State of the Industry Part 2 - A Couple of the Smaller Fish

Don't get me wrong; I'm a big fan of the mainstream, even when that's not popular. I came into comics reading super-heroes; I'll leave it reading super-heroes. But I'm also an adult, no matter how arrested my adolescence might be, and that means that I crave more from my comics diet on a pretty regular basis.

With the exception of DC's Vertigo imprint, that usually means a trip down what is called the Alternative, Small Press or Independent aisles. There are literally hundreds (if not more) of these companies, but there are a few that stand out, that always get a few lingering minutes from me when I'm scanning the Previews each month.

Slave Labor Graphics is one of those that have been around for quite a while. I remember first noticing them as the publishers of The Copybook Tales, one of those series that went away far before its time. SLG books tend to follow that pattern, though. They have a promising couple of issues, then disappear without a trace. It's made me a bit wary of picking up new series from them, afraid that I'll end up with another title that I got a slight taste of before it disappeared forever.

On the other hand, they have put out some terrific stuff, usually stuff that I can mention to even my well-read comic-reading friends and get only a puzzled expression. Spin World, a terrific 4-issue hard science-fiction series by Brent Anderson (Astro City), X-Ray Comics, a hilarious 4-issue anthology series and the afore-mentioned Copybook Tales, a slice-of-life book, are only a few examples.

Overall, Slave Labor is one of those companies that I'm always glad to see at conventions, and always glad to support. Some of their talent is also responsible for big industry projects (they've had Brent Anderson and Jim Starlin doing projects for them, for example.) And some of their talent has definitely moved on to bigger things... by way of examples, Tim Levins (Copybook Tales) is doing Batman: Gotham Adventures and Andi Watson, the creator of Skeleton Key, has become one of the hot properties at Oni Press.

Speaking of which... Oni Press gives the impression of a young, hip and totally professional company. I happen to know that the company is run out of a small office in Portland, but if you didn't know that, you certainly wouldn't guess it from the books. You'd guess that these guys have a crack staff of marketing, editorial and design wizards. Not to mention the talent scouts.

These guys started off with Kevin Smith, film darling and comics fan, and thus came with their own built-in audience. They've also shown an affinity for tying together the worlds of independent film and independent comics, with stories based on Artisan Films' Ghost Dog and Blair Witch Project.

On top of that, their stable of talent and books is small but impressive. Scott Morse and Jim Mahfood, two very distinctive voices (or rather artists) in indy comics, do the majority of their work through Oni, as does Andi Watson. And these creators have projects that range from fantasy to urban reality to romance to science fiction. Then there's the terrific murder mystery Whiteout and it's sequel, the upcoming gothic horror title The Marquis by Guy Davis, and the Image-originated, bust-a-gut funny Adventures of Barry Ween. Everything they do may not be to my taste, but it's always original and well executed.

Oni is also expanding their web operations, with a weekly web strip and a really hot-looking web design that also manages to stay completely functional. Everything they do gives you the sense of a professional company, but one that is small enough to still feel personal, to still feel like even the top management is more concerned with the quality of the books than the amount of money coming in.

Unlike last week's column, which focused on Marvel, I suspect the mail this time will center not on agreeing or disagreeing with my conclusions, but expressing total surprise at hearing of a lot of these titles. If you haven't heard of them, and they sound intriguing, check them out. These two companies are but the tip of the iceberg in a world of independent comics that far too many people are ignoring.

Randy W. Lander

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