One of the main motivations behind this past weekend’s Image Expo was to celebrate the company’s two decades of existence. Six of the men who started it all — Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, While Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino — plus current partner Robert Kirkman got together Saturday afternoon for the “Twenty Years of Independence: The Image Comics 20th Anniversary Panel.”Image co-founder Liefeld, who is currently overseeing the relaunch of several of his Extreme Studios titles at the publisher, said strength in numbers was a huge factor in getting the venture off the ground.
“We're a collective, and the reason Image worked is because it was a collective,” he said.
Even though fellow co-founder and current DC co-publisher Jim Lee — who departed Image in 1998 after selling his WildStorm imprint to DC Comics — wasn’t in attendance, he figured into much of the dialogue among the panel. McFarlane called Lee the "prototypical face" of Marvel previous to Image's inception.
“I knew if we could get Jim Lee, he would be the lynchpin,” McFarlane said, stating that Liefeld, Larsen and himself had reputations at Marvel at the time for being “bad boys.” “If we could get the golden boy — and it's true, I'm not saying that in a bad way, I'm saying that in a positive way — if we could get him, it would send the message, ‘Wow, anybody can leave.’’
Much of the discussion centered on the creative freedom enjoyed at Image by the founders and many subsequent creators in the past 20 years.“Marvel Comics never in a million years would have published Savage Dragon,” said Top Cow CEO Marc Silvestri of his fellow Image founder Erik Larsen’s long-running series. “They're not going to give anyone that kind of power.” Larsen echoed Silvestri’s sentiment, sharing an anecdote of a DC editor telling Keith Giffen “I don’t think Lobo would do that” — despite the fact that Giffen created the character.
McFarlane, Liefeld, Larsen, Silvestri, Portacio and Valentino were major names in the world of work-for-hire comics when they left the big publisher to form Image in 1992. Though Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead and Invincible, wasn’t working in comic books at the time, he credited the venue they gave to creator-owned comics as an inspiration.
“This is kind of a big deal for me, because I was 13 or 14 when all this stuff started,” said Kirkman. “I wouldn't be doing that if it wasn't for these guys here. My kids are getting fat because of you guys.”
Liefeld said Kirkman was effectively the founders' collective "kid," and McFarlane applauded Kirkman’s “ballsy move” of leaving Marvel in 2008 to focus solely on creator-owned work.“If you continue to do Flash, and Superman, and X-Men, and Captain America, and your independent book, you are giving them five options,” McFarlane told the Oakland crowd. “If I was a kid collecting, I would buy the characters that I know. Kirkman figured it out. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
The founders also shared their memories on the risk involved in the initial move. Though Marvel had just launched a new Spider-Man title to showcase McFarlane’s work, and did something similar with the X-Men for Jim Lee, Silvestri said it wasn’t quite as dangerous a move as one might think.
"Months and months in, we were still getting phone calls [to come back]," said Silvestri, who stated that Image's founding had a "ripple effect on all of entertainment." "It was always our choice to say no."
“We hadn't built an infrastructure yet, so we hired Malibu Comics as our infrastructure,” Valentino said of the long-defunct company that originally served as publisher-of-record for Image. “Image was never an imprint of Malibu, Malibu worked for us.”
McFarlane made the connection between that kind of attitude and what he sees as a reluctance on the part of potential creators who don’t want to make the initial financial investment it takes to self-publish a comic book.“My biggest disappointment has been running into creative people who allow 90 days of eating macaroni and cheese dictate the rest of their natural life,” he said. “For 90 days, you should be able to tap into your mom, your dad, your credit card, your neighbor or friends, somehow beg, borrow or steal whatever nominal amount of money you need to survive, before you shut it down because you didn't have a thousand bucks in your pocket.
“They're going to let a thousand bucks stop them from potentially making a million."McFarlane also gave credit to the current generation of Image creators for continuing the legacy of the founders. “Today, Spawn could go away, and Image Comics would be very fine, thank you,” he said. “We could all get hit by a bus, and Image is going to survive regardless. We've now created enough offspring that are carrying the flag for us that it's going to work.” Kirkman expressed his thoughts that in the current climate of the comic book industry, Image is more viable and relevant than ever. "Things are actually getting worse for creators, from everything that I hear," Kirkman sai. "I kind of giggle when I think about it. I think 2012 is going to be a huge year for us. We're still offering the same deal that these guys constructed 20 years ago, and it's still a deal where Image doesn't take any of your rights, and doesn't tell you what to do at all."
And as for the latest update on Image United?
“I've seen a ton of pages for #4 and #5,” Kirkman said. “Everybody is hard at work at it, and it will eventually wrap up. It's just a matter of getting it all done.”
“When they pitched it to me,” McFarlane added, “I said, ‘It’s going to be f*cked.’”Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!