IMAGE @20: ROBERT KIRKMAN's Creator Owned Success

As acclaimed and beloved as Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead is, one can't help but wonder if there's not another reason the writer has become so successful and well-known lately.

He's a partner at Image Comics.


Okay, we admit that's a stretch. The mainstream public doesn't know what Image Comics is, and there's absolutely no traceable relationship between the writer's creative success in television and his ascent to partner of the publishing company that prints his comics.

But there's just something about those guys who run Image, isn't there?

This year is the 20th anniversary of the founding of Image Comics. And to mark that event, Newsarama has been talking to the founders and partners of the company over the past few weeks. We've been looking back at the legacy that was built when Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino first broke away from Marvel and began advocating creative ownership.

Kirkman, who launched successful creator-owned comics like The Walking Dead and Invincible during his 12-year comic writing career, was just recently named one of the Image partners. He's the only one among the five partners who isn't one of its co-founders.

But when Kirkman was named an Image partner, he did make a public decision to stop creating for Marvel Comics, making an absolute move toward creator-owned that only a few of the Image partners themselves have done.

Soon after, he also began a very publicized campaign to encourage Marvel and DC creators to bring their audience to creator-owned comics, abandoning work-for-hire if they wanted more creative freedom and income options.

So far this year, both Image Comics and Kirkman have been banking numbers that support the idea of creator-owned comics. Just last month, the publisher had the debut of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' new Image title Saga, which did well on the sales charts.

The company also announced a new title from Grant Morrison. The announcement was one of many that occurred during another milestone for the publisher: the first ever Image Expo comic convention in Oakland, Calif.

And Kirkman himself is a poster child of indie comic success, ever since the TV show based on his comic, The Walking Dead, finished its second season with record-breaking ratings and a loyal mainstream fan following.

For our eighth installment in a series of articles looking back at the founding of Image Comics and its effect on the industry today, Newsarama spoke with Kirkman.

Newsarama: Robert, we all know how important you've been to the history of Image Comics in recent years. But when the company first started, where were you? Do you remember the founding of Image 20 years ago? 


Robert Kirkman
: I was 14 at the time, or maybe 13 when I first heard about it. But it was kind of an amazing time because the way I found out about Image Comics is I walked into my local comics shop, that I went to maybe once a month or so because it was a few counties away, and I only got to go when my parents had a reason to go to that county.

And I walked in and there was a Youngblood poster on the wall that said, you know, "Hey! Rob Liefeld! A new generation of heroes! Coming from Malibu Comics!" And I was like, "What in the world is that all about?" You know? Is that why Mark Pacella has been doing issues of X-Force? Like what's going on?

So I didn't find out from the internet, I didn't find out from Wizard Magazine, like I wasn't buying Comics Buyers Guide or any of the other things that were coming out at the time. And it was just kind of interesting to think about now, the fact that I could just walk into a store and see a poster and say, what is that?

And the guy told me, "Oh, a bunch of guys are leaving Marvel Comics to form a new company!"

From that point on, I was hooked. I found out it was all the guys that were drawing the Marvel books that I was reading at the time. I was reading Spider-Man, and Todd McFarlane doing another book sounded really cool.

It was a real eye-opener and definitely something that I was super excited about at the time. I was definitely Image's target audience when they debuted in 1992.

Nrama: It's been 20 years, so now that you're not a 14-year-old kid who just thinks it's cool, and now that you can look back and see the effect it had on the industry, what do you think the legacy is of that split by the creators to go off on their own and form this company?

Kirkman: It's going to sound a little self-serving because of my involvement with Image Comics, but I have to say, there are few very big, monumental things that changed the face of comics that have happened over the life of the comic book industry.

I think Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Stan Lee creating the Marvel characters and re-energizing characters at that time in the "Marvel Age" of comics is definitely one of them.

And then I think it's a pretty clear hop, skip and a jump to 1992 and the formation of Image Comics as another thing that completely changed the face of comics.

I mean, they revolutionized coloring. They revolutionized creator rights. They basically changed the way that a lot of companies function.


We're still seeing those ripple effects 20 years later, and as a company, we continue to change things. The formation of Icon? Marvel would never have ever offered that deal to anyone if it wasn't for Image Comics. And there are a lot of things like that throughout the industry that are direct reactions and answers to things that Image Comics has done.

I'm very happy to say that, knowing what I know about the company and everyone involved, and publisher Eric Stephenson and all the things that he has planned, I think that 2012 is going to be a good year for us.

And we're going to continue to be doing innovative things that will turn heads at the other companies.

Just as a note, though, you have to recognize that Image Comics is a breeding ground for the comics industry. There are an infinite number of creators that got their start at Image Comics that are now working at Marvel and DC, that are movers and shakers in the industry. I think that Image Comics is one of the places that people get their start. And it's a company that takes a chance on more newcomers than I think anyone else in comics. And also it's a great home for people that have, you know, done the rounds at all the companies to come and get the best deal on creator-owned comics.

So Image Comics is a lot of things.

Nrama: What has it meant to your career? Obviously a lot of your success has happened at Image recently, but what did that event in 1992 mean to your career?

Kirkman: Two things shaped my career and my career path. My father owned his own business. That's what my father's job was. He left his company and formed his own company when I was a very young child, and he struggled during my formative years and then became fairly successful in my teenage years because of the risks that he took and the way he decided to manage his life and be his own boss and do his own thing. And I was always inspired by that.

And then the formation of Image Comics in 1992 and the fact that I lived comics and wanted to do comics, and when I was at 13 or 14, and I was thinking about what I was going to do with my life, I saw guys like my father taking a chance and investing in themselves, and going out and doing their own thing — and experiencing great success because of it.

So I was always in the mindset of, "figure out a way to employ yourself and you'll never be fired, you'll never have to answer to anyone, you'll never have to worry about your job." You know?

That was definitely something that has helped me career-wise. I mean, I wish I could go back to 1992 and make those guys a cake.

Nrama: Do you think a writers guild could exist for comic books the way it does for TV and movies? Or is there any other advancement you'd like to see happen in creator rights for comics? 


: You know what? I think creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber and Steve Ditko, in the '70s, and Dave Simms set out on a path to fix the comic book industry, to a certain extent, and establish better creator rights for all. And I think that they succeeded. And I think that all the creators of Image benefitted from their hard work and pushed that ball further down the court. And I think everything is in a pretty good place.

Now, I do think it might be beneficial if there was a system in place, some kind of guild that, one: prevented comic book creators from getting screwed by larger companies that don't let creators let other creators know what each other is making. I think there's a lot of income inequality going on, and I think some kind of guild that would combat that would be a good thing. And two, it would be nice to have an organization offering some kind of a health insurance kind of thing for creators. That would definitely be a good thing. I don't know that that's feasible at this point, just because it's hard to get a large group of comic book creators to play nice for some reason.

But that would definitely be something that I think would help everyone involved if there were some kind of an infrastructure that provided retirement plans and health insurance and also, you know, checks and balances, to make sure that there is a fair wage limit.

You know, they could make it so that Marvel or DC can't say, "OK, we've run the numbers and colorists make this much now. If you're not willing to work for that, we'll pay you more, but you have to fight for it. And we're hoping that most of you don't know that these other 10 guys fought for it and are getting paid way more than you because we can run our business this way without you all finding out about that." I mean, that part of this business is frustrating to hear about.

Nrama: How would you describe the status of creator rights overall, and how do you think it was affected by the formation of Image?

Kirkman: Well, things have changed somewhat. I think there was a time when there were a lot more straight, creator-owned deals out there by various companies. And I think with the boom in entertainment rights for movies and televisions have kind of forced a lot of publishers to look at entertainment rights as a economic necessity. And that's something Image has been able to avoid.

So I think a lot of companies out there that people think actually do creator-owned comics, to a certain extent don't. If the company that you're doing the comic for owns 2 percent of your media rights, that's not a true creator-owned comic. The creator doesn't own every aspect of that comic. That may be an acceptable amount for you to deal with, for your publisher, but it's still not technically pure, as I like to say.

I think that Image Comics is still the only company in the entire industry that offers the deal we do, where you completely own your rights without having any kind of entanglements with your publisher when it comes to making your movie or your TV show or whatever.

But I think the state of creator rights in the industry — I think we're in a really, really good place. I think there are a lot of options out there. I think that if you want to give up your rights for whatever perceived thing that other companies can offer you, those options are available out there.

Just the fact that those options exist are a good thing. And I think that's due, in some part, to the formation of Image Comics. The fact that you can do your work at Marvel and DC and you can make that page rate, but when you do decide to take that leap to invest in yourself and your own creativity and your own thing, Image Comics is there.

So I'm very optimistic about what's coming for the industry as a whole.

Nrama: I've been talking to a few of the other partners at Image, and there's this real sense of saying, hey industry, you didn't think we'd last but we did! I know you haven't been as involved with Image for its entire lifetime, but are you feeling a little bullish as you celebrate the anniversary? 


: I certainly understand the accomplishment. They should feel proud of that achievement.

Image as a company is certainly going to be recognizing that, celebrating 20 years of the company and just looking back over the 20 years. We're celebrating with new Extreme books, and we're going to be doing a lot for the 20th anniversary of Top Cow, and the 20th anniversary of Spawn and the 20th anniversary of Savage Dragon and all of these other long-running books that we've been doing over the years. There's going to be a lot of looking back and just celebrating everything that the company has accomplished. That's a fun thing to do for an anniversary.

But the thing that excites me the most, and the thing that I think is cool, is that Image Comics is all about new ideas and new creators and new books and pumping new blood into this industry, which is something that it has been doing very well for a long time, and it's something we've gotten even better at in recent years.

Over the course of 2012, while we're looking back, we're also going to be looking ahead in a big way and launching some of our biggest books by the biggest creators in a long time, and just doing a lot of cool stuff for the company that is just really exciting.

So you know, we're looking back a little bit, but really focusing on looking forward. And I think it's going to make for a stronger Image Comics.

More IMAGE COMICS at Newsarama

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