On its 25th anniversary, the mission of Image Comics remains the same.
The comic-book publisher, founded in 1992 by Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Todd McFarlane and Jim Valentino, still prides itself on being a place where writers and artists can come to take ownership of their imaginations.
Image Comics was partly born out of the frustrations its founders felt while realizing they would never have ownership of any new characters they created at a major comic book publisher like Marvel Comics or DC Comics. Artists like McFarlane, Liefeld, Lee and Silvestri had strong followings, and they were confident their fans would follow them to the titles they created at Image.
“Everybody who publishes through Image owns and controls their own work, just as the Image founders did when they started the company,” Image publisher Eric Stephenson told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs.
The promise of “unbridled creativity” is what Stephenson says has kept fans coming to Image Comics over the years.
“If you look at something like Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ ‘Saga,’ nothing in that series is being filtered through someone else — it’s Brian and Fiona’s pure, undiluted vision of what they want ‘Saga’ to be,” Stephenson said. “There’s no editor telling them to pull back on this scene or maybe take that scene out — it’s exactly what Brian and Fiona want in the book. That goes for all our titles, and I think it’s something readers respond to very positively.”
Perhaps Image Comics’ grandest achievement is “The Walking Dead,” created by Robert Kirkman, a partner at Image Comics since 2008. Stephenson said“The Walking Dead” showed comic book creators just how big something they created could be and that the series opened the door for some of Image’s most popular series.
“Without ‘The Walking Dead,’ there never would have been ‘Saga.’ Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s ‘Bitch Planet‘ wouldn’t be here today, or Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s ‘The Wicked + The Divine,’ or Rick Remender and Wesley Craig’s ‘Deadly Class‘ — the list just goes on and on,” Stephenson said. “The runaway success of ‘The Walking Dead’ really built on that and made it possible for creators within even loftier visions to take things to the next level from there.”
Image Comics released the 163rd issue of “The Walking Dead” Wednesday (available in print and digitally) as a 25-cent issue to celebrate its silver anniversary, which it’s calling Image Day.
More comic-to-live-action adaptations will eventually hit the movie screen. “Wytches” by Scott Snyder and Jock was picked up by Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s production company. “Descender” by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen was optioned by Sony.
“Every time an option on something is announced, there’s a spike in sales, so if there’s a ‘Descender’ film or a ‘Wytches’ movie, if ‘East of West‘ becomes a TV show, or ‘Plutona,’ or ‘Reborn,’ then that’s very good news for everyone,” Stephenson said.
Many of the original comic book series that came out of Image’s ’90s debut were dubbed the next generation of superheroes. McFarlane’s “Spawn,” Larsen’s “Savage Dragon,” Liefeld’s “Youngblood,” all took advantage of the large fan bases their creators had built while working at Marvel Comics. McFarlane and Larsen were two of the most popular Spider-Man artists of the early ’90s, and Liefeld came to fame drawing “X-Force” and co-creating Hollywood superhero darling Deadpool.
Stephenson said superheroes are still very popular in the comic-book industry, but as readership evolved, Image was ready for the change.
“Writers and artists have realized that there’s virtually no limit on what they can do in comics, and that’s one of the most exciting parts of working here at Image — there is no template,” Stephenson said. “If you look at something like ‘Sex Criminals‘ by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, wherein the lead characters can stop time when they have sex and then use that power to rob banks, it’s pretty clear we couldn’t have asked Matt and Chip to pitch that, you know? The most appealing series proposals are often the most outlandish — the things we couldn’t even begin to guess would be pitched.”
In an era when Marvel and DC renumber their titles when they start a new series, Image Comics doesn’t. That’s why it has some of the highest numbered series in comics — “Spawn” is approaching issue No. 300.
“It’s kind of a mistake, really, because it creates false demand and even a cursory examination of sales patterns shows that it doesn’t help the series long-term, which has had a harmful effect on comic book sales overall,” Stephenson says of the popular industry trend to keep starting series over. “It confuses anyone new to comics, and the message it instills in longtime fans is that nothing is permanent and that marketing gimmicks are more important than good storytelling.”
While Lee is now the co-publisher and still doing artwork for DC Comics, many of the original founders remain at Image. McFarlane, Larsen and Valentino remain partners alongside the recently appointed Kirkman. Liefeld and Portacio are no longer partners, but they continue to work with Image on occasion.
For the next 25 years, Stephenson said he hopes for more of what has fueled Image over the years: constant change.
“My biggest hope is that comics change so much over the next 25 years that anyone reading comics today would be shocked. I’m not a big fan of complacency, and I think any commercial art form needs to constantly change, constantly reinvent itself, to remain vital,” Stephenson said. “So I hope the generation of creators coming up today and in the future look at the medium and decide to turn it into something new.”