Crosspost: “Indie Comics, or: The Economic World Reversed and Reversed Again”
This post originally appeared at The Greatest Comic Book of All Time blog.
CNBC has a longread up about the rising fortune of three mid-sized independent comics publishers: namely, IDW, Dynamite, and Boom! Acknowledging the comic industry's track record for grinding upstart publishers into dust, author Tom DiChristopher attributes these publishers' ability to survive – and even thrive – to a savvy exploitation of licensed properties. Without diminishing their successes – I've read and enjoyed IDW's Doctor Who and Dungeons & Dragons series, and GI Joe vs. Transformers by Tom Scioli and John Barber is perhaps the ongoing I most look forward to – I did a double take when Alisa Perren shared the article on Twitter: Surely comics is the only cultural industry where you'd call My Little Pony, Power Rangers, and Terminator tie-ins "indie."
In the Introduction to the book, we set out the terms of our Bourdieusian analysis of the comics world. In the title of a well-known essay, Bourdieu refers to fields of cultural production as "the economic world reversed." He noted that prestige and economic success frequently have an inverse relationship in the arts: as one goes up, the other typically goes down. It is the rare author or work that can have their cake (prestigious awards and critical acclaim) and eat it (sell a bazillion copies), too. In several media fields, however, independent or "indie" production occupies a middle-ground. Aesthetically, it often refers to the most intellectual of the bestsellers and/or the best-selling of the artsy works. (Think Oscar-bait Miramax movies, for example.) Economically, they must perforce be produced at arm's length from the assembly line of The Culture Industry.
But the comics world takes this inversion and inverts it again. This is a field where the term "mainstream" refers to works that hardly circulate outside of a small subculture of fans and collectors, while "alternative" comics are New York Times bestsellers and the winners of major awards. This double-reversal is the only context in which it can make sense to call licensed comics "independent" – they're independent from the regimes of value dominant within both superhero comics fandom and the comics-as-literature graphic novels crowd.