Independent comics of the 1980s
This is a list of comic book series, anthologies, and magazines released in the 1980s by independent publishing companies on the North American market (including some seminal British imports of the time). I was very excited to compile it because it was like venturing into uncharted territory for me; as neither an American nor a comic book reader during the 1980s, I had previously only heard of less than half of the titles included here. However, the upshot is that I don’t feel particularly qualified to properly introduce the topic. I would therefore direct anyone interested in learning more about the broader historical context of the comics featured on the list to the following sources:
- A History of Indy Comic Books by Stephen Philip Jones
- The Independent Spirit: Comic Books Outside the Mainstream by Andy Ritter
- 80–’89: Comics’ Greatest Decade by Ho Che Anderson
- Nexus, Zot!, The Rocketeer, American Flagg & Mr Monster Too! : The Third Way Of The Superhero In The Somewhat Radical 1980s by Colin Smith
- large portions of Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin blog
Some of the publishing houses behind the comics on the list folded after only a few years, while others remain household names associated with creator-owned and alternative comic books to this day. What allowed them to grow and prosper during the 1980s was the expansion of direct market distribution, in which comic book releases were sold exclusively through specialty shops. This opportunity to target the burgeoning comic book fandom composed of more mature readers allowed the companies to introduce countless comic books that were vastly different in form and content from the offerings of the DC-Marvel duopoly.
The writers and artists behind these indie series included both fresh talent (including outsider creators completely isolated from the mainstream comic market) as well as experienced industry veterans who were eager to take advantage of the creative freedom granted to them by small press publishers. Their new wave of comic books had a more personal (or “auterish”) tone and tended to push narrative and visual boundaries. Due to a lack of editorial intervention and internal censorship procedures, these comics frequently featured more mature content. On the one hand, this meant titillating elements of sex, drugs, and gritty violence; on the other hand, indicators of actual maturity appeared, such as deeper character psychology and the introduction of socially conscious or even politically subversive themes. Many artists experimented with ambitious techniques that were far removed from the “four-color” look of mainstream comics.
The 80s indie scene also introduced previously unseen genre diversity. To be sure, some of the series featured superhero stories that competed with DC and Marvel, while others were intended to be critiques and parodies of the superhero archetype. However, a large portion of the offerings represented other popular fiction genres such as fantasy, science fiction, horror, thriller, and mystery. Aside from pulpy adventures, many slice-of-life, autobiographical, or satirical narratives flourished. Some of the titles published during the 1980s boom built on the countercultural and anti-establishment conventions and aesthetics of the earlier wave of “alternative comix.”
Some technical notes on my list selections are in order. I allowed titles that debuted in the 1970s but still thrived for the next decade, as well as those that appeared at the tail end of the 1980s and are commonly regarded as “90s comics”. Despite their cultural significance at the time, I didn’t include any manga translations (such as Lone Wolf and Cub) or reprints of the older material (including Will Eisner’s The Spirit). While Epic Comics, a Marvel imprint, is not technically an independent publisher, it felt wrong to leave it off the list.