Independents and Strange Tales
Featuring interviews with creators like Kevin Eastman (TMNT, Heavy Metal) and Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Chris Brandt’s documentary Independents moves slowly away from being about independent comics makers to a film featuring cartoonists conveying one message: “What we are doing is more important than what the other guy is doing.”
“Indie” comics aren’t always necessarily independent, as is often discussed here on this blog. Many comic makers published by Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly are considered independent by people who are industry insiders and outsiders. However authors of "regular" books who simply write and aren’t contracted to one publisher wouldn’t be considered “independent” authors. Indie comics makers are really Alternative comics makers, because that’s what these people are really proud of being, the alternative to what is popular. Does independent just mean not Marvel or DC only when we’re talking about comics?
Plenty of people making monthly comics for one of The Big Two aren’t obligated exclusively to one company, and often writers and artists are going back and forth between the comics giants. I’m not talking about an artist who draws one Wolverine one-shot here, I’m talking about people who work on a book month to month.
While I realize being independent is much more often about being capital-"I" Independent--doing things on your own and owning your own work--it becomes more than that. It’s not a matter of just having “not made it”, it’s about not “selling out” to one of the big guys.
This extremely punk rock attitude holds people back, narrowing their already linear thoughts towards art and creativity. It’s like when one of your friends’ crappy bands gets onto MTV and all of your other friends’ crappier bands never change to “stay true”, or become this “experimental project”. This isn’t because everyone should be working for Marvel or DC, but because by trying so hard to not to do what they’re doing, you only box yourself in.
With Strange Tales, Marvel let these work for hire, self-publishing, mostly Indie writers and artists take on their greatest characters. Some of the contributors, like Paul Pope, Dash Shaw, Matt Kindt and Jim Rugg, took the characters and placed their own style of story telling and artistic vision onto the previously existing work to create something attractive to both Marvel readers and fans of their “indie” work who may not regularly pick up a Marvel comic book.
Dash Shaw, known for Body World and Bottomless Belly Button, put his spin on Dr. Strange (specifically Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange run). His story’s perfection comes from Shaw’s ability to place himself, his art, into the world of Dr. Strange, instead of forcing The Sorcerer Supreme into a Shaw-ian place. There's a perfect balance between Shaw the artist and Dr. Strange the character.
While the story ends on a silly note (Strange fighting off a yawn) the rest of the story parodies, but does not talk down to, the original work. Other stories, like Jacob Chabot’s Fantastic Four four page short, Lookin’ Good, Mr. Grimm, are completely silly. The Thing growing a mustache using Chia Pet solution is ridiculous and may never happen in the real comic, but the relationships between the Four Family are on-point, making the ridiculous situation actually funny, and not, you know, ironic.
The other side of Strange Tales is creators who forced the characters into their own styles. Self proclaimed inventor of diary comics James Kochalka’s Hulk Squad Smash reads like the rest of his work. It’s nothing special or new, it’s just a badly drawn, unfunny section in the middle of what is otherwise a perfect comic. Kochalka couldn’t--either he's unable or unwilling--move away from his cutesy style to allow his story to grow. The “Cute over Craft” artist boxed himself in, and sorta put a rut in the issue. It’s the only story that upon a reread I skip, it just steps away from what the rest of the stories are, it stands out only for what it isn’t and not what it is.
Not all of Independents is about what they are not, much of it is about what they are, which is artists. Much of the documentary is about how to succeed in a hard business, regardless if succeeding is selling 100 copies of your mini comic or 100,000 copies of your book.
However, angling themselves against The Big Two, and taking an actual stand against what they do is unfortunate and hurtful only to themselves. Many of these creators and publishers started when comics were very different, but they firmly hold onto their opinions, no matter how irrelevant they are to today’s comics. And they are irrelevant because rarely any comics readers' taste don't include a few super hero books.
Gary Groth of Fantagraphics fame said, referring to super hero comics: “They’ve never been interested in doing work that reflects contemporary life, serious existential issues, independent work, small intimate stories or autobiographical work.” Both Marvel and DC have been taking on race, sex and gender issues since their inception, with a pronounced focus in the 80s--not a shock that it lines-up with "the Black and White boom". Look at something like X-Men: God Loves Man Kills a testament to the real life issues that big dumb ass X-Men deal with. Using a super natural angle to talk about real issues just makes us look at the subject at hand differently, hopefully opening up a few eyes.
Not to be this quote guy, but Linda Medley (Castle Waiting) may have never read a super hero comic in her life but probably stared at the covers: “They’re not risk takers, they’re not trying to communicate, they’re trying to make money and they’re not trying to expand the consciousness of anyone”. Reading Strange Tales may open up lots of super hero readers to independent comics, and I just hope that sometime soon there is a book that ingratiates snobby comix readers to super hero comics, that can make people want to open up a super hero comic for more than big tits and tights.