Nothing Truly Dies in Comics: The New Micro-Publishers
In comics, nothing stays dead. Characters whose deaths clog the news over and over and over one year are assured of their resurrection the next. Series are constantly cancelled then revived. And it’s not just characters or their series; the last few years have proved that even comics publishing formats don’t stay dead.
For their first 50 years or so, American comics were virtually synonymous with the short (usually 32 or so pages), magazine-style publications once commonly found at newsstands and drug stores. The conventional wisdom of the last decade and a half, though, has been that the floppy (as the traditional format is often called) comic is passing from the shelf of history, increasingly superseded by graphic novels and, more recently, digital downloads. But it wouldn’t be comics if the floppy weren’t now resurgent thanks to a new crop of boutique and micro-publishers focusing mini and traditional, floppy comics.
While their format recalls the primary-color super heroics of youth, these publishers—Hic and Hoc, Domino, Oily, Retrofit, Space Face, to name a few—offer formally and artistically challenging indie/alternative/art comics. Their focus on floppy comics distinguishes them from their more established alternative counterparts, such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, which have virtually abandoned the floppy in favor of the graphic novel. With the ever-shrinking number of comics shops (fewer than 3,000 in the U.S., down from a 1990s peak of almost 10,000), and the increasing consolidation of those stores around Marvel, DC, and Image, floppies no longer make sense for larger publishers. But the micro-publishers are driven less by economic imperatives (most don’t have payrolls to meet) than by what they enjoy.
“When the mid-sized publishers stopped printing floppy comic books there was this hole created,” says Charles Forsman, the cartoonist who started Oily Comics in early 2012. “A lot of people missed what was in that hole. Something needed to fill [it].”
The love of floppies also inspired acclaimed indie cartoonist Brian “Box” Brown to found Retrofit Comics in 2011.
“I was jealous of fans of superhero comics,’” says Brown. ”Superhero fans can get multiple new issues of comics every Wednesday for a couple of bucks. The cheap, stapled comic pamphlet has fallen out of favor for alternative comics publishers. But while the economics of the stapled comic pamphlet has made it less profitable, the format is still an excellent one for readers and creators.”
While Brown and Forsman both focus on floppies, their comics aren’t as physically similar as those shipped every week by Marvel and DC. While most mainstream comics share the same pagecount, trim size, and paper types, the micro-publishers’ output varies significantly. Retrofit’s comics resemble the size and length of those from Marvel and DC, while Oily’s are 12-page hand folded and stapled, black and white mini comics.
“Mini comics, for me, is a special thing … they provide an intimacy that is hard to get from a screen or a book printed overseas. Someone probably put it together by hand, one-by-one, in their underwear while watching TV,” says Forsman. “It can be like getting a hand-written letter in the mail.”
Because floppies are cheaper to produce than slicker mainstream comics, the micro-publishers can support more experimentation.
“Oily is … a low-stakes environment,” says Forsman. “I started [The End of the Fucking World] after finishing a pretty labor-intensive comic. I wanted to do something fast and fun. So I try to get that idea across to the artists I invite to make an Oily book. To sort of help them push away expectations of themselves or their readers to free them up to have fun.”
The more manageable economics also allow developing or noncommercial cartoonists to reach a larger audience.
“There is a wealth of excellent comic artists working all over the world that remain ‘undiscovered,’” says Brown. “One of my goals with Retrofit is to spread that wealth around.”
Discovering these publishers in 2012 revolutionized and revitalized my interest in comics. I’ve read 40 or 50 graphic novels a year for the last 10 years or so, basically ignored mini and floppy comics, and was starting to feel that I’d seen virtually everything the English-language market could offer. There were titles I enjoyed, some I even loved, but very few that excited me. The immediacy that Forsman talks about, Brown’s thrill of discovering a new cartoonist (Forsman was that cartoonist for me; his The End of the Fucking World is a chilling, and admirably subdued, chronicle of the development of a teenage sociopath) made comics seem new to me again. Amid a calcified mainstream comics market, that’s practically a super heroic feat.
Interested in sampling these publishers? Check out:
The End of the Fucking World, by Charles Forsman. Oily Comics
Retrofit Five Pack, by Brendan Leach, L. Nichols, Tom Hart, John Martz, and Nathan Schreiber. Retrofit Comics
Molecules, by Michael DeForge. Space Face Books
DemonTears, by Bernie McGovern. Hic and Hoc Publications