Marvel is starting its big company-wide crossover, Avengers vs. X-Men that will take up the summer in a slew of tie-ins. And, on top of that, some of the biggest comic book movies in recent memory come out this summer.
Despite all this, it’s the independent, creator-owned comic books that might be the best part of 2012. Some of the best creators in comics are releasing their own original series in the next few months that look to be among the most enticing books on the market.
But what’s so special about creator-owned books? It’s partly the fact that for decades, they didn’t really exist. When comics took off in the 1930s, writers and artists were usually doing two things: selling creative rights to comic book companies — like what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did with Superman — or working on pre-existing characters.
By the 1990s, however, many creators wanted a change. Comics were becoming more experimental and branching out into different areas as unpopular genres like horror re-emerged. The biggest shift came when a group of very popular creators left Marvel in 1991 to found Image Comics the next year.
Image was a company dedicated to protecting creators’ rights and not interfering editorially, helping to kick off a boom in creator-owned titles. Granted, it was the early 1990s and over-the-top, grim and gritty art was fueling a speculator’s market, leading to poorly reviewed books and a market crash.
But Image and other companies moved forth and fostered a shift as creator-owned titles gained prominence. During the 1990s, series such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Kurt Busiek’s Astro City launched, and new creators found outlets in places like Dark Horse Comics or IDW Publishing. These new series touched on every genre and were genre-busting as well. It was a great period for original ideas, which helped revitalize the comic book industry at the turn of the century.
In a way, that’s the beauty of creator-owned works. They can be sprawling epics like Robert Kirkman’s superhero saga Invincible told over dozens of issues, or they can be more intimate miniseries like Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s Local. These series are essentially blank slates upon which the creators can build intricate, odd and unique worlds.
Playing in the larger sandbox with shared universes or licensed properties can be fun, but there’s something about seeing a creator uninhibited by restraints that makes these titles so interesting. These are the pet projects they’ve been planning for a long time, and the end result is usually enticing.
So what makes 2012 such a great year for creator-owned comics?
Some of the best writers and artists in comics are teaming up for new, creator-owned titles.
Grant Morrison, the mad genius behind The Invisibles and All-Star Superman is launching Happy! at Image at the end of the year. No details are known, but he is working with artist Darick Robertson, who illustrated Warren Ellis’s gonzo journalism epic Transmetropolitan.
Meanwhile, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are in the middle of their new series, Fatale. The duo, which has alternated working on the noir-filled Criminal and pulp superhero series Incognito, are mashing up demonic horror with gritty crime. So far it’s a great series that plays to the creators’ strength while adding a creepy twist.
And Nathan Edmonson announced Where is Jake Ellis?, the sequel to his Mediterranean-trotting spy thriller Who is Jake Ellis. And Brian K. Vaughan, writer of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, returned to comics after a year long hiatus with a sci-fi fantasy series Saga, an ongoing epic that manages to mix high concept with great character drama.
On top of that, Dark Horse has its Dark Horse Presents title, a revived anthology that gives creators opportunities to try out stories that don’t yet have their own title.
The pulp-loving Francesco Francavilla is serializing a Black Beetle — the writer-artist’s new pet project — story in the magazine, and Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson wrapped up their prologue to The Massive, a new series launching this summer.
It’s Wood’s thematic followup to his high concept, urban-focused war series DMZ and will definitely be one of the best books this year.
Creator-owned series not only protect the works of writers and artists, but give them more room to tell their own stories. And 2012 looks to be a year full of new ideas.
It’s not just a good year for comic creators, it’s a good year for readers.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” runs Thursdays.