Monday, May 15, 2006

Just The FAQs: Crisis On Infinite Lexicons

Q: Okay, help me out here. What’s “independent” and “alternative” mean in terms of comics? Is it anything like “independent film” or “alternative” rock?

A: I’m not very much into those two circles, so I couldn’t tell you how they match up with the alt/indy comic scene. But I can answer your first question, somewhat, at least in terms of how the words are used, if not necessarily what they mean.

Q: They aren’t the same thing?

A: Oh, if only. But anyway, let’s start with a history lesson. There was a time, long, long ago in the prehistoric 1960s, when “independent” comics meant one thing. Or would have, if they’d used that term; instead, what they used was “underground.” This was back in the times of the Comics Code and newsstand distribution, when available comics content was heavily censored and restricted. Counter-culturalist creators who weren’t interested in playing by these rules printed comics themselves, often on cheap-quality Xerox paper, and distributed them by standing on street corners and handing them out until they were gone. The focus of this was to get the work out there; business and profit rarely entered into it. These were the underground comics: strange, often cynical, and unbeknownst to the vast majority of the population.

Q: Where was all this happening? Who was doing it?

A: It was happening all over, in the same small liberal artist enclaves where the rest of the counterculture was breeding its anti-rebellion: San Francisco, Berkeley, the Village, places where people’s reading mixed Sartre and the National Lampoon. The list of names is too long to go through here, and many are no more than a footnote to comics history, but some, such as Harvey Pekar, Dan Clowes, and Art Spiegelman, eventually took their work above-ground, truly starting the “art comix” movement.

Q: The undergrounds didn’t start that?

A: In a way they did, they were at least the proto-movement, but I don’t consider the movement truly started until it became a legitimate, self-sustaining force in the industry, starting around the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s. But that’s beside the point. The point is, the undergrounds grew up, and became the alternative/independent scene. And for a time, alternative/independent were truly synonymous; all alternative material was published independently, and all material published independently was alternative.

Q: Hang on, what’s the distinction?

A: Well, here I’m defining them in a way that makes sense to me, alternative being in terms of content, and independent being in terms of production. Alternative content would be that not put out by the comics mainstream, i.e., not superheroes, licensed kid fare, or Archie. (Even today, this is the vast majority of the comics output in America, and what the public thinks of when they think of comics, and that’s what the mainstream is. And of course, it goes without saying that I’m only talking about American comics, because in other markets, the terms “alternative” and “independent” have very different meanings, if they’re used at all.) Independent comics are those published independently of the major companies, basically non-corporate, small press operations, sometimes just a guy running stuff out of his apartment. In any case, for a time, the line was clear to anyone. Then things changed.

Q: How?

A: The question isn’t so much “how” as “what.” What changed the industry, and began the blurring of the line between corporate/mainstream and independent/alternative, was two things: the rise of the direct market and the independent boom. In the mid-‘80s, specialty stores became more and more popular at the same time as newsstand sales and availability began petering out; this made access to the independent and alternative books easier for the long-term comics buyer, who now started seeing books like Cerebus and RAW when he went in to pick up Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans. Then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a massive hit, and suddenly every black-and-white independent book was being ordered in massive quantities as storekeepers searched for the next Turtles. The cream rose to the top, and a small number of indy creators suddenly became very independent and successful. This trend reached its apex in 1991 with the formation of Image, which changed the paradigm for independent companies completely.

Q: Image? They’re an independent company?

A: By the definition of that time they were: creator-owned and operated, existing primarily to publish out the work of the creators. The only difference was, (a) they were publishing material almost identical to that of Marvel and DC, and (b) they were making a killing. In short, they were mainstream.

Q: I’m beginning to see the problem.

A: Exactly. Independent and alternative no longer had to go together. But the automatic connection remained, and still remains, in the minds of many readers. I’m reminded of 2002, when Dreamwave became big on the strength of the Transformers license. It was Pat Lee’s company, and the non-Transformers material was creator-owned, but it ran itself in a very corporate-minded way, and a lot of people blanched at calling Transformers an independent book. The Diamond monopoly makes things even more confusing, as the tendency is to think of the Feature Publishers (Marvel, Dark Horse, DC, Image, IDWthe mainstream and corporate, and the other, back-of-the-catalog publishers as independent and alternative, even though IDW, DH and Image publish a lot of alternative material, and Archie is of course very mainstream, just not sold heavily through Diamond.

Q: So, the problem is “alternative” and “independent” don’t mean the same thing, but are still used interchangeably.

A: Pretty much. And there’s the ongoing debate about the nature of mainstream and alternative, as proponents and creators of art comics are pushing into the big bookstore markets and trying to take the mainstream name for themselves. The distinctions and meanings are shifting.

Q: So what’s the prognosis, doc?

A: I honestly think the most likely course, in terms of facts, is that the distinction will become irrelevant; everything will be comics, and all comics will be of pretty much the same greater cultural relevance, regardless of what’s in them or . But people who want to insist that the material they read is the most important will still hold onto the distinctions. Ironically, as the mainstream in comics and the mainstream in greater American culture begin to blend (or the mainstream rejects comics as a whole, sending everything back to the cultural dustbin), the ones doing the most crying for their comics, and only their comics, to become mainstream, will become less and less important in the discussion.

Q: So I shouldn’t worry?

A: Nah. “Alternative” and “independent” were never more than marketing classifications anyway, and you all know what I think of marketing.

Q: Tricksy marketerses! We hates them forever!

A: Precisely. *gollum*

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