Anyone who knows even a bit about comics knows Image, a company formed by seven ex-Marvel artists twenty-five years ago so that they could stop being hamstrung by corporate directives and benefit from the success of the art and story lines they created.
The seven original partners—Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri, and Rob Liefeld—had million-copy-selling issues with Marvel or were well known by comics fans, who were beginning to pick their comics based on the creators' names on the cover instead of the characters'. Still, it was a big gamble to go off on their own and build their own properties. The founders of Image radiated talent and imagination; running a business would prove to be a different challenge entirely.
Image was founded on two principles: Image would not own any creator's work; the creator would. And no Image partner would interfere with any other partner's work.
The creative part worked. Spawn, Youngblood, Savage Dragon, Witchblade, and other comics became household names as each founder started his own studio and began selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Money followed. But a few short years later, the comics industry took a nosedive, hauling Image, Marvel, DC, and others down along with it and amplifying tensions among the founding partners. Rob Liefeld resigned from the partnership in 1996, and Jim Lee sold his Wildstorm studio to DC in 1998 and left Image. (Lee is now the co-publisher of DC Entertainment.) Around the same time, Image expanded to allow non-partners to create comics under their umbrella, giving artists and writers the same creator-owned benefits that were the bedrock of Image's origin. Among the new artists to join Image was Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead. Kirkman joined Image as a partner in 2008, becoming the company's only non-founding partner.
Image continued to draw in new fans who were looking for something other than a twist on Batman or Spider-Man. Chew (John Layman and Rob Guillory) won two Eisner awards since its start in 2009. Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples launched in 2012 and has brought thousands of non-graphic-novel fans into the genre. The Wicked + the Divine, East of West, and Rat Queens are only a few others among the comics that have won commercial and creative acclaim, and many consider Image to be at the forefront of a new golden age of comics. The Amazon editors picked Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda's Monstress as the #1 graphic novel among the best comics and graphic novels of 2016.
On the eve of Image's twenty-fifth anniversary, Image publisher Eric Stephenson answered our burning questions about this groundbreaking company and what's coming next.
Amazon Book Review: Looking back, what comics stand out for you over the past twenty-five years as harbingers of new interests among readers?
Eric Stephenson: There are a few actually, but key among them are The Walking Dead, Saga, and Bitch Planet. The Walking Dead is important, because when it launched in 2003, horror comics were by no means a surefire way to attract readers’ attention. There’s always been a fanbase for zombie movies, but for comics, not so much, and The Walking Dead initially seemed like something that would appeal to one niche audience and find its success there. What happened, though, was it grew and grew—and then, with the AMC television series, grew some more—and I think that was the first sign that the audience for comics was changing. Superheroes had been the industry’s bread and butter for so long, but now you had this black-and-white horror comic about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse just going from strength to strength. It was unprecedented. Saga was another turning point, because whereas comics have had a predominantly male audience for decades, it was clear right from the start that Saga appealed to a large number of female readers and was actively expanding comics’ readership. Bitch Planet built on that, generating a huge amount of buzz before it even came out, and making it clear that the days of comics being a boys' club were coming to an end.
Is there a series that surprised everyone with its runaway success?
You know what really surprised me? The success of Chew. When John Layman first pitched that book—which is about an FDA agent who gets visions from whatever he eats, oh, and it’s set in a world where chicken has been outlawed—his hope was that it would last long enough for him to get five issues out. But it sold out immediately, and went into multiple printings and then became a mainstay in our line-up for nearly a decade. John and artist Rob Guillory created a book that was so unique and uncompromising that it almost defied description, so it was both surprising and cool to see it take off the way it did. It’s what you want for every book, obviously, but when it happens with something like this, it’s pretty great.
Image is founded on the ideal that works should be creator-owned and that the creators themselves should receive the benefits when their comics do well. This is in contrast to DC and Marvel, where the writers and artists did not own the work they created. Was there any point in time when Image wondered whether this business model was really going to work?
I’m sure there were some long nights at the beginning, when they were just starting to formulate their plans, but you know, once the books started coming out, it was pretty clear they were onto something.
Looking ahead, what upcoming comics are you looking forward to putting into readers’ hands?
All of them! In addition to the new titles we’re launching over the course of 2017, we have one of the richest and most amazing backlists in comics. So it’s exciting to be able to turn people on to something brand-new, like Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr’s Motor Crush or Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman’s The Few, but we’ve also got things like David Lapham’s Stray Bullets or Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale and The Fade Out or Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory, which I just mentioned a bit ago. From books the company’s founders created—Todd McFarlane’s Spawn or Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon—right on to recent successes like Mark Millar and Greg Capullo’s Reborn or Bryan Lee O’Malley and Leslie Hung’s Snotgirl, we have a wide, wide variety of material in print, something for almost every type of reader, and the more people find out about our books, the more there is for them to explore.
Is there any advice you would give to new creators—artists or writers—who are trying to make a name for themselves?
That old Apple ad said it best: “Think different.” Look at what everyone else is doing and do something else. Instead of standing on the shoulders of comics giants from the 20th century, do your own thing and make it stand out. I think that’s the big lesson creators can learn from all the best books over the history of comics, because every one of them filled a void that wasn’t there—start with Superman and work forward and it becomes pretty apparent that new creativity is the engine that drives this business. Do your part to take the medium to the next level, and you’ll have an edge over everyone else.
To celebrate Image Day, check out the events being hosted around the United States as well as in Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain.
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