Image Comics is Having a Creative Renaissance
George Gene Gustines
The big debates in comic-book land used to go something like this — seriously:
Superman is way stronger than the Hulk.
Nowadays, the big debates revolve around the ideas espoused in the Creator’s Bill of Rights — officially, a Bill of Rights for Comics Creators. For instance, is it fair that writers and artists who dream up superheroes now starring at a multiplex near you don’t necessarily reap financial rewards from their creations?
It’s a discussion that takes a different tone at Image Comics, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In 1992, this publisher presented fans with Savage Dragon, Spawn, WildC.A.T.s, Youngblood and more, produced by seven artists who left Marvel in order to seize control — creative and financial — of their characters.
It was an unheard-of development, says Mark Evanier, a comic-book historian.
“Suddenly the premise that you had to work for one of the two big companies took a hit because now you could become the company,” he said.
Today, Image, based in Berkeley, Calif., is having a creative renaissance rivaling the one that gave birth to the company. Although it ended 2011 with only a little more than a 5 percent market share, it ranks third in an industry dominated by Marvel, at 37 percent, and DC Comics, 31 percent.
Comic books, of course, are big business. Sales of single issues and collected editions totaled $640 million last year, according to Milton Griepp, publisher and founder of ICv2, an online trade publication that covers pop culture for retailers. Rounding out the top five publishers are IDW Publishing and Dark Horse Comics, both at just under 5 percent.
But Image has something that is harder to measure: buzz. It publishes series that are far removed from traditional caped-and-costumed adventures. There is Chew, about a detective who gets psychic impressions from anything he ingests; Saga, a science fiction fantasy romance; and, oh yes, a little book called the Walking Dead, about a world overrun with zombies. It has given life to a hit television show on AMC.
Eric Stephenson, Image’s publisher, has had a front-row seat since the company’s earliest days. He broke into comics through the fan press. When he interviewed Jim Valentino, a future Image founder, while he was working on Guardians of the Galaxy at Marvel, they became friends. Valentino called him when he and his fellow powerhouse artists — Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen and Whilce Portacio — talked about forming their own company.
Stephenson remembers his reaction: “That would be nuts, Jim.”
Valentino’s response: “It’s not a hypothetical.”
Stephenson came on board as an assistant to Valentino and continued his streak of being in the right place at the most opportune time. He had an early conversation with Liefeld, creator of Youngblood, a team of heroes who were government agents and juggled crime fighting alongside endorsements and talk-show appearances.
“I was honest,” Stephenson recalls. “It didn’t live up to everything you talked about in the interviews. I was kind of disappointed.”
Instead of bristling, Liefeld hired him to edit. Stephenson became director of marketing in 2001 and publisher in 2008.
In the broadest of strokes, the comic book industry has three types of publishers: Marvel and DC control the marquee characters like Spider-Man and Batman. IDW and Dark Horse have a library of licensed properties that include Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And companies like Image are somewhere in the middle, with a slate of creator-owned characters.
The old-school thinking had largely been that creators were better off publishing through Marvel or DC, Evanier said, especially if you factored in their connections to the film and toy industries. “Even though you would lose ownership or partial ownership, you would have the support structure of an established company,” he said.
One of the first properties to break that mold was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, published by Mirage Studios, in 1984.
It “came along without DC or Marvel behind it,” he said, “and its merchandising did not suffer one bit.”
Image’s founding created a big splash out of the gate because of the industry boldface names involved.
“That someone like Jim Lee, Erik Larsen or Todd McFarlane was willing to walk away from Marvel instantly elevated Image to an important status and some stability,” Evanier says. “Of course, when the creators started fighting amongst themselves that deflated it just a bit.”
Indeed, the early years had feuding among the founders with Liefeld, and there was a sense, especially in retrospect, that some of Image’s superhero comics were more style than substance and broke no new ground.
Stephenson defends the early days.
“They say ‘write what you know,’ and those guys were all familiar with superhero comics,” he said. “Todd doing a Western? Rob doing a romance comic? Who wants to see that?”
If Spawn and Youngblood were formulaic, no one seemed to mind. Sales estimates for issue No. 1 of Spawn were 2 million copies; issue No. 1 of Youngblood had 1.5 million. It was during a boom time in the industry but still impressive. (These days, Marvel and DC sell around 250,000 for “event” comics — series that feature many heroes and promise big changes to the status quo.)
The first batch of Image characters went on varied paths: Spawn and Savage Dragon continue to this day, WildC.A.T.s was sold to DC Comics, and Youngblood returned to Image’s publishing schedule in May.
If you want to know what Stephenson is thinking these days, there’s no better place than his blog, It Sparkles! In January, he unveiled the first four advertisements in Image’s “Experience Creativity” campaign. As he explained in the post, “We wanted to celebrate not just the comics we publish but the amazing people who create them.”
Comics fans have seen countless ads spotlighting popular characters and promoting big turning points or earth-shattering events. The Image campaign has black-and-white photos of creators at work, with a short quotation, and no logos hawking a particular series. The ads have resonated.
DC’s house ads for this year’s Comic-Con International, which concludes on Sunday in San Diego, featured a black-and-white picture of a creator, a color image of a hero and information on how to interact with the company. That prompted Stephenson, in a blog post titled “Imitation,” to comment, “Sincerely, we’re very flattered.”
Marvel’s teaser for “This Is War,” a major story line affecting its heroes that begins in October, didn’t go unnoticed, either. “Didn’t they just finish a war? Isn’t that what Avengers vs. X-Men was?” he posted.
He says the comic series that are being considered the new classics — Sandman, Y the Last Man, Sin City, Hellboy, Bone, the Walking Dead and others — are all creator-owned. That’s true, but some of those series also were finite. The never-ending battle can get old; readers enjoy a definitive ending.
In this industry, creators have been losing control of their characters for years. It started back with DC’s Superman, created in 1938 by the writer Jerry Siegel and the artist Joe Shuster, and continues to Marvel’s Fantastic Four and the X-Men, who were co-created by Jack Kirby. These cases for ownership continue to go through the courts.
Image has not been immune to these issues: In February, Todd McFarlane and the writer Neil Gaiman reached a confidential settlement regarding royalties owed to Gaiman for characters he helped create in Spawn. That same month, Tony Moore, original artist on the Walking Dead, filed a suit contending that he is owed more for his contributions. Robert Kirkman, who created the series, described the lawsuit as ridiculous.
Ed Brubaker, a writer who has been published by DC, Marvel and Image, said:
“Once you get established enough that you can attract readers to your product, there’s no reason to give away complete ownership.” But creating for the Big Two, he said, is “a pretty good deal if you’re just breaking in.”
DC and Marvel pay for scripts and artwork, and thus expect certain rights. A project published by Image is self-financed.
Brubaker said he had long been promising Image a series. That has come in Fatale, illustrated by his frequent collaborator Sean Phillips. The high-profile names coming to Image had also attracted Brubaker.
Books like Fatale, Saga and Chew have all proved successful for their creators — and Image’s financial stake remains the same.
“If I sell 100,000 copies of my book, Image makes the exact same amount money if I sell 10,” Brubaker explains. Issue No. 1 of Fatale, released in January, had estimated sales of 41,000 copies.
A crown jewel in Image’s publishing catalog is the Walking Dead, which reached issue No. 100 last week. Forecasters predict that the issue, written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, will sell more than 340,000 copies, which would make it the top book of July and perhaps the year. It is helped by factors that are catnip to hard-core collectors: It’s a milestone issue (100) and has multiple covers. In fact, this issue will have nine mass-market covers plus boutique ones.
Kirkman was a teenager at the time of the initial revolution. In 2008, at the age of 29, he was made a partner at the company, thanks in part to his commitment to publish his creations, like the Walking Dead and Invincible, about a young superhero, through the company. It was also the year when his exclusive contract ended with Marvel. He began his own imprint, Skybound, in 2010.
“Working for Marvel was fun,” Kirkman says. But “the career goal you should have is for people to care enough about you to buy your own creations and support your own ideas.”
New York Times