Twenty-five years ago, I recall rushing to now-defunct comic book shop The Final Frontier in Petaling Jaya to get a copy of Youngblood #1 by ... Rob Liefeld(!). While both Youngblood and Liefeld are names to steer clear of these days, Youngblood #1 is a unique exception, as it is, after all, the first comic book published by Image Comics.
If you’re familiar with the comic book industry, you’ve probably heard about how Liefeld – together with fellow comic creators Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Eric Larsen, Jim Valentino and (later) Whilce Portacio – left Marvel to establish Image. Frustrated that any new characters they created would never truly belong to them as long as they were with Marvel, they left the company and formed Image Comics in 1992.
Initially, Image Comics was a coalition of six studios owned by each of the partners (except for Portacio) – McFarlane’s Todd McFarlane Productions, Jim Lee’s WildStorm Productions, Larsen’s Highbrow Entertainment, Valentino’s Shadowline, Silvestri’s Top Cow Productions, and Liefeld’s Extreme Studios. Each studio produced titles that were published under the Image banner but was completely independent and not subject to any central editorial control, unlike at DC or Marvel.
The fledgling company’s philosophy was simple: Image would not own any creator’s work; the creator would, and no Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner’s work.
“Everybody who publishes through Image owns and controls his own work, just as the Image founders did when they started the company,” said Image publisher Eric Stephenson in a recent interview with The Washington Post.
The first Image comic books to arrive in stores were Liefeld’s Youngblood, Larsen’s The Savage Dragon, McFarlane’s Spawn, and Lee’s WildC.A.T.s, all of which became massive successes.
Today, Image is one of the flag-bearers for creator-owned comic books, with bestselling titles like Robert Kirkman’s Invincible and The Walking Dead, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga, and of course, longtime stalwarts of the company like McFarlane’s Spawn and Larsen’s Savage Dragon.
It also boasts creator-owned titles by some of the industry’s most established comic book creators, such as Rick Remender (Deadly Class, Black Science), Jonathan Hickman (The Manhattan Projects), Jeff Lemire (Descender), Matt Fraction (Casanova, Sex Criminals, ODY-C), Mark Millar (Wanted, Jupiter’s Circle), Greg Rucka (Lazarus), Nick Spencer (Morning Glories), Jason Aaron (Southern Bastards), and more.
A quarter of a century on, we can safely conclude that the “Magnificent Seven” were right in leaving Marvel. It’s thanks to their dream of having unbridled creative control and retaining ownership of their creations that we get to read countless stories that the Big Two, DC and Marvel, wouldn’t have published – their actions benefited the comics industry as a whole.
As a tribute to the company’s silver anniversary, this week we shine the spotlight on some of the Image Comics titles that helped define the company.
When Spawn #1 was published in 1992 as one of Image’s first wave of titles, it sold over 1.7 million copies, setting a record for highest-selling debut ever for an independent title, a record it still holds today. The king of the Image-verse was spawned from McFarlane’s arachnid ambitions, and was successful enough to get its own feature film in 1997 (though it didn’t do very well). Still an ongoing series today, Spawn is currently the longest-running Image series, and is at #274 and counting.
Second only to Spawn in terms of issues published, Larsen’s brainchild is a mix of old school comic book storytelling and new world controversies. Larsen’s enthusiasm and personal attachment to the Dragon (whom he created in elementary school) made the title a very personalised journey for both creator and creation.
The Wildstorm universe may no longer be under Image (it was acquired by DC Comics in 1999), but Jim Lee’s X-Men equivalents – which included characters like Spartan, Zealot, Grifter, Void, Voodoo, and Maul – will forever be remembered as the original benchmark for all super teams.
It was absorbed into the main DC universe in 2011’s New 52 relaunch, but recently, the Wildstorm imprint itself was relaunched under the guidance of acclaimed writer Warren Ellis.
The Wildstorm imprint was also home to Stormwatch, The Authority, Gen 13 (Caitlin Fairchild, Sarah Rainmaker, Freefall, Grunge, and Burnout were the poster gals/boys of the 1990s), and, of course, Team 7, which served as the nexus within the original Wildstorm universe.
Team 7 members were the “founding fathers” that genetically proliferated titles such as the WildC.A.T.s, Wetworks, Gen 13, D.V.8, Backlash, Grifter, and Deathblow.
Liefeld has explained that the idea for Youngblood’s team of young heroes was based on an idea he had for DC’s Teen Titans, which was never used. Youngblood #1 was Image’s first ever publication, but although it did well initially, it was critically panned.
Liefeld was the man behind Image’s implosion in 1996, when he was accused of using his position as CEO to support Maximum Press, a company that he set up outside of Image, and poaching talent from the other Image partners. Liefeld resigned from Image in September 1996, giving up his share of the company.
When Liefeld left Image in 1996, he took Youngblood with him.
The Walking Dead
Most people may know The Walking Dead as the hit TV series, but even before Rick Grimes and his gang of motley zombie-apocalypse survivors hit the small screen, Robert Kirkman’s comic book was already making waves in the comics industry.
According to Stephenson in that The Washington Post interview, it was The Walking Dead that opened the door for some of Image’s most popular series, as it showed comic book creators just how big something they created could become.
The success of the title, as well as Invincible, convinced the company to make Kirkman a partner in 2008, its first since the founding of the company.
If you look at the logo on Invincible’s costume carefully, you’ll notice that it is actually the Image Comics logo, designed by writer Hank Kanalz when the company was formed in 1992.
It’s apt that a high-flying young superhero should bear the hopes of the company on his chest, especially since it was created by Kirkman, the man who helped give Image its second wind.
The Invincible title, about young Mark Grayson who discovers that his father is actually a superhero, and that he has inherited those powers as well, has been running for 15 years now, and is due to end in late 2017 with issue #144.
Imagine a comic book that combines the space-faring adventure of Star Wars, the political intrigue of Game Of Thrones, the epic fantasy of The Lord Of The Rings, and the romance of Romeo & Juliet, and you’ve got Saga.
Written by Brian K. Vaughan and beautifully illustrated by Fiona Staples, this epic space opera has won almost every award imaginable, and despite running for five years now, still manages to retain a sense of wonderment and originality with every single issue.
Before Kick-Ass and Kingsman, Mark Millar got his first shot at over-the-top storytelling via Wanted, a six-issue limited series dubbed “The Watchmen for super villains”, published via Top Cow in 2003.
The success of the title led Millar to continue working on creator-owned comics that included Kick-Ass, The Secret Service (better known as Kingsman), and a few others that were published by Image, including Jupiter’s Circle, Jupiter’s Legacy, and Huck.
If the Image Universe had a queen, she would be Sara Pezzini, NYPD homicide detective who finds a mystical gauntlet called the Witchblade, which gives her special powers and enables her to fight evil supernatural forces. Co-created by Marc Silvestri under his Top Cow studio, the Witchblade was so popular in the mid 1990s that she even got her own anime and TV series.
Also, check out The Darkness, featuring Mafia hit man Jackie Estacado, Top Cow’s answer to Marvel’s Punisher and Venom, combined! This Witchblade spin-off by Garth Ennis and Silvestri even made inter-dimensional demons look fantabulous.