Why Independent Comics Will Win

Despite appearances I don't hate Marvel or DC. But when I think about the landscape of comics I can't help putting independent, creator-centric comics on one side, and corporate, Work-For-Hire comics, on the other.

And while there are definitely some great corporate comics, I have a difficult time looking past the way Marvel & DC, especially, dominated the industry for so long and left a lasting perception in popular culture that comics were just stories about superheroes - kid's fare. This impression is especially evident in the Big Two's lasting control of the Direct Market.

But, despite their strength, the ground is shifting under their feet. Corporate comics are being consitently challenged by Independent Comics. And as the fight continues, and the perception of comics continues to mature, the market shifts. I know most of you recognize this. I doubt that anyone reading this post thinks comics is purely limited to Marvel & DC. We know there's so much more out there. But a lot of others haven't realized this yet.

But because we're on the frontlines, we tend to have more difficulty maintaining a wide perspective of our industry. Though we might think that Independent Comics is currently dominating, the fight is still underway. The market is still evolving. The Second Golden Age of comics - a time of greater creative diversity and larger audiences reading comics - is coming, but it isn't here yet.

I'm sure most of you reading this are rooting for Independent Comics to win out over the Corporate comics that have dominated the market for so long. But it's not enough to be on the sidelines, rooting for your team to win. We need to be out on the field. Helping to make it happen. Massive change doesn't occur so easily.

We, as both creators and readers, should be pushing the industry towards this Golden Age. We should be working to bring about the comic industry we dream of. We should be helping Independent Comics win its battle. But, how do we do that?

Well, to figure that out, we first need to explore the factors that have been contributing to Independent Comics' growing strength. Once we look at the facts we can then identify where we, as creators, can help lead our industry forward.

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The Return of Image Comics

No organized endeavor has so effectively challenged the status quo of the industry like Image Comics. For that reason alone, it's not unfair to call their return in the last few years, after the speculation bust of the 90s, one of the most important factors contributing to the evolution of the industry towards this Second Golden Age.

Their renewed efforts have single-handedly served to demonstrate the creative potential of comics, and shined a light on a future in which comics are defined by more than superheroes.

Now, I wouldn't dare to say that Image is the first to make comics different than those from Marvel & DC, but it is definitely the vanguard of the modern independent movement. Nowhere is the company's importance exemplified more perfectly than with Image Expo.

The Expo enables them to showcase their upcoming projects to retailers, members of the press, and anyone else willing to venture out to San Francisco to witness the event or follow along on Twitter. It allows them to bypass the traditional press system centered around conventions, like San Diego Comic Con - avoiding the need to try to compete for coverage with the likes of Marvel and DC.

While this sidestepping is notable on its own, there is a more important element of this past January's Image Expo, specifically. Namely, the market share numbers that Eric Stephenson, the publisher of Image Comics, shared, which were confirmed by Diamond shortly after. The numbers stated that Image was ending the 2014 year with a Retail Market Share of 9.23% and a Unit Market Share in the double digits, at 10.41%.

While these numbers may seem small, compared to Marvel & DC's collectie share (63.24% Retail / 69.25% Unit) they become far more telling when you look at them in context of years past. Taken in context, they not only corroborate the gradual decline of the Big Two, but serve as a testament to the ground Image has helped Independent Comics gain.

All statistics shown above and discussed below were taken directly from Diamond

All statistics shown above and discussed below were taken directly from Diamond

All statistics shown above and discussed below were taken directly from Diamond

All statistics shown above and discussed below were taken directly from Diamond

After a unique highpoint during the 90s, Image's sales, like that of other comic companies, fell with the burst of the speculation bubble. They continued to fall through the year 2000 as Image struggled to maintain its unit share of the market at 5-7% before eventually leveling off around 3% in 2006, where, as you can see in the figure above, they remained until 2010.

During that same time, DC and Marvel, along with the rest of the independents were able to keep their market share, both unit & retail, relatively stable. However, after 2010 Image's market share has been steadily rising, in both categories, while The Big Two's falls -with the other Independents remaining largely the same.

(On a separate note it's interesting to observe that Stephenson was brought in as publisher just as Image had stabilized at its lowest point in years and, within a few short years after he became a publisher, has been able to lead Image, and the creator-owned market it represents, on this impressively consistent upward trajectory.)

Without Image there to push things forward, it's impossible to know how the industry would've progressed, but I doubt we would've seen the same rate of gains among Independent Comics. Image has been an effective champion for Independent comics, largely because it was built to win. Built to swallow up market share and grow, relentlessly.

But while Image may be leading the charge, it's not the be all and end all of Independent Comics - despite what a lot of up-and-coming creators seem to think. Image does not deserve sole credit for Independent Comics' growing strength and gradual success, though it is an important factor in these victories and a good example of the other reasons why Independent Comics has been - and is - winning.


Creative Range

One of the biggest advantages of Independent Comics over Corporate Comics is simply due to the creative freedom indie comics afford their creative teams. Because they're often driven by the creators, and aren't subject to corporate oversight they have a lot more flexibility and can cover a wider creative range.

Not being subject to company initiatives or having to deal with interference from "events" allows independent comics to explore their stories differently.

And because editorial oversight there is meant to guide, rather than ensure a fit to the company's standard, creators are also free to tell different kinds of stories you wouldn't find at Marvel or DC.

Image is a good, if limited example of this. As a publishing company they're still gatekeepers, but they tell a much wider variety of stories - stories that corporate comics haven't told - or don't seem interested in telling.

When creators have this freedom in Independent Comics but not in Corporate Comics, it's no wonder more have been turning elsewhere to find creative fulfillment. In Independent Comics, creators are free to explore the themes and subjects they're interested in - rather than just the ones they're allowed to.

And even if they continue contributing to Marvel and DC, or otherwise doing Work-for-Hire assignments, while making Independent Comics they'll still break new ground here while usually only iterating there. It's a fundamental difference between what's possible in an independent catalogue and what's found in a corporate one.

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Recognizing Underserved Audiences

Because of that greater creative range, Independent Comics are able to offer a diverse selection of content that varies both in tone and genre. Comparatively, Marvel and DC are ultimately genre publishers.

Yes, their books can vary in mood or tone. But a superhero book is still a superhero book - regardless of mixed-genre - and there are only so many different superhero stories. Because of a need to stay "on brand" Corporate comics aren't free to explore vastly different thematic territory. Marvel and DC can only really tell certain kinds of stories.

For audiences, this leaves a lot on the table. Having a publisher only produce one genre of entertainment will leave you wanting for the others. Especially after years of being - by and large - only exposed to that genre.

In Independent Comics that same reader can find a romance comic, a Western, a gritty crime tale, or an art style unlike anything Marvel and DC would ever consider publishing.

This is another flaw inherent to Corporate Comics and one more reason Independent Comics are poised to win. At Image, for example, their creator-owned approach to publishing allows them to publish stories for many different audiences without worrying about reducing the congruity of their catalogue.

Beyond happening to appeal to other audiences, this also means that independent comics are free to proactively create for underserved audiences, rather than just following common expectations of what the industry is like.

Let me know if you know who drew this! Would love to attribute it properly.

Let me know if you know who drew this! Would love to attribute it properly.

Independent Comics, can take to heart that there is more than one demographic reading comics, like women, for example, and then create for that audience.

Corporate comics can't be the first to respond to a need because that need hasn't yet been proven in the Direct Market. So, because of their hierarchical structure and the accompanying oversight, they lose ground against Independent Comics which can create with greater freedom.

And, as a result, Corporate Comics can only follow trends, rather than set them. Books like Gotham Academy, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk show the corporate response to shifting demographics once they are proven.

That's not to say Corporate Comics shouldn't follow these trends - it's obviously important and good that they do. I'm only bringing this up to illustrate another reason behind why Independent Comics is currently winning.

Try as they might Marvel, DC, and the other corporate publishers can offer as many takes on their field of expertise as they like - often leading to many great comics - but they will never serve such varied audiences as Independent Comics are able to.

And as the diversity of content available on the Direct Market continues to increase, the Big Two's share of the market will likely continue to shrink, regardless of whether they respond to trends once these publishers have first broken ground.

Their saving grace thus far has been the affinity the traditional Direct Market customer that buys Marvel and DC out of loyalty to the company or affinity for the characters.

However, the Direct Market is becoming an increasingly smaller part of the comic industry.

The New Comics Market

It's possible that the Direct Market leans unfairly in the direction of Corporate comics. Because these brands have been around for a while, many customers have an enduring loyalty to them. Plus the established strategies of variant covers and reboots still seems to work well with many of the remaining Direct Market comic shops. So Corporate Comics have the homefield advantage there, but the Direct Market is not the only playing field anymore.

I've already talked about why Marvel & DC aren't really the Big 2 anymore and the short of it is that it's due to the way the comic industry has widened to include, most notably, webcomics.

Webcomics are the most obvious heralds of this new market. They've set the tone for today's conversations about the state of the industry. Online, there's something for everyone and diversity of content goes far beyond even what Image publishes / what's even traditionally published in the Direct Market from your Battlepug's, to your XKCD's, to your Oh Joy Sex Toy's (NSFW).

I'd even cite Homestuck as an example, for the amount of traffic it's led to comic conventions and even Image has done its part bringing in audiences new to the industry with mega-successes such as The Walking Dead and Saga.

Plenty of comics are evidence of this new shape the market is taking - Lumberjanes, Rat Queens, God Hates Astronauts. They not only show the creative range I mentioned above, but the viability of comics meant for new audiences of readers. The industry is nothing like it's ever been before, and that's to be celebrated.

The industry is nothing like it’s ever been before, and that’s to be celebrated.

Marvel and DC are contributing too: Gotham Academy, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye. But their contribution is a short-term solution. These new audiences - that they're helping cultivate - are coming in with different expectations of the medium and tastes beyond just what Marvel, DC, and the other publishers of corporate comics are able to offer.

In many cases, they're also coming in without the lifelong affinity The Big Two has profited from for so long. Try as they might to keep up with by doing things like redesigning Batgirl and Powergirl, or launching Squirrel Girl, the frontier will always be explored elsewhere first. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, for the industry at large.

Marvel and DC will always be around. Though they are parts of major corporations, and have been less successful - or ambitious - in bringing the massive audiences they've reached in other mediums back to comics, I still think they play an important role. As does the Direct Market. I'm not condemning either of these. I love comic shops and I enjoy many of the comics Marvel & DC have published and are publishing today.

I just recognize that the industry is changing faster than the major players can keep up with. The titles I've mentioned that they've published and the stores that are thriving are anomalies. They're exceptions to the rule of closing stores and cancelled series.

Even Image, which I've praised, has faltered. They've not done much with All-Ages content, where the market is being dominated by traditional book publishers like Scholastic, releasing comics that have experienced success far beyond what's possible in the Direct Market.

Then there's, ComicsFix and other similar "Netflix for Comics" projects. They're continuing to grow - signing new publishers. And of course, there's Kickstarter, and the expanding field of crowdfunding, which has made a whole new method of financing comics and building a career possible.

Many readers today will say that their first comics were XKCD or Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. They're brought into the industry on the backs of books like Saga, which completely change what they expect of comics.

Obviously there's still a long way to go until all this transpires. But a generation is growing up with a new definition of comics. This generation will make up the readers of comics' Second Golden Age. They're used to consuming content digitally and to a market where the most prominent content isn't by Marvel or DC, but is instead by independent creators who are self-publishing their comics. If that's not evidence of a new market, I don't know what is.


help-along

How We Can Help

Now, all this change is still underway, but the progress is fragile and slow. We can help make it happen faster.

I'm sure I don't need to convince you why Independent Comics winning would be a good thing. Just thinking about how this new generation of readers will change the industry gets me excited about what's going to be possible in comics in the coming years.

This isn't about bringing down Marvel & DC, but enriching the industry bringing more to the readers. That's why we shouldn't stay on the sidelines.

We should keep creating the work we want to see and try to build independent careers, rather than break into the established industry. Don't even worry about Image, let them do their thing. They were built to fight a very specific battle. Just make comics. If you do, you'll be in a better position to work with the publishers you intend to in the long run.

We should be more vocal fans and work to help support the books we like, especially outside the Direct Market. This goes beyond tweeting, into helping change readers perceptions of what comics are - like Joe Mulvey has done with his series introducing people to the modern comics industry.

We should be Comic Book Champions!

If we can help this new industry take form we'll see greater creative range in the comics we read. More, varied audiences will get their needs met. Diverse voices will be able to express themselves and diverse readers will see themselves represented. The market will develop further and creators will have an easier time building a career in comics.

If Independent Comics win, when Independent Comics win - the Comic Industry wins.

Are you going to sit on the sidelines and watch that happen? Or are you going to help? Are you going to jump on Kickstarter right now and help some independent creator make their comic and contribute to this Second Golden Age.