COMMENTARY TRACK: "Image United" #1

With the highly anticipated "Image United" finally in stores, fans are understandably poring over the long-awaited first issue, but there are plenty of details and story choices made by the creative team that might not be noticeable at a first - or even second or third - glance.

In an effort to point out some of these behind-the-scenes creative decisions, CBR News has tapped the "Image United" creators and Image Comics partners - writer Robert Kirkman and founders Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino - for a series of Director's Commentaries following the debut of each issue.

For "Image United" #1, CBR spoke with Kirkman and Liefeld, the writer and layout artist duo behind the first issue of the miniseries. The pair provided a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire issue and offered their reactions to seeing "Image United" come together for the first time.

CBR News: The first page of "Image United" kicks off with this massive group shot, showcasing many of the characters, as well as every artist involved in the project.

Robert Kirkman: When the initial idea for the book came through, it was that everybody is going to be drawing their own characters. When it came down to plotting the book, I wanted to make sure that we opened with a bang. For one, it's a big event and you want to open big and get everybody ramped up right at the outset. But because of the artistic way that this book was being done, I wanted to open on this page with a group shot of everybody so we could see that everybody was involved, everybody was drawing their own characters and this is how it was going to work. I just wanted to have everybody there from the outset, not some long, boring build-up to get everybody together. I wanted to jump in feet first and hit the ground running. And Rob did a fantastic job - although he did make some changes... [Laughs]

Rob Liefeld: What did I do? [Laughs]

Kirkman: I think I had a group shot for the first page, then another group shot for pages two and three, and you were like, "Nah, screw that. Let's go ahead and get to the nitty gritty." Then you had the big blast thing going on. You improved it, so I'm giving you kudos for that.

Liefeld: You know, I remember that, now that you're saying that, Robert. You know how Marvel has those Marvel Summits? Over the summer of 2008 between Chicago and San Diego or whatever - we always kind of knew what we were doing and had laid down some pre-production work, but between Chicago and San Diego there was this back-and-forth of nuts-and-bolts. We're all talking with Robert about what's going to be in the book, how it's going to be paced. Robert listened to everybody but made it very clear that he was the writer and he would make decisions and figure this out. We obviously gave him the blessing to do that.

Four weeks later: boom - the script lands in the fall of '08. When I opened that first page, I went, "Oh gosh!" Even to this day, I am a fan of Image Comics. I'm a fan of everybody I'm working with. I'm a fan of that age, the characters. To see this first page with everybody... I knew that it had to have some Jack Kirby balls to it. Get a tight, tight, tight shot of them coming right at us with plenty of room for Witchblade, the only female in this sausage fest...

Kirkman: Don't draw attention to that! [Laughs]

Liefeld: ...we've got Shaft down way low so Witchblade can show off all of her merchandise. When I laid all these guys out, what I tried to do throughout the entire issue - and originally, we planned that every guy would lay out an issue, but quickly it became easier if Erik [Larsen] laid out issues #2 - #6 - but I wanted to get in the heads of these guys and give them the gestures I know they prefer. So, Ripclaw is trying to do something that I'd see Marc [Silvestri] doing. Then Spawn, with that cape, Spawn should be down low in the composition, but that cape would wipe everybody out. Then Badrock had to be in the back because he's too big. Those were fun problems to solve over the course of page one, but look, you only have one chance to make a first impression. It's page one. Robert, like he said, put it all on the platter, and it was up to us to deliver the goods and hit the reader over the head.

In terms of what Robert said with pages two and three, I do remember that. I basically pushed off elements into pages four and five that he wanted in two and three. This is Image Comics, so it has to be big! You've got to go splash and then double-page splash! [Laughs] I believe certain people coming into the book haven't interacted with Image Comics in a long time, and we definitely have a nostalgia vibe going on in this book. In three pages, I think you go, "Whoa! I'm back in 1992, baby!" [Laughs]

Kirkman: Story-wise, I just wanted to do an opening sequence that, again, got to the action right away, but also the purpose is to build up the mystery villain that's revealed by the end of the issue, just to show that, even with how powerful they are, they're up against a major threat. That's why they're getting their asses handed to them there.

We leave Fortress' vision and, once again, both he and the readers are dropped right into the middle of another violent conflict.

Kirkman: People don't want to see these guys drawing too many talking heads, and I didn't want to write too many talking heads for them. In plotting it, I wanted to come up with a way where I could tell an all-encompassing, world-spanning story by moving from action sequence to action sequence for the most part, just because that's what these guys are known for and people don't really do that a lot in comics anymore - there are a lot of comics these days that aren't heavy on action, and I kind of miss that. This is supposed to be a pretty action-heavy book, and it still tells the story in a reasonable fashion and everything seems to work out, but you want to go from, "Oh my god, I can't believe they went from a splash to a two-page spread and all of these guys are messed up!" Then there's this huge shot of Overtkill. I really wanted to bombard readers - "Look at this, look at this, look at this!" - that's kind of the intent of this sequence.

Liefeld: Robert is the director, and as the layout guy, you're kind of the director of photography. I look at the script, and I've already read the entire script, and knowing that Spawn was only going to be on a few pages - issue #2 is very Spawn heavy - so when I look at the script and see that Todd's [going to draw] Overtkill, then yeah, that's going to be a really big page and panel. To balance the page out, the top and the bottom of the page really belong to Whilce [Portacio] with Fortress, and the middle belongs to Todd.

It's like Robert says: here's page six, bam! Classic Image villain! When you realize Todd's doing this, you give him extra room on the page. I'm just giving Todd a chance to strut, and honestly, he did not shy away from any of the details. With Spawn, it's easy to cover him up with the cape. But I hadn't seen Todd draw this full-figure, tech-stuff, missiles and guns and things - he went beyond what was there. That was my mission with that page: give Whilce his room and let Todd strut.

Youngblood joins the battle here, and Rob, you're getting your first real dose of Kirkman's take on your characters.

Liefeld: It's great. It's fun. Obviously we know that Robert is a great writer, but he also has a tremendous affection for [Image Comics] in the same way my generation has for Frank Miller's "Elektra" and Walt Simonson's "Thor." With Robert, I was showing pages from issue #3 the other day, and people were going, "Wow, whose idea was it to put that guy in there?" It was Kirkman's, man! He's accessing the database! His database is so deep that I've had talks with him and lost about my own characters. [Laughs] He's got it going on. He went right back into this relationship between Die-Hard and Vogue that's been sidelined for maybe the better part of a decade. But he was like, "Nope, it's back." The guy knows the characters, and he's creating some real emotion in the next couple of issues, as you'll see. Vogue falls, Die-Hard is by her side, and you kind of go, "Crap, I kind of let the spotlight fall to the side," but Robert has brought it back up again.

Kirkman: Working with these guys is amazing for me, and I try not to gush too much because it's a little embarrassing, but this was a big deal for me. I was thirteen when Image started, and I read every single one of these comics. I have a ridiculous encyclopedia of information on these characters locked away in my brain. I have an easier time remembering stuff about these characters than I do in "Invincible," sometimes, just because the young brain locks stuff away and the old brain has other stuff to do. It's hard to fight the urge to just go, "Oh, I want to see Todd draw The Curse, and I can make Marc draw Splitzkrieg!" But there are a lot of cool characters from back then that I think some people have forgotten, so "Image United" is a good chance to show people how cool this stuff was and still is.

Liefeld: And I just want to add one thing - Robert is always treated like a peer. We're never like, "Hey, fanboy!" It's complete respect. We're very fortunate that a guy with this talent grew up reading our stuff. It's a total collaboration. Robert has been the second coming of Image Comics, so it's the perfect merge of old school and new school.

The focus shifts to Cyberforce, and aside from battling Erik Larsen's Mako and Powerhouse, Marc Silvestri is essentially all alone on these pages.

Kirkman: There's an entire page here that's just Silvestri. I told the guys going into this that I will do my best to make sure that you interact as much as possible on these pages, but there are going to be times when you're on your own for story purposes. Your characters will do what they do, and you'll have an entire page by yourself. I know there's a page later in the issue that's just Erik Larsen with his characters. Going into this, it was really hard to balance the artistic endeavors of having everybody draw their own characters - making that work - and telling a story at the same time. It was just really hard to reconcile that while I was writing the story. I couldn't worry that so-and-so wasn't getting to do this page, or maybe I'm overworking Todd on this page. I had to try and ignore that as much as I could moving forward, which is why you end up with stuff like this.

But I think it's really cool, because here you are in the middle of the book and there's an entire page by Silvestri, then you see him interacting with Larsen's villains. The scene is to show that everybody in the Image Universe is going to be here, too. It's not just Witchblade, Cyberforce - the Darkness will show up later - we're really running the gamut on how many characters are showing up in this series. I wanted to get as many indications of that as early on in the book as possible.

Back in Chicago, everybody is piling on Overtkill! It's Larsen, Liefeld and McFarlane wailing on each other with Portacio on the sidelines.

Liefeld: There are certain pages that, again, when you're doing this, you don't know how it's going to turn out. That middle pager with everybody fighting Overtkill, you have no idea how much that exceeded expectations. When you're the guy laying out the issue, you can easily hog the spotlight. But I wanted to show that I'm not the hog! Let's put Savage Dragon in the forefront and get Todd there to work his mojo on Overtkill. Then there are three of them from Youngblood so they're obviously noticeable, but they're more background characters on this page. I sent this off to Erik, then I drew the Youngblood characters and we sent it off to Todd. We had Die-Hard hanging there on a blue-line layout, and when it came back - actually, it went to Whilce and then it went to Todd - but Todd added all of the backgrounds and just killed it.

Liefeld: If you jump ahead two pages, there's a panel that's so dense with description and I called up Robert and said, "How do you want me to lay this out?" Robert goes, "Actually, I have a layout for this right here." So here's an Easter egg in the book - this is all on Robert. This is all Robert Kirkman's layout. Score one for Robert Kirkman! I was having a block that day, and when he showed it to me, I was just like, "Well, I'm the layout guy, I can't just reach out and take it - ah, I can't come up with anything better, so we're going with this layout." I hope eventually we show that in the hardcover, because this thing is all his layout. That was Robert Kirkman saving the day!

We finally get a dose of Jim Valentino and Shadowhawk, who is auditioning for a spot on Youngblood.

Liefeld: Robert obviously discussed with Valentino if it would be okay to do this, and Jim was excited about it. Shadowhawk is in line for Youngblood. Again, that's just a lot of fun. Jim is great - he taught me every storytelling trick in the book, so it was a pleasure to [work] with him. I get to ink all of Jim's stuff on this page, so it's fun to ink Jim Valentino's stuff. I think the whole page came out great - giving Shadowhawk his page to let him shine.

Kirkman: You know, it was kind of a cheat for me. How could I get Shadowhawk easily involved in the story? It was hard to try and get everybody to come together in a believable way. But going back to the early Image days, Youngblood was the government super-team, the premiere team. There were always little story bits in the book where characters were always like, "Man, if I could only get on the Youngblood team." It just made sense to have Shadowhawk get to a level where he'd be noticed by them and be asked to audition for Youngblood. I thought it would be a cool callback.

Also, Jim has this new guy, Eddie Collins, as Shadowhawk now, and he has a really cool father-son dynamic as part of that book. I thought that having him nervous while waiting for his audition would be a good scene to introduce them to readers that might not be familiar with them, and we get a little bit of character development in the middle of these big awesome fight scenes. That's what I was going for here.

Here we have Badrock versus Overtkill - or, really, Liefeld versus McFarlane.

Liefeld: This page was awesome. I am a huge admirer of all these guys' talents. When there's a page like this - even in the last panel, where its Fortress helping up Dragon, what I see is Whilce reaching over to help up Erik and Todd's head bouncing across the page. [Laughs] I think it speaks to the uniqueness of what we're doing here. I remember seeing "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" when it came out, and that last scene where all of the Warner Bros. characters and Betty Boop and the Disney characters all mingle on the screen for that last scene - I remember thinking, "Oh my God, I never thought I'd see anything like this!" Every page is like that on "Image United," this combination of styles and characters. It was a blast having Badrock ripping up Overtkill, and then giving Shaft the little spotlight. But the highlight is down here, three-in-one, Portacio, Larsen and McFarlane [in one panel].

Fortress is trying to get these heroes to listen to him, but perhaps his sales pitch could use some work.

Kirkman: If you read the prelude stories that ran in the back of "Witchblade," "Savage Dragon," "Invincible" and "Spawn," then you saw a little more about Fortress. He's new to having this suit, so he has some trouble controlling himself and knowing his own strength. He's going a little bit overboard, and most of it is on accident, but it's a classic superhero misunderstanding, which is always fun. It shows Fortress' desperation, just because he's had this vision and he doesn't know what's coming, he just knows that something big is coming and he wants to alert these people before it's too late. Aside from that desperation, he also has very little control of the suit that he's stuck in. That's a dangerous combination.

Finally, we get towards the end of the issue and there is some major Spawn action.

Kirkman: It's cool to see Todd come back and not only draw all of the Overtkill stuff and the Spawn stuff in the opening scene, but here he is doing two scenes all by himself. It's another thing where we've got Jim Downing as the new Spawn, and we'll learn more about him in "Image United" coming up, but this is just getting everybody into play - it's like an "Ocean's 11" sequel or something, where you go through and meet the characters and wonder how they'll all get back together. It's our introduction to Spawn, and also serves as the reveal of our big villain, the Omega Spawn, who is Al Simmons coming back to get his revenge on the world. It's kind of the key moment of the first issue, and Todd really kicked ass on it.

Liefeld: First of all, he did kick ass on this. Todd was the mentor for a lot of guys - myself, Erik Larsen - early on in our careers, he took us under his wing and taught us all sorts of tricks, not only about art on the page, but about business. Todd just shares his knowledge. But one of the things he always used to say was, "Yeah, I can black that background out." The way he approaches backgrounds - when I laid that first panel out, I knew it was going to [come back] all silhouette. It came back, and there it was! That's totally the New York City skyline, but it's Todd, man. "When it doubt, black it out," is one of Todd's favorite mottos. I know I had a lamp in panel two, but Todd was like, "Meh, I've got no time for that lamp." [Laughs] But who cares if there's a lamp? That's Spawn standing there!

Liefeld: But as predictable as I thought the [New York City skyline] panel would be, this page with the Omega Spawn just blew me away. My mouth was completely on the floor.

Kirkman: I had no idea what the guy was going to look like until Todd turned in this page. I had some suggestions, because I wanted him to look slightly regal and definitely threatening, but I had no idea what Todd was going to do.

Liefeld: There was just a big oval there [in my layout]. The fact that he has multiple horns - the entire development of the character, Todd created it right here.

Kirkman: Looking at this page and at Jim Lee's cover - which are the only public images of this guy so far - he's a damn cool looking villain. This is the Omega Spawn, man.

Liefeld: Today, when all of the "Image United" books came in and I was looking at Jim Lee's cover and looking at the splash page, I was like, "Um, I would totally be up for drawing 'Omega Spawn' the series." That guy is so bitching looking! This series can't be the only time we see this guy. He's just awesome.

This is Al Simmons we're talking about, so while there's a visual element to the reveal, there's also an emotional punch as well.

Kirkman: Plotting the series out, I needed to figure out who was going to be our villain. There isn't really a standout as to who could carry the series as the villain. Marvel has their Doctor Dooms and DC has their Darkseids, but Image didn't have a real, clear villain associated with every character. But Al Simmons has met most of these characters and, as luck would have it, Todd was setting up this big "End Game" storyline [in "Spawn"] at the exact same time that we were putting "Image United" together. Al Simmons was being taken out of play at the exact right moment. I went to Todd and was like, "Our best option as the villain would be Al Simmons; what do you think of that?" Thankfully, he said, "Sounds good, bud!" That's about as close as my impression of Todd will ever get - ending something with the word "bud" is about as good as my impression gets. [Laughs]

The final page of the issue gives us this moment between Shaft and Fortress, where Shaft is finally beginning to believe in Fortress' crazy prophecies.

Kirkman: I just wanted to set up the coming threat and, again, drive home exactly what was at stake here and how important getting everybody together to fight this big bad guy is going to be. Another thing is to show some more of Fortress - he's kind of the crux of this story, so I wanted to showcase him as much as possible. And I like to joke that I tried to put as much action in this as possible because people want this from [the artists], they don't want pages and pages of people talking - but here's a page of people sitting in chairs and talking, and I'll be damned if it doesn't look amazing to me.

Liefeld: You're ending the issue on this, and to me, it was all about finding ways for Whilce to show off. Whilce can draw a guy sitting down like he's Charles Atlas. My whole thought was, with Whilce and Fortress, Fortress is brand new and nobody had seen him before. He'd been making his debut in the back-up features before this, but he really is the audience surrogate for the entire story. It's a great way to spotlight Whilce's character.

And that last panel, I thought that I could do a full facial - nose, mouth - but we've already seen Whilce do that a couple of times, so let's go to another '90s staple, baby: two giant eyes! [Laughs] Let's just homage the entire decade here! I remember back in the day, we'd all talk - me, Larsen, Jim Lee and Marc. It was just like, "It's so nice when you get to do the close up and it's just two eyes!" So it was just like, "Here you go, Whilce, take us out on a high note with a pure '90s close-up!" What a way to end the issue, baby!

"Image United" #1, written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino, is currently available in comic book stores everywhere. The second issue hits stands on December 23, 2009.

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