By Hannah Means-Shannon
For me, comics used to mean the superhero books I had grown up stealing from my brothers or the mood-rich Vertigo type comics I had started reading a few years before. I was convinced from my “return” to comics as an adult that the medium was one of the most versatile and significant art forms out there, and I suspected that creating comics any one way was a misnomer. Still, when I walked into my first MoCCA Fest last spring, I saw some similarities in goal and concepts in the minis and full books people were self-producing. In many ways, I had missed the point. It was more of a spectacle than an addition to what I knew about comics at that time.
My next encounters with independently produced comics came via reading new web comics online. I found this foray very confusing, a kind of cacophony of voices and styles. I thought it was gutsy and remarkable that people were tirelessly presenting their own work in their own styles but it was like wandering through seemingly endless hallways for me, each with myriad doors and catching the occasion glimpse through them only made things more complicated. I was trying to fit them all together in some way and say, “This is indie comics”. Along the way, I got to know the people who were creating the work much more than the work itself. I could see how each piece they created was part of themselves, especially since many comics had autobiographical content. Opening one of their minis was like taking a peek at the world through their eyes. At times, I worried that their effort might be wasted because they were creating such specific narratives, not latching onto bigger universes like you find in superhero comics. They were building from the ground up and it seemed like very heavy lifting for an individual to maintain, a superhuman endeavor.
And then I made the decision to go to Small Press Expo in Maryland this year. It seemed like a lot of effort to make for a form of comics that I wasn’t particularly versed in. Buying books published by Fantagraphics or Nobrow, and becoming entranced by the artwork didn’t seem like a strong enough reason to me. But I felt kind of responsible to myself for going. I still had the sense that I was missing out on something and I knew that I found the people producing indie comics admirable, determined, most often ingenious. So I tagged along, with some reservations.
Talk about entering a strange land. To me, it was like a religious festival in full swing. This was clearly the world behind the curtain that I hadn’t been sure existed. Here it was completely normal to be doing what many of my friends were doing, working day-jobs, staying up all night creating, stapling, folding, cutting, arranging. These were the people who got their hands dirty following that particularly fanatical drive that seemed an end in itself. And at SPX, most of all, the effort was appreciated. It was a shockingly all-star year for indie comics at SPX, too, with some of the biggest names in alternative comics signing, encouraging, speaking, and just mingling, from Daniel Clowes to Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, and the Hernandez brothers. I heard a lot of what they had to say in panels and hearing these people talk about their lives and work demythologized their comics for me in interesting ways. They were exactly the same as the people folding and stapling in many respects but they had become particularly legendary. How had they done that? Years and years of absolute commitment to what they were producing. Chipping away at a particular corner of the world to call their own. Rendering their voices distinctive by being true to themselves and their particular vision. This is what it meant to be heroic in the world of indie comics and these were the heroes of the genre.
It would be hard for me to pick a particular moment when my perspective started to change. If it wasn’t listening to Clowes compare himself to an anal robot or Ware emphasize how childhood traumas shaped him, it was almost certainly wandering the floor picking up and turning inside out so many widely diverse and appealing comics that it made me want to create an entire library just for them. Each time I looked at a comic, I talked to a creator. I asked them a little about their history, what they thought of the expo, what their methods were and how long they’d been doing this. I felt like I really listened for the first time because I wasn’t trying to fit them into a box that I could label and easily understand. That’s when indie comics started to seem like an entire universe rather than a particular world. It was scary to realize that but I knew that I was getting closer to the truth. Indie comics creators face that universe every day, and immerse themselves in it through a kind of free-fall. It’s a universe that’s constantly changing, with no known boundaries, that stretches from the torn edges of the tiniest creased bits of paper to digital images projected on movie-sized screens and much, much further. It’s a universe they get to know in order to find their particular place, one only they can choose.
I made a fundamentally flawed assumption when I tried to understand indie comics initially: just because people come together as a community and support each other doesn’t mean they share the same world. They have something bigger in common: world building. It’s a pioneer job with a pioneer mentality. There is plenty they can learn from each other, too, but no one knows their world like they do and no one else can tell their story but them. If you support indie comics, each comic you buy or read is like encountering a DC universe, or a Marvel universe for the first time, only they created it all themselves. They, of course, know this already. Why else would you stay up all night stapling pieces of paper like an anal robot, or insist on turning your childhood traumas into something beautiful?
Hannah Means-Shannon writes about comics in many mediums. She has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on books for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman. She is also a freelance journalist about comics for The Comics Beat here in NYC and can be found at hannahmenziesblog.wordpress.com. She currently teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.