Sometimes it’s easy to forget that comics, like most published creative art, are a business.
With the production of independent titles reaching unparalleled heights thanks to relatively easy-to-use design and publishing software, it can be prohibitively difficult for an independent creator to get their work in the hands of an active readership. Of course, creators can publish their work online, but such publications suffer from over-saturation and risk never being seen by the kind of audience that could make them sustainable as a product.
It’s looked down upon within the industry to lament the struggles of everyday life when it comes to producing art, but it should be obvious – even to those who have no desire to write or draw for a living – that a 60-hour workweek elsewhere is not conducive to producing quality creative work on the side. Becoming a creative professional requires more than talent, it takes time and dedication.
Large publishers such as DC or Marvel don’t hire writers or illustrators without an established portfolio. Beginning writers or artists struggle to publish their work in any way that will gain notoriety without the backing of a publishing company that can put their product on store shelves and into the hands of readers. It was from this problem with publishing that Image Comics was born.
Founded by seven comic creators who formerly worked for Marvel, Image has been a creator-focused publishing house since its inception. Image began when Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Marc Silvestri decided that work-for-hire practices that kept creators from seeing any benefit from their work outside of the paychecks given to them were no way to treat the men and women who provide the talent that makes comics an enduring medium.
Work-for-hire is what prevented Siegel and Shuster from seeing a penny from massive profits tied to Superman for decades and led to the case of Kirby vs. Marvel in the United States Supreme Court. Specifically, it was the Marvel practice of heavy merchandising without paying royalties that led to the departure of major artists (and the accompanying $3.25/share drop in Marvel stock, once the news went public) to form Image comics in 1992.
Since then, Image has retained a business model of allowing comic creators to retain all rights to their work. Any artist or writer can pitch an idea, and if the proposal is accepted the production and publishing of the book are covered by Image and a profit-sharing model goes into effect that allows creators to make substantial amounts of money from their properties should they find an audience.
Don’t mistake Image for a small-time label when it comes to sales volume, however. “Saga,” a comic written by Brian Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, has been breaking sales records since the beginning of its run, allowing Fiona Staples to transition from indie-illustrator for hire to main artist for the new wave of Archie Comics, booking convention appearances with ease and collecting Harvey and Eisner awards along her career path. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is based on an Image comic, a movie based on Mark Millar’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” swung in heavy at the box office with over $400 million in revenues and has a sequel on the way. Image imprints have found audiences in video games, too: “The Darkness” received favorable reviews back in 2007 and shipped over a million copies.
Because of its status as an independent publisher, Image is able to take risks that larger non-creator driven companies never could. Writer and illustrator Erik Larsen’s “Savage Dragon” has been in print since Image’s 1992 launch, and is currently the longest-running full-color publication by a single creator. Series like Ed Brubaker’s “Fatale,” long-running horror series “Morning Glories” and Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” cater to fans of darker subject material, while “East of West” and “The Manhattan Projects” indulge in over-the-top science fiction. “Peter Panzerfaust” plays out as a realistic WWII retelling of Peter Pan, and “The Wicked + The Divine” imagines a world where gods are reincarnated as celebrities and pop culture icons. Image Comics retains readership and attracts creators through variety and a willingness to experiment.
Image Comics, and those who publish through it, are proof that comics can be profitably produced by their creators, and that when creators receive appropriate compensation for their work, everyone wins. It may just be time for Marvel and DC to learn that lesson. Until then, you can be sure that Image will be more than happy to steal away not only talent from big publishers, but market share as well.