Indie comics talk at UMass Amherst

Today I spoke at UMass Amherst, giving an overview of indie comics to N.C. Christopher Couch’s class “Comic Art in North America, 1895-Present”. Here are some notes from the talk (mainly useful as a vehicle for the links). My original notes were much sparser; in the process of posting them I ended up filling in some of the detail from the talk.

Shortlink for this post: (listed differently in original slideshow b/c of a registrar problem that wasn’t fixed ’til after the talk)

The slides: umass-talk-slides.pdf


This talk is a whirlwind intro to indie comics — a subjective, selective oral history. The first half will focus more on particular comics of the early days, and the second half on more recent infrastructure.

What are indie comics?

Broadly speaking — comics not produced by Marvel or DC. As with indie rock, it has picked up some cultural connotations that narrow the definition somewhat. So although there are indie superhero and genre comics, people often mean something more like “Personal comics that aren’t like what Marvel and DC make”. This has the strange effect of leaving indie genre comics somewhat out in the cold even though they should (like other genre media) be quite popular. Something like Sean Wang’s Runners has trouble finding the right shows to table at. Still, that’s the definition we’re going with.



One of the earliest indie comics, self-published by by Richard & Wendy Pini starting in the late 1970s. Popular (likely in part b/c of wider gender appeal), helped foment self-pub. Later published others, hired others to work on their sories, licensed Elfquest to Marvel, DC, Dark Horse. Still going.


By Dave Sim. Another of the earliest indie comics. Started as spoof, turned into a vehicle for exploring, politics, religion, gender, etc. Became popular; popularity diminished somewhat as Sim devloped unpopular negative views on women, tied to idiosyncratic personal religion & philosophy. Ran for 300 issues, as promised. Explored the art form widely. No website — Sim doesn’t “do” the internet. Fan sites exist.

Love & Rockets

By the Hernandez brothers (Gilbert, Jaime, Mario). Self-pubbed 1st issue, then published by Fantagraphics. Still going.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

By Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird. Self-pubbed 1-off joke turned into a pop culure phenomenon.

Mirage Studios

Peter Laird started the Xeric Grant for self-publishers & local charity in early 1990s, ended comics grant in early 2010s b/c internet made self-publishing easier.


Born — along w/ zines — through the advent of cheap photocopies. They’re still a thing, and they’re what I do.


Jeff Smith’s popular all-ages color comic published by Scholastic was first self-published in black and white. Humor and fantasy. Does that thing where a cartoonist gets attached to icon characters they draw & uses them in their big work (a little like Cerebus).

Chris Ware and James Kochalka

Chris Ware: very precise art, explores sadness & pathetic masculinity.

James Kochalka: “anti-craft”, id & optimism. His daily diary comic American Elf inspired countless imitators — a low-barrier entry to making comics.

If you combine Ware’s misery with Kochalka’s daily minutae you get the indie comics stereotype of slacker autobio (though the stereotype & the comics it came from are separate from Ware & Kochalka’s work).

Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist

By Diane DiMassa. 1990s-2000s. Started as part of therapy. Deeper than it looks — Hothead (an exaggerated author stand-in) destroys men but also spirals into depression. Interesting stream-of-consciousness narrative structure. Attacks both sides of dominant gender construct spectrum. DiMassa moved on to painting, website seems sadly dormant now.


The Comics Journal

Not indie-exclusive, but championed indie comics (and creators’ rights when covering “mainstream” comics). Long interviews, cantankerous attitude. Valued despite obvious conflict of interest of being published by a comics publisher. Now web-only.


Indie conventions focus on the artists and their comics. Usually no dealers.


  • Sundry small local groups
  • International Comics Conspiracy, started 2002, encourages & supports comics groups, “cells” in various places but original in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. MN cell has regular “jams”, art show & minicomics box set Lutefisk Sushi.
  • Trees and Hills, started 2006, cofounded by me. VT, NH, west MA. Publishes anthologies, distributes comics, puts on events, etc.
  • Boston Comics Roundtable, started 2006. Weekly meetups, published anthologies (now spun off into its own thing), organizes MICE.

Regional indie conventions

Starting around 2009, a second generation of indie cons appeared, more regionally-oriented. E.g:

Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS)

Graduate program in cartooning, indie-focused. Opened its doors 2005. Graduates regularly nominated for Ignatzes.


(Skipped in the talk)

A recent trend of tiny indie publishers.

The Web

Even easier & cheaper than photocopies, if you have a computer.

“Webcomics”, around since mid-1990s, rose to prominence in the 2000s. Initial cultural divide b/c some felt webcomics weren’t “real” comics. Webcomics creators formed their own groups, cliques, business models.

Main business model: give away comics, sell t-shirts.

Modern Tales family of sites sold subscriptions to curated comics selecions. Eventually declined and founder died. Seemed to work OK but model didn’t really catch on.

The sociability and lower barriers of the web seems to have enabled greater success of women creators, e.g.

Interesting recent 4-part series on the changing business landscape of webcomics:

Publishing comics online is pretty normal now.

Though the web offers great opportunity, today’s web has become dangerously centralized, giving power over communication to a few large corporations. Example indie comics problem: “Facebook is a doughnut-stealing mobster” by Dave Kellett. But this is an issue for independent publishing in general — most notably journalism.


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