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They Shoot Small Presses, Don't They?

A. David Lewis, writer of Mortal Coils and The Lone and Level Sands, has long been a champion of comics as a true art form, and currently teaches English at Northeastern University, where he does indeed sneak comics into the curriculum wherever he can. He posted this article on his blog, and gave Fanboy Planet permission to reprint it.

Are we just in a market correction, or is this the beginning of the end?

Sorry, f*** the melodrama. Comics are fine, comics are swell, the industry's dandy. There's problems, yeah -- There always will be. Some of the mainstream content is spotty, public perception is still s***, and Diamond runs the show. I'm worrying about all that another day.

Here's my concern du jour: Over the last few years, there was an explosion of small press companies on the scene. I'm not talking about the independent folks, not the out-there, avant-gaurde art gang. This isn't Fantagraphics or Moonstone, Drawn & Quarterly or SLG, Alternative Comics or Top Shelf. (Staros' gang, especially with that spine-breaker Blankets, ain't part of this equation.) I mean the mini-Image mainstream dreamers: Alias, Angel Gate, Speakeasy, Committed Comics, Hoarse & Buggy, and the lot...

What about them? Well, it looks like they're falling apart, frankly. Striking out left and right. The outlook isn't brilliant...

Friend and colleague Josh Fialkov closed up shop on Hoarse & Buggy as a publisher, and it's now a studio under Speakeasy with the acclaimed (though, relative to that acclaim, sadly underselling) Elk's Run. S'okay, no biggie -- Just means we might not get any more Western Tales of Terror anytime soon. And, really, he can resurrect H&B whenever he and Jason Rodriguez want, resources permitting. They're still producing material, so kudos.

But Speakeasy itself has been spotty. Hit book Rocketo just left for reasons unknown, and their titles were shipping late (see Elk's Run, above)...until they weren't shipping at all. The company canceled all orders to "restructure." That word has the same connotation as "downsize" to me. Another small press pub, Committed Comics, claimed it was "going to take a six month hiatus" in January 2005 in much the same way. No news since then. I fear what Speakeasy's "restructuring" might look like, too. (Incidentally, there's no mention of this new business strategem on their website. I mean, I can understand not wanting to publicize the thing, but call a spade a spade, man.)

There are good reasons -- even good business reasons -- to take a break, a time-out, a step back. Dan Taylor did that with GeekPunk in 2005, just a year after "the two big comic book companies" came after him and Chris Fason for using the word "superhero" in their title. GeekPunk bounced back, rebranded the book as Hero Happy Hour, and continued to produce solid stories. However, when a series of "life changing events" confronted the pair of creators, they opted to put the enterprise on hold. I appreciate that -- I even commend it. Rather than either pump out junk or make promises they couldn't keep, GeekPunk was straight up with readers. It'll be back in due time, they say, and I believe them.

However, the mystery surrounding DBPro's expulsion from Alias and Runemaster Studios' shift to Image screams of turmoil. Alias, too, hasn't shipped quite to-date, either...but, really, who does anymore? And, there's always been something attractive about Erik Larsen's Image to hot, new properties (see Invincible) that might explain some of this. I'm not sure I would point, for instance, to Runes of Ragnan jumping from Silent Devil to Image and cry bloody murder exactly. But I don't read this Alias embroglio as a defection; neither the Dabels nor the Bullocks (who cut their own impressive deals with Udon Studios and PSP!) strike me as mutineers. I'm left asking: What's Alias' real identity?

(Going back to the avant-gaurde indies just a sec, the demise of Boston-local Highwater Books seems to be the exception that proves the rule. The demise of one big indie label does not a trend make; this widespread mainstream collapse, by comparison, might.)

With both Bone and Cerebus gone and Lightspeed Press' Finder going digital from one trade paperback to the next, the demise of FM International has already been declared -- prematurely or not. Still, the idea that the second-biggest distributor -- which is like calling last year's swept Houston Astros the second-biggest winners -- might capsize seems to surprise no one...which itself should be horrifying. Yet the possibility comes without any shock -- How bad a sign is that??

Cold Cut continues to distribute, bless 'em, but not anywhere near the quatity of Diamond (which should thank its sweet Previews that FM and Cold Cut are still around lest, especially in the wake of their new order-cut policy, they wanna play Monopoly).

Note to Diamond: Please don't stop carrying my books. I love you. I don't know what I was saying. I am a little man with a little blog. Pity me.

Devil's advocate time, literally: Devil's Due is performing well. IDW, too, remains robust. Both of them took a cue from Dark Horse and hitched their stars to lucrative licenses. Bongo Comics, likewise, bears Matt Groening's bastard children, and Tokyopop's manga practically makes all of this a moot point.

In all honesty, this is pure speculation on my part. I admit, I don't know what's going on with other shops like Ape Entertainment or Rorschach Entertainment. (Does Black Bull still put out comics, offhand? And does Burlyman do anything other than Doc Frankenstein?) Perhaps all is well and good in the world, and I'm just catching all the bad stories that float around the news sites and convention floors. There is such a thing as a simple slump, and it only gets worse if you fret over it.

But if that isn't the case, if there is something wrong in with not just Casey but the whole damn town Mudville, would anybody be willing to come out and say it? Who do you root for then?

(That sound you hear is any potential I had working with these companies. Sort of sick, wet squeak.)

A. David Lewis

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