On This Day In 1992: The Start Of The Image Comics Revolution
At the dawn of 1992, comic books were booming. Tim Burton’s Batman had kicked off a new wave of big-budget film adaptations. Superhero products could be found in nearly every aisle of every department store and supermarket. New comic shops were springing up in shopping centers and malls, publishers were seeing their highest sales figures in years, and new companies were making names for themselves as serious players. And Marvel Comics was the unquestioned big fish in the pool, with their stock booming in the six short months since they’d gone public, and an unparalleled creative stable.
But big changes were afoot. In December of 1991, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee, Marvel’s three biggest artists, informed publisher Terry Stewart that the company’s policies toward talent were unfair, that creators were not being appropriately rewarded for their work, and that they were leaving, effective immediately. In the month thereafter, they joined forces with a few more like-minded artists from Marvel’s top-selling titles, worked out a deal with small publisher Malibu Comics for production and distribution, and decided on the title for their new company — recycling a name that Liefeld had originally intended for an aborted self-publishing venture. On February 1st, 1992, a press release was sent out announcing the formation of Image Comics.
The details of who exactly was involved were a bit vague, and conflicting reports appeared almost immediately: George Perez and a number of other name creators were rumored to be participants. But once the smoke settled, the founders of Image would forevermore be established as McFarlane, Liefeld, Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio. (Chris Claremont was also listed in initial press reports, as he had been planning to team with Portacio on a new title called The Huntsman, but once Portacio decided to create his own series from scratch, Claremont turned his focus to projects for DC Comics.)
Just to put in perspective what a big deal this was: in June of 1990, Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 had become the best-selling comic issue of all time, touching down with 2.5 million copies. In June of 1991, Rob Liefeld’s X-Force #1 broke McFarlane’s record, with five million copies sold. And just two months after that, Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 trounced all previous numbers, selling 8.1 million. These weren’t just some hot-headed hotshot creators — these were the people behind the three biggest comics ever, at the top of their game. In the world of comics, this was like the Olympic Dream Team, The Highwaymen, and United Artists, all rolled into one.
And it wasn’t just a big deal to comic readers, but also to the market in general. Marvel Entertainment Group was a publicly traded company, and comics were becoming big business. Barron’s was the first mainstream outlet to note that many of Marvel’s top talents were leaving, in an article focused on the company’s unsustainable business practices, and once CNN’s Moneyline ran a story on the formation of Image, it was official — the rules of the game had changed.
Of course, as happens with any ambitious new undertaking, there were bumps that had to be ironed out. The Image founders had plenty of ideas, but they were suddenly faced with the realities of producing titles from scratch, handling their own scheduling, and operating without editors keeping things on track.
The company was founded on the tenets that each creator would own their own work, each partner would operate with total creative autonomy, and the only IP that the umbrella company itself would control was the Image name and logo — and while this was noble and idealistic, it meant that the company’s launch was a bit disorganized, and everything ran late right from the get-go.
Liefeld’s Youngblood was the first title out of the gate, but issue #1 didn’t go on sale ’til April, a month or so after it was expected. McFarlane’s Spawn #1 was the second Image issue to hit stores, and while it was cover-dated May 1992, it wasn’t actually released until the first week of June. Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #1 arrived the last week of June (actually beating its cover date of July), but #2 was delayed until October. Jim Valentino’s Shadowhawk #1 and Jim Lee’s WildCATS #1 didn’t arrive until August. Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce #1 finally showed up in October.
But late or not, each of these books became a smash, topping sales charts and establishing new benchmarks for the success of independent comics. And while the “collective democracy” approach of the founders meant that some questionable titles ended up getting released over the first few years of the company — case in point: Image Plus #1, a book that consisted entirely of creator bios and Q&As, and contained no comic material whatsoever — the founders also quickly opened their doors to other writers and artists who wanted to create their own properties.
Some company founders also actively expanded their own corners of the Imageverse — Lee and Liefeld’s respective studios recruited young talent and produced a number of titles that spun off from their core franchises. And the company grew and matured quickly enough that by early 1993, they were able to establish their own central publishing office and cut ties with Malibu.
The effects of Image’s success were immediate and far-reaching. Creator-owned comics weren’t just relegated to niche markets any longer, and publishers began to realize that they needed to offer better deals.
Within a couple years, other groups of creators banded together to launch Image-esque imprints of their own, most notably Bravura (published through Malibu), and Legend (published through Dark Horse). For a new generation of comic readers, creators’ rights became a natural part of conversations about the industry, rather than a distant afterthought.
In the years since the company’s formation, Image has shifted, changed, and evolved. Rob Liefeld resigned (or was asked to leave) in 1996, and returned in 2007. Jim Lee left in 1998, bringing his Wildstorm imprint and all associated trademarks and characters to DC Comics, where he continued to oversee his family of titles until he was named co-publisher of DC in 2010. Robert Kirkman, who got his start at Image writing Superpatriot for Erik Larsen in 2002, and went to create Invincible and The Walking Dead, was made a partner in the company in 2008.
Image’s slate of titles has been in a constant state of flux, as befits a publisher where all rights reside with the creators — at various times, Mike Allred’s Madman, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City, and Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming’s Powers have all appeared under the Image banner.
The publisher has also given a home to some of the medium’s most distinctive voices; provided a home for many of the craziest, coolest, strangest, silliest, and smartest titles one could hope to read; and established the most brilliantly diverse slate of any publisher. And under the guidance of publisher (and former Liefeld employee) Eric Stephenson, the company has gone to new strengths.
Saga. Phonogram. Bitch Planet. Sex Criminals. Shutter. Morning Glories. Peter Panzerfaust. Li’l Depressed Boy. Pretty Deadly. The Wicked + The Divine. Fatale. The Manhattan Projects. Ghosted. Satellite Sam. Paper Girls. Chew. Citizen Jack. Rat Queens. Deadly Class. Five Ghosts. Lazarus. Ody-C. Kaptara. Monstress. Too many comics to mention.
On the anniversary of the formation of Image Comics, it’s worth noting the legacy of the seven creators who wanted a better deal, who wanted to own their work, and who set out to do exactly what they wanted. They held firm so they could tell stories of their own heroes; heroes with big guns and metal limbs and superfluous spikes and flowing capes and massive shoulder pads and gritted teeth and giant fins. In doing so, they kicked open the door for new generations to tell new kinds of stories, and kicked off a comic book revolution.