We’ve talked about fanzines and touched on conventions, but there is another area of the industry that is probably more overlooked than undergrounds – the small press.
As a sweeping generalisation people who are attached to the small press tend to out nerd the geekiest of comics fans, yet by the nature of what it is, people involved in small press tend to be really creative people. Back in the days of the fanzine and the adzine there was also the stripzine and these were jammed packed with comics strips that ranged in quality from outstanding to offal.
The small press is, I believe, the true underground. Underground Comix – a label attached to comics that essentially dealt with subjects that standard comics couldn’t or didn’t cover is really one of the most lucrative parts of the comics industry. Underground Comix are the one form of the medium that most people who sneer at comics will accept and read. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Fat Freddy’s Cat being two underground comix that most people on the street would be familiar with, but also the works of Robert Crumb might be well known to most. By their nature, undergrounds make money because they only print when the demand is high enough and that is usually pretty high – most Freak Brothers comics were getting one printing a year, at least and that specific comic is arguably the biggest selling comicbook title of all time – although there is a belief that the Robert Crumb created Zap! Comix is actually the best selling (having been reprinted hundreds of times) – I’d contest that. The fabulous pothead brothers were consistently one of the biggest selling comic in my shop; I was reordering copies as often as I was ordering new Marvel and DC comics.
Undergrounds dealt with drugs, graphic sex and nudity, politics and corruption, swearing and violence, horror and filth that could never make it into Marvel or DC’s territory. They were regarded as subversive, have championed illegalities and have been reviled by governments and those that wish to censor us from the things they believe are bad for us. But in reality the Underground Comix movement is one of the most stable, but that’s probably because it is such a big market catered by a select few individuals, who are probably aware their comix will have a far longer life than mainstream comics.
You don’t just have ordinary comics and Underground Comix, there are areas or sub-genres that you sometimes need to be an expert to follow. Warren was a publisher of adult comics during the 1960s and 1970s, among their titles were Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella, these were a sort of modern version of the classic EC horror comics of the 1950s, the comics that prompted Wertham to write his Seduction of the Innocent, which, to recap, essentially meant that comics from the mid-1950s onwards were homogenised and had to follow the same code of ethics as film and television.
Warren’s titles, because they were magazines and targeted at the higher levels of the spinner racks, weren’t bothered by any Comics Code of Authority (of which one had been set up by then to police the industry) and made a niche for themselves, which others often copied. Underground Comix emerged as a protest against censorship and by the early 1970s there were many comics, produced by people who either made names for themselves in undergrounds or who moved there from the mainstream to spread their wings and air their political views. The comics infrastructure looked something like this: DC and Marvel at the top, Charlton, Archie, Gold Key, Dell as the smaller publishers trying to battle it out for the 10% that Marvel and DC hadn’t already consumed, and then you had undergrounds. It was a simple diamond-shape, but with the arrival of the Direct Market it suddenly became possible for anyone to publish his or her own comic, in fact it made it a damned sight easier.
By the time I opened my store there had been a major swing in publishing, by the time I closed there had been an even bigger swing. What happened was in the late 1970s was we started to see the first of a series of self-published comics books, or graphic novels. Some were done by comics creators, others were done by comix ‘dudes’ and one in particular was done by a living legend that most young collectors were unaware of. The guy’s name is Will Eisner and he had created The Spirit in the 1940s – a different kind of superhero. Eisner’s book of collected short illustrated novellas A Contract With God was one of the groundbreaking moments in comics history. Not only was this book handled through bookshops and was a best seller outside of comics; it gave others the idea that comics could appeal to a wider audience again. A Contract with God had elements in it that were banned by the Comics Code of Authority, and even though Eisner was one of the most respected creators who had ever lived; it wasn’t going to change its rule for him. So Eisner got a real publisher to handle it. Suddenly other publishers were looking at fantasy imprints for their wares and there were other graphic novels with adult themes, but definitely not underground themes, that started to appear. Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre about a black bounty hunter, who liked shagging. Detectives Inc: A Remembrance of Threatening Green by Don McGregor and Marshal Rogers was your typical buddy cop drama, but had some weird sex and lesbianism thrown in for good measure and suddenly your dad was interested in your comics.
The real breakthrough happened with Richard Corben’s Neverwhere a graphically explicit picture novel that belonged in the underground but was published by the real world simply because it was so unique. The boundaries between all the genres of this medium were beginning to blur.
By the mid-1980s DC Comics had realised that it could make money from comics that dealt with ‘mature’ subjects or had more graphic detail than the standard comic. Alan Moore was one of their key players in the introduction of, at first a ‘For Mature readers’ line and then the Vertigo imprint, which was for any title that didn’t really fit into DC’s regular portfolio. Others followed (Marvel had tried the Warren route in the 1970s, but was never quite as successful as the company hoped. Marvel’s Epic line, which followed, was very poor in comparison and seemed to be a bit of a con – many of the stories could easily have been published as standard comics, but weren’t. Marvel, it seemed, didn’t get the hang of mature readers books) and before long there were about 15 small independent comics companies not only vying for that small percentage that wasn’t covered by Marvel and DC, but actually fancying their chances of eating away at the big two’s monopoly. By the early 1990s Marvel held the monopoly with almost 45% of the market share; DC followed with 28%, Image Comics had a further 16%, Dark Horse Comics had 4% and the other 7% was being fought over by a lot of companies with potential – some of them are still around now, 20 years after these figures were released.
Image Comics? Image was set up as a direct result of Marvel being stupid. During all the huge orders for the X-books and Spider-Man and just about anything else Marvel pumped at the unsuspecting general public, with sales rising and with no obvious reason, some joker at Marvel must have decided that the resurgence of these characters popularity must be down solely to these hot new dynamic artists Marvel had recruited. So Marvel proceeded to make their young talents superstars. Artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen and Whilce Portacio, who all witnessed the titles they were working on take dramatic increases in sales, suddenly found themselves being trumpeted as bigger than the heroes they were working on. Marvel began a campaign, which lasted for about twelve months that basically canonised any artist who helped increase the sales on their books. Suddenly the hot artist, (who once maybe could have helped the back issue sales of a beleaguered comics dealer) was now the main weapon for Marvel in increasing new comics sales. The company even started to manufacture hot artists, hailing the arrival of the latest greatest comics talent, but essentially swelling the egos of a bunch of inexperienced children. With Marvel swimming in profit and their hot artists now millionaires because of the deals they worked out for themselves – because they were so popular – there no longer seemed an awful lot of point in them continuing to slog out monthly comics for Marvel. So the six most prominent artists and their mate who understood publishing (and was also a modestly successful comics creator – Jim Valentino) set up their own comics publishers. It was an instant hit and virtually all of the launches from the breakaway contributors had orders of over 1million copies. The rich kids just got a bit richer. Marvel replaced the hot artists with a new bunch of hot artists (all being hyped up like their predecessors) and the cycle would get repeated.
Image immediately grabbed about 10% of the market and there was now a big new player in town. Image wasn’t just good wholesome fun, they were superhero comics produced the way Lee, Silvestri and McFarlane saw them without the constraints of editors and publishers. [By the way, this had almost happened before, a few years earlier and led by a lot of Brits, but no one had enough guts to do it and it led to Alan Moore quitting comics for a few years because he felt there was no future for the medium in the USA as long as DC and Marvel were in control of it. No surprises then that Moore eventually did work for Image].
Unfortunately many of their titles were just regurgitated facsimiles of stories originally done by Marvel and DC. Most of these guys could draw, but none of them could really write, and instead of getting quality writers in (who might have their own ideas), they all employed their mates to write the scripts and very few of those mates are still working in comics.
Image is still going today with its mix of diversity and the few remaining launch titles it has still going. However they are no longer the force they were and have a considerably smaller market share, but enough to keep them going. A lot of the breakaway creators have returned to Marvel and DC; most notably Jim Lee who took his Wildstorm imprint to DC and now holds a publishing deal with the company and is one of its highest paid executives.
I think that during the 1980s and ’90s a lot happened to split comics into specific categories and split the fans into partisan crowds. If a publisher couldn’t get comics readers to read its comics, then they could fuck off and worry about their pointless corner of the industry on their own. While Marvel, DC and Image were looking at USA domination, smaller companies were investing in more diverse material – they were targeting the people that Marvel and DC couldn’t help and had no intention of thinking about helping. More and more publishers set themselves up producing comics that quite frankly couldn’t be categorised. Companies such as Fantagraphics began producing comics that many believed were underground comix, but they were in fact comics produced by a new generation of creators who were now using comics in the same way as TV and film creators were pushing the envelope. Comics became a sort of new video! More and more solo publishers appeared; guys or girls with great talent and ideas but no faith in the system, who just costed out their projects and went it alone. It started to become clearer, because of the number of shops displaying this different stuff, there was a market for it.
People wanted their spandex and their buxom superheroines, but others wanted something different. They wanted to read autobiographical comics, or comics about modern life. People could relate to it and still get enjoyment from it in a variety of ways. The diversity of these diverse comics continued to grow and kept encroaching on traditional underground comix territory. Companies started bringing out sex comics – stories containing such graphic illustrations that in some cases you could use them as anatomy books. The truth was you could just about do anything you wanted in comics form – it was and always should have been a freeform medium and now it was becoming that.
Of course things like the sex comic* did nothing for the already risible comics reputation.
[* This has always seemed to me to be one of the most pointless elements of the medium – the sex comic, or essentially porn on comic form! Very few of these unbelievably graphic comics ever had a story, they were the paper equivalent of the plumber turning up at the half naked housewife’s door offering to look at her plumbing – and without the ‘oo-er, missus’ thrown in! It gave the buyers’ the opportunity to learn how to read a comic with one hand. Fantagraphics were the big purveyors of porn with their Eros Comix line and Eric Reynolds, one of the publisher’s long-lasting employees admitted to me once that Fantagraphics could not have succeeded without the extra income from the sex comics. The reason I find sex comics pointless is because they do nothing for the medium and frankly you can see the real thing on the Internet or off the top shelf for not much more (and in some cases a lot less) money. I would also actively encourage young comics fans to shed the nerd image and get out there and do some shagging! Although I remember reading an article written by some guy many years ago who claims that his sex comics probably get more of an airing than his average Spider-Man comic – I’m strangely impressed by the guy’s frankness. The awful truth about sex comics is most fanboys of superheroes would love to see the most buxom and shapely of superheroines in the buff – that’s why Marvel had such a hit with its Swimsuit Specials, despite no nudity ever appearing; I mean, comics fans are mildly intelligent people, do they really need some kind of wanking aid in the form of female heroes in lingerie poses? Surely they can imagine it, write about it or draw it for cheaper?]
More and more new publishers were appearing and producing what could be described only as marginal titles. But thanks to the Direct Market, if they achieved realistic enough orders then people could start to actually eke out a living. So here we had a weird situation, the Direct Market was created to sustain the industry, but eventually only aided in its shrinking; it’s diluting, if you will. It was now responsible for a new wave of talent and a host of projects the likes of had never been seen on these shores.
Publishing was splintering and thanks to cheaper printing techniques and lots of disposable income, anyone who had half an idea started to produce their own comics. Now, this is not something unique, people have been producing their own comics for years, but never have they been able to do it and present the end product in such a professional manner. The days of photocopiers, stencils and banding machines were long gone.
But for all the independent publishers starting up – from the almost half-serious comics companies to the one-man-bands – there was still something else – the place where most people who want to work in comics hail from – the comics small press.
Anything goes in the small press. As its name suggests small press isn’t big, it encapsulates the creative drive of individuals and their need to see their work in print in any form. The small press is the purest form of the comicbook, it can be anything the creator wishes it to be, it is not governed by others’ ideas or influences, most small press is produced because of the love for the medium rather than any short-term gain. Most people involved in the small press would probably not pass up the chance to work in the mainstream, but that isn’t the real purpose why they are there.
I know of small press comics produced by art students, but I know as many comics that were produced by milkmen, postmen, accountants and radio producers. I also know that while I had been a champion of this corner of the industry for well over 10 years, I really don’t know that much about it. But that is probably because I’ve never really been a part of it. Just because I produced a fanzine doesn’t automatically mean that in the eyes of small press people I’m accepted. The small press views the press with suspicion, mainly because they can’t understand why the press would be interested in them, especially when we had so many colourful superheroes to talk about. The small press is also quite cliquey to the point where you almost have tribes of small press creators. There are also different degrees of involvement and commitment – some people are involved as part of their social circles, while others live, breath and sleep small press and will campaign tirelessly for it to be recognised by the rest of the world, which seems a bit odd really as the small press is as accepted in comics as nursery school is for schoolchildren – although people involved in the small press do not necessarily want to be labelled in the same category as spandex fans. That’s probably one of the main reasons why I’ve never been able to get as passionate about small press as small press aficionados; because I don’t understand the need to try and be equal with the rest of the industry – it isn’t an industry that one would want to be associated with, especially when many of the people involved in areas of the small press look at Europe as our destiny. Of course, as I’ve continually mentioned, Europe has a completely different perspective on any comics related products. Plus there’s the fact that I’m waffling nonsensically about this when the real reason for people to be involved in the small press is because that’s what they want. There doesn’t have to be a reason for it and the person who produces an amateur looking piece of shit doesn’t necessarily want to work in professional comics at all; he or she might just want to express themselves in a medium they can associate with.
The term small press has been around for years, possibly even decades, according to Pete Ashton, “Means literally a small publishing operation usually run by one person or a small group. [It’s] Worth noting that in the States [companies like] Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly are [classed as] Small Press while what we call small press is known as mini-comics or zines.” Ashton also told me about how the small press tends to form into cliques and these groups of people would eventually overlap into other groups and start getting affiliated with each other. There were magazines that were just like professional comics magazines that told people about the diversity of product available from a plethora of wannabe comics people or just people with a desire to create their own stories. Contacts were made in other countries and the small press underground network grew as far afield as the Soviet States and South America.
Like its big brother, the small press has different facets, but not the same ones. In the small press world small is key and therefore everything is far more informal and personal. As a result you form ‘tribes’ of people who align themselves to a specific form of small press comic and will not go anywhere else. The attitude is almost snobby if they didn’t realise that they were just doing the same thing as spandex junkies do to any other comic reader who doesn’t read what he reads. There is a lot of passion in the small press and those passions boil over at times. In the early 1990s, in an attempt to try and put the small press scene under one roof, a fanzine that would be like the fanzines of old and give room for all divergent opinions was created. The fanzine was called Battleground; it was created by a guy called Andy Brewer and it ended up being just what it said on the tin – a Battleground.
Friendships were lost, arguments and feuds were started or resurrected, but as Pete Ashton put it, “a lot of cross pollination had happened” for all the finished relationships others grew and good things came out of it. The setting up of the first small press distribution companies were a great help (and when I say ‘companies’ I mean small outfits that hardly made any money at all, but tried to get anything that was produced a possible home and a sale.) and now there were working networks for the small press, which meant that comics shops could easily order and stock anything they wanted or felt they could sell. You see people who read small press comics need to be able to know where they can get them. These small press distributors were small beans, but also the main feeder, and they did more to promote comics as a medium than the mainstream comics companies. There is a reason for this and it is simple – small press creators are actually creating something and people are impressed by people who create things and the small press isn’t about spandex and superheroes – it can be and often is, but – it’s about doing your own thing and that has an anarchistic quality and that is rarely derided and more often than not regarded as innovative.
I’m talking about the small press that is evident in the UK more than in the US. To me small press is the one-man band, it is the sole trader selling his own wares, and it is the cheap quality reproduction as long as you can see clearly what is going on. It’s about existing rather than quality thresholds.
The small press, like any other genre, has its peaks as well as its troughs. It was having a peak in 2001 and I was there to witness it. I soon forgot about my hassles with Dez as the real buzz going around Bristol swept over me. It was really hard to put my finger on it, but for the first time in years I felt excited to be part of the comics industry in this country again. It might have been because of the amount of people trying to break into the small press, something that is essentially easily broken into. But these people wanted to do their own comics, their own thing, it no longer seemed to be top of people’s agendas to get portfolios seen by the big boys; it was about doing something; being seen and heard; about degrees of recognition.
It was out of the small press that I got the inspiration for a new comics magazine.
Next: The birth of Borderline.