Comics

Getting Into Creator-owned Comics

When you look beyond the walls of Marvel and DC, you’ll discover that all the exciting and imaginative stories are being made in the world of creator-owned comics.

Characters created by Rick Remender. Illustration by Bengal
Image: RickRemender.com
By: Javier ReyesJan 31, 2024, 1:54 AM

Purists hate to admit it, but the best things happening in comics today aren’t coming from either Marvel or DC. Sure, the Big Two will forever dominate mainstream popularity contests because of superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman. If you’re looking for wildly imaginative stories you can sink your teeth into, then the world of creator-owned comics is the place to be. From stories about an anthropomorphic cat detective to a school of 1980s teenage assassins, the diverse range of titles is redefining what truly makes the medium super.

For the past few decades, independent publishers and online platforms have paved the way for creators to own their original titles and develop them on their terms. Because creators have complete control over their work, they can do whatever they want to make their crazy vision a reality. That level of freedom has allowed boundless creativity to thrive, making comics a more exciting space for both readers and creators.

Here are just a few examples of how great things can get in the world of creator-owned comics:

- The Walking Dead emerged as a worldwide phenomenon

- The Boys, a diabolical parody of superhero culture, is one of today’s hottest shows

- Itaewon Class and Yumi’s Cells are just a few within a long list of Webtoons that have been adapted into K-dramas

- Graphic novels like Road to Perdition and Snowpiercer were adapted into critically-acclaimed films

Once you start your journey through creator-owned comics, you will quickly learn that there is so much more to the medium than just superheroes and villains punching each other in the face. The growth of the creator-owned sector has helped the comic book industry flourish into a space where writers and artists can pursue telling bold, new stories with unique and original characters.

From The Walking Dead #24, written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Charlie Adlard

There are Always New Comics to Discover

Think of the world of creator-owned like the open sea. It's vast and full of life, and you never know what to expect when you venture into it. Because these titles are not bogged down by massive narrative universes like how Marvel and DC are, creators can do whatever the hell they want to the stories and characters they’ve created. Even doing something as crazy as killing off the main characters is totally in the cards if that’s how the creators want to develop their story.

Give a writer and artist a blank canvas, and together they will create a brand-new world for you to explore. Creator-owned comics are where creativity can be let loose without constraints. The result? Some of the most imaginative and exciting stories you can find in the comic book world. Stories can range from unhinged rollercoasters to unforgettable masterpieces. This brand of unpredictability is what makes creator-owned comics so special.

From Sweet Tooth #2 by Jeff Lemire

For new readers, the beauty of creator-owned comics is that the starting points are much easier to navigate. A common problem people have about getting into Marvel and DC is the sheer volume of issues that are out there. Where do you even start with a character like Batman, who has been around since the 1930s? Unlike mainstream titles, the beginning of a creator-owned comic is well-defined and easy to access. Want to start reading Saga, the popular space opera people have been buzzing about for years? Simply pick up Saga #1 and enjoy the ride from there! Most creator-owned comics have very manageable runs to go through, with few series lasting beyond 100 issues. This makes them perfect for readers seeking to experience incredible stories without having to commit to years worth of backstories.

GONKBONK's Recommended Reading List

When it comes to Marvel and DC, fans tend to choose books based on their favorite superheroes. But with creator-owned comics, the possibilities of what you can find are endless. You can discover stacks of new titles based on the different genres you’re into. Whether you love high fantasy or spine-tingling horror, there's a creator-owned comic out there that's tailor-made for you. This makes for a more personal and rewarding experience when you start to discover more books. The further you go down the rabbit hole, you’ll discover there is no shortage of exciting books to explore

From Deadly Class #3, written by Rick Remender and illustrated by Wes Craig

Need a place to start? We’ve got you covered with our recommended reading list of some of the best books you can find today!

Fantasy

  • - Fables by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham 
  • - Sandman by Neil Gaiman
  • - Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá

Post-Apocalyptic Adventure

  • - Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire
  • - Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

Crime/Mystery

  • - Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory
  • - Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido
  • - The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips

Action

  • - Deadly Class by Rick Remender and Wes Craig
  • - Do a Powerbomb by Daniel Warren Johnson

Sci-fi

  • - Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  • - East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta
  • - The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius

Horror

  • - The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard
  • - Black Hole by Charles Burns
  • - Hellboy by Mike Mignola

Thriller 

  • - From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Comedy

  • - Nimona by ND Stevenson 
  • - Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky 
  • - Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Romance

  • - Blankets by Craig Thompson

Historical

  • - Maus by Art Spiegelman
  • - The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sunny Liew

Drama

  • - This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Superhero

  • - Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley
  • - Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Kraus
  • - Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston

This list only scratches the surface of what’s out there to discover. Aside from a few exceptions, we have barely talked about Webtoons. That category of comics is a different beast entirely and a conversation we can save for another time!

Journey with the Creators Themselves

Nothing can compare to the excitement of discovering a comic book that deeply resonates with you. That’s a feeling you can keep experiencing when you recognize and remember the creators who were behind such incredible work. It’s like when you discover new music for the first time. The first thing you want to do is to find out who made such amazing music. That same feeling applies to comic book creators. Once you find a comic creator whose work speaks to you, it’s natural to want to check out every book they’ve done. And just like with music, you can develop your distinct taste in comics by discovering and reading more books along the way.

Following the works of creators also makes navigating through the world of comic books feel more natural. Your fandom can start with just a single writer. Their list of works will then introduce you to a line-up of incredible artists, each with their own distinct style. Once you latch on to any of those artists, you’ll quickly discover even more amazing writers along the way. Next thing you know, your reading list is filled to the brim with books from all corners of the comic book world. Getting a bit lost as you journey through different books is a nice problem to have when everything you come across is an incredible piece of art.

From East of West #5, written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated Nick Dragotta

A Brief History of Creator-Owned Comics

Despite championing stories of good triumphing over evil, the American comic book industry has a long history of unfairly treating its creators. Legends like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jerry Siegler, and Joe Shuster were all burned by the work-for-hire policies that are still in place today. While fans recognize them as the creative minds behind characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Superman, they have no legal ownership of their iconic creations. Control of the rights and royalties of those characters all belong to Marvel and DC. It’s because these characters offer so much value to the brands, the Big Two will never go into a creator-owned business model.

The industry experienced its most significant paradigm shift in the early 90s when the all-star lineup of Tod McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, and Marc Silvestri branched off from Marvel and founded Image Comics. Frustrated by the corporate mandates and micromanaging, the “Image Boys” sought to revolutionize industry standards and put more power in the hands of comic book creators.

The "Image Boys"

Unlike the Big Two, Image holds no ownership over the books they publish. It’s the creators themselves who have complete power over their creations. This model has since provided creators the platform to create original stories without fear of intense corporate mingling. Image is where creators like Robert Kirkman had the power to create something like The Walking Dead and organically grow it from a monthly comic book series into an entertainment powerhouse.

Comics Still Have So Much to Offer

If you ask Google, “Are comics dying?” you’ll find surprisingly mixed results. Some will lament how Marvel and DC today simply exist to push properties to be made into TV shows and films. But then others will bask in how creator-owned comic books are thriving and more diverse than ever. Whichever way you want to look at it, one thing is clear: the comic book industry continues to change in new ways. As long as creators have the spark to tell new and exciting stories, then they will keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on a page.

From Do a Powerbomb #1 by Daniel Warren Johnson
TAGGED: Image Comics, Creator Owned
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