In their own image: how Image revolutionized comics… twice
Way back in 1991, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio marched into the Marvel offices and quit their jobs. Quitting wasn’t the surprising part though – comic creators often have fluid tenures at the various comic houses – but what they did after they left that changed the game forever.
Comics as an artistic medium are built on the backs of the writers and artists, and up until that point the industry standard dictated that creators got no share of profits for characters they created. Sadly, this resulted in some legendary creators like Jack Kirby living in near poverty later in life while his characters became cornerstones of public consciousness and billion dollar properties.
Cut to the 90s, where comics were more profitable than they had ever been before. Backed in part by a speculator market that saw comics as investments rather than a hobby, comic houses pumped out record print runs to combat the staggering demand, turning a relatively small hobby into a multi-million dollar industry. The problem of course was that the artists and writers saw none of these record profits and characters such as Venom and Deadpool, in some part created by McFarlane and Liefeld respectively, were making money only for the comic publishers.
That changed when the seven comic creators left Marvel in order to found their own comic book publisher they would dub Image Comics.
Image essentially started as an outlet for creative control and with it came only two rules: creator’s owned their own work, and no other creator could interfere with the others work. From those humble beginnings they would quickly garner more market share than a struggling DC, and their comics became massive hits, often garnering worldwide media coverage.
There were hiccups though, as many of the original Image creations were either amalgams of existing DC and Marvel heroes with a new coat of paint, or victims of the notoriously poor editorial control early Image had, causing books to be shipped months late. Still, Image thrived under McFarlane’s Spawn and Larsen’s Savage Dragon, and outside creators began to take notice.
Soon, a much needed infusion of new content was underway, and outside creators began to thrive too. Sam Keith’s The Maxx had transcended into a TV show on MTV, and Kurt Busiek started his popular Astro City title. The original creators had matured too, and began to crank out better quality books like Lee’s Gen 13, a book that also launched J. Scott Campbell, and Silvestri’s Witchblade, which spawned a successful TV show as well.
Image experienced another downturn in the late 90s when Rob Liefeld left the company over disputes of poaching talent from the other creators, and setting up his own Maximum Comics outside of the Image umbrella. The downward trend continued, and by the 2000s a lot of the Image luster had worn off. The company continued to lose its market share, and upstarts like Dark Horse and other indie companies began to fill the void.
It was clear to many at Image that what was working creatively and financially in the 90s no longer worked in the new millennium, and the company needed another creative spark. And a spark they got in the form of Robert Kirkman and a little indie comic known as The Walking Dead.
It goes without saying that The Walking Dead was a smash hit in the comics realm, but also eventually a massive success in television, and just about every other merchandising realm you can think of. The real success of The Walking Dead though is bringing Image Comics back from the brink of extinction. Without The Walking Dead, we would never have a lot of the wealth of talent and compelling stories that are shaping the future of comics today, and the creators are reaping the benefit.
Starting in 2009, Image looked to diversify its business both in the types of comics they published and the creators who published them. Under the tutelage of new head publisher Eric Stephenson, the late 2000s have seen a massive surge of success for Image as they’ve re solidified their position as largest indie comics publisher.
With titles like The Manhattan Projects, Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, and Sex Criminals, Image and its creators have successfully pushed the comic book medium in ways that the big two never could, all the while never interfering or attempting to editorialize or capitalize on their creators works. Speaking on why he and artist Fiona Staples chose to publish Saga with Image, Brian K. Vaughn explained:
I love all the other companies I’ve worked with, but I think Image might be the only publisher left that can still offer a contract I would consider “fully creator-owned.” Saga is a really important story to me, so I wanted a guarantee of no content restrictions or other creative interference, and I needed to maintain 100% control and ownership of all non-publishing rights with the artist, including the right to never have our comic turned into a movie or television show or whatever…
Right now, we’re in the middle of a boom at Image Comics, fostered both by the unique and diverse perspectives first-time and little known creators are bringing to a publisher which accepts them with open arms. But also by seasoned creators who are ditching the big two to work on their own original IPs they can experiment with, without having to worry about corporate mandates and tent pole media franchises to appease.
First and foremost, Image has always been about telling engaging stories without corporate oversight, and after 25 years there’s no better time to be a fan of their books.
Image credits: Image Comics