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Eight Stories for ‘05 #4—The Return of Alt-Comix?
posted August 24, 2005


It's not exactly a history lesson, but so much has happened since the early 1990s in terms of comics publishing it might as well be. Suffice to say, there was a time approximately ten years ago when most of your top of the line alternative comics talents were represented by an omnibus-style signature solo comics series into which it seemed the majority of their creative energy was focused.

imagePeter Bagge and Hate. Dan Clowes and Eightball. Mary Fleener and Slutburger. Adrian Tomine and Optic Nerve. Chester Brown and Yummy Fur. Joe Matt and Peepshow. Jeff Johnson and Nurture the Devil. Al Columbia and Biologic Show. Renee French and Grit Bath. Dame Darcy and Meatcake. Sam Henderson and Magic Whistle. Dylan Horrocks and Pickle. Joe Sacco and Yahoo. The Hernandez Brothers and Love and Rockets. Colin Upton and Big Thing. Evan Dorkin and Dork! JR Williams and Crap. Denny Eichhorn and Real Stuff. Ed Brubaker and Lowlife. The list goes on and on.

Some of those books collapsed on their own. Others left the market as their cartoonists did. A great many of these books survive in some form today. There are even a few new ones (Johnny Ryan and Angry Youth Comix). But I think what's different -- and I realize that when counting on impressions there can be six billion different reactions hinging on various nuances -- is that one artist/one series is no longer the presumptive delivery system. Now if you're an alt-comics talent you're just as likely to be known for your book-length collections, which may or may not bear the name of your series (i.e. Tomine and Clowes). You may jump from project to project without a need for an overriding presentational structure (Renee French). You may never do a series (Craig Thompson) or you may move into a series of series (Chester Brown, Los Bros Hernandez).

I think this more than anything shows the changing nature of the market for alt-comics makers, and whether superior or inferior it's certainly a different experience for the consumer. I'll never be the same age with the same money in my pocket to act as my own control subject, but I know that a great deal of the pleasure I derived in reading alternative comics at one point was being able to buy a wide array of titles and then lock into those I wanted to continue, confident that I was entering into a relationship with that cartoonist where I could just keep on buying the next issue and getting the majority of their output. Nostalgia is a bitch for comics readers. And I don't want to romanticize that kind of shopping experience, but it was a tidy way of both keeping up and looking outwards. It was also a way in which such companies were tied into comic book shops, and the habits of such customers. It's not likely that it's a format that will travel into traditional bookstores, who tend to enjoy, you know, actual books and spines.

imageThe happy news is that I see some evidence of this particular reading experience returning. The Ignatz Series that Fantagraphics is doing with Coconino Press this Fall provides a European solution to the serial comics format -- high prices for high production values. Still, I can see following these series even though I won't need to go to a comic shop very often to keep up, and can see myelf regarding some of the issues as a way to sample artists like Matt Broersma of whom I have very little knowledge. And if it allows an entry point for Lorenzo Mattotti to have an immediate presence into the present comics market, that entire series is gold, let me tell you. Drawn and Quarterly may be doing even more to draw attention to the effects of serial comics just by currently releasing one of the three best alt-comix serials of all time in comics form, Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown. The first few issues of Kevin Huizenga's Or Else have come out on an early 1990s time schedule. I hope having one cover instead of three to face out helps the very talented cartoonist to find a bigger market presence for himself, or attract buyers a more prohibitive price point might have dissuaded. Top Shelf is experimenting with one or two frequent, DM-targeted comics (I don't know off the top of my head how they're going to handle their volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) About half of the AdHouse releases like this summer's visually confident Mort Grim are very well-produced comic books. Even a release like Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle from Fantagraphics, a book you can imagine buying on your lunchbreak on a whim walking past the comics shop, gives hope for like projects to come.

We're certainly in the age of the graphic novel or trade paperback format, but comics people think so often in binaries, one option or the other, that it's a pleasure to see older options being explored. I like buying a giant spined book in a Barnes and Noble and I also like buying three or four stapled pamphlets in a comics shop. Comics is still too small not to afford multiple on-ramps, so let's hope that this is a mini-trend that sticks.