Whether by plan or happenstance, it looks like 2012 is likely to turn into the year when Image Comics is more relevant to the comic industry than it's been since it was first founded 20 years ago. The publisher isn't just at the center of multiple conversations about the future of the industry as it stands today, it's on the "right side" of the argument in so many (if not all) of them.
Perhaps it's just my cynical and increasingly jaded eye, but so far it feels as if 2012 has been about two big issues in terms of the comics conversation: Creator Rights, and the Need For New Ideas Instead Of Rebooting Old Ones Or Pitting The Avengers Against The X-Men One More Time (Arguably, there are also conversations about double-shipping and the price of books, but I'm not sure the first has peaked, and the second feels like it is just a holdover from a conversation we were having last year, if that makes sense). For both of these "big issue" topics, Image has a silver bullet: Image lets creators own all rights for their books - even if that doesn't prevent conflict between the creators about rights ownership, as the Robert Kirkman/Tony Moore lawsuit over The Walking Dead demonstrates all too well - and launches all-new series with new concepts literally on a monthly basis, with the structure of the company's output easily emphasizing new ideas over legacy characters.
(You could also point to the recent, and surprisingly great, revival of the Extreme characters as a way to approach legacy characters as something other than exercises in nostalgia, if you were so inclined. Even though Prophet and Glory are more than a decade old, the approaches to each book are impressively free of a desire to reprise Greatest Hits or story lines past.)
I'm not sure whether or not this is Image coming back into the zeitgeist at the right time, proof of the cyclical nature of things, or something altogether different, but it's been fascinating to watch Image become very definitely enmeshed in the center of the big conversations about the future of mainstream American comics after too long, it feels, on the sidelines. This coincides with them coming back into the center of mainstream American comics with their output, too, with new series from Big Two big names like Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison this year alone, what feels like their most recognizable new creator signings in some time. These are the writers behind some of the biggest comics of recent years, and if they're not names immediately recognizable to the general public, their work is likely to be; if the mainstream success of The Walking Dead wasn't enough to get people paying attention to Image, hopefully the "size" of creators moving to the publisher will do it, instead.
At this rate, 2012 may end up being the year of Image - and, ideally, Image as gateway to all of the other independent publishers instead of Image-as-Image alone. It's taken a long time to come, and it'll be interesting to see what comes afterwards, if it happens.