Comic book characters represent the eras they come from and become recognized icons, perhaps more than in other mediums. The American comic book industry in the 1930s, a tangle of affiliated publishers and studios, slowly gave way to the hegemony of The Big Two: DC and Marvel Comics. However, an entire world of indie comics characters made their stand in the 1980s and 1990s.
Since the 1960s, there have been artists creating underground comic books for a counter-culture audience. In the late 1970s an independent middle ground developed where commercially viable characters appeared as alternatives to The Big Two. Companies like First, Caliber, and Dark Horse arrived but mostly didn’t achieve stellar sales. Image Comics changed that in 1992, when the so-called Image Revolution exploded into comic book stores and, for one month, outsold DC. The industry, and its characters, have never been the same.
10/10 Michonne From The Walking Dead Is Tough As Nails And Irreplaceable
Even in comic books, not all heroes wear capes and many are simply human. Michonne of The Walking Dead is the prime example of a hero who makes her mere mortal status work for her. In a world overrun by mindless zombies, the most important power is sheer determination. When she first appears, she’s flanked by two shackled ‘walkers’; one of whom turned out to be her dead boyfriend.
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book lasted for 193 issues, 174 of them published after Michonne’s 2005 introduction. AMC’s television adaptation of the comics has been extremely successful and, while the show is coming to an end this year, a spinoff featuring Michonne has been announced. It seems TV watchers and TV networks can’t live without her.
9/10 Kevin Matchstick From Mage Is On A Personal Version Of The Hero’s Journey
An example of indie comics’ ability to marry the mundane with the extraordinary in a way DC and Marvel cannot, Kevin Matchstick is a man chosen by fate. His life forms an allegory, combining the legendary King Arthur with the personal life story of his creator, Matt Wagner.
Mage has been told as a trilogy spanning 35 years of American indie comic books. The first series Mage: The Hero Discovered was part of the black-and-white boom of the ’80s, Mage: The Hero Defined, joined the tail-end of the ’90s Image Revolution, and Mage: The Hero Denied arrived during the height of the mid-2010s. Kevin has morphed over time to represent a kind of superhuman everyman, becoming who he needs to be in each new story.
8/10 Fone Bone Is The Inhuman Everyman At The Center Of A Fantasy Epic
Since Scholastic snapped up the reprint rights to Jeff Smith’s epic tale of beautiful maidens and dastardly giant rat creatures, the world has gotten to know the good-natured Fone Bone. Amid the antics of Smiley Bone and the schemes of Phoney Bone, Fone Bone maintained his perspective. He symbolically stands for all the honest joes and for well-made kids’ comics everywhere.
Like its inspiration, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Fone Bone’s story hasn’t really reached screens. In this case, it’s only because Netflix’s deal to produce an animated adaptation of the entire Bone story fell through earlier this year. Regardless, for children, parents, and readers of excellent comics, the story lives on.
7/10 Homelander Is The Most Recognizable Dark Reflection Of Mainstream Superhero Icons
Sometimes, indie comic books are designed to directly comment on the iconic archetypes Marvel and DC have proliferated. Few characters have epitomized this as well as Garth Ennis’ and Darick Robertson’s horrifically evil supervillain posing as a superhero, The Homelander.
Looking like an all-American ideal like Captain America and possessing Superman’s power set, Homelander corrupts the superhero image. In both the original comic book and the live-action adaptation, Homelander terrorizes many characters in The Boys with assault, cannibalism, and other atrocities. Indie characters can be dark mirrors for more mainstream characters and, by extension, our own fears about power and the future.
6/10 Cutter From ElfQuest Became The Longest-Running Main Character In Indie Comics
Though the epic comic book series ElfQuest started in 1978 and hasn’t been consistently published, it has grown into a fantasy saga of family and adventure across various spinoffs and through various different publishers. A new graphic novel, published by Dark Horse Comics in June, means Wendy and Richard Pini’s characters have lasted over 40 years, an unheard-of success for independently-owned comics.
Though a few graphic novels had been independently published and underground comics continued to question the mainstream, ElfQuest was, in many ways, the first breakthrough indie comic book. Cutter and the other Wolfriders of the World of Two Moons reached a wider audience for a longer time than any other group of indie comic characters.
5/10 Madman’s Zany Pastiche Embodies the Freedom Of Indie Comic Books
As indescribable as he is irrepressible, Mike Allred’s creation Madman can’t control his own superpowers. He’s an absurdist superhero who blurs the lines between parody and drama. The character’s out-of-control nature and his chaotic world push the creative envelope, making Frank Einstein’s life hilarious and dramatic in turns. Few comic book characters can fully sum up what makes the indies different like Madman does.
For anyone even casually reading comics in the ’90s, Madman is immediately recognizable. The simplicity of Allred’s design for Madman’s costume perfectly reflects the character’s purpose as a conduit for wacky stories that reference pop culture and never temper fun in the name of common sense.
4/10 Cerebus Is A Testament To Indie Comics’ Long-Term Potential
The first indie character whose title hit 300 issues, Cerebus is among the longest-running characters in American comic books. Specifically, Dave Sim’s Cerebus was the longest-running comic book outside the bounds of The Big Two publications until Spawn broke that record in 2019, with 300 issues published consecutively for 27 years.
A cartoony but murderous little aardvark, Cerebus isn’t familiar to most non-comics readers and always had an edgy sense of humor that made him hard to like. To his detriment, the little guy’s creator also surrounded himself with controversy. Using his comic as a platform, Sim published multiple misogynist manifestos, losing a large share of his fan base in the process. Cerebus represents a huge success in indie comics, and Sim was a once-in-a-generation talent, but they also demonstrate that success is almost always fleeting.
3/10 Hellboy Cuts A Unique Figure In The World Of Comic Books
If film, animation, and video game adaptations are enough to make a comic book character iconic, few outside Marvel or DC can beat Mike Mignola’s lovable son of the devil, Hellboy. More importantly, the character’s attitude, unique look, and shared universe of B.P.R.D. stories built around him stand on their own as the fundaments of one of comics’ greatest worlds.
With his unmistakable silhouette, Hellboy has been a unique presence in the world of comics since 1993. Mignola’s character has starred in three live-action films, two animated films, and two video games. That’s more than any American indie comics property other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
2/10 Spawn Rode The Wave Of The Comics Industry’s Changes Over Three Decades
Spawn is the most recognizable superhero character created in the indie comics boom of the early 1990s. Created by Todd McFarlane in 1992, the character epitomizes the gritty and violent heroes of that decade.
It’s also worth pointing out that Spawn’s meteoric rise, late ’90s slump, and slow resurgence paralleled that of Image Comics and the entire American comics industry. McFarlane’s character has weathered some hard times. In 2019, Spawn became the first indie superhero comic book to pass 300 issues and is the only independently owned comic book character to continue beyond a 300th issue.
1/10 The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Changed The Industry, Becoming A Household Brand
Many people aren’t aware that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are comic book characters, assuming they first appeared in the famous 1987 Saturday morning cartoon. In 1984, the independently produced black-and-white TMNT comic book appeared, inspiring the show and everything that came after it. It was self-published by the young Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird on a tiny budget.
Nobody making comic books outside Marvel and DC had come close to TMNT‘s worldwide success and only a few have since. The creation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles changed the game and led to the black-and-white wave of the ’80s, the Image Revolution of the ’90s, and today’s redefined indie comics.
NEXT: The 15 Best Indie Comics Currently In Print (November 2022)