The more I think about it, the more strange Image Comics' position in the modern comic book industry seems. Think about it: It's currently the place where up-and-coming creators publish their own creations, looking to make a name for themselves and catch the attention of the Big Two publishers, and yet it's also the place where established creators publish their own creations, having made a name for themselves by working on familiar brand names and characters at the Big Two publishers. Doesn't that seem odd to anyone else?
The odd thing, perhaps, is that the Big Two publishers are part of the equation at all. If Image is both your launching pad and your escape pod, then why take the detour to Marvel or DC in the first place? I'm asking somewhat sarcastically, because I know that the answer is "because we want to," as well as "because there are readers out there who pay attention to the Big Two in a way that they don't pay attention to other things, and it's a way to catch the attention of an entirely different readership that isn't available anywhere else." And yet… I don't know; I'm feeling more and more exhausted by the churn that Marvel and (especially, lately) DC seems to have for creators, as well as the disrespect and hoops to be jumped through. A friend and I were talking about rumors about internal politics at both companies recently, and the question "Why would you want to subject yourself to all of that?" came up.
Of course, it's not really about Image, at all; it's about what Image represents, this ideal of creative freedom and creator-owned material, where what happens is what those people responsible for writing and drawing each story get to say what happens. That's a reduction, of course -- consider the Extreme line at Image, for example; that's work-for-hire, same as Marvel or DC when it comes down to it 00 but as with so many things in comics, nuance is for the weak. What we remember are the big ideas behind things, the splash pages and the fights. Corporation Vs. Creator! U Decide!
If you look at owning your own work, and being in charge of your own creative destiny, as the goal of being a comic creator, then something like Image -- and the other companies where creator-owned is the norm, the Onis, Fantagraphics, Top Shelfs of the world, too -- seems like the ultimate destination, surely? And with digital acting as game changer in much the same way that we used to expect graphic novels and bookstores to act, then isn't that underlined even more? It's worth noting that Marvel isn't anything close to a major player in the bookstore market going by BookScan numbers, after all, and comiXology's "top selling" list regularly sees Saga or The Walking Dead outsell the top books from either Marvel or DC. There is another audience out there that hasn't been raised by the Direct Market or taught to believe that Marvel or DC is where everybody's ambition and attention is supposed to be, and the more access they're granted to buying comics in multiple formats and multiple locations, the more they're growing.
Maybe one day, Marvel and DC will be viewed by more as detours, instead of destinations; maybe one day, we won't really think about publishers that much at all.