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Alternate History

All right, kids, history lesson time.

In 1954, child psychologist Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent, which puts the blame for everything from juvenile crime to athlete's foot squarely on the doorstep of the local boogieman: comic books. This was not entirely a new thing at the time: there had been numerous statements from 'experts' on the degenerate nature of comics in varying medical journals, newspapers, street corners for years prior. But Seduction was the biggest, most organized attack yet on the industry. It was enormously popular. The public began howling for standards and decency in comics, and so the industry decided to muzzle itself before the federales beat them to it.

On October 26, 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America – an organization created by the publishers themselves specifically for this purpose – released the Comics Code. In a nutshell, the Code stated: no sympathy for criminals, no sex, drugs, or violence, and no challenges to established authorities. Every comic printed in the United States had to pass editorial review, and those that didn't conform were not given the seal of approval. Without this seal, their comic couldn’t get distributed, and without distribution, there were no big sales. Wertham's revolution was complete: America was safe from corruption.

However, those comics that passed could hardly be considered worthwhile reading. The excitement of crime and horror was gone. The thrill of rebellion was dead. American comics were beginning a slow decline into maudlin, uninspiring garbagedom.

Ah, but what if one were to publish a comic…without the seal of approval? It would have to be sold under the radar, without advertising, mainstream recognition, or the distribution boost, but theoretically it could contain anything, couldn't it? Hardcore sex, graphic drug use, buckets of blood, mountains of every kind of imaginable filth – it could all be put in, yes?

Thus the independent comic was born. They weren't just comics any more – they were comix, and that 'x' made all the difference. Art Spiegelman, arguably the most well-known comics creator in the world, and the only one with a Pulitzer, is often credited with the alternative spelling. Spiegelman wanted to distinguish his sequential art works from the stigma of ComiCs, and has said the new term comes from the idea of the 'co-mix' of words and pictures, but it's more than that. It's 'x' for the unknown quantity, for the strange and new. And it's 'x' for 'x-rated'.

These new comix, invisible unless you knew where to look for them, were so out of mainstream sight that they could go to all sorts of extremes. And go extreme they did. Robert Crumb's sex-obsessed characters clashed with his sardonic take on button-down suburbia. Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead made less than no sense and reveled in it, throwing plot, structure and clarity out the window. Spain Rodriguez drew pages so foul, so blasphemous, that even today his work is considered outrageously offensive. These artists and others like them all defied authority by publishing comix so radically different from everything that had come before that they would force repressive American society to take a good, hard, look at itself in the mirror.

These early comix are part of the 'Underground' movement, out of sight of the mainstream and consequently free to do whatever they wished. Later, in the seventies and eighties, the revolution became 'Alternative' comics – something simply different from the stuff dished up by the big publishers. The term nowadays is 'independent' comics, the broadest and most accurate of them all. The focus is no longer upon what mainstream comics are afraid to show – now it's upon what mainstream comics have no interest in showing. Blanket statements of an art movement are tricky buggers, but it's safe to say that today's independent comic tends to focus more on individuals, emotions, the tiny steps and ideas of daily life that tend to get lost in a mainstream book. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, for example, has almost zero action and sparse dialogue, but shows clearly the emotional disarray of a man without purpose. Terry Moore's self-published Strangers in Paradise focuses on only three major characters and their emotional twists and turns. In independent comics, superheroes are the exception, not the rule.

But the theory behind comix remains the same, even after thirty years: not to cater to an audience, but to cater to oneself; to attack culture and society so as to fix them.

So here's the question, dear readers: are webcomics independent? Are they truly this generation's counter-cultural voice, or are they simply newspaper strips for the Gen Y set? Should they be counted with the likes of Crumb's Zap Comix and Spiegelman's Raw, or are they just soulless exercises in immaturity, our generation futilely raging against the norm?

Tricky question.

The answer?

Yes and no.

I know, I know, ambivalence is a copout, but hear me out first. Webcomics share certain traits with underground comics, or comix, but as to whether they can trace their roots entirely back to the revolution of 1967—well, you'll see.

In terms of distribution, webcomics are comix, no doubt. In the beginning, underground comics, without a publishing machine to back them up, had to be sold wherever the creators could find. The usual route was through the mails, by special order. Headshops were the other major option – there the issues would share shelf space with bongs, and you'd never quite get that smell out of their pages. But creators found other ways to sell – R. Crumb's pioneering Zap Comix was sold out of a pram on a street corner in San Francisco. In any case, advertising was nonexistent. No newspaper would publish a thing about comix except to attack them, which, in the days of invisibility, was rare. The only way to ever hear anything about these comix was through a friend, who'd heard about them from another friend, who'd heard about them from…you get it.

The same is absolutely true of webcomics. How many of you have friends who've told you about some great new webcomic they found? How many of you subsequently got hooked on it? Ever seen an advertising banner for a webcomic on any page besides another webcomic's? How did you find this webzine?

Webcomics are invisible to all but those who look for them. You couldn't find comix unless you were a purveyor of headshops, or had a friend who knew of them; you can't find a webcomic unless you know its name, its URL, or get a link from a friend. The Internet is often described as the world's largest democracy, with every voice in the world shouting at the same volume. The downside is that it's nearly impossible to seek out one single voice unless you know exactly who to listen for.

The upside, of course, is that once you've found a strip, you can read it from anywhere in the world. Audiences are no longer bound by mere geography. The kid in Peoria can read the same thing as the fan from Poland or the guy in Vladivostok. Even the best independent print comics can't claim this kind of exposure.

In terms of creator control, it's the same story. In mainstream comics, the title is the abiding entity. How many writers has Action Comics had? How many artists have drawn The Uncanny X-Men? Dozens? Hundreds? But the titles, the stories, and the characters have outlived them all. Independent comics, however, are one-man (or woman) affairs – almost always, one creator wears both the artist's and the writer's hats. And on two- or three-person works, the team usually stays together for the entire run. Independent comics can't simply be 'taken over' by another creator, especially since many comix were and are intensely personal things, sometimes even autobiographical.

Webcomics, of course, are precisely the same. With only a very few exceptions, the same creators will work forever on the same strip. There are, on occasion, 'guest artist' strips, but rarely are they important to the plot, and they never last very long at all. As in independent comics, most webcomics creators are loath to let somebody else helm their lifelong work, even for an issue, or a week.

As for the money, 'comix artist' never has been and never will be a high-paying job. The few wizards lucky enough to catch a break – Crumb, Spiegelman, Dan Clowes – are the exceptions to the rule. Independent comics enjoy a bit more financial backing than they used to, as publishers like Fantagraphics and Oni Press get big enough to offer some real support. But some comix are still just photocopies, languishing sadly in the 'local artists' rack at the neighborhood store.

Do I really need to say anything about the economic unfeasibility of webcomics creating? At least under the current system, it is mind-bogglingly hard to actually make money off a webcomic. And if you want to make a living, well, you can just give up on that idea right now, mister. Unlike in newspaper strips, there's no guaranteed return, and merchandising is difficult, to say the least. Few creators have been around long enough, and economically savvy enough, to live entirely off their webcomics.

But do all these things add up to a counter-cultural movement? Nope. They add up to the method of comix, but not necessarily to their content. And that's the reason for the ambivalence I displayed earlier.

The idea behind underground comix was that they did what mainstream comics did not or could not do. That is, they either worked in areas specifically forbidden by the Code – violence, drugs, sex, et cetera – or in areas which the industry had no real vested interest. For better or worse, today superheroes are still the industry's bread and butter; men in tights and supervillains with death rays continue to be the mainstay of the biggest publishers. But this means that whole genres were and are still being ignored by the mainstream: romance, horror, autobiography, high fantasy, and even just straight fiction. In the last few decades, independent comics have taken these genres as their own.

There is a strong current of anti-mainstream feeling in both of these general fields. Creating what others can't, or creating what others don't have the guts to – the guiding philosophy behind independent comics is, to one degree or another, rebellion. And there are examples of both kinds of rebellion in webcomics.

The profanity-spewing, outrageously hateful characters of Tristan Farnon hold something in common with S. Clay Wilson's blasphemous and full-o-hate pages. Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's mind-maze enigmas recall some of Art Spiegelman's early experiments in his anthology Raw. Even gleefully violent characters such as the Black Mage of Brian Clevinger's 8-Bit Theatre owes a debt, however slight, to such zealously hate-filled pioneers of the comix scene as Judge Dredd of the anthology 2000AD and Marv of Frank Miller's Sin City.

On the other end of the emotive spectrum, strips like Justine Shaw's Nowhere Girl (the first webcomic ever nominated for an Eisner) or Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference follow in the footsteps of Dan Clowes' Ghost World or Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets, by taking an intensely personal look at a very small cast of characters – an approach unimaginable for most mainstream comics.

So yes, there are innovators in webcomics. There are counter-cultural strips. There are politically charged, radically different, socially aware creators who bend every rule and stretch our perceptions beyond the breaking point.

There just aren't enough of them.

For every webcomic that challenges our notions of society and culture, for every groundbreaking work of artistic genius, there are a hundred more about two guys in a dorm room. Or two gamers. Or a fantasy world full of elves, orcs, and every other Tolkien reject you can think of. These are the superheroes of webcomics, the formulas copied ad nauseum.

In the underground, anyone with a pencil, some paper, and access to a photocopier can produce a comic – regardless of actual talent. The same goes for webcomics. Anyone can sign up for a free webpage, punch out a strip a day, and paste it up. Minus the cost of the computer and modem, there is no charge. There's a vast field of strips out there, more than any one person can ever dream of reading. The best will stand out, surely, but they're just the tallest blade of grass in a meadow ten miles square.

Underground comix were counter-culture because there was a specific culture to be a counter to. Webcomics are not, as many people seem to think, merely the digital version of newspaper strips. Nor are they an organized rebellion against their printed cousins. They are something with far more potential – the differing technologies alone mean that webcomics can show more, do more, force the reader's mind to work in strange new ways.

Webcomics are not the counter-culture to newspaper strips, or even comics in general. They are their own, entirely new culture. And they can't be counter to themselves.

Frankly, the webcomic revolution better resembles the late thirties than the late sixties. In the thirties, publishers were just beginning to experiment with long, book-length form comics as a new kind of storytelling – and then when Siegel and Shuster came out with Superman in 1938, suddenly every publisher had to have their own super-patriot. This focus on the brand-new superhero genre meant that it would become the dominant format, practically the only genre present in comics for decades. We can only hope that webcomic creators won't be so easily tempted into formulaic writing.

Webcomics take the form of independent comics, but without something to be independent from, it's a false label. Webcomics are only starting to come into their own. They should be seen not as the continuation of a revolution, but as a revolution waiting to happen.

Ted Anderson is a contributing writer for the Comixpedia.

Re: Alternate History by Ted Anderson

Art Spiegelman isn't the only comics artist with a Pulitzer; Garry Trudeau has one and was finalist for a second. Different types of comics, though; you might want to clarify the point. "Only guy-who-does-stuff-that-doesn't-run-in-a-newspaper with one" or something.

Independent Comics?

Webcomics don't have anything to be independent from means they aren't independent? I could understand the counter-culture part, but not this.
Independent means you do everything independently, or reasonably so. Many webcomic artists get site space from a hosting site, but they set up the site themselves. Some get published, but they've already created the content, gathered an audience, and become a little famous before that happens. Besides that, they are independent of any help, income, or censorship. Not that they wouldn't welcome the help or income. They just don't have it. What definition of independent are you using?