A challenger appears: assessing the early days of Image Comics
Earlier this year Image Comics celebrated its 25th anniversary of operation and its prospects have never been better. A now fully diverse independent comics publisher, Image Comics features breakout hits like The Walking Dead, Saga, Invincible, and Sex Criminals, but the foundations of Image Comics looked very different.
Seven hugely popular Marvel creators (Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd Mcfarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino), fed up with not receiving equal pay for the successes of their work, jumped ship and formed their own comic publisher that they would dub Image Comics. Unlike the big two, the seven founders of Image would allow character and intellectual property rights to remain with their creator – an unheard of move for comics at the time – and Image would only take a small share of the profits to run the business.
The buzz around the launch was electric, as a speculator’s market had recently descended upon comics, and the original books all sold out many times over as investors looked to comics as an investment. While that didn’t pan out – you can now find most of these books in the dollar bin at your local comics book store – the stories themselves live on as a reminder of the “extreme” days of the early nineties, where large breasts, oily muscles, back breaking superhero poses, and anti-heroes ruled. But just how do the first books live up to modern standards?
Cyberforce #1 came out in October 1992 and was Marc Silvestri’s first book following his co-founding of Image Comics.
One of the main criticisms of early Image books was that they were a little too closely inspired by some of the big Marvel properties the co-founders of Image had just left, and one of the main culprits of this was Silvestri’s Cyberforce.
Essentially an X-Men book with a different coat of paint slapped onto it, Cyberforce focused on a cybernetic superhero team looked down upon by society for being “freaks”, complete with rival political factions and a Mutant Liberation Army that acts as an outside-the-law vigilante group. It’s not the most original premise, but it’s different enough that it was interesting at the time.
Where the book really shines is the artwork. Marc Silvestri is simply a great artist, and Cyberforce certainly is one of his better works. Of course, the typical 90s fare is present, and some of the characters may be a little uninspired – Ripclaw is essentially Wolverine combined with Omega Red – but every panel is seeping with energy and Silvestri’s art is undeniably dynamic.
B. For what it is, Cyberforce is a competent action oriented book with pretty cool artwork. It’s not breaking any ground, but it wasn’t trying to either.
Erik Larsen seems to have been born to create Savage Dragon comics. The only original Image book to still be written by its original author (Mcfarlane’s Spawn is still in print but has long since gotten other creative teams) Larsen came up with the idea of the Dragon as a kid and finally brought it to fruition under the Image banner.
Savage Dragon was my favorite Image book as a kid, and revisiting this issue was a blast. The characters are fun and gorgeously drawn by Larsen, who exhibits the same panache that was on display in his Spider-Man books, and his storytelling is action-packed and always building to the climax. The book is really without a dull moment, and remains fast-paced right up until the end.
The Dragon is by far the most compelling character of the original Image books too, though Larsen never gives his backstory in this issue, his heroism and attitude tell us all we need to know. His “suffering from amnesia” back story certainly isn’t groundbreaking, how can you not love a big green-skinned fin-headed superhero who’s determined to fight bad guys?
A-. Savage Dragon #1 is simply engaging storytelling with compelling characters and stellar art. There’s a reason it’s still going strong.
Jim Valentino was perhaps the least known of the founding Image creators, openly admitting: “I was pretty anxious about my ability to hold up my end” in the Shadowhawk vol. 1 trade paperback, and although his run on Guardians of the Galaxy was a critical success, his sales never matched his Image colleagues before the move away from Marvel. That changed with Shadowhawk though, as the first issue of the series topped 500,000 sold copies and became Valentino’s highest selling comic.
Shadowhawk is a book that tries to do the most with its newfound success. Where other original Image books were simple action oriented tales, Shadowhawk tackled inequality, drug abuse, and inner city crime. Shadowhawk is also one of the few books of its day with an African-American protagonist, which was rare even in the early 90s, and feels unique from the other Image books in that regard as well.
Shadowhawk is an engaging character as well. Essentially a stripped-down version of Batman, Shadowhawk takes everything that doesn’t work with Batman stories – his refusal to kill and and allowance of criminals to escape justice chief among them – and turns them on its head, allowing Shadowhawk to exist as a character with a moral compass that will do whatever he can to make the world point north.
B-. Shadowhawk works on a storytelling level even by today’s standards and goes for more than a simple action story. The art is okay as well, but definitely doesn’t hold up as well as the other books.
Todd Mcfarlane’s Spawn is unquestionably the most popular franchise of the original six Image books, spawning a live action movie (with a reboot coming soon) and an adult-oriented animated show on HBO to boot. That being said, the early Spawn comics were never as great as they could have been.
Mcfarlane’s art is unmistakable – his cartoon-like elements blended with realism, a style he made popular, are splashed onto every page. You can certainly tell Mcfarlane reveled in the darkness of the pages of Spawn, and connected wholeheartedly with the character.
The problem here for me is the story. Early Spawn is well known for being a meandering affair where for the first 50 or so issues, Spawn doesn’t do all that much. That’s certainly true for the first issue, where we see Spawn wake up with no memory of his past – save for the fact the he made a deal with Malebolgia, a demon lord of hell. Spawn then stops an attempted rape (an action he questions, because he isn’t a hero) and has a flashback to his previous life where he sees his wife mourning his death. It’s all a bit too plodding.
C-. Mcfarlane’s art is stellar, and he’s definitely in his prime here, but the lack of a story really drags the book down.
Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s. has the opposite problem many of the other image books have in that it just has too much going on. In the first issue alone we’re already juggling three major factions, and it ends up needing multiple reads just to figure out what was going on.
Jim Lee created WildC.A.T.s. as a child with his friend Brandon Choi, and when Lee landed at Image he jumped at the chance to start his childhood creation. Brandon Choi was a first time creator coming into the book and it shows. There’s a rush to introduce a lot of ideas that could be great when they’re fleshed out, but they’re lost in the shuffle here. The art on the other hand is stellar and you can tell Lee is enthusiastic about the series, something that was missing in his later X-Men issues.
The alien hybrid superheroes are certainly an interesting concept, and the eternal struggle between the Kherubim and Daemonites alien races is a cool one, but between the C.A.T.s team, the villainous Cabal, and the mysterious group Coda which has some villain members and some hero members just makes the whole thing muddy. Seriously, there’s like 5 major arcs’ worth of information just in this first book alone.
C-. In fairness, I’ve never been a huge WildC.A.T.s. fan – I much preferred later Wildstorm imprint books like Gen 13. The art in this first issue is great and the colors pop more than any other book at the time, but too much is introduced too quickly and it really holds the book back.
Rob Liefeld was the quintessential 90s artist. For better or worse, his artwork exuded the “extreme” nature that flooded 90s comics, and nowhere is that apparent than on Youngblood. I have to admit that as a kid I really liked Youngblood. Most of that is because, as a kid, I had no eye for taste at all. That being said, there are some enjoyable things about this book, but not much.
Youngblood was the very first Image book published way back in 1992 – although the team had appeared in 1987 in a Megaton Explosion one-shot before hand – and was a commercial success, becoming the highest selling indie published comic up until that point.
Youngblood are a team of government run superheroes who operate in two teams – a “home” team, which operates in the US, and an “away” team which operates in other parts of the world. The art in Youngblood is peak-Liefeldian, and many of the scenes are all the lesser for it. The backgrounds are also almost never existent, so it feels like the book is set entirely in a huge nondescript room.
Apart from Bedrock, the character designs are over-designed and busy (though even he is subjected to massive shoulder pads) and the problems of perspective and anatomy that have always plagued Liefeld are present here more than ever. The writing is similarly bad and goes nowhere, and the book makes the odd choice of putting two covers on the book and splitting the away teams story upside down in the back of the book.
It seems to me that where leaving Marvel’s strict editor’s rules had helped the other Image creators of the time, Liefeld sorely missed the reins.
F. I really enjoyed Bedrock (later Badrock) as a character, especially in the later issues, but even Liefeld concedes that this first issue was a disaster.
Image Comics started with a bang and did so well they proved that independent books could go toe-to-toe with the big two. The early series certainly weren’t perfect, but they’re a cornerstone of the history of comics, and some do still hold up well the annals of history.
Do you agree with my assessments? Which founding image books were your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.