When Image Comics was founded in 1992, one of the more active and vocal people involved was artist Rob Liefeld.
Twenty years later, and not much has changed.Liefeld is still has active in the comic industry as ever. In May, his name is attached to three titles at DC, and he's involved with even more comics through the revival of his Extreme Studios.
But despite all the recent activity from the writer/artist, Liefeld still counts the formation of Image as the most important move of his career. And there are a lot of fans that would agree.
Upon the 20th Anniversary of Image's formation, Newsarama is looking at the legacy of that event in 1992 when seven artists decided to start Image Comics. We're talking to the people who were involved, discussing the issues that prompted the move, and exploring what has happened in creator ownership in the 20 years since the event.
As most comic book fans remember well, the comic book community was shocked in 1992 when Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Jim Lee left Marvel to give creator-owned projects a new foothold in the industry.
In the third installment of our series, we talk to Liefeld about what happened 20 years ago, whether it affected creator rights, and why there will never be another Image Comics.
Newsarama: Rob, let's start by looking back at the atmosphere before you guys left Marvel. What was the biggest motivator for the move to leave the Marvel/DC system and start Image Comics?
Rob Liefeld: My motivation in leaving Marvel in 1992 was for me to take the next step in my development as a creator and own my creations and determine their fate. After selling millions of New Mutants and X-Force comics, my career had nowhere to go but downhill if I remained at Marvel. And I was only 23 years old. I had given them my best stories, art and creations and it was a mutually beneficial relationship for both parties.I had fulfilled my end of my work for hire agreement, now it was time to take my creative energies and focus them in a direction where I had greater creative direction. For me it was about the right place, right time, right opportunity. I was fortunate that I had a peer group that felt the same way, a group that worked together to create a creative jolt that is still felt today.
Nrama: Is that still the motivation for Image's existence, or has the mission changed?
Liefeld: Absolutely it is still the same motivation.
Due to the distribution terms and conditions that were established 15 years ago in the wake of Capital Distribution's demise, Image will not and cannot be duplicated again, but the label we created exists to be maximized again for another group or individual looking to take that next step.
Nrama: For the comic industry in general, what do you think is the legacy of the creation of Image Comics?
Liefeld: The legacy of Image is a powerhouse option to the big 2 publishers for creators that wish to expand their brand of creativity.
Nrama: Well, that's pretty simple. Bringing it back to you, what has it meant to your career?
Liefeld: Everything. It was the single most important move I made in my career.
Nrama: You mentioned earlier the importance of "Capital Distribution's demise" as an explanation for the continued uniqueness of Image Comics. Can you explain why?
Liefeld: When Capital went out of business, they were the number two distribution arm of comics. In securing the big publishers like Image, certain distribution benefits were awarded that aren't available to say, the next creator start up company. That's not an opinion, that's a fact. The business has changed and those platforms are no longer available. It means that the next Image should run through Image, because those terms are the best available.
Nrama: OK, so your motivation was that you were ready to move on. But did you recognize the limitations in creative freedom at the big companies? When we spoke to Todd McFarlane, he said that before 1992, it was rare at Marvel and DC for the creators to be involved in driving the direction of their comics. That decisions were made without them. Is that true? And is it different now?
Liefeld: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. My case was always different in that I was guiding the direction of a fleet of brand new characters, while Todd was working with the most important icon at the company. No one had heard of Cable, Deadpool, Shatterstar, Domino, Feral, Kane — those had all dropped out of my head and I was able to run with tremendous freedom. Todd had Spider-Man, which I'm sure came with more baggage.
Bottom line, we both landed at the same place travelling different roads, and my goal with Image was to own my next characters. I already had experienced a ton of creative freedom and it felt good, so now I wanted more participation.
Nrama: But Rob, do you think there's there been progress in creative freedom at the big companies since then? And more specifically, was the change the result of what the seven of you did in 1992?
Liefeld: One hundred percent, especially at Marvel. Primarily at Marvel. They had to start giving more generous deals to their creative types. Much better compensation for those Marvel guys. I didn't come from DC so I can't say one way or the other.
Nrama: What was it about the creation of Image Comics that influenced creator rights in the comic industry?
Liefeld: It was the highest profile creator owned movement in the history of comics.
Nrama: What do you think of the status now of comic creator rights?
Liefeld: It's the same as it’s always been. Create and own it yourself, or create and share it with others, whether that's another creator or a corporation.
Nrama: It really comes down to those two options?
Liefeld: The options remain the same as always.
Nrama: We've seen a lot of attention on the fact that Alan Moore thinks his contract "swindled" him out of creative control. Do you think Alan Moore's experience, such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta would have been different if he'd created them after 1992, maybe with Image?
Liefeld: I'm not familiar with his actual contract on Watchmen. I've never seen it or read it. I am, however, familiar with his 1996 work for hire contracts that he signed for Supreme, Youngblood, Glory and Warchild. Alan did a whole lot of work for hire, perhaps more than creator owned, and that's for him to address. He could have created another Watchmen or more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work for Image circa 1992 but he chose not to. The work he did for me was brilliant. I'm glad we were able to work together for so long.
Nrama: Another creative ownership dispute that's been making headlines is the Gary Friedrich controversy, over his rights to sell Ghost Rider merchandise at conventions. Do you think that speaks to the problem with work-for-hire and what happens when the characters you create are owned by someone else?
Liefeld: I am completely sympathetic to Gary's plight, I hate the predicament that he is in. You never want to see a creator suffer. Again, I'm not familiar with his arrangement with Marvel over Ghost Rider. Things were much fuzzier in that era.
I knew exactly what I was signing when I created Cable, Deadpool, Shatterstar, Stryfe, Domino, X-Force, etc. I knew the level of participation that I had and have and also the fact that I do not own those characters. My success in filling New Mutants with new characters fueled the creation of Image. Those events will always be connected to me.
Read and understand what you are signing is the best advice I can offer.
Nrama: I know there were efforts in the late '80s and early '90s to create a union for comic book artists and writers. Do you think there could ever be a comic creators union, similar to the writer's union in the movie/TV industry?
Liefeld: No, I don't hold out a lot of hope. The best opportunity was back then and it had a slim chance of succeeding even back then. Too many holdouts. In this age of the "character" dominating the public consciousness, where creators have far less confidence now than they did back then, I can't see it happening.
Nrama: Let's go back a minute and talk about how Image even came together in the first place. How did the seven of you get together, and how did you personally end up joining the move?
Liefeld: Well I didn't join the move, I started it. It was myself, Erik Larsen, and Jim Valentino that had originally pacted together to create an independent label. Todd was aware of everything from the beginning; he knew that we were preparing and he decided to step into the process very early, and that added much more fuel to the fire.
By the time that Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri and Whilce jumped on board, it had become a monster.
I grew impatient and launched the label with Youngblood solicits with Malibu comics and I was the guinea pig, the test subject. When my initial sales of Youngblood came in at around half a million, it proved that what we were doing could succeed.
Remember that I was the youngest by far of the group. I had no wife, no kids, no mortgage. Todd had just had his first child a few months prior, Valentino had, like, five kids, Jim Lee and his wife were expecting, Erik I think was married already. The rest of the group had real world issues that I couldn't relate to at the time.
I was just a young, hyperactive creator looking to maximize my opportunities. I definitely saw a limited window and wanted to jump. The 30-something Rob — and definitely the 40-something Rob — would have told 20-something Rob to pump the breaks.
So with that in mind, the rest of the group seeing that my sales were out of this world gave them confirmation that they could match or exceed. And we were a cocky bunch — believe me, they all thought, I can exceed that number. So it all worked out really well. It was fated that I would unite the "Force."
Nrama: It sounds like, from your description of how Youngblood helped "seal the deal" with the seven of you, there was no question you were leaving Marvel when you walked into their office and resigned. On that day, was there no possibility they could have kept you if they'd met some demands?
Liefeld: None. As I stated earlier, I had nowhere to go but down at Marvel. They were on to the next launch and seeing if acetate covers could create a million dollar seller.
Let me re-emphasize that only Jim Lee, Todd Mcfarlane and Liefeld have achieved million selling comics for Marvel. We did it by providing a great experience for our fans and giving them a new flavor of comic book punch.
The prevailing notion at the time was that it was all marketing, and it could be easily manipulated and replicated. That did not happen again. Certainly, marketing was an issue, but we had the proven raw materials to start an inferno.Case in point, New Mutants #100: It was the final issue of a series that was on life support 18 months earlier. We had zero gimmicks, no cover enhancement and no variants, just one comic, one cover. It went out at a ridiculous number, something like 600,000 copies. It sold out and received an additional 3 printings. Gold, silver, bronze editions that numbered over 1 million copies. The excitement was from the new team and fresh ideas we were building inside the book, in the context of the story. Not from a glow-in-the-dark cover.
The fact is that Jim, Todd and myself repeated the million sales with Image, and Marvel still has not. In the era of their huge movie success, that feat becomes even more impressive.
We had the creative juice and the window was open, and let me tell you and some younger talents out there that when the window is open, it does not stay open for long. It is a brief opening and when it's there, take it. I've watched at least a dozen talents completely squander their opening over the past 10 years. They were either too scared or lulled into false security in order to take that next creative jump. Yes, there is always risk but you've got to take it when it's open. Staying at Marvel in 1992 was not an option. I had to go build the next phase of my career.
Nrama: Todd indicated you guys also visited DC's office. Was there also no chance they could snare you with the right kind of contract?
Liefeld: I never visited DC's offices. Maybe that was a trip that I wasn't invited to. Who knows? Sounds like a great story. We were talking to DC at the time, about DC projects with their characters, but it was very brief.
Nrama: After 20 years, what was your experience like when it happened? What do you remember of that experience? And now that you've had 20 years to reflect on it — what sticks out?
Liefeld: It was the most excitement that I've ever experienced in comics. The coming together of Image created a storm that has never been duplicated. We achieved an excitement that everyone in the industry remembers. Fans especially. We were the fans' comic company. They supported our careers, they created our success and they pushed us to the top.
It was tremendous. My first store signing for Image comics at Golden Apple had over a thousand people wrapped around the building and stretched into the neighborhood behind the store. It went for 6 hours, it was a crazy coming out party. Image changed everything.
The excitement is what sticks out to me, the energy from everyone involved at all levels of the community. It was a really special time in comics.
Nrama: What was the reaction at the time from the comic industry in general?
Liefeld: Well, Image was the shot heard round the world in such that it changed everything in the industry. Seven guys making seven comics became the No. 2 comic company in the month of August 1992. There was disbelief (on our part), panic (at every other publisher), and excitement from fans and retailers.
We never expected the level of success Image achieved. Not even close. But boy, was that a great ride to be a part of.
Nrama: What do you hope to see over the next 20 years -- from both Image and in terms of creators rights?
Liefeld: I want to see more exciting comics rather than these cookie-cutter comics. No more been there, done that, same old playbook stuff. Just good comic books — and if they happen to be creator owned, that's fantastic. I love comic books, period. I don't love Scott Snyder's Court of Owls any less just because it's from DC and I imagine I'd love SAGA from Brian K. Vaughan's under any circumstance. I just want good comic books.When creators are given free reign — like Snyder, like Vaughan — it's better for every aspect of our business. When comics are produced by committee, they generally suck.
Nrama: Then to finish up, Rob, is there anything else you want to say about the 20th anniversary of Image Comics?
Liefeld: I'm just very proud of how it has all turned out. It's a great achievement for everyone that was there back in 1992.
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