In a year that included DC’s New 52, “Before Watchmen”, and Marvel’s “Avengers vs. X-Men”, 2012 represented more than just big business in mainstream comics. This year, Image Comics celebrated its milestone 20th anniversary. Against heavy competition from the Big Two, Image Comics, the indie publisher that could, stood its own ground in the industry with bestselling series like “Saga”, “The Walking Dead”, and “Chew”. While not all books thrived at Image, the company that was founded on creator-owned rights managed to maintain a strong voice against the traditional spandex adventures of leading publishers.
Looking back at Image Comics’ naissance, year one was filled with heavy ups and downs. The first wave of Image titles – “Wild C.A.T.S.”, “Youngblood”, and “Savage Dragon” – were hits in their own rights, but they were difficult to find in comic shops. Image had major timeliness issues and books rarely hit their scheduled release dates. Further, most titles had one creator handling writing, penciling, and inking. The illustrations were magnificently rendered, but most of the artists weren’t exactly known for their storytelling abilities. Style ruled over substance in year one, causing interest wane and criticism to grow.
It was the darker side of Image that was giving readers something to talk about in those early years. Jim Valentino’s “ShadowHawk” was an uncompromising thriller about a merciless vigilante roaming urban New York. ShadowHawk wore an armored costume and helmet, along with claws on his fists. With unforgiving and unflinching violence, he started a personal war against criminals. I still remember the first issue, where ShadowHawk drove his clawed fist into the spine of a thug, crippling him for life.
In “ShadowHawk: Out of the Shadows”, The Liquefier, a bloodthirsty alien beast, rose out of the sewers, acid dripping from its tongue. During their confrontation, ShadowHawk launched his grappling hook into the Liquefier’s chest and ripped his heart-out. It was the first time I recall seeing blood gushing and splattering everywhere in comics. This one page told readers that Image wasn’t going to hold back on its depiction of violence. Here, Image was on to something, but it was their social consciousness and awareness that set the bar for what would follow suit as they continued to mature.
The social commentary in Valentino’s narratives addressed racism and HIV/AIDs, a topical issue in the 90s. In “ShadowHawk: The Secret Revealed”, a psychotic serial killer, named Hawk’s Shadow, specifically targeted black men and women. Hawk’s Shadow shouted racist epithets during a graphic slaying of a civil rights and church leader. Slowly dying from AIDS, ShadowHawk raced across the rooftops, using his last breath to search for a sadistic killer, who was stalking the streets in his name. A powerful and timely depiction of heroism in a medium that was not yet known for taking on politically driven topics.
Then, there was “Spawn”. Because of his stylish artwork in Spiderman, expectations were high for Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, the undead superhero. In issue #10, McFarlane and “Cerebus” creator Dave Sims, a pioneer in self-published comics, presented the unforgettable tale titled, “Crossing Over”. The narrative in the issue works a metaphor for comic book creators and the characters they create. In the story, Spawn finds himself in the seventh level of Hell, unable to free the locked prisoners. Sims’ Cerebus, the snarky and smoking aardvark, teaches Spawn that his creator never sold him. Only Spawn’s true creator can control his destiny any way he wants to. This was a thought-provoking statement about creative control that would come to hold a lot more meaning in the company’s overall mission. It was this unrelenting and unedited voice that would become the heart of Image Comics.
That was Image then. Their publishing foundations, albeit shaky, were beginning to set. While not all was coming up roses, the company remained steadfast in their strong creator-owned beliefs throughout the years, and this fundamental belief is what still keeps them going strong two decades later.
“Chew” just reached the halfway point with issue #30. “The Walking Dead” surpassed its 100th issue, while the critically acclaimed television series is now midway through its third season. “Spawn” is still around, pushing past its 200th issue. “Cyber Force” has even returned, and this time around, it’s easier to say it’s not an “X-Force” ripoff. Jim Valentino launched the Shadowline branch, which published hits like “Cowboy Ninja Viking”, “Sam Noir”, “Green Wake”, and plenty others. Not to mention Kirkman’s Skybound imprint, and the Top Cow branch that continues strong with “Witchblade” and “The Darkness”. Image offers an insane variety of books, not limiting themselves to any one genre or type of story. The publisher has come a long way in their twenty-year life.
With controversial editorial decisions and countless lawsuits from DC and Marvel in 2012, several all-star creators bid adieu to the Big Two in search of something different. This lead to many creators taking up, speaking out, and turning away from work-for-hire books. Some went off to begin their own digital publishing companies, but many found a welcoming home with indie publishers like Image.
Chris Roberson, longtime DC writer, left to pursue his own digital comics publisher, later to announce that his next ongoing series, “Reign”, would be published by Image. Ed Brubaker departed from Marvel (on good terms) and his “Fatale” series at Image was just upgraded to ongoing status. Even Grant Morrison proclaimed he would be done with superhero stories come 2013, and released “Happy” through Image. The fact that creators are willing to leave Marvel and DC to pursue the much riskier venture of creator-owned material at Image speaks volumes about the future of the industry.
Why take the risk? Well, Image allows authors full control over their work, without any editorial restrictions. Furthermore, they allow creators to maintain ownership of their intellectual property. The pride that Image takes in giving freedom to their creators shows that they trust them as artists. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to be a part of that.
Now, more than ever, the general public is realizing that there is so much more to comics than the iconic heroes that started it all. While I have nothing against Batman or Spider-Man (Hell, I love them), creator-owned material means fresh stories, new worlds, and original characters, which in turns means less restraint and more innovation.
DC and Marvel have strong reputations to maintain, and it makes sense why they wouldn’t want to take risks with their icons. This is exactly what makes Image, and other indie publishers, so important. Their only goal is to produce quality comics, regardless of the genre or style. They are not bound ball and chain to a catalog of heroes and villains, but only by the imagination of their creators.
Now that Image ranks as the third biggest publisher (in terms of sales volume), it signifies something within the greater comics industry. It allows for the comics industry as a whole to begin breaking from the naïve view that comics are a form of low-brow art. If you know people who still hold on to this notion, hand them a copy of “The Walking Dead” or “Prophet” and watch their jaw drop.
The past twenty years have largely been a learning period for Image. However, with the increasing demand for novelty in comics, the publisher is in a prime position. All they have to do is continue doing exactly what they are doing. As Image enters its 21st year in 2013, they are more important than ever, allowing both new creators to break into the industry, and veterans to explore a new side of comics.
The humble age of 21 represents a transitional crossing into adulthood, a passage into maturity after many mistakes have already been made and corrected. Image has learned from their past, and they continue to prove to themselves against the competition. Over the past two decades, Image has built up a respectable image (for lack of a better word), an important one that puts creativity and creator rights in comic making above all else.
– The Saviors
– The Darkness
– Witch Doctor
– Thief of Thieves
– Hoax Hunters
– Think Tank
– The Walking Dead
– Todd, The Ugliest Kid On The Planet
– The Legend of Luther Strode
– Peter Panzerfaust
Editorial by Jorge Solis and Lonnie Nadler (Lonmonster)
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