Aircel Comics (1985-1994) - Aircel started as an independent publisher and was bought by Malibu's Eternity imprint in 1988. Aircel started out publishing the popular American-manga style comics Elflord, Dragonring, & Samurai and would expand to many other series including the original Walking Dead zombie series (long before the Robert Kirkman series of the same name) and a number of other black & white comics. Aircel's biggest claim to fame was in publishing the original comic series Men In Black that would spawn a highly successful movie trilogy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. By 1989 the Aircel imprint was chiefly used for publishing Malibu's 'erotic' comics series.
Eternity Comics (1986-1994) - Eternity started as an independent publisher financed by the same person who financed Malibu. It was merged with Malibu as a publishing imprint in April 1987. Popular Eternity titles included Ex-Mutants, an adaption of the manga Captain Harlock (which was published until Eternity realized they didn't actually have the rights to the character), and a very successful series of Robotech comics published as Robotech II: The Sentinels. After the buyout by Malibu, a number of popular titles were published under the Eternity logo including Dinosaurs for Hire and Scimidar.
Malibu Comics (1986-1997) also known as Malibu Graphics, was a key player during the "black & white boom" of the late 1980's publishing a number of titles that received a lot of critical acclaim in comics fandom with solid storytelling and art. Malibu used their main Malibu logo for a number of titles, including super-heroes like The Protectors and a number of characters spun out from that team (The Ferret, Gravestone, Man of War; aka Genesis Universe titles) as well as the popular spy spoof The Trouble With Girls and licensed titles such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Over their life they also published comics under a number of other imprints including Aircel and Eternity (both of which ceased publication as a result of the direct market crash in 1994).
Dark Horse Comics (1986-present)
Dark horse was founded with the concept of creating an ideal atmosphere for creators. Their first publication was an anthology comic, Dark Horse Presents, that ultimately ran for 157 issues, ending in 2000, but was revived in 2011 (and again in 2014). Within a year of that first issue of Dark Horse Presents, Dark Horse had expanded its line to over 10 titles. Over the years they would being translations of Manga to American audiences, present many creator owned series (like Frank Miller's Sin City) and also run many licensed series like Star Wars, Terminator, Aliens, and Predator. One of the most successful publishers of its era, Dark Horse still operates today and is one of the Top 5 publishers in comics.
VIZ Comics (1987-present)
Viz started out publishing Japanese Manga in comic book format for the American market. These conformed to the standard left to right reading format and size of US comics, so the art had to be "flipped" from the Japanese right to left format. After the first few years, they abandoned the comic book format and switch to the Japanese tankobon 'graphic novel' formal that were thicker and could be shelved at bookstores, which ultimately led to a manga 'boom' in the US in the 2000s as many more people were exposed to and bought the volumes in bookstores. Viz continues to publish translations of Japanese manga to this day, occasionally breaking into the top of the sales charts.
Innovation Publishing (1988-1994)
Innovation was one of the earliest comic companies to specialize in 'licensed' comics, tie-ins to popular media properties. This helped them, at one point, to rank #4 in comic book market share. They had series based on TV shows like Beauty and the Beast, Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, and Quantum Leap; novels by authors like Anne Rice and Piers Anthony; and movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play and Psycho. They also had a number of original series and put out some really great comics, but were a casualty of the 1994 Direct Market crash.
Tundra Publishing (1990-1993)
Tundra was founded by Kevin Eastman to provide a venue for progressive creator-owned comics by well-regarded creators in a format with high production values, including nice paper stock and square binding. Notable works include Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Dave McKean's Cages, Steve Bissette's Taboo, and Rick Vietch's Maximortal. Unfortunately short-lived, they managed to put out a lot of high quality comics during their short lifespan.
Renegade Press (1984-1988) spun off from Aardvark-Vanaheim when publisher Deni Loubert divorced Dave Sim. A-V kept Cerebus but the other titles, most notably Flaming Carrot Comics (with #6), Neil the Horse (with #11), Ms. Tree (with #19), and normalman (with #9) all followed Loubert to Renegade. Renegade's first original works were Gene Day's Black Zeppelin (Apr 1985) and Valentino (Apr 1985). They went on to publish a number of other series, including Wordsmith (Aug 1986) and Eternity Smith (Sep 1986) but were plagued by low sales and put out their last comics in 1988.
Antarctic Press (1985-present) started with Mangazine (Aug 1985) and pioneered a style that Antarctic refers to as 'American Manga', which are really just American comics that are heavily influenced by Japanese manga art style and some story themes, though produced in standard American comic book format and reading left to right. This is very different from Japanese manga translated into English and published for an American audience, which would be coming in a few years. Antarctic's longest running title was Ninja High School (Jan 1987) that would ultimately run 195 issues in addition to a number of spin-offs and specials. It's interesting to note that NHS switched to Eternity Comics (an imprint of Malibu) for issues #5-39. Mangazine would return for volume 2 (Jan 1989) and help get Antarctic back on a regular publishing schedule.
NOW Comics (1985-1994) was founded by Tony Caputo and published primarily licensed comics material like Fright Night, The Green Hornet, Married...With Children, Speed Racer, The Terminator, Twilight Zone. It went out of business as a result of the direct market crash in 1994.
Apple Comics (1986-1994) spun off from WaRP Graphics and was most notable for publishing Don Lomax's Vietnam Journal war comics, a number of other titles such as Blood of Dracula, The Miracle Squad, and Vox, Fish Police (which they picked up from Comico with #18), as well as FantaSCI and MythAdventures which they inherited from WaRP.
1979 brought us The Flaming Carrot, with an origin of "Having read 5,000 comics in a single sitting to win a bet, this poor man suffered brain damage and appeared directly thereafter as — the Flaming Carrot!" The Carrot first appeared in Visions #1, finally starring in his own on-shot comic in 1981. 1981 also brought us an independent series from Jack Kirby, the "King of Comics". It is somewhat appropriate that a man who was a key creator in the Golden Age of Comics, co-creating Captain America in 1940 with Joe Simon, and who heralded the arrival of the Silver Age by co-creating the majority of the Marvel Universe with Stan Lee, was there at the birth of Indie comics with his creation Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers in November 1981.
There was an explosion of independent publishing from that point on, with a number of publishers coming into existence and putting out a tremendous variety of comics throughout the 1980s. Some were around for a limited time, others are still publishing comics today.
Additionally, the birth of independent comics would not have been the same without the inadvertent assistance received from Marvel Comics via their Epic imprint in 1982. Seeing the growing popularity of companies like Eclipse and Pacific, Marvel spun up a line of very different comics featuring a creative alternative to their standard super-hero fare and offering a large degree of creative freedom and also allowing creators to retain ownership of their properties. There were a lot of fans who would not have otherwise tried out these very different (from standard super-heroes) comics, but since they were from an imprint of Marvel, try them they did. Many fans had their horizons expanded and they would ultimately find themselves open to trying comics from a number of other independent publishers.
In November 1988 a number of independent comic book writer and artists got together and drafted a Creator's Bill of Rights, designed to give creators proper credit for their characters and stories, profit sharing, fairer contracts, return of original art, among other things. Comics were maturing due to the work of many hard working and imaginative creators who wanted fair treatment and compensation for the compensations they were making to the industry. This movement would go on to make lasting changes and paved the way for a more creator-friendly comics industry.
The key publishers (along with a few of their notable series) that came onto the scene during the period from 1978-1992 were:
Aardvark-Vanaheim (1977-present) publishing it's flagship title Cerebus as well as initiating titles such as Neil The Horse (Feb 1983), Journey (Mar 1983), normalman (Jan 1984), and Puma Blues (Jul 1986).
WaRP Graphics (1977-2010) an acronym for Wendy and Richard Pini, was founded primarily as a mechanism to publish the Pini's Elfquest (Apr 1978) after its debut in Fantasy Quarterly. They would later publish non-Elfquest series including Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil (Dec 1983) and MythAdventrues (Mar 1984) based on the successful fantasy novel series by Robert Lynn Asprin.
Eclipse Comics (1978-1993) who published Sabre as a Graphic Novel in 1978 and expanded their publishing lineup with such notables as Destroyer Duck (May 1982) which featured the 1st appearance of Sergio Aragonés' creation Groo the Wanderer, Ms. Tree (Feb 1983), DNAgents (Mar 1983), Somerset Holmes (Sep 1983), Aztec Ace (Mar 1984), Doc Stearn...Mr. Monster (Jan 1985), Miracleman (Aug 1985) a highly acclaimed reworking of the 1950s British character Marvelman (himself a thinly veiled reworking of Fawcett's Captain Marvel), Scout (Sep 1985), and Airboy (Jul 1986) another revival of a character from the 1950's.
Vortex Comics (1982-1994) started with the self-titled anthology series Vortex (Nov 1982) and followed that in 1984 with new titles Stig's Inferno (early 1984) and Mister X (Jun 1984). Other notable series were Matt Howarth's Those Annoying Post Bros. (Jan 1985) and Chester Brown's Yummy Fur (Dec 1986). It went out of business as a result of the direct market crash in 1994.
First Comics (1983-1991) started out with the Warp (Mar 1983) based on the 1971 original sci-fi play Warp! produced in Chicago that moved to Broadway in 1973. This was soon followed by E-Man (Apr 1983) a revival of the super-hero who first appeared in a Charlton Comics series in 1973 with original artist Joe Staton still on board. Works original to First included Mike Grell's Jon Sable, Freelance (Jun 1983), Mike Baron's Badger (Jul 1983), Howard Chaykin's masterful sci-fi/political satire American Flagg! (Oct 1983), and John Ostrander & Tim Truman's Grimjack (Aug 1984). First also continued to pick up creator-owned series from other publishers: Mike Grell's Starslayer (from Pacific with #7, Aug 1983), Steve Rude's Nexus (from Capital with #7, Apr 1985), and Jim Starlin's Dreadstar (from Marvel's Epic imprint with #27, Nov 1986). First also published a number of mini series featuring characters from Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion mythos, including Corum (2 series), Elric (5 series), and Hawkmoon (4 series). First "came back from the dead" in 2015, in a merger with Devil's Due, calling themselves 1First Comics LLC, and the combined publisher Devil's Due / 1First Comics (that's a mouthful!).
Continuity Comics (1984-1994) was started by popular comics artist Neal Adams in 1984 with the publication of his series Zero Patrol (Nov 1984), It would go on to publish titles such as Hybrids, Megalith, Ms. Mystic (1st published by Pacific and resumed by Continuity in 1987) and many more. It went out of business as a result of the direct market crash in 1994.
Mirage Studios (1984-2009) is best known as the birthplace of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (May 1984). Mirage published a number of other titles, mostly spin-offs from the Turtles for years until they sold their assets to Viacom in 2009, while still retaining rights to publish up to 18 TMNT comics per year, if they so desire.
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Pacific Comics (1981-1984) publishing Jack Kirby's Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (Nov 1981), Mike Grell's Starslayer (Feb 1982); Pacific Presents (Oct 1982) an anthology that had the 1st appearance of Dave Stevens' Rocketeer, Alien Worlds (Dec 1982); Sergio Aragonés' Groo the Wanderer (Dec 1982) continuing on from his 1st appearance in Destroyer Duck #1, and a comics version of Michael Moorcock's Elric (Apr 1983) beautifully illustrated by Michael Gilbert & P. Craig Russell
Epic Comics (1982-1994) was an imprint of Marvel comics that allowed creators to retain control and ownership of their creations. It spun off from the Epic Illustrated magazine into it's own line, sold only via the direct market, starting with Jim Starlin's Dreadstar in 1982 and soon expanded to contain many more popular titles including Elaine Lee's Starstruck, Steve Englehart's Coyote, and Carl Potts' Alien Legion, to name only a few. The Epic imprint was responsible for making quite a few Marvel fans expand their tastes in comics beyond the super-hero genre and may have done as much to foster the growth of independent books, by providing a large number of willing fans eager for more and different comics, as any other single factor in the early 1980s. In time, the Epic line skewed back towards the costumed characters and ended up being a place for Marvel to publish more mature versions of standard Marvel super-hero stories, but the key role it played in the early days of independent and creator-owned comics paved the way for many companies that followed who allowed creators a publishing home while retaining ownership of their intellectual property.
Fantagraphics (1982-present) started in 1976 and published the eminent magazine about comics, The Comics Journal ("a quality publication for the serious comics fan") starting in Jan 1977. It was not until the classic Love & Rockets (Sep 1982) that Fantagraphics started publishing original comics content. This was followed by the sci-fi series Dalgoda (Aug 1984) "Fantagraphics 1st direct sales mass-marketed comic" and Peter Bagge's Neat Stuff (Jul 1985)
Comico: The Comic Company (1982-1987) like Vortex, started with an anthology series Primer (Oct 1982) which debuted Matt Wagner's character Grendel in issue #2. Several series debuted in 1983, the one that was successful was Grendel (Mar 1983) who would star in a total of 4 series from Comico before the company went out of business. Other notable series from Comico included Matt Wagner's Mage: The Hero Discovered (May 1984), Bill Willingham's Elementals (Nov 1984) and Robotech: The Macross Saga (Dec 1984)
"Indie" comics is kind of a loaded term. In many cases the definition today is just "Not Marvel or DC", but that is not a definition that can extend back through history since many publishers like Archie, Fawcett, EC, Dell, Gold Key and many other non-Marvel/DC companies have had a long history and presence on the racks alongside the super-hero books. That said, by the late 70s super-heroes had been the predominant force in comics for a while. As alternates to this super-hero dominance began presenting themselves to readers once again, it was certainly a noticeable change for fans and the concept of "Indie comics" started getting some play among comic book collectors of the day, many of whom had been predominantly buying from the "Big 2" for many years. Having a number of other choices in comics that were not perceived as being aimed directly at younger readers, as was the case with Archie & Gold Key, was something that made the maturing base of comic fans sit up and take notice. Typical fans were now in their late teens, 20s, or even older, as opposed to a much younger predominant demographic in the 1960s and earlier.
Late 1977 and early 1978 brought some key properties to light that would enjoy long runs and become iconic independent comics success stories. Cerebus the Aardvark debuted in December 1977 and ran for 300 issues, the exact number that Dave Sim said he'd do early on when he created the series. Elfquest debuted in Fantasy Quarterly #1 in Spring of 1978 and would go on to be featured in more than 100 issues from many publishers and translated into many languages. Also in 1978, we got the 1st publication from Eclipse Comics, the graphic novel "Sabre" that would go on to be a comic series in 1982.
Up Next:The Dark Age (1986-1998) - This sits between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Modern Age.