Scribes Sounding Off: The Best Indie Comics Out Now

by Chris Estey

Fantagraphics was started by a couple of guys named Gary Groth and Kim Thompson back in the 70s, when the hipness of Marvel super-heroes had been around for more than a decade, and creators were leaving that company and DC, and kids inspired by the undergrounds, were all starting to publish on their own.

Fanta began with the Comics Journal, a trade publication that was closer to critical fannish magazines in the rock world than the “buyer’s guide” tabloids hawking pricey back issues of “Golden and Silver Age” collectibles. It also had a self-conscious sense of evolution in its milieu, and would soon encourage the kids putting out New Wave mini-comics to get better and go for broke.

Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez were the Picassos of the punk-fueled indie comics scene, their shared Love & Rockets anthology featuring stories about such everyday (feminist friendly) heroes as Maggie the Mechanic, the trouble-bound and openly gay sprite Hopey, Izzy the mystical Gothic spinster, and a legion of Mexican-American (or just Mexican or American) personalities based as much in the weird people artists actually were or knew, as opposed to mythical Anglo muscle-heads with Messiah complexes. Rock and roll within punk art had really come to the comics world, starting with Love & Rockets in the mid-80s.


That’s not to say that writer-artists like Jaime and his brother weren’t hugely influenced by what came before — one glance at the BIG, thick new LOCAS II collection of L&R comics by the younger Hernandez shows his devotion to Archie’s eternally teenage world, the noir comics of Steve Ditko, the larger than life characterizations and visual flow of Jack Kirby, and the weirdness of underground godfather Robert Crumb.

LOCAS ll collects a huge amount of comics featuring a more mature Maggie, finding and losing romance with people like Ray (one part Chandler victim, another part mod hobo), “Frogmouth” (painfully sexy but achingly annoying), and reunions with Hopey and others in a strange relational ballet set in SW America. It’s a weird, flat plain of bizarre sex and twisted circumstance that would be the first collection of comics I would recommend for any adult wanting to get a handle on the aesthetics of the art form since it became culturally relevant to do so.


Meanwhile, Fantagraphics has also just put out a new issue of the Comics Journal #299, which has an incredible narrative by lawyer-outsider art-underground advocate Bob Levin, who explains how in the mid-70s an evolutionary-leap in the field was attempted by mysterious Montreal artist-performer Michael Choquette. Yet forces beyond the control of an expanding realm of innovative creators like Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman (Maus), Michael O’Donoghue (Saturday Night Live), Ralph Steadman (Pink Floyd’s art for The Wall and everything for Hunter Thompson), novelist and creative non-fiction genius Tom Wolfe, and Salvador Dali (!) kept this could-have-rocked-the-world comics anthology from ever seeing print. TCJ prints never before seen artwork from the doomed project alongside a fabulously written description of the energies that went into the creation of such a collection, and the mordant tragedy that was its damnable fate. Levin is the writer of several books on the struggle of comics and the counter-culture and transgressive fringes, and because of him #299 of TCJ is THE book about comic art to buy this year. The essays “Gender and Comics in Chicago” by Noah Berlatsky, once-local slacker cartoonist king Tom Hart’s analysis of the John Darnielle 33 1/3 compared with Daniel Clowes’ work and Tezuka’s extraordinary manga, backs up my bold claim.


Funny that I should mention the story of a failed but incredibly promising indie anthology from before the field began, as Fantagraphics has a new issue of its series Mome out too (Vol. 15, Summer 2009) and it is the current multi-artist series that has critics in the comics world and outside of it regularly amped. Helmed by Fanta’s new associate publisher (and previous PR king for the imprint) Eric Reynolds, alongside the company’s co-founder Groth, Mome has spent the past three years digging for new artists who could repeat the golden era of the undergrounds and the wave of new talent at titles like RAW and Weirdo in the 80s.

Reynolds and Groth pull in wonderful finds and serialized or self-contained tales from artists all over the country, such as Xeric-award winning storyteller Nate Neal (The Sanctuary) and Portland-based New York Times cartoonist Andrice Arp (contributing one of the best covers Mome has ever had this time out). But they also scour the world, finding talent like Spanish artist Max whose excellently designed “Confederacy of Villains” (which is inserted like an old mini-comic as an extra to the very handsome book’s format); and both bringing on board noted illustrators like T. Edward Bak and OG underground hero (Freak Brothers creator) Gilbert Shelton. The last few issues of Mome have really hit a hot-run of quality, and though some stories are more straightforward and others are expressionistic, all the art is always sweet.

So there you have it: Seattle-based Fantagraphics this month has just put out an equally gorgeous and necessary “greatest hits, volume two” of a seminal title; a collection of writing about comics that truly illuminates the wild worlds of the writers and art makers; and a vibrant example of what’s going on there now. And I have the feeling they’re going to be doing all that over again very soon.

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