Gamma Squad’s Ultimate Guide To Comics For Beginners, Part Three: The Big Four Publishers

So, you want to read comics, but not sure who belongs to who, or who is likely to publish what? Here’s an overview, starting with the four biggest publishers in the industry.

DC Comics
Movies/TV Shows You Might Have Seen Based On A DC Comic: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Arrow, Smallville, Teen Titans, Jonah Hex, Human Target
Movies/TV Shows You Might Have Seen Based On A Comic That DC Owns: Constantine, The Losers, RED, V For Vendetta, A History Of Violence, Road To Perdition
Genres Published: Superheroes, some fantasy and action-oriented SF, and horror. Through their imprint, Vertigo, you’ll also find fantasy, Westerns, noir, and just about everything else.

DC is mostly notable for having been in the business the longest as a going concern, although being a part of the Time Warner empire undeniably helps matters. The main DC line is a mix of superheroes in various situations, although DC does dabble in the occasional licensed property, like the recently concluded He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe books.

DC is also unique in that it has as an “imprint”, or subsection of the company, Vertigo, that’s essentially another company entirely. Vertigo is a line of comics aimed squarely at adults and generally lacking in superheroes, with books ranging from crime stories like Scalped to gritty westerns like Loveless to reinventions of old DC concepts like The Losers and Human Target. Currently its most popular book is Fables, an ongoing publication about fairy tale creatures in the real world, but it has other books well worth a shot, like Unwritten and the just-completed Sweet Tooth. It’s not uncommon for a writer or artist to start at Vertigo and migrate over to DC.

DC is also notable for delivering their books on time: If it’s got a release date, it’s likely to meet that release date.

Movies/TV Shows You Might Have Seen Based On A Marvel Comic: Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Captain America: The First Avenger, Hulk, Iron Man, X-Men, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, Thor, The Avengers, Blade
Genres Published: As a rule? Superheroes, superheroes, and more superheroes.

Marvel didn’t really come to prominence until the 1960s, when Stan Lee introduced Spider-Man, a superhero who never got the girl, constantly had money troubles, and worried about his sick aunt. It changed the face of comics, especially as Marvel invested a lot in fan outreach at a time when nobody took comics seriously.

Marvel tends to move the most issues of comic books in any given month, mostly because its main business is superhero books, and that’s all it does. While Marvel does have imprints like Max and Icon, these aren’t commonly used anymore. These are generally for more adult books. Since Marvel was recently acquired by Disney, the fate of these imprints is anyone’s guess.

Marvel is also notable for publishing schedules that can range from the lax to the frantic. Right now, thanks to their Marvel NOW! initiative, they’re churning out new books at a surprisingly fast rate, but it’s not uncommon for Marvel to delay a series launch for months, or even years.

Image Comics
Movies/TV Shows You May Have Seen Based On An Image Comic: The Walking Dead, Spawn, Witchblade, Firebreather
Genres Published: Pretty much everything, although there’s a strong focus on science fiction books at the moment.

Image started in 1992, as a group of comic book creators founded a studio designed to publish their creator-owned works. Creator’s rights is a controversy we’ll discuss a bit later, but for now, the key point about Image is that whoever came up with the book owns the rights to it: Image just publishes it.

In some cases, this can be incredibly lucrative: The Walking Dead is a TV show we’re sure you’ve heard of, and its creator, Robert Kirkman, is the primary beneficiary of that.

Image, by dint of not owning rights lock stock and barrel, not having many legacy books to publish, and not being owned by an entertainment conglomerate, is free to experiment with ongoing books and miniseries of all sorts. They have superhero books like Invincible, but also SF books like Manhattan Projects, spy stories such as Dancer and Secret, horror books such as Fatale, and odd, but superb, experiments such as The Bulletproof Coffin or The Grim Leaper.

It’s always worth giving an Image #1 a shot. If nothing else, it’s usually different. Image is generally on point with its publishing, but they are at the mercy of the creator and sometimes he or she has to delay a book for various reasons.

Dark Horse
Movies/TV Shows You May Have Seen Based On A Dark Horse Comic: Sin City, Hellboy, 300, The Mask, Mystery Men, Barb Wire, Virus
Genres Published: Dark Horse’s standing policy is if it’s good, they’ll print it. Currently a horror focus.

Dark Horse is important to comics among other reasons because it’s one of the key manga publishing houses in the United States. Back when nobody cared about manga, they took the time to, for example, translate classics of Japanese comics like Lone Wolf and Cub.

Dark Horse was also the first to take licensed comics seriously, putting respected artists and writers on books like Aliens, Conan and Star Wars. In fact, they have a history of publishing Star Wars comics that dates back quite a while. They do have a sort-of superhero line in the form of B.P.R.D., a spin-off of Hellboy, but currently they’re publishing quite a few miniseries and ongoings with a horror bent.

They’ve also published books like Concrete, about a man trapped in a concrete body that’s decidedly not a superhero book, but rather a warm and gently political character drama, and one of their biggest books currently is Eric Powell’s supernatural ’30s gangster comedy The Goon. They’re also putting out science fiction books such as the beloved-around-here ecopocalypse tale The Massive, and have been publishing Stan Sakai’s book about funny animals in feudal Japan, Usagi Yojimbo for years now. So, yes, Dark Horse can be quite eclectic.

Also notable is their revival of their anthology book Dark Horse Presents. Currently, if a comic gets a positive response, they’ll try it it out as a limited or ongoing series, and it’ll also feature fan favorites like Hellboy. DHP is pricey, but if you want an overview of the company on a regular basis, it’s a great place to start.

As a publisher, Dark Horse is pretty consistent; they generally have a good relationship with comics shops and don’t want to take it for granted.

Next, we’ll talk about some smaller publishers, their unique place in the industry, how to deal with a crossover, and controversies surrounding comics.