Thursday, September 23, 2010
The founding of Image Comics, for those who don't know or just can't remember, was a a seminal moment in comic book history. For good or ill, the creation of this company changed the entire comic book industry. It began as a "creator-focused" company founded by seven of the most popular comic book artists who were currently working in the late 80s and early 90s. My friend and fellow blogger Justin recently wrote a post about Rob Liefeld that made me take another look at some of my old comics from that time, and reflect on Image Comics and their place in comic book history.
I'm going to break things down here and talk about each, individual Image founder and the projects they put together. To keep things short, Imagine was founded by seven artists who left their high profile positions at Marvel to start their own company where they each wrote, drew, and owned their own characters. I'm not going to get into the politics involved or make a huge effort to put their actions into a larger perspective. I'm simply going to give my own, first hand (and historical) perspective on each creator's work. Let's just get into it.
(Oh, and just as a disclaimer, if you aren't a comics fan or have never read anything by Image, you'll be bored to death...)
At the end of the day, he was a very talented artist who probably hurt his career by leaving a high profile job to found a company he never actually committed to. Still, he's a great talent who's work was always fun to see.
Valentino's main contribution to the launch of Image was Shadowhawk, which was ok. It was never one of the more hotter comics, but I think it was of the only ones that shipped on time and followed any kind of overall storyarc. Also, it was notable for starring the first HIV positive superhero, for whatever that's worth. I remember Shadowhawk as being a fairly decent book that never really excited me or hooked me all that much. I still consider his work on Guardians of the Galaxy as the high point of his career, but I still respect him as an artist and as a storyteller. Even though he wasn't a very popular creator at the time, I think his inclusion as an Image founder gave the other creators a legitimacy or credibility that would otherwise have been even more lacking.
Jim Valentino later took on a more editorial position at Image that took the company to greater success and prosperity, a role that, I believe, he still holds at the company.
As a publisher, Silvestri also proved himself to be one of the more savvy and talented of the Image seven. He helped to create such titles as Witchblade and to discover such artists as Michael Turner. Although Cyberforce no longer exists (right? Maybe it does. I dunno.), Silvestri's Top Cow Studios is still going strong putting out Witchblade, The Darkness, and other titles. Silvestri also pencils the occasional titles here and there (the last few were for Marvel), but I'd love to see him on a regular, monthly title again. He is still a fantastically talented artist. He is almost unique among the Image founders in being one of the only members about which even their most vehement critics couldn't say anything negative.
Savage Dragon had the over the top art for which Larsen was famous, but it also had one of the more understated storylines and low key characters. The Savage Dragon differentiated itself from the rest of the Image titles by being centered around a character and not just a concept. It wasn't brilliant or groundbreaking, but as far as these things go, it was fairly well written and very engaging. And it's still going, which makes it one of only two of the founding Image titles (along with Spawn) that is still being published, and the only founding Image title to still have the same writer/artist at the helm. Writing and drawing the same comic for the past 18 years has to be one of the most impressive runs in comic book history. I haven't picked up an issue lately, but the last time I did, it was still just as cool and fun as I remembered. Larsen later spent some time as the publisher of Image Comics, but then stepped aside and went back to solely writing and drawing Savage Dragon.
You can read the first issue online, and it still holds up fairly well.
WildC.A.T.S. was the title he premiered at Image, and it was ok. It was better than most Image titles, but maybe not as good as Savage Dragon or Shadowhawk. The artwork, of course, was phenomenal. It maybe wasn't as stellar as the work he had produced for X-Men, but I enjoyed it and still appreciate it when I take those back issues out of my collection and read through them. Jim Lee was one of the few Image creators who took on a writing partner to help out, although Brandon Choi wasn't exactly Shakespearen in his talents. Still WildC.A.T.S. was a cool title with an attempt at a epic storyline that was fun to read. That's all that matters.
Jim Lee was also notable for being one of the first and most talented Image creators at setting up a studio and publishing various titles under his own imprint. Lee created WildStorm and put out such titles as Gen 13, Danger Girl, and Battlechasers. He later sold Wildstorm to DC comics and achieved a new level of fame by doing art there for Superman and Batman. It was recently announced that he was promoted to co-publisher of DC Comics. He is still one of the most popular comic book artists around, and his business decisions probably made him millions of dollars. Good for him.
But just talking about Todd the creator, there was probably no artist more popular during the mid 90s, with the possible exception of Jim Lee. His runs on Amazing Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk were so legendary and so popular, that Marvel created the title "Spider-Man" just because he wanted to start writing as well as drawing. Todd was such a superstar artist, that this new book sold millions every month even though it was awful. And then, having proven himself to be a truly terrible writer, he went on to help create Image Comics by writing and drawing Spawn, which still sold millions of copies. The artwork was beautiful (or, at least, I thought so at the time, and still come away mostly impressed when I reread my old back issues), although messy and lacking in classical techniques, but the plots were incredibly dark and so poorly written they were almost impossible to follow.
He was one of the first Image creators to stop drawing his comic all together in favor of creating and running a company devoted as much to merchandising, toys, and films as it was to comics. After Todd removed himself as penciller of Spawn, there was little reason to keep reading it, although Greg Capulo was a very competent replacement who may actually have been a better technical artist. Spawn never became as popular as Todd had hoped, despite how it was adapted into a film, a cartoon, and a bunch of different videogames. It is still being published, however, although I haven't read an issue in years and have no idea what kind of involvement he has in the title anymore. But he's still a major power player in the industry and insanely rich.
So far as I can remember, Liefeld's Youngblood was the first true Image title. It may not have been the first title released under the Image logo, but it was the first one that was announced (as a stand alone title for Malibu), and it eventually led to the creation of the entire company. So if you hate Image, blame Liefeld, since his was the idea that led to the whole company and the exodus of Marvel's top talent. For good or ill, we have to give him credit for that, which was a bold move that changed the industry forever. But still, his comics were awful. He was just a bad writer and a poor draftsman who was let loose with no editorial guidance when he created his own studio and put out his own comics. Perpetually late (much of the stuff that was announced and advertised never even came out at all), unreadable and ugly, and most titles only lasted a few issues before vanishing from the racks all together. Liefeld's studio was a model of inefficiency and stood out as everything that was wrong with 90s comics.
But still, he seems like a nice guy and his artwork was kind of fun.
Conclusion: Image Comics managed to do the impossible by going up against the big two comic companies, taking a huge chunk of the market, and staying profitable and relevant all these years. Their place in history is debatable, of course, as is their overall impact on the comic book industry. Those are topics I don't want to get into right now, but I will say that they manged to put splash over substance and downplayed good, well written stories in favor of flashy artwork. However, they probably did a lot for creator rights (or, at least, their rights), pioneered coloring techniques and upgraded paper stock, all of which is now standard. Over the years they mostly switched their niche from superhero copies of Marvel and DC characters to an incredibly diverse line of alternative comics of all genres.
But boy did a lot of that old stuff suck, but I still feel a real sense of nostalgia and fun when I look back at them.