Image Comics Heroes

Image Comics Heroes

(pop culture)

The early 1990s was a watershed period for the creators of Marvel Comics’ highest-profile titles. Comic book artists, who often also wrote their material—such as Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man), Erik Larsen (Amazing Spider-Man; Spider-Man), Jim Lee (X-Men; Uncanny X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Factor; X-Force), Whilce Portacio (Long-shot; Punisher; Uncanny X-Men; X-Factor), Marc Silvestri (Uncanny X-Men; Wolverine), and Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy)—generated unprecedented sales. Riding a wave of success with characters owned by Marvel, these graphic auteurs left the company in 1992, joining forces to form Image Comics, a company dedicated to publishing creator-owned properties, principally in the comics industry’s dominant superhero genre.

During their tenures at Marvel, the Image founders had often felt constrained by corporate editorial edicts; under the Image banner, however, they had free reign to control and develop their own characters, taking them in whatever direction they saw fit. As the 1990s progressed, the fledgling company prospered and its line expanded, successfully weathering the comics industry’s mid-decade sales slump. Today, Image Comics remains a serious competitor to both Marvel and DC Comics, the two publishing houses that had for decades dominated the comic book business.

At its inception, Image was the home of several distinct comics publishing ventures, including Todd McFarlane’s Todd McFarlane Productions (TMP), Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow Productions, and Jim Lee’s WildStorm Productions. Solely owned by McFarlane, TMP still publishes Spawn and its spin-off titles today.

Arguably, Image’s most successful title, Spawn—which recounts the story of a murdered soldier (Al Simmons) who is resurrected as the commander of the armies of hell—began publication in 1992. Despite the hero’s rather derivative appearance (Spawn appears to have raided the attics of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Punisher, and Lobo when he assembled his costume), the title’s overemphasis on ultraviolence, and its elevation of McFarlane’s faddish, extreme art-style over story, Spawn was an immediate hit among comics readers and collectors. The series gave rise to a feature film (starring Michael Jai as the macabre hell-warrior) in 1997, developed into an Emmy Award-winning HBO animated series (1997–1999), and birthed a line of collectible action figures from McFarlane’s own toy company (McFarlane Toys). Spawn also engendered a pair of spin-off comics series: Hellspawn (the tale of a version of Spawn even meaner than the original one) and Sam & Twitch (a pair of urban detectives investigating the supernatural in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets NYPD Blue milieu).

Top Cow is wholly owned by Image partner Marc Silvestri, and publishes such titles as Battle of the Planets, Delicate Creatures, Midnight Nation, Rising Stars, Fathom, Tomb Raider (based upon the popular action-oriented video game and film property), and Witchblade (an occult-themed female action heroine, stylistically reminiscent of Marvel’s Elektra, and the subject of a successful TNT television series).

The rest of Image’s voluminous superhero output—which, over the years, has included such titles as Jim Valentino’s ShadowHawk (a violent crime fighter cast in the mold of Batman, blended with elements of Marvel’s Iron Man and the Punisher); Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon (a green-skinned superheroic monster-turned-supercop, who was the subject of a USA animated series from 1994 to 1996); Dale Keown’s Pitt (a sharp-clawed, superstrong hero, simultaneously evocative of Marvel’s Hulk and Wolverine); Whilce Portacio’s Wetworks superteam; J. Scott Campbell’s Danger Girl (a squad of “grrl-power” super-heroines); Sam Kieth’s The Maxx (a member of a race of personal guardian angels/spirit guides, whose comic book birthed a short-lived MTV animated series in 1994); and Trina Robbins’ and Anne Timmons’ Go Girl (a 1960s retro-style superheroine with an upbeat feminist subtext)— falls under the general rubric of Image Central, which is home to all Image titles not owned or produced by a founding Image partner (though the above-mentioned Image Central work of Larsen, Portacio, and Valentino are notable exceptions to this rule). Still, the trademarks and copyrights connected to all of these titles are the property of their respective creators, rather than of Image Comics.

From the beginning, Image Comics stood at the eye of a maelstrom of controversy. Though enormously popular with fans, the company’s initial offerings, as typified by titles such as Spawn, and action-team comics like Silvestri’s Cyberforce (1992), Liefeld’s Brigade (1993), and Lee’s Gen13 (1994), received mixed critical reaction. While unquestionably a commercial success, the company drew barbs from detractors who regarded its titles as little more than collections of pinup art, and charged that plot and characterization usually took a back seat to stylistic considerations—which chiefly involved lovingly rendered illustrations of idealized musclemen and improbably upholstered female superheroes (a visual style that dominated superheroes of the 1990s in much the same way that Jack Kirby’s pioneering dash had done in the 1960s). During the mid-1990s, veteran Marvel and DC comics writer Peter David quipped that a rival publishing house called “Substance” should be launched, to emphasize story and characterization in the hopes of countering Image’s primarily art-driven esthetic.

During the first half of the 1990s, Image blossomed into a surprisingly diverse publisher, branching out into the sophisticated, realistic superheroics of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City (1995), and presenting A Touch of Silver (1997), Jim Valentino’s poignant autobiographical miniseries about a young superhero fan growing up in a dysfunctional home during the Silver Age of comics (19561969). Image even provided a home for Matt Wagner’s delightful Arthurian fantasy Mage (1997), which had debuted to resounding acclaim in 1984 at the now defunct independent publisher Comico. Many Image properties have also appeared in successful “crossover” ventures with other publishers; most prominent among these intercompany efforts are team-ups between Spawn and Batman (DC); ShadowHawk and Vampirella (Harris Comics); and Savage Dragon and Superman (DC), the Atomics (AAA Pop Comics), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Archie Comics and Mirage Comics), and Hellboy (Dark Horse). Top Cow’s Witchblade has also shared the four-color page with such Marvel heroes as the Silver Surfer and Wolverine, as well as with Shi (Crusade Comics).

The Image experiment was not a completely successful one, however. Because the company has always been a loose confederation of creator-owned artistic and business entities, relationships within the company were predictably more anarchic than within the more staid corporate confines of Marvel or DC. The difficulty of coordinating and maintaining monthly production and publishing schedules eventually led to creative differences, and to the separation of some of Image’s founders. Consequently, many of Image’s editorially interconnected titles—in which characters owned by different Image creators appeared in one another’s books in much the same way that the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Hulk had begun sharing the “Marvel Universe” as their four-color commons in the early 1960s—had to be disengaged from one another. Characters abruptly vanished from sight as they left Image for other publishing entities.

To accomplish this complex disentanglement, Image published a miniseries titled Shattered Image (1996), a sort of reverse version of DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths. While Crisis was intended to consolidate several distinct universes into a single coherent narrative strand, Image’s goal was to spin many of its characters off to whatever separate destinations their respective owners intended for them. Rob Liefeld left Image in 1997, taking his properties—most notably Supreme (a time-displaced supersoldier, a sort of cross between Captain America and Superman, who was introduced in 1993 in a self-titled series and whose World War II-era exploits were recounted in 1994’s Supreme: Glory Days miniseries) and Youngblood (an X-Men/Avengers-inspired superteam)—to form Awesome Entertainment. Jim Lee’s WildStorm Productions, which put out such superhero action titles as WildC.A.T.S and Stormwatch under the Image aegis, left the company in 1998 (along with Wild-Storm’s two sub-imprints, Homage Comics and America’s Best Comics) to become part of DC Comics. After the dust settled, the “Image universe” was a more sparsely populated place than it had been previously, although the Spawn titles, Savage Dragon, and Witchblade continued to find a profitable home under the Image colophon.

Fortunately for Image, superhero comics tend to grow like kudzu vines, even during the comics industry’s slow periods, such as the late 1990s. Today, Image Comics competes with Dark Horse and IDW Publishing for the position of the third largest comics publisher (after Marvel and DC). Image began to provide a wide audience for titles originally published elsewhere, such as the daily Zorro newspaper strips of writer Don McGregor and illustrators Tom Yeates and Tod Smith.

Though Image publishes comics in many story genres, superheroes remain the company’s bread and butter, an emphasis reinforced by the 2003 advent of such titles as Firebreather (a young, hip superhero who is part human, part Godzilla-type monster), Invincible (the teenage son of Omni-Man, Earth’s most powerful superhero, who must cope with his developing powers while living up to his father’s daunting reputation), and Wildguard (about a group of wannabe heroes auditioning for a superteam whose composition was ultimately determined by an audience-driven vote, à la Fox TV’s American Idol). As the new millennium unfolds, Image appears to have remained largely true to its stated mission, which is to nurture, develop, and find audiences for unique, well-crafted creator-owned properties. —MAM

The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes © 2012 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.