Alternative comics tend to be overlooked in the grand scheme of comic collecting, despite making up a bulk of the quality. Sure, you can find them in the aisles of your average Barnes and Noble, but they are usually only prominently featured in boutique-type comic shops (hello, Ash Ave. Comics).
And while some of them find mainstream success or a spot on a New York Times best-seller list, the average comic consumer might not know as much about the alternative comics as they do about the Teen Titans or X-Men. That’s why we’ve assembled a list to help you find some of the best stuff out there. So now when someone asks you if you're a Marvel, Image, or DC Comics kind of person, you can look at them through your monocle and guffaw at them mockingly.
Let’s start by acknowledging one of the longest-running independent publishers in the country and the amazing work they’ve churned out in their 40-year history. Fantagraphics is the home of long-running independent series Love & Rockets by los bros Hernandez, and many other acclaimed series from newer artists such as Julia Gfrörer, Noah Van Sciver, Benjamin Marra, and many more.
The Seattle-based publisher doesn’t have a main genre or specialty, per se, aside from allowing amazing cartoonists tell a complete story exactly as intended. Despite various ups-and-downs in its lifespan, the publisher has remained committed to high-quality comics and has cemented itself as one of the premier publishers for comics without caped crusades. Fantagraphics made a deal with Disney in 2011 to bring classic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck & Uncle Scrooge comics back to print with oversize, high-quality collections.
But when co-owner and publisher Kim Thompson departed the company and subsequently passed in 2013, many in the industry wondered how long the company could survive without him. After all, Thompson himself kept the company going through hard times with his own funds, and without him at the masthead, the future seemed grim. But those fears were assuaged when fans responded to a Kickstarter campaign, pledging more than $200,000 to keep the company afloat.
The response from readers is indicative of the loyalty they have to the publisher and a testament to the quality of their product. Comics aren’t a lucrative business, nor are they cheap to produce and distribute. But Fantagraphics’ lifespan is a testament to the demand for great stories in the medium.
Portland-based publisher Oni Press has adapted and changed throughout the years, continuing to have an impact in the direct market and local comic shops across the country. Recently they’ve begun dipping their toes into licensed comics. But unlike banking on the nostalgic fans of Transformers or GI Joe, they turned to new properties people are demanding more of, like Rick and Morty and Invader Zim.
But those are minor aspects of their output, which also consists of political/sci-fi series Letter 44, gender- and genre-twisting noir series Angel City, and manga-esque cooking competition Space Battle Lunchtime.
Acclaimed cartoonist Zander Cannon has topped many best-of lists for two years in a row with Kaijumax, a vibrant and colorful mashup of Godzilla and The Wire. His eye-popping, Saturday morning cartoon-inspired visuals blend with nuanced, slightly depressing storytelling to make one of the most fascinating monthly comics found on the shelf.
Oni Press remains committed to comic shops, providing them with the kinds of stories readers will not find from Marvel, DC, or even Image.
Nobrow Press — and its children’s book imprint Flying Eye Books — has been making waves in recent years. You can find their kids stories featured prominently in places like Changing Hands Bookstores. Headquartered in London, Nobrow's comics and graphic novels might be a little harder to find at your average Valley comics shop and, quite frankly, that’s a goddamn shame.
Nobrow publishes Sam Bosma’s Fantasy Sports series, the first of which recently won Best Comic at the Small Press Expo’s Ignatz Awards, which celebrate independent comics across the country.
Fantasy Sports won the award for good reason: It’s a fun, all-ages storyline that centers on mages who raid temples for magical artifacts deemed to powerful to be left alone. Wiz and Muggs investigate a mummy’s tomb in the first issue and attempt to steal its treasure, only to be forced to play the mummy in a game of basketball. First to 21, winner take all.
With other titles like Mean Girls Club, SP4RX, and the Hilda series, Nobrow provides a unique offering for sequential storytelling to people of all ages.
Read on for more alternative comics publishers you need to read.
Formerly known as Magnetic Press, the newly christened imprint was acquired by Lion Forge Comics after a few years of publishing outstanding material from international cartoonists. Mike Kennedy, who spent years plying his trade at Dark Horse Comics, started the company with his wife, Elizabeth, as a small operation in Chicago focused on bringing great foreign-language comics to the direct market as well as some U.S.-based works.
Translating most of the titles himself, Kennedy and Magnetic published works from Mexican cartoonist Tony Sandoval and French artist Bengal (who did character designs for the game Overwatch), some of which were nominated for Eisner Awards. Magnetic also published comics projects from Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 as well as a children book from actor Rob Schneider.
And the standard of quality of a Magnetic book goes beyond what’s printed on the page, all the way to how the book comes together. Thick paper stock, strong binding, and striking hardcovers are staples of nearly all of their offerings, making them a beautiful addition to any bookshelf.
When it comes to punk-rock publishers, few embody that pervasive, DIY-attitude quite like Silver Sprocket, run out of a basement in San Francisco. With comics anthologies from punk musicians, zines from a diverse range of artists, and comics from Tumblr masters like Benjamin Passmore, Silver Sprocket has carved a niche for itself on the indie scene.
You can find them easily at most conventions where they table, especially at San Diego Comic-Con where they stand out with a bunkbed set up in their booth. But their comics are readily available online for an affordable rate.
Last year, Silver Sprocket published Passmore’s sometimes funny, always poignant mini comic called Goodbye, a touching look at internal struggle, personal ethics, and group sex. They also republished a colorized version Passmore’s comic Your Black Friend, which is especially relevant in this country’s current culture.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Drawn & Quarterly
Some of the greatest cartoonists in the history of the medium have published works with Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, including renowned creators like Seth, Chester Brown, and Daniel Clowes. And they continue to stay relevant by publishing the work of Kate Beaton, collecting her Hark! A Vagrant! comic strips in multiple volumes.
They also publish works from Lisa Hanawalt, the hilarious character designer of Bojack Horseman, in comic collections like Hot Dog Taste Test and My Dirty Dumb Eyes.
Last year, the company published the acclaimed work from Michael DeForge called Big Kids as well as Mooncop by Tom Gauld. They also acquired the rights to reprint the seminal work Blankets from cartoonist Craig Thompson. Drawn & Quarterly is probably home to your favorite cartoonist’s favorite cartoonist.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.