NOTE: The following article contains adult language
Jim Lee had a "prior engagement" but Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld, were on hand (and only twenty minutes late) Saturday afternoon to their panel at Wizard World Chicago to give their first person perspective on breaking away from Marvel comics in the early '90s to form Image Comics, their own group of individual companies united under a single umbrella.
The panel began with a moment of silence in remembrance of former Image artist Michael Turner, who passed away the night before. But that was the last somber moment. The Image six were very active and enthusiastic about their current projects, but each projected a very different demeanor.
"Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane dominated the conversation, yelling at moderator Brian Cunningham of Wizard Magazine "If you're gonna moderate, do some moderating!" and got so excited on one occasion that he leapt on top of his chair. "Savage Dragon" creator Erik Larsen, who it was revealed in an exclusive CBR News interview has just stepped down as publisher of Image, was the most visibly animated and excited. Upcoming "Spawn" artist Whilce Portacio was given to cheerful reminiscing. Marc Silvestri was still visibly pleased after the box office success of the "Wanted" movie, which is based on a comic book published by his Top Cow studio. Jim Valentino, creator of "Shadowhawk" who has also served as Image publisher, would offer focused, thoughtful commentary. Rob Liefeld, "Youngblood" creator and the youngest member of the fold who McFarlane noted "Didn't have a hair on his ass" when his first superhero work was published at age 18, sat at the edge of the group, so absorbed in his sketching that he occasionally lost track of the conversation. When Liefeld did speak, he was funny, self-deprecating, and still a bit of a smart-ass.
The banter between the six panelists was fast and lively, punctuated by constant needling. When a fan asked a question about the genesis of Marc Silvestri's character the Darkness, McFarlane responded with "Cough, Spawn rip-off, cough," and even the absent Jim Lee was a constant target. Despite the reported bad blood between the creators, only one exchange evidenced hurt feelings. Jim Valentino said "[Everyone in the comics industry thought the Image Group] was gonna break up every five minutes. And it's not true." Liefeld replied, very quietly "Sort of." Later in the panel McFarlane said "We would have made a good superhero team. We each brought skills to the table" and the balance of different personality types did suggest a very effective, potentially complimentary team, which might have the potential to fight like cats in a sack.
One of the earliest questions dealt with the formation of Image Comics. Marc Silvestri described his induction to the fold "Prior to Image, this punk ass kid called Jim Lee was doing the X-Men." Said Silvestri, who had been removed from the book. "I found myself wondering what the hell I was gonna do, I was kind of mentally on my way out of comics at that point. These knuckleheads approached me in Chicago and threw this idea out that was called ... nothing. We didn't have a name yet. Todd was gonna call it 'Fuck the man.'" The audience laughed loudly and Silvestri continued describing McFarlane's pitch to get him to join the Image fold. "Maybe a couple sentences of the pitch out of his mouth and I said 'You're stupid. So am I. I'm in.'" Silvestri concluded, "I'm eternally grateful they had the guts, they had the vision."
Whilce Portacio also discussed the early days of Image, noting that Homage Studios, a branch of the larger Image group that included many of the founders, was based in the same building as the corporate offices. "Marc was there, I was there, Jim [Lee] was there, Scott Williams, couple other people... and every day we would go to work, nine, ten o' clock, eleven o' clock, in our flops, in our shorts, in our tank tops. And all these other people in the briefcases and the suits and stuff. It was funny. And then months later, we'd see them come in wearing shorts." At first the more traditional business-folk were suspicious of the Homage studio crew, but "Then Mark bought his Viper... And Jim bought his Acura. And we start filling the lot like that. And they hear the floor pounding cause Mark and Jim are playing ping-pong, and I'm shooting beebees. It was a really interesting scene to see the corporate world kind of follow after us."
McFarlane talked about competitiveness in the early days of Image "Jim Lee says 'Todd, let's go to the batting cages. Alright... I played Pac ten baseball.' Jim Lee says 'I'll go first.' Cause he's competitive, he's gonna show me up. I guess.
"I've never seen a guy with such slow reactions. Hoo! It hits the back [of the cage.] You get twelve and he missed. He could not touch one pitch. What bugged the crap out of him was that Marc's beautiful date, in her high heels got in there 'What are you supposed to do?' And she hit 6.
"Back at my house, Jim, trying not to look exhausted laying there, on the couch. I walk up to him and I grab his hand and I put it right there. (McFarlane stands on a chair and points to his crotch.) Jim said 'Todd, what are you doing?'
"'It's the first time you touched two balls all day long.'"
Most of the creators lamented the number of late-shipping comics produced in the early days of Image. McFarlane also talked about the additional distractions caused by suddenly being in charge of your own company, including offers for merchandising. "It was a distraction. When people came knocking on the door, asking you if you wanted to license your characters for toys or pillows..."
Erik Larsen interrupted, sarcastically "Pillows? Yeah, those were some great pillows. I didn't get the pillow call."
McFarlane: "A distraction none the less."
Larsen: "We're gonna do pillows. They'll have spikes on 'em."
When asked about "vices" in the early years of Image, Liefeld responded "You talking about the cocaine parties at Todd's house?"
Still Liefeld reveals that he did once get a whole grocery bag full of marijuana as a "Christmas Bonus." "I re-gifted it down the hill to my whole coloring department... You should have seen them. 'Hey guys! Merry Christmas!'"
After the initial Q & A with Brian Cunningham, many of the questions dealt with Image properties in other media.
One fan asked, "I heard a rumor they were looking at the Rock to play Savage Dragon."
Larsen replied, "I hadn't heard that one."
Marc Silvestri talked briefly about the upcoming "Witchblade" movie: "'Witchblade' will be coming out as a feature film. I talked to the director. I'm not at liberty to say anything... But I'll tell you guys about it. What I'm hoping to do with 'Witchblade' is bring back the female lead after 'Catwoman.'"
And, when asked about his favorite of the recent superhero movies, he answers "Wanted!" Come on!" After enduring taunts about his "Hollywood" style sunglasses for the length of the panel.
Rob Liefeld spoke about his own upcoming movie project. "'Youngblood' has a director, and it has writers. It's a movie I've had a specific vision for in 12-15 years. And since the day 'Iron Man' opened, everything has moved at lightning speed. Nobody knew who 'Iron Man' was. I was behind two business guys in the latrine 'Hey see that movie 'Iron Man?' I think it was a comic. Does that sound right?' And now the biggest thing in the universe is 'Iron Man,' after that summer afternoon. So that's helping tremendously."
Back to comics, one fan asked about a possible crossover between Marc Silvestri's "The Darkness" and McFarlane's "Spawn."
McFarlane: "I dunno. Marc?"
Liefeld: "Let's negotiate it right now!"
McFarlane: "There's nothing holding us back. Do you guys want to see it?"
The audience applauds.
McFarlane: "My guy's darker than his guy."
Silvestri: "Thank you for what you do, sir."
Another attendee query concerned the origins of Silvestri's company Top Cow. "The name? That's just the booze talking."
This was followed by a question about recruiting new talent. McFarlane bemoaned the recent trend towards Marvel and DC's exclusive contracts "It's getting harder," said McFarlane, "With Marvel and DC locking people down."
Jim Valentino was more positive. "One of the things we have are young guys who read Image when they were kids." He points out a current Image Comic writer in the front row "And some of them, like young Robert Kirkman here made a great success.
"And that actually inspires us, that there's a guy like that. Some of these young guys are just popping out of the woodwork. 'I want to be part of this Image conversation.'"
Looking to the future, Marc Silvestri gave advice to aspiring creators, pointing out that storytelling is the most important skill for an artist to have, and adding "If you wanna show us samples at conventions, that's how I got my job. And bring five to six pages of continuity work. Don't give us pin-ups. It needs to tell a story."
Advice for aspiring writers was more brutal. "Hire an artist."
As the panel wound down, a fan thanked the artists for coming out to Chicago. McFarlane said, "I'll be politically correct! Go CubsSox!" which elicited clashing cries of "Cubs!" and "Sox!" from the fans.
Coming full circle, one fan asked about the founder's varying attitudes to returning to work with Marvel and DC. Marc Silvestri explained that his crossovers with Marvel and DC have increased the visibility of his own characters, and added, "There are some times that I do geek out with the possibility of working with Grant Morrison, and as Todd mentioned earlier, you can't touch 'em. And if I can't have him at Image or Top Cow, I have to go over there."
Jim Valentino said, "I haven't done a whole lot of comics in the last few years. I just agreed to do an alternate cover for the 'Guardians of the Galaxy.' The new ones. But mostly I don't have a whole lot of interest in doing superhero comics."
McFarlane gave the most strongly worded reply, "I am the president of Image comic books. That's my company. I do not work for competitors. In some states, doing what my partners have done would be illegal."
Still, at least Rob Liefeld looked back at the early days with fondness. "Everybody was doing the same thing, the whole industry was doing the same thing. Everyone but Image. And it was a great time."
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