My first indie comic: a rambling reminiscence and a brief review

The first indie comic I ever read is a short-lived series called Ismet. It’s very obscure, and even a lot of the better-versed comics fans often know nothing, or very little, about it. I came across it at the tender age of 12 (going on 13) because a few years before that, I used to ride into school on the same bus as the guy who would go on to create it, Greg Wadsworth.

That first paragraph needs a little unpacking, so here’s a little background: I grew up in an unincorporated rural community in Oregon’s Willamette Valley called St. Louis (about 15 miles north of the state capital, Salem), and I went to school in a little town called Gervais about 3 miles away, so the rural route bus run by the high school district in that same town took all of us kids to and from school every day – me and my school-mates all went to the Catholic parochial elementary school in town, but the bus also picked up the kids who went to the town’s public elementary and high schools. And there was a bit of a divide and hierarchy in the seating arrangements on the bus: the little kids (grades 1-2) in front, and then on up through the really cool high-school teenagers in back. And those of us who went my school, Sacred Heart Elementary, mostly kept to ourselves (there were only a few of us, anyway).

Now in the first and second grades, besides me, a few of my buddies were also into comics, and we would often have a few with us and flip through them and talk about them on the way to school. This caught the attention of an older kid named Greg, who went to the public school and who was in the 6th or 7th grade at the time. So he did something unprecedented: he broke the school bus seating hierarchy, and also crossed that, admittedly not entirely rigid, parochial/public school boundary and sat in the front with us little kids, to talk comics and to joke around in general.

Needless to say, me and my buddies thought this was a coolest thing ever: an older kid who not only didn’t bully and/or mock us for reading comics – or just for being littler than him, but rather joined in on our conversations and treated us like equals. Thinking about it later, I realized that Greg was probably a bit of a loner who didn’t have any kids his own age who shared his interests. (Otherwise, I recall that once my older sister, or maybe brother, who was about the same age as Greg, saying something about Greg, although super-intelligent, often getting into trouble at school for acting out, I think – not entirely sure about this – mainly because he smarted off to teachers.) Unfortunately; by the time I finished second grade, Greg and his older sister, Becky, had been transferred to another school – apparently a private school somewhere in Salem or Portland, none of the other school kids really knew.

At this point, another digression is required to say something about Greg’s family, the Wadsworths. They were somewhat mysterious to us kids in the area. They were very wealthy and lived in a – there’s really no other word for it – mansion down the road from where I lived that was about a quarter-mile from the main road on a private, paved lane (something very posh, as everybody else around had gravel driveways – heck, not even all of the actual roads in that area were paved at the time). There was a forest that ran adjacent to their property that I would roam around in with my friends as a kid, and from it you could see their house and the grounds, which had a swimming pool and full-size tennis courts. As far as I know, the parents didn’t socialize with anybody in the neighborhood, so little was known about them. All we kids knew was that they family was somehow involved in banking and/or finance – some of the older kids claimed the family may have even owned bank in Portland.

So fast forward a few years: it’s the late winter/early spring of 1981, I’m 12 going on 13, in the seventh grade, and Greg’s older sister Becky is riding the bus again. That’s because at the time she was finishing college, majoring in education I think, and she was doing some kind of internship at the public elementary school, and instead of driving in, she took the bus (it never occurred to me at the time to ask her why, i.e., whether it was an additional requirement of whatever internship or certification program she was enrolled in, or if she just wanted to (re-)immerse herself in the whole elementary school experience). Anyway, she remembered that my buddies and me pretty much idolized her kid brother, and told me and another school-chum, one of the few besides me who was also still into comics at that point, that Greg was producing his own comic book! Of course, we thought this was the coolest thing ever, especially since at the time Greg was still a senior in high school.

She promised my buddy and me that she would bring us copies to buy, and sure enough, a few weeks later, she brought two copies of a comic called Ismet (price: $1).

The story revolved around the anthropomorphic canine titular character, who is exiled from his planet, Wert, by its evil alien conquerors called the Humes for leading a rebellion of his fellow anthropomorphic animals (not just dogs, but also frogs, cats, rats, snakes, songbirds … even ants). Ismet lands on some rugged, rough-and-tumble planetoid that has both human-like (they have tails) and anthropomorphic animal residents and has some adventures there while trying to figure out a way to get back to his world. Back home, Ismet’s comrades-in-arms organize an underground resistance. The character of Ismet, by the way, was based on one of the family’s actual dogs of the same name.

“O.k. star in comic book. I can haz belly-rub now?”

It’s a solid story premise, and it was pretty well-executed, especially when you consider that it was done by a 17/18 year-old. The art in the series looked very, well, indie or underground, or – which was actually the case – like it’s done by someone who’s still learning the craft. As the issues progress, the evolution and improvement of Wadsworth’s talent can definitely be seen.

Sample page from the first issue.
Sample page from the fifth issue.

Anyway, Becky brought me and my pal the first two issues on the bus, but by that time summer vacation was rolling around, so the continuation of the school-bus distribution channel was out of the question. Luckily, though, I noticed that both issues of Ismet had ads for a comic book shop called Rackafratz, in relatively nearby Salem. The shop’s owner, a certain Max McNamar, was Greg’s friend and also the editor of Ismet.

Note that Ismet has something in common with our own Travis Pelkie: they’re both Cerebus fans. Either that, or he’s derisively laughing at the idea of an aardvark headlining a comic book.

So that’s how I discovered my first comic book shop. It was located about a block away from a shopping mall that my mom and/or older siblings went to occasionally, so one day that summer I walked over and checked it out. Man, what a revelation. The place not only sold comics, new and back issues, but also old paperbacks. It was like I had died and gone to heaven. Anyway, on that first trip I was flush with birthday cash, so I not only got the next issue of Ismet but also a stack of other comics. And I had a nice chat with Mr. McNamar, who was happy that the ads in Ismet had led me there. And later that year, in the autumn, I snagged the first issue of another indie comic, Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory published by Pacific, and became a big fan of Pacific’s other output for a while.

Only five issues of Ismet were ever published, despite assurances by Wadsworth that a sixth issue would certainly be published. Even the fifth issued was published with a delay, partially due to the fact that Wadsworth had started attending art school in Portland.

Fast forward many, many more years: it’s the early ‘00s, and I got back into comics in a big way, and I recalled my first indie comic and how I came to read it. So I did some searches at online back issue sites and was surprised to find that the whole run of Ismet was (and is) available and quite inexpensive (initially, I thought that the back issues would be really hard to find, and costly on top of that). I also became really curious about whatever happened to Wadsworth. As far as I can tell, he pretty much disappeared from the comics scene after Ismet, never doing anything else (unless he assumed a very well-guarded alias). It’s even hard to track him down using simple Google or FB searches (I’ve never done a deep-dive investigation and have no intention of doing so – if someone’s not stupidly easy to find online I figure there’s a reason for that and I like to respect people’s privacy). But I still find myself thinking about him occasionally, and wonder what he would have done had he stuck to comics…

The blurb for the sixth issue that wasn’t to be, but its title seems apropos to this post.

10 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Gee, my first indie comic? I suppose it depends on how you define it. Marvel and DC have never been the end-all, be-all; I had stuff from Archie, Harvey, Western (Gold Key/Whitman) and Charlton. All of those had been around since the 40s or 50s, if not before. I suppose my first from an upstart, new company was the final issue of Phoenix, from Atlas/Seaboard. That was the one where they dumped the biblical allegory and turned him into a pseudo-Green Lantern/Lensman, calling him the Protector. I think you could qualify that as an indie comic.

    Some years later, in the early 80s, I walked into a mall bookstore that I visited fairly often and noticed their comic rack looked different. I had been running cold on comics; but, saw all kinds of new stuff that wasn’t from DC or Marvel, as well as some reprints of things like Mantlo and Golden’s Micronauts and Neal Adams’ X-Men. It was there I picked up the first two issues of Jon Sable, Freelance, from Mike Grell, one of my favorites, with Warlord and Legion of Superheroes. This was different. Inside were ads for their upcoming American Flagg and some shop selling something called Cerebus the Aardvark, as well as a book titled Elfquest and another called The First Kingdom. I looked around some more and found a couple of issues of something called Starslayer, also from Grell, those Micronaut reprints, and the first couple of issues of the Mighty Crusaders, with Rich Buckler on art. As I purchased them, I took a glance at some magazine-sized comic, called Nexus. It looked a little on the primitive side; but, it had an excitement to it. I didn’t get that one though.

    It appeared that this bookstore had gotten a direct market account, as they were carrying direct market titles and indie publishers. There were a few things from pacific, plus those early First Comics and Archie Red Circle. This was Decatur, IL and Capital Distribution was just up in Chicago; so, my suspicion was that was who was providing them to the store. That would be the closest I got to a comic shop, until the next year, when I went off to college at the Univ. of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana. There I found an honest-to-goodness comic shop, with fanzines, indies, the Big Two and even some British comics. That started my love affair with the indies, which led to tons of material from Eclipse, Dark Horse, Kitchen Sink, Fantagraphics, aardvark-Vanaheim, Comico, Now and even Raw magazine. I saw my first manga there, when First was reprinting Lone Wolf and Cub, as well as my first actual volumes of Asterix and Tintin (I knew of them, thanks to Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics). Those I saw in the student union bookstore. It was a great time to explore the other worlds that comics were offering, while DC was going through a Crisis on infinite Earths and Marvel was having Secret Wars and the X-Men were getting kind of brutal. I still dabbled in some of that (especially post-Crisis DC); but, I was looking more and more at things like Scout, Justice Machine, Grendel, The American, and a few others.

  2. Tim Dennie

    You always remember your first…

    Critters, from Fantagraphics. I had really gotten into Bauhaus (the band), and I learned about this weird side project involving some of the members (The Sinister Ducks, including Alan Moore!). The internet was barely a thing at the time, and eBay may not have even BEEN a thing at the time, so the chances of me ever finding an obscure single from another country seemed like zero. (Today I own a copy of that single, so Flying Spaghetti Monster bless the internet!). But one of the songs was on a Flexidisc, in Critters #23.

    The only way I could get that issue, though, was a bundle with a bunch of other issues. Which turned out to be an amazing stroke of luck, because those issues introduced me to Freddy Milton’s Gnuff, Steve Gallacci’s Birthright/Erma Felna, and, most prominently, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.

  3. jccalhoun

    I don’t exactly remember my first indie comic. Back in the 80s at flea markets there was often a guy with comics and I would see comics from smaller publishers like Charlton and when I was in 5th or 6th grade a guy who worked with my mom was moving and gave me a couple boxes of comics from the 70s and there were quite a few Warren magazines.
    So I was aware of other publishers besides DC and Marvel.
    Because I lived in a rural area, at some point I started getting comics through Mile High Comics and was made aware of all the small press black and white comics but I think the first one I got was when Mile High gave out sample issues of some Eclipse comics and I got sent an early issue of Scout. Around that time I became an Alan Moore fan and in the Mile High order form I saw that Quality Communications was republishing 2000AD stories and so I started getting those.

  4. Louis Bright-Raven

    Well, I fell back into comics ( I stopped reading them around age 10) because of a kid I rode on the school bus with when I was 13 back in September of 1985. At the time I was living in Lake Villa, IL, about an hour or so north of Chicago. This kid introduced me to X-MEN, and because of that interest, I found other kids in the junior high who were bringing comics to school and I had passing glimpses of the early Turtles and Michael Dooney’s GIZMO, but I didn’t actually get to read any because I wasn’t welcome in the “Comic Geek Club” (I wasn’t exactly welcome anywhere in junior high; it’s kind of hard to be popular when you have a 3.86 GPA taking all AP classes two grades above your age, *and* even though you’re a tiny runt at 5′ 100 lbs. even, you hold 38 out of 45 school boys’ athletic records and the other categories you rank in the top 3. People hate overachievers. LOL)

    But somehow, I did come across the kids in school who were making their own comics, and that’s really where I started out at with indies, was the REAL indie / underground stuff. I even ended up editing one of the books for the creator.

    Tim Jones III’s SAINT JUSTICE (TJ’s COMIX, 9 issues; I edited #3-9) was kind of a more innocent version of later prominent series that became popular, such as PREACHER or BATTLE POPE. It was about a priest who was battling alcoholism and had lost his faith when the Rapture begins and Archangel Gabriel tasks him with protecting souls from the forces of Lucifer before they face judgment. Tim started the book as a coping mechanism; his uncle was a priest who battled with alcohol addiction and passed at a very young age (early forties, if I remember correctly) and the character was loosely based on his uncle. Tim’s art was solid (for a fourteen year old – it was certainly not ‘pro level’ yet), but it was more about him trying to tell a story that would help him deal with the loss of his uncle than anything else. It stopped after nine issues because his grades slipped to an unacceptable level and his parents put their foot down and stopped paying for the production / distribution of it (it was sold in some of the Chicago area comics shops, notably Moondog’s, and through Friendly Frank’s distribution exclusively to the DM, but he sold most of his copies via self-distribution to other kids) until he got his grades back up. By the time he did get his grades back to acceptable levels, either he had gotten the need to tell the story out of his system or he was interested in other things, so he never finished the story in that run. He did attempt to sell a remastered (redrawn / rewritten) version of the series to Image back in 1994 as he finished college, but it was rejected, and he went to work for Toyota as an automotive engineer and designer, whom he’s worked for ever since.

    Another book was Paul Mazurek’s E.D. DIE (MAZ COMIX, started in November 1986). I don’t really know exactly how many issues there are of this series. I’ve heard it’s anywhere from 80 to 125 issues. I only saw the first 10 issues. Paul lived about 6-10 blocks from me in our little housing community. He was a Polish kid who wore his hair in the Richard Dean Anderson “MacGyver” mullet style, and wore what seemed like a never-ending, ever-changing wardrobe of jean jackets that had 80s heavy metal and rock band t-shirt designs sewn on the backs – among them Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, and of course, Iron Maiden. Which of course their mascot created by Derek Riggs, Eddie, was the inspiration for Paul’s comic. Think of it as a stylized alteration of Eddie’s look from the SOMEWHERE IN TIME Album, where he’s kinda like a zombified cyborg, and storyline is it’s THE WALKING DEAD with all cyborg zombies meets ROGUE TROOPER – that’s the best way I can describe it. The lead character is this guy who dies owing the government back taxes and his family can’t pay so the government claims his dead body and reanimates it as one of the Enlisted Dead (or E.D.s) and sends this cyborg zombie out to fight amongst hundreds of others in a governmental / corporate war. What they don’t know is that they goofed when they reanimated him and somehow got his brain to function so that he has memories of his living life. He goes AWOL, trying to find his family, and is being hunted by the other E.D.s while he tries to figure out what’s happened to him.

    Paul never distributed it through a regional or national distributor, most probably for legal reasons (I can only imagine what Iron Maiden and Riggs would have done if they saw it). So you had to buy it directly from him or through comics shops who would carry it as an underground ‘fanzine’ type comic. (Again, in the Chicago area, that would have been Moondog’s at the time; today, you MIGHT be able to find some of the back stock at Chicago Comics / Quimby’s Bookstore, but that’s the only place I can think of.) I moved away from the area in 1987, and for whatever reasons it never dawned on me to order a subscription, so I lost touch with it and with Paul. But I’ve continue to hear legend of him over the decades. He supposedly ended the series in 2015.

    So that’s where I started. Then in fall of 1987, I went to high school at Grayslake Community High School in Grayslake, IL (now known as Grayslake Central High School). There I began to enter the fray myself. It started in journalism class – the teacher had this idea that nobody knew what the school mascot (a ram)’s name was. So I did this comics strip where a humanoid ram tries out for the football team, and he can’t participate because you have to have a legal name and be registered in the school as a student. The plan was to have the student submit name and have a vote to name the mascot. The story was also playing off my own personal experience of not being allowed to play on the football team for the school because of my small size (5’1″ 120 lbs. at the time).

    Unfortunately, a sophomore who was also in the class actually went and did the research and discovered that the Ram had a name – Willie (Blech! The ribbing we got from other schools – “Hey, look! It’s Gays-Lake’s mascot Willie! HAHAHAHAAHA!”) Anyway, the teacher ran the other student’s strip because technically that was the historically accurate story, and the dipshit school board didn’t want to do the SMART thing and consider having the student body choose a new name for him. I was so livid, I sat down and did a 12 page comic, named the Ram “Charger” (Dodge Ram, Dodge Charger – you get it, I’m sure). I sold about 800 copies to students in the school before the Principal or Superintendent caught wind of it and threw a fit. My parents came in with a lawyer and tore the hell out of them, but I was basically persona non grata from that point on at the school. (No I don’t have any records of the comic, other than an old sketch I came across of the character which I published in my art book WINGMAN in 2011, which I’ve mentioned here on AJS before in the past.)

    I did know one other person at Grayslake who did comics as well, one Kevin Lomas. Kevin was a year older than me and Paul Mazurek (who also followed me to Grayslake, while Tim I think went to Antioch High school in a different school district). He was this tall, gawky kid with glasses – as a sophomore he was 6’4″ and he was 6’10” the last I saw him in 1992. We shared a computer class and he was doodling various aliens in his school notebook and that caught my eye and he said, “Just wait, I’ll bring my comic tomorrow.” It turned out he did this book called MUFATO 160, which is basically “What in an alien ship crash landed on earth during the Jurassic Period and the sole survivor of the crash has to try to learn how to survive amongst the dinosaurs while awaiting rescue from his race?” It was a silent comic, to boot (think what if the Predator was in Ricardo Delgado’s AGE OF REPTILES, and you’d have some idea of what this book was like, only Kevin’s alien was of his own design). Kevin said he did about forty issues from 1987 to 1990, but I only saw the first six because again, I moved away to another state. Kevin and I kept in touch via snail mail for those years, but he never sent me copies, and he came up to visit me in Michigan once in the summer of 1992, but we’d both changed and didn’t really share any interests, and we drifted apart soon after that.

    “Direct Market” indie comics still eluded me during much of the 80s – there closest comics specialty stores were 40 miles away, and my parents felt my comics addiction was sated enough by X-Books and Conan, so it was very seldom I ever got to go into a store (maybe for my birthday – I remember getting SILVER SURFER #1 and PUNISHER #1 for my birthday in 1986, and in 1988 I got BATMAN: KILLING JOKE, the first EXCALIBUR one-shot, the Art Adams X-MEN poster, and Eternity’s SOLO EX-MUTANTS #1 which was probably my first indie comics purchase (and I had to hide it from the parents because I’d only looked at the over and not the interiors – nekkid women, sex … that’d have been the end of me buying comics, if they’d ever known). But I didn’t actually see comics shops on a regular basis for another 2-3 years, once I was off in college. It was then that I went nuts and started buying everything in sight, and was where I began doing comics of my own again in earnest.

    But that’s a story for another time.

  5. BB

    My first comic shop bagged up books that weren’t selling or they had too many of, a mix of newish comics that typically weren’t from the Big Two. This was right at the beginning of the end of the boom in the early 90s. Jim Lee’s X-Men had maybe just come out when I started, and then later I bailed around Deathmate.

    Anyways, these bags had like 10 comics in them for a buck! Dark Horse’s DH Presents and Cheval Noir anthologies were my favorites of the bunch, but there was Vortex’s Mister X, some random ElfQuest, Comico’s Elementals, Robotech Macross Saga, and MAZE Agency all come to mind. Those Cheval Noir books though – Tardi’s Adele Blanc Sec, Druillet’s Lone Sloane, Hadelman’s & Marvano’s Forever War – just great comics! I don’t know if any of these can be categorized as truly “indie”, and they don’t compare in that regard to many of the examples others have listed in this conversation, but they were off the beaten path for me and helped expand my perceptions and perspectives.

  6. Mint Rainbow

    I graduated from Salem Academy in 1982. Greg Wadsworth was a 1981 graduate, and we were in the yearbook club/class together. When he started publishing his comic I bought copies from him (which I still have, all five issues, somewhere in my collection). I really wasn’t into comics at the time but because I liked his comic quite a bit, I went looking for things similar to it. He was inspired by Cerebus, so I found that, and I also found Elfquest. That got me into fandom in general and into collecting comics as a hobby ever since.

    I remember the Rackenfrantz comic store, right across the street from the school on Lancaster. That’s where I bought my Elfquest comics.

    I also remember that Greg talked to me about trying to write a short story that he might put in the back of his comic. He knew I wanted to write, and Cerebus had a history of publishing short stories in the back of the comics — but it turned out I had no idea how to craft a four-page story at that time. I was just a stupid high school kid. ^_^ So we talked about it, but since he only did five issues anyway I don’t think anything would have come of it even if I had come up with a workable story.

    He did a short comic strip in the high school newspaper too, about a heroic bee if I remember correctly.

    To the best of my memory he stopped the comic so he could attend art school and improve his art, but he intended to continue with it after. But then I never heard from him again, even as I got more into fandom and comics and worked on being a better writer. So even though he may not remember me well, he had a big impact on the trajectory my life took. ^_^

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Wow, so great to hear from someone who also knew Greg Wadsworth. And you also jogged my memory a bit: I now vaguely recall his sister Becky telling me that they had both attended Salem Academy – just down the road from Sacred Heart Academy, where my older sister went to HS (and which shut down some time in the early ’80s).
      Also nice to know he had an impact on you as well. Thanks for the comment!

  7. Mint Rainbow

    Now that I think about it a bit more, the plan might have been for him to submit a short comic story to Cerebus, rather than put it in his own comic. I don’t remember the specifics — he wanted to see if I could come up with a concept/story worth drawing. Short answer: nope. ^_^ But it was cool that he would take me seriously enough to challenge me to come up with something. He showed me some of the short stories in Cerebus too, to give me an idea of what he was looking for.

    I hadn’t really known him before his senior year when we were in that class together, but he was a very nice guy.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yep, even though I was a really little kid at the time, that’s the way I remember him: very nice guy. And the fact that he was encouraging you to try to write something brought a smile to my face – sounds about right.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.