As the company looks to celebrate 25 years of history, Image Comics stands today as the industry leader in creator-owned comic books. It has become a safe haven for writers and artists who want to create great works while maintaining 100% control over the characters and stories they develop. As a publisher, they are known for creator-owned comic book series like Spawn, Savage Dragon, Invincible, The Walking Dead, Chew, Saga, and so much more. It may look pretty straightforward now, but back in the company’s heyday, things were a bit more hectic. Behind any successful business, you will find some crazy behind-the-scenes stories.
In the early 1990s, Image Comics took the comic book industry by storm when several popular artists of the time left the mainstream in order to make their own mark, independent of the corporations that dominated the business. Almost from the beginning, the company has had its share of wild stories and dramatic conflicts from behind the scenes. It would seem that if you get any number of creative people together, drama will ensue. So, in celebration of Image’s 25 years of operation, here are the most WTF things that happened behind the scenes of this great and powerful comic book publishing company.
15. X-ODUS FROM MARVEL
Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio were some of the hottest comic book creators in the early 1990s. They were also all sick of working for Marvel Comics and not getting the proper compensation for their work. The group met with Marvel editorial, collectively quit the company, and went on to found inarguably the most famous independent publisher in the game, Image Comics.
Many of the Image founders were known for their work on X-Men related books, leading the event to be referred to, appropriately enough, as the X-odus. With the help of Chris Claremont, the group laid out the groundwork for their new company, ensuring that comic book creators would finally get their due. The industry would never be the same again.
14. THE ORIGIN OF YOUNGBLOOD
In the early years of Image, the company dealt almost exclusively in superhero comics. Many of their most popular characters even resembled (sometimes strongly) other popular properties. In 1991, Rob Liefeld had pitched an idea to DC Comics for a new Teen Titans series to be written by Marv Wolfman. Though that series was ultimately rejected, Liefeld wouldn’t let his ideas go to waste.
In creating Youngblood #1, the artist recycled his Teen Titans plot and turned his characters into stand-ins for DC’s stable of teenage heroes. The leader of the team, Shaft, was actually a replacement for Speedy, and Vogue was a redesigned Harlequin. Recycling ideas proved to be so successful for Liefeld, so much so that he would do it again many times in the future.
13. HEROES REBORN
Just a few years following the exodus, Marvel Comics was in financial trouble. In an effort to boost sales, they outsourced their characters to Jim Lee’s WildStorm Productions and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios for the Heroes Reborn initiative. The new comics — Captain America, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and The Avengers — enjoyed an early boost in sales, but readers were not happy with the new direction.
Just six issues in, Liefeld was released from his contract, and Lee took over. Each title was planned to have an initial 12-issue run, but Marvel attempted to extend the length of the deal. Lee has gone on record saying that the publisher wanted to continue Heroes Reborn indefinitely, but only if Lee drew one of the books. Lee rejected the idea and the initiative was abandoned after a year.
12. LIEFELD GETS THE BOOT
Rob Liefeld has proven to be one of the most divisive figures in the comic book industry, and it all started in the mid-’90s when some of the Image partners took issue with his shady business practices. Liefeld was accused of using his position in the company to promote and financially support Maximum Press, another comic book publisher he had founded outside of Image. He also began recruiting talent from the other partners.
By 1996, Marc Silvestri actually withdrew Top Cow from Image in protest of his partner’s actions. This caused the other Image founders to oust Liefeld from the company. Faced with no other option, Liefeld announced his resignation from the company just minutes before the partners would have officially kicked him out. Following the episode, Silvestri would return Top Cow back to Image.
11. JIM LEE ABANDONS IMAGE
Image Comics saw instant success in its first few years, and WildStorm rose to prominence thanks to titles like WildC.A.T.s, Stormwatch, and Gen13, among a few others. The company proved to be the most consistent and successful studio within the Image umbrella. However, by the mid-’90s, sales across the industry were declining and Jim Lee was looking for a way out.
By 1998, Lee had a deal with DC Comics, which went into effect in January of 1999. He believed that selling his business would allow him to pay less attention to the business side of the industry and refocus his efforts on more creative work, which would prove to be something of an irony, given his future within said industry. WildStorm then enjoyed stable success over the next decade and Lee went on to become DC’s co-publisher.
10. KIRKMAN VS. LIEFELD OVER THE INFINITE
In 2011, Robert Kirkman and Rob Liefeld teamed up to create a comic book about time travel that was developed with the intention of making it as ‘90s old school Liefeld as humanly possible. It was the actual aesthetic they were going for in the comic. The book was plagued by delays and after issue #4, The Infinite was cancelled.
Behind the scenes, the collaborators disagreed about an inker Liefeld was using to finish the book. Liefeld was happy with the results, but Kirkman didn’t feel like he was getting the Liefeld art he had originally asked for. The disagreement caused the artist to re-ink the pages in order to get issue #5 out, but by then the damage had been done. The series was cancelled and the two sides parted on bad terms.
9. TODD MCFARLANE VS. REAL PEOPLE
Despite his success at creating original comic book characters, Todd McFarlane based several of his characters on real-life people. This decision has brought him to court on more than one occasion. In 2004, professional hockey player Tony Twist sued the comic book creator after McFarlane created a mobster named Tony Twist. The character would go on to make 14 appearances in the regular series until McFarlane was forced to pay the real-life Twist $5 million for using his image!
McFarlane also apparently got the name of Spawn’s human identity from a former employee, also named Al Simmons. The real life Simmons published a book called The Art of Being Spawn, where he claimed to be the inspiration for the character. McFarlane, not happy because he saw this as a breach of their initial agreement (and likely because it wasn’t true) brought Simmons to court.
8. GEN13: THE MOVIE
When Jim Lee was busy shopping WildStorm, Disney Studios came looking to adapt Gen13 into an animated movie. The film was midway through production by the time Lee officially sold his company to DC Comics. Since DC was a Time Warner company, Disney had little interest in releasing a property now owned by a competitor (and this was before they even owned Marvel).
Gen13 was put on the shelf and forgotten about for several years. In 2000, the film saw limited release in Europe and Australia, but it has never been aired in the United States. It’s a pity American audiences never got to see this production outside of YouTube, since it was directed by Kevin Altieri (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm), and it featured the voice acting of Mark Hamill, John de Lancie, and… Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?!
7. BATTLE CHASERS
In 1998, WildStorm launched its Cliffhanger imprint, which would offer one of the most popular comic books at the time called Battle Chasers. Joe Madureira’s fantasy adventure sold extremely well but became plagued by delays. The book averaged six months between issues with 16 months between issues #6 and #7. After WildStorm was purchased by DC Comics, Battle Chasers moved with the company, but soon returned to Image after two issues.
In 2001, issue #9 ended on a cliffhanger that would never be concluded because #10 was never released. After four years of publication, Madureira abandoned the project for a career in the video game industry. A continuation of the series in video game form is planned, and Battle Chasers: Nightwar is set to be released in the summer of 2017.
6. THE RIGHTS TO THE WALKING DEAD
When Robert Kirkman debuted The Walking Dead at Image, Tony Moore provided the art through issue #6 before Charlie Adlard replaced him as the ongoing artist. Since that time, the series has evolved into one of the longest running series in the industry and become a highly successful multimedia franchise. It should be no surprise that tensions would rise over the ownership and rights to these highly successful stories.
In 2012, Moore filed a lawsuit against Kirkman, alleging that his collaborator tricked him into surrendering his rights to The Walking Dead franchise in exchange for payments he never received. A feud between the two sides erupted when Kirkman publicly stated that Moore had already been properly compensated. After several months, the two sides came to some form of agreement and put the matter behind them.
5. DEATHMATE: THE DISASTER
At the height of the comic book boom of the 1990s, Image Comics and Valiant Comics created a crossover entitled Deathmate, which sold hundreds of thousands between 1993 and 1994. Despite the book’s success, production of the series was wrought with controversy, given that Image couldn’t produce their issues on time. It actually hurt the industry as a whole.
Former Valiant editor-in-chief Bob Layton referred to the crossover as an “unmitigated disaster.” He actually had to rein in Image creators and ink pages himself just to get the books finished. Delays caused orders to be cancelled, which led to lower reorders, but by the time the books were released, no one cared and stores were left with unsold copies. It was Image’s lateness that led distributors to make it easier for stores to return unsold books because too many were going out of business.
4. IMAGE UNITED
In 2009, Image Comics released a crossover called Image United that would reunite the company founders. The unique idea was that each creator would provide the art for their own characters, meaning every issue—and sometimes each page—would contain six different artists. The miniseries proved to be wildly popular, but in the spirit of old school Image, production on the book fell apart and the series has yet to see completion eight years later.
As far as who is to blame for the massive delays, it’s hard to tell. Rob Liefeld has criticized the team’s inability to get the work finished, while Whilce Portacio and Erik Larsen have contributed to interlude issues. Todd McFarlane has taken the blame for the massive delays between issues #2 and #3, but it could just be a product of asking six busy creators to draw, ink, and color the same pages six different times.
3. TODD MCFARLANE VS. NEIL GAIMAN
McFarlane’s most famous trip to court was during his infamous dispute with Neil Gaiman over the rights to several supporting characters from the Spawn series. Gaiman had initially agreed to hand over his rights to characters Angela, Cogliostro, and Medieval Spawn in exchange for McFarlane’s rights to Marvelman. In actuality, McFarlane only owned the Marvelman logos and not the actual character.
Gaiman took his former collaborator to court in order to gain proper compensation after the deal was broken. After winning the lawsuit, Gaiman acquired the rights to Angela and sold the character to Marvel Comics, who then introduced her into the Thor mythos. The two sides would continue to fight over Marvelman until Marvel bought that character too. McFarlane doesn’t have the best record in court.
2. THE ART OF SAGA #12
This one may have played out in public, but it was controversial for backend business reasons among many others. In 2013, Saga #12 was prohibited from sale on Apple’s iOS, because the issue included small images of male-on-male oral sex in the television-face of Prince Robot IV. It was presumed that the issue violated Apple’s restrictions on sexual content.
Comic book creators spoke out against censorship and the apparent double standard between heterosexual and homesexual sex. Digital distributor Comixology announced that they, not Apple, had not made the issue available because they believed the art violated Apple’s rules. After the company received clarification from Apple about Saga #12, Comixology made the issue available to iOS users. It’s still disappointing that such a controversy even took place.
1. THE ORIGINAL WALKING DEAD PITCH
Today, The Walking Dead has proven to be a hugely successful comic book series and media franchise. It is probably one of the most important comics of the 21st century. As far as behind the scenes secrets go, the story of how the book almost didn’t see the light of day, and the hilarious way Robert Kirkman convinced Image to publish the book, has to top this list.
When Kirkman first pitched the book, Jim Valentino, the company’s publisher at the time, rejected the idea because zombies had never been very lucrative in comics. If he wanted to get this series made, he would have to offer them something different. Desperate to get The Walking Dead approved, Kirkman lied and said that the zombie outbreak was part of an alien invasion plot. It wasn’t until a few issues in that Image realized they had been tricked.
Do you know of something else in the quiet corners of Image’s history? Let us know in the comments!