When Image Comics was founded in 1992, a lot of people wondered how long it would last. Six months? A year?
After all, it was put together by seven artists — most of whom didn't have a lick of business experience. And their business seemed to be based on an idea of artistic freedom, which had experienced limited success in comics before that.
But this year, Image Comics is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the last couple weeks, Newsarama has been looking at the legacy of that event by talking to the people who were involved and discussing the issues that prompted the move.
Today, we check in with two of the founders of Image, Erik Larsen and Whilce Portacio. The pair launched Image in 1992 — along with Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Todd McFarlane and Jim Valentino — while advocating self-ownership of characters and concepts.
Portacio was among the seven who started Image, but he chose not to become a partner in the company. But the artist told Newsarama that he still found opportunities at Image that gave him the freedom to explore his own career path, allowing him to find his "voice."
Larsen, however, was active enough in Image's management that he ended up serving as the company's publisher for four years beginning in 2004. The creator also continues to write and draw the comic he launched at Image in 1992, Savage Dragon, which has become the longest run by a single creator on a title.
In the fourth installment of our series on the 20th anniversary of Image Comics, we talk to Larsen and Portacio about what happened 20 years ago, whether it affected creator rights, and what they hope the future holds.
Newsarama: What do you think was the biggest motivator for the move to leave the Marvel/DC system and start Image Comics?
Erik Larsen: Creative control. When you create characters at Marvel or DC they own them and, ultimately, they control them. As fun as it was to work on Spider-Man, Spider-Man was never going to be mine. And if I wanted him to get married, divorced, widowed or killed there was a company sitting there dictating what I could and couldn't do. Others at Image had differing secondary motivations, but that was the primary one.
Whilce Portacio: Artistic freedom was the one major motivator for me — the chance to be able to take all my experience so far and to apply it, as I saw best, was nirvana. It also was taking a chance that my vision might not translate to an audience, though even in that case, the satisfaction of doing comics my way and putting it out there alone would have been personally worth it for me.
Nrama: Is that still the motivation for Image's existence, or has the mission changed? How?
Larsen: It hasn't changed for me. But added to that, it's to provide a place where others can do what we do — to own and control the characters they create without outside interference.
Portacio: Like all businesses, it has to do what it needs to survive. But at its core, it still represents a haven to do comics to your best abilities. There must always be a place to push boundaries of all kinds in a creative business like ours.
Nrama: What was your personal motivation, at the time, for joining the move?
Larsen: I had characters that I had created as a kid, and I wanted to tell their stories. This was a way of doing that. And I had a lot of new ideas and new characters. This was a way of getting those out there.
Nrama: 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?
Larsen: It was somewhat scary. I'd just gotten engaged and I was a month away from getting married. I'd bought a house and put every penny I had down on it - so it was a huge risk stepping away from Spider-Man — a high paying Marvel gig — to an uncertain futureBut I had confidence in myself, and in the others. We were flying high on the books we had been doing at Marvel and the timing seemed right.
And it was pretty overwhelming. The kids went wild. The audience was very enthusiastic. Marvel's stock took a tumble — they went into a panic — and the books just sold and sold. It was a very exciting time to be doing comics. There were a lot of positive feelings all around.
Portacio: The best part of it for me was the 24-hour nature of it. Wildstorm ran around the clock. Whatever it took. And since we all loved what we were doing, if the day were 32 hours long, that still wouldn’t have been enough for us. To have a place to create with other equally creative people was heaven.
Nrama: Erik, you've mentioned a little of what happened to the industry when Image was formed. How would you describe the overall reaction from everyone else to what you guys did?
Larsen: Marvel was freaked out and they were really left scrambling. At first, they were looking over every detail and threatening legal action. The Punisher had a skull on his chest and Spawn had skull, so he got a threatening letter. I had done a story at Marvel doing a parody of my own childhood character and Marvel saw my Image character and threatened me — saying they owned it —and I'm sure others were given grief as well. They really didn't know how to combat us.
And Image comics looked different from other books. All of our titles were on better paper with better printing and better color, and DC and Marvel both looked very old fashioned and shoddy in comparison. And they scrambled to adjust. Comics got pretty ugly during that learning curve.
And since we were getting such a huge chunk of their audience they added all kinds of titles — hired anybody who had even seen a pencil — and soon the market was choked with books.
The audience was very enthusiastic and the pros either hated us or wanted to join us.
Portacio: Fans loved it because we responded to them and we showed them we were just like them and they could be us. Publishers reacted with wariness because they resented it all.
Nrama: How did the creation of Image Comics influence creator rights in the comic industry?
Larsen: It certainly showed what could be done. There were creator-owned books prior to Image but we made it much more mainstream than it had been. But with characters ending up in movies and whatnot — the others are making a bigger effort to get in on that and get a piece of that.
Portacio: It obviously brought creative rights and ownership to the forefront. But more importantly, it started to show all of the other entertainment industries our place among them all. And introducing the concept that we can all happily work together successfully for all.
Nrama: What has the move to Image meant to your career?
Larsen: I'm not sure. It's certainly given people something to remember me by, but it's hard to know what might have happened had I made a different choice. You never know.
Portacio: It showed me I was meant to teach and nurture other creatives. It gave me my voice.
Nrama: For the comic industry in general, what do you think is the legacy of the creation of Image Comics?
Larsen: The legacy is, really — you can do this. You don't need Spider-Man or Batman. You can make your own comics and blaze your own path.
Nrama: What do you think of the status now of comic creator rights?
Larsen: It's a minefield. Companies all over are trying to get their claws into creators' rights — if not ownership, then at least merchandising and movie rights. There are few places a creator can go without giving up something. Image is only one I'm aware of, actually. And that's pretty sad.
Portacio: If a creator has a good concept that other industries like Hollywood think will benefit them, it's made very easy for the creator to get his creation represented in other mediums and get the deserved credit.
Nrama: Do you think Alan Moore's experience with the things he created in the '80s (such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta) would have been different if he'd created them after 1992?
Larsen: Certainly they would have if he created them at Image Comics in 1992, because he would have owned them outright — and he would have decided if there was to be a movie, and if there would be sequels and prequels and spinoffs.
Of course Dave Gibbons would have a say in that as well, but regardless — those would be the characters' creators making that choice.
Nrama: Do you think the Gary Friedrich controversy (over his rights to sell Ghost Rider merchandise at conventions) speaks to the problem with work-for-hire and what happens when the characters you create are owned by someone else?
Larsen: He touches on it, surely. The other part of that, however, is that the creator needs to pursue it. Gary Friedrich created another motorcycle rider called Hell-Rider in 1971at Skywald, prior to working on Ghost Rider at Marvel. Since that time, Hell-Rider has essentially disappeared because Gary has done nothing with it.
One could make the argument that if Friedrich had retained the rights to Ghost Rider that it might be in a similar state, and that it was only because Marvel creators kept revising and reworking the character that it became a viable property and ultimately movie character.
On the other hand, there are certainly characters at Marvel and DC that have been ignored or neglected so it's hard to say with absolute certainty what would have happened. I know that I've created characters at both Marvel and DC that I would have used to this day had I not given them to those companies. Regrets? I have a few.
Portacio: Work for hire is work for hire. "Creative rights" does not mean we get everything, no matter what we consent to. It is what it is and you must be aware and wary of what you sign.
Nrama: Where would you like to see creator rights go?
Larsen: I'd like to see things expand and better deals be offered. I think it would be great if all companies had an Image style option so creators could own their creations outright. I don't, however, see this happening.
Nrama: Do you think there could ever be a comic creators union, similar to the writer's union in the movie/TV industry?
Larsen: No. Too many creators willing to stab each other in the back. They have tried, but unless somebody really pulls a Norma Rae and jumps up there with a sign and folks actually pay attention, it's going to stay where it is.
But there's hope. A lot of creative people are seeing the light and are moving toward Image Comics. If that continues, it's not impossible that some change can take place, but it's hard to fight a person's childhood dream of drawing Spider-Man.
We can give you a home for your own character but we can't give you Spider-Man and there will always be a guy willing to draw Spider-Man.
Portacio: [I think] there could be, but does there need to be? The fact is, your work speaks for itself. It will always attract what it's worth.
Nrama: Is there anything else you want to say about the 20th anniversary of Image Comics?
Portacio: Let's all just enjoy what the industry is, and consciously improve it all together — retailers, distributors, publishers, creators and fans — and create like hell.
Larsen: Comics are great. Comics can be anything you want them to be.
And if you're a creative person working in the comic book field, and you're not working on your favorite book — you're doing it wrong.
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