The title of ‘America’s Third Biggest Comic Book Publisher’ is actually more prestigious than it sounds. With the fabled Big Two of Marvel and DC establishing themselves and their characters several decades ahead of their chief rivals, the jostling for the bronze medal slot and a still-substantial slice of the market has seen plenty of competition. Dark Horse held the title at one point, thanks largely to a successful business model of blending evergreen franchises from other media such as Aliens, Predator and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with new and original characters like Hellboy and The Goon. Meanwhile IDW have thrived ever since striking gold with 30 Days of Night, licensing extended universe tales of Star Trek, Ghostbusters, GI Joe and Transformers. Overall though, Image Comics is the name that has most consistently sat atop the tree as the biggest, if not always the best, of the rest.
Image was founded in 1992 as a result of frustration among increasingly brand-conscious creators. Marvel was enjoying a flourishing run of financial success in the early 1990s, thanks in no small part to an industry-wide explosion in interest following the release of Batman in movie theatres in 1989, and the new breed of iconic artists working for the company at the time were the star attractions for the casual reader. Todd McFarlane’s phenomenally popular run on The Amazing Spider-Man led to the publication of a new showcase for his talent, with the adjectiveless Spider-Man spinning more money than its protagonist did webs, while the likes of Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silverstri and Whilce Portacio turned the previously flagging X-Men franchise into the multi-book, squillion-selling empire that we know today. Indeed 1991’s X-Men #1, illustrated and co-written by Lee alongside long-time X-scribe Chris Claremont, remains the biggest-selling comic book of all time at the time of writing, with sales of over 8 million (thanks in no small part to the ever-savvy Marvel marketing strategy of multiple variant covers).
It was in 1991 that these gifted creators approached Marvel and requested renegotiated contracts. Weary of creating new characters that were merchandised to the hilt by the publishing giant and seeing only modest return for their invention, a request was made for creative control over these new characters (among them such luminaries as Venom, Omega Red and Deadpool) – a request that was swiftly and firmly denied. This proved to be the final straw in the breakdown in relationship between employee and publisher, and led to the dissolution of the freelance contracts of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio and Chris Claremont. This artistic octuplet wasted no time in announcing the birth of Image Comics, a new publishing house based on the ethos of creator-owned works.
Image broke itself out into six studios – Portecio had to leave the launch of the project for personal reasons, while Claremont opted to take on other freelance assignments. Liefeld’s imprint Extreme Studios unleashed the first Image Comics release – the team book Youngblood – to a critical savaging but hugely impressive sales figures. Larsen oversaw Highbrow Entertainment and gave the world Savage Dragon, a tale of a super-powered green-skinned police officer that still runs today, under the guidance of Larsen’s pen. No prizes for guessing which creator oversaw Todd McFarlane Productions, home to the only other comic from the Image launch that endures today, the occult anti-hero Spawn. The debut issue of Spawn remains the highest-selling independent release of all time – McFarlane truly was the king of the comic book industry at this point, striding the industry like Jack Kirby once did. Silvestri’s Top Cow line started slowly with the modest-selling Cyberforce, but later found a great deal of success with popular titles such as Witchblade and The Darkness. Jim Lee’s Wildstorm gave the world hugely popular team books such as WildC.A.T.S and Gen13, while Valentino oversaw ShadowLine, a studio that largely sought out creators from outside the existing talent pool. With the comic book industry still enjoying huge mainstream recognition, Image enjoyed substantial financial success and held a 10% market share before the end of the first year of their existence.
The flame burned bright during the early days of Image Comics, but before too long it began to flicker. Key criticisms were levelled at the publishers, frequently pointing out their struggles to keep to a regular release schedule. Many were surprised to find publishers of the bigger titles outsourcing scripting work to other freelance creators, just like the business model of the market leaders that the Image partners found so restrictive – indeed, Neil Gaiman later sued McFarlane over the rights to characters he created whilst writing Spawn. The biggest criticism was reserved for the content of its flagship titles, most of which were sniffily dismissed as the reserve of teenage boys. Eye-catching and elaborate artwork revolving around acts of graphic violence committed by generously proportioned musclemen and barely-dressed women became known as ‘the Image style’. Even industry demigod Alan Moore, who stunned many by returning to mainstream comic books to write for the publisher, referred to his work on Spawn and WildC.A.T.S as “better than average stories for 13- to 15-years olds”. Despite these reservations, Image continued to enjoy a healthy relationship with other creators – Grant Morrison was among the industry superstars to ride the Image gravy train in the early years, while the grass roots of what Image was to become started also started to appear – new creator-owned titles from present and future stars such as Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross and Sam Keith were showcased by the publisher.
Cracks began to appear in the creative utopia in the mid-1990s. Rob Liefeld held the position of CEO of Image Comics at this time, but proved to be something of a controversial figure (a term that would apply to this particular man throughout his career). Part of the Image manifesto was that no creator would interfere with projects owned by other partners, but many complaints and allegations were levelled against Liefeld that suggested a conflict of interests in his dual roles running his own studio, the Image line overall, and a separate venture that he was looking into setting up outside of the publisher. Marc Silvestri was the first to act, withdrawing his Top Cow studio from Image in 1995 following a dispute with Liefeld. With tensions between creators mounting, many of which seemed to revolve around Liefeld, he eventually stepped down and parted company with his partners in acrimonious circumstances, to be replaced by Jim Valentino. Silvestri duly returned Top Cow to the fold and saw a number of his characters enjoy adaptations into a variety of other media, including a Witchblade TV series and two critically-acclaimed Darkness video games, in addition to inter-publisher crossovers with countless Marvel and DC heroes. Liefeld himself launched his new publishing house, Awesome Comics, and returned to Marvel’s X-universe. Bridges were eventually rebuilt between Leifeld and Image –Youngblood was re-launched in 2007, under the Image banner.
Jim Lee was the next to depart, albeit in altogether more benevolent circumstances. Lee was no businessman and infinitely preferred the creative elements of his work, feeling that the roles of artist and a publisher were exclusive concepts. Following a brief return to Marvel to work on their ill-fated ‘Heroes Reborn’ concept alongside Rob Liefeld, Lee sold his Wildstorm imprint to DC in 1998, amalgamating the fictional universes, a status quo that still exists today. Lee has spent his time since working on several memorable DC storylines, including the legendary twelve-month Hush arc on Batman, the risible All-Star Batman and Robin with Frank Miller, the Superman epic For Tomorrow, and most recently the re-launched Justice League with DC’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Meanwhile, his characters from Wildstorm still flourish – Stormwatch was among the titles re-launched and re-numbered as one of 2011’s New 52, while Wildstorm’s chief villain Lord Helspont has recently had a run-in with a certain Kryptonian.
As the 20th Century drew to a close Image were beginning to struggle, with their market share truly threatened by Dark Horse and IDW. Valentino’s tenure as publisher ended in 2003 having seen mixed results. Sales figures were down on the early days of the Image launch but the range of titles available had significantly diversified, unearthing exciting new talent such as Brain Michael Bendis in the process. Erik Larsen was the next into the Image hot-seat, serving as publisher from 2004 until 2008, eventually deciding to step down to concentrate on creating new content for Savage Dragon at the request of fans of the book.
Image managed to keep their heads above water without pulling up any creative or financial trees through the next few years. It was the introduction of another new writer to the company that really sparked the renaissance that readers are reaping the benefits of today. Robert Kirkman, the brains behind the popular superhero title Invincible and that little horror comic that could, The Walking Dead, signed up with Image in 2008. His post-apocalyptic zombie tale was met with instant acclaim and has proved to be his masterwork thus far, inspiring Image to make him the first non-founder partner of the publisher. The Walking Dead couldn’t be further from the initial ‘Image style’, washed out black-and-white artwork that focusses on strong, tight storytelling superseding bells and whistles, and laying the foundations for the new industry standard. Many new titles have followed in Kirkman’s stead, with increasingly exciting results – the Image line-up for 2012 is particularly eye-catching. Securing the return of Brian K. Vaughn in the unmissable Saga is a real coup, while Jonathan Ross’ collaboration with uber-artist Bryan Hitch, America’s Got Powers, is generating huge buzz. Ongoing titles such as the Eisner-award winning Chew and the pop horror of Hack/Slash enjoy rabid audiences, while Ed Bruckacker’s blend of Lovecraftian body horror and vintage crime in Fatale is shaping up as one of the most interesting titles of the year, and new boy Angelo Tirotto is impressing with his Oz-via-Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre debut miniseries No Place Like Home. The recent MMA-based mini-series Heart demonstrated another genre showcase, while Grant Morrison will be returning later in the year alongside artist Darick Robertson with a new title, Happy. Far from the days of yore when Image comics were the preserve of teenage boys, to be considered guilty pleasures at best, Image can now proudly point to a varied and intelligent roster of books that is arguably the most adult range on the market today. Despite this, if anybody finds themselves nostalgic for a bygone era Todd McFarlane has returned to scripting and sketching duties on Spawn, while Larsen is still producing new Savage Dragon material.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, Marvel has since taken a leaf out of the Image book by starting their own creator-owned imprint Icon (home to series written by modern marvels such as Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis). Given how this publishing house came to be, this is perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to those eight brave and talented men that set this ball rolling two decades ago. Image may have started life as a loudmouth braggart, frequently demanding attention in the basest way possible, but 20 years on it has blossomed into a mature and thoughtful publishing house that is the first port of call for many a comic book pull list that can claim to have changed the comic book industry for the better. Not a bad mission statement – if Image continue to develop their reputation at this rate, the Big Two will finally become the Big Three.