Greetings from the Odinson,
In April, 1992, Youngblood #1 was released and the world of comics and the landscape of the business, for better or worse, would never be the same again.
The Odinson Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Image Comics
This is the story about how seven renegade superstar artists turned their backs on Big Business and set out to forge a new path and create an environment where the creators had control of their intellectual properties. But, in doing so, these seven artists became so successful, so quickly that they almost became the very thing they were fighting against in the first place. To try and tell this complex story efficiently, the Odinson will break it down into the ten most important moments in Image History. But first, a look at what came before.
DC Comics and Marvel’s Shameful History Plants the Seeds for Image – In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the most important character in the History of Comic Books – Superman. For the rights to their creation, DC Comics paid them a grand total of $150.00. It cannot even be overstated the significance of the Man of Steel’s impact on the comics industry and pop culture over the last eighty years. In the late 70s, backed by artist Neal Adams, Siegel and Shuster sued DC over the rights to their creation. The suit was settled and the men that created Superman were given a modest pension of $20,000 a year. Peanuts compared to what this property has made for DC over the decades.
Jack Kirby, along with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, launched and built the Marvel Universe. He co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, Doctor Doom, the Avengers, Galactus and Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, the X-Men, and more. These characters now rake in billions in revenue, yet their co-creator, Jack Kirby, was only paid page wages and never received true compensation or royalties for his immense contribution to the medium. In fact, the first ever royalties this man ever enjoyed came in 1984 when the toy company Kenner paid him for his character designs for the New Gods action figures they made for their Super Powers Collection. The King of Comics had to work to the day he died just to pay the bills.
And now, our story begins…
The Rise of the Rock Star Artists – Marvel Comics’ dominance of the sales market over DC truly took hold in the mid to late 1980s, and this was due in no small part to the fact they had assembled one of the greatest stable of young comic book artists the medium has ever seen. Todd McFarlane (Incredible Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man), Mac Silvestri (Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor), Rob Liefeld (New Mutants, X-Force), Erik Larsen (Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man), and Jim Lee (Punisher War Journal, X-Men) – this was the new generation of artists whose exciting styles and work was driving Marvel sales to heights not seen since the ‘60s! Their nontraditional page layouts, dynamic action sequences, and over-the-top sensual figure drawing captured the imagination of a generation of fans and brought them into the stores by droves. Liefeld was even featured in a Levi jeans commercial directed by Spike Lee! For lack of a better analogy, they were the Beatles of Comics.
Records Were Meant to be Broken – In the summer of 1990, Todd McFarlane was granted his own Spidey title which he both wrote and drew. Spider-Man #1 was released and sold 2.5 million copies, setting a record in sales for a single issue. One year later, Rob Liefeld’s X-Force #1 broke that record by selling 4 million copies. Then, the roof was blown off when two months later, the Jim Lee drawn X-Men #1 shattered the record by selling over 8.1 million copies, a record that still stands to this day.
The Exodus – Feeling less than compensated for their immense contributions to the market explosion of the early 1990s, and not wanting to be victimized like the legendary creators before them, the seven most talented and most successful artists at Marvel Comics formed a pact and in unison walked out the door. They decided to form Image Comics, a playground where creators owned the rights to their intellectual properties, not the company. This moment in Comics History is significant for many reasons. First, in that moment, all of Marvel’s bestselling titles – X-Men and Spider-Man titles to be exact – just lost their superstar artists. Second, the formation of a powerful rival company where a creator owns the rights to his/her creations stunted the creativity and spawning of new significant creations at both Marvel and DC which has led to an endless tidal wave of derivative and unoriginal characters. And third, it gave Marvel and DC something they had never truly had before – another worthy adversary.
Unprecedented Success – One of the golden rules for writers is to write what you know. So, it should come as no surprise that the first generation of Image Comics were all about super heroes. But, what really put Image on the map was just how well received these new additions to the super hero genre would be. The very first Image title to see print was Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, which set sales records for an independently owned title. Then came Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which again set the record for an independently owned title, a record that still stands to this day. These were soon followed by Jim Lee’s WildCATs, Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, Jim Valentino’s ShadowHawk, and finally, after much delay, Whilce Portacio’s WetWorks. The amount of single issues that have sold nearly as many copies as Youngblood #1 and Spawn #1 in the last 25 years can be counted on one hand. Suddenly, these seven very young, extremely talented artists were millionaires and in charge of their very own highly successful comic book company.
A Clash of Egos – One of the best things Image Comics has been great at over the years is discovering and cultivating young new talent. The second generation of Image included highly talented names like Jae Lee (Hellshock), Dale Keown (The Pitt), Sam Keith (The Maxx), and Michael Turner (Fathom). However, when Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios began actively pursuing and pilfering talent from Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow, tensions between founders rose rapidly, and Silvestri ultimately gave up his seat at the table and left the company. Liefeld, and he would be the first to admit this, was doing other things to upset the apple cart as well like oversaturating the market with too many titles like Brigade, Bloodstrike, and Supreme instead of concentrating on the quality of a single title like most of the other founders. And, he set up another comics company – Maximum Press – which was in direct competition with Image Comics. None of this is surprising for Rob Liefeld is one of the most polarizing personalities in the History of Comics. He has an army of loyal fans and an equal number of vocal critics. It was no surprise that around this time, Liefeld resigned/was voted out (depending on who is telling the story) of Image Comics. This prompted the return of Silvestri to the fold. But, before Liefeld left, he had one more bridge to burn.
Return to Marvel – Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld did the unthinkable. They went back to Marvel. Or rather, Marvel Comics, who was floundering in the years since the Exodus, came to Lee and Liefeld and hired them to make their core heroes great again. Thus, in 1996, the Heroes Reborn event happened. Lee was commissioned to do Fantastic Four and Iron Man and Liefeld was commissioned to handle Captain America and the Avengers. Well, this did not sit well with the other founders of Image, Todd McFarlane in particular.
The 90s Comics Bubble Pops – The mid-90s were a low point for Marvel Comics, the strength of Image Comics, professionally for Rob Liefeld, and it was definitely a low point for the comics industry. We all know the story. The speculator boom of the early to mid-90s wreaked havoc and caused the market to crash, and crash hard. Marvel Comics was bankrupt, Image Comics was splintered, and things for Image were about to get even worse.
Another One Bites the Dust – In 1998, Jim Lee, the consummate professional artist, was desperate to get back to his roots. Drawing was his passion and that is what he wanted to do. So, he withdrew from Image Comics and sold the rights to his WildStorm Studios to DC Comics. Shortly after, he teamed up with writer Jeph Loeb and together they produced one of the best Dark Knight adventure/mysteries of All-Time – Hush.
Another Rock Star is Born – As the New Millennium dawned, Image found itself stagnating a bit and in dire need of new blood. Enter: Robert Kirkman. Kirkman’s first contribution to the fold was Invincible, an imaginative reimagining of the Superman mythos. However, Kirkman truly made his mark in the history books with the launch of The Walking Dead. To illustrate just how hard it is to break into the business, originally, Kirkman’s idea for The Walking Dead was refused, because at that time no zombie comics had ever been successful. So, Kirkman lied and said the zombie stuff was just a ruse because in fact aliens were using the zombies to take over the world. He got his green light and issues just began flying off the shelf. About four issues in, Kirkman’s editor noticed that there were no clues, Easter eggs, or mentions of aliens. When he confronted Kirkman about this, Kirkman simply told them of course there are no aliens. I just said that to get my book made. They can laugh about this story now because, as we all know, The Walking Dead has become one of the bestselling comic book series of All-Time.
Where are They Now? –
Rob Liefeld, over the years, has returned to Marvel for stints on Wolverine and X-Force and DC for stints on Deathstroke and Hawkman. He recently signed a deal with Fundamental Films to turn his Extreme Universe into feature films. And, Deadpool, a character he co-created had a blockbuster movie in 2016. Plus, he has a brand new original Deadpool graphic novel titled Bad Blood coming out in May.
Jim Lee is now the co-publisher of DC Comics and oversees the art and character designs for the company. He continues to draw comics to this day.
Marc Silvestri saw his creation Witchblade transformed into a live action TV series and his other property, Darkness, turned into a successful video game. He returned to Marvel to pencil X-Men: Messiah Complex.
Jim Valentino, from 1999-2003, acted as publisher for Image Comics. In 2009, he launched Silverline Books, an imprint for All- Ages graphic novels.
Erik Larsen, with well over 200 issues published, still writes and draws every single issue of Savage Dragon, Image Comics’ second longest running comic series in history.
Robert Kirkman was rewarded for his contributions to the company and made a full partner at Image Comics. The Walking Dead has been adapted into a highly touted and loved TV drama and has become a pop culture phenomenon across the globe.
Todd McFarlane, the myth the legend, though he has not drawn sequential art on a regular basis since the late-90s, to this day he still plots and inks Spawn, Image Comics’ longest running comic series in history. He founded McFarlane Toys, one of the most successful manufacturers of toys, collectibles, and statues in the modern market. And, he still finds time to do the comic con circuit and post weekly art lessons on FaceBook for his fans.
To this day, Todd McFarlane is the only Image founder to not go back and do work for Marvel Comics.
For the whole story on this amazing and very important chapter in Comics History, check out the 2016 documentary The Image Revolution from director Patrick Meaney (Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods). The story of Image Comics is absolutely riveting and filled with drama, humor, and strong personalities. In fact, the Odinson would love to see a movie made about it with perhaps Vince Vaughn as Todd McFarlane, Jason Schwartzman as Rob Liefeld, and John C. Riley as Erik Larsen.
Congratulations to Image Comics for 25 wonderful years!
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell