I actually had been reading independent comics since I was 10 years old. I was one of those kids that didn’t just like Batman or Superman or Spiderman… I loved comic books… Period. I was a magpie to anything with a word balloon. This was the beginning of the eighties and the beginning of the Direct Market. I started reading about comics beyond DC and Marvel and was intrigued. Nay, inspired. You see, drawing the Justice League or the X-Men seemed like going to a Halloween party dressed as Prince: I am not 5’3″, light-skinned with a pompadour… It ain’t ever gonna happen…
…But, I could be a member of The Time. I could get a suit, some Stacey Adams, a mirror (Jerome!) and do “The Walk” or “The Bird” to my heart’s content. That’s what independent comic books meant to me. Here are the top 5 independent comics that were a huge influence in my development as a storyteller:
Elfquest was the book that made me think very differently about comic books. The subject matter was too advanced for me when I first read it at age 10, but that was the thing that was so intriguing. The world the Pinis created was accessible because of the seeming “innocence” in the art, but the mythology was so rich, turning fantasy notions on its ear while still being firmly rooted in the genre. I wish I had those three original trades today.
Okay, I’m cheating here by placing two books in the number two position. However, I feel that it is nearly impossible to talk about Matt Wagner’s work without mentioning Mage and Grendel simultaneously. It’s almost as if the concepts were fraternal twins. Mage was the wonderful modern re-imagining of the Arthurian legend. Kevin Matchstick, the reluctant hero, is an inspired model of modern heroism: cynical, but still willing to do the right thing at the end of the day. The way in which Wagner modernized mythology resonates in my work to this day and is a huge influence on one of my upcoming works coming later this summer.
If Kevin Matchstick is Wagner’s Superman, then Hunter Rose, the original master assassin and novelist Grendel, is his twisted, elegant Batman. Wagner did something truly unique: he took a concept rooted in pulp novels, threw in a little fantasy (with Grendel’s opposite number, Argent the Wolf), and proceeded to craft a saga that went from crime to horror to science fiction… And have it all make complete and logical sense. Wagner showed me that any concept is possible in comics. If the story is solid, you can take the audience anywhere you want them to go.
First Comics was the spot for me in the 80s. I’m not saying I read all of their titles, but man were they doing something big over there. From Warp to Grimjack to American Flagg to Jon Sable: Freelance, there was a sense of truly dealing with mature themes… In a mature way over at First. Nexus caught may attention because here was the first comic book that I read where the hero’s job was to assassinate the bad guys. Pretty heavy stuff and along with the political overtones prevalent in the book, you’d think it would go over a young lad’s head… And it did. I re-discovered the book in college and was truly able to appreciate Steve Rude’s genius at visual storytelling and amazing art with Baron’s great sense of political and social satire. I’m still finding something new to learn in Rude’s art every day. This is how independent superhero books are supposed to be done.
You didn’t think that I would forget including this book in my top 5, did you? Are you kidding? Brotherman is the comic book equivalent of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. This book is a classic on so many levels. From the hybrid graffiti meets Jack Davis’ Mad Magazine style of Dawud Anyabwile to the authentic voice of Guy A. Sims’ writing, Brotherman was a breath of fresh air for every African American comic book nerd. It showed all of us that you could create a quality book, which truly reflected our sensibilities, not some thrice-removed approximation of our culture. If it weren’t for Brotherman, we may not have had Milestone Media, Ania, Gettosake… Hell, Griot Enterprises might not have existed and definitely not the last book on my top 5 indie list…
Tribe was the final nail in the coffin, the last straw. After this book came out, it was over. My fate was sealed. So were probably a lot of young Black comic book creators at this time as well. You see, the 90s were a glorious time in the comic book industry. We saw some of the highest highs and lowest lows during this decade. The 90s gave us the death of Superman and the breaking of Batman’s back. It also gave us the explosion and, to an extent, the realization of the independent comic book as a viable force in the the industry with the birth of Image Comics.
Simultaneously, we also see the explosion of minority characters during this time with the emergence of Milestone Media through DC Comics and independently owned Ania Comics. It was sad that Ania and Milestone couldn’t co-exist. Ania, from the onset attacked Milestone Media because of their affiliation with a major company. The “sell-out” card was played and, for a brief moment, we were seeing a precursor to the East Coast/West Coast Hip Hop war in the comic book industry. In this perfect storm of creativity meeting financial reward, Tribe came on the scene as the “Outkast” of this comic book of color explosion.
Tribe, to date, is the most financially successful African American creator-owned comic book in the industry’s history. Selling at a million copies, it benefited from its association with Image, being a part of Image’s second wave (which also included The Maxx). More importantly, my history with Tribe is a personal one. I knew the writer, Todd Johnson, from shopping at the comic book store he owned in Detroit. Furthermore, while in college, some of my good friends (including John J. Hill from DC Comics) in art school were actually coloring Tribe in between classes becoming some of the first digital colorists the industry has seen. Finally, during my initial foray into the industry, Todd was one of the first cats that took me seriously when I was developing The Race (which, would ultimately become a key element in my book The Horsemen) for comics. It may have been one of Todd’s other books… If his company hadn’t folded.
Regardless, Tribe was the ish, the proper bookend to what was started by Brotherman. The book, visually and in a literary context, rang true to a native Detroiter’s sensibilities. There was a rhythm to the book that spoke to a musical sensibility, one informed by not only Parliament/Funkadelic, but also echoed the work of Detroit Techno pioneers such as Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Bold, graphic, funny (no one would ever forget the posterior of Roslyn… Pure thickness!), Tribe ensured us all that the voice of the independent comic book creator of color can compete, and succeed alongside the big boys.
Of course, there are so many more books that have hit me in that special way, but it was these five that showed me that I could be my own artist, with my own voice in the world of comics… And that voice could and should be heard. For that and for so much more, I thank all of you.