Issue #32

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

Image Comics. Those two words mean different things to different people. One of the youngest publishers around, with the most sordid history. From million sellers to thousand sellers, they're still standing tall and proud. Fifteen years on, what does it all mean…?

CASEY: So, in that phantom world where somebody might actually care about such things, the word's out that I've got a new series debuting from Image this summer called, appropriately enough, GØDLAND. Me and artist Tom Scioli doing the Cosmic Epic thang (aided and abetted by colorist Reuben Rude and the mighty men at Comicraft). The world will tremble, mothers will weep. Blah, blah, blah...

I've done work for Image before, but it's definitely been a few years since they've allowed me to grace their hallowed halls. Or something like that. I've said it outright, it was the regime change that brought me back. Erik Larsen's definitely one of the good guys, for his forthrightness if for no other reason (fortunately, there are other reasons), and I don't see whatever power comes with being publisher of Image Comics ever really going to his head. And, beyond all that, the man has an idea of the kind of comicbooks he wants to see Image publishing. And I respect a man with a point of view...

But it's gotten me thinking. Even beyond the obvious pitfalls of launching a brand new property into the current, somewhat conservative marketplace, I've been trying to get some sense of Image Comics' place in the mainstream landscape. Thirteen years ago, they practically redefined it, both creatively and from a business standpoint. But... that was thirteen years ago.

Yeah, they've still got the absolute best deal for creator-owned work (mind you, I'm talking about Image Central here). If you're willing to take the financial risk, you can reap the rewards on the back end if you end up with even a modest hit. Hell, ask Robert Kirkman. Nothing he does at Marvel is going to match the payoff he's getting from his own books. And if any shitkicker deserved it, it's Kirkman.

So, beyond the business aspects, what does Image Comics mean from a comicbook cultural standpoint? In a world ruled by Ultimate books, All-Star lineups and the Hollywoodization of the Big Two, where does Image Comics fit in? How does what they do add to our little culture...?

FRACTION: In an ideal world or, at least, in a smarter one than this, Image should provide a mainstream alternative to the Big Two, where creators are treated well and where other pop pulp genres can grow, thrive, and take advantage of Image's brand and relative strength in the market so as to stand a fighting chance in that market.

The miracle of Image's inception is that for what was arguably the first time in the industry's history, the creatives were the 900 lb. bears in the room. Those guys defined the industry itself around what they wanted, and so profound was that initial blast of popularity that we're still processing bits and pieces of them out of the mainstream. Overnight, these guys, and this company, went toe-to-toe with behemoths forty years old. And won.

From there it's a long way down.

The potential of the ideological and creative importance of Image aside, they've got a privileged piece of real estate in PREVIEWS and, even if they're a shadow of their former selves, they've got the only real chance to change the rules of the mainstream that I think we're likely to see. Ultimately, pardon the pun, Marvel and DC are too entrenched in their own cultures to go too terribly far into trailblazing and besides, it's not necessarily their strengths, or what anyone really wants, anyway. Image, though, can be anything it wants to be. It always could.

In theory, its identity means otherwise closed avenues of the medium are open; it means those avenues are open to anyone that can produce work that Image editorial deems worthy.

But theory and practice are two separate things, but not for lack of tryin'.

CASEY: I think there's definitely something significant about that "long way down," and it's tough to really talk about without talking about guys who are actually friends of mine. If I tally it up, I actually know three of the Image founders fairly well... Jim Lee, obviously. Erik Larsen, who I've been friends with for a few years now. And, of course, Rob Liefeld.

As Rob and I occasionally laugh about, I actually got my start in professional comicbooks with his first studio, Extreme. Through knowing an artist who Extreme gave a bit of work to back in the day, I sold my first little eight-pager (for pretty good money, too, if I recall). Basically, I was just a kid back then, but Rob was really good about wanting to develop new, young talent so I figured I'd have as good a shot there as anywhere. Plus, they were local. Well, okay, they were in Anaheim. But that was local enough for me...

I made a comparison back then, one I've never really told Rob about. But I'll make it here. At the time, I looked at Rob as the Roger Corman of comicbooks. Now, Corman was certainly a director in his own right, but his major contribution to the history of cinema -- and to the art form in general -- was the fact that he had an output deal that guaranteed distribution of his films. This, In turn, allowed him to take on new, young filmmaking talent and give them a chance to make a film. Similarly, Rob had the name kind of recognition, the market share, and the Image creator-owned deal... so I just figured it was only a matter of time before Liefeld's studio (and, by extension, Image Comics) would be producing comics' version of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, both of whom directed early films for Corman.

Then again, I was young and idealistic back then.

Since those salad days, I suppose Image has produced a few new voices that went on to acclaim elsewhere. I guess I just thought -- at the time anyway -- that there'd end up being a lot more. Back then, I'm assuming it became more alluring just to pump product out there to cash in on the speculator boom. I'm sure for a while it made perfect financial sense. Unfortunately, that's not the greatest way to make good comics and I can only assume that some retailers still feel the burn of all those late shipping books (or books that never shipped at all), which may be why Image's market share has diminished over time. It's hard to win that trust back, no matter how good the books actually are.

FRACTION: Yeah, this is a little awkward. I like the Image guys, at least in as much as I know them; I have friends with Image books-- I don't want to sound like I'm talking shit or anything like that.

That said, the biggest disappointment I have in Image was that, after striking such a remarkable blow for independence, it seems that they became a confederation of Baby Bells, you know? Instead or reinventing the comic publisher, they ended up largely mimicking that from which they fled. Now, of course, it's a different story but... I don't know, if there was a moment in the last 15 years were something critical was clearly fumbled in the industry's creative development, it was that.

Early Image could launch books at the million-plus mark. And even today, when the last issue of SPAWN was months and months and months apart from the issue that preceded it, SPAWN still solicits at 30K+. Which is weirdly remarkable. As burned as the audience, and the retailers, were, that book's got a hell of a base.

The Roger Corman thing is interesting, and maybe more applicable to Image today in a lot of ways, with how diverse they're becoming.

CASEY: You know, I would never think to blame the original guys for simply churning out their own versions of the same superhero stuff they'd been doing at Marvel. That's really not the point. The point is... they owned 'em. They were really the final stop on the trip that Seigel and Shuster began five plus decades before. And, lest we forget, these were the premiere superhero artists of the day. Forget the stories, such as they were (or weren't, in many cases). Forget some of those first Image characters who were, at best, merely derivative. These were still great looking superhero comics. And sometimes, there ain't nuthin wrong wit' just bein' purdy.

I actually think the Roger Corman analogy no longer applies... because there's no central figure holding the light for others who otherwise might not have gotten their shot (as I feel like Rob always meant to do at Extreme). Larsen's more a proponent of self-starters, anyway. And besides, even though it's only about fifteen years later... I think even brand new creators are much more savvy in their craft that they don't need a Roger Corman-styled guru to help them develop. Modern creators seem to emerge a bit more fully formed.

Hell, you did...

FRACTION: I don't even think it's that they churned out superhero stuff-- it's that they kinda became these little self-contained pods and what was creator-owned work for, say, Todd McFarlane was work-for-hire to Angel Medina or Steve Niles, you know? That instead of leveraging their strength as a unified front, they all kinda became these... fortresses unto themselves, little publishing empires. Extreme, Wildstorm, Top Cow... Marvel, DC, blah blah.

Maybe the Corman analogy doesn't apply anymore; if that's true, though, it's because the door was opened for these creators and it's never shut since, you know?

I've kind of... danced at Image a couple times but we've never really hooked up, for whatever reason. You're in deep with GØDLAND, so fill me in: what's it like on that side of the world? What's it like being a creator with an Image book nowadays?

CASEY: Well, it's mostly about stepping up and being Mr. Responsibility. There's no editor involved, so it's really up to Tom and I to motivate ourselves to get this thing out here.

The nice thing about the Image structure is that, with no money upfront, you're really working and creating out of pure love. I guess we maintain the unity that the original Image founders couldn't quite maintain by just being one book and having no aspirations to create an empire. A good comicbook is enough.

I guess the funniest thing about working with at Image is that it doesn't feel like you're working in the same company that published YOUNGBLOOD, WILDC.A.T.S. or CYBERFORCE. Hell, it doesn't feel like you're working in the same company that still published SPAWN...

I dunno. I'm inclined to think that the lack of lineage is kinda liberating, y'know...?

FRACTION: Sure-- no burden, no glass ceilings. Why not?

You say 'There's no editor involved'- my gut says you're using "editor" to mean 'deadline wrangler.' The onus to get the book to Image, then, is squarely on you. Okay. Now, I only barely know either Erik Larsen or Eric Stephenson; what kind of editorial-- meaning 'creative vision,' I guess-- what kind of editorial direction do you see coming from them both?

It seems to me that in the last year, if not more, Image has begun to become something else-- something different than it's been in any of its prior lifetimes. Different than the magnificent seven's days, different than Jim Valentino's days. As a guy on the inside, then, where do you see Image going? Why bring this book to them?

CASEY: Well, don't get me wrong. The deadlines exist. But they're not Image's deadlines... they're Diamond's. I mean, if you want to get your book out each month like a real periodical…

As for the vision... like I said, I do think Larsen's got one. He's made no secret that he loves cool superhero books. That's what he's spent his career doing. But I think he also has a good sense that Image can be that alternative to Marvel and DC... as long as the books compete on a quality level. And you're right... it has started to become something else. But I couldn't say what just yet. All I know is that Larsen's one of those creators that has a really great rapport with his fans. I used to be really impressed at how he wouldn't always hang inside the designated "convention bar" with the majority of the comics pros. He'd just as often be found outside, hanging with a group of his fans, really informal, just shooting the proverbial shit. He wasn't holding court. He was just hanging out. That lack of pretentiousness, coupled with a good sense of quality, is what I think will define this next phase of Image Comics. From my point of view, the brand itself is going to pack a bit more power than it has in a while. Hell, it already is...

(Goddamn, I hope Larsen doesn't read this…)

FRACTION: There's certainly a wide open swathe of the mainstream nobody's catering to, and it seems like the market is in a place that it might be able to support a little of that. Superhero or not. I hope Image can stick the landing.

CASEY: Hell, in this market, I give 'em points for being the only publisher that consistently pumps new ideas out Into the world. They've never backed away from that, no matter who was in charge. Market share aside, I still think Image Comics matters.

Huh. I guess I answered my own question there…

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