Notes on the Term Indie

Underground? Alternative? Small press? Indie? Comics creators, fans, journalists, and historians have employed a number of different terms to describe comics that fall outside corporate production and distribution models. Comics people often employ particular terms and reject others, and each term has a unique origin and history. In creating this blog, I wrestled with what term to use in my title. Which term accurately describes who I want to write about, what comics I address, and who I want to attract to the blog? Choosing to go with the term indie was a bigger decision than I anticipated when I first set out to create this blog. In considering my title, I worked through a number of the terms mentioned previously, and I explored some of the ways that comics people describe comics. In this post I work through some of that terminology to help readers see why I choose indie.

Comics fandom has long struggled with terminology. The dominant narrative, that is the terminology employed by creators and fans of mass-produced and distributed comics, divides American comics history into ages. This narrative begins with the posthumously dubbed Victorian (19th century) and platinum ages (early 20th century), and moves into the golden age (1930s to 1950s), followed by silver (1950s to 1970), bronze (1970s to 1980s), copper (late 1980s to early 1990s), and modern/postmodern ages (mid 1990s to today). Beyond describing the era in which a comic was produced, each age is said to exhibit certain artistic and storytelling qualities. For example, the golden age is dominated by god-like superheroes (e.g., Superman and Captain America) while the silver age sees the rise of flawed, more human, heroes (e.g., Fantastic Four.)

I point out that the Victorian and platinum ages were dubbed as such posthumously in order to illustrate how this schema was largely developed and promoted by a particular group of comics people. I don’t find the ages useful unless you are specifically referring to comic books published by corporations or communicating with fans whose predilections are firmly located within corporate, often superhero, comics. Beyond nodding to America’s comic strip origins, these terms ignore all other forms of sequential art, particularly the emergence of small press and self-published comics from the 1960s to today as well as graphic novels, mini- and web comics. They also ignore comics that were published alongside other works, e.g., in both mainstream and counterculture newspapers, magazines, newsletters, etc. The ages schema or narrative also presents comic book history as if it follows some inevitable arc in a linear fashion. Adherents to this narrative struggle to imagine what comics will look like in the future. In fact, they are often the same people who raise hue and cry over the demise of American comics any time there is a shake up in corporate comic book revenue streams and profit margins. This narrative demands that comics people mold our thinking to it because it appears, at first glance, to include everything. Furthermore, it mimics ways of conceiving of history in other contexts. Just as those historical narratives struggle to include the outliers, the ages schema has a difficult time including all (or maybe even most) comics. Adherents to the schema often employ terms like underground, ground-level, and alternative to describe those comics that don’t exhibit the qualities associated with different ages in regards to their content, production values, or distribution methods.

To me, these terms give too much attention to corporate comics and the methods through which such comics were produced and distributed. They ignore technological advancements that allowed fans to become creators, such as mimeograph and xerox machines. They also cannot grapple with socio-cultural shifts that pushed creators to pursue stories that shredded the comics code, particularly stories about sex and drugs. They also struggle to account for economic changes to how comics were produced and distributed during each age, such as the shift from newsstand distribution to sales in head shops, to the development of direct market, to online distribution, etc. These changes are glossed over in favor of pointing toward particular mainstream comics titles and creators emblematic of each age. These changes allowed comics creators like R. Crumb or Trina Robbins in the early 1970s, and Mike Friedrich, Dave Sim, or Wendy & Richard Pini in the late 1970s to find massive audiences and do things their own ways. I believe that if we want to understand comics today and if we want to approach comics as a mutable medium that not only reacts to but spurs changes in technology, socio-cultural contexts, and economics, then we need to shrug off the ages narrative. Those are the sort of creators and stories that interest me most. Indie in spirit as well as circumstance. 

I want to explore how folks working outside comic book corporations developed their work, how they published it, how they got it into the hands of readers, how their work was received, and its lasting impact. I want to explore how what Wendy & Richard Pini did in the 1970s relates to what folks creating web comics or using crowdfunding platforms are doing today. I also want to explore the overlap between minicomics and zines. Still, I opted for the term indie instead of small press or micropress because I want to include corporate comics models that leave space for creator-owned works not because I am particularly a fan of kinder, gentler corporations, but because there seems to be a dramatic difference between what a company like Image does and what a company like Marvel does, and Image certainly isn’t a small press or micropress. 

 I am not trying to convince you that corporate comics are evil or that indie is the term that everyone should use in describing creator-owned and -controlled comics. I am simply explaining my reasoning behind the title Indie Creator Explosion. While I have been pontificating as if I am an expert on comics history and terminology, this blog is a way for me to dig deeper into these issues. It’s a space for me to share research with others, and hopefully, to receive feedback from others about these topics. It isn’t the final word. What terms do you use to describe the different types of comics you read?

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