Thursday, September 23, 2010

Image Comics

In the year of our lord 1992, I was living in Thalwil, Switzerland and turned 15. That same year, our country's president vomited on some Japanese dignitaries during an official visit, the Winter Olympics opened in Albertville, France, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and John Gotti were both sentenced to life in prison, Johnny Carson retired as host of the Tonight Show, and the city of L.A. broke out in massive riots after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Also, Image Comics was founded.

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...)

Whilce Portacio: We'll talk about him first because, all things considered, he didn't really do anything. He was one of the founding members who left his job at Marvel to start Image, but his book never came out. Portacio was a fantastically talented artist who rose to fame on X-Factor and the Uncanny X-Men. His art typified the over the top, fantastic style of the 90s, but his was a talent better and more refined than most. Unfortunately, for whatever reason (I believe "family issues" was the reason given at the time), his promise title Wetworks never debuted with the other Image titles and he never actually became one of the company's founders. Wetworks finally came out a few years later, but it was a little too later after the Image explosion to really matter. Anyway, I never read it so I can't comment on its quality. I do remember being excited about its original release, however, and getting impatient after years of delays.

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.

Jim Valentino: Always an odd choice as an Image founder, Valentino was never really a popular comic book creator. I loved his work on Guardians of the Galaxy, but more because he was a good writer than because of his artwork. When he was announced as an Image founder alongside such "hot" artists as Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, most people were confused. I still don't really know why he was included in the exodus, but I seem to remember reading interviews with McFarlane and Rob Liefeld where the called him an old friend.

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.

Marc Silvestri: I was never a huge fan of Silvestri's work at the time he left Marvel and founded Image comics, but only because I had never really seen much of his work before then. When he did found Image and release Cyberforce, I remember being blown away. Out of almost every Image comic, Cyberforce seemed to have the strongest storyline and one of the best singular visions. That isn't to say it was all that well written, but that it was very entertaining and fairly engaging. Believe me, if you've never read any of those old Image comics, "entertaining and fairly engaging" is about the highest compliment you can give one of them.

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.

Erik Larsen: When I was a kid and heard about Image Comics, Erik Larsen's inclusion among the founders was what excited me more than anything. I loved Larsen's artwork and thought he was among the coolest comic book creators I'd ever seen. When he took over Amazing Spider-Man after fan favorite Todd McFarlane, most people complained, but I thought he was way better. And then he took over writing and drawing Spider-Man after Todd left that title too, and I thought he was better there too. He wrote and drew a fantastic Spider-Man, so I was excited to see what he could do on is own, creator-owned title. All things considered, The Savage Dragon was a huge success.

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.

Jim Lee: Jim Lee is one of the greatest comic book artists of all time. Along with Liefeld and McFarlane, he was one of the first superstar artists of the 90s, and one of the biggest names among the Image founders. He was a huge talent before the founding of Image, and is still huge today, so much so that his time at Image is almost just a footnote in his overall career. He was kind of just there for the founding of Image, giving them that much more popularity and a sense of credibility, before selling his studio to DC Comics and taking his carer in another direction entirely.

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.

Todd McFarlane: The problem with talking about Image Comics, is that at some point you have to talk about Todd. Todd isn't just a comic book creator, but a phenomenon within the industry. I have tremendous respect for Todd as both an artist and as a business man, but I do think that his art got somewhat lazy over the years and that some of his business practices have been somewhat questionable and, according to the courts, actually illegal.

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.

Rob Liefeld: And then there's Rob, who went from being one of the most popular comic book artists of all time to arguably the most reviled and despised. His artwork typified the look of 90s comics: characters with huge muscles, huge boobs, and huge guns, dressed in garish outfits covered with spikes, chains, and pouches. In a word: terrible. But I still liked this stuff and thought it was "cool," and so did the millions of people who bought his stuff. But, yeah, he was a terrible artist who put out a lot of unreadable books that sold millions, so everybody else put out the same kind of crap. Image was founded on that crap.

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.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

heh. I should have seen this post coming. I've just got a random collection of early Image stuff. I'd buy, like, one or two issues and then give up, usually. They were expensive (at the time), for one thing.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I just read this on Wikipedia. I wonder if this is really what Larsen had in mind when he created that character. Of if he had anything in mind.

"Savage Dragon's origin was revealed in the Image Comics 10th Anniversary hardcover book, which was released on November 30, 2005 with the release of the Image Comics 10th Anniversary hardcover book. The collection featured stories by the four remaining Image founders (Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino) returning to the characters they first created for the company. Larsen's story revealed that the Dragon used to be an evil tyrant named Emperor Kurr, who led a nomadic race of space aliens who spent thousands of years traveling through space, searching for a suitable new homeworld. After Kurr had chosen Earth, he decided to go against his people's peaceful ways and slaughter all humans. Two scientists named Rech and Weiko conspired against him, giving him brain damage that erased his memory, and implanted within his memories five days' worth of satellite television broadcasts from Earth. Kurr was then sent to live on Earth, while his race moved on to search for a new planet elsewhere."

Donald said...

That's the dumbest shit I've ever fucking heard.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

Yeah, I don't like it either. I'd like to read that, though.

Anonymous said...

Portacio's book didn't come out on time because his sister died while he was doing the first issue, if I remember correctly. A case of an Image guy being late for a valid reason, unlike Liefeld or McFarlane. Fun article! Larsen was and still is the best, all around. I'll never really get McFarlane's popularity. He had a cute drawing style and messy ink style, so I guess the mix of cartoony visuals and aggressive style was likable for people. But I think he was lazy. Even Liefeld tried harder and definitely had better ideas. Must be nostalgia, because I actually miss some of this crap. The writing sucked, but I hate that all comics now are basically inked outlines with photoshop detail. They all look like ugly brochures and make Image seem like Dutch masters.