The History of Image Comics

Amidst the towering figures of Marvel and DC comics, there came a comic book production company that would shake the foundations of the genre, revolutionize how creators worked in the comic book industry and set a precedent for much of the entertainment we see today. The history of Image Comics is a tale of individuals sticking it to the man and coming out on top as independent creators. Here is that grand story, from what started as an idea and then grew into a new way to publish creator-owned properties that has affected our media more than any other third party comic book company.


The Original Sin of Comics

Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel for Action Comics, (owned by DC Comics). This new hero was an instant hit. Shuster and Siegel had written a few comics of middling fame before but nothing like Superman. However, Superman had not yet become a nationwide phenomenon like it is today. Shuster and Siegel didn’t know exactly what they were sitting on, but signed a deal with Detective Comics giving the company all the rights to the character of Superman. Shuster and Siegel would get paid their days wage and go home while Detective Comics received a fortune off of their own character. This was seen as the original sin of comics because for decades this very situation would plague comic book artists and authors. Creators would make amazing characters and craft these stories for companies that owned all the rights to their creations, and the creators wouldn’t see any of that money. It wasn’t until nearly 60 years later that somebody would finally do something about it.

The ’90s

In the early ’90s, Marvel comics was killing it. So much of the creative talent in the comic book industry was at Marvel and they were knocking it out of the park. The comic book industry itself had boomed and everybody everywhere started to idolize the culture surrounding these books. Artists like Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, and Todd McFarlane were seen as celebrities, which was mostly unheard of up until this point. No other time before this were comic book artists doing commercials and meeting with massive amounts of people to sign their work. People lined the streets out side of comic book shops everywhere which saw enormous success every time a new issue of X-Men, Spider-Man, or X-Force was released. The artists at Marvel enjoyed having their art so widely recognized; sadly this state of content could not last forever.

Leaving Marvel

The lead artists working at Marvel grew tired of this whole work-for-hire policy that Marvel and DC had adopted. They wanted to own the rights to their creations. Comic creators Rob Liefeld, Erik Larson, and Jim Valentino met with the Malibu Comics creator Dave Olbrich and were fascinated by Malibu Comics sympathies to their creators and their ownership. Frustrated with the way Marvel ran things, this rag tag team of artists banded together and gathered four more of Marvel’s top artists and approached president of Marvel, Terry Stewart and editor Tom Defalco. According to Todd McFarlane, it was him, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee who spoke to the executives. Rather than demanding more money; they just told them that they were leaving. They gave them their reasons and told them to heed their warnings if they wanted to keep the rest of their talent. Then those three, representing their posse of seven artists left their executives. In 1992, they all packed up and went out of their own, shocking the community and leaving everybody on the edge of their seat wondering what these legends would do next.

From left to right: Jim Valentino, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri

Founding Image Comics

These artists wanted to make an impression on the industry. They wanted to change the way comics were made and give the credit and rewards where they were due. They set up a meeting with the executives at DC (which got their hopes up), only to tell them that they were going to create their own publication company. They then roped in former X-Men artist Chris Claremont and began laying the groundwork for Image Comics. The way that it worked was that Image would be this umbrella company for the creators who owned their own separate publication companies. The singular companies would keep the majority of their own revenue with a small percentage going to those running Image so as to keep Image itself afloat, but still maintaining the ideals of creator owned content that they were pioneering. While these separate companies were formulating, Chris Claremont opted out of the partnership and Whilce Portacio withdrew due to his sister’s illness. So the six original companies are as follows:

  • Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane
  • Wildstorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee
  • Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen
  • Shadowline, owned by Jim Valentino
  • Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri
  • Extreme Studios, owned by Rob Liefeld.

These comic book companies were met with amazing initial success. With dynamic art, and an emphasis on character driven story lines, they pioneered what readers would call the “Image way”. With all this happening, the stock for Marvel plummeted and Image took DC’s spot as the number two comic book company in the world. It was these brave creators that saw a problem, they stood up for their cause and were met with success. Yet on the horizon, hard times were coming.

The Comic Book Crash and Break-up

As wild speculation and mass purchasing of the same comics to make a buck in the future became the norm; audiences began to realize that these comics wouldn’t really be worth anything for decades at best, especially with everyone buying the same issue #1’s over and over. There was a recession of the comic book craze and the creators at Image began to get antsy. As disagreements began to spread amongst the executives, Marc Silvestri withdrew Top Cow productions from Image. Rob Liefeld was accused of using his position at Image to promote another company he owned separately from Image. A vote was held to kick Liefeld out, but he left before a verdict was made. After this, Silvestri returned Top Cow to Image. However, Jim Lee sold Wildstorm Comics to DC in order to focus more on creative endeavors rather than running a company. That being said, the Cliffhanger imprint of Wildstorm comics yielded highly popular work from artists such as Humberto Ramos, Joe Madureira, and J. Scott Campbell, who joined Image’s throng. Even though comics took a dip during this era, Image stayed afloat; paving the way for much of the comics that we see today.

Modern Day Image

During the subsequent years, Jim Valentino, who was largely running things as the head of Image, stepped down and Erik Larsen replaced him for a short period of time. All the while they began to diversify the comics that they were putting out. Many of these “non-line” comics were not too successful. When Larsen left and was replaced by Eric Stephenson, Image began working with the likes of Robert Kirkman who had created a very popular black and white comic known as The Walking Dead. Originally pitched as an alien/zombie comic in order to get it funded and published, Kirkman admitted he fibbed a little bit as to the origin of the zombies in order to get his work published, yet nobody cared once it brought in the crowds and the money. Since then, Image has become a safe haven for creators just looking to make something fresh and new. Books like Saga, Paper Girls, Descender, Rat Queens, and so many more have joined the roster of astounding comics released under Image’s banner. Image has made it so that anybody who has a good idea and the skills to pull it off can appeal to have their work published and receive that which is due to them for their art. It’s a real life tale of the underdog succeeding against all odds and coming out on top.

What are some of your favorite Image comics? Let us know in the comments below.


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