Sharpening the Image:

Introduction

Comic readers from Gen X and (older members of) Gen Y remember 1992 as a sort of zeitgeist for comics.  Change was in the air in all strata of the field: DC Comics not only did the unthinkable in killing Superman, but it was making plans to break the Bat the following year in its “Knightfall” story arc.  For comic fans, this was an era of validation, when news outlets were covering these two momentous storylines as major headlines.  Marvel Comics was coming off a banner year with the rise of the new and record-breaking sellers Spider-Man and X-Men. Not long after, each brand would see the launch of a popular animated series.  Then, rumors began circulating that all was not well with the Big Two.  Some of the biggest creative names in the business were not happy with the fifty-plus-year-old model of doing business, and they were looking for greener pastures.  Taking not only their immense talents but also their hundreds of thousands of fans with them, these artists broke rank and forged down the road of independent publishing.  And so began a comics revolution with the founding of Image Comics.

To begin with, it’s important to state the obvious: the Image Comics of today is not the same Image from 1992.  What readers see displayed on newsstands and in local comic shops are products of an experienced, well-oiled machine.  Although Image Comics continues to see itself as an independent publisher, few consider it anything other than one of the major comic publishing companies falling behind only DC and Marvel with the key difference centering on its adherence to creator-owned comics.  Its properties, from Spawn to The Walking Dead, now include comics that successfully made the leap from the floppy pages of a four-colored funny book to both the silver and small screen.  Back in the early 1990s, however, this company was at the forefront of exploring creator-owned comics in a time — not too different from even today — when the modern super-hero myths were corporately owned and generated.  These creators opened doors that continue to lead comic readers into new and exciting territories; on the other hand, there are many who credit the likes of Image with the comics crash of the mid-to-late 1990s when the buying market shrunk too quickly under the weight of the massive number of comics being hawked as collectibles.  Regardless of what side one comes down on, there can be no denying it was a turbulent time and Image came out a more balanced, dynamic, and stronger publisher from its growing pains.

The aim of this column is not to map the course these creators (and the talents who would later join them) took as they emerged from under the shadow of the Big Two and established a creator-centric company where each talent could flex his or her respective muscles how each saw fit. Patrick Meaney’s upcoming documentary, The Image Revolution, will provide readers with a much more comprehensive approach to the history behind the revolution. Additionally, George Khoury’s Image Comics: The Road to Independence (2007) provides another excellent source of first-hand accounts from those involved on both sides — the major publishers and the upstart creators.  Instead of a historical perspective, then, my intent is to begin looking at the actual titles these revolutionary creators produced — from the company’s inception to the “leaner” years following the industry-wide comics “recession” to the more recent “comics renaissance” of the new millennium.  Through careful examination, perhaps one might conclude that, in spite of any immediate fallout from Image’s explosive beginnings, their move to expand the publishing playing field has strengthened the industry and provided readers with some of the strongest examples of mainstream comics to date.

In an attempt to provide a fair treatment of the first books Image published, my analysis will generally look at the initial issues from each series and creator and then attempt to determine how well they stand up twenty years after their much-hyped publication.  Second, my analysis will aim to explore where these comics fall in light of the greater context of both the super-hero genre and the medium as a whole.  To do so, I will look both at the artwork and the storyline as individual parts and then as a complete work.  In this way, I hope to show whether or not the criticism levied against Image Comics has merit, in part and as a whole.  Additionally, I hope to provide readers with some notion of the development of Image, less through the accounts of the creative talents from the company – as Khoury has already done and Meaney is currently doing – and, instead, focus more upon the content these writers and artists created.  I hope to look at later developments of the original titles to examine how the works of these creators either matured or failed to thrive, as well as analyze a selection of certain titles more recently developed under the umbrella of Image Comics that have helped usher in a new renaissance of comics — not only for the Image stable of titles but for the industry as a whole.  Admittedly, some weeks, I might look at the first story arc of a particular founder or creator; other weeks may find me exploring some of the successful elements of later publications currently leading the latest Image revolution.  While this approach does eschew a more linear approach, as Julian Darius is currently employing so aptly in his Miracleman work, it does provide a more “chunked” and compartmentalized reading – and writing! – experience.

So come along, and let’s look at some comic books — some old, some new.  Along the way, I invite anyone reading this column to share their thoughts.  I’d like to think of this project emanating from a shared experience and representing more than just one person’s perspective on the revolution that took place over twenty years ago and its after effects.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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3 Comments

  1. Really looking forward to this!

  2. David Balan says:

    I second Julian’s comment! Can’t wait!

  3. Thanks guys! I just want to get one point out there before this project really gets underway: While I might turn a more critical lens on the older stuff, I just have to say that when a lot of the books from Image came out, I loved ‘em! Admittedly, some of them are cringe-worthy by today’s standards and have not aged well–something I’ll try to examine–but all of these books do possess a certain nostalgia regardless of how well they hold up to present day books being published.

    AH. I feel better now. :-)

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