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Grant Morrison & Darick Robertson’s ‘Happy!’ and the Renewal of Image Comics

In a weekend that contained a bunch of surprising news in the world of creator-owned comics — such as the return of Phonogram, new Steve Niles books with Tony Harris and Scott Morse, new books from Brian Wood & Ming Doyle and Nick Spencer & Riley Rossmo, and a sequel to Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss — the most surprising news, delivered by Image Publisher Eric Stephenson in Steve-Jobs-”one-more-thing” style, is that Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson will be collaborating on a new series, Happy!, out this year.

It’s appropriate that the Happy! teaser image is a blue feather, since this project really is the feather in Image’s cap for what looks to be a downright astounding 2012, likely the best collection of true creator-owned talent since the early days of Dark Horse (Paul Chadwick, John Byrne, Frank Miller and Mike Mignola). While Image Comics was a creator-owned powerhouse in the early 1990s, the initial founders’ studios eventually became overshadowed by Image Central, which is the portion of the company that publishes the purely creator-owned material outside of studio imprints like Jim Valentino’s Shadowline or Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow. It has long been a stepping stone for new creators making their way into the big leagues or a preferred outlet for a few established creators, with many popular DC and Marvel writers taking their creator-owned works to Vertigo, WildStorm, Icon or other imprints of the Big Two.

But even before the announcement of Happy!, that scenario had begun to change. And thanks to an incredibly strong 2012 roster that includes both new faces like Morrison and a host of other talents, Image is now unquestionably not just a place for up-and-coming talent, but a prime publisher for veteran comics talent with existing, loyal fanbases.In 2012, Image has or will have major new series coming from creative teams like Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Mark Millar & Frank Quitely, Nick Spencer & Riley Rossmo, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (with another BKV book coming by Marcos Martin) and Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra (with another Hickman book coming by Ryan Bodenheim). This is on top of existing creator-owned successes like Spencer and Joe Eisma’s Morning Glories and Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead and Kirkman & Ryan Ottley’s Invincible. Last year they published Severed, a series co-written by DC Comics wunderkind Scott Snyder (Batman, American Vampire).

On its 2012 release roll, Image has one of the major architects of the modern DC Universe in Grant Morrison and two of the official, company-minted Architects of the Marvel Universe in Brubaker and Hickman. Given their status at Marvel, it seems likely that they could have taken Fatale and Manhattan Projects to that company’s in-house creator-owned label Icon if they wanted (indeed, Icon publisher’s Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal), but they went with Image. For his part, Morrison describes his new work at Image (which will apparently extend beyond Happy!) as “rawer” and “more unrestrained” than even his Vertigo work.

As for why these creators have come to Image all of a sudden, I can only speculate, but the smart money is on, well, money. And control. If you do a creator-owned book for Image, you don’t write a participation contract with DC/Vertigo, you own it outright, including all the media rights. There’s supposedly a similar philosophy in place at Marvel’s Icon, but so few creators (the writer list caps out at Bendis, Mack, Straczynski, Brubaker, Fraction and Millar) have published work through the imprint, and the barrier to entry (“become a successful work-for-hire creator for Marvel”) is so high that the details of that publishing agreement are pretty much 33rd-degree Masonic rites. Still, there must be something more attractive about Image if Brubaker specifically took his his latest collaboration with Sean Phillips from Icon.

Equally interesting, though, is not just that Image was attractive enough to draw Grant Morrison, but that that Grant Morrison was even open to the idea of leaving DC in the first place. His remarks in recent months have cast him in the persona of something of a DC company man, and other than his screenwriting work there was no indication that he was planning on writing for anyone other than DC at any time in the near future. He’s been completely exclusive with the company since 2004 with regards to comics, producing a whole mess of DC Universe books as well as the first two segments in the Seaguy trilogy, We3, Vimanarama! and Joe the Barbarian for Vertigo. Other than Seaguy: The Slaves of Mickey Eye and JtB, all of his Vertigo creator-owned work came out in the first year of his exclusive with the company. I suspect he’s either been completely devoted to Superman and Batman for the past few years, or he’s been holding back what’s usually a font of creative energy that will be unleashed at Image.

Additionally, I wonder if this will bring changes to Morrison’s public image. He got a lot of crap from the Internet last year — somewhat justifiably so — for his alleged whitewashing of the history of Superman co-creators Joe Siegel & Jerry Shuster as “well, they signed a contract.” I wonder if that vision will change as Morrison finds himself more enmeshed in truly creator-owned comics. All of Morrison’s creator-owned projects up until now have been published by Vertigo (excepting “St. Swithin’s Day” and a few other curios from the ’80s and early ’90s), so this is the writer’s first foray into true creator-owned comics, at least in this era.

Nobody yet knows what Happy! is about, who it stars, how many issues it is, or when it’s coming out (other than “2012″), but it’s a monumental piece of news because Morrison is one of the genuine heavyweights of the last 30 years of comics possibly going all-in with Image Comics on his creator-owned projects.

Where both Image and Morrison go from here, I can’t wait to find out.

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