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How independent comics use their freedom to address a range of topics

Graphic by Ethan Nelson

For many artists and creators, crafting a story without restrictions is akin to getting a blank check. There are, however, guidelines for writing to entertain an audience without alienating the readers.

Authors know that their work cannot appeal to everyone. Despite this, many try to do the impossible and incorporate topics that are frequently discussed but do not bring anything new to the table.

Independent comics highlight this problem with popular culture at large –an intense fixation on social and familial issues.

It is an expansive category of topics that influences many people at every point in their life. One series, “Ultramega,” created by James Harren, seems to both forgo familial connections and relationships as topics while also addressing them.

It uses grand space concepts and a superheroic, “Ultraman”-inspired post-apocalyptic setting. The comic seldom dwells on the main character’s lack of having a family and monster fights take center stage.

On occasion though, the comic will bring the main character’s family back into focus to help develop their personality. Harren does a great job at subtly hinting at the effects of not having a family on the character.

This works well, but the point is that the subject material has not been as interesting or novel as the setting or action that it takes place in. If an element is brought in, it should have a clear and impactful purpose within the story. Pages full of great art illustrating all the wrong ideas make it even more disappointing.

Doubly so, consider how independent comics are released across weeks or months and tackle sex, violence and gritty, dysfunctional relationships in the same way as numerous others populating various publishers’ catalogs.

So, to go beyond that topic, many comic books and other forms of media tackle societal issues instead. A comic book that tackles issues much more inventively is “Eight Billion Genies” by Charles Soule and Ryan Browne. The comic postulates a world in which every living human on Earth is given a wish by a genie to use. The resulting chaos puts interesting imagery and a small amount of world-building together for an enjoyable read. It is a limited series that will end soon and showcases how a comic can quickly and entertainingly explore human behavior.

My impression of it so far is that the characters lack complexity or depth, but for this story that is the main point. The chaotic background and premise make it hard to get too attached to them and that is okay.

“Eight Billion Genies” has enough awareness that the reader doesn’t have to invest in its characters to enjoy reading. It adds in certain themes without trying to drag out its exploration for too long. I commend “Ultramega” for trying, but it just lands in a cultural landscape filled with raunchy and surface-level drama.

A careful consideration of what an author can provide their reader and how they can present a new idea or a novel execution means everything to achieve success for independent comics. 

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