Greetings from the Odinson,
Twenty-Five years ago, a motley crew of rock star artists made history when they banded together and formed Image Comics. I go into great detail about this in my column – The Odinson Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Image Comics. When they launched their individually owned titles, these renegade artists made history. But, when they merged their ideas and concepts, these upstarts did something that had never been done before in the History of Comic Books. They created a shared universe that stood shoulder-to-shoulder and even challenged the Big Two for supremacy!
Alas, it was not meant to last.
The Rise and Fall of the Image Shared Universe
Every comic book universe has its beginning. DC began with Action Comics #1 in 1938. In 1961, Fantastic Four #1 launched the Marvel Age. For Image it was no different. It all started back in April of 1992. That spring, Rob Liefeld released Youngblood #1. Soon after, in succession that same year, the rest of the Image founders released their original, creator-owned titles – Todd McFarlane’s Spawn #1 in May, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #1 in July, Jim Valentino’s ShadowHawk #1 and Jim Lee’s WildCATs #1 in August, and finally, Marc Silvestri’s CyberForce #1 in October (NOTE: Whilce Portacio’s much delayed WetWorks #1 didn’t come out until June 1994). Sales records were smashed and the company was off and running. Each artist explored their own little corners, but it wasn’t long before their ideas began to merge and a larger universe was born.
Something amazing happened in the pages of WildCATs #2-3. No, I’m not talking about Jim Lee’s amazing art nor Brandan Choi’s edge-of-your-seat plot-pacing, though both are worth mentioning. In these issues, Jim Lee’s outlaw heroes, the WildCATs, come face-to-face with Rob Liefeld’s government-sponsored celebrity heroes, Youngblood. In that moment, the Image Universe was born.
In Marvel Mystery #9 when the Sub-Mariner battled the Original Human Torch, and in All-Star Comics #3 with the formation of the Justice Society of America, these issues let readers know that their favorite Golden Age Heroes actually existed in the same universe. That tradition would continue in the Silver Age with Amazing Spider-Man #1, Fantastic Four #12, Avengers #1, and Uncanny X-Men #9 showing that the Marvel Universe was in fact a shared universe. WildCATs #2-3 accomplished this as well as setting up future crossovers to come.
Now that the genie was out of the bottle, the dominos began to fall. In Supreme #1, the extreme-superman returns to planet Earth, after many years of being off-world, only to be confronted by the planet’s new mightiest heroes – Youngblood. In Brigade (2nd Series) #1, after the renegade super heroes arrive back on Earth after a harrowing outer space adventure, detailed in Brigade (1st Series) #1-4, they suddenly find themselves under attack by the government-sponsored hit squad known as Bloodstrike. Over the course of the Blood Brothers crossover, the reader learns that there is more that connects these two super teams than just another super slugfest. Soon after that, in Bloodstrike #5, the undead super soldiers suddenly find themselves under siege by Supreme and quickly discover that they are no match for his superior might.
All around the horn, Image heroes began to cross paths with other heroes, and in organic ways that make sense for their stories. In the pages of ShadowHawk, Jim Valentino’s masked vigilante gets his point across by breaking the spines of criminals. So, naturally in ShadowHawk #4, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, a fully deputized officer of the law, would look into this case. During the Killer Instinct crossover, a bloody affair between Jim Lee’s WildCATs and Marc Silvestri’s CyberForce, we learn that RipClaw and Warblade have a lot more in common than just their affinity to Edward Scissorhands.
All of these early crossovers were way more than just a reason to pit heroes against heroes. It established links between characters and fleshed out histories, making this bourgeoning shared universe feel lived in, while still having the fresh and exciting aspects of being brand new. There was something really exciting about these early years of Image. All the titles seemed to have these covert government conspiracies lingering in the background of their stories. Clandestine cabals of shadowy figures always lingering on the periphery, just out of sight, plotting from the shadows. The more the heroes interacted, the more the Image Universe became grounded in continuity, the more exciting the probability became that it was all heading somewhere thrilling.
Two years in, and Image finally hit us with their first real Big Event – Extreme Prejudice. Quantum, an immensely powerful mutant with abilities on par with Magneto, escapes imprisonment and begins to cut a swath of death and destruction across the globe. This motif of extremely powerful beings from the past being imprisoned and then breaking free seems to run throughout the Image Universe. Over in the pages of Jim Lee’s StormWatch, these elite heroes continue to find themselves facing Quantum-level big bads from their past as well, namely the infamous Warguard and Despot.
During the Extreme Prejudice campaign, Supreme, arguably the mightiest hero in the Image U, suffers his greatest defeat in his history at the hands of the villain Quantum. The aftermath of this traumatizing moment is explored in Supreme Madness, a 6-part tale that sees a deranged Supreme cross paths, and swords, with Jim Lee’s Union and StormWatch, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, and Dale Keown’s Pitt.
In Spawn #6, Al Simmons faces down the mob’s muscle known as OvertKill. OvertKill is a character Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld co-created with Stan Lee during an art training video a few years before. This cybernetic juggernaut would return in Spawn #23 where the aftermath of his battle with Spawn would take him over into Team Youngblood #11 and a showdown with Badrock. The cyborg killing machine’s romp across the Image U culminated with a face off (pun intended) with Image’s no nonsense superman in the pages of Supreme #19-20.
The Odinson’s personal favorite crossover event from the early years of Image happened in October of 1994. Four of the company’s Top Dogs – Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, and Jim Lee – switched titles for one month. McFarlane drew CyberForce #8, Silvestri drew Spawn #25, Larsen drew WildCATs #14, and Lee drew Savage Dragon #13. This was truly a unique event because it shed these creator owned characters in exciting new light as different Image founders took the reins of their books for one month.
However, like most great things, the good times were not meant to last. Right at the height of their powers, infighting between co-founders and studios, egos, and ultimately split ups fractured Image Comics in the mid-90s and decimated what was once a promising shared universe. There were flourishes over the years by those titles still ongoing. Sam Keith’s The Maxx popped up in Savage Dragon #28. Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane’s heroes crossed paths in the pages of Spawn #52 and Savage Dragon #30 as each of them made their way through the many levels of hell. However, the grand scope of it all had been lost. But then, on the horizon, a glimmer of hope arose.
In January of 2003, Robert Kirkman launched his creator owned super hero comic Invincible. Being in the first generation of Image fans, Kirkman was not yet ready to let the idea of a shared Image Universe go. All throughout his super hero epic, Kirkman, and his artists, would sprinkle in other heroes of the Image Universe. Here and there, characters like Spawn, Witchblade, Savage Dragon, and even ShadowHawk would make cameo appearances in the background of major battles and storylines. Plus, who could ever forget the battle of the supermen, Supreme vs. Omni-Man in the pages of Supreme #67. This led to one of the most ambitious projects in Comics History and the possible triumphant return of the Image shared universe.
Image United was going to feature contributions by all the founders of Image Comics (minus Jim Lee who was and is at DC Comics now). It would be a story that features the heroes that launched the Image Universe in the beginning and each hero featured would be drawn by that hero’s creator. Todd McFarlane would draw Spawn, Erik Larsen would draw Savage Dragon, Rob Liefeld would draw Youngblood, Jim Valentino would draw ShadowHawk, and Marc Silvestri would draw Witchblade and CyberForce. Robert Kirkman would provide the story and a brand new character of his own creation. Kirkman’s Invincible and The Walking Dead had been so successful and his work so influential, that Kirkman was made a full partner by the founders of Image Comics.
Three glorious issues in and Image United imploded, as did the idea of any triumphant return of the glorious early days of Image Comics. Robert Kirkman has announced that he will be bringing his epic Invincible series to a close this year with issue #144. Sadly, the end of Invincible also closes the door on the shared Image Universe. Twenty-Five years ago, Image Comics and the rock star artists behind its early meteoric rise created a shared comic book universe that rivaled even those of DC and Marvel Comics.
For one brief shining moment in Comics History, there was a contender.
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell