ways to tell a narrative through a series of cartoons in sequential order.  By the 1890s, the comic strip[1] found mass popularity in newspapers, and early in the twentieth century the newspaper strip gave birth to its own innovation, the comic book.

At first used as a promotional giveaway, the comic book became a moderately successful medium for humor and then pulp-style adventure stories.  Then, in 1938, the medium came into its own thanks to two young men from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created a science fiction adventure strip called Superman that launched a new sub-genre: superhero.  Siegel and Shuster’s Superman became the world’s most famous comic book character as well as the new genre’s Apollonian archetype, and a year later the guy in the red cape was joined by The Batman, the genre’s Dionysian archetype.[2]  Superheroes ruled the comic book roost during the comic book industry’s most popular periods, the Golden Age (1938-1947) and Silver Age (1956-1967), even though the long underwear types never lacked from competition from western, romance, horror, war, and funny animal comic books during these periods.[3]

Stan Lee was Marvel Comics editor, art director, and head writer during the Sixties, creating or co-creating several of the company’s most famous titles, including its flagship book, Fantastic Four, in 1961.  Fantastic Four was an unexpected success, but, as Lee confesses in his book Origins of Marvel Comics (1974), not as unexpected as the fan mail that it and subsequent Marvel titles generated.  Fan mail was uncommon for comic books and unheard of at Marvel:

[W]e all assumed that our readers primarily belonged the bubble-gum brigade.  Oh sure, there were a few iconoclastic adults here and there who might dip into a comic book upon occasion; and we knew we could always sell a certain percentage of copies to servicemen who doted upon easy-to-read escapist literature.  But basically, our readers ranged from toddlers to kids the age of thirteen to fourteen — or so we thought.[4]

They thought wrong.

There definitely were comic book fans older than fourteen in 1961.  “A few.  Very far between,” according to DC president and publisher Paul Levitz in his article “The Triumph of Comics Fandom.”[5]  Levitz recollects that there were no comic book fanzines (i.e., amateur magazines),[6] comic book shops or stores that carried back issues,[7] comic cons or dealer marketplaces, creator credits in comic books, or a way to communicate to publishers since comic books had no letters pages[8], but that was about to change.

The first of these missing ingredients was introduced in late 1960 by DC editor Julius Schwartz, who began to run letters pages with a letter writer’s full address in Brave and the Bold #35 (cover dated May 1961).  Letters pages had appeared in science fiction fanzines since the Thirties, and Schwartz, a science fiction fanzine pioneer, believed the comics industry might benefit from some science-fiction-fanzine-style camaraderie.[9]

Schwartz’s letters pages turned out to be the first strand of a communication network for comics fandom,[10] providing fans with a way to not only directly communicate to comc book publishers but creators, editors, and other fans.  And, without this communication network, the Indy Revolution could never have happened.  As media experts Richard A. Viguerie & David Franke explain in their book America’s Right Turn (2004), all media revolutions, big or small, approximate the same pattern[11]:

  • Originate with a disorganized group of people who share an interest[12]
  • This shared interest comes in conflict with an establishmen
  • A dedicated vanguard from the group attempts to motivate its disorganized members into a movement[13]
  • The vanguard presents its group with a clear sense of mission, which Viguerie and Franke label “self-identification,” often with the aid of a media invention or innovation that has been disregarded or underutilized by the establishment[14]
  • If the vanguard succeeds in motivating the group into a movement, communication networks are created that bring that movement and that mission to the attention of others[15]

Just how critical Schwartz’s letters pages were became apparent almost at once when superhero fan Jerry G. Bails, Ph.D, with the help of future Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas, published the first fanzine devoted to costume heroes, Alter-Ego.  According to comics fandom historian Bill Schelly, Bails operated in “semi-isolation” with “no idea how large a potential readership an amateur publication on comic book heroes would have,” so Bails “sent out dozens of feelers” to addresses he found in the Brave and the Bold letters page.[16]  Some of these letter writers were active in other fandom and helped spread news about Alter-Ego.  By employing the direct-mail tactic of creating a mailing list, Bails was receiving two or three responses a day by the time Alter-Ego#1 was circulated in March 1961.  Schelly writes:

[I]t was Bails’ interest in current developments [in comic books] that caused his recruitment efforts to catch fire across the country (and around the world) within a very short time … It was Jerry Bails who reached out to the names in the letters pages, and those who were mainly comic fans … It was Bails who wanted to bring as many people into fandom as possible, since it would further the goals of Alter-Ego. And it was Bails who frankly had the organizational skill, desire, and vision to lay the groundwork for an ongoing comics fandom [my emphases].[17]

What exactly is comics fandom?

Schelly describes it as “the grassroots movement that began in 1961 with the publication of Alter-Ego,” which was “a rallying point for fans of comic books to come together and celebrate their hobby [my emphases].”[18]  Bails’ fanzine and Schwartz’s letters pages were media innovations that inspired fandom’s disorganized fans to communicate and share their passion.[19]

Some fans arranged to meet to swap comic books, the way kids used to trade baseball cards in the Fifties.[20]  Others published their own fanzines and fan magazines so they could share information and intercommunicate with comics fans across the country.[21]  A few living in areas with an active and sizable-enough fan population opened the first specialty shops that sold new comics and back issues, or organized marketplaces (also known as “conventions”) where professional and private dealers could sell comic books and fans could meet creators who worked in the industry.

In spite of Schwartz’s involvement, DC snubbed comics fandom.  So did most other publishers, but upstart Marvel encouraged reader intimacy with its staff (“The Bullpen”) and creators, who not only received credits in all of Marvel’s comic books but friendly nicknames like “Jolly” Jack Kirby and “Swinging” Steve Ditko.  Lee, a natural showman, personally spread the good news about Marvel even as he cemented his position as the company’s figurehead by accepting hundreds of lecture invitations, primarily from universities and colleges.[22]  These efforts and more paid off for Marvel, whose annual sales doubled between 1962-1967.[23]  Marvel’s success flummoxed DC’s editors.[24]  Even when Marvel’s annual sales reached $55 million in 1968, placing “The House of Ideas” narrowly behind DC as the number one comic book publisher, historian Bradford W. Wright reports that DC reacted with “bewilderment, disdain, and denial.”[25]  DC’s reaction might sound implausible, but it is actually a normal part of media revolutions.  DC was the comic book industry’s establishment at the time, and as Viguerie and Franke explain, “On the surface, the establishment holds all the cards — power, prestige, and the big bucks … Under the surface, however, the establishment may be vulnerable … [M]ost fatal is the conceit to which power holders fall victim that they deserve to be in power — perhaps even by divine will — and therefore will remain in power, tomorrow as today.”[26]

While Marvel was rattling DC’s cage, a key development for the Indy Revolution occurred in 1967 with the start of the Underground comics or “comix” era.  Praised by some, dismissed by others, Undergrounds were a byproduct of the anti-Vietnam War counterculture and a trailblazer for independent comic books.  The Undergrounds showed that creator-owned titles could be produced outside the comic book mainstream and directly distributed to retailers (in this instance head shops and record stores) rather than the traditional newsstand-distribution system to reach a target audience and earn a profit.[27]

Another key development for Indy comics began in 1969, the first of several lean years for the mainstream comic book industry.  Wright reports:

Superheroes had peaked and were declining.  War comics had lost readers along with the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War.  Romance comics were having a difficult time reaching their female readership, and western comics had been out of style for years … Declining sales, increasing prices, a lack of direction, and almost no new titles or characters made 1969 the most disappointing year of the decade for comic books.[28]

Five years later only six comic book publishers — Marvel, DC, Archie, Carlton, Gold Key, and Harvey — were still in business in the United States, the fewest since 1936.[29]

Other dramatic changes in mainstream comic books took place during the Seventies, but five were of particular significance to the Independent Revolution:

  • Direct-market distribution supplanted Independent Distributors (ID’s)
  • Comic book specialty shops supplanted traditional comic book retailers
  • Comics fandom supplanted children as the largest percentage of a shrinking comic book market
  • Comics fans entered the comic book industry
  • The first “independent” comic books were published

By the mid-Seventies, the comic book industry had lost many of its traditional sales outlets.  According to former DC vice-president Sol Harrison, “Mom and Pop stores were disappearing, being replaced by supermarkets who didn’t want to carry comics.  They felt kids would be lying in the aisles reading them, or knocking over the racks.”[30]  Ready with a solution was Phil Seuling, a comic book fan and former high school English teacher who had been selling old comics since 1958 and holding successful comics art conventions since 1968.  Seuling also owned Sea Gate, an east coast distribution company, and in 1976 he approached DC’s executives about letting him order Sea Gate’s comic books directly from DC instead of through DC’s longtime wholesaler, Independent News.

Novelist and comic book writer Peter David, who worked in Marvel’s marketing department in the Seventies and Eighties, explains what was so revolutionary about Seuling’s idea:

Seuling was able to buy comics from DC at a much higher discount and sell to dealers at a correspondingly high discount — as much as 50%.  Payment was in advance. Most of all, the comics were not returnable.  The bane of publishing’s existence has always been that ID customers can return the product — comics, magazines, or books — and get full credit towards further purchases.  The retailers need never take risks, and the publishers never knew where they stood with a title.[31]

Most of Sea Gate’s customers were the owners of comic book specialty shops, whose numbers had increased from a mere handful in 1970[32] to between two hundred and three hundred in 1974 and around fifteen hundred by the end of the decade[33], by which time every major city in the United States, Canada, and Europe had at least one shop.[34]  Seuling proved so successful in soliciting orders from specialty shop owners that Marvel agreed to sell their comics directly to Sea Gate a month after DC.

These specialty shops, along with the comic book marketplaces and conventions, became the loci where fandom gathered to discuss and debate comic book ideas, stories, and personalities,[35] even as the loss in traditional comic book outlets was helping to drive children out of the comic book market.[36]  As the Seventies progressed, older readers became the largest percentage of comic book buyers.[37]  In response, the comic book market became more concerned with collector and fan preferences,[38] and, according to Wright, “Surveys of the direct market indicated that fans still wanted comic books about superheroes, albeit with more ‘realism.’” [39]  By “realism” the fans meant “violence, cynicism, and moral ambiguity.”[40]

The Indy Rev

In 1974, a former Marvel employee named Mike Friedrich self-published Star*Reach, a comic book anthology that among other things featured more mature superheroes.  Friedrich took a cue from the Undergrounds and distributed fourteen thousand copies of Star*Reach #1 exclusively to specialty stores.  The issue sold out and later issues sold as many as thirty thousand copies.[41]  That same year Bud Plant, a specialist in comics-oriented material, began publishing First Kingdom by Jack Katz, a 24-issue epic that took twelve years and 768 pages to complete.[42]

The next major independent milestone occurred in 1977 with the launch of Heavy Metal, the first Euro-style comic magazine published in the United States.  Heavy Metal featured reprints of European comics and original material from American comic book artists like Berni Wrightson and Richard Corben, and established that an American alternative comic magazine could be marketed to an audience outside of comics book fandom.[43]

The following year Baronet Books published the first modern American graphic novel, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner, creator of the groundbreaking Golden Age newspaper comic The Spirit.[44]  That same year, the first successful independent comic book series were launched, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest and Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark.[45]  Brothers Dean and Jan Mullaney also launched the first independent comic book publishing company, Eclipse Comics, with their flagship 38-page black-and-white “graphic album” Sabre, created by Marvel professionals Don McGregor and Paul Gullacy.  Another new publishing company, Byron Preiss, released Empire, a “visual novel” written by science fiction author Samuel R. “Chip” Delany (the Neveryon and Fall of the Towers series) with paintings by comic book professional Howard Chaykin.

Then, in the summer of 1980, Steve Schanes, co-owner of the San Diego direct-market distribution company Pacific Comics, suggested to Marvel’s editor-in-chief Jim Shooter that Marvel sell its new disco-superhero series Dazzler exclusively through the direct market.[46]  Schanes pointed out that Marvel’s direct-market sales had improved from $1.5 million in 1976 to $3.5 million in 1979,[47] and that DC and Marvel were both selling approximately ten percent of their comic books through specialty shops.[48]  What Marvel or DC had not done was produce a comic book specifically for the direct market, an oversight that had abandoned the specialty shops to Elfquest, Cerebus, and new independent fare like Zap Comix and Art Spiegelman’s Raw.  (This oversight, in essence, paralleled DC’s denial of Marvel’s success during the Sixties.  Marvel was the number one comic book publisher in the United States and part of the comic book industry’s establishment, while the independent comic book publishers had become the upstart rebels.)[49]  Shooter agreed with Schanes, released Dazzler #1 (March 1981) exclusively to the direct market, and Marvel sold four hundred thousand copies, one hundred thousand more than an average issue of Marvel’s bestselling title X-Men.

David Scroggy, Pacific Comics’ general manager at the time, remembers, “This was the great awakening to everyone that the comics specialty shops had become a market of their own, fully capable of supporting a book’s entire print run.”[50]  It certainly woke up Schanes.  Since 1979, he and his brother Bill, Pacific’s other co-owner, had published and distributed over thirty portfolios by some of fandom’s favorite comic book artists through Pacific’s parent company, Blue Dolphin Enterprises.  If the Schanes could publish and distribute portfolios, why couldn’t they publish and distribute their own comic books?[51]

In 1981, Pacific Comics launched the first full-color line of independent comic books with Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (#1, November).[52]  Pacific also became the first four-color comic book publisher to allow its freelancers to retain at least some of the rights to the characters and series they created.  Captain Victory was followed by a six-issue mini-series, Mike Grell’s Starslayer: The Log of the Jolly Roger (February 1982).  In Starslayer #2 (April, 1982) Pacific caught lightning in a bottle with a backup feature by Dave Stevens called The Rocketeer, an homage to pioneer aviation, rocket-pack serial heroes, and pin-up girl Betty Page that became an instant cult favorite and was adapted into a motion picture by Disney in 1991.  Unfortunately several poor business decisions turned Pacific Comics into a flash in the publishing pan, and before the end of 1983 Blue Dolphin Enterprises had declared bankruptcy.

Eclipse Comics fared a bit better.  Publisher Dean Mullaney had followed the success of Sabre with more graphic albums as well as a black-and-white anthology magazine, Eclipse Monthly, but Mullaney, like the Schanes, was encouraged by Dazzler #1, and, in August 1982, Eclipse published its first four-color comic book, Sabre #1.  Eclipse’s fortunes suffered after it attempted to cut into Marvel and DC’s share of the superhero market with mature mainstream superhero titles, but titles like DNAgents and The Masked Man could not compete with the Big Two’s more famous characters.  Poor sales crippled Eclipse, but Mullaney managed to keep the presses running until 1994.

A similar fate befell Comico–The Comic Company.  Founded in 1982 in Norristown, Pennsylvania by twenty-something friends Bill Cuccinatta, Dennis LaSorda, and Phil LaSorda, Comico enjoyed strong success during the mid-Eighties with original mature adventure series like Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Mage: The Hero Discovered, and with licensed properties like Jonny Quest and Robotech.  In the late Eighties, Comico attempted to go mainstream by selling its comics on newsstands as well as in specialty shops, but its titles were unable to generate the high sales required just to break even in the newsstand market, and Comics was forced to close shop in 1990.

Another Indy publisher, First Comics, went into business soon after Comico in 1982.  Founded by Rick Obadiah, an advertising creative director, and Mike Gold, a former DC employee, First was based in Chicago with offices just down the street from Northwestern University.  First launched some of the most successful independent titles in comics history, most notably Grell’s Jon Sable, Freelance (#1, June 1983) and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! (#1, October 1983),[53] and was a trailblazer in the manga (Japanese comics) market with its translations of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s classic Lone Wolf and Cub (#1, May 1987).  First ran into problems when their most popular freelancers, like Grell and Chaykin, left their books, and First discovered that many of its titles were dependent upon their creator’s unique talents and name value for their success with fandom.  Never able to repeat these early successes, First trudged on until the late Eighties.

Independent comics scored a stunning success in 1984 with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (#1, April), a black-and-white magazine-sized comic book published as a joke by amateur cartoonists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.  TMNT became, in Wright’s words, “a megamerchandising bonanza” that was soon spun off into a long-running animated TV series, three live-action films, over two million toys and action figures, and a plethora of ancillary licensed products.[54] The Turtles’ success, meanwhile, ignited a black-and-white Indy comic book boom, and, over the next two years, hundreds of new small independent publishers flooded the market with black-and-white comic books, inflating the number of titles published each month from two hundred to eight hundred.[55]  Many of these comics starred some variation of the Turtles or featured a super-team like the X-Men, and, for several months, speculators snapped up every title they could afford to buy.  One TMNT copycat, Boris the Bear, proved popular enough to help launch Dark Horse Comics, founded in 1986 by Portland, Oregon comic shop owner Mike Richardson.  A year later Dark Horse scored a critical success with Concrete (#1, March) by former Marvel creator Paul Chadwick, then hit it big commercially in 1988 with Aliens (#1 July). This original comic book sequel to the films Alien  (1979) and Aliens (1986) cemented a symbiotic relationship between Dark Horse and the films’ studio, 20th Century Fox, that has since spawned hundreds of licensed comic books and a couple of popular films, including The Mask (1994) and Time Cop (1994).

Another important independent publisher to launch around this same time was Malibu Graphics, the brainchild of David Olbrich.  A former editor on the comic book fan magazine Amazing Heroes, Olbrich was working at Sunrise Distribution in 1986 when he got the idea for a different kind of independent publisher.  This new publisher would solicit, print, and distribute creator-owned comics that came packaged as finished products by their creators.  Sunrise’s owner Scott Rosenberg was already backing four small Indies — Eternity, Amazing, Wonder, and Imperial Comics — so Olbrich approached Rosenberg with his idea, and Rosenberg agreed to finance it.  According to Malibu’s creative director Tom Mason, “We quickly found out that there weren’t a lot of creators who had the interest or the ability to package their own comics. But we did find a lot of talented writers and artists, so we started matching up writers with artists and trafficking projects from writers to pencillers to letterers to inkers.”[56]  Malibu likely will be best remembered for publishing the one independent comic book to give the Turtles a run for their licensing money, Lowell Cunningham’s Men in Black (1990, 1991).[57]

By 1987, the black-and-white boom had turned into a black-and-white glut. As author Mike Benton writes in The Comic Book in America, “As small publishers started to turn out more and more comic books of questionable to poor quality, collectors and comic-book-store retailers cut back drastically on their buying.”  This cutback had an effect on all Indies, the good and the bad.  “Within a matter of months, the demand for independently produced comic books plummeted.  Only the better produced comic books survived the fallout, while many independent comic book publishers either cut back or suspended operations.”[58]

Nevertheless, the struggling independent market was a worry to mainstream publishers.  No Indy publisher could match Marvel or DC’s stable of superheroes, or match the star value of the Big Two’s hottest creators.  Any Indy that had been foolish enough to try to compete with Marvel and DC as far as content (like Eclipse) or by expanding into newsstand markets (like Comico) had found itself squashed.  The wiser Indies concentrated on licensed and public domain properties with cult followings (e.g., Planet of the Apes, Sherlock Holmes) and experimented with non-superhero adventure genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction.  Necessity forced the Indies to become proving grounds for new creators, and a few developed their own star status with fandom (e.g., Phil Hester, Ron Lim, Brian Michael Bendis).  Because of all this, it was not long before most of the freshest, most innovative comic books were coming from the Indies.  Nor was it long before some of the Big Two’s most popular freelancers began moonlighting for the Indies, taking a cut in pay in order to 1) retain the rights to the properties they created, and 2) to enjoy the greater creative latitude the Indies offered.  When superstar creators Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons produced an original mini-series for Indy Dark Horse called Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty (#1, June 1990),[59] the Big Two realized that the Indies could become a threat, so Marvel and DC responded by offering their freelancers concessions such as royalties and a share in the licensing revenues generated by any new characters a freelancer created.[60]

Independent comic book publishers had never mounted a coordinated attack against the comic book establishment, yet the compound efforts of their mutual interests had ended up forcing changes in what the establishment produced and how.  More importantly, the Indies were creating a library of comic book material unlike anything seen before in the industry’s history.  Coordinated or not, the Independent Revolution or “Indy Rev” was a reality that was in full swing.

Too Much Of a Good Thing

Throughout the remainder of the Eighties, mainstream and independent publishers parlayed the loyalty of comic book fandom into stupendous growth even as the audience for comic books shrank to some of the lowest levels in the industry’s history.  Industry sales grew between ten and twenty percent each year, regardless of the fact that only twenty million Americans, or twenty-nine percent of seven to twenty-four-year olds, read comic books.  The industry was able to accomplish this because direct-market distribution permitted publishers to reach their niche audience with relative ease, not only through specialty shops but new outlets like Waldenbooks, which was beginning to stock graphic novels and a few comic books.[61]

The last important independent publisher of the Eighties, Caliber Comics (originally Caliber Press), entered the market at the beginning of 1989.  Founded by comic shop owner Gary Reed and based in the Detroit metropolitan area, Caliber offered an eclectic catalog of counterculture, mainstream, and nonfiction material.  Caliber’s first titles included Dead*World and The Realm (originally published by Arrow Comics), an adaptation of the 1989 science fiction film Moontrap, the award-winning alternate-mystery series Baker Street, and the first issue of James O’Barr’s cult favorite The Crow.

By the end of 1989, surveys indicated that the average comic book consumer was now a twenty-year-old male who spent $20 each month on his hobby.[62]   Marvel and DC accounted for nearly seventy-five percent of all sales in comic book specialty stores,[63] but, while there were six publishers in 1974, there were now over one hundred and thirty small publishers turning out hundreds of titles each month.[64]

In 1990, Marvel released Spider-Man #1 (September), the first new Spider-Man series since the debut of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man in December 1976.  Unlike PPTSS or titles like Superman and Batman, which were launched to fill a demonstrable demand for more stories featuring a popular character, this new Spider-Man series was launched to showcase a superstar creator, Todd McFarlane.  Marvel also published five different editions of Spider-Man #1, each with its own cover, four of which formed one huge cover when placed side by side.  An obvious gimmick, but an effective one, as Spider-Man #1 sold over three million copies, making it one of the best-selling individual comic book issues in industry history.  Marvel repeated this gimmick in 1991 with X-Force #1 (featuring a cast from X-Men) and superstar Rob Liefeld.[65]  X-Force #1 sold eight million copies.

The year 1991 was a phenomenal one for comic book sales, which reached $350 million through comic shops alone.  Newsstand circulation of comic books also began to improve for the first time in two decades, and by 1993 industry-wide sales through all markets topped $1 billion.[66]  Even better, publishers discovered that comic book price increases did not hurt sales, even when those increases surpassed the rate of inflation.[67]  Wright explains:

Publishers were well aware that [X-Force #1] did not sell to eight million different consumers.  Many were purchased by speculators who bought multiple copies in order to hoard them for future sale at inflated prices in the collectors’ market … By the Nineties, comic books had become the nation’s third largest collectible market, just after coins and stamps.  Annual indices like the Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and periodicals like the Comics Buyer’s Guide tracked the speculation value of comic books and pointed readers to the “hottest” titles. Some fans bemoaned the importance that speculation had come to assume in comic book marketing and production … Ideally, consumers would purchase at least two copies of each issue, one to perhaps actually read and the other to preserve in mint condition.[68]

Which sounds good, but, as the saying goes, you reap what you sow.

In December 1991, the Independent Revolution scored a near coup d’état on Marvel when three of its most popular artists, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee, informed the company’s president Terry Stewart that they wanted their own line of comic books so they could control their own work.  Stewart offered to let the trio assume total control of Marvel’s failing creator-owned line, Epic Comics, but, when the trio rejected that offer, Stewart informed them that it was Marvel’s policy that the company’s name and characters did more to sell comic books than any creative talent.  Prepared to prove Marvel wrong, McFarlane, Liefeld, Lee, and three other Marvel artists — Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino — did something unprecedented in the history of comic books: they left the company and formed their own Indy, Image Comics.[69]

Besides the tremendous star value McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee enjoyed at the time with fandom, all six artists were practitioners of what became known as the Image Style.  This style paid scant attention to story and characterization, preferring to emphasize recurring splash pages, complex layouts, and hyper-idealized characters prone to preening in dynamic poses.  The Image Style was unabashed eye-candy with no more literary pretensions than a Playboy centerfold, and fandom gobbled it up, buying millions of copies of Liefeld’s Youngblood #1 (April 1992) Lee’s W.I.L.D.Cats #1 (May 1992), and McFarlane’s Spawn #1 (June 1992).[70]  Hollywood gobbled up Image’s comics, too, and spat them out as animated series (Spawn, W.I.L.D.Cats, and Larsen’s Savage Dragon), live-action TV programs (Silvestri’s Witchblade), and motion pictures (Spawn).[71]

Then, in 1994, the good times ended.

Speculator interest in collector’s items that never returned their investments and fandom’s patience with ever-more expensive comic books[72] reached a limit.  In the span of a few months, the comic book market collapsed.  Titles that had sold over a million copies an issue in 1993 suddenly struggled to sell fifty thousand.[73]   Marvel reacted to this implosion by purchasing Heroes World, the third-largest distribution company in the United States, and pronouncing that 1) Heroes World was now the sole distributor of Marvel’s comics, and 2) would no longer distribute any other publisher’s comics.  DC, Image, and Dark Horse followed suit by inking their own exclusive agreements with Diamond Distribution, America’s top distributor.  Gary Reed describes what happened next:

When the exclusivity arrangements happened, it affected the frontline of the comics market, the retailer. The arrangement with the retailers was based on dollar volume that they ordered through their distributor. When a distributor carried all of the product from every company, retailers could receive a substantial discount off their comics, which was necessary because [the comics] were unreturnable. Now, however, retailers would have to order from three different distributors, and from each they would receive a lower discount. Since the competition to supply retailers with similar product had now disappeared, all the distributors closed their local warehouses and relied on UPS to get the comics delivered. [R]etailers suddenly found themselves facing enormous shipping bills each week on top of the lowered discount. Many stores started to go under which, of course, impacted the sales and the publisher’s profit margins. Discount structures were adjusted in favor of the publishers and distributors to allot for the declining sales, which, of course, exacerbated the problem, and even more stores closed.[74]

Capital City, Diamond’s biggest competitor and a one-time Indy publisher, was abruptly cut off from the product of the country’s five largest comic book publisher.  As industry sales plunged to $450 million in 1996, Capital City had to close its doors.  In December of that year, Marvel again reaped what it had sown when it was forced to declare bankruptcy.  In 1997, Marvel shut down Heroes World and returned to Diamond, which made for a more profitable business arrangement for retailers, but, by then, Marvel as well as DC discovered that they “had lost a percentage of their sales to the small independent companies, which collectively accounted for about a third of the contracted market.”[75]  As Y2K drew nigh, the Big Two tried to win back the enthusiastic sect of fandom they had chased away in 1994, but no such attempt was made to build a new readership with kids.  Instead, superhero comic books became even more “realistic” (i.e., violent, cynical, and morally ambiguous), an attitude that could be summarized by an ad campaign Marvel launched “reemphasizing its roots as the home of superheroes ‘willing to fight to protect our world, even though we hate and fear them” [76]


“Fan culture grew to parallel the commercial success of superhero comic books,” writes Mila Bongco in Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books.  “In the Sixties, fan movement was generally acknowledged as having shaped part of the resurgence of superhero comic books[.]”[77]  DC, the industry’s establishment publisher, was slow to react to this fan movement, but upstart Marvel Comics was quick to cater to it.  According to Wright, Stan Lee gambled that a “compelling product carefully grounded in adolescent sensibilities could still win a sizable audience in those looking for an alternative to the more homogenize offerings of mass culture.”[78]  Lee’s strategy was a good one, but it took on a life of its own as fandom acquired more and more influence of the comic book industry during the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties.  The most obvious change to manifest itself in comic books during the Fandom Revolution was in the superheroes.  According to Bongco, “Although there have been many attempts to make superheroes more multi-dimensional, especially psychologically, since the Sixites, there was a marked difference in the changes in the Eighties; there seemed to an underlying cynicism in the revamping of the genre rather than simply an imaginative elaboration of an old genre.”[79]

These were the times and events that led up to and transpired during the Indy Revolution.  They shaped the comic book stories published by Eclipse, Pacific, First, Comico, Dark Horse, Malibu, Caliber, and other Indy publishers between Captain Victory #1 in 1981 to the collapse of the direct market in 1996.


[1] “Because of their humorous qualities, they became known as comic strips or ‘funnies.’ Even later, when newspaper strips and their offspring in magazine format featured serious narrative content, the term comic stuck … [and] the term comic has since referred to the medium of sequential art, regardless of the content (Comic Book Nation, p. 2).”

[2] I co-opted the terms Apollonian and Dionysian from Stephen King and his text Danse Macabre. King explains, “I used the terms Apollonian (to suggest reason and the power of the mind) and Dionysian (to suggest emotion, sensuality, and chaotic action) (p. 156).”

[3] “The term comic book, in fact, is one of the great misnomers in entertainment, for they are not books and often are not comical. They have explored virtually every genre of popular entertainment, including adventure, horror, mystery, crime, romance, the western, and humor. But they are most closely associated with superheroes. And it is with fantastic heroes like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man that comic books have made their most lucrative, influential, and enduring contributions to American culture (Comic Book Nation, p. xiv).”

[4] Origins of Marvel Comics, p. 14.  For what it is worth, American servicemen in World War II also discovered the weird stories of H. P. Lovecraft — escapist literature perhaps, but certainly not easy to read — thanks to an Armed Services paperback anthology distributed overseas by Arkham House in 1945. This started a process that eventually transformed HPL from obscure weird author to one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century  (“Introduction,” Re-Animator: Tales of Herbert West).

[5] Comics Scene #1, p. 62-63 & 65

[6] This might come as a surprise to the readers of EC fanzines from the Fifties like Hoohah!, whose contributors included a young Archie Goodwin (Comic Book Profiles, Summer 1999, pp. 11-16).

[7] Levitz adds “in anything but a ‘Used Comics Two for a Dime’ box (Comics Scene #1, p. 62).”

[8] EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt) was one of the few as well as the last of the pre-Sixties publishers to feature letters pages in their comic books.

[9] Schwartz co-founded the first science fiction fanzine, The Time Traveler, in 1932. And call it serendipity, but a letter of comment from future Superman editor Schwartz was published in the January 1933 issue of Jerry Siegel’s fanzine Science Fiction, the Advance Guard of Future Civilization, which also included Siegel’s first attempt at a Superman story, “Reign of the Superman” (See “Superman 1933-2003: Seventy Years Strong.”) Sandwiched between The Time Traveler and joining DC’s editorial staff in 1944, Schwartz founded the first science fiction literary agency, Solar Sales Service, where he represented a list of clients that included H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury (See Bio Facts: Julius Schwartz and “The Birth of Alter-Ego”).”

[10] Comics Scene, p. 62

[11] America’s Right Turn, p. 12. Viguerie and Franke’s book concentrates on how the American conservative movement used new and alternative media to gain political power beginning in 1955, but it also examines the Protestant Reformation (pp. 9-18) and American Revolution (pp. 19-38) to demonstrate how media revolutions have reoccurred throughout history. “The media revolutions of 1517 and 1776 were the precursors of our modern world of mass communications and ever-faster communications … Not that mass movements didn’t exist before 1517. Military movements have always been with us, it seems, spreading change through physical violence. The Christian revolution that overtook the Roman Empire spread almost entirely on a person-to-person basis. What has changed since 1517 and 1776 are the multiplying forms of communication, their growing geographical scope, and their increasing speed in spreading news and views.  Those factors are the result of the revolution in media technology (p. 39).”

[12] “It doesn’t matter, at the beginning, that the group is small and that its ultimate goal seems visionary and unrealistic. What is required is a clear sense of mission and commitment. Look at what tiny original groups of people with commitment and a mission can do — for good or evil — having, ultimately, a phenomenal impact on the world: Think of Christ’s disciples and the first Bolsheviks (America’s Right Turn, p.43).”

[13] For example, in the case of the Protestants this vanguard was Martin Luther, and for America’s Revolutionaries it was the Sons of Liberty.

[14] The printing press for Martin Luther, newspapers and broadsides and pamphlets for the Sons of Liberty.

[15] America’s Right Turn, p. 43

[16] See “The Golden Age of Fandom”

[17] See “The Birth of Alter-Ego

[18] See “FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions,” Golden Age of Comic Famdom. Wright offers a far less flattering description: “Communications professor John Fiske defines modern fandom as a subculture of postindustrial societies that ‘selects from the repertoire of mass-produced and mass-distributed entertainment certain performers, narratives, or genres’ and reworks them into ‘an intensely pleasurable, intensely satisfying popular culture that is both similar to, yet significantly different from the culture of more “normal” popular audiences.’ Fandom grows around ‘cultural forms that the dominant value system denigrates’ and attracts individuals who are ‘disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class, and race.’ Yet fandom also emerges from the historical conditions that leave individuals with the spiritual drift and disaffection that immersion in selected products of popular culture helps to ease (Comic Book Nation, p. 252).”

[19] Fandom was a lonely place in 1961. As Levitz describes it, “There is no Marvel Age of Comics yet, no Fantastic Four #1 in the hands of anyone but the printers. There are no underground comics, no ground-level small presses pouring out the creativity of artists and writers who work don’t fit the mainstream of comics. In fact, there is precious little but the overpowering mainstream: National Periodical Publications, Inc., the company that took comics out of their name because it was too embarrassing to have on the elevator directory, and their sister company, Independent News Company, which distributed not only the Superman-DC line but also the tiny Marvel and American Comics Group lines (Comics Scene #1, p. 62).”

[20] Or, in one particular instance, fall in love. One of fandom’s most famous (and romantic) stories is Wendy and Richard Pini, the respective creator and publisher of Elfquest, who met through the letters pages of Marvel’s Silver Surfer comic book in 1969 (See Marvel Elfquest #1).

[21] Comic book fans also used Amateur Press Association (APAs) to intercommunicate. An APA “is basically a group of comic book fans, or, for that matter, science fiction fans or movie buffs or whatnot, who publish fanzines only for those who belong to the APA (“The Pendulum of Legion Fans,” p. 17). “[T]he concept of the amateur press association goes as far back as the late nineteenth century — long before comics or SF fandom existed — with the formation of the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA) and other ‘mundane’ amateur journalism APAs. NAPA was founded in 1876 and was originally seen as a sort of training ground for professional journalists … Oddly enough, the link between mundane and fannish Amateur Press Associations was provided by no less a personage than H. P. Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft became involved in amateur journalism as a youth[.] SF (then-)fan Donald Wollheim learned of the mundane APAs through Lovecraft in the mid-Thirties shortly before Lovecraft’s untimely death in 1937 (“You Too Can Join an APA”).” Lovecraft discovered the amateur press in 1914. An intelligent but reclusive young man who likely suffered mental abuse from his mother as an adolescent, Lovecraft immediately began to flood his friends’ APA newsletters with contributions before starting his own, The Conservative (1915-1923). APA not only brought the reclusive Lovecraft out of his shell, but, as Lovecraft confessed in the conclusion of his article “What Amateurdom and I Have Done for Each Other,” “What Amateur Journalism has given me is — life itself (“H. P. Lovecraft Archive: Collected Essays, Volume 1”).”

A short-lived but interesting variation on the APA for fans with aspirations to become comic book professionals was INTERFAN, created in 1975 by writer Steve Clement. The Pawtucket, Rhode Island resident, lifelong comics fan, and fanzine contributor created INTERFAN to “supply fanzines with material while at the same time giving amateurs an opportunity to learn by doing.” During its existence, INTERFAN placed the artwork of future comic book professionals like Jerry Ordway, Sam DeLa Rosa, Rick Burchett, and Gene Day in publications like the Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comics Journal, and “a variety of men’s magazines and UFO books; they weren’t the classiest assignments, but they paid these amateurs a few bucks and more importantly, put them in to professional print (“What is INTERFAN?”, p. 62-63).”

[22] Comic Book Nation, p. 217-218, 223

[23] Comic Book Nation, p. 223

[24] One of the few that weren’t flummoxed was Tower Comics, a new publisher that “made its debut with the best new comic of 1965, at least as far as many fans were concerned.  T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (November 1965), an anthology of superhero agents, featured excellent artwork by such artists as Wally Wood, Reed Crandall, and Steve Ditko.”  T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was so popular that, a year later, Tower gave two of its characters their own titles, Dynamo (August 1966) and Noman (November 1966) (Comic Book in America, pp. 68-69).

[25]Comic Book Nation, p. 224

[26] America’s Right Turn, p. 45

[27] How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips, p. 20 and Kitchen Sink Press: The First 25 Years, p. 9. In 1974, Marvel Comics contracted Wisconsin Underground publisher Denis Kitchen to produce Comix Book, a slightly more restrained comix that was sold on newsstands. Like Dharma and Greg, the dissimilarities between Marvel and Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press made for a rocky marriage, and Marvel cancelled Comix Book after just two issues. By then, however, Comix Book had brought national attention to Art Spiegelman’s semi-autobiographical Holocaust tale Maux, which was expanded into a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic in 1992  (For more on Maus, see “The Lonely Hearts Club Band: Autobiographical Angst and Other Adventures in Topics and Treatment”, The Art of the Comic Book, pp. 237-245.)  Comix Book also “managed to break some ground in the area of creative freedom and [comic book] creators’ rights”:

“Kitchen convinced [Stan] Lee that publishing underground artists required throwing out customary Marvel policies. For one thing, original art was returned to the cartoonists, something that the large mainstream companies simply did not do in those days, and wouldn’t for another ten years and more. For another, the artists were allowed to keep their trademarks, and eventually their copyrights, another unheard-of option in the mainstream … But it failed.  Eventually, Comix Book became more trouble than it was worth for Marvel to finance and distribute. The relative freedom and rights granted the COMIX BOOK artists caused dissension among other Marvel artists. The magazine had established a dangerous precedent for Marvel [my emphasis]. On top of that, sales weren’t good, mainly because newsstand distributors and retailers apparently didn’t how to handle it. It was a Marvel title, but there were no superheroes — a puzzling situation for people who were accustomed to racking books by company and forgetting about it  (Kitchen Sink Press: The First 25 Years, pp. 37-38).”

Kitchen’s most impressive accomplishment, however, was his dedication to quality. Unlike many Underground publishers, Kitchen loved comix and the comics medium (See “Redefining the Undergrounds”), a perspective that helped Kitchen keep Kitchen Sink Press running as an alternative publisher until 1999, while most other Underground publishers petered out when the Vietnam War ended in 1973. As of this writing, Kitchen operates Denis Kitchen Publishing LLC and Denis Kitchen Art Agency, and is a partner in the Kitchen & Hansen Agency.

 [28] Comic Book in America, pp. 73-74

[29] These six were joined briefly in 1975 by Atlas/Seaboard Publishing. Founded by former Marvel Comics owner Martin Goodman, who may or may not have held a grudge against his former company, Atlas attempted the daunting task of directly competing with Marvel. Atlas published quite a few clunkers, but also a handful of really decent comic books, most notably Howard Chaykin’s The Scorpion and Mike Fleisher and Ernie Colon’s The Grim Ghost. Along with Chaykin and Colon, other notable comics professionals who worked for Atlas included Ditko, Goodwin, Simonson, Alex Toth, Neal Adams, Mike Ploog, Larry Hama, Frank Thorne, and Pablo Marcos. Although Atlas only had comics on the newsstands for a few months, the company has a small but loyal cult following. To find out more about Atlas see Comic Book Artist #16 (an entire issue dedicated to Atlas Comics), “How Not To Run a Comic Book Company,” and “The Atlas Archives.”

[30] Unless otherwise noted, much of my information regarding the comic book direct market is derived from Peter David’s 1983 article, “What Are Direct Sales?” (Comic Scene #3, p. 49-54).

[31] “What Are Direct Sales?” p. 52

[32] “What Are Direct Sales?”, p. 52

[33] See “Two Men and Their Comics”

[34] How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips, p. 20

[35] Reading Comic Books,  p. 127

[36] It was not convenient — sometimes unfeasible — for kids to buy comic books in specialty shops, which were frequently located near universities or in low-rent neighborhoods (Reading Comic Books, p. 130). Not that kids were welcomed at specialty shops if they did go to the trouble. Kids do lie in the aisles as they decide what comic books, if any, to buy. They are messy, loud, and view comic books as cheap throwaway entertainment to be thumbed through without regard, attitudes that most specialty shop owners — typically collectors who stored the comic books they purchased in plastic bags and cardboard boxes — had no patience to tolerate. Gradually the children who had traditionally constituted nearly half of the comic book market trickled away, like water seeking the path of least resistance, and as they found other things to do with their time and quarters — if they couldn’t buy comic books, there was always the video arcade — the comic book market’s demographics changed.

[37] How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips, p. 20. This was a dramatic change. Only a generation earlier in 1946, “Nine out of every ten children between the ages of eight and fifteen read comic books,” writes comic book historian Mike Benton in The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (p. 41).

[38] Reading Comic Books, p. 130

[39] Comic Book Nation, p.262

[40] Comic Book Nation, p.262. This attitude has since mutated into the preposterous. As author Geoff Klock writes:

“The largest new trend emerging in superhero comic books [at the turn of the twenty-first century] is the pop comic. Though many superheroes have been quite popular in their fictional continuities before now, this new trend is the cathexis of several strands of intra- and extratextual material. The modern incarnation began with The Authority [Wildstorm Comics, 1999], which, while raising the bar on high levels of violence and so-called wide-screen storytelling, also accessed the strain of attention and popularity that is a subset of the superhero as adolescent power fantasy. The superhero becomes a kind of sexy pop icon. What separates this emerging trend from its predecessors is the conscious intention on the part of the creators themselves — now making appearances in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY — to make comic books a kind of sexy, popular medium.  Matthew J. Pustz describes the world of the average comic book fan in Comic Book Culture: a close-knit group of a relatively small number of consumers whose medium of choice is mostly frowned upon by the general public, who still believes that comic books are for children. Some, however, see hope for the comic book to become the next big thing and enter mainstream popular culture alongside novels, films, television, and that especially peculiar emergent storytelling medium, video games [my emphases](How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, p. 172).”

These comic book fans and creator have no empirical evidence to hang their “hope” upon, but Gary Reed takes off the rose-colored cheaters and makes the following observation:

“The comic industry has produced some great stuff but no one cares. I don’t mean Hollywood, I mean the mass-market public that the comic establishment has always thought … once they see it, they will also love it like we do. You know what? They have seen it … and they don’t care [my emphasis] … The market seems to be in a vicious cycle of being produced by comic fans, sold to comic fans, and only appealing to comic fans. It doesn’t have much chance of broadening the base. No one says it has to, but that always seems to be the quest by the publishers. But superheroes aren’t going to do it. Look at where new readers are coming in …. it’s the manga books that cover virtually any topic … it’s the mass market publishers who branch off into doing classic literature, or history comics, or rock comics … that seems to be the area that has future growth potential (See “Interviews: Gary Reed Creator of Saint Germaine”).”

[41] Comic Book Nation, p. 260. Even thirty thousand copies represented “small numbers compared to those commonly generated through traditional vendors but large enough for the major publishers to take notice (pp. 260-261).”

[42] See “Jack Katz & The First Kingdom, Comics Scene # 3 (pp. 52-55, 66) and #4 (37-40, 64).  The First Kingdom, considered by some fans as the first modern American graphic novel, is hard to describe. According to former Comics Scene editor-in-chief Howard Zimmerman, “The Kingdom itself is a sprawling epic that encompasses a startling variety of advanced and primitive human and alien races, sophisticated robots and immortal cyborgs, monsters and mutants, gods and demi-god. The story spans many millennia, taking place on Earth, on alien worlds, in deep space, other galaxies, the home of the gods and their hellish place of exile. The minor characters are as fully realized as the major ones, whether they are starship captains or barbarian soldiers, children of the gods or plotting sycophants (CS #3, p. 53).”

[43] Heavy Metal also inspired a 1981 animated motion picture produced by Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes).

[44] Eisner says about this groundbreaking effort: “At the time there was no channel to the audience I sought except through the establishment bookstores. I hoped that I could break into the established mainstream market; I was in pursuit of the older reader. The format was intended to serve the content. I created the term ‘graphic novel’ on the spur of the moment. I had written the book and rendered it in complete pencil form and started to look around for a publisher. I called Bantam Books because an editor there had known The Spirit and known of me. When I got the editor on the phone, I said, ‘I have something new for you here. Something very different.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, what’s that?’ I looked down and I sudden realized, ‘I could not tell him this was a comic book!!’ I wanted desperately to get a meeting, so I said, ‘Well, I have a graphic novel here.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting — I never heard of that. Bring that up.’  So I came to his office a few days later and he looked at A Contract with God, and then he looked up at me and said, ‘You know, it’s still a comic book.’ [Laughs] I was advised to find a smaller publisher. But that’s how the form got started (Comic Book Rebel, pp. 279-280).”

[45] “What Are Direct Sales?”, p. 51. Thanks to the direct market, both the Pinis and the Sims would see monthly sales increase from around five hundred copies in 1978 to approximately twenty thousand by 1980 (Reading Comic Books, p. 132). By 1982, Elfquest had a print run of seventy thousand, comparable to most of the direct-market sales of most DC and Marvel comic book at the time (“Special Preview, Elfquest Book 2,” p. 28). In 2003, the Pinis, represented by Denis Kitchen, signed an agreement giving DC the worldwide publishing rights to Elfquest. Meanwhile, in 2004, Dave Sim concluded the five thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine page story of Cerebus with issue #300. For more about Cerebus, see “Dave & Deni Sim: A Talk With The Famous Aardvark Artist (And His Lovely Publisher, Too), Parts 1&2.” For more about Elfquest, see “An Interview with Wendy and Richard Pini.”

[46]See “Two Men and Their Comic Books”

[47] Comic Book Nation, p. 261

[48] Reading Comic Books, p. 131

[49] Being small and hungry for success, the Indy publishers were more willing to gamble on the direct market and specialty shops. As Viguerie and Franke point out, “[N]ew media provides rebels and underdogs with a slingshot of the sort that David used to slay Goliath (America’s Right Turn, p. 12).”

[50] “Pacific Comics,” p. 21

[51] According to Scroggy, “We felt we were more in touch with the needs of [the specialty] shops than anyone, including Marvel, and that we could probably do just as well or better at producing comics for that marketplace (“Pacific Comics,” p. 21).”

[52] See “Two Men and Their Comic Books.”  The Schanes were friends with Kirby, a California resident, and approached him about creating their first comic book because, as Schanes said in 1983, “I figured if you want to get people’s attention with a new comic book, who better to do it with than the King of Comics, Jack Kirby!”

[53] Set in 2031 America, its anti-hero, Reuben Flagg, is an out-of work actor now working as a Plexus Ranger, a paramilitary policeman. According to Wright, “Despite his ostensible duties as a defender of the establishment, Flagg is actually a cynical subversive who recognizes his nation for what it is — an obscene perversion of the American dream that, nevertheless, offers a lot of opportunities for fun (Comic Book Nation, p. 269).” Chaykin mixed leftist social commentary and political satire with cutting-edge graphic designs that frequently anticipated modern computer graphics. The result was an inimitable style that was so personally Chaykin’s that American Flagg! was unable to hold its audience when Chaykin left after issue #27, and was cancelled with #50.

[54] Comic Book Nation, p. 279

[55] See “A History of the Comics Market”

[56] From an email to author by Tom Mason (6/27/05)

[57] Tom Mason writes, “In the black and white era, [Malibu’s] biggest success would have to be Lowell Cunningham’s Men in Black. He sent it to us unsolicited as a proposal. I was the original editor and I thought it was such a cool and different idea. In terms of sales figures, it didn’t break any industry records, but there was enough story in the comic to capture the attention of DreamWorks, which turned it into a couple of hit movies, and it became a licensing giant.” From an email to author by Tom Mason (6/27/05).

[58] Comic Book in America, p. 86

[59] That same year Dark Horse released the first issue of Miller’s Hard Boiled #1 (September), drawn by Geof Darrow.  Beginning in June 1991, the first part of the first serialized story of Miller’s cult favorite Sin City was published (Dark Horse Presents #s 51-62).

[60] Comic Book Nation, p. 262

[61] Comic Book Nation, p. 280

[62] Comic Book Nation, p. 280

[63] Reading Comic Books, p. 136

[64] The 1989 Amazing Heroes Preview Special lists 132 publishers (p. 288).  That total was down from 134 publishers listed in Amazing Heroes Preview Special Summer 1988 (pp. 283-284).

[65] Comic Book Nation, p. 278-279

[66] Comic Book Nation, p. 280

[67] Comic Book Nation, p. 278

[68] Comic Book Nation, p. 279. Wright adds, “The most valuable comic books from the Thirties and Forties commanded prices in the five-figure range. While most collectors realized that recent issues would never become so rare as to generate those kind of prices, they were nevertheless beguiled by the occasional phenomenon epitomized by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (p. 279).”

[69] See “The Image Story: A Four-Part Series.”  During 1992 and part of 1993, Image arranged to use Malibu Graphics’ facilities to get their new line of comic books to market. Mason recalls, “Dave Olbrich had a strong, positive history with Rob Liefeld going back to the days when Rob was just starting out and not yet working for Marvel or DC … The original Image guys did all the work and took the biggest risks. Malibu just gave them a temporary place post-Marvel until they figured out how to publish on their own.”[69] This arrangement benefited Malibu as much as Image. “Having the Image imprint associated with Malibu raised the company’s game — stores that didn’t carry Malibu books prior to the Image run were taking another look at the company, as were people in the media, licensing, movie and TV industries (From an email to author by Tom Mason (6/27/05).”

[70] From “The Image Story: Part Two”: “Meanwhile, partly spurred by a burgeoning speculator interest in comics, Image titles were selling out in comics shops across the country. Spawn, the most popular, was selling in the neighborhood of two million copies [per issue], and even Image’s apparent weak link, Shadowhawk, sold approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand [copies.]”

[71] From “The Image Story: Part Three”: “During this early period, all of the partners were to a greater or lesser extent being courted by Hollywood dealmakers. Fans were lining up to see them in unprecedented numbers. And retailers were ordering all the copies they could get of any title Image promised to publish. Unfortunately, their new celebrity status distracted the artists from not only business details but also what had once been the motivation for it all — the act of creating comics[, and] they all fell increasingly behind in their work.”

[72] Comic Book Nation, p. 283

[73] See “A Brief History of Comics.” According to Michael Dean, author of “The Image Story: A Four-Part Series,” some people speculate that Image initiated a perfect storm that ” was responsible for virtually destroying the direct-market in comics. Retailers invested heavily in Image issues that failed to ship on time, which meant the retailers could not recoup their investment on schedule. Due to the required lead time for orders, retailers had, in some cases, ordered second and third issues of Image titles by the time they learned that the first issue had not shipped on time. The problem was further multiplied by the variant covers and high-priced bagged and foil-covered editions with which Image shamelessly pandered to speculator interests. The money invested could not be regained until the tardy issues finally arrived in stores and found buyers. When issues arrived so late that fan interest had waned, retailers found themselves stuck with titles that were no longer hot. Even so, they were not quick to learn their lesson. ‘The Pitt, for example, was consistently late every issue,’ said [Image publisher Jim] Valentino, ‘but every time [creator Dale Keown] solicited orders, it sold.” This meant that “there was little incentive for the Image creators to get their act together and on schedule … and the problem snowballed.” Eventually the retailers lost faith in Image, but by that time their revenue lines were clogged. “These circumstances created severe cash-flow problems for comics shops just as the comics market was beginning to tighten up … Stores not able to weather the period of disrupted cash flow ended up closing their doors for good(“The Image Story: Part Three”)[.]”

[74] See “A Brief History of Comics”

[75] Comic Book Nation, p. 283

[76] Comic Book Nation, p. 283. A cursory glance at contemporary comic books reveals a library of depressing literature. Most mainstream superheroes have become borderline psychotics playing out dysfunctional power fantasies, trapped in a chaotic universe where hope and victory are artificial concepts. Meanwhile, most Indy comics can be divided into stories about whining “winners”  (i.e., characters sold on the notion that life is ultimately pointless so why not be depressed about it) and myopic “losers” (i.e., characters who are even more miserable than the winners because of their faith that — despite all empirical evidence — ideals like honor and love can make the world a better place).

[77] Reading Comic Books, p. 127

[78] Comic Book Nation, p. 218

[79] Reading Comic Books, p. 142

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