Anyone who's been keeping an eye on the independent comics world for the last year or two can't help but have noticed a certain, well, migration. A growing number of critically acclaimed comics artists who made their literary reputations with small independent publishers or even as self-publishers—from Charles Burns to Craig Thompson to Jeff Smith—are flocking to New York trade book imprints to publish their next graphic novels. Call it poaching or call it seduction, but New York trade houses are paying close attention to graphic novels' burgeoning sales and critical acclaim. They're luring indie stars with big advances and promises of much increased distribution and promotion, all with the hope of driving sales in a category many New York houses actually know very little about.

This move pertains mainly to the art-comics niche, but has also touched some teen-oriented series. Publishers seem willing to pay six-figure advances (in at least two recent acquisitions) in a category that has barely begun to establish commercial viability in the general book trade. It's the comics equivalent of that moment in the early 1990s when major record labels realized that bands on indie labels could be profitable, and rushed to sign as many as they could.

Some of the recent migrations from indie to big house include: Joe Sacco, an acclaimed comics war correspondent whose work was previously published by Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books and Toronto-based Drawn & Quarterly, will publishing his next book (about a refugee camp in Gaza) with Henry Holt's Metropolitan Books imprint. Chynna Clugston, a stylish, manga-influenced indie star, published her two funny teen girl series, Blue Monday and Scooter Girl, through Portland, Oregon's Oni Press. Clugston's newest, Queen Bee, just came out from Graphix, Scholastic's recently launched graphic novel imprint. This fall, Chamberlain Brothers, a pop culture—oriented imprint at Penguin, will publish former Top Shelf author Matt Madden's new book, 99 Ways to Tell a Story, a clever lit-comics variation on Raymond Queneau's book of experimental fiction Exercises in Style.

St. Martin's Press is getting into the game with plans to publish Nick Bertozzi's The Salon, a gorgeously illustrated, quirky work of fiction set amid the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein. The book was originally due from Florida's Alternative Comics, until money woes put the book on hold. And St. Martin's is also doing a book by David Heatley, a talented experimentalist whose work was known mostly only by the hippest of art-comics insiders; he was formerly published by the much-raided Fantagraphics.

The Route to Riches

For a significant number of comics artists, their trip to New York begins in Seattle, at Fantagraphics. The list of star comics authors who have left there for New York houses, principally Pantheon, is a who's who of alternative comics artists that includes Dan Clowes, author of Ghost World and the new Ice Haven; Chris Ware, author of Jimmy Corrigan and, this fall, Acme Novelty Library; Jessica Abel, author of next spring's La Perdida; and Charles Burns, whose much-anticipated Black Hole is coming this fall.

Fantagraphics' publicity director Eric Reynolds is sanguine about what he calls "Pantheon's cherry-picking." Reynolds acknowledges Pantheon's ability to bring an artist to a much larger book world audience. The two houses have reached a kind of publishing détente: they've made an agreement that allows Fantagraphics to handle book sales of its former artists in the comics shop market, a quirky retail channel that can be confusing to the uninitiated publisher.

Thanks to this arrangement, Reynolds says, the artist flight hasn't hurt Fantagraphics. He quipped that Chip Kidd, a much-lauded Random House book designer, Pantheon acquiring editor and admitted comics geek, "has really good taste. I realize that they have very good reasons for doing it. From a purely financial standpoint, they can do a lot better than we can."

Former Fantagraphics and now Pantheon author Chris Ware published Jimmy Corrigan to great critical acclaim in 2000; the book has gone on to sell more than 100,000 copies for Pantheon. "In the case of Jimmy Corrigan," says Reynolds, "we've probably done better with it than we would have if we'd published it ourselves." But he's not entirely sanguine. "If Pantheon suddenly took over the entire Dan Clowes backlist, I might freak out a little."

Fantagraphics and Pantheon seem to have made peace, but sometimes things can get messy. What happens when an artist, who may have started publishing with a handshake and very tiny advance, finds he or she can attract a six-figure offer? In a much-talked-about move, Craig Thompson, author of the Top Shelf—published autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, signed with Pantheon to publish his next, Habibi, due in 2007, following a high-stakes—at least for comics—auction held in July.

The award-winning Blankets made Thompson a star in the comics world and sold over 40,000 copies, partly thanks to Top Shelf's tireless promotion. It raised a few eyebrows in the indie comics community—when people noted that Thompson's first novel, Goodbye Chunky Rice, also published by Top Shelf, had quietly moved to Pantheon's list. Of course, Top Shelf retains backlist rights to Blankets and Carnet de Voyage, a travelogue published in 2004, but it's clear the loss of Habibi and Chunky Rice stings Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros just a bit.

"We wish Craig well in his deal with Pantheon," says Staros. "It's not an easy thing for a publisher to take—we've never invested so much of ourselves as we have with Craig. But we know he'll do well there, and we're happy to be the publishers of Blankets and Carnet de Voyage. There's honor in being Sun Records—if we're Sun Records and he wants to be with RCA, there's not much we can do about that."

"For whatever reason, Craig wanted to make a change," says Anjali Singh, Thompson's Pantheon editor for Habibi. "I think one thing that Pantheon can offer that Top Shelf can't is major distribution. Clearly Craig Thompson wouldn't be who he is if Top Shelf hadn't done a good job publishing him. But I think he probably isn't as known to mainstream booksellers as he should be." Unlike the arrangement Fantagraphics's arrangement, Top Shelf will not distribute Habibi or the Pantheon edition of Chunky Rice (due next summer) to the comics trade. Singh says, "It's not something that we want to encourage. Going forward, we really don't want to be doing it."

Singh also takes issue with the bandwagon-jumping scenario, pointing out that Pantheon published Art Spiegelman, Matt Groening, Ben Katchor and Chris Ware long before the current migrations began.

Other New York publishers are joining the graphic novel book party and some of them are doing it with the same insight into the category as Pantheon. Mark Siegel is the editorial director of Holt/Roaring Brook Press's new comics imprint, First Second, which is raising the ante on graphic novel publishing with a list full of newly discovered artists. But Siegel has also snagged a Top Shelf distributee, the legendary comics artist Eddie Campbell, coauthor, with Alan Moore, of From Hell, who will publish his next book with First Second in 2006. First Second's ambitious initial lists, beginning in spring 2006, will feature books by a number of cartoonists best known for working with independent publishers.

Siegel, an accomplished comics artist himself, is also suspicious of this new literary-graphic-novel gold rush—although some might say he's a bit of a carpetbagger himself. But Siegel points out, "I've walked away from a couple of recent auctions that were spiraling up into these big advances." Siegel worries that "in the short term, sure, it's great for an author to get a huge advance, but what is that going to mean in two or three years? I think some of the other imprints have gone after the independent stable of talent, very deliberately. In many cases, they're just relying on someone else's taste and judgment and knowledge of graphic novels."

The dealmaking goes on. Ballantine has acquired the Flight, surprise hit anthology of color comics by a group of 11 young cartoonists. Flight's first two volumes sold 23,000 and 30,000 copies, respectively. Now the Flight backlist is moving from small Image Comics in Berkeley, Calif., to Random House. Beginning next summer, Ballantine will publish volumes 3 and 4, and the house has a first-look option for new book projects based on the stories in the next two volumes.

Scholastic just inked a two-book deal with Flight editor Kazu Kibuishi to publish Amulet, an all-ages fantasy story excerpted in Flight, through its Graphix imprint.

"Image did a fantastic job with Flight, for what they were capable of doing," Kibuishi says. "It stretched them way too thin. For what we wanted, [the direct market] didn't work as well. But I don't think this deal would've happened if it wasn't for Image."

A lot of this migration to New York is inevitable, a byproduct of the maturation of the graphic novel market in bookstores. Trade book publishers have learned that there is market for graphic novels and that there are established artists who can generate substantial sales right off the bat.

Occasionally there's even a migration in the opposite direction. Alan Moore, a renowned graphic novel author (and a bit of an eccentric), is known for writing such comics classics as From Hell, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, which is currently being made into a film. After what turned out to have been the last in a long string of spats with his publisher, DC Comics, Moore decided to end his relationship with the New York house; he'll publish the third volume of his and Kevin O'Neill's very popular League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series with Top Shelf.

Sometimes the little guys catch a break.