Image Comics @ 20

Published on April 24th, 2012

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Image Comics turns 20 years old this year…check their I.D. though, because they are operating like they have been around for the last 60 years! Honestly, this is “the little company that could”. Sit back and pull up your favorite comfy chair. Let’s take a time traveling adventure into the twilight years of this amazing company that gave the middle finger to the two big boys and is still rocking the lower case “i” even to this day!

It is 1992, Bill Clinton was elected into Presidency, AT&T releases the video telephone for $1,499, Wayne’s World and Reservoir Dogs are in theaters, Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and Nirvana are on Billboards top albums list and Home Improvement, Ren & Stimpy and Star Trek The Next Generation are on T.V. I was just going from Middle School to High School and Generation X was the buzzword. It was a crazy time made crazier by the fact that a group of the hottest comic artist on the planet decided to leave Marvel at the height of their popularity and form a little experiment called Image Comics.

If you read comics in the late 80’s early 90’s you knew the names of all of the BIG artist and all the books they worked on. You followed them like they were rock stars and in a large way they were being treated as such. Most if not all of them were in their late teen’s early 20’s and all of them worked on books that got tons of exposure. Hell, Rob Liefeld had a Levis 501 Jeans add shot by Spike Lee at the time! MTV was interviewing them and even the national news were doing pieces on these gods of the comic Pantheon. That moment in time was when the creators decided to do something solidly different and say “Hey Marvel, we are tired of creating new characters and adding onto existing stories without having any solid investment into them.” and they all agreed to make Image comics…and this made headlines and not just in Wizard!

Images founders consisted of Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio. Each creator promised a cohesive universe for a series that would come out monthly by the new creator owned company. McFarlane was coming off both The Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man to give us Spawn, Rob Liefeld was coming off New Mutants and X-Force to give us Young Blood, Jim Lee was coming off a VERY successful run on both Uncanny X-Men and X-Men to give us WildC.A.T.S, Marc Silverstri was finishing Wolverine and now had Cyber force, Erik Larsen, who hadtaken over for McFarlane on the Amazing Spider-Man, started Savage Dragon and Jim Valentino went from Guardians of The Galaxy to ShadowHawk. As you can see that is some major talent leaving some top shelf books. It made a statement in a big way and had the momentum behind it that had the comic industry on its ear to see how long the company would last however many thought that this was a flash in the pan…who could have guessed how wrong they were!

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Everything was not all roses however starting out they had both hard starts and growing pains along the way. Initially they needed a publisher to start them up so that they could get up and going as most of the artist had not had any solid business experience as a publisher. Enter Malibu Comics. This small but reputable company was sympathetic to these creators and initially published some of the early issues of Images books until they got their feet under them. This in turn had Malibu Comics holding 10% share of the comic industry moving ahead of DC Comics as the most comics sold for 92-93 year. That is impressive numbers considering only Valiant Comics had come close to securing anything near that and they had been around since 1989! Image was the new kid on the block and had plenty to prove to a stagnant and bloated world of comics.

Initially Image seemed to be shipping on time and kept all the titles pretty tight and in the same universe. It seemed like after about 6 or 7 issues however the numbers started to fall back as pressure to throw new number one’s into the mix and create and expand the Image universe became a priority or at the very least a thing all the creators wanted. This seemed to stretch this artist/writers, who were doing double duty or triple duty in some cases, to thin. I remember how difficult it was as a reader because they had some truly awesome concepts and art only to be pushed back after issue 2. It had to be tough as a Comic shop owner as well because the demand was there but the product was just not shipping on time and in some cases not at all. This bit of time seemed to spell a resounding doom for Image but they soldiered on.

Five years after Images started up they were still a big player in the comic industry, but some things had changed. By 1999 Image looked like a completely different beast from the early years. Image creators started to work from their own Creator owned Studios and seemed to ostracize themselves from the rest of the groups which in turn made the Image cohesive Universe seemed almost non existent. Jim Lee had Wildstorm studios which produced a short lived WildC.A.T. cartoon, Marc Silverstri had Top Cow, which had the popular series Witchblade 9 which was later made into a short lived live action t.v. series), Rob Liefeld had Maximum Press  and Todd Mcfarlane dipped into the toy market place with McFarlane toys and a short lived Spawn cartoon. Even within these separate studios resided other studios like Cliffhanger Press, which produced the wildly popular Danger Girl by Scott Campbell and Battle Chasers by Joe Madureira.

All this seemed to come to a head when Jim Lee decided to throw his hat in and sold Wildstorm to competing DC Comics so that he could concentrate more on the creative side rather than have the day to day responsibility as an owner of Image. This coupled with the fact that books were shipping late and the heros in the Image universe were constantly being called out as being both thinly plotted character driven pieces thrown together with extravagant art and a non cohesive universe put Image in a tough spot. It was at this point that I, as a reader, called it quits. It killed the idea of how awesome it is to have all your favorite artist in one place and that you could conceivably all play nice and make something special. That seems to only come once in a lifetime right? Don’t count on it.

Something happened though while I wasn’t looking. Image did something I have only seen really great bands do. They reinvented themselves. They saw the worts and all and said lets move forward” So we don’t have a cohesive universe any more. So what?! Lets make lighting strike twice.” Today only a few books like Spawn and Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen (who is a machine and still draws and writes the series even after 178 issues) still exists. They all seem to exist’s in their own self contained universes and continue to have a large fan following! Even as I this article becomes published they are bringing back Rob Liefeld’s Prophet and Glory completely reinvented and yet they are still poking to the future riddled with top-notch artist and writers who are making a name for themselves in a big way! You need only to look at Robert Kirkman who has built his own franchise with The Walking Dead to see the kinds of success that all started with a group of guys with the same dream. To make comics. So here is to you Image Comics! I hope we get another 60 plus years of great creator owned goodness from a company of now seasoned publishers with great ideas and even greater determination!

While writing my piece on Image at 20 I decided to compile what I consider to be required reading for today and yesterday’s Image. If you feel I have omitted anything please feel free to add it in the comments! So here is my list of Image greats!

imagecomicsearlyYesterday: The Early Years

  • Spawn
  • Savage Dragon
  • Wild C.A.T.S
  • Youngblood
  • Cyberforce
  • Wetworks
  • The Maxx
  • Pitt
  • Shadowhawk
  • Brigade
  • Stormwatch
  • Gen 13
  • Danger Girl
  • Battle Chasers
  • Deathblow
  • Darker Image
  • BloodWulf
  • BloodStrike
  • Sam & Twitch
  • Scud: The Disposable Assasin
  • Wildstar
  • Supreme
  • Union
  • Witchblade
Today: More recent works
  • imagecomicstodayElephantmen
  • Witch Doctor
  • Fatal
  • The Walking Dead
  • Phonogram
  • Madman
  • Nightly News
  • Red Mass for Mars
  • Pax Romana
  • Heathen Town
  • Moriarty
  • Invincible
  • Chew
  • Haunt
  • Jack Staff
  • Jersey Gods
  • Undying Love
  • Glory
  • I Kill Giants
  • Prophet
  • Peter Panzerfaust
  • Severed
  • Saga
  • The Manhattan Projects
  • Teeth
Tomorrow: Things to come!
  • Happy
  • Jupiter’s Children
  • Mara
  • Phonogram – The Immaterial Girl
  • Think Tank

phonogramAs you can tell there really is a large shift from just heroes in tights to more personal stories that stand out in todays comic market place. You can call it a shift in what people want but as long as Image is there to notice the shift and give us quality comics they will always be a VERY strong contender.

Sheldon Lee
Sheldon@comicimpact.com