Jul 11, 2013

The Ascendancy of Image Comics

By Paul Krueger

There’s a common sentiment in the comics world that DC’s Vertigo imprint is the HBO of comics.  It was the place where the gloves came off, content-wise, and creative teams were free to experiment with bolder premises than just “scantily clad men breaking each other’s jaws.”

No, not like that.

By contrast, Image Comics was something of a joke for a while.  Started by disgruntled comics creators back in the 90’s, it took the then-radical approach of allowing all its works to be one hundred percent creator-owned.  A great idea, but none of the company’s founding partners had any experience in managing a business, and soon Image became best known for titles with wildly erratic schedules.

Flash forward to today.  Image is getting an increasingly high-profile roster of writers and artists to do series for them.  Writing heavyweights like Ed Brubaker and Brian K. Vaughan have already established major series with them, and at Image Expo a few days ago the company announced that they were welcoming the talents of high-profile writers Matt Fraction, Rick Remender, and Jason Aaron, and artists Steve Epting and Bill Sienkiewicz into the fold.  Their major comic series, properties like Chew and Morning Glories, have received widespread critical acclaim.  And one of its tentpoles, The Walking Dead, is set to celebrate its tenth anniversary while simultaneously having been adapted into the highest-rated series on cable.

So, yeah.  It’s a good time to be at Image.

If Vertigo is the HBO of comics (and it is), then Image has placed itself as the equivalent of AMC.  Both have come out of nowhere in the past few years to achieve the kind of high esteem that other networks or publishers only dream of, and both did so on the backs of talented creators that they simply let do their jobs.  Image gets the edge here, though; AMC’s two most critically acclaimed properties are set to expire within a year or so, leaving them with a pack of shows that range from middling (Hell on Wheels) to bad (The Killing) to Got Lost On Its Way To TLC (Small Town Security).  Image, on the other hand, seems set to prosper for a long time.

The other key to that prosperity is their recent switch to DRM-free digital comics.  Putting that into terms you’ll understand and mixing up my metaphors at the same time, Image just positioned itself to be the PlayStation 4 to the rest of digital comics’ Xbox One.  People that download Image’s works will be able to read it in common formats, on any platform, without the use of a special app, and be able to share freely with their friends.  In other words: Image noticed that there’s a future, and decided to stop fighting it.

So they’ve got things locked up on both the distribution and production sides of their business.  They aren’t flooding the market with big-budget movie adaptations of their series yet--it’s a bit harder when their characters don’t have more than half a century of fanbase-building from which to draw--but given the average quality of a comic book movie these days, that’s probably a good thing for now.  In fact, to my eyes that represents a certain purity of purpose on Image’s part.  These guys aren’t just dangling stuff out there as adaptation bait; they’re putting out comics that are meant to be just that: comics.

It’s interesting, then, that in the face of all this Marvel and DC appear to only be clamping down more tightly on their creative corps.  Between all the success publishers like Image have been having, and their own history of using creator freedom to bail them out during economic hard times, you’d think it’d be a lesson solidly learned by now.

If there’s a common theme around which this column’s been centered, it’s the importance of the artist to our society.  I’ve attacked it from a bunch of different angles, and now I can hold up Image’s success as proof.  Society doesn’t take artists seriously, and views them as inherently disposable because the things they make aren’t commodities in the traditional sense.  People say things like this, then spend the rest of dinner gushing about how good Breaking Bad is, and genuinely don’t see the hypocrisy there.

But Image, at least under the current leadership, understands that creators are its lifeblood.  They give those creators the rights to their own work, taking only a small amount of profits for administrative costs.  They greenlight the kind of premises that would make your typical corporate suit uneasy, and then trust their artists to spin those premises into gold--and for the most part, they do.  And then they leave all that material out there, easy to pirate and share for free, so confident in the quality of their product that they’re sure you’ll want to pay for it anyway.

Will Marvel and DC adopt similar tactics?  Eventually, but probably a little too late.  At the risk of metaphor overload, they’re the seemingly indomitable Blockbuster of 1996 to Image’s little-engine-that-could Netflix.  I doubt Marvel or DC will ever go away so thoroughly as Blockbuster has; Disney and Time Warner, their respective corporate parents, are too powerful to let something like that happen.  But it’s looking more and more likely every day that the age of the Big Two might have reached its third act.

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