In 1933, two teenagers from Cleveland – writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster – created a character called Superman. You might have heard of him. Five years later they sold him to Detective Comics – later to become DC Comics – for $130 ($10 a page) and a contract to work for the company. They made a living for several years, admittedly, but realised as early as 1941 that they had lost control over their creation, who had already birthed an entire industry. In 1946 they sued, and lost. They sued again in 1967. And lost. Both fell on hard times. In 1975, by which time Shuster was legally blind, a number of prominent figures in the comics industry took up their cause. Fearing adverse publicity with the first Superman movie imminent, DC settled, granting Siegel and Shuster creator credit and a pension for life, but not ownership.
Fast-forward to the mid 1960s, and Jack Kirby – one of the most influential artists in comic book history – has co-created our entire culture: the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, the Hulk. No one back then could have foreseen that Marvel movies would make a combined $18 billion at the box office by 2015, but Marvel was making millions from Kirby’s creations even then and he received no royalties. He worked to pay his bills right up to his death in 1994.
In 1981, both Marvel and DC started paying bonuses to creators of top-selling titles, but characters created under a company banner remained fully-owned by the company, not the creator. In 1991, however, something changed: fans had started to pay attention to who created a comic rather than who starred in it – making a select few creators not just a byline but the main attraction. This shift gave seven of Marvel’s core creators – Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri and Whilce Portacio – the means to make a stand. They sensationally left en masse to form their own company: Image Comics. (To put this into perspective, those seven were behind the top-selling 44 comics released that entire year.)
Image’s ideology was – and still is – very simple: creators own their work. At the time, Image was seen as a vanity project, with critics betting on how soon it would all collapse. It didn’t. Forming their own studios under the Image umbrella, the seven went on to success with titles such as Savage Dragon, WildC.A.T.s, Youngblood and Todd McFarlane’s ludicrously successful Spawn, the first issue of which sold 1.7 million copies. As for vanity: sure. But what began as a stand for themselves became an entirely new way of doing things. Suddenly you didn’t have to work for either of the two big companies – you could become the company.
“It’s about as close as to a not-for-profit setup as they can get,” says Chip Zdarsky, the artist behind Sex Criminals, published by Image. “Most of the money goes right back to the creators. Image take a certain amount of money to cover their office fees, and a percentage on paperbacks, which is not nothing. But still they’re there to facilitate creators, instead of creators facilitating a publisher. A book at Image either thrives or dies based on the creators. I think that’s the key to their success.”
“No other company compares to Image in terms of what is offered to creators (ie freedom and control),” adds Rat Queens’ artist Tess Fowler, “and therefore no other company has as much of a chance of wedging open the doors of change.”
Kieron Gillen, writer of Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine, likens Image to Factory Records, the idealist ’80s label that gave musicians ownership of their back-catalogues, bringing us Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays in the process. The likeness, he says, stretches to “how fast and loose Image is in making decisions. Jonathan Hickman’s original story is kind of typical. He did the entire first issue of [his first Image comic] The Nightly News, sent it in and Image went, ‘Yeah, we’ll publish this!’ So his pitch was basically ‘Here is the comic!’”
"Most of the money goes right back to the creators. Image takes a cut but is still there to facilitate creators."
“I had a similar response when I pitched Kaptara to them,” laughs Zdarsky, “and two minutes later the publisher goes, ‘Alright, let’s do this!’ And I was all, ‘Is this how comic publishing works?!’ I’ve found out since then,” he adds wryly, “that this is not how comic book publishing works.”
The Image Comics of the ’90s, though, is not the Image Comics of today. Like Factory Records (where boss Tony Wilson once spent £30,000 on a table), Image was a ramshackle operation built on little business experience; comics used to arrive late to retailers and the whole enterprise eventually descended into squabbles and splits in the mid-’90s. Creatively, too, it was still enslaved to superheroes and bombast, playing comics like Witchblade, Youngblood and Spawn on maximum volume.
By contrast, the last decade or so has seen a shift away from the familiar and into tales that are bold, broad and unlike anything else out there. Who else, for instance, would publish Fraction and Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, about a couple who stop time whenever they orgasm? Or John Layman’s Chew, about a detective who gets psychic impressions from anything he eats? Music industry comic Phonogram, says Gillen, “could not have gone anywhere else. I don’t think Vertigo would’ve done it for legal reasons – it’s so clearly based on real stuff. Image is weird in so many ways.”
Image’s diverse line-up includes Jonathan Hickman’s East of West (a sci-fi Western) and The Manhattan Projects (with gun-toting Einstein!), Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta’s horror book Outcasts, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s deep south crime comic Southern Bastards, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s feminist send-up of exploitation films, Bitch Planet, and Saga, Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ fantastically sprawling, space opera romance.
So what changed? Well, first, late-’90s publisher Jim Valentino sought to diversify Image’s range by publishing creators in different genres and styles, an approach carried on by his 2004 successor Erik Larsen and current publisher Eric Stephenson. Then The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman’s 2004 zombie comic, went on to become a cultural phenomenon. For Image, it changed the game both creatively and financially.
“Walking Dead changed everything,” says Gillen. “It gave Image more money, so they now had a lot of room for infrastructure. For example, Image never used to traditionally do advances – it was an all-in risk. But now for several projects they know are known quantities and are going to [make] money back, they pay in advance.
“The fact that Image have more cash flow and can pay more advances, it helps certain creators who couldn’t have worked for no money for six months to do stuff. When we first started it was me making sure Jamie McKelvie [Gillen’s artist co-creator] didn’t starve to death. What it really is, is success begetting success. So the fact that the Image books are doing well brings more attention to other Image books. This means Image have more money, which leads to more and more creators.”
But, for creators, there are surely still big financial risks? Gillen, for example, was initially forced to halt volume three of Phonogram because of financial pressure. (It has since been released.)
“The risk is enormous,” he admits. “With Image, the reality is, ‘Can this book keep going?’ I’m sure Image do cancel books but they don’t usually have to. The creator will cancel the books because they’re not making any money. Comics are such hard work, and it’s not worth putting time into something unless you can actually eat while doing it. There’s that Jack Kirby quote: ‘Comics will break your heart.’ And that’s true. But they kind of make your heart worth having in the first place.”
Image Comics’ creative renaissance didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. One contributing factor is the general shift in the perception of nerd culture, which has filtered down to a comic book industry that in North America last year was worth $900 million, compared to $700 million in 2011. And with that broader audience has come an appetite for different stories.
John Layman, known for Chew, says: “if you read [Marvel and DC] comics long enough you see that there is the illusion of change but very little changes, because the giant corporations that own the characters need to keep the cash cow going. I think people eventually get weary of that and look for something new.
"There is an audience of diverse human beings out there. They’ve always been there, and they’ve been craving an alternative."
“Walking Dead showed there was a market outside capes and superpowers, and I think it’s just grown exponentially in terms of what types of stories are being told – in tone and genre and subject matter. As more and more different stuff gets out there, it appeals to a larger and larger readership. People who never be interested in superheroes are [finding] stuff out there that does appeal to them.”
“There is an entire audience of diverse human beings out there,” adds Tess Fowler, “waiting for their chance to become invested in a new comic. They’ve always been there. Social media has just amplified their voices. And they’ve been craving an alternative for ever. Comics is playing catch-up.”
Most of those new readers are women between the ages of 17 and 33, the fastest growing demographic in comics. Yet while Image may be publishing a diverse range of stories, its creators are often less diverse. Speaking at the Image Expo last year, publisher Ben Stephenson admitted as much but declared: “We want to build a more diverse industry. We want to develop a more diverse talent pool.”
Kelly Sue DeConnick offered a perspective in an interview with the London School of Economics and Political Science: “We get this idea that comics are this slum where it is much worse than anywhere else. I don’t think this is actually the case. I mean, look at the major films that were released in the United States last year. Women had 30 per cent of the speaking roles and were 15 per cent of the protagonists. This is down from 16 percent ten years ago. So this is not a comics problem, this is a cultural problem.”
But it does pose the question: if you have a business model where essentially anyone can have their voice heard, why aren’t they there?
“By and large, women, persons of colour and LGBTQIA folk have not been made welcome within the industry,” says Fowler. “Granted, there are folks dotting the industry landscape who want change. And there are folks here and there breaking down the barriers where they can, but it’s not a majority ideal. Image cannot pull from a talent pool that doesn’t exist. Those people are still mostly locked outside.
“I think more folks need to be brave and come calling at the gates, bringing with them their webcomics, their digital comics, their self-published comics and their online followings. If enough people come crashing through the doors, the game is automatically altered. Rules have to change.”
“Image is better than it was a few years ago,” says Gillen. “And if you look at the Image Expo, the people on stage are much better. “What I’ll say is that while I’m depressed about representation, the first ever Image Expo we went to we were secret guests, and our queue was as diverse an audience as you could wish for. Those people have come to Image Expo, which is more of a trade show than a Comic Con. They’re invested in comics as an art form – they could be the people pitching books in two or three years. I’m not saying time will solve all the problems, but we’re on a better route and I’m optimistic for the future. The problem with the future is it cannot come fast enough.”
Either way, there’s no denying that Image Comics has come a long way since the days of spandex and Spawn. It’s unarguably home to some of the boldest, weirdest and most adventurous books on the comic stands right now. It’s a publisher that takes chances that often pay off. It’s also, once again, the third largest publisher behind Marvel and DC.
More than that, as publisher Ben Stephenson has said: “Image is still exactly what it’s always been: the number one publisher of creator owned comics. We’re not in the movie business – we don’t promise people a walk down the red carpet while we take 50 per cent of their media rights. We make comics. We are the alternative.”
This article first appeared in Comic Heroes, the world's best magazine for all your comic book needs. From Marvel and DC to indies and graphic novel classics, pick up the latest issue and back issues here, from MyFavouriteMagazines.co.uk, and follow the mag on Facebook.