Image Comics celebrated its 20th anniversary this week, but the “Image Era of Comics” died quietly in its sleep long ago.

Let’s be clear about that. The comic-book world is generally a better one for having had Image in it. And it is still a part of that world. But for a few years, it was possible to believe that Image was going to dominate that world. The company’s commitment to creators’ rights lives on– it’ll be celebrating “the independent spirit” at a special show this year.

But in the last decade of the 20th century, Image Comics meant more than that. It meant an aesthetic, an approach, which shook the comics world as thoroughly as the Cubists shook the art world. And just like cubism today, the superficial elements can still be found when Rob Liefeld draws Hawk and Dove for DC, but the meaning is difficult to recapture, unless we can cast our minds into the past.

Creator’s Rights

As the Eighties became the Nineties, the comics market saw a shift in creative emphasis. If the Eighties had been driven chiefly by writers like Alan Moore, Chris Claremont, Peter David and Marv Wolfman, the early Nineties saw more commercial and creative emphasis placed on the artist.

x-force-1At Marvel, those star artists became something of a dream team: X-Force artist Rob Liefeld, X-Men artist Jim Lee, Spider-Man artists Todd McFarlane and Eric Larsen. Yes, there was a time when Rob Liefeld’s art style was more celebrated than mocked.

One fine day, key members of that dream team walked into the office of Marvel president Terry Stewart with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal: they wanted to produce a new line called Image Comics through the Marvel offices, and they wanted creative control and 75 percent of the profit. Otherwise, they would leave and do Image as an independent company. Stewart made a counteroffer, but a deal could not be made, and Marvel’s dream team became its strongest new competitor.

Even the founders today aren’t quite sure whether they expected Marvel to take this offer. Many comics superstars had left the “Big Two” publishers before, from Jack Kirby to Alan Moore, and their work afterwards didn’t represent any serious commercial threat to DC or Marvel.

spawn-1But Image definitely did. Its top-selling books competed openly on the charts with the very properties that its founders had gathered their fame while working on. Image was founded on two theses—creative freedom, and creative ownership—which it has never betrayed. Image the company doesn’t own any “Image Comics characters,” and no one at Image tells a creator what they can or can’t put in their work.

This was a symbolic victory for creators who’d been lobbying for better rights for decades, and during Image’s early period of rapid growth, it really seemed possible that it might seize a majority of market share. At times, according to Diamond’s reports, its revenues exceeded DC’s.

No “Team” in “i”

The united front that led to Image’s foundation was only possible for two reasons: the collector-focused market of the early Nineties had made its key figures into stars, and comic-book companies’ treatment of its talent was so restrictive that even wildly disparate personalities were compelled to unite against it.

Wildly disparate, the founders clearly were. Certain aesthetic themes ran through the work of Image’s most prominent members: bigger and fewer panels, angsty, furious linework, and more exaggerated and angular anatomy. (Critics joked that at Image, women and men looked like they’d been bred from gazelles and elephants, respectively.) Even how many Image founders really “count” is somewhat controversial. Whilce Portacio and Chris Claremont were part of the group in the beginning, but contributed little to it that’s well-remembered today. Marc Silvestri’s Witchblade is still a part of the company today, and has seen several adaptations– but Silvestri still doesn’t get mentioned as much as Lee, Liefeld, Larsen or McFarlane. Jim Valentino had a large role in the company’s ultimate destiny, but McFarlane considered him a weak artist and unworthy of peer status.

Wildcats-1Virtually no other issue of the day could get the artists to retain this united front. Some were very much in favor of expanding their work into the realm of television and movies, some against.  Some were interested in pushing their product beyond the superhero genre, others never wanted to do anything but superheroes. Some weren’t even sure they wanted Image’s “i” logo on all of the books.

One issue that dogged Image in its early years was its approach to writing. Certain Image founders– particularly Larsen and McFarlane– seemed to regard writers the same way they regarded publishers, as one more person telling them what they could and couldn’t do. There were a few scriptwriters McFarlane considered exceptional, most of whom got a Spawn assignment or two in his early Image days.

(Alan Moore, the scriptwriter’s scriptwriter, seemed to regard Image’s splashier aesthetic as a fresh challenge, and did extensive work with McFarlane, Lee and Liefeld… though when speaking of his Liefeld work, he did mention the need to “artist-proof” his scripts.)

Still, the exceptional were exceptional. Disdain for writers was the rule at Image, and it filtered through much of the business. When I attended comic-book classes at the end of the decade, there was only one writing class, and most of my peers were artists who treated the writing of comics as an afterthought.

Yet I have to admit that many comics scripts were over-written in the 1980s, especially in imitation of Moore’s earlier work. A little creative power struggle isn’t always a bad thing. It would be terrible for art today to consist of nothing but cubism, but a little cubist influence has helped art grow. Still, the cubists, and the Image founders, fostered the belief that the way they were doing things was simply the way things would be done, from here on out, by anyone who wasn’t afraid of the future.

Old Image Today

The “writing as an afterthought” issue didn’t seem to trouble comics buyers much, especially in the heady early 1990s, when comics were more often treated as financial investments than entertainment. This lack of sympathy troubled writers all the more.

But more damaging to Image’s brand, in the end, was treating the production of comics as an afterthought. The early days of Image saw many moneymaking opportunities, and what the company was supposed to be about—making comics—began to get lost in the shuffle. Deadline issues plagued the company almost immediately, and for a time not only Image, but the entire industry, seemed to shift from a monthly to a “whenever” schedule. Schisms between the members became more frequent. Liefeld was ousted. Retailers began to lose patience.

invincible-1The company’s “open” structure finally rescued it. Under Valentino’s direction, and later Larsen’s, it invested more heavily in hands-off publishing arrangements with new creators, who were generally far more deadline-friendly. These creators retained virtually all rights not absolutely necessary for any publishing arrangement. The result was closer to the practices in the book publishing industry than the traditional practices of the comic-book field. It’s under such an arrangement that Invincible and The Walking Dead are published today. (And there has been some “unbending” of those practices at Marvel in recent years, and especially at DC, though perhaps not enough.)

However, the market went through changes that challenged the relevance of a single “independent publishing” imprint. The bookstore market for comics began to draw in book publishers, and the online market was far better-equipped to introduce new cartooning talents than was Image, with its roots in the comic-book marketplace. Even in the realm of comic books, Image found itself competing with newer players as the superstar status of its founders faded. Still, fads fade no matter what. Better to still be in the game, or to leave on your own terms, than to be discarded by your employer for the next big thing.

Today, four Image founders are still producing comics for the imprint, but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Jim Valentino produces original work under the Shadowline imprint, not tying himself too tightly to any one property. Marc Silvestri manages the Top Cow imprint, centered upon his own Witchblade and The Darkness properties but not exclusive to them (this imprint also produced Wanted). Erik Larsen continues to write and draw Savage Dragon himself. Todd McFarlane lessened his involvement over time and now merely supervises each new issue of Spawn, concentrating many of his energies on toy design.

savage-dragon-barack-obamaMcFarlane has often called DC and Marvel “the Plantation,” but critics have fired back that his own practices have made him just another plantation owner. A long-running legal dispute between McFarlane and the first outside contributor he worked with, “exceptional” scriptwriter Neil Gaiman, underscored this debate. (The case was settled early this week.) It’s difficult to take sides on this one without knowing exactly what McFarlane promised Gaiman. But when creators get the power and freedom to do anything, there are no guarantees they will share that power and freedom with others.

Lee and Liefeld, meanwhile, are back at work for DC, Lee as a co-publisher, but both as artists. Their work hasn’t changed much since the Image days, but those distinctive “Image traits” have been integrated with, and in some cases subsumed by, the full range of the company’s aesthetic offerings.

The Image founders’ ideas about the supremacy of artists have been largely discredited and discarded, too. And the current trend is toward increased production schedules: some books are now released multiple times a month, rather than “whenever.”

Revolutions are important; some of the changes that they bring do stick.

But the world keeps turning.