One of the largest comics publishers has reached a milestone anniversary this year. Image Comics, now in its 25th year, also happens to be experiencing of its most successful years ever. Initially a major driver of the speculation boom in the early ‘90s comics market, Image has recently reached the pop culture zeitgeist again with numerous bestselling titles which put most of Marvel and DC’s output outside the box office to shame. Image has represented very polarizing ideals in the comics scene over the years, a seeming contradiction in the direct market paradigm. On one hand, they have represented the utter absence of artistry in the mainstream, the muscle-bound inanity and collector’s items of the late nineties boom and bust at their most abject. Yet at the same time, Image has stood as an ideal publishing model to many: an outlet for popular and original concepts with the creators retaining full ownership.
When Image was founded in 1992, the intent was a self-proclaimed comics revolution. Spearheaded by seven of Marvel Comics’ most popular artists at the time — namely Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Jim Valentino and Erik Larsen — the explicit purpose of the publisher was to offer a feasible alternate within mainstream superhero comics to Marvel and DC’s contracts, which robbed the writer/artist of any rights to their own work. Historically, exploitation has always been the dark not-so-secret side of superhero comics. For example, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, spent much of their lives hovering close to the poverty line while their iconic man of steel became a billion dollar property. Taking a stand against this nonsense was and remains a big deal. Image series featured original characters without 50 years of popular baggage and sold on the popularity of the creators behind them. And unlike an indie publisher like Fantagraphics, Image comics reached a mass audience beyond the hip graphic novel scene, which had not yet grown to encompass bookstores and newspaper columns.
In many ways, Image was the ideal model, but their marketing strategies were less than utopian. Many mock the content of their comics from this time, shoulderpadded “extreme” nonsense drawn quickly with a poor sense of proportion and all the worst boy’s club impulses. I actually wouldn’t go that far myself, as these comics aren’t exactly Persepolis, but they have a certain charm in their exclamatory energy. Liefeld and McFarlane are particularly appealing in a gnarly camp sort of way. The real issue wasn’t the content, but how irrelevant the content was. Most every comic Image Comics published at that time was sold as a collector’s item with at least a couple variant covers (the most infamous of these being Bloodstrike #1, whose gelatinous variant cover beckoned the buyer to “Rub the Blood!”). This inflated collector’s market was initially fueled by the then-shocking auction sales of rare superhero comics from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, but Image’s ferocious push on this speculation back and forth with Marvel and others added gasoline to the bonfire. Eventually, people began to realize that Violator vs. Badrock #2 wasn’t going to put their kid through college, and the flame of speculation was extinguished, leading to a moment of industry-wide failures and bankruptcy — even Marvel filed for chapter 11 — from which the direct market scene arguably still hasn’t totally recovered.
Recently, Image has come back into vogue as a publisher, mainly due to the success of The Walking Dead, a TV show spun off from one of their longest-running comics. However, what has allowed Image to muscle in on that coveted third place in the mainstream market — alleged third, seeing as the sci-fi series Saga outsells most Marvel and DC books that aren’t Spider-Man or Batman — is not Image’s own success but rather the failures of their competition. Vertigo, DC Entertainment’s mature readers imprint, previously occupied that space in the comics market with beloved titles like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but their cachet has stumbled massively in recent years since editor and founder Karen Berger left the imprint. Without her curatorial force, Vertigo has stumbled aimlessly through bad ideas and vanity projects, while Image developed a prestige television vibe that beckons new readers to their books.
The Image Comics that exists today is quite admirable in many regards. Their books are usually handsomely designed, (although the actual artistry on display may vary in its success) publications that might even— gasp — reach an actual audience. The work of editor David Brothers and others have pushed a greater creative diversity and diversity in creators — Image publishes the Brandon Graham-curated anthology Island, which is among the most forward-thinking comics publications out there, period. And most importantly, creators own their work and receive fair compensation, still a shockingly alien concept for most publishers today.
And yet, a certain malaise seems to set in. Most of Image’s comics are boring, stiffly drawn art married to aggressively bland writing. Many of these titles are clearly written with multimedia potential in mind more than creative freedom, using “decompressed storytelling” as a pretense to spread the content of a television pilot over 6 months of single issues that cost four dollars each. Image’s top-selling titles are like little packages of nothing – you follow them in anticipation of a morsel of something, 1000 pages from now, or in an adaptation, or perhaps a long form blog post by an adolescent you’ll never meet. This isn’t creative freedom, this is comics dystopia.
Under the lens of late stage capitalism, the strengths and flaws of Image Comics from its inception in 1992 to today begin to make sense. Image’s publishing model offers an alternative to creators dissatisfied with the Big Two’s system of ownership while stressing the commodification of product over celebration of artistry. There is no inherent protection under Image’s rules beyond what is stated in a contract, nor is a great deal of emphasis put on pursuing excellence. There is no comradery, only ambition for personal gain at the expense of fellow artists and eager readers alike. The conundrum of Image, the bad but good, the brilliant and crass, the artists in the mainstream, all of this boils down to a decision that financial capital and the rapid movement of product would be the best system to bring fair compensation to creators – exploitation countered by self-exploitation. One wonders what the comics world might look like today if Image’s star founders had decided to unionize and demand new industry-wide standards instead of building a new comics factory.
Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com.