Happy Independent Comic Book Day

This impending day of American independence from the filthy British, (can’t imagine why anyone would want that *ahem*) has gotten me thinking about the independent comics that I’ve enjoyed over the years. While at heart I’ll always love reading superhero comics about things exploding and big fights (the simple pleasures), in the end it’s about quality, and who cares who publishes it? I noticed a while back that people talk about favoring DC over Marvel, but I honestly don’t pay any attention to who’s under what banner and just read what I enjoy. And I like a little bit of everything. In honor of our own independence day, here are a few independent comic books which stand out as landmark books in my life:

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (by Gilbert Shelton)
This is probably the first independent comic that I read. I was about 7 or 8 years old and my dad was reading these. He knew that I loved comics, so he carefully and sensibly explained to me that there were comics for grownups and that I wasn’t allowed to read them. Then he fell asleep for the rest of the afternoon. I immediately read them. The drug and sex references went right over my head, but I thought the messy, disorganized, confused adventures the brothers went on were pretty funny. I liked the scratchy little drawings and the weird little skinny cat that Fat Freddy owned (especially when it bothered Freddy in some way.)

Love & Rockets (by Jaime, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez)
At around 14 years old, this was the first comic discovery that I made in an actual comic shop. I felt very daring picking up a comic that wasn’t quite the same as any other I’d seen, but I gave it a go. I gravitated to the book immediately, and loved the clean lines, sparse storytelling style, and erratic subject matter. The rich well of female characters didn’t hurt either, and the wild range of plot lines gave me plenty to think about that was far outside of my urban little London life.

Lone Wolf and Cub (by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima)
Back when I was about 17, I helped my local comic shop out by working their stall at a teeny little comic convention. A rival comic store assistant came over to our stall to crow about the cut price copies of Lone Wolf & Cub that he’d found. I hadn’t heard of it, and in the immortal style of fanboys the world over, he bluntly explained how stupid I was and told me that I had to pick it up. Turned out he was right, it’s a must-read. It was perfect for me, as an angry, rebellious, outsider of a teenager. Reading about this lone warrior, following his own path made me feel that I had a path to find and follow, that I would one day know my own truth and be able to follow it.

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright
(by Bryan Talbot)
Very late to this party, this had been out for while and everyone I met  who read comics in London seemed to read 2000AD, so everyone but me knew about Bryan Talbot. I wasn’t a 2000AD fan, was never a huge fan of the British comics (I was prejudiced against my own kind. In retrospect it’s ridiculous, but I was young and narrow minded.) Thus I came to this comic with fresh eyes, no idea who Talbot was, with his obsessive attention to detail in every frame of the comic, and his beautifully articulated vitriol against the British aristocracy and all it’s great follies. This imagined alternate reality merged history, magic, and science perfectly into one incredible tale of hysterical madness and fury.

Hate (by Peter Bagge)
When I arrived in San Francisco, I picked up some familiar titles that I’d already been reading in London, just keeping the old habit going. Then I stumbled on an incredibly smelly, dirty, dark, little comic shop, one where the owner was so stinky, angry, old, and reprehensible that no one wanted to shop there (years later, when he died, the store died too). Anyway, at the time, this meant that he had a fantastic array of back-issues of comics that he was trying to sell from this dank, dark little hole of a shop. One of the things that I discovered in rummaging through his shelves was Peter Bagge’s Hate. Here was someone a xenophobic and dysfunctional as I was, or at least as I felt I was. It was fun to see all that expressed by someone who wasn’t me, who reveled in it so completely.

From Hell (by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell)
This was another one that I eased into like a too-hot bath. I found one or two odd issues after the run was over and picked them up purely out of a sense of bizarre loyalty to Alan Moore. The whole idea of a Jack the Ripper book was pretty much anathema to me, but Moore used this nasty bit of London lore to weave a strange retelling of history, politics, and the mores of the time. At first Eddie Campbell’s spidery drawings freaked me out, but I soon saw that his scratchy drawings fit the era and subject matter perfectly, and gave the whole thing the gravitas it needed. Before long the compilation came out and I was able to read the whole thing in one disturbingly long sitting.

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (originally published in Eightball, by Daniel Clowes)
For years I was self-employed. This meant that I could legitimately take a day off to wander around second-hand book shops of San Francisco and call it necessary research. Sometimes I’d find a fantastic old design book, and sometimes a science fiction tome. Once in a while I’d stumble upon a really interesting graphic novel. Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron was one of these. In the past I’d picked up the odd copy of Eightball, but I’d never read an entire story run. For my money, this is one of his strangest and still my favorite. Entire chunks of it seem to come directly from an insane subconscious, all filters removed, and I have to say, it encapsulated that strange time for me, and how much cooler and stranger everyone in San Francisco seemed to me.

Optic Nerve (by Adrian Tomine)
Optic Nerve piqued my interest as soon as I first saw it. If I hadn’t liked the drawing style (I did), I’d still have picked it up for a look because of the high production values. At the time when I started reading it, I was really missing print design, and how much more satisfying it can be than online design. It’s just nice to have a well-designed thing in your hand, existing on the same plane of reality as us, you know? So yes, these comics, printed on nice heavy paper, with an uncoated, heavy coverstock used for the covers, were really appealing. I liked the clean lines of his drawings, and then upon further reading, came to enjoy the disturbingly mellow, invasive looks into these people’s messed up lives. Their inability to relate to each in a healthy way was entertaining.

There are so many more independent comics that I’ve enjoyed (and loads more that I’ve missed), this is just a small selection of seminal works that impacted my life. But none of these would have crossed my path if not for the recommendations of friends, family and coworkers… they just don’t have the high profile of all those sexy capes that dominate the American market. So if there’s an independent comic that you absolutely love, let us know, because there sure as hell isn’t going to be a massive ad campaign pushing it down anyone’s throat anytime soon, and in this instance your recommendation is probably going to be what gets us all reading something new.

Sonia Harris is a Londoner, living and works in San Francisco. Ever since she can remember, she’s been independent, (stupidly so at times). As a result, she really appreciates this holiday, even if she doesn’t really understand it. You can explain it to her at sonia@ifanboy.com.


  1. I have never read any of these (not even From Hell).  I’m embarassed.  I simply wasn’t aware of the quality and variation in perspective that indie comics could provide until I started visiting this site.  I plan on correcting this problem as soon as possible.  Now I just need to decide where to start…


  2. I’m pretty sure that panel is from Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine not Optic Nerve.

  3. Love Optic nerve. Tomine’s art is wonderful and his stories are intriguing to say the least.

    Never read the others.

    @GothamCentral – I’ve never read Shortcomings…is it good? Also that panel feels familiar so I think its from ON…issue 6 maybe?

  4. Looks like we are both right. Shortcomings is a hardcover that was originally printed in Optic Nerve. The only Tomine i’ve read is Shortcomings so I was unaware it was originally in comic form.

  5. This article is complete indie bollocks.

  6. Yes! I LOVE Optic Nerve. Glad to see it get some recognition here. I just wish the damned book came out… ever. I think I’ve been buying Optic Nerve in single issues since the early 90’s, and that amounts to… like, 6 issues? 😉

  7. @stuclach: Ones I didn’t have room for were pretty much everything by Robert Crumb (again, another one I used to steal from my dad’s collection), "Naughty Bits" by Roberta Gregory, "Why I Hate Saturn" by Kyle Baker (now published by DC I believe), "Madman" by Mike and Laura Allred, "Cerebus" by Dave Sim and Gerhard, "Plastic Forks" by Ted McKeever, "Grendel" by Matt Wagner… there are more, but I those were the ones that popped into my head. I didn’t even know they were considered independent when I picked them up, I just like them. Now I see that it’s hard to uncover these things and so I figure we can all help out by talking about the good stuff (I find this site so damn useful).

    For all you Optic Nerve fans: A lot of it’s complied in books ("Summer Blonde", "Shortcomings", etc), so if you missed the comics, you can find the stories there.

  8. nice choices Sonia. One of my favourite books ever is Charles Burns’ "Black Hole"…it wasn’t self published but I think it still counts as independent? It absolutely floored me when I first read it,the art is jaw dropping and the story is equally as good.I’ve read it every few months for years and I still read it nice and slow studying the images.There is something reminiscent of Escher in his style,but I think its more to do with the blocks of black and white evoking intaglio printmaking effects rather than any overt influence.

  9. From Hell took a hell of a long time for me to get through.

  10. @daccampo – Agreed. To my knowledge there are 8. I had to find 1-7 at Midtown Comics b/c my store only bought a few copies and I jumped on at 8. But I haven’t seen a new one since and that was a year ago.

  11. Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers! Yeah, I uncoverd a box of those in my parents’ attic when I was like 11, and eager to read ANY comic. There were a bunch of R. Crumb in there too. Yeah…I spent like ten minutes looking through them, being confused, then I started to feel dirty and scurried away in disgust… I didn’t mention it to my parents. Then when I turned like 14 I stole them all and read them cover to cover.

  12. I don’t understand how you could read From Hell in one sitting. I had to force myself to finish it, and really, that should’ve been a sign to toss the book.

  13. Here’s a bet:

    Try to read From Hell in one straight read. That includes the extra material in the back.

    Me and Sonia was able to do it! Why cant you?

    @sonia: You couldnt sleep that night after reading it could you? 🙂

  14. @TNC: That extra stuff in the back took me about a week. I’m not superpowered!

  15. Luther Arkwright is gorgeous and insane. Totally recommended

  16. About time someone mentioned Hate. Peter Bagge is awesome! Apocalypse Nerd anyone?? Gotta read Buddy Does Seattle.

  17. @soniaharris: You should check out Tomine’s recently reissued 32 Stories–it’s a boxed set reproduction of the individual mini comics that he self-published while still in high school/college.  If you think Tomine’s other stuff is well produced, you’d love this.  They even go to the effort of reproducing the paper stock used for each of the original mini comics.  It’s also amazing to watch him mature so quickly in both art and storytelling over the span of seven comics.

  18. @turaho – dammit, I have the earlier collection of those stories, but your description of the box set makes me want to own THAT now too!

  19. @Sonia – Thank you for the list.  I have read some of Wagner’s Grendel and enjoyed it.  I will read these as fast as my library can get them for me (they love me, so I get interlibrary loans and purchases in less than a week).

  20. Has anyone ever read Requiem from heavy metal?

  21. What, no Cerebus? 

    And does Mouse Guard count?

    And no TMNT?

    Or Blankets? Maus? Palestine? Persepolis? Cages? Concrete? Glamourpuss? Bone? Knockabout anthologies? Max Zillion? Grendel as well mentioned too. How about Asterix too? Matalzoic was a corker as was the Maxx which had an indie sensibility under the Image monicker. Camelot 3000? How indie is indie: The Spirit should be in with a shout?

    I do sort of kind of agree with the ones on the list (haven’t read Optic or Velvet Glove and Freak Bros never really captured my attention for some reason) and tend to come at comics from an art perspective rather than for the story but no mention of Cerebus at all makes me sad. He and TMNT were my first forays into indie comics once I’d moved out of the shadow of Tharg and Cerebus, love or hate Sim, is a powerful and artistically beautiful work.


  22. ((ooops just read Sonia’s first reply. Still Cerebus is king.))


    Plastic Forks was ace, yup, which reminds me that Eddy Current and Metropol were fabbo too. And Stray Toasters and …. mental blank, what was the Alan Moore/Siekiewicz collab about the FBI/CIA/CUba stuff? I want to say A Simple Truth but it’s not that. Bill’s an awesome artist.

    Also: A Small Killing. Hmmm.. problem is now I’m tired and sleepy but want to read comics 🙂 

  23. @peekay – CAGES! Yes, that was definitely an indie that’s near and dear to my heart. I need to buy a collected edition of that series and re-read it. I remember buying all of those books and trying to figure out just how to fit them into my longboxes…

  24. @peekay: Yeah, good list. Everyone and their mum should read "Blankets", "Maus", "Persepolis" and "Concrete"! Can’t believe I forgot them. I liked a lot "Maxx" too, and for some reason haven’t yet read the others. I wanted to mention Stray Toasters, but apparently it wasn’t an independently published book (even if it felt like it). I think maybe the Moore and Sienckiewicz book you’re talking about is "Brought to Light", which I very much enjoyed… God, there is SO MUCH good stuff out there.

  25. Completely incidentally I bought Luther Arkwright today, really looking forward to it (and have a few months old copy of Lone Wolf & Cub I haven’t read yet).

  26. Lone Wolf and Cub is great.

  27. Furry Freak Brothers were so awesome that the excellent band Pop Will Eat Itself included reference to them (along with Watchmen, Optimus Prime, The Warriors and other geeky stuff – Alan Moore is referenced by name) in their single "Can U Dig It?"

    God damn I feel old.

  28. Bendis’s indy stuff is overshadowed by his Marvel stuff but really it’s much, much better.  Encourage everyone to check out Goldfish, Jinx, Torso, and Fortune and Glory.

    The mid 80s black-and-white explosion was a fun time time to be reading comics.  Most of it was crap but there was a lot of worthwhile stuff.  Three of my favorite from that time were a sword-and-sorcery book called The Realm, a zombie book called Deadworld, and a book about a Wolverine rip-off called Grips.

  29. @Sonia: Yup Brought to Light. Nice one that’d been bugging me all night.

  30. @cromulent and @MacAoidh: There’s a follow up called "Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright". It’s bloody good, and in color too.