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Image Comics is an American comic book publisher. It was founded in 1992 by seven 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. Image's success has significantly changed the position of creators in the comic book industry, but infighting between its partners and their lack of business experience have contributed to sometimes-volatile fortunes for the company. Nevertheless, the company is often America's third-largest comic book publisher, competing with Dark Horse for the position, behind Marvel and DC.
In the early 1990s, several popular Marvel Comics illustrators became angry that artwork and characters they created were being heavily merchandized, with the artists - working as freelancers - receiving only page rates for their work and modest royalties. They also resented a common attitude among Marvel management (also at rival DC Comics) that the writers and artists were less important to the success of a series than the characters, and could easily be replaced. 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.
Several months later, seven illustrators announced the creation of Image Comics. The company's original line-up included McFarlane (famous for his work on Marvel's Spider-Man), Liefeld (The New Mutants, X-Force), Jim Lee (X-Men), Marc Silvestri (Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine), Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men). This development is sometimes called the "X-odus", because four of these creators (Liefeld, Lee, Silvestri, and Portacio) were famous for their work on the X-Men franchise. Although each artist had become relatively well-known at Marvel, the trio of Lee, Liefeld, and McFarlane were the most popular. Image's initial comic book titles were solicited and produced through Malibu Comics, a publisher that had specialized in low print run black and white creator-owned and licensed comics since 1986. Malibu provided administrative, production and marketing support for the launch of the initial titles.
Image was formed under two provisions:
- Image does not own a creator's work; the creator does.
- No Image partner would ever interfere, creatively or financially, with any other's work.
In the spirit of the first rule, Image itself would own no intellectual property except the company trademarks: its name and its logo.
In the spirit of the second rule, each Image partner founded his own studio, which published under the Image banner but was autonomous from any central editorial control. Because Portacio did not opt to become a full partner in the company, Image originally consisted of six studios:
- Extreme Studios, owned by Liefeld
- Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Larsen
- ShadowLine, owned by Valentino
- Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by McFarlane
- Top Cow Productions, owned by Silvestri
- Wildstorm Productions, owned by Lee
The first Image comic books to arrive at stores were Liefeld's Youngblood, Larsen's The Savage Dragon, McFarlane's Spawn, and Lee's WildC.A.T.s. Propelled by the artists' star power and the eagerness of comic book collectors to get in early 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 drastic decline in the 1970s. The company experienced lesser successes with Silvestri's Cyberforce, Valentino's Shadowhawk, and Portacio's much-delayed Wetworks.
Some of the founders' studios came to resemble independent publishers, each with several ongoing series set in a shared universe. (At first there were indications of a shared universe among the studios, but these decreased as the studios developed their own directions.) The use of freelancers to write and/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, just with them in charge instead of a corporation. Image partners 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 publish the works of other independent creators, offering them the chance to do so while owning the copyrights and maintaining editorial control over their own series. Other publishers had offered similar deals to creators, but this was not typical in the industry. These included Sam Kieth, who created The Maxx, Dale Keown, who created PITT, and Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, who created 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.
Image soon came to rival Marvel and DC in terms of fan popularity and sales. However, the Image partners had little experience as writers and editors, and critics focused on this and other shortcomings they saw. Critics charged that the artwork was excessively flashy, and often showed weaknesses in anatomy and storytelling fundamentals. The characters were derided as simple variations on generic archetypes, and poorly developed. The level of violence and the sexual presentation of female characters drew further criticism. Only a few Image-published properties were critically acclaimed (such as Astro City), some met with neutral or mixed responses from critics (The Savage Dragon, Spawn), and many were outright despised by critics and older comic book fans (WildC.A.T.s, Cyberforce, and especially Youngblood).
The partners also had little business experience and found themselves overwhelmed with the responsibilities of managing their respective studios. Soon the company became notorious for falling behind its publishing schedule. Retailers' orders of newly-solicited 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 inventory they couldn't sell. In response, retailers cut orders even further to reduce their risk. This significantly hurt the studios, which were each responsible for their own cash flow and profitability.
In 1993, the partners hired Larry Marder to act as "executive director" for the publisher. (Valentino quipped in interviews that Marder's job was literally to "direct the executives".) He 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 The Authority, and Top Cow's Witchblade and The Darkness were also successful. Image had established itself as a strong competitor in the comic book industry, although critical reactions were often still less than enthusiastic.
Clashes between partners began to harm the company. Several of the partners complained that Liefeld was using his power 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). In September 1996, Liefeld was forced out of the company by unanimous vote of the other partners, and Silvestri then brought his studio back to Image. In 1999, Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, citing his desire to drop his responsibilities as a publisher for more creative work.
A promised "10th Anniversary" book, in which each of the four remaining partners would create a story featuring their signature characters, experienced delays reminiscent of the period 10 years earlier, and the Image Comics #1 hardcover was eventually resolicited for release in November 2005.
Meanwhile, Valentino, who had previously become less active in the company, began using his position as a partner to publish a number of "indie" titles by other creators, in a deliberate attempt to diversify Image's output and its image. Although most of these series - ironically dubbed the "non-line" because of their lack of commonality - did not sell well and were soon canceled, 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 increased after Marder left the company in 1999 and Valentino became publisher and manager of "Image Central", the business unit independent of any of the studios.
In February 2004, Larsen replaced Valentino as publisher, largely continuing existing business practices. As of 2005, the majority of books Image publishes in a given month (in terms of titles, not necessarily sales) are non-studio productions. McFarlane's Spawn and related titles, his McFarlane Toys line, and Silvestri's Top Cow imprint remain a substantial segment of Image's total sales. Since 2004, Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead has emerged as one of the most successful black and white comics of the past twenty-five years, routinely surpassing the sales of many of Image's (and other publisher's) color books. Larsen's Savage Dragon continues as the longest-running owner-created title by an Image partner. Valentino has returned to creating comics, including a new incarnation of ShadowHawk. The company retains its position as the third or fourth largest publisher in the North American direct market (after Marvel, DC, and sometimes Dark Horse Comics), but has lost significant sales momentum compared to its first several years.