Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Image Comics And Its Creators 20 Years On - Part One

Clockwise from left: Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino sporting the best Jheri-Curl this side of Ice Cube, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio
Can it really be over twenty years since the founders of Image Comics requested a portion of ownership over the characters that they created for Marvel Comics, only to be rebuffed, essentially setting a chain reaction of events together ending with the artists deciding to stick two fingers up at the company and carving a path for themselves? Why yes it can, and for better or worse (but mostly better,) and through various iterations, industry pitfalls and differences of opinion, Image Comics is just as strong if not stronger in terms of critically acclaimed than it ever has been. But what of Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Jim Valentino, and Marc Silvestri? Are they still superstars they were in the early nineties? Are they still even artists, or has time changed them and their mandates? Find out after the jump.

The story of how Image was formed and how the founders decided to split the company has been well told throughout the years and seemingly has become the stuff of legend, (and if Rob Liefeld is to be believed, is interesting enough to be made into a feature film,) and since then the founders have met varying degrees of financial and critical success. But we are talking about seven different creators with seven different ideas of what success is. Success can really only be measured in personal gratification so in that respect all of them have been successful by accomplishing more goals than any other group of comic book artists have in our lifetime. As a publisher of comics, Image is nothing like it was in the early nineties. It has gone from being a publisher of art heavy, plot thin books drawn by the most bombastic artists at the time to being the publisher to go to for creator owned work, be it by industry veterans, hot talented newcomers, and even some of the Image founders themselves. When it comes to the founders, all of them save two are in radically different positions than they were in back when the company was first founded. What are they up to now?

Todd McFarlane

It can be argued that out of all the early Image books to be released, Todd McFarlane's Spawn was the most successful. Regularly in the top ten comic sales for the majority of its first fifty issues, Spawn made McFarlane a very wealthy man, (wealthy enough to engage in his other passion, buying ludicrously priced baseballs from record breaking home run hitters.) The success of Spawn came down to one thing; McFarlane was a truly great comic book artist, and possibly the most accomplished amongst all the Image founders. Not only were his pencils hyper detailed and full of mood and action, his ink work was absolutely stunning, and is still something he doesn't get enough credit for. Even when he relinquished pencil duties to now Batman artist Greg Capullo, he retained inking duties giving Spawn an artistic consistency and making Capullo look better than he ever has, even to this day. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and as such, the popularity of Spawn the comic waned as McFarlane took more of a back seat in the creative process. Comic book's loss was the toy worlds gain as he took more of an interest of making highly detailed recreations of all manner of properties, from licensed properties such as movie monsters and Akira, to various iterations of his Spawn character to even recreations of various sports stars. These toys are beautiful to look at but they do make you wish for a day when McFarlane would just pick up the pen again and just get involved in drawing something. Todd has also become somewhat chastised in the industry for doing the exact thing that Image was founded to combat against, resulting in a lengthy and costly lawsuit with Neil Gaiman. Regardless of that, there is no doubt that if he even drew a couple of issues of Spawn the current sales would go up ten fold. Spawn is still being published and is completely different to what it was in those first fifty issues, unfortunately not for the better.

Whilce Portacio

Of all the Image founders, Portacio was the one who decided not to start his own imprint or become a partner in the company, instead  putting is own creation, Wetworks, through Jim Lee's Wildstorm imprint. Looking back at Whilce's work on those early issues of Wetworks it's easy to dismiss his stuff as derivative of Lee's but it's more than that. The energy in his pages is more like a Rob Liefeld without the ticks that makes Liefeld so maligned. Having said that, his panel work back then was all over the place, like a shot of confetti to the eyeballs. Unfortunately, Portacio by deciding not to become a partner in Image, lost the rights to his characters when DC bought Wildstorm off Jim Lee and Team 7, the team that featured in Wetworks are now owned by Warner Bros. It's a strange twist of fate as the characters he created are now in a position that Image was formed to combat against, corporate intellectual properties written and drawn by creators in a work for hire agreement. Nevertheless, even after battling against severe illness in the early two thousands, Portacio is still drawing comics to this day. In recent years he has seen his work published by both Marvel and DC and is currently back at Image doing the art chores on the book Non-Humans, a property he co owns with writer Glen Brunswick.

Erik Larsen

Erik Larsen, like Todd McFarlane, wanted to use his position within Image to create not a line of comics but one singular hero. His was Savage Dragon, a muscle bound green hero with a fin on his head that worked for the Chicago Police Department. His drawing style is dynamism personified, heavily indebted to Jack Kirby, (as all American mainstream comic book artists are,) his fight scenes leap off the page with a sense of urgency and every line he puts down is like a love letter to those who came before him. On top of this, Larsen was also key in championing creator rights and was publisher of Image Comics from 2004 to 2008, a key period when Image was slowly transforming from what it was in the nineties to what it is today. Outspoken on many issues within the comics community, especially in regards to artists writing their own books, Erik Larsen has the demeanor of a man comfortable in his own skin and is emotionally and financially stable enough to not be scared of upsetting the apple cart. It's almost par for the course that if something big happens in the industry, Larsen will have something to say about it and whether right or wrong, he deserves kudos for the fearlessness that comes with speaking your mind. Impressively, Larsen still writes and draws Savage Dragon, now in its twentieth year and being published on a monthly basis. 

Jim Valentino

The elder statesman of the Image Founders, Jim Valentino had already ventured into the waters of self publishing before he even worked at Marvel with his comic, Normalman, a twist on the Superman origin with the hero being the only person on the planet without superpowers. Upon the birth of Image Comics, Valentino launched his sub-imprint Shadowline, which carried the title Shadowhawk. Shadowhawk was a character that upon first glance could easily be dismissed as a Wolverine rip off but between the pages of the title heady themes were discussed, in particular the then uninformed hot button issue of the HIV virus, which the main character suffered from and Jim Valentino handled with a maturity and care that was unheard of at the time. Whilst Valentino was and still is a very accomplished artist, his main contribution to the Image story is the Shadowline imprint, which has outgrown its original mandate to become a comic book label in its own right, with a particular ability to break new creators and get more eyes on already established creators work. The content is varied and in some shape or form Valentino has had a hand in the development of the careers of Gabriel Hardman, Nick Spencer, Riley Rossmo, Kurtis Wiebe, Charles Soule, and many more. Shadowline is also responsible for collecting the work of Ted McKeever, one of the best unsung cartoonists living in America today. This sadly means that Valentino spends more of his time behind a desk than behind a drawing board but there is no doubt that few have done as much for creators and their rights in the last few decades than him.

Next Week: The other Image founders, the new partners, and could there be another Image style revolution in the future.

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