At Sydney’s Graphic Festival, held in the iconic Opera House last October, a trio of comic industry greats took to the stage at the invitation of comedian and MC Justin Hamilton. They were the charmingly self-effacing Dave McKean; the conversationally free-wheeling Grant Morrison; and Len Wein, in fine pugnacious form, proprietarily wearing a Swamp Thing t-shirt. Hamilton’s questions were both insightful and carefully worded, ensuring a range of interesting responses from the panel.
This led to Morrison waxing lyrical on his late ‘80s / early ‘90s heyday and the Vertigo publishing brand’s intimidatingly talented British writers. As Wein looked on affably, he was credited with being the unintentional architect of the Vertigo line itself, having also provided the inspiration for the bestselling Arkham Asylum book that made Morrison a star:
“Vertigo roots right back to Len’s work. He combined horror and poetry in a way that was very appealing when you’re a teenage kid. [..] That approach to comics flowered in the ‘90s when the British writers came in who had been really inspired by that. It created a strand of art-school comics that persisted for a beautiful brief dawn before the Image guys came in and fucked it up.”
Regardless of how strong their current work is, with Saga, Pretty Deadly, Manhattan Projects, and Prophet easily being some of the best books in recent memory, Image’s early reputation as an upstart company eager to exploit the comics market for short-term (massive) profits is not likely to go away. That twenty years later the publisher finally realized the claim made by its founders – becoming a company that is a home for compelling work that creators would have ownership of – is a testament more to the waves of talented folk that have passed through their doors in the years since, such as Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, and Robert Kirkman, and the tireless efforts of Eric Stephenson.
Stephenson impresses as a company rep for his ability to respond to journalist questions with coherent defenses. In interviews and blog posts, he has pushed for a focus on creator rights, the criticism of DC and Marvel’s business practices implicit (sometimes less so). He has pitched Image as the plucky contender in the comics market that happened to have some high quality books in its stable. Age of Bronze, Astro City, The Maxx, Stormwatch, and A Distant Soil were all titles that had critical cachet during the ‘90s, as well as representing enough of a degree of diversity to stand apart from the Big Two.
These works, though, also added substance to Image, which having earned overinflated profits from the pre-orders of identikit Marvel and DC knock-offs, such as Spawn, WildC.A.T.s, Youngblood, and ShadowHawk, were not exactly waving the flag for creative expression. In an interview with Rich Johnston in 2010, Stephenson attempted to put a brave face on it:
“There was a lot of crazy stuff coming out from virtually every publisher and some of it just wasn’t very good. We were all complicit in that, though. It wasn’t just an Image thing or a Valiant thing — Marvel, DC and Dark Horse were right there in lockstep and when readers or retailers bemoan that fact, I’ll tell you what, they were there, too. Everybody was at it.”
When the books were not that good, writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Frank Miller could be airlifted in, to gussy up the likes of Spawn.
Still it was this excess – the great Image gamble – that paid such excessive dividends that a coterie of untested illustrators-turned-publishers were now able to take on Marvel and DC. This, in turn, led directly to the comic industry’s addiction to absurd profits. As Sean Howe wryly put it, “Somehow they were managing to be the hot new thing and the underdog all at once.”
Afterwards came the market contraction, bankruptcy, and the end of the ‘brief dawn’ mentioned by Morrison at Graphic. That the market could produce something as envy-inducing in its madness and genius as Chris Bachalo and Peter Milligan’s Shade The Changing Man – a comic wherein the main character gets into a fist-fight with James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway – then also deliver us the tone-deaf Rob Liefeld tribute to the poster-child for creator rights ‘Jackson Kirby’ just beggars belief. Books stitched together from splash pages and action movie clichés would lead its publishing competitors, like the children of Hamlin, down into a pit of plummeting profits and diminishing cultural relevancy until Hollywood came a calling following Marvel’s Blade.
Milligan, Gaiman, Morrison, and Ennis as part of the Vertigo set had produced a genuine revolution, one funded by the commercial stability of Batman, Superman, and Teen Titans. They wrote a selection of comics that respected readers enough to assume they had read a novel recently. Image, instead, drove the industry to the brink, thanks to speculation drives, marketing gimmicks, and a flood of copycat properties.
Having managed to shepherd itself through the tough years and produce bona fide multi-media hits, such as The Walking Dead, Image can now also afford to push that experimental envelope. The news that Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham are bringing to Image their new book, Nameless – with press making vague mentions of zombies, Lovecraft, horror, and little else – is the cherry on the cake.
It’s ironic that the creator-owned mantra has led to a set-list of artistically challenging books comparable to the quality of Karen Berger’s classic Vertigo era. It is only unfortunate it took twenty years to get back to this point of creatively rich comic book product.
Marvel Comics The Untold Story by Sean Howe, 2013, HarperCollins.