How Image Comics Rose, Fell, and Rose Again
Up until the 1990s, there were always two main powerhouses when it came to comic book companies: Marvel and DC. Both companies led and trailed each other, running neck-and-neck for over 80 years. And while they remained competitive with each other, nobody dared to challenge their authority as a third power until the birth of Image Comics.
The story of Image Comics is one of rebellion, takeover, and self-destruction. Image Comics was born out of a need for resistance. In the late ’80s and early ’90s very hot and talented artists, inkers, pencilers, and storytellers in the creative department were making Marvel and DC Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams. Such stories as “The Death of Superman”, “Secret Wars”, “Atlantis Attacks”, and “Invasion”, and monthly books such as The Incredible Hulk, Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man were hitting record numbers. The companies were hailed as a whole, but the unsung heroes who remained behind the scenes were never given proper credit or just due for their talents.
For their part, creators such as Todd McFarlane, who was currently working on the very successful relaunched Spider-Man title; Jim Lee, who was lightning-hot with the reboot of X-Men #1; Rob Liefeld, who created Marvel’s future hottest commodity, Deadpool; and several others were growing increasingly frustrated with the promises of substantial royalties but being given poor execution instead. The classic vibe of “we’re not going to take it anymore” was quickly starting to take shape. While an alarming number of artists were suddenly demanding out of their contracts or not renewing their soon-to-be expired contracts, secret-society type meetings were taking place behind the scenes. A union-type congregation indulging in multiple discussions led to the decision that rebellion and a shock to the system would be the only way for the world to take notice.
And that’s how Image Comics was born. With the motto and mentality of a freestyle-type environment with little to no rules or restrictions, no holding back, no-holds-barred rules of engagement were highly encouraged. The inaugural class consisted of Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn; Jim Lee, who gave birth to his independent creation, Wildcats; Marc Silvestri, creator of Cyberforce; Valentino, creator of ShadowHawk; Sam Keith, creator of The Maxx; Dale Keown, creator of Pitt; Whilce Protacio’s Wetworks; and Rob Liefeld, the creator of Youngblood. These pioneers and their respective products went on to give birth to the first incarnation of the Image Shared Universe.
And they hit the ground running. Every one of their respective titles matched or exceeded the previous launch title sales of Marvel and DC Comics; their style was to produce controversial, envelope-pushing material and beg for forgiveness later. They were the lords of their universe and nobody was ever going to tell them what to do again. And the wheel of merchandise most certainly ran over the competition in the form of Saturday morning cartoons, after-hours cable television formats, and game-changing styles of designing action figures. They developed wild reputations at comic book conventions as the boys who Rage Against the Machine with very colorful language and comments about their former corporate Masters, and controversial statements caught on camera. Unfortunately, this also became their Achilles heel.
A Lack of Structure
In the world of competitive commerce, there has to be structure, and it has to be precise. A chain of command is necessary to succeed. Image Comics had none of this. They were a mighty battleship with the guns and the ammo to take down Marvel and DC within seven years; the only problem is that there was no Commander-in-Chief to direct the shots precisely. Continuous Game of Thrones-style power struggles quickly led to animosities within the self-proclaimed cohesive unit, each one doing interviews claiming to be the alpha.
With no accountability, production value was going downhill. Books were being published at an obscenely late rate; the gap between some books went as far as six months—completely unacceptable as a comic book company business practice. Material that was not approved slipped through the cracks and caused many, many embarrassing moments and rookie-level errors in grammar and art design for the company. And then the biggest dent came in the form of character and storyline infringement, with some self-proclaimed original characters coming dangerously close to carbon-copying characters from Marvel and DC.
With so many devastating setbacks, it was not long before the company was engulfed in debt due to lack of sales…it would seem that Image Comics would fade away just as quickly as they arrived.
Resurrection…of a Sort
In the summer of 2003, The Walking Dead #1 was released. Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman didn’t foresee their love-child becoming one of the most-read comic books of the 21st century. Nor did they ever dream of becoming the saviors (no pun intended) of Image Comics. The billion-dollar franchise went on to see merchandise galore—everything from stickers to adult coloring books, to the obvious action figures—and eventually became the number one TV show in America for several years. The trials, tribulations, and misadventures of small-town sheriff Rick Grimes and his ever-changing band of survivors recount all types of classic zombie scenarios. But they also encounter threats from the living, just as much as they would from the dead.
Soon to follow would be the Space Age love story known as Saga. As rich in storytelling as it was in controversial content, this book would become another success for the new Image Comics. Many other books soon followed. Image Comics would once again be a contender in the comic book circuit, with no signs of slowing down. They learned from their mistakes in the past to ensure it would never interfere with their future again.
Their not-so-humble beginnings fired the first shots, but recognizing their mistakes humbled them into new beginnings.