Today's guest blogger isn't a cartoonist, but a librarian. Stephen Weiner is director of the Maynard Public Library in Maynard, Massachusetts, as well as author of the book 101 Graphic Novels and co-author of The Will Eisner Companion. I got to know Steve Weiner while he was writing The Rise of the Graphic Novel: Faster Than a Speeding Bullet (for which I drew the cover) in 2003. Since then, he and I have talked a lot about the appearance of graphic novels on the shelves of public libraries.
From the NBM website: Stephen Weiner has a long history of bringing Graphic Novels and Libraries together. In 1992, he initiated the "Graphically Speaking" column in Voice of Youth Advocates, which continues to this day. In 1996, he published 100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries, the only book to address public library graphic novel collection development issues. Since 1997, he has reviewed graphic novels for "Library Journal". He is a frequent speaker at library and academic conferences about graphic novels.
I asked Steve what he thought was the legacy of the self-publishers…
In the early 1990s, the comics field held new possibilities. Because the direct market provided access to the comic book readership, if a publisher read his or her cards right, they could tailor a book to an audience. Marvel and DC dominated the field, and Dark Horse was staking a claim as a contender, but there was room for new kinds of comics, and new cartoon storytellers. Readers weren’t dedicated to the big companies. If the book looked good and your store guy recommended it, it was worth a try. The book didn’t have to be flashy either, a well crafted story, produced in black and white, could do the job. All anybody wanted was good comics.
The mainstream comics publishing houses had suffered a setback. Their biggest names—Frank Miller and Alan Moore—had walked out their doors. The new long comic book, the “graphic novel”, after making some noise with Maus, Watchmen, and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, had fizzled out as a breakout vehicle. Although young upstarts like Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane were reinventing mainstream comics, a lot of the most interesting work was being produced by small publishers such as Kitchen Sink Press, or self publishers–cartoonists who published their own books as well as writing and drawing them. The amazing thing about self publishing was that all the company had to make was enough money to support the cartoonist and his or her family. In some instances, this allowed for more creativity than was possible in mainstream books. Self publishers were, in a way, ultimate American entrepreneurs; they believed in their product enough to finance it and speculate.
Self publishing, as way to get one’s work out to readers, had existed long before the comic book specialty shop and the direct market. Masterpieces of Western literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were originally self published, but in the comics’ world, self publishing really began in the mid 1970s with Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Richard and Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest. The self publishing movement received a further boost in the mid 1980s when Eastman and Laird produced their international sensation, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One could argue that Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which originally appeared in Raw, a magazine owned and edited by Spiegelman, had been self published, although the book Maus was brought out by Pantheon.
Lots of self published books came out in black and white. Leaving out color kept the costs down but it also accomplished another thing; it allowed the cartoonist to focus on the story more because one couldn’t lean on color pages to carry a reader if the story was weak. Some of these self published books undertook stories with a different focus than mainstream comics at the time. Some of those books were Cerebus, A Distant Soil, Jar of Fools, ElfQuest, American Splendor, Strangers in Paradise, and Bone.
While celebrated “graphic novels” such as Spiegelman’s Maus or Jules Feiffer’s Tantrum, were published by trade publishers, most graphic novels were published by comic book publishers and carried by comic book specialty stores. Because of the way comic books and graphic novels were distributed it wasn’t as difficult for comic book self publishers to get his or her work noticed and promoted by store personnel as it was in other areas of publishing.
Self publishers made new rules in terms of publishing schedules, bent the idea of what kinds of stories could be told in comic book format, and challenged the bigger companies to reconsider the kind of stories that their readers wanted.
Not all self published books were successful. But even the failures helped the comics’ field expand. One example is Taboo, a horror anthology published by Steve Bissette’s Spiderbaby Graphix. Taboo was the first place From Hell appeared. When Taboo ended, Kitchen Sink picked up From Hell, which eventually became a motion picture. Works produced by the self publishers helped broaden the work produced by mainstream publishers, but more importantly, many of the self published books infused energy into the comics field and drew new readers to the comics/graphic novel format. Take Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore, for example. Half thriller, half romance, this love triangle was too hot for a mainstream publisher to handle in the mid ‘90s, and not only because of its mature content. Its format was also revolutionary. Moore was not only an accomplished cartoonist, readers were handed thick pages of prose as well as poetry and song lyrics to digest while reading Strangers in Paradise. Strangers in Paradise was closer to what mainstream readers might expect from a “graphic novel” than the antied -up superhero fare that major comic book publishing houses were offering.
Another book that started out as self published was Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes, lauded by novelist and film maker Sherman Alexie. Lutes’s tale of a magician who’d lost his confidence but not his magic touch punched the reader in the nose in the way a powerful prose novel worked; it held up a mirror to the readers’ life. Other important self published books included fantasies Castle Waiting by Linda Medley and Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil.
The graphic novel, as a format, helped comics journey out of the world of comic book specialty shops and conventions. It was also a form that favored small and self publishers who didn’t have the resources to publish a book on an ongoing basis.
The success of Bone has been documented elsewhere, but it’s important to note that while Bone entertained, educated, and prodded its readers, Cartoon Books, the publisher of Bone, was one of the first to see the potential of the graphic novel format, and began collecting the issues of Bone into a graphic novel series in 1993.
Many of the graphic novels produced by self publishers were more palatable to non comics readers than the superhero fare offered by the big companies. Although by the mid 90s some public libraries had begun collecting graphic novels, these graphic novels were not associated with comic books. The most popular book in libraries were Tintin, Maus and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Bone began its journey out of comic book shops by showing up in public libraries. Other self published graphic novels such as ElfQuest followed, for two reasons: the stories told in these books were a better fit with library collection development programs than the perceived superhero story, and because self and small publishers aggressively pursued the library field, in part because they needed library sales in order to stay afloat. Prior to this most graphic novels carried in libraries were published by trade book houses as opposed to comic book publishers. This partnership between self publishers and libraries led to the opening of the library field to the comics industry. The big houses followed suit very late in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most unlikely self publishing success was Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, begun in 1976. American Splendor chronicled the daily life of Pekar, a file clerk for the Veteran’s Administration, and was an alternative comics’ hit. American Splendor was republished by Doubleday in the 1ate 1980s. Eventually American Splendor became a feature film, bringing Pekar’s story to thousands of viewers, many of whom didn’t know that original work was a self published comic book. Now that comics and graphic novels have broken through to readers outside of comic book specialty shops, it is critical that the comics field remain fresh, and that the conventions held by both large comic book publishing houses and trade book publishers carrying graphic novel imprints are challenged. Keeping the self publishing movement alive is one of the ways that the comics field can retain its freshness and ingenuity.