It was the best of times, it was the strangest of times ... for the comic-book industry and fandom, at least. When Image Comics started back in 1992, there was a great deal of excitement. At the comics specialty store where I used to hang out in those days, fans came in droves to pre-order the titles – many of them booking multiple copies of the first issues.
And, since it was the 1990s after all, they also wanted all the gimmick covers – die-cut, holofoil, embossed, polybagged, you name it.
After all, Image was touted as a company founded by six superstar creators, mostly known for their spectacular art. Well, some spectacularly horrifying, but let’s not go there. So the books were expected to be smokin’ hot.
You had guys like Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee, famous for their Uncanny X-Men runs, among other titles. There was Todd McFarlane, whose Amazing Spider-Man work made him a bona fide comics superstar and whose subsequent Spider-Man comic, which he both wrote and drew, smashed records with 2.5 million copies of its first issue sold worldwide.
Like I said, these were guys known primarily for their artwork, and here they were, rebelling against the publisher-owns- -everything industry trend of the times, writing as well as drawing properties of their own invention, and which were purely creator-owned.
Not many buyers cared if they were largely unproven writers – with the possible exception of Jim Valentino, whose first Image book was ShadowHawk. Valentino’s mid-1980s parody miniseries normalman was pretty well regarded by those who managed to get their hands on it.
And, besides, here was a chance for many collectors to get in on the ground floor with a whole bunch of new titles that could potentially go through the roof as investments (yes, alas, it was also the era of speculators).
And certainly, no one wanted to be left eating the bandwagon’s dust like so many were on Valiant Comics’ Magnus Robot Fighter just a few months earlier.
As you can imagine, then, sales of the early Image Comics were mostly through the roof. I managed to sidestep the full force of the hype barrage, but was struck a glancing blow – I still have a bagged-and-boarded copy or two of McFarlane’s Spawn #1 and Lee’s WildC.A.T.s #1 somewhere in my comic book boxes at home.
But the fans eagerly ate it up: Silvestri’s Cyberforce, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, Rob Leifeld’s Youngblood, ShadowHawk, Whilce Portacio’s Wetworks, WildC.A.T.s, and of course Spawn filled customers’ weekly pull bags and didn’t stay long on the shelves either. Friends had falling outs over unfilled “sub-contracted” purchases (“Basket, you promise me five copies of WildC.A.T.s #1 one, why only two, ah?”)
Most noteworthy of all, Spawn #1 achieved its 1.7 million global sales figure, an independent comics record, without the assistance of any gimmick covers, purely on the drawing (heh) power of McFarlane’s name.
The euphoria didn’t last. Fans gradually began seeing the same old, same old in the stories, the super-teams were formulaic to the point of being cookie-cutter creations (tactician, big guy, sharpshooter, femme fatale, enigma), and the writing and plotting didn’t grab me enough. I quit buying most of the Image books after a few issues, not even bothering with Youngblood beyond the first four issues. I probably stayed the longest with Spawn but mainly because of the guest writers McFarlane brought in, like Alan Moore (issue #8), Neil Gaiman (#9), Frank Miller (#11) and Grant Morrison (#16-#18).
I drifted away from Image especially after Sam And Twitch, a most captivating “absurdist noir” spin-off of Spawn, was cancelled – only coming back in 2003 to follow The Walking Dead for a time from its very first issue (and regretfully selling off my collection before the TV series came out and made back issue prices go crazy).
But lately, I’ve come back – thanks to the publisher’s resurgence as a purveyor of quality stories like Saga and Trees. They are as far apart from the original Image creations as Millie the Model is from the Watchmen, but heck – they might never have found a home if not for those six dudes who had the guts to defy the establishment and blaze new trails not just for themselves, but for the whole industry.