The Difficulty with Indie Comics
I recently got myself into one of those situations where I signed myself up for something without realizing what I’d gotten myself into. A few weeks ago, PCU received a complimentary copy of the indie comic Man vs. Rock, and without reading it first, I agreed to review it.
Let me state up front, I did not enjoy Man vs. Rock. I acknowledge that it’s more comic book than I’ve ever produced, so kudos to the two guys who put their labor and money into producing it. That still doesn’t mean I liked it–I just admire that they published it. I thought the art was crude, the lettering looked too artificial, and the story revolved around a one-off joke that went on for pages and pages longer than it should have. (In essence, Man vs. Rock posits that all of man’s aggression is needlessly aimed at rocks. Egyptians whip rocks instead of Jews. A rock is crucified instead of Christ. And this just goes on and on.)
That said, I’m declining to write a strict review of Man vs. Rock here, and I think it’d be unfair of me to do so. In part, this is because Man vs. Rock does have its audience. The authors’ website points to numerous positive reviews they’ve gotten since its release, including hefty recognition by Bleeding Cool and Comic Bastards. Somebody out there likes this thing, and it’s possible my judgment is impaired on this one.
As a reviewer, I try to be fair and balanced, with my admitted weakness being that I lean a little too positive in my writing. My general approach is that good art is worth two stars and good writing another two, and a book that truly wows me can earn another 1/2 to 1 stars if it goes above and beyond. I’ve been negative where I felt that a book wasn’t living up to either the writing or the art categories. If I were to write up a straight review of Man vs. Rock, I probably wouldn’t rate it higher than two stars because it just didn’t impress me. But that’s me.
But: here’s my problem. The majority of what I’ve reviewed on PCU has been traditional comics from “name” publishers, mostly from DC and Marvel but with a healthy dose of offerings from Dark Horse, Image, Dynamite and others. Largely, they’ve all been “house” published books that follow a typical publishing formula, and in the case of the superhero stuff, it’s usually under a carefully structured editorially-driven plan for what constitutes a normal comic.
Man vs. Rock falls into that weird category of “indie” comics: the books that aren’t fronted by a big publishing house and rely on the creators’ own talent and backing to get it moving. (This is a loose definition of “indie”–one could argue that Image is just a giant indie house with better finances.) The problem with indie–or maybe the feature of indie, if you’re into it–is that because it’s outside the big houses, it’s free to be whatever it wants without interference by editors or corporate direction.
There’s nothing wrong with indie books just because they’re outside the mainstream, and there’s plenty of critically important indie books that the serious comics reader needs to be aware of. Bone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out independently before moving on to the backing of the big houses. Cerebus, Love and Rockets, A Distant Soil, and countless others have all been very successful despite not being about superheroes in spandex. Odds are, if you’re reading something at Dark Horse or Image, it’s effectively an indie book with better financial backing and better publicity.
But–because indie books are outside the norm, many of them also have a tendency to lean weird and different. That’s where reviewing these things becomes difficult, because the quality of a work, and one’s personal taste for a work, are two different things that can very easily blur together and become difficult to separate.
There’s a certain other pop culture website I read which runs previews of indie books several times a month. In my opinion, these books are terrible and I’m not at all inclined to spend money on the full story. They’re badly drawn, not funny, and rely on weirdness (not infrequently in the form of anthropomorphic animals) as a selling point. My honest sense is that the weirdness is the authors’ attempt to feign brilliance: we’re so weird and different and avant garde, look how smart we are. Except it’s not. They’re neither funny nor intelligent, nor do they make me think deeply about the human condition or anything like that. They’re bad and I seriously doubt someone can convince me otherwise. (Seriously, here’s one about cartoon animals which just did not impress me at all and is, at best, evocative of a college art class project.)
In other words, the indie world isn’t that far off from mainstream superhero stuff: there’s brilliance out there, but there’s also a lot of shite. The superhero stuff just tends to have better marketing and the first choice in the talent pool. The only significant difference is that most superhero books don’t make any pretense that they’re brilliant. Your average Marvel or DC book’s sole function is to entertain with sex and violence for a few minutes, and very few of them are trying to be the next Watchmen. Most of them just want you to pay four bucks to put some pleasure in the reptile part of your brain.
So, back to Man vs. Rock. I didn’t like it. In my mind, it’s a college-level gag which would be funny after drinking a few beers, but doesn’t merit a full-length story. But then, it’s possible that I’m biased on this one, because it’s not what I’m used to in a comic. I’m therefore reluctant to write a bad review of the story, because I feel like there’s just something about the story that I’m not getting which other websites are. I see silliness; they see brilliant satire. What am I getting wrong here?
I’m opening the floor up to you, PCU readers. Not everything is Marvel or DC, and not everything should be. But not everything that’s indie is genius by default either. What is it that makes an indie comic great or not great? What are some indie comics that work, and what don’t? Does “weird and different” equal genius, or not? Please hop into our comment section below and tell us what makes for a great indie book.
I don’t review comics, but I do review indie horror and sci-fi, and I can truthfully say there have been some books I’ve read that have suffered from what you talked about. Times when I’ve just looked at it and thought “Mmhmm, I can see why you can’t get a publishing house to pick this up.”
The story has to be good. If it’s weird to boot? That’s cool, too. But if the base isn’t strong, the weirdness can’t save it.
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How do you define an indie comic?
^^ Phil, a fair question, and there seems to be some blurring between “independent” and “alternative” comics from what I’ve read. I’d generally define an “indie” as “creator owned and not published by Marvel or DC.” Wikipedia (as reliable as that is) identifies Image and Dark Horse as indie companies–clearly with Dark Horse, there’s more of a limiting factor since they publish a lot of licensed properties.
Adam, we appreciate you taking the time to read our first issue, and for your thoughtful article. We readily acknowledge that Man vs. Rock is not for everybody, and we are grateful for our devoted readers (and reviewers) who enjoy our series and continue to express interest in it. Comics, and the indie scene particularly, is quite subjective, and there is a fine line between “silliness” and “brilliant satire” (if such a thing actually exists). Truthfully, we don’t particularly aspire to be either, nor are we attempting to “feign brilliance.” Simply put, we have a story to tell, believe it’s funny, and hope others see the humor in it. We do not have any grand aspirations other than hopefully entertaining readers, and telling our story to as many people as we can.
At the end of your article, you ask “what am I getting wrong here?” The answer is nothing; as with all comics (big publishers included), some people dig it, others don’t. We totally respect your opinion of Man vs. Rock, and hope you enjoy the next indie you read.
Thanks guys. I’ll add that “feigning brilliance” is a generalized comment not aimed at your book specifically.