It was only 10 years ago: A group of Marvel and DC Comics artists decided they wanted to take control of their destiny. The company they created, Image Comics, wasn't explicitly a line of superhero comics, but a creator owned publishing umbrella. But given that all their initial releases started off as superhero comics -- even if such works as "The Maxx" morphed into something almost entirely different -- Image was a de facto superhero comics company.
Fast forward 10 years, and few Image titles feature superheroes. Publisher and company co-founder Jim Valentino aims to change all that in January 2003, with a new line of "icons for the 21st century," in the company's press release speak.
While "The Savage Dragon" and "Spawn" may be the only two original Image superhero books still regularly hitting shelves, it's not like the company hasn't prospered, both with critical hits like "Powers" and fan favorites like "G.I. Joe" and "Micronauts." Which begs the question of why Image is putting a new emphasis on a single universe of superheroes, other than perhaps a bit of nostalgia upon reaching the 10 year milestone.
"I'm not certain I would classify it as nostalgia, per se, but letting that go, cohesive universes are fun for the reader and they're fun for the writer," Valentino told CBR News. "The ability to interact, to play off of one another is, I believe, one of the greatest appeals of both the Marvel and the DC universes. Myself and Erik Larsen were one of the two biggest proponents of a singular universe the first time around. Unfortunately, it got rent asunder due to egos mostly -- there had to be a 'this' universe and a 'that' universe. It seems to me that fans have spoken rather clearly that this is something they want to see and, as noted, I think it can make for some fun and exciting stories.
"The creators each own their own characters. If Image ever decided to own characters it would have to work under a different business model than it does now.
"It's set up pretty much the same way the OLD Image universe was set up, that is participation is not mandatory. You can set your own comfort zone. So, let's say I wanted to use Venture in an issue of ShadowHawk, I call up Jay and Jamal, ask if it's okay, they can say yes or no and we're off and running. It's kind of the best of all worlds."
That's right: Valentino is bringing back his classic Image book, "ShadowHawk."
"I found as I was doing the 10th Anniversary story that I liked the character. There were stories I could tell with him and stories I wanted to tell with him. For example, the story I did for that book was actually based on a fight my eldest son and I got into last year. Now, Aaron and I are very close and this fight hurt both of us enormously. Eddie, the current ShadowHawk is very close to his father and examine their relationship (his dad knows he's ShadowHawk) is very appealing to me. Not that this is going to become 'A Touch of ShadowHawk' or anything," Valentio said, referring to his acclaimed "Touch of Silver" comic about the life of a comic book reader, "But there's a unique aspect to exploring that kind of relationship. Also, I've never done a kid a kid super-hero that's wa-hooing through it all. That seems like it would be fun to me.
"He's Eddie Collins a 17-year-old high school student. Smart, but not brainy, gets on good with the girls, not a geek. He shoots hoops after school with his friends, is into video games. He's a very normal kid. He has a close relationship with his widowed father with whom he recently moved to New York from the Midwest (mostly for his father's peace of mind, although dad hasn't realized that yet). And he's been able to tap into the costume and discover things about it that were fairly obvious the last time, but remained unexplored. This is a healthy kid, not someone dying, so he's more in tune with what the costume can do."
Look for the Savage Dragon to appear in this new Image Universe, despite the character now being in his own timeline, after the death of a pivotal figure in the history of the OLD Image Universe timeline. How this will happen, Valentino couldn't say.
"You'll have to ask Erik, he'll figure it out. If it were up to me we'd have someone vibrate on a stage into another dimension -- we could call it Earth-Two or something ..."
Other marquee characters that previously appeared in the old Image Universe, like Spawn and the original Top Cow characters, may or may not be showing up in this new universe.
"That would be solely up to them," Valentino said. "If they want to play, they are more than welcome to, if they don't, that's cool too."
And, with all such superhero universes, there will be the obligatory gathering of big superheroes into a single team.
"It will be some, but not all, of these characters," Valentino said, "Plus maybe one or two new ones and some surprises, I'm sure. We're thinking along the lines of a JLA/Avengers, rather than an FF/Doom Patrol."
Setting the groundwork for this new shared superhero universe was Jay Faerber's "Noble Causes." No stranger to DC or Marvel superhero books, Faerber sees the Image Universe as having something special that will set it apart in what can sometimes seem a fairly superhero-drenched market.
"I think what's going to set the line apart is that each individual creator is the driving force behind his book," Faerber told CBR News. "There is no 'upstairs' to answer to. Plus, these books won't be plagued by sudden shifts in direction or creative teams. Look at Marvel these days, when you can't seem to keep a creator on a book for more than four issues. Here, since each creator OWNS his own book (or co-owns, as is the case with me and penciller Jamal Igle on 'Venture'), you can be assured they'll be sticking with it for the long run.
"Image isn't going to tell me that I can't tell a particular story. The sky's the limit, here. Plus, we get to build a lot of our world from the ground up. At Marvel and DC, pretty much everything's been established already. You've got your various alien races, your S.T.A.R. Labs and your S.H.I.E.L.D.s, your Daily Planet and your Daily Bugle, etc. But it's all fresh territory for us -- and for the reader."
In addition to his "Kennedys with superpowers" book "Noble Causes," Faerber will be launching a new title as part of the new Image Universe.
"'Venture' is essentially a buddy book about two very different people. The man calling himself Joe Campbell is an ancient good Samaritan. He's been alive for centuries, and has been using his superhuman powers to help society wherever he can ... but always in secret. He sticks to the shadows, and to this day, no one even suspects he exists. About every decade or so, he uproots himself and travels to a new town, and sets up a new life. Currently, he's a high school history teacher in Los Angeles.
"Reggie Baxter is an enterprising young reporter who always seems to stumble across the fantastic, but can't ever prove it. He's like Chris Tucker, playing Kolchak the Night Stalker. Then one day he catches Joe on film, using his powers. Reggie wants to expose Joe, but Joe is obviously reluctant. So they reach a compromise. Joe will don a cape and tights, and act as a real-life super-hero, and Reggie will document his activities. 'Venture,' the book, is about the 'business venture' between these two characters, and what they teach each other along the way."
"Noble Causes" has been chugging along just fine independent of any larger universe until now, but Faerber sees a benefit to interweaving it with the new Image Universe.
"From the get-go, I've always alluded to the fact that the Noble family's universe is one rich with superheroes. While the Nobles may be the most famous, they're not the ONLY superheroes. Now, by allowing ourselves access to these new books, when I need superhero guest stars, I can use existing characters, not ones created specifically to appear alongside the Nobles. Plus, the Noble family can appear in other books as well, which only helps my book's visibility. For instance, I just got an e-mail today from Robert Kirkman who wanted reference on Zephyr, because he was having her drawn on a poster in Tech Jacket's bedroom. That kinda stuff is just cool."
And just as the Noble Family thus becomes the first new set of superheroes from the new Image Universe, look for "Noble Causes" to be the first place to meet more of the new superheroes.
"Because the new NC mini ('Noble Causes: Family Secrets') launches in October, we'll actually see some of these new characters in NC before we see the NC characters in their books. NC:FS #3 boasts cameos by a lot of Image characters -- from long-existing characters like Savage Dragon and ShadowHawk to newcomers like Venture and Invincible."
"Invincible" is Robert Kirkman's first steady gig in the mainstream, after a well-received history with his own indie book, "Battle Pope."
"'Invincible' is about mild mannered 17 year old Mark Grayson inheriting superpowers from his father, who is a mega-popular superhero," Kirkman told CBR News. "Mark has grown up knowing his dad can do these amazing things that he and his mother can't. It's accepted and normal in his house, so when he finds that he's getting powers, his initial response is 'it's about time.' I'm trying to play up the aspect that characters who've been around this stuff all their life wouldn't exactly crap their pants over this stuff. This is essentially a book about a guy who is a superhero, we see equal parts of his life, no one aspect overshadows the other. Some may describe this as being real world superheroes, but it's really superhero world superheroes, the way these characters interact is by no means normal or real ... they live in a world where strange and fantastic things happen, and as a result, these things seem normal to them. It's a book where the main character can sit down to eat dinner with his parents and when the question 'what happened with you today' comes up he can reply 'I think I'm starting to get superpowers ...' and the mom can say 'that's nice, pass the mashed potatoes.'
The brighter limelight of superhero comics as compared to his past work in indie comics is one that Kirkman welcomes, both the good and the bad.
"I'm definitely ready to work on books that people will actually SEE, yes. 'Battle Pope' is my pride and joy, I love doing it and plan to continue, but while each issue does a hair better than the last, 'SuperPatriot' #1 sold four times as much as Battle Pope and it technically didn't sell all that great. There's something a little disheartening about spending so much time on a book knowing that it will be seen by less than 3000 people. While it does make things more personal, I can respond to e-mails sent about the book, I can take fans out to dinner at cons, etc. I think working on mainstream work feels more worthwhile in many ways. Tony Moore and I fill 'Battle Pope' with little inconsistencies (nothing major) that we think are funny ... just hoping, PRAYING, that we'll get one of those irate 'why does Santa all of a sudden have an eye patch' fan letters. They never come ... either people are so enthralled in the book they don't sweat the details ... or they don't notice. Hopefully when SuperPatriot's mask is on backwards people will notice, and complain, that would make my day. It's definitely overwhelming, but in a good way. I like being busy."
Readers accustomed to the funny, even silly, nature of "Battle Pope" will have to change their expectations somewhat with Kirkman's Image superhero books.
"There's always going to be a hint of humor in every book I do. So far, 'Tech Jacket' (from Image Comics starting this November) is the only book I've written that has no humor in it. 'Invincible' won't be written to be funny, like 'Battle Pope' is, but there will be small bits of humor there. It is in no way a comedy book, it will be funny in the way that everyone's life has comedy, suspense, and drama in it. When things are funny it will be funny. It's definitely more serious than 'Battle Pope,' but that doesn't take much.
But most of all, don't expect to see "Battle Pope" sporting the Image i any time soon.
"Are you kidding? That's an indie book through and through. It wouldn't survive in the mainstream. Besides, if people knew what I did in that book I'd get crucified."
Coming from the opposite end of the comics spectrum is Jim Krueger, who is now best known for his collaborations with Alex Ross at Marvel Comics. His tale, "The Clock-Maker," is a very different work from the "Earth X" series of miniseries.
"'The Clock-Maker' is the sort of story you'd get if you crossed Noah's Ark with 'Rosemary's Baby' and had the entire thing written by Jules Verne," Krueger told CBR News, about a giant clock hidden inside a mountain that allegedly makes the universe go. "While this series will deal with unpowered individuals, ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, it is at heart a mystery and an adventure story."
In some lights, "The Clock-Maker" appears to be a chance for Krueger to escape the very long shadow of "Earth X." He doesn't see it that way, though.
"I don't think there's a shadow to escape. 'Earth X' has been a giant moment in my career. In many ways, I've gotten to do THE story behind all the stories of the Marvel Universe. To a very real degree, the hope will be that this is something that, if anything, will add to this reputation people seem to think I have of writing the big stories.
"I had actually developed this story before 'Earth X,' but in light of what I've learned working with Alex and simply just writing (which, of course, Stephen King calls the greatest teacher of all), I've re-written almost everything.
"The deaths that occur, for example in issues #7-9 are the worst death scenes I've ever written. They're dark, and my marriage still hasn't recovered from the day my wife read those scenes. This is all to say that I can't imagine having written those scenes before 'Earth X.'
"I guess I was wrong, there is a shadow. It's only made me darker."
And while "The Clock-Maker" won't have the eye-popping art of Alex Ross, it will have a very big "look at me" factor in the format it's presented in.
"I'll be introducing another new format with this series, (a format, which like my earlier letterbox 'Flyboys' format -- which went on to inspire the X-Men Marvel Vision annuals last summer -- and which I expect others will want to try as soon as they see it).
"This format, like MarvelVision, will still fit into peoples bags and boards, still fit on racks for retailers, and still do all the things that a normal comic should, it's just going to do a lot more than that, and the format, for all those who have seen it, is an artist's dream come true.
"It actually folds out into an art experience that is twice as large as a normal comic experience. A double page splash is like looking at four pages of art all at once. I wanted a feeling that would overwhelm and inspire. This is comics.
"And at a time when comics are becoming movies, I'm hoping to enlarge the screen.
"This new format will define the series as larger than life and fits well into the creative goals I have with all my work -- and that is to draw people into a world they've never been in before."
Making that world accessible is important to Eric Stephenson, Image's Director of Marketing.
"I think the most important aspect of these new titles is that they're actually starting at the beginning," Stephenson told CBR News."During the '90s, there were an awful lot of comics -- many of them from Image -- that started somewhere in the middle of the story and then invited readers to kind of follow along from there. There were also a lot of comics that attempted to imitate the rich history characters at Marvel and DC had developed over years and years of publication. I think that was a mistake. The best way to involve readers in something new is to present it as something new, not a decades-old story already in progress. With very few exceptions, readers are going to get in on the ground floor of these titles.
"As for how these titles will distinguish themselves within the current marketplace ... Well, I don't really think there's anything else out there like 'Firebreather' at the moment. Or 'Clock-Maker.' Or 'Venture.' And I think that goes for the entire line. These are all pretty distinct books and in a market where Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men all have numerous titles, I think it's important to do some comics that actually stand on their own."
Having a family of superhero comics at Image is also important to the company, Stephenson said.
"I think it means that we're actually following through on what was promised to fans when this company was first formed. There was all this talk of these characters existing within the same world, the same universe, but instead we got the Extreme Universe, the WildStorm Universe, and so on.
"In the long run, I think it's going to make doing a superhero comic at Image a lot more appealing. You're not just doing it on your own, y'know? There's the potential to interact with other characters, a sense of camaraderie among the creators."
Stephenson doesn't see the new Image Universe as a shift in the editorial focus or a "back to basics" approach for the company.
"From what I've read online, there seems to be some misconception that we're doing some kind of about-face and abandoning what people refer to as our 'indie' books in favor of superheroes. That's not true. We're still actively pursuing projects that fall well outside the superhero genre. We're launching a brilliant new crime miniseries called 'Hawaiian Dick' this December. Jim Mahfood's newest 'Grrl Scouts' miniseries is hitting the stands in February. Mark Ricketts -- the mild-mannered genius who gave us 'Nowheresville' -- is doing a wonderfully wacky book called 'Whiskey Dickel, International Cowgirl.' We've got a cool writer-driven anthology miniseries called 'Four-Letter Worlds' in the works, and that's just for starters.
"Our focus is still on cultivating as diverse a line of comics and graphic novels as possible, and bringing on new superhero books plays just as much a part in that as the other types of books we publish."
Those plans include a long-term future for this new universe.
"The plan is to build as we go. Everyone seems to be having a ball so far, and the potential is certainly there for others to join the fun. We're going to work slowly at first, though, and let things kind of grow organically. Other titles will be added to the mix as we move forward, but we're taking this a step at a time. Don't expect to see a constant wave of new titles.
"That said, I also know that Jim's very excited about the possibility of creating an Image super-team and providing he can nab the writer he wants for the book, I don't see why we won't see something like that by the end of 2003.
"I'm not really one for making predictions, but hopefully, the line is healthy and continuing to grow in a year's time. In terms of a specific number of titles and things like that, though -- I don't think we want to grow the line to the point where it becomes unwieldy or detracts from what we're doing with other types of books. Our goal isn't really to transform Image into a mini-Marvel or a mini-DC.
"This is something Jim and I have been talking about since I started with Image back in December. It was just something that struck me coming in -- Image wasn't doing very many superhero books. It was basically 'Savage Dragon,' 'Powers,' and 'Noble Causes.' And 'Powers' is really more of a crime book, so that leaves two. I asked Jim why there weren't more superhero books and he said that, for the most part, he wasn't getting many pitches for superheroes and when we started talking to people about it, we discovered that people thought Image didn't WANT new superhero books. From there, we just kind of put the word out and we discovered that there was a lot of interest in doing this."
The books will be monthlies, including some that will be series of miniseries, launching throughout the month of January 2003, but beyond that, the books are in the hands of the folks who came up with them in the first place, Stephenson said:
"The creators themselves. We handle the production here at Image Central, but we won't be calling, say, Keith Giffen and telling him to change thus and such a thing in 'Dominion' #3. We signed off on these creators' ideas because we had faith in them, not because we want to mold their ideas into something more suitable to our own tastes. I've dealt with too many creators who've worked with editors who thrive on playing the 'Guess what story's in my head' game and go out of their way to impose their sensibilities on the writer's work. It can play havoc with a book and more often than not, the writer winds up taking the heat for work that is only nominally his/her own. So apart from making sure production on the books runs smoothly, it's really in our best interest at this point to stay out of everyone's way and trust them to produce the story they sold us on."
CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this story.