The Self-Publishing Movement remembered

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Over at his Boneville blog, Jeff Smith has started a series of posts looking back at the self-publishing movement of the 90s:

It’s been 15 years since I met Larry Marder, who introduced me to Dave Sim. Who in turn introduced me to Colleen Doran. Soon, along with James Owen and Martin Wagner, we created a limited edition print featuring all our characters to sign and give away to comic book store retailers.

We did this at a 1993 Diamond Comics Distributors retail show – – a few months after the industry was stunned by the announcement that six of Marvel’s top artists were forming their own company called Image Comics. The resulting rumors that we might be planning to form our own super group was irresistible. This was the beginning of what would be called The Self-Publishing Movement.


With Smith, Terry Moore and Dave Sim all launching new titles this year, it seems like a profitable time to look back at what the movement meant and where it’s gone. Back then it was all about a lone cartoonist writing, drawing, publishing, promoting and touring. It was a grueling one man (or one woman) show that proved to be too grueling for most people. The good news is that the current economics of comics allow publishers from stalwarts Fantagraphics and D&Q, to newer specialized houses like Buenaventura and Picturebox to pick up the business end of things while still allowing near-absolute creative freedom. The internet and shows like SPX and MoCCA — not to mention distributors like Sparkplug — have allowed an even greater blossoming.

The difference is that the pioneering generation was based around the pamphlet economy — putting out a regular COMIC BOOK was the goal. Nowadays it’s all about the collection. Young cartoonists can get on the map with a single mini-comic story instead of a planned 10 year epic story. Many of the 90s creators were more genre-tinged, as well. It would be just as profitable, perhaps, to look at how the economic switch has changed creative goals and processes.

And yet, see our earlier posting on the genre-more-than-tinged CRIMINAL. Brubaker and Phillips are pretty much doing things the old fashioned way — albeit in a “team” situation, not the lone cartoonist model — and getting a book out this time around involves a publishing deal with Marvel, promotions on a social network owned by Fox, and interviews with comics-loving celebrities. The hard work seems to be paying off — the second CRIMINAL collection debuted at #10 on the Diamond graphic novel initial order chart, a strong showing for a creator-controlled property. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Anyway, this series of postings at BONEVILLE — which will include guest blogs by Colleen Doran, Larry Marder, Paul Pope, Terry Moore, Charles Brownstein, and others — should be good reading.

Comments

  1. Thanks Heidi. This is one to watch.

  2. Hulk am so sad. He am nostalgic.

  3. Christopher Z. says:

    Too bad Wendy Pini and Eastman and Laird and I don’t know how many other folks in the 80’s couldn’t get in on this movement. Who declared this the beginning of “The Self-Publishing Movement” in 1993, Wizard Magazine?

  4. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Actually, Wendy Pini is a ’70s generation self-publisher and self-publishing in comics goes back a long time before that, but there’s no reason to play Chat Board Lawyer. Nothing about calling something a movement indicates that it’s the first or only such expression of anything, only that it was concentrated and cohesive in a way that allows itself to be labeled as it’s labeled.

    If Peter Laird wanted to host an ’80s generation self-publishing bunch of essays, or Wendy Pini a 1970s generation or Stan Lee a 1960s version, I’m sure people would be interested in reading those, too.

  5. No, self-publishing was almost completely beneath Wizard’s notice back in the period between 1993 and 1996 when the notion of a self-publishing movement was being bandied about.

    The term “movement” started being used on the phone network and at conventions in that period as we saw a critical mass of creators try their hands at self-publishing. Certainly I was one of the culprits for putting that phrase into print when I quizzed people about it in Feature, the magazine I was publishing at the time.

    I think if there was indeed a movement, it was a purely economic one, and it was about using the Direct Market structure as it existed at the time to allow creators to pursue their personal muses at their own economic risk, as opposed to the risk of a publisher. I’ll leave it to the people who were there at the start to define how it sparked, but I will say that in the aftermath of that initial spark Dave Sim was publishing a lot of very persuasive rhetoric and giving a lot of phone advice that led a multitude of creators to try their hand at it. Most of this was presented in one package as “The Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing”

    There was a very real critical mass of self-published content that came out in that period, including: Bone, Strangers in Paradise, A Distant Soil, Stray Bullets, Rare Bit Fiends, Tyrant, Bizarre Heroes, Wolff & Byrd (later Supernatural Law), Hepcats, Starchild, Bacchus, THB, Shades of Gray, Too Much Coffee Man, Ballads & Sagas, Graymatter, Strange Attractors, Wandering Star, Cyberzone, Avant Guard, Words & Pictures, Finder, Strangehaven, and plenty of others that I’m certain I’m forgetting. That critical mass was composed of a big enough mix of name creators, promising talents, and promising concepts that a feeling of momentum was created that led to the sense that this was potentially a movement.

    It didn’t last, of course. But, it did represent a bubble of creativity, individuality, and economic self-determination within the direct market at a time when the art & commerce of comics was becoming very polarized.

    I can’t wait to read what the veterans have to say about it. Should be a very interesting look back on a time that generated a lot of the content and format models that are much more prominent today.

  6. I considered FEATURE to be part of that movement, too – even if it was a magazine rather than a comic. The interviews remain good reading to this day.

    And I certainly saw, in a young Charles Brownstein, a lot of my own reflection from my first San Diego Comicon as a self-publisher, back in 1986.

  7. Tom Spurgeon says:

    “Should be a very interesting look back on a time that generated a lot of the content and format models that are much more prominent today.”

    Huh?

  8. OK, fair question, Tom. To clarify what I mean is that I think the 90s, on the whole, seemed to experiment with and ultimately lead to the establishment of certain formats and content diversity models that we take as a given today.

    For instance, the nineties, to a big degree, established the viability of the serial comic book to serial graphic novel series model with things like Cerebus, Sandman, Bone, & Preacher leading the way. Sure, there were other examples of this format, like the old album sized L&R collections, but I don’t feel that retailers really invested meaningfully in the format in any sheer volume until the late nineties. I don’t attribute it to the self-publishing movement — in fact, I think DC’s aggressive work to develop a backlist program in the late 90s really turned the tide. But I also think the viability of trade paperback libraries for books like Cerebus, and Bone and SiP were a contributing factor, because they showed that it could work, while the bigger guns were still testing the waters.

    Likewise, I think the 90s did a lot more to establish the commercial viability of content diversity than prior decades. I think this was seen across the board, from self-publishing to Dark Horse’s crime & horror oriented books like Sin City & Hellboy, to Vertigo, to the completion of literary graphic novel material in periodical form from guys like Clowes & Ware that would go on to become mainstays of the GN boom in the early part of this decade. And that says nothing of the late 90s tests in manga in the format we now know it in from companies like TokyoPop, or the Highwater/Non/Ft. Thunder revolution, other important touchpoints of the late 90s.

    I think you can look at a lot of the formats and content that are enjoying success in today’s graphic novel market as having their roots in the 1990s. It’s not all self-publishing, but the period that I’m referring to. And I’m interested in hearing the thoughts of veterans from that period as to how the 1990s influenced today’s market from their particular vantage points.

  9. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Oh, okay. I was accused by the self-publishing part of the claim, not the ’90s part.

  10. Tom Spurgeon says:

    accused? confused. I’m tired.

  11. Well, that’s self-publishing for you, Tom.

  12. The Self Publishing Movement is a great moniker for a movement created by the Me generation. I would hope that that generation of publishers would recognize their predecessors that rallied under the banner of Independants during the 80’s. That battles for creator’s rights and alternatives to Marvel and DC were fought in the trenches by the likes of Pacific, First, Eclipse, Capital and especially Comico who proved for a brief time that the market could be breached and that creators had a priority in the process. The Indy’s laid the foundation for glossy formats, graphic novels, and collected mini series. We were all students of our history and looked up to the Pinis, and Sims of the industry for putting a foot in the door of the direct market as it opened. The 80’s should not be overlooked for it’s significance to the Self Publishing Movement

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