Looking back at 20 years of Image Comics

It’s been a milestone week this week as Image Comics celebrated their 20th anniversary. As a comics fan growing up in the early 1990s, I was a massive fan of all things Image and so it fills me with a great sense of pride and nostalgia to look back on what they meant to the comics industry and to me personally. As a kid my heroes weren’t sportsmen or movie stars, they were comic artists. I worshipped every pen and ink stroke of Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen and Rob Liefeld. I knew every panel of early issues of Spawn, Savage Dragon and Youngblood and still do to this day.

So when these three super-artists left Marvel in 1992 to form a new company alongside Jim Lee, Jim Valentino and While Portacio I had no idea what the significance was, or why there were doing it, just so long as I could get new and exciting books from my heroes – and what could better than them writing and drawing their own titles? I didn’t understand that they had left Marvel to pursue creative autonomy and would shape the future of modern comics by putting the emphasis on the creator rather than the corporation, I was more interested in searching high and low for every new Image release I could get my hands on.

As every comic fan is probably familiar with, I dragged my parents all over the country from dingy comic shop to dingy comic shop as I tried to complete my collection of early Image issues. Whether it was big name books like CyberForce and the Maxx or niche titles like Shadowhawk, Shaman’s Eyes, Trencher or Brigade I had to have them to complete my collection. I read Stormwatch before it was made cool by Warren Ellis and WildCATS before Alan Moore got his hands on it. And like every one else, I waited, and waited and waited as title after title missed their print slots and were delayed and delayed and delayed. But I was addicted. I even bought the spin-offs, the #0s and the issues which no-one else bought just for the covers by Image founders, I mean why else would I buy the one and only issue of Black Flag apart from the fact it had a Todd McFarlane/Rob Liefeld cover?!

As Image grew and changed, I drifted from comics, saturated by the multiple spin-offs and muscled up superheroes with implausible fire arms – but so too had my idols. Jim Lee returned to DC to work on Batman and Superman, Rob Liefeld went back to Marvel to do Deadpool and Cable, while Todd McFarlane had all but given up drawing and moved on to action figures. However, in that period little did I know that Image had continued to flourish as the home of creator owned titles and a new generation were taking on the titles I had dismissed or were starting their own books and making their own names. Names like Brian Bendis, Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Kurt Busiek, Ed Brubaker and Robert Kirkman were creating books like Powers, The Authority, Astro City, Criminal and The Walking Dead. Gone were the steroidal superheroes of the 1990s, replaced with gritty, smart genre books. And those that remained had been given an ultra-intelligent, post-modern take, making superheroes relevant again (or at the very least making them sweary, violent and epic!)  These new super-star writers and artists would inevitably be poached by the big two and would help reshape how people viewed comics in the 21st century, but it was their Image work which would often be their calling cards.

Although the founders remained (Erik Larsen is still plugging away on Savage Dragon after 175+ issues!) they were often in less prominent roles, but what was driving the company forward was the ethos that founded it in the first place – that creators should be allowed a chance to create. Thanks to books like Powers and Criminal I rediscovered my love for comics and with it I discovered books like Chew, Pigs and of course their new marquee title, The Walking Dead. But I also rediscovered old favourites like WildCATs and Stormwatch with their new, dynamic, creative teams who had moved them in fantastic and exciting directions. That in turn inspired me to pick up their subsequent books for ‘The Big Two’ as Image’s legacy now extended beyond the titles I had loved as a kid and into a new generation of must-read books. I can’t imagine the Ultimates without Hitch and Millar cutting their teeth on The Authority or Jim Lee’s All Star Batman without his stint on WildCATs or Marvel’s Civil War without Brian Bendis having tried it our first in Powers?

Image’s influence on the last 20 years of comics has been profound, both to the industry and to me personally and so it is I wish them a very happy birthday and look forward to another 20 years of innovation and exciting, unorthodox comics.