Jab’s Deep Dive: Image Comics – Part 1 (of A LOT)

Hey all! Here’s a series of things I was writing for another site about Image Comics and its history. Anyone with more familiarity, or any recollections of that period, feel free to chime in as well! I wrote little things about each team and many of the solo characters, particularly of the 1990s period.

IMAGE COMICS:

-Image Comics: where justifiable anger against your bosses, “Meet The New Boss; Same As The Old Boss” Syndrome, weird artists, assholes, hypocrites, vaporware and incompetence combine, creating a weird-ass, mostly shitty comics line that nonetheless actually IMPROVED comics in the long run!

I mean, eventually.

So Image Comics came about in the earyl 1990s, as a direct result of a large group of superstar creators getting tired of working for Marvel Comics. See, comics had shifted a bunch during the 1970s & ‘80s, and creators started getting more and more uppity with how they were treated- seeing legends like Jack Kirby more or less ignored and disregarded despite co-creating the very characters that were now making the top owners’ millions, creators started asking for a piece of that pie. A lot of ugliness transpired, many careers were ruined, and a lot of people swore off the Big Two (Marvel & DC were more or less partners in doing this). Meanwhile, the notion of a “Superstar Creator” was becoming a bigger and bigger thing- Walt Simonson’s debut on The Mighty Thor caused an instant sales surge. Frank Miller’s name alone sold tons of comics. A young Canadian named Todd McFarlane was the hottest artist on The Amazing Spider-Man in YEARS, with scads of issues sold based off of him merely drawing a character for the first time (“Todd’s first Lizard!”, you’d say). A series of artists on Chris Claremont’s The Uncanny X-Men made huge names out of Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio & especially Jim Lee, and a youngster named Rob Liefeld got a lot of attention for his heavily stylized, line-heavy art on the flagging New Mutants title. Oh, and wild, In short, the artists were the draw, more than ever.

These artists, growing in power, would modify art styles popularized by Arthur Adams- heavily-shaded, cross-hatched drawings with TONS of detail. Old-school ’60s outfits would be dropped and guys would now wear gear of corded, reflective metal, shoulder-pads, bandoliers of grenades, pockets (practical!), and more. Things that we make fun of today as hallmarks of excess, but back in the day seemed pretty rad if you were thirteen. Also all the women had extra-mobile spines, half-sphere breasts and snarling faces- SEXY!

And so it was into this world that a large chunk of these new superstar artists, themselves highly creative and constantly wanting to create new characters, were born. And, though creators had been given more and more of a piece of the pie on characters they’d created since the ’80s (Bob Layton once noted to me at a Con that “I just barely got in on Rhodey”- James Rhodes), it was kinda hard for a Liefeld or Lee not to notice that they’d create a megastar like Cable or Gambit, Marvel would churn out tons of comics and toys… and they wouldn’t get that much of it.

Using their sales power as leverage, these artists would nonetheless gain more and more power. Most notably, Claremont, the biggest writer in the game, was repeatedly turned down and forced into things by Editorial until he FRIGGIN’ QUIT THE X-MEN, a book line he’d fostered for SIXTEEN FRIGGIN’ YEARS, all in the name of appeasing the mega-popular Lee & Portacio on art. Jim Lee & Todd McFarlane was given their OWN adjectiveless X-Men and Spider-Man titles to both plot and draw, Portacio got to take the lead on Uncanny, and Liefeld trounced Louise Simonson out of New Mutantsand had the book refashioned into X-Force, a paramilitary-style mutant group (this would become rather influential later). So these creators had more power than ever before… but wanted MORE.

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1992- IMAGE BEGINS:
-And so, in 1992, the superstars of Marvel Comics (DC just… had shit for staff at this point. Nobody gave a rat’s ass about DC in the early ’90s unless they were offing Superman or Hal Jordan or something. They had zero influence over the culture of comics at the time- NONE) all up and quit, largely at once. Fabian Nicieza, co-plotter of X-Force, mentioned at a local Con that while the Marvel staffers were kind of cheering them on against the “big bad” leadership, they kinda left a mess when they bailed.

In all, Image was made up of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, and Jim Valentino. An absolute murderer’s row of hot sellers and stars. And Jim Valentino. And they all quit Marvel to produce their OWN comics company- one that gave 100% creator-ownership. In other words, instead of “Work For Hire” and giving all of their big ideas to Marvel Comics to own in perpetuity, they would own the very characters they created, making all the profits. And working together, they’d actually be able to make a serious go of it! Each one would have their “own” studio, put under the Image umbrella, thus making them all stronger. The comics-buying guides advertisements in old ’90s comics (advertising “ETM is the Biggest & the Best” coming from the mouth of a comic book lady with a word balloon superimposed over her) were all-in for Image immediately, and Wizard Magazine joined in the hype- I remember all the guides suggesting “this new, violent series from Image will be red-hot!” and “A new violent team of mutant heroes from Marc “X-Men” Silvestri!”. EVERYTHING was advertised with violence being key. Cleverly, the creators went for a “60s Marvel” effect, with heroes frequently crossing over into each other’s books- Youngblood guested in WildC.A.T.s, Pitt showed up in Cyberforce #2, and more.

And man… this was HUGE. “Start-Ups” had been done before- tons of independent rivals to Marvel & DC had popped up, ever since the 1930s, though none had survived to be big. Valiant & Malibu were doing alright. But six of the biggest artists in the entire industry all quitting at once? Keep in mind that McFarlane, Lee & Liefeld were the #1, 2 & 3 people in comics at the time, and the others were all a pretty big deal, too. And I tease Jim Valentino, but people dug his Guardians of the Galaxy book.

THE COMICS:
-The comics they produced were huge- some iconic, some… not. They were very typical of the time, and predictably “The same, but more!” of their Marvel work. McFarlane produced Spawn, about a hell-borne ex-soldier brooding in an alleyway. Jim Lee made an X-Men-like paramilitary squad of bad-asses using his own design tropes- WildC.A.T.s. Rob Liefeld had “Artist’s Disease” BAD and just produced character after character, forming multiple teams of characters right away- all X-Force-style paramilitary squads, with his own design tropes repeated throughtout. Mard Silvestri created… a mutant superhero team of guys with claws and cybernetics called Cyberforce. Erik Larsen actually did something original, and made a book about a Superhero Cop fighting a never-ending series of freaks in The Savage Dragon. Jim Valentino created a solo hero book called Shadowhawk. Whilce Portacio created Wetworkswhich was… sigh okay, it was another paramilitary superhero team.

You see a trend yet? And the problem here?

Yeah, so basically, Image was “NINETIES- THE COMIC BOOK LINE”. All of the stuff that was hot at the time, for sure, but extremely aggressive, dated, grim & violent books. Notably, FOUR F*CKING PEOPLE all ripping off the X-Men all at once- only three of the seven creators did anything BUT a “Superhero Team Book” with a paramilitary bent. And all in a shared universe! And then the other books started coming out- a monstrous freak with claws and huge muscles, covered in chains, called “Pitt”. A book called Deathblow, about a guy with guns. This just kept happening. There’s a character in Cyberforce that is so over-the-top and ridiculous that I couldn’t possibly have invented him even as a huge parody of Image. It was pure ’90s EXTREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEME!” excess.

The comics sold like gangbusters, for sure. People loved these creators (Liefeld is a joke nowadays, but back then? HUGE star), the books gave out beautiful, stupid excess like teen boys loved, and both Wizard Magazine and comic book ads inside the mags completely gushed over them. With all the hype, how could they NOT have sold well? Well, four of the seven did, anyhow- ShadowhawkCyberforce and Wetworks were obviously second-tier. Image, at the time allied with Malibu for a few months, soon had 10% of the industry share- surpassing DC Comics.

Other creators joined- Sam Keith’s The Maxx, Dale Keown’s Pitt, and even Kurt Busiek’s Astro City– easily the least “Image-like” of the books. Spawn became a feature film, and we saw both Savage Dragon & WildC.A.T.s hit TV screens with unpopular, quickly-forgotten cartoons! But hey- that’s something! And many of the huuuuuuuuuuuuge stars in Fanservice/T&A were discovered- Michael Turner & J. Scott Campbell among them!

Original character, do not steal!

THE CRACKS FORM:
-Editorial Time: A huge, HUGE part of the reason Image failed was because it was led almost entirely by artists.

See, the thing with artists (and I am one, so I know where I’m coming from on this), is that they can have a lot of great ideas, but they tend to be… flighty about them. They create a ton of stuff, then dump it and move on to the next thing. They’re not typically business-savvy. They’re temperamental and don’t quite “get” normal people- artists have described their desire to create “a sickness”. This is where things like “Sketchpad Characters” come from- you saw Claremont forced to include tons of these in X-Men, and it got even worse when he was gone- the artists just had ALL THESE IDEAS, but instead of creating villains one at a time and making a bigger deal out of each one, they’d just throw out eight Dark Riders and be like “this is our new team”. Rob Liefeld slowly built up Weapon: P.R.I.M.E. in the pages of X-Force, but he’d toss out new members of the Mutant Liberation Front every issue, until they numbered nearly twenty-strong!

And this was the mentality these guys brought to Image- “Do one team? I’M BORED! I wanna create a SECOND team!”. Rob Liefeld nearly immediately got bored with his Youngblood book and made BrigadeBloodstrike and Prophet– three of the four were TEAM BOOKS. And in EVERY. SINGLE. X-Men knock-off book, you’d see the team meet an entire squad of Sketchpad Characters in one issues, and in the next, they’d meet ANOTHER squad of Sketchpad Characters! The Artist’s Disease spread to so many books that it became nothing but flashy character introductions! And this has that effect of “flooding the market”, but in terms of character creation- make two characters at a time, and they might go over; make 50 characters at a time, and you guarantee nobody will be successful.

And… artists flit from thing to thing too easily, often leaving things unfinished. An in the publishing industry, this led to a lot of big promises that weren’t kept. In the video game industry, things that are announced but never produced were called “Vaporware”. And in the comics industry, you might as well have called this “Imageware”.

And since the artists were all visual thinkers, it meant the books were more “visually” planned than given good writing. Todd McFarlane ceded writing to others immediately, being self-aware of his own flaws, but others? Hoo boy. And without proper EDITORS in place- the very Editors these guys hated and wanted to ignore, mind you- things started happening. Liefeld was always horrible with backgrounds, and under his own power, he ignored them ENTIRELY- his books were now just “people flying around doing stuff” in a vacuum (and even worse, this made it clear that a lot of his past success was owed to his writers). Some knocked off famous Marvel characters a little TOO hard (Silvestri had two character design techniques: “Cut” and “Paste”). Things went too far into excess on several books, which just ramped up the T&A, blood, and violence. Marc Silvestri’s whole studio was also churning out titty-books by the ton.

The “Image Style” got so notorious that Valentino stepped back from creative and hired more esoteric creators in a deliberate attempt to combat the “same-y” work. They all failed, but ironically would help out Image’s “image” greatly later on.

Other Cracks:
-It wasn’t just poor writing. Image was based around creator’s rights, so when Todd McFarlane publicly screwed Neil Gaiman out of the rights to his “Angela” creation (she appeared in a Medieval Spawnbook) and Gaiman, a respected creator, freaked out in public, it made the whole company look like hypocrites- “same as the old boss”, The Who’s lyrics go. Never mind that Image ITSELF was now hiring freelancers to write the creations of Todd, Jim, etc.- they’d just replicated Marvel & DC, but with THEM being the guys making the money! Whilce Portacio, one of the less-popular of the creators, suffered the death of his sister, which understandably robbed him of a lot of drive- Wetworks went on the shelf and never recovered.

Wetworks : ImageComics

And the aforementioned issue with artists and “Vaporware”? Yeah, it hit HUGE. Artists ran later and later- an industry problem that’d always been an issue, but Marvel & DC typically had issues “in the can” that could be produced in emergencies. Image instead just… didn’t make stuff. Some reasons were good (Whilce Portacio had a family tragedy; Jim Lee’s wife gave birth to their firstborn between the first two issues of WildC.A.T.s). The delays started hurting them severely, and so an independent “executive director” was hired to boss them around and ensure that promises were kept. An infamous crossover event with Valiant Comics was DISASTROUS, however, and pretty much permanently stained the company’s reputation, and helkped contributed to the Great Comic Book Crash of 1996 that nearly sank the entire industry as Marvel’s own business problems caught up with them (venture capitalists had used them as collateral to buy tons of other businesses; something that happened with Toys R Us much later).

Feuds between the creators exacerbated problems. Rob Liefeld, whose excesses had turned him from an industry darling into a pariah, was booted from Image for “swiping” both drawings (tracing over others’ work) and staff from other creators, as well as using Image to pump up ANOTHER studio he owned!

And then Lee & Liefeld proved controversial when they just went back to Marvel when asked, doing a popular Heroes Reborn line of new origins in a unique, “virgin” universe (something Marvel would copy AGAIN for the Ultimate Marvel line). Lee himself would sell his mega-popular Wildstorm studio to DC Comics in 1999, not just “selling out”, but “buying in”- he is now a high-end DC guy (Jim & Todd would prove to be the best businessmen out of the group). True rivals to Image with the same concept- Dark Horse Comics & IDW- popped up in the 2000s and ate away their market share, too.

IN THE END:
-Despite all the problems, however, Image not only survived, but ended up THRIVING. While the “Image Era” often got used to describe what’s usually called the Iron Age (unless it’s just me doing that), and is derided as excessive, mindless garbage, the notion of a studio where you could own your own stuff was DELICIOUS for some creators, and so some very fine books ended up being produced there, owing to Valentino’s previously-failed initiative. The mega-smash The Walking Dead is an Image title, as was Invincible by the same writer. Sex Criminals was a big hit, and Saga was the talk of the town for a while. They eventualy returned to 10% market share by 2015.

And a couple of comics remain- Spawn has long since given up any notion of being creatively respected and is instead just a Toy Factory for McFarlane’s production company (which, to be fair, makes money), and The Savage Dragon is still out there. All the team books got forgotten, though the popular WildC.A.T.s and Gen-13 members ended up at DC. But oddly, the “Superhero Surge” at the movies, spearheaded by Marvel and royally cocked-up by DC, hasn’t led to any Image Superhero movies. I mean, I assume EVERYTHING has been “optioned”, but they ain’t made shit.

So, ultimately, Image was HORRIBLE for comics- the entire industry shifted to mimicking the style of 6 of its 7 creators, which completely ruined the artistry of comics until Grant Morrison & Kurt Busiek largely saved it by themselves in JLA and Avengers, respectively. But it was also GOOD for comics- giving creators a notion of a place where they could make money selling their own ideas and get what they’re truly worth. Moreover, by leaving this option open, it gave a sense of fairness for the industry- in short, creators now “knew the game”: you would work for Marvel & DC, put over their old characters, make your ass famous… and THEN go over to Image, and trot out your creator-owned ideas that you’d been hiding all along! Image’s very existence fixed a lot of the anti-corporate hatred that was wrecking the industry repeatedly, since creators now had somewhere they COULD go if they wanted to own their “Howard the Duck”.

5 thoughts

  1. Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen remains one of my all-time favorite comic book series, and I still read it.

    I like to say that Image Comics got off to a rough, bumpy start, but by the end of the 1990s it truly had become an important publisher for a wide variety of creator-owned properties, and remains so to the present day.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I am a huge fan of Dragon, myself. It’ll be a while before Jab gets there, but he had to ask me to clarify some stuff for him on his write-up there.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yup- like I point out in the end, all the garbage and trend-jumping seems to have paid off, because Image is STILL a strong company today. Hell, many of my favorite books currently published are Image!

      Liked by 2 people

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