Maybe you haven't noticed, but there's currently a bit of a creator exodus going on at the Big Two, with some of the more prominent recent examples being the departures of Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin from Daredevil, which the former specifically explained as a decision based on his desire to "invest in [him]self" by creating work that wasn't owned by a major media conglomerate. In the spirit of Rivera's decision, we've decided to look back at 10 other instances of creators investing in themselves by going the indie route.
Top 10 Instances of Mainstream Creators Going Indie
10. Garth Ennis
I'd say Garth Ennis wasn't meant for the Big Two, but that's not fair– it's more like the Big Two aren't meant for Garth Ennis. Despite how little he cares for superheroes, there's always been a place for him there, writing offbeat superhero-related comics (The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, Hitman) or "mature readers" titles for their adult imprints (Preacher, Hellblazer, Punisher MAX), but increasingly it seemed like he had trouble writing comics for the Big Two — at least at DC Comics, where Ennis and artist Steve Dillon put an end to Preacher when the company censored Glenn Fabry's cover for issue #52 and where DC cancelled Ennis and Darick Robertson's The Boys because it featured superheroes buggering one another. He's doing Fury MAX for Marvel right now so I guess they're cool with him to some extent.
Good thing there are places where Ennis can be Ennis, writing hyperviolent comics for Avatar, World War II comics (and The Boys!) for Dynamite and occasionally putting material out through Image Comics. There's not much for him over at the Big Two, but pretty much every other publisher is willing to have him — provided editorial has a strong stomach.
09. Brian K. Vaughan
As one of the greatest comic writers of his generation, Brian K. Vaughan has carved out an interesting path for himself in the medium. Vaughan got his start in the industry through the "Stan-Hattan Project," a short lived joint venture between Stan "the Man" himself and NYU, which gave young students a rare opportunity to learn about comics writing and potentially break into the field at the same time. Since then, Vaughan has worked for both of The Big Two, developing a handful of new properties for Marvel– like The Hood and The Runaways– and penning one of the most popular titles in the history of DC's Vertigo imprint, Y: The Last Man as well as the critically acclaimed Ex Machina for Wildstorm, yet another DC imprint.
While both of those titles were creator owned, they were created for a mainstream publisher and when Ex Machina wrapped up in 2010, Vaughan was adamant that he would focus on creator owned work from that point forward. Vaughan made good on that promise earlier this year, when he returned to comics with the excellent Image sci-fi/fantasy series Saga, a collaboration between Vaughan and fan favorite artist Fiona Staples. Saga has so far been a major hit for both the publisher and Vaughan, going into multiple printings and receiving widespread critical acclaim, including rave reviews from myself and Danny Djeljosevic, as well as fellow CB staffers Nick Boisson and Keith Silva.
A new Brian K. Vaughan comic was destined to be a hit anywhere, but Vaughan's willingness to uphold his principles and take his work to Image wasn't just bold, but encouraging for other creators who may have been hesitant to leave the relative stability of the Big Two for the independent publishing world.
– Nick Hanover
08. Chris Roberson
There's an overwhelming fear of speaking out in the American comics industry. It's hard to blame a lot of these people, because they're working in a small pond where word will almost certainly travel and everyone working in comics desperately wants to stay employed. But occasionally someone will be honest and forthright, no matter the cost.
Which brings me to Chris Roberson — author, publisher and comics creator who worked on some Fables spinoffs, Superman-related material and his creator-owned iZombie for DC Comics before publicly stating that he couldn't in good conscience work with a publisher that was countersuing the estate of Jerry Siegel or releasing follow-ups to Watchmen without the permission of Alan Moore. The ongoing creator's rights argument seemed to be coming to a head, and finally someone was driven to act ethically.
This ethical action had some fallout — beyond drawing the usual ire from the contingent of "fans" who emphasize the value of character over creator, Roberson found himself fired from DC and his upcoming arc on (ironically) Bill Willingham's creator-owed series Fairest cancelled. It's a risky move, but Roberson is sure to bounce back not only by working with BOOM! Studios and IDW, but also by launching a comics imprint through his own publishing company, MonkeyBrain. Rather than devote himself more potentially lucrative mediums, Roberson is putting his money where his mouth is, and the results should prove to be exciting.
– Danny Djeljosevic
07. Ed Brubaker
Brian K. Vaughan wasn't the first major creator to take his next big project to Image instead of to a Big Two imprint this year. Before Saga debuted, neo-noir genius Ed Brubaker and frequent collaborator Sean Phillips brought their horror noir masterpiece Fatale to the indie kingpin, marking the first time in more than a decade that Brubaker had published a work through an independent rather than at the Big Two.
Brubaker was by no means a stranger to the indie world when Fatale debuted; indeed, the writer got his start in the indie realm with such classic series as Lowlife, originally published by Slave Labor Graphics, and The Fall, which originally ran in Dark Horse Presents before it was collected by Drawn & Quarterly in 2001. But Brubaker had more or less left the indies behind by the late '90s, focusing instead on a handful of series for Vertigo, including the Criminal precursor Scene of the Crime (which is also the beginning of Brubaker and Phillips' long standing creative partnership). Brubaker's work at Vertigo led directly to his classic runs on Catwoman and Gotham Central as well as several other Bat titles, which in turn led to his eventual home at Marvel, for whom he revived the flagging Captain America and helped launch the Icon imprint with his much loved Criminal and Incognito series.
Brubaker has undoubtedly had a mutually beneficial career at Marvel but as Brubaker recently revealed to Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter, the writer is feeling "burned out" on work-for-hire titles and will now be focusing on creator owned work. Brubaker's shift to Image has been seen by many in the field as a major reason why so many other creators are flocking to the company and his outspoken comments in that interview with Spurgeon in regards to Before Watchmen will hopefully similarly inspire others to become more vocal about creator rights.
06. Mike Mignola
Some creators are fine just working on Big Two properties. They grew up reading them and now get to add to the mythology or whatever. Which is cool, I guess. Others, however, get a bit more ambitious and start wanting to do their own thing — like Mike Mignola who, as we all know, is the creator of Hellboy, a modest miniseries that soon became a heavyweight comics franchise with countless sequels, spin-offs and movies — pretty much all quality, too, if you'll believe that. Mignola has become synonymous with Hellboy, so much that any of his work for DC and Marvel have been relegated to footnote status — stuff that he just did before coming up with Hellboy. Mignola is a great example of how the key to comics success isn't just working on Batman or Spider-Man — it's all about coming up with a cool idea and having the talent to make it awesome.
05. Robert Kirkman
Robert Kirkman knows all too well that the key to success "isn't just working on Batman or Spider-Man," as the creator's experiences at Marvel directly led to his decision to focus entirely on creator owned work, specifically through Skybound, the Image imprint he developed in 2010 after he was made a partner at Image in 2008. Kirkman had already established himself with his Image work when he was brought to Marvel in 2004, as both Invincible and his best known series The Walking Dead had begun the year prior, and his Marvel career in contrast wound up marked with extreme highs and lows instead of pushing him towards superstardom, as is usually the case in these situations.
While Kirkman would admittedly find some of his greatest successes at the company, in particular Marvel Zombies, to date the only real competition to Walking Dead in terms of popularity, and his beloved cult series Irredeemable Ant-Man, the bulk of his work at Marvel was erratic at best, populated by mostly forgettable miniseries like Jubilee and Fantastic Four: Foes. Kirkman's career at the publisher was almost the polar opposite of what is commonly seen at the company now with its "architects," and it seems clear that Kirkman grew frustrated with the editorial structure of the company and the lack of authority he had as a writer.
So it came as no surprise when Kirkman used his new partner position at Image to ultimately completely remove himself from the mainstream comics world. And since Kirkman's bread and butter continues to be The Walking Dead, which is now perhaps better known through the record breaking hit AMC show based on the property, it's unlikely that he'll feel the need to ever venture back into those waters. Of course, Kirkman's latter day career hasn't been without issue, as an ongoing lawsuit filed against him by former Walking Dead artist Tony Moore stands out as an unfortunate blemish in his second career as a creator rights' advocate.
04. Mark Millar
It seems like every time Mark Millar ditches a publisher he gains some power. After some minor work (JLA: Paradise Lost), failed pitches (Superman 2000 with Grant Morrison, Tom Peyer and Mark Waid), collaborations with Grant Morrison (Aztek: The Ultimate Man), and botched runs (The Authority, our first true taste of modern Millar), he jumped ship to Marvel Comics, where his work on Civil War and The Ultimates came to define the company's superhero universe, both on page and on screen.
But that wasn't enough for Mark Millar. At the same time, he was cooking up a batch of creator-owned comics under his Millarworld line, including Wanted and Kick-Ass, both of which became movies. And soon enough, Millar decided to bow out of the world of making comics for the Big Two (with the exception of Marvel
9;s creator-owned ICON line) in order to focus on making more stuff for himself, bringing major artists like Leinil Yu, Dave Gibbons and Frank Quitely with him to work on material that they'd own the rights to. Say what you will about the quality of that material, but the guy's making the comics he apparently wants to make on his own terms — all while reaping the benefits.
Let's hope Millar doesn't quit comics, or he'll end up running a country or something.
03. Frank Miller
Before he was a career crazy person, Frank Miller was an early and extremely vocal supporter of creator rights, who ditched DC Comics (and by association Marvel) alongside Marv Wolfman, Howard Chaykin and fellow terrifying facial expression enthusiast Alan Moore after a dispute over a proposed new rating system. Miller's destination after DC and Marvel was Dark Horse, where he would soon reestablish himself as one of the most important figures in the '90s indie world. At Dark Horse, Miller penned some of his most celebrated works, including Sin City, 300, Big Guy and Rusty the Robot (later to become a children's cartoon) and the Martha Washington series. Sin City and 300 in particular would soon establish Miller as a major moneymaker thanks to the film adaptations of both, which Miller had to be strongly convinced to consent to after a stint in Hollywood that left him massively disenfranchised.
Though Miller would eventually return to both DC and Marvel, his time at Dark Horse has arguably been his greatest influence on the comics world, paving the way for creators like Mike Mignola and Eric Powell, who would also find their greatest achievements at Dark Horse with creator owned properties. And he continues to make creator owned works today, with his Holy Terror! standing out as one of the most divisive works to come out last year.
02. Alan Moore
Obviously. Back in the '80s, Alan Moore was hot shit at DC Comics, having made Swamp Thing into a thing people care about, setting the stage for the hiring of UK creators like Grant Morrison and crafting some seriously iconic superhero comics that people are still ripping off today, including Watchmen, a major achievement in the genre if not the medium. However, Moore grew restless as the issue of creator's rights began to surface, which came to a head when DC began releasing Watchmen merchandise deemed "promotional items," seemingly to avoid paying Moore and artist Dave Gibbons.
Finally Moore quit and began to work independently, self-publishing the first two issues of the ambitious Big Numbers and working with Steve Bissette to put out the initial chapters of From Hell before keeping himself employed by working with Image Comics and Awesome Entertainment on such titles as WildC.A.T.S. and Supreme. Soon enough, Moore set up his own imprint through Wildstorm, America's Best Comics.
Eventually, DC purchased Wildstorm and Moore began to experience editorial meddling with his work, forcing him to once again quit working with the company in favor of putting out his third volume of League of Extraordinary Gentleman through Knockabout and Top Shelf, and having the odd work come out through Avatar. He's not only produced some of the greatest works in comics; he's also mighty principled.
01. The Image Six(ish)
It's no exaggeration to say that Image Comics is the biggest creator success in comics history. The company, which is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, owes its entire existence to the mistreatment of creators by the Big Two, specifically Marvel. In 1992, a group of Marvel writers and artists which included Todd MacFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Chris Claremont, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio decided to strike out on their own and form an independent comics publisher after their problems with Marvel reached a climax. Though Claremont and Portacio would leave for different reasons before Image was firmly established, the other six creators each developed their own imprints to oversee at the company and set about establishing their own style and aesthetic.
Image's early years may have symbolized plenty of what was wrong with the speculator era, from the nonstop knock-offs of other comic properties to the overwhelming "XTREME!!!"-ness of the material, but in the last decade, Image has truly stood out as the home to some of the bravest, most innovative material in the medium. The last half decade, in which current publisher Eric Stephenson replaced Erik Larsen, have been particularly fruitful for the company, as a near constant stream of the best and brightest in comics have flocked to the publisher, including the aforementioned Ed Brubaker and Brian K. Vaughan as well as Grant Morrison. Image has also become a talent farm of sorts for the Big Two, housing key Big Two figures like Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman at early points in their careers.
In many ways, the 2010's have been the decade of Image, as its material has set the bar for what pop comics are capable of and its very mission statement– fair rights for creators– has become the most important issue in the medium. Those looking to predict the future of comics on the whole would be wise to look towards the publisher, and everyone who loves the artform are already looking towards it to see who's worth keeping an eye on.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine,with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover