Comics as we know them now have been published since the late 1930s, with both Marvel Comics and DC Comics at the forefront of mainstream publishing. These companies hold properties like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Avengers, Spiderman and so on. But over time the self-printing or indie scene saw a boom in the mid-1980s with the underground and black and white movement, a notable title to come from this movement is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This new wave of publishing allowing creator owned properties that break the standard work for hire agreements held by Marvel and DC Comics.
But why the shift, why are these industry writers and artists seeking out creator own agreements or delving into publishing their own material with the aid of Kickstarter and other fund-raising platforms? In part it could be the world is much more connected because of the internet and social media, making distribution a lot easier than say twenty years ago. Another reason for the departure are the warning tales from older creators expressing how they have been used and receive no compensation, especially with the boom of the comic-based superhero film industry. These past deals have granted both the studios and the publishers a loophole in not paying them royalties for their work, one recent example of this is Warner Bros using the costume design Alex Ross created for Wonder Woman in the DC Comics Book Kingdom Come in the recent Wonder Woman 1984 which acted as the base design and influence for the golden armour shown throughout the film. Not to mention his portraits being imitated to market the original release of the 2017 Justice League.
However, this departure from mainstream comics is not a new thing. 2021 marks twenty-nine years since the foundation of Image Comics, a comic book and graphic novel publisher founded in 1992 by a group of bestselling artists at the time. Image has since become the third largest comics publisher in the United States, with properties have earned multiple awards and nominations across all categories, winning two of the most sought-after awards in the comic industry, the Eisner Awards, and the Hugo Awards. Image Comics emphasises the creator and their rights to the properties they created. But how and why was this publishing house created to start with?
The foundation of Image Comics.
In a 2017 interview with Noah Callahan-Bever, Todd MacFarlane, one of the founders and creator of Spawn outlines how he; Jim Lee, Erik Larson, Mark Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio met with Marvel Comics and DC Comics to inform them of their plans to leave the companies due to growing frustration with the companies policies- work for hire agreements- and other practices, which they felt did didn’t reward the creators for the content being created monthly for the comics and the merchandise generated based on their work in which they received the most modest if any royalties.
Image was established to have multiple imprints, all working under the one banner, Image Comics. Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane; WildStorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee, Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen, Shadowline, owned by Jim Valentino, Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri and Extreme Studios, owned by Rob Liefeld. These imprints were responsible for some of comics most successful franchises.
In 1996 Silvestri withdrew Top Cow from Image due to infighting, but later returned to Image after Liefeld resigned in September 1996, who also gave up his shares to the company. Jim Lee left Image Comics and sold WildStorm to DC Comics in 1999, which ran as an imprint until 2010 when the WildStorm titles were either cancelled or absorbed into the DC Comics universe. Jim Lee has stated in the past his reason for leaving Image was to peruse more creative ventures in comics and less responsibilities as a publisher.
As of 2021, the current board of directors has six individuals and It consists of five major houses under the Image banner: Todd McFarlane Productions, Top Cow Productions, Shadowline Comics, Skybound Entertainment, and Image Central. Robert Kirkman- the creator of The Walking Dead and owner of Skybound Entertainment- and Eric Stephenson being the two newest members to join the ranks with the remaining founders.
What image offers to the creators.
So why did Image seem so, and remains a enticing way for independent creators or established creators now seeing freedom and the desire to maintain ownership of their work? In an Interview with Cartoonist Kayfabe! The Shoot Interview in 2020, Tod McFarlane outlined that apart from a few details anyone who walks through the doors have the same contract as the founders. In the interview McFarlane stated “creative people should be in control of their own creation, and that ownership should be 100%. And that 100% should let you decide good, bad or indifferent what you want to do at any given time with that creation.”
Final thoughts and the legacy of Image Comics.
Apart from the seven creators leaving to form Image, other mainstream creators left and continue to leave DC Comics and Marvel Comics to pursue a creator owned careers. This has led to some of the most recognisable and commercially successful creator owned franchises. Two such creators were Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy – plus the spin-off books- and Frank Miller, the creator of Sin City, 300 and Ronin. The lesson from the shake up Image Comics caused is that there is always a way to get your work out there, even without a major backer or publisher to support you, especially in the age of the internet. Ideally if you are in comics, you are in it for the craft and realise the level of commitment, hard work and how little money is in it so why not be the publisher or find the best deal for yourself? Why surrender your rights to your work or characters you create? Job security is rare in mainstream comics now it is a freelance market, so it is easily justifiable to work and release your work at your own pace. Granted you may not have the brand recognition that a DC Comics or a Marvel logo can provide you, but it could prevent you missing out royalties due to contracts that best serve the publisher, like the case involving Alex Ross, that many other creators have been through and other creators have been through.