The founding fathers of Image Comics - six out of seven of them, anyway - are literally on the same page. "Image United," a six-issue comic book miniseries written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by all of the Image founders (sans Jim Lee), is finally making its way into readers' hands with a November release date. While it's said that the proof is in the pudding, the evidence in this case can be found at Comic-Con International, where Image Comics debuted a special preview book detailing several finished pages from the first issue of "Image United." CBR News spoke with Robert Kirkman and "Image United" artist Todd McFarlane about the book's progress.
Initially announced at last year's Comic-Con, "Image United" features an ongoing storyline told over six issues with six of the Image founders returning to draw their most famous creations: Todd McFarlane's Spawn, Marc Silvestri's Witchblade and Cyberforce, Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon, Rob Liefeld's Youngblood, Jim Valentino's Shadowhawk, and an all-new character called Fortress from Whilce Portacio. "Invincible" and "The Walking Dead" writer Robert Kirkman, who is also an Image Comics partner, takes on the writing duties for the series. Kirkman admitted that from an outside perspective, "Image United" might have some preconceived notions to overcome.
"From a fan standpoint, I think that the concerns are that everybody is going to draw one character, and the story is going to be about these six guys going to do this thing and that's it," Kirkman told CBR News. "I think people are questioning the level of involvement that people are having, and I think that when they see the [San Diego-released] preview book and they see the first 11 pages of the first issue, they'll see that it's the entire Image universe as the stage. Everybody's going to have dozens and dozens of different characters that they have showing up and they're all going to be rotating through the cast. It's a broad, world-encompassing crossover, and it just so happens to be drawn by six different people on every page. You're going to see Overt-Kill in the opening scene, there's going to be various characters coming in and out. I think people will be pretty excited when they see this thing."
The "Image United" preview book might prove the doubters wrong, but Kirkman said that the whole team still has a ways to go in making the series a success. "We're going to be in the thick of this until issue #6 is in stores," he said. "It's a strange process. We've gotten a ton of stuff done on the book, but everything is moving through so many people that I couldn't even tell you right now with any kind of definitive answer, 'Oh yeah! I know exactly what's done here, here and here.' It changes every minute. There are hands in panel four that are being done behind this thing. This guy is drawing a face over here. It's an awesome, unique idea, and those things usually are work. But it's a bizarre working process."
As the writer of the series, Kirkman is tasked with putting words to the lips of some of Image's most longstanding creations. With their respective creators following Kirkman's storytelling lead, one might assume that the prospect was daunting for the comparatively new guy on the block. Luckily, Kirkman didn't see it that way. "I just treated them like I owned them, because I figured [the creators] would tell me if I did something they didn't like," he said. "Instead of having to pick up the phone every six minutes to call six different people and say, 'Is it okay if this villain from Cyberforce loses a finger,' I just did stuff and figured that if they didn't like it, they'd let me know. So far, things have gone pretty smoothly doing that."
One of the most buzzed-about questions is whether or not Kirkman would lend his iconic character Invincible to the "Image United" cast. The writer, who has remained coy about Mark Grayson's involvement in the story, was finally willing to discuss whether or not one of his own creations would appear in the pages of the miniseries. "It's exciting that I'm getting to talk about this," he revealed. "I hate to do spoilers, but... we're going to be revealing in 'Image United' that when people die in 'The Walking Dead' universe, they end up in the Image universe! It's going to be cool. Dale will be appearing, because he totally dies in 'Walking Dead!'"
Joking aside, Kirkman said that the serious labor on "Image United" comes from the other creators involved, not himself. "I'm really just watching it and trying to do my best to police these guys and make sure everything's moving along," he described of his role in the series. "I'm not really doing anything, so I'm not trying to make it sound like, 'Oh, god, it's so hard! It's so hard to watch these guys do all this work! It's so time-consuming!' When it all comes together, those finished pages look amazing."
Perhaps a better person to weigh in on the hard work going into "Image United" is Todd McFarlane, the "Spawn" creator representing 1/6th of the drawing force. "It's easy to jump onto ['Image United'] in theory, but then all of the sudden you get to the reality of actually having to do it," he said about tackling the series. "It's a bit of a nuisance in the way that everybody has a sort of 9-5 job, we've all got our other books that we gotta get out. These pages kind of come from heaven and all of a sudden it's like, 'I've gotta get it done. Okay, okay, I'll get it done.' But I've found that once I get to those pages, it's a breath of fresh air."
McFarlane said that he is usually the last artist to receive "Image United" pages. As a result, he's found himself filling in certain details that get left behind from other artists. "When I get the pages, everybody has sort of just done their characters, and at times, they're not paying attention to how the page will look as a finished piece," he admitted. "I go, 'Hold on a sec! Who's doing the backgrounds?' So sometimes, I'll actually play with the backgrounds. I don't mind because I have fun with them. But sometimes, I'll say, 'Now that these four guys have inked their characters, wouldn't Badrock's foot be showing through here?' We don't have time to start sending the pages around to save Badrock's foot because Rob didn't know where Whilce would start and stop, Marc didn't know where Erik was gonna stop, or whoever else. When I get [the pages] at the end, because I am the last guy sometimes, I actually get to see the starts and the stops. For me, what I'm doing - and I hope they don't get too mad at me - is adding some of the feet and debris and smoke and finishing up the background and doing some of the goofy stuff."
The artist admitted that it's a bit shocking when he first sees an incomplete "Image United" page, but the combined forces of his and the other artists' inking tends to turn that shock into excitement. In fact, McFarlane believed that there's something lost in the colored versions of the pages. "I get a little bit biased because the black and white pages are turning out fantastically," he said. "If you're a fan of wanting to see a lot of superhero stuff, there's a lot of stuff on some of these pages. I could argue that the color is not allowing the eye to actually just go, 'Wow, Marc actually inked his rear off on that. Whilce, who rarely inks, is doing a terrific job. Badrock looks cool, and is that Todd inking him? That's kind of cool!'"
Whether it's black-and-white or colored, "Image United" is impressive by Kirkman's standards at least. "I don't think any other group of artists could do pages that look so good being done in this style," said the writer. "You can tell who does everything on each page when you look at it - or I can, and I think most people will be able to - but it doesn't look like some kind of mish-mash Frankenstein page. It doesn't look like a collage, which was a concern for a while. It actually comes together like an awesome looking comic page. I'm very excited about this, just from a fan standpoint, even though I'm working on it. It's going to be pretty amazing when it comes out. I think everybody involved will be pretty proud of the final product."
"Image United" #1 debuts this November from Image Comics.