|Country of origin||United States|
|Headquarters location||Berkeley, California|
|Key people||Todd McFarlane
|Publication types||Comic books, books|
Todd McFarlane Productions
Top Cow Productions
Image Comics is an American comic book publisher. It was founded in 1992 by high-profile illustrators as a venue where creators could publish their material without giving up the copyrights to the characters they created, as creator-owned properties. It was immediately successful, and remains one of the largest comic book publishers in North America. Its output was originally dominated by work from the studios of the Image partners, but later included work by numerous independent creators. Its best-known series include Spawn, Savage Dragon, Witchblade, The Darkness, Invincible, The Walking Dead, Saga, and Haunt.
In the early 1990s, several freelance illustrators doing popular work for Marvel Comics grew frustrated with the company's work for hire policies and practices. Their primary complaint was that the artwork and new characters they created were being merchandised heavily, with the artists receiving only standard page rates for their work and modest royalties on sales of the comics. In December 1991, a group of these illustrators approached Marvel president Terry Stewart and demanded that the company give them ownership and creative control over their work. Accounts vary as to whom this group included, but it is generally accepted that Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld were among its leaders. Marvel did not meet their demands.
In response, eight creators announced the founding of Image Comics: illustrators Todd McFarlane (known for his work on Spider-Man), Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men); and longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont. This development was nicknamed the "X-odus", because several of the creators involved (Claremont, Liefeld, Lee, Silvestri, and Portacio) were famous for their work on the X-Men franchise. Marvel's stock fell $3.25/share when the news became public.
Image's organizing charter had two key provisions:
- Image would not own any creator's work; the creator would.
- No Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner's work. Image itself would own no intellectual property except the company trademarks: its name and its logo, which was designed by writer Hank Kanalz. Each Image partner founded his own studio, which published under the Image banner but was autonomous from any central editorial control. Claremont was not part of the partnership, and Portacio withdrew during the formative stages to deal with his sister's illness, so Image originally consisted of six studios:
- Extreme Studios, owned by Rob Liefeld
- Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen
- ShadowLine, owned by Jim Valentino
- Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane
- Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri
- WildStorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee
Image's initial titles were produced through Malibu Comics, a small but established publishing company sympathetic with Image's position on creator ownership. Malibu provided administrative, production, distribution, and marketing support for the launch of the initial titles.
The first Image comic books to arrive in stores were Liefeld's Youngblood, Larsen's The Savage Dragon, McFarlane's Spawn, and Lee's WildC.A.T.s. Propelled by the artists' popularity and the eagerness of comic book collectors to get in on the "next big thing", these series sold in numbers that no publisher other than Marvel, DC, or Valiant Comics had achieved since the market's decline in the 1970s. (The company experienced lesser successes with Silvestri's Cyberforce, Valentino's Shadowhawk, and Portacio's much-delayed Wetworks.) Within a few months, the Image titles' success led to Malibu having almost 10% of the North American comics market share, briefly exceeding that of industry giant DC Comics. By the beginning of 1993, Image's financial situation was secure enough to publish its titles independently, and it left Malibu.
Some of the founders' studios came to resemble separate publishers, each with several ongoing series set in a shared universe. (At first there were indications of an "Image Universe" shared by all the studios, but these decreased as the studios developed their own directions.) The use of freelancers to write or illustrate series that were owned by the Image partners led to criticism that some of them had reproduced the very system they had rebelled against, but with them in charge instead of a corporation. Image partners such as Larsen and Valentino, who did not take this approach, assumed a neutral position on it, in keeping with the requirement that none of them had any say in how the others' studios were run.
Some of the Image partners used their studios to also publish works produced outside of their studios, allowing the creators to retain ownership and editorial control over those series, an arrangement which was then uncommon among large publishers. These included Sam Kieth (The Maxx), Dale Keown (Pitt), Jae Lee (Hellshock), and the team of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (Astro City). Later, some established self-published series also moved to Image, such as Jeff Smith's Bone and Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil.
The partners had little business or management experience, and many series fell behind their intended publishing schedule.[note 1] Retailers' orders of newly offered issues were typically based on the sales of recent issues, but as the issues shipped weeks and even several months late, fans' interest tended to wane, leaving retailers with unsold inventory. In response, retailers cut orders to reduce their risk. This significantly hurt the studios, which were each responsible for their own cash flow and profitability. In late 1993, the partners hired independent cartoonist Larry Marder to act as "executive director" for the publisher; Valentino quipped in interviews that Marder's job was literally to "direct the executives" (i.e. the Image partners). Marder developed better financial planning and had some success in disciplining creators to deliver their work on time, in part by insisting that retail orders for new issues would not be solicited until the books had been illustrated, usually ensuring they would be ready to ship when promised.
By the mid-1990s Image series such as Spawn and The Savage Dragon had proven themselves as lasting successes (the former frequently topping the sales charts for months in which new issues came out), while new series such as Wildstorm's Gen¹³, and Top Cow's Witchblade and The Darkness were also successful. Image had become the third-largest comics publisher in North America, exceeded only by long-established industry leaders Marvel and DC Comics.
Clashes between partners began to harm the company. Several of the partners complained that Liefeld was using his position as CEO of Image to promote and perhaps even to financially support his own separate publishing company Maximum Press. Silvestri withdrew Top Cow from Image in 1996 (although he retained his partnership in the company), protesting that Liefeld was recruiting artists from his studio, including the highly popular Michael Turner (Witchblade). The other five partners discussed ousting Liefeld from the company, and Liefeld resigned in September 1996, giving up his share of the company. Silvestri subsequently returned Top Cow to Image.
Wildstorm's Cliffhanger imprint, established in 1998, was a commercial success, launching high-selling creator-owned properties by Humberto Ramos, J. Scott Campbell, Joe Madureira, and others. However, Jim Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics in 1999, citing a desire to exchange his responsibilities as a publisher for the opportunity to do more creative work.
The founders of Image were best known for their dynamic and extravagant art, and for character-driven thinly-plotted stories in the superhero genre, and although the company published dissimilar works, many readers came to perceive this as the "Image style" of comics. Valentino had become less active as a creator after the company's first few years, and responded to this by using his position as a partner to seek out and publish a number of titles by other creators in distinctly different genres and styles, in a deliberate attempt to diversify Image's output and its perception. Although most of these series — ironically dubbed the "non-line" because of their lack of commonality — did not sell well and were soon cancelled, they introduced an increasingly important business model for the company: offering other creators the same total-ownership terms the partners enjoyed, but taking a fixed fee upon publication for the company's administrative costs. This practice was later formalized as a function of "Image Central", the business unit independent of any of the studios. This focus on non-studio comics increased when Valentino took on the role of Image's publisher, assuming many of the responsibilities held by Marder until he left the company in 1999.
The company's position in the North American direct market diminished in the 2000s, challenged by Dark Horse Comics and IDW Publishing for the position of "third largest publisher" after Marvel and DC. In February 2004, Larsen replaced Valentino as publisher, largely continuing existing business practices. Larsen stepped down as publisher in July 2008 and executive director Eric Stephenson was promoted to the position.
Shortly after Stephenson's appointment, Image added a new partner. Robert Kirkman, whose black and white series The Walking Dead had emerged as a long-running and popular series, and whose Invincible had become one of the longest-running series featuring a newly created superhero series in recent years, became the first partner added since its founding. In July 2010 he announced that he would create an imprint under his direction, known as Skybound.
Starting in 2009, Image entered a period of critical acclaim. They began to publish many award winning and award nominated series, including Chew, Morning Glories, Fatale, The Manhattan Projects and Saga. Image's sales grew significantly during this period, and an influx of big two creators began publising creator-owned work with them.
As of 2010, the majority of titles Image publishes in a given month are non-studio productions. McFarlane's Spawn and related titles, his McFarlane Toys line, Silvestri's Top Cow imprint, and Kirkman's various series remain a substantial segment of Image's total sales. Larsen's Savage Dragon continues as the longest-running owner-created title by an Image partner. Valentino has returned to operating his own studio with his Shadowline imprint.
Notable long-running series
- A Distant Soil
- Astro City
- Bomb Queen
- The Maxx
- Noble Causes
- Savage Dragon
- The Darkness
- The Walking Dead
- For example, WildC.A.T.s was a "monthly", but in one nine-month period only four issues appeared (#29-32: Apr '96, Jun '96, Sep '96, Jan '97).
- Moneyline with Lou Dobbs, Greg Lemont reporting, CNN, 1992
- "Bye Bye Marvel; Here Comes Image: Portacio, Claremont, Liefeld, Jim Lee Join McFarlane's New Imprint at Malibu," The Comics Journal #148 (February 1992), pp. 11-12.
- "The Image Story", The Comics Journal, 2005-10-25. Retrieved on 2008-03-15.
- Erik Larsen, "Grand Larseny", printed in the back of various Image titles, February 2008
- "Whilce Portacio: The man behind the X-Men", by Cynthia de Castro, Asian Journal, December 7, 2008
- Platinum Studios: Awesome Comics. Accessed February 3, 2008
- "NewsWatch: Malibu Commands 9.73% Market Share," The Comics Journal #151 (July 1992), p. 21.
- "Malibu Moves Ahead of DC in Comics Market," The Comics Journal #152 (August 1992), pp. 7-8.
- "Image Leaves Malibu, Becomes Own Publisher," The Comics Journal #155 (January 1993), p. 22.
- The Creator's Bill of Rights: A Chat with Steve Bissette
- "NewsWatch: Hulk Artist Leaves Marvel" The Comics Journal #151 (July 1992), p. 21.
- "Wizard Market Watch". Wizard (22). June 1993. pp. 134–5.
- "Newswatch: Larry Marder Joins Image," The Comics Journal #166 (February 1994), p. 40.
- "Chapter Three: Image Litigation, Cont.", The Comics Journal #192 (December 1996) pp. 17-19.
- "News Watch: Image, Liefeld Settle Lawsuit, if not their Differences," The Comics Journal #195 (April 1997), p. 12.
- Eric Stephenson: Talking to the New Image Publisher, Newsarama, July 9, 2008
- Robert Kirkman Named Image Partner
- "Robert Kirkman Announces Skybound, a New Division of Image Comics", DreadCentral.com, July 19, 2010
- Image Comics: The Road To Independence (by George Khoury, 280 pages, TwoMorrows Publishing, June 2007, ISBN 1-893905-71-3) excerpts:
- Image Comics at the Grand Comics Database
- Image Comics at the Big Comic Book DataBase
- Official website
- Image Comics at the Comic Book DB
- "The Image Story" by Michael Dean. The Comics Journal, 2000.
- Image Comics on Myspace