Almost a quarter century ago, in the winter of 1991—92, seven Marvel artists walked out and started a revolution.
Disenchanted by interference from their editors and frustrated by the comparative pittance they were paid for drawing (and in many cases writing) hugely popular titles such as Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men, the group left to found a new company. At Image Comics, this collective—Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio—gave themselves creative carte blanche and all the licensing rights to the characters they dreamed up. In other words, if one of them launched a new superhero who became bigger than Batman, the lion’s share of the profits would go to the artist, not to the company. It was a radical idea, and it infuriated the major comic-book publishers. “There was a lot of outright hatred,” says Valentino. And a lot of people rooting for them to fail. “Common wisdom was that we wouldn’t last six months.”
Now, 25 years later, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Image hasn’t just lasted, it has thrived, and today poses a genuine threat to the hegemony ofindustry titans Marvel and DC (a.k.a. the Big Two), consistently churning out innovative, acclaimed, and best-selling books that have revitalized an art form that still trafficks mostly in tales of costumed do-gooders. The Image roster includes Brian K. Vaughan’s interspecies love story, Saga; writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s feminist exploitation parody, Bitch Planet; Sex Criminals, about a couple who freeze time when they make love; and the kiddie-friendly educational title Howtoons. And then there’s the company’s flagship, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, which helped usher the zombie apocalypse onto prime-time TV. “You know how a record label can be cool, as if there’s a sort of energy around it?” says Kick-Ass co-creator Mark Millar, whose new comic Huck is published by Image. “Image just has it. I think this is going to be Image’s decade.”
“If we keep on our current trajectory, we’ll overtake DC in less than five years,” predicts Kirkman, who has been a partner in the company since 2008. “Then it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to toppling Marvel.” So can the Walking Dead creator see a day when the Big Two become the Big Three? “I can see a day when it’s only Image,” he says.
Have you been reading Image from the beginning? Take the quiz below to see if you know all of the characters pictured above.