In 1992, Todd McFarlane and a group of Marvel artists grew frustrated by the pitiful royalties for the characters they were drawing, and envisioned a publishing house where they could work without the creative and financial infringement of the mainstream comics industry.
They called their creation Image Comics, a utopia of sorts, where they could tell the stories they wanted to tell, draw the characters they wanted to draw, and keep all the money to themselves.
Marvel suffered greatly. The sudden dearth of talent would eventually lead to the company’s famous bankruptcy in 1996, but meanwhile, Image Comics became one of the most popular imprints of the mid-’90s—and also one of the most creatively braindead. Every single book that came out of Image’s first era was covered in visors, and blood, and claws, and boobs, intended for kids nurtured on nerd-rage and desperate machismo. There was Witchblade, a comic about a gauntlet that pairs onto a female host, giving them superpowers and tearing off their clothes ‘til they look like this.
There was Youngblood, an inane superhero-mashup abomination which might still be the ugliest comic book of all time. And there was, um, “Babewatch,” Image’s month-long crossover event where they turned all their male superheroes into women.
The worst, and most successful, was Spawn. Spawn might be the most ‘90s artifact in human history, which is really saying something. A giant, sinewy, black-and-white demon who wasn’t afraid to kill the bad guys, the comic was the ultimate convergence of everything edgy (Spikes! Axes! Glowing green eyes!) in 1995.
He got his own movie, his own video game, the band Disturbed put a fake Spawn in one of their music videos. That’s kind of all you need to know. The book was ridiculously profitable: Its first issue sold a bananas 1.7 million issues, and the character is now probably responsible for more retrospective embarrassment than any other superhero on planet Earth.
But as those ‘90s kids grew up, Image’s momentum sputtered out. Maybe this had to do with Marvel and DC’s return to the spotlight amidst the ubiquitous Spider-Man and Batman movies, but a lot of those early Image titles were irrelevant by the time we got to the new millennium. Some of the publisher’s founding partners—Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, and Rob Liefeld—left in the late ‘90s over creative differences, and for a moment it seemed like the company was ready to keel over.
But instead, Image engaged in one of the most dramatic, successful about-faces in comic book history. Today they’re responsible for some of the best, most transgressive stories in the industry, a far-cry from the paper-thin themes they were previously known for.
Image was still publishing Spawn in the early 2000s, but they also debuted a grim, nuanced comic by a mostly unknown southerner named Robert Kirkman called The Walking Dead (yes, that one). No super powers, no super villains, just life and death in a broken world. It was a total departure from the books that made Image famous, but it was also something that wouldn’t get published at DC or Marvel, which turned out to be a powerful, attractive niche.
In the years since, Image has doubled down on the doors The Walking Dead opened, and now host the most impressive, creatively diverse rosters in all of comics: There’s Chew, a delightfully twisted crime story centered on detective Tony Chu, who gets a psychic sensation of what happened to anything he puts in his mouth; Saga, a pulpy, cosmic romance filled with deeply human characters, which made it the winner of the previous three Eisner Awards for Best Continuing Series; The Wicked + The Divine, which chronicles a world where ancient gods are reincarnated in the bodies of transcendent pop stars; Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue-DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s hilarious, prescient, and deeply inclusive sci-fi send-up of women-in-prison movies.
In an industry that’s built on recycled tropes, antiquated characters, and dogmatic tradition, Image has become a mecca for writers and artists of all cultural dispositions who want to pursue their own visions, on their own terms.
When Todd McFarlane and those other artists formed Image back in 1992, one of their primary foundational tenets was that everything published under their brand would be creator-owned. The only trademark Image owns is, well, the name “Image.” This hasn’t changed. When you work at Image you keep all the rights and all the creative freedom.
Compare that to, say, Superman. If DC is letting you write a mainstream Superman book you’ll be saddled with certain expectations. There are exceptions, but generally you’re not going to be allowed to let Superman curse, or kill anyone, or come out as gay. It’s understandable—those ancient superhero brands come with a ton of cultural baggage, but a lot of creators will never get to tell the stories they’re truly passionate about within the confines of those pantheon-level characters.
Eric Stephenson, Image’s publisher since 2008, says he wants to encourage the wildest comics he can. He tells me that whenever anyone asks him what kind of books Image is looking for, he responds with “the kind of books you’ve always wanted to do.” He’s got a firm belief in the power of a galvanized creative team.
“Some companies do these relaunch things over and over again and dress them up with these worn out slogans from books they were putting out back in the ‘70s or whatever, but the core reason for Image’s continued success is the writers and artists we publish are doing fucking great comics,” says Stephenson. “Every single creator at Image Comics, no matter where they are in terms of experience or whatever, every single one of them is swinging for the fences, whether it’s a vet like Erik Larsen on Savage Dragon, long-time pros Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen on The Wicked + The Divine or newcomers like Dan Watters and Caspar Wijngaard on Limbo. No one else at Image is really satisfied.”
The book that Stephenson sums up his company’s ethos is the aforementioned Chew. When the creative team of John Layman and Rob Guillory came up with their foodie, dystopian detective story back in 2009, they knew that Image was probably the only major publisher in the world willing to take a chance on it. Now, nearly 60 issues later, it stands as one of the most successful stories in all of comics.
“I’ve talked to so many writers and artists who have recounted stories about how they pitched something elsewhere—and sometimes the pitch has even been accepted—only to go through round after round of notes about what needs to be changed to make their idea palatable to the masses, and it’s like, no,” says Stephenson. “The idea’s either good or it isn’t, and there’s not a single fucking note I could have added to something like Saga or Lazarus or Black Science or Chew that would have made those books more successful.”
That creative freedom is seductive, but it’s also not entirely lucrative. Image doesn’t run ads, and creator-owned titles often come together on a modest budget. It’s much easier to take a chance on a radical concept when you’re not on the hook for a massive payroll.
“Image themselves aren't dumping a ton of development money into these books, unlike a Vertigo or a Dark Horse that pays full page rates, creates a marketing and PR budget, has a huge graphic design staff, and creates a lot convention swag,” says Brian Wood, an icon who's currently writing Image’s fantastic post-apocalyptic cooking comic Starve.
“When a publisher dumps $50K into a book even before its first issue hits the shelves, they're invested, they want to have a seat at the table and weigh in on things," Wood told me. "In my experience at Vertigo and Dark Horse the creator always has final say, but we aren't the only voice. At Image you are the only voice.”
This works out more often than you think. Saga might be the most popular comic book in the world right now. A pining romance novel set against a raging intergalactic war written by the legendary Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by breakout-star Fiona Staples, the first issue features TV-headed robot sex, childbirth, and horrific gore, which is something you’d traditionally find at a webcomic or enterprising indie studio.
“I think Image recognizes that the comic-reading audience is changing and clamoring for new voices and ideas,” says Sloane Leong, who draws the stunning new book From Under Mountains. “They’re willing to take risks and I think it pays off, if only to show their readers that they’re not just churning out the same old formulaic story over and over again.”
Image is still publishing Spawn every month, but otherwise, it’s hard to find many capes left on their roster. It’s strange to think that in a time where superheroes are at peak cultural relevance thanks to the Marvel movies, comic books are moving further and further away. Image has discovered that their best and most provocative stories aren’t in tights, which feels like more than just a trend.
“I think we’re kind of seeing the end of superheroes’ stranglehold on the comics market. The audience for comics is changing overall, and I think there are different types of readers looking for different types of books now,” says Stephenson.
Four years ago, Greg Hinkie was driving a bus. Three years ago, he was getting laid off from a video game company. Now, he’s basically his own boss, drawing the excellent Image miniseries Airboy.
Airboy stars semi-fictional versions of the book’s creative team, Hinkie and James Robinson, and has gotten very uncomfortably meta over the course of its run. There are entire passages where Robinson gets devastatingly honest about the state of his marriage, his mind, and his stalled career. It’s painful, but it’s also fascinating how willing they are to reveal themselves. In many ways, the comic typifies the kind of bizarre, off-kilter voices unique to Image.
But that anything-goes creative policy can be a blessing and a curse. In Airboy #2 the characters of Hinkie and Robinson go to an LGBT bar and hook up with some trans women, and, use unfortunate language like “trannie” and lean heavily into that archaic, tedious "trap" trope. It’s more complicated than it seems; this a book about unlikable men doing unlikable things, and in context you could certainly see what Robinson and Hinkie were going for, but it didn’t do enough to justify the disappointing slurs.
You have to think that if Airboy was published at Marvel, or Dark Horse, or Vertigo, or any other comics publisher, there might’ve been enough scrutiny to make the necessary edits before the book hit shelves. But this is Image, this is a creator-owned book, you live by the sword and you die by the sword.
“If we'd had a editorial bullpen combing through our book, no, I don't think we'd have had a problem. But we also wouldn't have made the same book. It would've been a different thing from the very beginning,” says Hinkie. “We'd definitely make less mistakes with more oversight, but we'd be making safer comics from the get-go. We wouldn't get to learn. The lack of barrier also means that we're directly responsible for our actions. It's the honor system. Sure, we can do whatever we want, but we're also responsible for what we do. I don't have a PR person covering my back, or spinning my public statements. I've never been so aware of my actions and words as I am now. And I don't think that's a bad thing!“
Airboy is still a great comic, but it’s also proof that the freedom of Image’s editorial policy can be a dangerous thing. I don’t think James Robinson or Greg Hinkie are transphobic, but they clearly weren’t paying enough attention. Errors in judgement will always happen as long as this organic creative policy is in place. Whether that’s worth it or not comes down to your perspective.
“If you make work palatable to everyone it’s going to be boring,” says Leong. “When you have incidents like slurs appearing in the work, it's a creative choice and giving creators that choice is part of the policy Image subscribes to. It's the same policy that lets me have a comic that is all people of color, something that a publisher might not find very ‘marketable.’ So the freedom cuts both ways. At the very least the work made the readers have a reaction, whether it's disgust or hate or inspiration or comfort. But I think the audience at large, which is filled with more marginalized people every day, will determine what kind of comics survive.”
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker living in Los Angeles. In addition to Fusion he contributes to Gawker, Sports Illustrated, Vice, Red Bull, and where ever else good content can be found.