by Carl R. Jansson
The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
I know, I know, though their comics of this time period do still have many fans, to many other people Image Comics represents exactly what was wrong with comics in the nineties, and they may have some valid points. Bear with me however, as we’re not going to be discussing the actual comics they published, but the publisher itself.
Image Comics were groundbreaking for many reasons. The founding of the company alone being a big one. Never before or since has something like this happened in this industry. In 1992, eight of the hottest creators working for the biggest comic publisher in North America on some of their best selling titles quit and founded their own publisher citing ownership and creative control over their work as the reason.
Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, and Chris Claremont. These eight creators, the rock stars of the industry, just walked away from lucrative careers to form their own company. Can you understand how crazy that is? This “X-odus” could have been career suicide, instead it was an amazing success, and changed the face of comics in many ways, not the least of which was bringing creator rights front and center. They weren’t the first, but the loudest.
To become the publisher they wanted to be, one that would champion creator rights, they would need to put two key provisions in their charter:
Image would not own any creator’s work; the creator would.
No Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner’s work. Image itself would own no intellectual property except the company trademarks: its name and its logo.
They each founded their own studio to produce work to be published under the Image banner. Extreme Studios, Wildstorm Entertainment, Todd McFarlane Productions, ShadowLine, Top Cow Productions, and Highbrow Entertainment were the different houses, Image Comics was the kingdom. Feeling sympathetic, Malibu Comics actually produced the initial titles, as well as providing administrative, distribution, and marketing support to the fledgling company.
This partnership didn’t last long, as Image’s titles were far more successful than anticipated, leaving the company financially secure enough to publish its titles independently. The first issue of Spawn alone sold 1.7 million copies! During this short time period, because of the incredible sales of most Image titles, Malibu had a greater market share than even DC Comics!
Pretty soon the founders were publishing work by industry friends such as Sam Kieth, Jae Lee, Dale Keown, and others, all while letting them keep ownership and editorial control. Image was producing titles at an alarming rate, but as long as they were hits, they would keep producing them. There were definitely some issues with titles falling behind schedule, and that certainly hurt the sales numbers, but Image was still the number three publisher, with books constantly in the top ten. They even had success with forays into television, film, and toys. It was exciting watching these upstarts giving the finger to the old ways, and truly standing on their own terms.
Over the years Image has changed a great deal. There was a very public fallout between Rob Liefeld and other founders, with Liefeld resigning in 1996. Jim Lee sold WildStorm to DC Comics in 1999, so that he could focus on being a creator again, After much shuffling behind the scenes, 2008 saw Eric Stephenson become publisher, and Robert Kirkman became the first new Image partner since the original launch in 1992 when he was a teenager reading their comics.
And while the company still publishes many of the original creator’s titles, Image has become much more diversified, and critically praised. They are again producing titles that sell out of two or three printings, staying on top ten lists and critics lists for months on end. They have periodically reinvented themselves, but one thing has remained constant: the two key provisions.
Image has been around for over 20 years now, and has launched the careers of so many fan-favorite creators in that time that it would take far too long to list. It has innovated at every turn, inspired so many would-be creators to pick up a pencil, and changed when it needed to to stay relevant. They are still publishing groundbreaking comics, by groundbreaking creators. These creators showed that there was a better way to produce comics, one that treated everyone fairly.
There may never be another story like this, but none of this would have been possible without those eight mavericks walking away from Marvel Comics, and into the history books. And that is just one reason the nineties were an exciting time to be a comic fan. Next week, I’ll bring you another.