A couple of weeks ago, Danny and Nick gave you a rundown of some of the most important current creators who have chosen to create their own success and run their own lives by going indie, leaving the safe bases of Marvel and DC behind to strike their own path. It’s a tremendously brave decision for these talented men and women to take a risk and allow themselves to walk a different path, and all of us here at Comics Bulletin solute them for their courage.
But comics history is littered with the names of giants in this industry who worked often to create their own paths and take major chances — and, as the some of first to take those chances, really did endanger their careers. Here are ten classic creators who jumped away from the Big Two and took chances at a time that chances really did have consequences.
As always, I’m sure that I’m forgetting a few major creators in this list, and as always please let us know who should be on the list.
10. “The Studio” (Barry Windsor-Smith, Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones and Michael Kaluta)
In the early 1970s it was hard to find a group of creators who were more popular in the fan press than the illustrative quartet of Windsor-Smith, Wrightson, Jones and Kaluta. Those four artists were the exemplars of a sensuous, beautiful, highly illustrative style that stood in dramatic contrast with the work that creators like Jack Kirby were creating. Where Kirby, John Buscema, Don Heck and their ilk were presenting intense and thrilling unsubtle drama, the quality quartet created slower, more illustrative and more contemplative work on series like Swamp Thing, Conan and The Shadow.
But comics were a small pond and these were tremendously talented creators. So the four men all slowly migrated away from comics, choosing instead to follow their own muses by creating fine art prints, portfolios and other single image works that really suited their skills well.
While all four men eventually found their way back to mainstream comics, their maverick natures set the standard for creators finding their own happiness.
9. Will Eisner
The great cartoonist Will Eisner is also one of the comics industries smartest businessmen. For all his artistic brilliance — and Eisner was a breathtakingly great cartoonist when he was on his game — Will Eisner was always smartest at the most important job of all — putting food on the table of his young family.
So Eisner was one of the first men to come up with the idea of creating a “shop”, or studio, where an assembly line of young creators would assemble to put together comic books during the boomtime era of the industry. Later Eisner would create the first newspaper comics insert, The Spirit, and be smart enough to own his own copyright for his work — a decision that would allow him the freedom to both earn good money and pursue artistic success. He then threw that mainstream success away to seek his fortune making user guides for Army maintenance and other such clients, In other words, he had one of the most unorthodox careers in comics history.
That was Eisner in a nutshell — always going his own way, running his own world and never being part of the mainstream like many other creators.
8. Jim Steranko
Steranko was the other great maverick cartoonist of the 1970s, arriving and leaving the industry like a metaphorical comet carrying in his tail a small but tremendously influential body of work.
After creating a mere handful of comics stories, and a tantalizing dozen or two covers, Steranko left the comics industry to follow other pursuits — he always had other pursuits — but one of his favorite of his early pursuits was the newspaper cum magazine that was alternatively called Comixscene, Mediascene and Prevue. Yes, Steranko basically left comics and then took on a new job of basically covering the industry as a way of making more money. How’s that for a change in the world between the ’70s and today? But Steranko made a great run on his mags. They lasted oven ten years, sold lots of copies and, most of all, allowed Steranko the kind of freedom that he couldn’t get at Marvel.
Steranko also self-published one of the finest early histories of comics and created one of the first extremely innovative graphic novels with the noir Red Tide. He truly has a long independent legacy.
The world may never know the greatness that Steranko might have created if he’d stayed in the comics industry, but at least he was happy to follow his own dreams.
7. Steve Ditko
The co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange is one of the comics industry’s great mavericks and most thoroughly independent thinkers. Steve Ditko is an uncompromising man, always willing to throw away financial security for the most more important virtue (at least for him) of complete artistic freedom.
And so, for reasons that are still being hotly debated over 45 years after they happened, Ditko walked away from the wild success he had with Spider-Man to work for comics’ smallest and poorest-paying publisher, Charlton Comics. There’s a rumor that Charlton was owned by the Mob, but the crime families left Ditko alone to create some surprisingly great comics.
o went back to the Big Two off and on over the years, it was clear that his heart was with Charlton, providing great work for one of the most indie comics publishers of all time.
6. Steve Gerber
Sigh, Steve Gerber. Anybody who’s ever read my name associated with this website knows my intense appreciation for this man and his amazing, astonishing, groundbreaking work in the comics industry. And one of the reasons I love Gerber so much is that he was a true maverick.
Gerber had an indie sensibility even when he was working for Marvel and DC. His superhero comics of the 1970s had kind of an indie film sensibility crossed with a Stan Lee pseudo-hipster feel that helped to produce some of the most memorable comics of their era, including a famous web-footed creature named Howard the Duck.
Howard was Gerber’s most important creation because he was the cause of a whole slew of events that changed the writers life. Howard’s popularity with smart comics fans and even those who didn’t read comics led to Gerber gaining popularity and ultimately to a long and drawn-out lawsuit in which the Duck’s creator sued to gain ownership of the character that he created on his own.
To support the lawsuit, Gerber and Jack Kirby created a memorable new duck — Destroyer Duck — whose goal in life was fighting mindless, unfeeling corporations and bringing happiness to the little man. While Gerber ultimately lost his suit, the suit and its ramifications would be felt for years. In some ways Gerber was the cultural godfather of the Image Comics creators, showing it was better to live up to your morals than to compromise with the pricks.
5. Neal Adams
Neal Adams was the kind of creator that the mainstream comics industry of the late ’60s and early ’70s both loved and hated: he was a maverick who made his deadlines, a rabble-rouser who cared about his assignments, and a professional who tried to create a labor union for comics creators.
More than anything, though, Adams was a man who was happy to earn his money at whatever place would pay him. He followed his visions of freedom by creating work for advertisements, for National Lampoon (which was extremely influential in the early ’70s), for off-Broadway shows.
More that anything, Adams showed that a man with a completely independent mindset was the type of person would do best in comics and outside of comics. He only pretended to be a comics insider; in his heart, Neal Adams in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was creating great work that made himself happy.
4. Don McGregor
Comics Bulletin‘s own Don McGregor is another creator who was never quite content inside the confining walls of the House of Ideas. McGregor had a maverick career at Marvel, with much of his greatest work there happening in titles that were emotionally and physically separated from the rest of the Marvel Universe — Killraven in the future, Black Panther in the jungle.
But even that level of separation wasn’t enough for McGregor, who was always questing to create something more personal. Even while working at Marvel, McGregor published two novels away from the company — Dragonflame and The Variable Syndrome.
But McGregor made his biggest splash with a book that was one of the first American independent graphic novels, the precedent-shattering Sabre.
Sabre represented everything that McGregor felt was real and important, but could never fit inside a mainstream comic book. The lead character was a black man who was complex and thoughtful and fell in love with a white woman — an enormous taboo when the book was published in the late 1970s. The world McGregor created was bizarre and fascinating, and the supporting characters spanned many comics taboos and shattered many unwritten rules of the comics industry.
Most of all, Sabre helped to launch one of the most important publishers of the 1980s, Eclipse Comics. Yeah, the former Marvel staffer was important in launching one of their fiercest competitors. You can’t get much more indie than that.
3. Gil Kane
One of the most dynamic artists in the history of comics was never quite totally happy working in mainstream American comics. Gil Kane may be well known for his often brilliant work reviving the Atom and Green Lantern in the 1960s, but he was also desperately unhappy working as a wage-slave for Julius Schwartz at DC Comics.
So the brilliant Kane decided to go his own way, first in 1968 with the intensely violent spy thriller His Name Is Savage and later in 1971 with the barbarian-in-space yarn Blackmark.
Both books were dramatic attempts to expand the comics industry beyond Marvel and DC, and prove that adults could enjoy adult stories about complex and intense lead characters. But both books, tragically, would be abject failures. Kane was forced to put his tail between his legs and return to Marvel and DC for a paycheck. But he made a sincere attempt to provide a clear alternative to the Big Two at a time when the companies were perhaps their strongest.
2. Jack Kirby
Of course we associate Jack Kirby with the Marvel Age that began with Fantastic Four #1 and may have ended when he left the company ten years later with Fantastic Four #102.
But long before his time at Marvel, Kirby and his partner Joe Simon were entrepreneurs and innovators. They broke away from their early work at Marvel (then Ti
mely) where the pair co-created Captain America and from DC where the team worked on some of DC’s most popular heroes. Where did they go? They created their own entire comics company — and even created a whole new genre of comics.
Before S&K there was no such thing as romance comics; after their Young Romance premiered the genre was inescapable. And they published those comics themselves for a dozen years under the Crestwood Publications banner. Several years later, S&K also opened the doors at Mainline Comics, where they self-published some of the greatest Western comics ever, as well as crime and romance comics.
Kirby would end up doing much of his work, to great acclaim, at Marvel and DC between the late ’50s and late ’70s. But before that, Kirby had turned his back on mainstream success to pursue his own professional dreams.
1. Mike Friedrich
Who? I see you ask. You’ve head of Steranko and Adams and you definitely know who Jack Kirby was. But how can a man who’s virtually forgotten by the average fan be the man who tops this list? Simple: he deserves it.
For about ten years Mike Friedrich was a nice, dependable, midline comics writer. He worked for both Marvel and DC, writing material like Robin back-up stories and issues of Detective Comics, Teen Titans, Captain Marvel and three-year run on Iron Man. His work was seldom brilliant but it was dependable, professional and quite entertaining.
But Friedrich had ambitions beyond writing issues of Justice League of America. He dreamed of being a publisher -but a publisher not just of decent comics but genuinely interesting and innovative comics. He created a small company called Star*Reach in 1974, with an important eponymous main series.
Star*Reach was a tremendously important comic, presenting completely independent, creator-owned work by many of the industry’s big names of the time, including Dick Giordano, Jim Starlin and, perhaps most famously, Howard Chaykin. Star*Reach was an anthology comic (and later line of comics) devoted to the then radical idea that creators would do their finest work away from the meddling minds of the editors at Marvel and DC. There was no name for what Star*Reach was at the time — it was, rather clumsily, called a ground-level comic in contrast to the underground world of people like Robert Crumb — but looking back at the series now, there’s no question that it was one of the most innovative and important indie comics of all time.