When I started this column, I defined its scope as covering anything “fringe.” I picked the word because it describes anything that’s on the edge or the periphery of something else, in this case the mainstream comics industry in the United States. What I intended by that was to cover pretty much everything but Marvel and DC, though I suppose that given its popularity, I should probably leave manga alone too. But except for the title of the column, I haven’t been exactly consistent in my terminology and I’ve substituted words like “indie” and “alternative” for “fringe.” And I’ve been called on it at least once.
So, lets take a look at some of these labels and what they really mean. Is Dark Horse “indie?” Is Image “alternative?”
In order to figure out what these labels mean in the comics world, I’m going to suggest that we remind ourselves what they mean outside our world and re-apply those definitions to comics. “Independent,” for example, means that something isn’t influenced or controlled by an outside force. In the movie industry though, that can take a lot of forms. Sometimes it refers to a movie that’s been mostly financed through sources outside of a major movie studio, but sometimes it means a movie that’s been distributed without a big distribution company. And sometimes it just means that the director’s creative vision has been maintained in the final product. Or it could just mean that it’s an artsy, character piece as opposed to a big-budget, plot-driven blockbuster. Not very helpful.
So, let’s forget the movie world and go back to the simple definition: something that isn’t influenced or controlled by an outside force. Using that definition, a comic can’t be truly independent because it’s being influenced and controlled by its creator. What we really mean when we talk about indie comics is that the creators are independent. They’re working on their own creations without any input or control by another entity like the publisher or whoever owns the license.
Using Dark Horse as an example again, The Goon and Hellboy are independent because the publisher presumably has no influence over the direction of the books. Star Wars and Conan, on the other hand, aren’t. It’s tempting to just label all “creator-owned” books as indie and “work for hire” books as not, except that that’s not true. Spawn is more or less creator-owned because Todd McFarlane created the character and still owns the book, but the current creators are purely work for hire, so it’s not really an indie title. The Savage Dragon is though.
“Independent” is an easy concept to apply, even if it takes a little thought – and sometimes research – to remember what it applies to. “Alternative” is harder.
In the music industry, Alternative Music describes a specific genre that sprang out of Punk and New Wave. Because bands in that genre were originally produced by independent labels (the genre was originally called Indie Rock before “Alternative” caught on) and didn’t fit into the mainstream labels at the time, it was considered an alternative to all the stuff that dominated the sales charts and the Top 40 play lists at the time.
The problem with the label of course is that the genre eventually became mainstream. R.E.M. and U2 weren’t alternatives to Top 40 anymore; they were Top 40. But for a while, they really were a choice; an alternative to Rick Springfield and Rod Stewart. In that sense, the label fits what it was originally coined to describe. An alternative is just a choice – any choice – but used this way it refers to something nontraditional or unconventional, so that along with our music we can have alternative newspapers and alternative lifestyles. And alternative comics.
It becomes apparent then that “alternative” isn’t a synonym for “independent.” Invincible may be indie, but it’s surely not alternative. It may do traditional, conventional superheroics better than a lot of Marvel and DC stuff, but it’s still a traditional and conventional superhero comic. On the other hand, I’d argue that Hellblazer is alternative, though it’s in no way independent. (I was going to use Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as my second example instead of Hellblazer, but just to show how thoughtful we have to be about applying these definitions, Sandman wasn’t technically independent, though it certainly was in execution.)
So, “independent” and “alternative” are very useful labels when used correctly, but neither describes what I want to cover in this column. Which brings us back to “fringe,” by which I mean “not mainstream.” By which I mean “not Marvel or DC.” Yeah, superhero comics are mainstream, but when we say that, we mean that Marvel and DC superhero comics are mainstream. We certainly don’t mean that Noble Causes and Powers are. Even though Powers is published by a Marvel imprint, it’s not a “Marvel comic,” so it’s not mainstream. Neither are Wildstorm and Vertigo comics, though they’re published by DC. (You could argue with me about Wildstorm, but I’d win.)
I don’t know if this is helpful for anyone but me, but while clarifying the focus of “Fringe Benefits” it’s also made clearer for me what I should be talking about when I use the terms “indie” and “alternative.” And since I’ll be talking about both in this column, it’ll be good for me to use them correctly. And now you can too.