Books

Remembering Island, the Magazine That Shook Up the Comics Industry

To put out an anthology like this was ambitious, and to do so nearly every month, even more so.

Island Issue 1, cover, by Brandon Graham (all images courtesy of Image Comics)

When the comics magazine Island launched in 2015, it did so to quite a bit of fanfare. The AV Club described it as a “bold, exciting risk” and Nate Patrin at The Comics Journal opined that “the anthology highlights the ways comics can engage and affect creators in real life, how they can build community and expand aesthetics and philosophies.” The magazine boasts an impressive roster of contributors, including a number of the most challenging and compelling cartoonists working today, so the excitement with which each issue was greeted came as no surprise. With an interest in bringing together authors from around the world for comics, interviews, illustrations, and even prose, Island represented a distinct break with the contemporary comics scene. It contained no advertisements, it boasted a mammoth page count, and it was an anthology — far from the most popular format. To put out a book like this was ambitious, and to do so nearly every month, even more so. The goal was to radically shake up the comics industry, which it certainly achieved.

Island Issue 1, intro page, by Brandon Graham

But now, the magazine is shuttering, the recent Issue 15 being its last. And the things it once set out to subvert remain standing.

While its ending is a shame, the magazine, over its brief life, has managed to produce a number of stunning and unique comic books. I.D., for example, one of the first stories serialized in Island, tells the story of a group of people embarking on a clinical trial for full-body transplantation. The work is deeply researched, its writing subtle, nuanced, and full of the speculative textures that make the best science fiction worth reading. Authored by the magazine’s co-editor, Emma Rios, I.D. is deftly illustrated and designed with full, rich, and complex page layouts. Printed with red lines on white background, the serial is divisive because of its aesthetic, though its publication evinces Rios’s willingness to try unusual techniques. While the red-on-white look is itself striking and evocative, Rios’s work stands out even more in a segment of the comic book market whose aesthetics adhere largely to a tradition that eschews alienating the reader’s visual palate. And while it doesn’t work for every reader, its publication established Island’s ethos for visual experimentation and playfulness.

Island Issue 15: Mirenda, title page, by Grim Wilkins

This frenetic eclecticism was not limited to the magazine’s comics. If it were, readers would have been able to pick up the bound collections of Island’s serials without missing a unique part of the Island experience. Instead, the magazine was just that — a magazine. It was full of serialized and self-contained stories, and it featured beautiful covers, spot illustrations, and mixed-media fashion spreads by cartoonists like Patrick Crotty and Katie Skelly. Some issues included interviews with Island contributors, while others featured illustrated prose by comic writers like Bitch Planet’s Kelly Sue DeConnick. What’s more, these illustrations and comics were published at a size that dwarfs the standard 6.6″ x 10.24″ pamphlet comics format; Island’s broad and varied contents were printed at a 7″ x 11″ trim size, a slight increase that makes a big difference, and the magazine itself literally stands out from nearly all the other comics on the shelf.

Island Issue 10, cover, by Michael DeForge

But, while its breadth of comics, formal playfulness, and size (both its dimensions and its page count) made Island a consistently exceptional read, these things also appear to have been its downfall. It was significantly more expensive to print than traditional comics (as evidenced by its shift from perfect binding to the cheaper saddle-stitch with Issue 5), and, while it offered significantly more comics per dollar than a typical pamphlet comic, it came at the steep price of $7.99, which seemed to turn away many readers. This, coupled with a “healthy page rate up front,” which provides authors with income for every page they produced regardless of sales, no doubt made the books’ overhead higher than a typical Image comic, which put them in a particularly precarious financial position. Ultimately, low sales plus high overhead is an unsustainable combination.

Fortunately, Island did exist for a time, and the comics scene is infinitely richer for it. During its brief life, the magazine introduced mainstream American readers to cartoonists like José Domingo, F. Choo, Annie Mok, and Tessa Black. It offered an alternative vision of what a monthly comic book could be, and it produced serials like “Ancestor,” “Habitat,” and “A Land Called Tarot.” While it’s impossible to predict what its long-term influence on individuals and on the industry as a whole will be, Island leaves a legacy populated by aesthetically and thematically diverse comics — one that its curators and contributors should be proud of. As co-editor Brandon Graham wrote in the magazine’s final issue: “The ISLAND sinks now, but it’s still there just beneath the waves.”

Island Issue 15: Pop Gun War, interior page, by Farel Dalrymple
Island Issue 13, opening illustrations, by Jack Cole
comments (0)