Robert Kirkman Reveals The Story of "Image United"

The story behind "Image United" isn't terribly secretive - Image Comics founders Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino join forces by drawing their own characters throughout the six issue series - but the actual plot of "Image United," written by "Invincible" and "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman, has been kept mostly under wraps... until now.

In an exclusive interview with CBR News, Kirkman delves into detail on "Image United's" plotline, the title's various new and old characters, and his own personal goals in crafting the story for Image's major crossover event.

CBR News: Robert, the plot for "Image United" has been shrouded in mystery up until now. What can you tell us about it?

Robert Kirkman: One of the cool things about "Image United" that I like a lot is that Image as a whole has always been about new creations and new characters, so one of the things we're doing with "Image United" is introducing new characters - and Fortress is actually going to be the primary focus of the series. He's a new character created by Whilce Portacio, and he's a regular guy that's found this mysterious power suit that he has become trapped in and has no idea what his powers are or how to get out of the suit. In the "Image United" prelude that's running in the back of "Savage Dragon" #153, "Witchblade" #131, "Invincible" #67 and "Spawn" #195, we get to know Fortress a little bit. We see him testing the suit out and trying to figure out his powers and everything.

But the main crux of the "Image United" series is that Fortress starts seeing these visions of an apocalyptic future with all these heroes banding together and getting defeated by an unknown force. He doesn't know what's coming or exactly what's happening or how things are going to go down - he just knows that bad things are on the horizon. He takes it upon himself to go out and gather as many heroes as he can to try and prevent this from happening. That's our main plot.

At the exact same time that he starts trying to gather heroes, the villains of the Image universe kind of go insane and start tearing the world apart. The Image heroes are dispatched all over the place to try and deal with these outcroppings of villainy that are causing all kinds of destruction. It's a big mess, and the heroes don't know that everything is connected.

How do the rest of the heroes react to Fortress' warnings about the impending apocalypse?

They think he's crazy. He doesn't even know how to use his power suit, so he's running around wrecking stuff on accident. At the same time, he doesn't know what to do with the information he has. He's getting all of these weird visions and glimpses into the future and basically running around saying, "Help! I've got this information and I have no idea what to do with it! Will you please help me?" Because he doesn't know how to use his power suit on top of that, he ends up seemingly attacking people. The heroes are pretty much like, "Who is this crazy guy?" He'll probably seem a little less crazy as things go to hell.

Aside from Fortress, who are some of the other new characters we'll see in "Image United?"

Barricade is really the only one I can mention right now. The rest will have to be surprises. But Barricade is a new Cyberforce character that Marc Silvestri is introducing here. He shows up in the first issue and then we learn a bit about him as the series progresses. He's a cool Cyberforce guy.

Really, the Image founders are a very creative bunch that are creating new guys all of the time. I urged them to introduce as many new things in this story as possible, just because I think it's a cool opportunity to bring new creations into the industry. If we can get a couple of popular characters that'll spin off into their own series out of this, then all the better. We didn't just want to do a standard crossover kind of thing - we wanted to put as much Image flavor in it as possible by doing new stuff with it.

Can you run down some of the villains that are running amok in the story? Are they mostly familiar faces, or will there be some new bad guys as well?

For the most part, it's a lot of recurring villains that people may or may not remember from the Image universe. There are a lot of "Cyberforce" and "Youngblood" villains, a lot of "Savage Dragon" and "Spawn" villains, Shadowhawk's villains. Guys like Overtkill and Mako from "Savage Dragon," Splitzkrieg from "Cyberforce." They're going to be running around doing all kinds of stuff. Chapel will have a fairly substantial role in the series as we progress, too. And our main villain - the mystery villain, who will be revealed in issue #1 - is kind of a big deal. Once people find out who that is, they'll be pretty excited. It'll definitely be someone they recognize. [Pauses] Okay, it's Spider-Man.

It's been a while since we've seen all of these characters in the Image universe interacting with one another on such a large scale. What are their interpersonal dynamics like in the series?

They all interacted before back in the '90s when their series were running at the same time, so there's already set continuity where we know how certain characters behave around other characters. We know that Savage Dragon thinks that Youngblood are glory hounds, we know that most people don't really know a lot about Spawn because he sticks to himself. We have different interactions set up and we're following that continuity.

For fans of that stuff, it'll be cool to see those characters interacting again. Back in the day, it wasn't like "Image United," where everybody was drawing their own characters, so it's a little bit different. And I'm trying to keep everything accessible for readers that aren't completely familiar with all that stuff back in the day.

In terms of continuity, does "Image United" reflect the current status quo for these characters? For example, is Al Simmons still Spawn in "Image United," or is it Jim Downing as in the current books?

We're reflecting current continuity, so Spawn is Jim Downing and Witchblade will be reflective of the current "Witchblade" series. If you look at Cyberforce in "Image United," they reflect how Cyberforce looks in Top Cow's "Cyberforce/Hunter-Killer" miniseries. It's the new Shadowhawk costume that we last saw Shadowhawk in. Everything will all line up with the way that the books are now.

Going into "Image United," what were some of your personal goals from a storytelling standpoint?

I'm of the mind that the things that artists want to draw are the things that fans of those artists want to see. To a certain extent, I knew going in that I wasn't going to be writing a series that involved a lot of people drinking tea. [Laughs] Crossovers are hard because of all the moving parts and different characters and pulling all of that into a cohesive story. People don't necessarily want to read a story about 9,000 people slamming into 9,000 other people and there not being any kind of resolution to that.

I also didn't want the story to be about a bad guy coming along trying to do bad stuff, and the heroes get together and stop him, and that's the end. If you sit back and look at a lot of these big crossovers, that's what it ends up being - they beat the bad guy at the end of the book, and there you go. So I wanted to make as many twists and turns as possible along the way.

At the same time, it's a unique art process, too. I had to be mindful of that as I was writing the scripts - I tried not to block anything I was going to do or hinder the story in any way, but I tried to be wary of how many people are doing what on every page, how often characters are appearing, and trying to keep everything even without putting too much weight on anyone's shoulders.

But really, I just wanted to do a kick-ass action fight comic that also had heart, character depth and lasting ramifications. That's what people want to see in comics. They want to think of something as leading into something else. I think we've got a lot of cool moments in the series, and when it's all said and done, people should be pretty pleased with it. It should appeal to everyone that loved this stuff back in the '90s and everybody who loves my stuff now. It should be a fun extravaganza for everybody.

Most of these characters are not your creations, so what did you do to find their voices and sort of make them your own?

These are characters that I've been reading since their very inception, so I'm fairly familiar with all of the backstory and mannerisms and personalities, all that stuff. People who aren't familiar with the material will be surprised at how much depth these characters have. For me to step in and write a book like "Image United" isn't difficult at all for me because I know that Shaft struggles from an eating disorder, and I know that Savage Dragon is kind of a jerk at times. I'm aware of the different things going on with these characters.

I won't say it's like they're my own characters, but I tried to treat them like that. I know all of the creators of these characters, so it was pretty easy for me to just write them as if I owned and controlled them, then trust the creators to reign me in if I did anything that they didn't want me to do. I wrote the series with the mentality of: "If it's cool, I'll do it. If I have something that'll be neat, I'll do it. Once the scripts are turned in and if they don't like it, they can let me know." So boundaries are pushed and we do a lot of cool things with the characters.

Did you feel tempted at all to bring in any of your own creator-owned characters into "Image United"? What were some of the reasons to bring them in, and what were some of the reasons to leave them out?

It's been requested of me. All the guys working on "Image United" are saying, "Oh, you've got to get Invincible in there!" A lot of the fans say, "Oh, Invincible is going to show up!" I've been hesitant because it feels like I'd be shoehorning myself into history. I view this as a celebration of the early Image days and showing how great these characters are, how cool they are, and all these cool things you can do with them. I don't want to sit there with my guy going, "Hey! My guy's cool, too!" Maybe I'm foolish. Maybe it'd be cool to see Invincible in there interacting with these characters. Who knows?

As objectively as you can get, what do you think the fans will dig about "Image United?"

I think it's a very cool book. It moves and it has everything that the fans of this material will want, and then some. Just thinking about myself, because I'm a fan of this material, it has everything that I'd want out of a series like this. It's got all of the greatest heroes of the Image universe versus the greatest villains they've ever faced, and it's a no-holds-barred knockdown drag-out extravaganza, but still has a lot of depth. I think people will be pleasantly surprised. And the artists dig it - there's a lot of guys busting through walls!

But if you really like Youngblood, they get a moment to shine. If you really like Shadowhawk, Shadowhawk gets a moment to shine. Spawn is there, Dragon's there - there are a lot of things for people to like in this series. If you haven't read these Image comics in a while, it's a good time to pop back in and see what these characters have been up to. I've done my best to ensure that this story shows the best sides of all these characters, so it should be pretty cool.

And the art is absolutely fantastic - these guys are at the top of their game. Seeing them interact in this way is extremely unique. The way the pages come together when you finally see them all finished is just stunning. It's cool stuff.

"Image United" #1 by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino hits comic book stores everywhere on November 25, 2009.

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