You couldn’t swing a dead WildC.A.T. by the tail in the ‘90s comic book boom without hitting a new imprint, with creator-owned Image spawning dozens of artist-specific sub-studios. Before long there were imprints within existing publishers not only promoting the work of certain creators, but pitching work to more niche audiences, or simply providing a respite from the continuity-heavy shared universes of their mainline books. Most of these ended with the collapse of the decade’s comic boom.
However, DC is about bring back Wildstorm, an imprint shuttered in 2010. A new series by artist Jon Davis-Hunt and Warren Ellis — “The Wild Storm” — brings a definite article and potentially heralds a return for the imprint as a whole. So, we got to thinking: what are some of the more overlooked imprints from comic book past that could do with some modern day love? Here are 15 forgotten comic imprints that deserve a second chance.
Before it was subsumed into Vertigo, Helix was one of the most vibrant lines DC was publishing. After all, it was the original home of Spider Jerusalem, the iconoclastic star of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s “Transmetropolitan.” The cyberpunk gonzo journalist was one of the lucky ones, while rest of the short-lived imprint, which focused on innovative sci-fi stories, were lost when the line was closed.
When Helix launched just two years earlier, its future looked bright, even if the ones predicted by its titles wasn’t. Originally titled Matrix, before the upcoming film from DC parent company Warner Bros. demanded a change in name, the imprint brought together both hot comic names like Garth Ennis and Howard Chaykin, and certified science fiction royalty including Michael Moorcock.
It’s hard to pick just one Helix title we’d like to see return: “The Black Lamb” was a cyberpunk vampire story, “Gemini Blood” was a speculative fiction spy thriller with art by current “Mother Panic” artist Tommy Lee Edwards, and “Dead Corps” was a delicious social satire where the dead were resurrected as an underclass doing menial jobs. May still have some relevance, that last one…
14. EPIC COMICS
It seems like a hoax, a dream or perhaps an imaginary tale, but it is in fact true: for a period lasting from 1982 to the mid ‘90s, Marvel had a creator-owned imprint. Epic was an enclave to which the work-for-hire creators could make stuff which was all their own, prefiguring the likes of Image (and Marvel’s later Icon imprint) by a decade. Along with keeping the rights with the creators, editors Al Milgrom and Archie Goodwin’s main edict through Epic was to allow Marvel to publish content that would not pass the Comic Code Authority’s strict rules. Epic quickly became a sort of mainstream “Heavy Metal,” publishing far-out cosmic sagas, fantasy stories, broad comedies and translated comics.
Katushiro Otomo’s “Akira” was brought over to the States — in color! — under Epic, and Wendy and Richard Pini’s legendary “ElfQuest” was published by the imprint for a time as well. In many ways, Epic was a throwback to a past era of pulp magazines whilst looking ahead to a creator-owned future. A brief victory lap in the early ‘00s brought Mark Millar and Terry Dodson’s infamous “Trouble,” quite unlike Epic’s previous output, and sadly, it appears the final nail in its coffin.
13. COMICS’ GREATEST WORLD
With IDW shifting its attention to licensed properties, Dark Horse now corners the market of horror comic books. The output at DH is tremendous in quality and in breadth, propped up by Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” while publishing new, exciting and terrifying fare such as “Harrow County.” It did, for a time, give the superhero game a go.
To differentiate from the spookier output, DH spun off the Comics’ Greatest World imprint in 1993, after a long lead-in time which involved setting up their own shared universe of caped heroes with short stories in the Dark Horse Comics anthology series. The publisher went to great pains not only to introduce these new heroes, but the environments they lived in: alternate U.S. metropolises like the utopian Golden City and The Vortex, a militarized Las Vegas, for example.
“Ghost,” a vengeful murdered woman back from the dead with superpowers and a natty Labor Day ensemble, was the most enduring of these characters, with most of CGW being canceled after a few issues. Some intriguing concepts fell by the wayside, including “Catalyst: Agents of Change,” the redundantly-named team who came up against the United States government when they decided to secede their utopian superhero state.
Of course, the other thing Dark Horse is principally known for is its library of creator-owned books, including Mignola’s “Hellboy” and Frank Miller’s “Sin City” series. Between 1999 and 2002, Maverick ran as a specifically creator-owned imprint (differentiating from the publisher’s other series and licensed properties) under the auspices of Diana Schutz. Explaining the imprint, Schutz explained, “Having a section in Diamond Previews can’t help but solidify that identity a little bit. It reminds people that Dark Horse really does publish creator-owned books.”
“Sin City” and Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” moved to Maverick, with the cultural cache of those big names allowing Schutz the wiggle room to publish then-up-and-coming artists including Farel Dalrymple and Matt Kindt. It also pushed the envelope with the likes of Rich Tommaso’s “The Horror of Collier County” and P. Craig Russell’s graphic novel adaptation of classical composer Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” In its second year, Maverick strained further against the constraints of the direct market by releasing more original graphic novels aimed at mainstream readers, including reprints of old Will Eisner material and Eric Drooker’s “Flood,” but it was not enough to stop the imprint shuttering after publishing fewer than 50 books.
Dreamwave met a rather ignominious end when it came out that, prior to going bankrupt, the Canadian studio had been not only failing to pay freelancers, but leaving them liable for debts incurred by the failing Image imprint. Dreamwave founder Pat Lee has kept a relatively low profile, working mainly outside of the comics industry since the imprint’s highly public collapse, but there are gems to be found.
For one thing, much of the acclaim IDW has gotten for its revitalized “Transformers” comics — based on the old toy lines and cartoons, and very much in the spirit of the classic Marvel UK series by writer Simon Furman — is piggybacking off the success of Dreamwave’s own Transformers books. Lee’s canny licensing of the property prefigured its return to popularity, and he even got Furman back to pen new stories.
We wouldn’t want to see the business dealings of Dreamwave make a return, but there was a fannish enthusiasm for both the original and licensed books the publisher released (including video game properties like “Mega Man”), which has been lost with contemporary buying up of every geek-friendly franchise under the sun in order to churn out a slightly kitschy comic spin-off.
10. ETERNITY COMICS
The name may not have endured, but Malibu Comics has a legacy that can’t be beat, being the publishers of the “Men In Black” comic book series, which eventually spawned the Will Smith movie franchise. Malibu folded in 1997, with Marvel having bought up most of its assets. Before it fell on hard times, though, it was in the business of buying up independent publishers, beginning with the acquisition of Eternity Comics.
As a Malibu imprint, Eternity was responsible for giving future superstars and indie darlings like Brian Pulido, Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel an early share of the spotlight, as well as putting out a surprisingly great “Robotech” comic book series, and American adaptations of the Serbian vigilante series “Cat Claw” and Australian anthology “The Southern Squadron.”
Eternity was mostly carried by the unexpected success of David Lawrence and Ron Lim’s “Ex-Mutants,” before eventually collapsing in the face of a number of controversies, including unauthorized reprints of ‘30s “Mickey Mouse” comics (on the mistaken understanding that they were in the public domain), a number of licenses which were found to be fraudulently brokered, and some dodgy dealings from publisher Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.
9. AWESOME COMICS
The late-era superhero renaissance of Alan Moore’s career may be down to Rob Liefeld. While the two seem diametrically opposed in almost every way — stylistically, intellectually, creatively — Liefeld reckons that a stint under his Awesome Comics led immediately into Moore’s America’s Best Comics line at Wildstorm. “Much of the line is made up of poorly masked Awesome characters and story outlines he prepared for us,” The Rob claimed.
Awesome began as Liefeld’s imprint at Image, the creator-owned publisher he had defected from Marvel to set up with six other high-profile artists. What began as a stable of equally poorly masked knock-offs of Big Two characters underwent significant reimagining as the likes of Moore and Jeph Loeb were let loose on them, before its inevitable collapse at the end of the ‘90s comic boom.
Following their collaborations on the Awesome series “Kaboom,” “Coven” and “Lionheart,” Loeb and artists Ed McGuiness and Ian Churchill would go on to take over DC’s main “Superman” title. Moore’s typically self-reflexive work, meanwhile, on series like “Supreme” and “Youngblood” have somewhat fallen by the wayside compared to his usually-cited canon of masterpieces (“Watchmen,” “V For Vendetta” etc.), and are surely overdue some critical reevaluation.
Cliffhanger’s lasting legacy may be that same ignominious infamy that blights a lot of Image Comics creators: long-promised series from artists who were simply too busy to actually release all the stuff they had planned. In the case of Cliffhanger, that book was Joe Madureira’s “Battle Chasers,” which has a healthy fan following and an upcoming video game, despite having published only nine issues.
An imprint of Wildstorm — itself a DC imprint — Cliffhanger’s other series were a touch more consistent. J. Scott Campbell’s saucy spy spoof “Danger Girl” continues to this day, albeit through IDW, and Chris Bachalo and Joe Kelly’s “Steampunk” prefigured the popularity of the science fiction subgenre by a good couple of years. The off-beat imprint offered reprints of Sam Kieth’s “The Maxx,” alongside other originals like Scott Lobdell and Leinil Francis Yu’s alternate history WWII farc,e “High Roads,” as well as Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco’s underrated fantasy miniseries “Arrowsmith.” Finding a defining link through the imprint’s output is difficult, other than it being a place of great, weird ideas explored fully.
7. HOMAGE COMICS
Another off-shoot of Wildstorm (an off-shoot of an off-shoot!) was Homage, created as part of a drive to recruit more writers to produce original work, in reaction to the artist-focused Image style. That approach birthed the enduring likes of Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City” and a couple of Warren Ellis series — including “Red,” with Cully Hamner, later adapted to the film of the same name — and “Desperadoes,” a weird western series by Jeff Mariotte. Of course, none of this is to say that the artists of Homage were given a short shrift.
“Desperadoes” is perhaps best remembered for helping launch John Cassady’s career. James Robinson’s “Leave It To Chance” has a great premise (teenage daughter of paranormal investigator solves mysteries with her pet dragon), which comes to life thanks to Paul Smith’s beautiful pop art. Sam Kieth, meanwhile, put out a rare non-“Maxx” series under Homage called “Zero Girl,” which he wrote and illustrated. Perhaps the biggest coup for Homage was publishing volume three of writer/artist Terry Moore’s otherwise fiercely independent “Strangers in Paradise,” a continuing cult classic which certainly benefited from wider exposure.
6. PIRANHA PRESS
As with Marvel and Epic, it seems unfathomable that there was a DC imprint in the ’80s that allowed creators ownership of the work they published. And yet, that was the case with Piranha Press, edited by Mark Nevelow, who sought not to coax established indie artists to his new publisher, but wanted to push new voices (although some old favorites did get the chance to flex their art muscles).
The imprint’s most successful title was “Why I Hate Saturn,” from the perennial unsung hero Kyle Baker; it was a sitcom-style comedy born out of the frustration of doing work-for-hire superhero jobs. Marc Hempel, who went on to work on Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” got one of his earliest gigs with the Piranha series, Gregory. John Blair Moore’s “Invaders From Home!!!” was another big Piranha book.
One of the strangest footnotes in the imprint’s history was a couple of Prince-based anthologies (yes, Prince the funk popster), with an all-star roster of creators including Dwayne McDuffie, Steve Carr, Deryl Skelton, David Williams, Denys Cowan and Josef Rubinstein. While creatively affluent, sales under Nevelow’s editorship were slim; that changed with his departure, and a significant change in direction for Piranha.
5. PARADOX PRESS
While DC’s superhero cinematic input remains somewhat divisive for audiences and critics (despite some healthy box office returns), its Paradox Press imprint maintains a charmed position in the annals of movie history. David Cronenberg adapted Paradox’s “A History of Violence” for the big screen with Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris, while Sam Mendes took on the paternal gangster drama “Road to Perdition” with Tom Hanks and a truly scary Jude Law.
Both began as original graphic novels from Paradox Press, the successor of Piranha. Along with John Wagner and Vince Locke’s “History of Violence” and Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s “Road To Perdition,” the imprint published dinosaur gag manga “Gon” and reprints of Scott McCloud’s foundational “Understanding” and “Reinventing Comics.” Paradox ended up being something of a rival to the more mature, critically-minded work being put out by the likes of Kitchen Sink Press, as well as providing a crime-centric part of the DC line (it also put out compilations of old pulp stories), something sorely missing from the modern mainstream market.
Long before they revolutionized American action cinema with “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis were a creative duo struggling to get movies made, but with a credible sideline in comics writing. Lana and Lilly, the second uncredited, both worked on “Ectokid” with Steve Skroce as part of Marvel’s Razorline imprint. The origins of the imprint are in another creator from elsewhere in the morass of popular genre fiction: horror writer and “Hellraiser” progenitor Clive Barker. Razorline was Barker’s baby, with the imprint’s four interrelated titles based on detailed outlines and characters of his devising. The Razorline titles aimed to capture the sort of trippy weirdness of classic “Doctor Strange,” albeit outside the usual Marvel continuity.
“Ectokid” was a teenage wastrel who saw the physical world through one eye and the spirit realm through the other, owing to his parentage of a human and a ghost; “Hokum & Hex” featured a struggling comedian randomly assigned the power and responsibility of defending Earth from a god from across the multiverse; “Saint Sinner” was a “Hellblazer”-tinged book about a man possessed alternately by an angel and a demon. Finally, “Hyperkind” was comprised of a team of young adults with different superpowers. Poor sales did the line in.
3. GORILLA COMICS
A folly of the early internet age, when the ever-expanding web bubble felt like it was at absolutely zero risk of bursting at all, the creators behind Image imprint Gorilla Comics intended to finance the publication of their series themselves. They ended up out of pocket when their mooted revenue stream, a superhero-themed website called eHero, failed to get off of the ground. Subsequently, they found themselves using their own funds, meaning Gorilla didn’t last all that long.
For a brief, shining moment, though, Gorilla put out some innovative work by an all-star roster of writers and artists. Best-known is Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s “Empire,” about an all-powerful supervillain who has to contend with political maneuvering and backstabbing from his fellow baddies after decidedly defeating the Earth’s heroes. Elsewhere there was “Section Zero,” a Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett joint about a secret government superhero team dealing with “X-Files” style supernatural phenomena and conspiracies. “Tellos,” meanwhile, was a sumptuous metafictional fantasy yarn cut off at the knees by Gorilla’s failure and Mike Wieringo’s tragic death. There were also a couple of collaborations between the titans that are Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen for the ill-fated imprint.
Following a relatively unsuccessful attempt to capture the nascent American anime audience captivated by Toonami with its “Mangaverse” event, Marvel made a second — and far more satisfying — go of it with Tsunami. The imprint tried to capture something of the manga appeal without simply grafting otaku stereotypes onto their existing stable of characters. Interestingly, Tsunami actually yielded some of the most plain fun comic books Marvel put out in the early ‘00s.
The imprint’s biggest hit was “Runaways,” the Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona series about a group of teens who discover their parents are supervillains… but there were further treasures beyond that. Sean McKeever and UDON’s “Sentinel” took cues from “The Iron Giant,” with its story of a kid who befriends a junked killer robot previously programmed to exterminate X-Men. Other books in the Tsunami line, like the more cliched manga-styled “Human Torch” and “Venom,” were markedly less successful, both creatively and commercially. In providing a space in their vast Universe for books specifically aimed at a more teenaged market, without compromising quality or maturity of storytelling, Marvel hit upon a rich vein of comics.
Milestone is ever-so-slowly making its return, and a welcome one it will be. In what remains an unprecedented deal, the imprint — which was founded by a group of established African-American comic creators including Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle — was published by DC, but without any sort of editorial oversight over the content the directors put out. Under those conditions, Milestone flourished.
The imprint offered a true diversity of both characters and creators, something which often turns out to be an either/or deal in the rest of mainstream superhero comics. More than that, Milestone was a hit, with McDuffie, Cowan and Dingle’s “Static” spinning off into the successful animated series “Static Shock.” The character continues to pop up in “Teen Titans” and “Young Justice” comics and cartoons.
Other characters were less successful, resulting in most of the line’s series being canceled after a few years and the imprint essentially becoming a licensing group. Since 2008, there have been rumblings — including from DC head honcho Dan DiDio — that Milestone is ready to return, so perhaps this is one forgotten imprint that may indeed get that second chance.
Which imprints of years gone by do you hold closest to your heart? Take your trip down memory lane right into our comments thread!
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