All story: The Image Story A Four-Part Series
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The Image Story A Four-Part Series

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

 The Image Story
A Four-Part Series
By Michael Dean
Part One: Forming an Image
The true story of Image Comics would seem to offer the kind of dramatic arc beloved of classic Hollywood movies: Young men united in a burst of heady idealism revolutionize the comics industry and rise to the top of their field before succumbing to hubris, corruption and conflicting egos and becoming the very thing they had led a revolution against.
It's the kind of story an older, wiser Rob Liefeld might tell the camera as he expires slowly from a gunshot wound to the chest. Or picture Todd McFarlane lying in his palatial bedroom, an autographed baseball dropping from his lifeless fingers.
The trouble, of course, is that everybody tells the story differently. On the subject of how Liefeld went from being the unifying force that brought the Image partners together to launch a comic line to being the unifying force that brought the Image partners together to kick him out of the company, former Image Executive Director Larry Marder told the Journal, "There is a Rashomon aspect to all this. Everybody perceives what happened from their own point of view, though we probably all share bits and pieces. And our perspectives are very emotional."
We have attempted here to piece together a story if not the story from the available perspectives, and what emerges is a picture of a renegade comics company that was neither as noble an experiment nor as ignominious a failure as many of us have imagined it to be. The whole picture will take a little time to develop. This first part is a kind of origin story, focusing somewhat obsessively on how Image came to be.
Storming the Castle
The first person to be confronted with the question of exactly what Image is and what it means to the industry was perhaps Terry Stewart, who was president of Marvel Comics at the time. Stewart was in his office after hours one December night in 1991, surrounded by the bric-a-brac of Marvel-licensed products -- a Hulk gumball machine and the like -- when he looked up to find virtually all of Marvel's top artists entering his door en masse. He didn't know it at the time, but he was looking at Image Comics on the march. Present by all accounts were Rob (X-Force) Liefeld, Jim (X-Men) Lee, Todd (Spider-Man) McFarlane, and McFarlane's wife, Wanda, who reportedly sat in a corner nursing the McFarlanes' newborn baby, Cyan, as one of the most momentous meetings in recent comics history unfolded. (McFarlane also remembers future Image partners Erik Larsen and Marc Silvestri being in attendance, but according to Larsen and Liefeld, neither Larsen nor Silvestri were present.)
Marvel's then editor in chief Tom Defalco had become suspicious at seeing so much of Marvel's talent gathering in one place and found reason to be in the vicinity of Stewart's office when the confrontation occurred. According to Liefeld, "Tom DeFalco is a really nice guy and he gave me my start in comics, but it was like he had his ear to the door and when we opened the door he fell in. I mean that pretty literally." DeFalco had not responded to the Journal's request for comment at press time.
Stewart invited DeFalco to stay for the impromptu meeting, perhaps hoping to feel less outnumbered. The committee of creators had come to issue an ultimatum: Either they were to be given control of their own work at Marvel in the form of their own line of creator-owned titles or they would leave to publish without Marvel. The two administrators were used to artist complaints, but this seemed different, partly because the demands were so ambitious and partly because, for the first time, the artists were all there at once.
McFarlane, who had engineered the gathering, had foreseen the importance of acting as a group. He had been lobbying for several weeks to get Liefeld, Lee and Larsen to coordinate a group departure from Marvel. McFarlane told the Journal, "I said, 'We've got to do this in unison. If necessary, I'll stay on longer. I'll keep involved just enough until we can coordinate this.' Quitting one at a time would not have had the same impact."
The impact that McFarlane wanted to have was to send a message to all the big publishers that the world was changing and artists were not going to be taken advantage of any more. "It was not even just a Marvel thing," McFarlane said. "We also met with DC a short time later."
Although McFarlane was able to mobilize the troops for dramatic effect, the group that appeared at Stewart's office door was not as unified as it appeared. Liefeld, for example, though ready to publish outside Marvel, did not take the meeting as seriously as McFarlane. "I just agreed to go along for the ride," Liefeld told the Journal. "When I left that day, I thought I was going to continue to do X-Force and do Youngblood[for Image]."
This was an attitude that McFarlane had attempted to combat: "They thought they could do Image and keep their day job. I said, 'You guys can't even keep up with one monthly. You're going to do that and start your own books?' The trouble was they thought if they stopped producing every waking moment for 10 seconds, the public would forget about them. I knew that wasn't true because I'd stopped doing Amazing Spider-Man and when I came back to do Spider-Man, I was hotter than ever."
To what extent was the confrontation with Stewart a defiant gesture -- the opening shot of a creator revolution against the comics industry bosses -- and to what extent was it simply a maneuver to allow the artists to negotiate a better deal at Marvel? According to Liefeld, they had come to make Marvel an offer it was almost certain to refuse: "We told them, 'We could run this thing [Image] through you guys, but we get 75 percent. We're leaving if you don't give us this opportunity that you've never given anyone before.' I didn't expect them to do it. My bags were already packed."
Stewart responded to their ultimatum with a counter-offer. It happened at the time that Marvel had its own creator-owned line, the Archie Goodwin-run Epic Comics, which was not exactly generating a lot of big-selling titles. What if Marvel were to hand this line over to McFarlane, Liefeld and Lee to do with as they pleased? The artists found this offer laughable. Liefeld told the Journal, "I remember Terry saying, 'We could give you the Epic line.' And we're like 'Are you on crack? We're not doing anything with that line. The Epic line sucks!'"
Stewart maintained the official Marvel stance that the Marvel brand is bigger than its creative talents at any given time. According to Liefeld, Stewart did not help his case in the artists' eyes when he attempted to make his point with an analogy to slave trade, saying, "There'll always be somebody to pick the cotton." To this day, McFarlane refers to Marvel and DC as The Plantation.
According to McFarlane, the meeting with Stewart was a lengthy one, but Liefeld took it so lightly that he left for another engagement part-way through. "Rob bolted early," McFarlane said. "Here was maybe the most important meeting of his career and he had someplace else to be. His attention span is not very long."
Liefeld denied leaving early, though he admitted not taking the meeting very seriously or following business negotiations very closely. McFarlane's coordinating efforts notwithstanding, however, most seem to agree that Liefeld had been the driving force behind the artists' rebellion and that there would have been no confrontation in Stewart's office without him. According to Image partner and current Image Publisher Jim Valentino, "Rob was the linchpin of Image. There's no two ways about it. He should be given that credit."
Rob the Recruiter
Larsen told the Journal, "Each person thinks Image was born when he personally entered the picture, but Image was much more Rob than anyone else."
A clean-cut, boyish-looking 21-year-old with a short attention span for business matters, Liefeld would not have been anyone's idea of a rabble rouser in 1991. Liefeld said, "Somebody had to get the ball rolling. I probably got the ball rolling because I was young and cocky and had the least to lose."
Liefeld's motivations, however, did not necessarily make him a standard bearer for creators' rights. As he explains it, his split with Marvel was the result not so much of his dissatisfaction with his position there as it was his fear that he would not be able to hold onto it for long. "Image was born out of a feeling that I had that [the days of] our positions at Marvel were numbered," he told the Journal. "We had become too big for the system. Marvel didn't want a star system, but with Todd's, Jim's and my books selling millions of copies, that's what we were becoming. They were trying to reproduce the success of our books. They were going to put out a Cage #1 with an acetate cover. Like, 'We've got to prove it's the gimmicks, not the creators.' But the truth of the matter was Spider-Man happened because Todd had heat on Amazing Spider-Man andX-Men happened because Jim Lee had heat. They were trying to replace us already, and we hadn't even talked about leaving."
Valentino remembers Liefeld expressing such concerns to him in numerous conversations around the kitchen table in 1990 and 1991. Valentino, creator of Normalman, had been involved with independent publishing during the days of the black-and-white boom, and Liefeld began to increasingly pick his brains on the subject. "Rob was doing New Mutants at the time," Valentino said, "and he was always over at the house with my wife Diane and me for whatever reason. I remember him walking into my house one day and asking what it took to self-publish a book and we sort of walked him through that."
Liefeld's first step on the path that would take him away from Marvel was to explore his options. He approached Dave Olbrich at Malibu Comics, at that time still an independent comics line, and asked if he would publish a black-and-white, Liefeld-drawn title. Without hesitation, Olbrich said he would. Then, Liefeld asked if Malibu would publish a book by Valentino and a book by Larsen, and when Olbrich said yes, the groundwork was laid for what would eventually become a printing and production arrangement between Image and Malibu. For Image's first year, it would use Malibu's facilities to solicit, print and ship its titles.
Liefeld got so far with Malibu as to plan the release of a Liefeld title called The X-Tremists or something close to it, and had placed an ad for the title in Comics Buyer's Guide when he received an angry call from Marvel editor Bob Harras. Harras made it clear that Marvel did not look kindly on what it saw as Liefeld's exploitation of the X logo outside of the Marvel stable. "I was reminded that I was completely replaceable," Liefeld told the Journal.
The Malibu title was scrapped, but Liefeld's determination to make a career for himself outside of Marvel was redoubled. He began designing his own logo: the Image "i."
McFarlane, meanwhile, had dropped out of comics for what Liefeld called a one-year sabbatical or what Valentino called an indefinite retirement. "Todd had a baby coming and wanted to spend time with his baby and his wife," Valentino said. "During that time he was trying to create a set of hockey cards."
According to McFarlane, however, he had never intended to leave comics and was only biding his time, waiting for the right coordinated rebellion. If Valentino remembers Image being birthed at his kitchen table, McFarlane recalls it taking shape in the course of a series of phone calls in 1991 between him and Liefeld.
"The seed of what Image was came from conversations between Rob and I," McFarlane told the Journal. "Rob and I spent a lot of time on the phone together, while he was still at Marvel, talking about how we should do something big. Image was Rob and I at the beginning. It was Rob and Todd; then it was Rob and Todd and Eric. Then the others started coming on."
Spider-Man #16, McFarlane's final comic for Marvel, was a crossover issue with X-Force, and a collaborative effort with Liefeld. The two continued to collaborate over the phone after he left, but not on behalf of Marvel. "I left four days after the birth of my little child," McFarlane said. "The issue was supposed to be done before Cyan was born, but the baby came early."
While Liefeld comes across as a choirboy, shunning any kind of profanity, McFarlane has the earthy manner and restless energy of a hustler and a New York accent that the other partners can't resist imitating when they quote him. McFarlane describes himself as the militant wing of the Image partnership. He told theJournal, "People say, 'Oh, Todd got famous and got an attitude.' My militant attitude was there from the first day. A lot of my wide eyes came from reading the Comics Journal interviews with artists who were not satisfied with how the companies were treating them. I thought, 'If they can fuck Jack Kirby, they can fuck anybody.' I was always saying, 'We've got to unionize.' I wanted to start a war. Fuck seven of us. There should have been 7000. At that time, I am being paid the most in this country for doing comics. But they couldn't have kept me on the plantation for a billion dollars."
Liefeld, however, dismisses the "Rob and Todd" theory of Image's genesis as revisionism on McFarlane's part. "That's bull," he said. "Todd figured out the spin-doctoring aspect of the business four years ago and he's been spinning ever since. Back then, he wanted out of comics. He was sick of the grind and was designing a hockey card set. Todd's biggest passion is sports, not comics." What is not disputed is that McFarlane had urged artists to unionize while at Marvel and when the prospect of Image was presented to him by Liefeld he was quick to jump on board.
Even 10 years later, Liefeld sounds amazed that artists like McFarlane, Larsen and Valentino were willing to follow him in his exodus from Marvel. "They were all married. Jim was married with children. Todd was married with a kid. If a young guy came up to me and said, 'Let's start a revolution,' I would've said, 'Forget it.' I was 21 years old and I figured if I fell on my face, I could always go back to Marvel."
With McFarlane, Liefeld and Larsen committed, McFarlane was determined to go after Jim Lee, the last remaining high-profile feather in Marvel's cap. McFarlane and Liefeld went together to attend a Christie's auction in New York and met up with Lee. As Larsen remembers it, "Todd went after Jim Lee, and Marc Silvestri got recruited, too, because he was sitting next to Lee. If Mark Bagley had been sitting there, he would be an Image partner today."
As Valentino recalls the sequence of the bandwagon filling up, he was one of the last to sign on. "Rob finally persuaded Todd to come out of retirement," he said. "Erik said, 'Fuck, yeah!' I was still sitting on the fence. I had five children and did not have a book as popular as these other guys." He was then doing the moderate-selling Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel.
If Valentino resisted joining, his resistance was shared by McFarlane, who, according to Liefeld, opposed Valentino's participation. "I had to fight to get Valentino in Image," Liefeld told the Journal. "Todd would say, 'If us guys are the best artists in comics, what's Valentino doin' here?' Todd was always talking about a union. The way I looked at it, there were other heavy hitters who were afraid to cross the line, and here was Jim Valentino, who had a wife and five kids, who was saying, 'I'll cross the line.'"
The final partner was Whilce Portacio. He is regarded as one of the founding seven members of Image, but he dropped out so quickly that his status is something like that of a fifth Beatle. Personal problems, including a death in the family, had limited his participation so much during Image's first year that, by the time the partners were ready to pool their money and incorporate in 1993, Portacio opted out.
McFarlane vs. Spider-Man
Some partners continued to hedge until the last minute; the first Image press release doesn't mention Lee or Silvestri, referring only to unspecified "other major comics greats." The whole thing came together so rapidly that the first time all the Image partners (except for Portacio, who was in the Phillipines) were in the same room was in February of 1992, when they all gathered at Marc Silvestri's home in Malibu to an-nounce the birth of Image Comics to the press. Valentino remembers that it was a long day. The partners had a short time to talk among themselves before the press showed up, and after the press conference, they held a private meeting -- the first official Image meeting -- and discussed their future until about 3 a.m.
According to Valentino, for all their differences, the partners all agreed on two fundamental principles that would form the basis of how Image functioned: Image would never own a creator's property, and Image would never interfere creatively or financially with any of the creators whose work it published. Even today, all the partners agree that Image was always more about freedom than about money. Valentino describes the company as a cooperative, in which each partner has complete control over his own destiny, something the artists had been frustratingly denied at Marvel. "Everyone had their own idea of what they wanted to do," he told the Journal, "but they all had one thing in common: that Image Central own no characters, no intellectual property other than the Image 'i.'"
It was the opposite of the way things had been at Marvel, where the artists were treated like hired help working on properties they would never own and so lowly valued that, according to McFarlane, the management could not be bothered to comp him a Spider-Man T-shirt. Asked why he left Marvel, that is the first complaint that comes to McFarlane's mind: "They were too cheap to even give me a T-shirt. And they wouldn't promote a top-selling book like mine, because it was already selling. Name any other business where they operate like that. Marvel and DC both would have these editorial summit meetings on the direction of the books -- and they didn't fucking ask the people who do the books! I can't even put into words what that means to me."
Marvel management may have desperately wanted to believe it didn't matter who was picking their cotton, but if so, they were in denial about a shift in public attitudes as plain as the Rob Liefeld Levis commercial on their TV sets. As Marder told the Journal, "In the past, the dedication of a Marvel Zombie had transcended the fact that a cool artist was doing a book. But people were now talking not just about Spider-Man or the X-Men but about Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man and Jim Lee's X-Men."
By failing to hold onto its most popular creators, Marvel had set the stage for a showdown that would test its worst fears: a competition between the top artists and the top characters in comics. There were few who weren't anxious to see who would come out on top. When the Image partners announced that they were opening for business and would soon be releasing a new line of comics, it sent ripples of excitement through the comics industry and beyond. Barron's, the widely read financial publication, ran a feature article, and even CNN turned its cameras on the new comics company. "Everybody anticipated that something big was going to happen," Marder remembered. "It was akin to the way people were getting excited about the astronauts before they went into space."
The public response to the Image artists over the next few months would be overwhelmingly greater than anyone had anticipated. It was a time that was full of promise for both the artists and their fans, but the greater the promise, the harder it is to keep.

Part Two: The Honeymoon
In our last episode, seven of the comics industry's most popular artists (Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio had just kissed off Marvel Boss Terry Stewart to form their own publishing empire: Image Comics. No one, including Stewart and Image ringleader Rob Liefeld, had an inkling of how permanent and significant that break would turn out to be.
Liefeld told the Journal he had initially hoped to continue to draw his hit Marvel title X-Force, while creating his own series for Image. Marvel seemed to take the attitude that the artists, fan favorites or not, needed Marvel and its characters more than Marvel needed them. It was presumed to be only a matter of time before all of the departing rebels would be crawling back to Stewart's office, begging for work.
That scenario was not far from the minds of the artists. Even McFarlane, who described himself as a rabble-rousing union firebrand, said he would have been prepared to eat crow and beg for his job back if Image had fallen on its face.
There was every reason to expect that it would do just that. A number of independent publishers in recent years had tried to challenge the Big Two and fallen by the wayside. Larry Marder, Image's executive director from 1993 to 1999, told the Journal, "The direct [comics-shop] sales system had worked well when there were about 75 titles, but by the beginning of the '90s, there were just too many titles. The proliferation of Marvel titles had worked to crowd out Pacific and First. But it didn't work this time."
In fact, as Marder sees it, market saturation by the big publishers had the opposite effect. As the number of titles issuing from Marvel began to exceed the purchasing capacity of Marvel fans, the notion that it was not necessary to buy every Marvel title was forcibly impressed upon even the most dedicated Marvel Zombie. From that hard lesson, it was a short jump to the idea that it was possible to buy titles from another publisher.
Marder, who in 1991 was marketing director for the Moondog chain of comics shops, remembers the buying patterns of customers beginning to vary. "Books that dealers had always ordered that were no-brainers, likeCaptain America, had started to fluctuate substantially in sales," he said. "This was something unbelievably unprecedented. Everybody was flooding the market and there was so much choice that you started to see something akin to channel-flipping, which led to brand loyalty sort of starting to disappear."
Replacing brand loyalty was a heightened awareness of the individual styles that creators brought to their comics. It was hard not to notice that at Marvel young Turks like Liefeld, McFarlane and Lee were taking turns breaking each other's sales records month after month. "People forget," said Liefeld, "New Mutants was a dog. They couldn't give that away. [Marvel editor] Bob Harras told me to 'fill this book with whatever you want,' and I feel I turned it around."
If kicking the title from the bottom to the top of the sales charts can be called "turning it around," then Liefeld's claim can be considered a more than fair statement. How did Liefeld, a novice who had broken into the comics field less than four years earlier at the age of 17, accomplish this? First, he turned New Mutantsinto X-Force and began to replace the teen soap-opera cast with bad-ass characters like Deadpool and Cable. Then, and perhaps most importantly, he began to pile on hardware and accessories. Where superheroes had traditionally leapt around in their skivvies, surviving on their wits and innate powers, Liefeld's heroes were likely to pull out a laser cannon and blast their way out of a bad situation. Overnight, mere comic-book characters had become very cool toys. The appeal of these accessories was so great that Liefeld was told Marvel's series of X-Men action figures would jump straight from the old uniformed X-Men to a line of X-Force figures.
McFarlane, too, was overhauling the look of Spider-Man and drastically altering the traditional Marvel page layout despite heavy editorial resistance. Liefeld said, "At Marvel, we were utilizing the page in ways it had not been done before." According to Liefeld, the artists competitively tried to outdo each other's over-the-top effects. Though still at Marvel, Liefeld, McFarlane, Lee and Larsen were in the process of shaping what would come to be known as the Image Look.
It's a Superhero Life, If You Don't Weaken
Despite all the signs in the air, the success of the Image break took almost everyone by surprise. Marder said, "When I was first told about [the plans for Image] months before, I didn't think it was a very good idea. I thought the personality of the creators was the weakest factor [in what attracted fans]. But people were now talking about Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man and Jim Lee's X-Men. The artists had become more important than the company."
In a way, it was the logical outcome of a policy that Marvel itself had initiated back in the 1960s when it had started turning formerly anonymous creators into personas that sounded like something out of a comic-book story: Jolly Jack, Smilin' Stan, Darlin' Dick. Even the letterer started to take shape in the mind's eye, when one thought of him as Adorable Artie Simek. Marvel artists, therefore, had long had their followings, but the Image generation of creators were smart enough to lure their fans away from Marvel by doing for their own imprint exactly the sort of comics that had made them popular at Marvel.
Even current Image Publisher Jim Valentino, who is known for his attempts to lead Image outside the limits of the superhero genre, told the Journal, "There was a reason for Image to embrace superheroes in the beginning. It was a matter of: How do we fight the Marvel brand loyalty? We assumed people did not want to see Rob Liefeld's It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken. We did color superhero books, and Image literally broke that [brand loyalty] thing wide open. Fans went lemming-like to the Image line. Doing superheroes laid the foundation for the successful launch of the company."
As Marder explained, "Generally, when somebody got hot and went off and did something on their own, they did something weird, like Frank Miller with Ronin. Everybody went off doing Prestige-format, high-ticket projects. At Image, they stuck to what they knew and they filled a vacuum in newsprint. Nobody really saw them coming."
As their first comics began trickling out in the early months of 1992, the Image creators used Malibu Comics facilities to solicit and print their titles. In fact, the name Image never even came up in those first solicitations for Liefeld's Youngblood, and the banner didn't really start to get a big play until solicitations for August, when a coupon promotion ran in all the Image titles and the comics were listed in the catalogs for the first time under Image instead of Malibu.
As it first appeared, the Image line was evenly divided between monstrous solo heroes and superteams that were more like well-armed super task forces. In the first category were McFarlane's undead hero, Spawn; Larsen's reptilian police officer, Savage Dragon; and Valentino's back-breaking vigilante, Shadowhawk.Spawn was saturated in urban gothic atmosphere and Shadowhawk was a traditional superhero series with a dark edge, but Savage Dragon was largely a straight-ahead, good-time superhero fight book. In the second category were Youngblood, Lee's WildC.A.T.s, Silvestri's CyberForce and Liefeld's Brigade.
Though their flirtations with sexual and violent material were sometimes a little bolder than would normally be seen in the Marvel or DC universes the new Image comics were, for the most part, safely within the parameters of the mainstream superhero formula. From the beginning, Image was less about self-expression or expanding the boundaries of the comics form than it was about giving readers what they seemed to want. Describing why the Image creators chose not to use their newly won freedom to experiment with alternative avenues of storytelling, McFarlane delicately explained, "Just because you go in a room and circle-jerk and put it on paper, doesn't mean anybody gives a fuck."
Then again, titles like Youngblood and Spawn did constitute a kind of self-expression for the Image creators. Superheroes were what they had grown up with and what they had cut their artistic teeth on. With the exception of Valentino, the Image creators simply liked superheroes. "I know The Comics Journal views superhero comics as that they're shit," Liefeld told the Journal, almost apologetically, "and it's true that all too often they read like children's puff literature. But I like doing superheroes. I'd only been doing comics for four years. I was still getting it out of my system. I was fed by MTV images, and I think any young cartoonist is dealing with their rage on the page."
In fact, Liefeld was apparently getting a lot of his experiences onto the pages of those early Image issues. Clearly, there was something about the camaraderie of teamwork that appealed to Liefeld, who followed his initial Youngblood superteam mini-series with the ongoing Brigade team title, and who by most accounts had been the driving force behind bringing the Image creators together as a group.
"Youngblood was my attempt to do something like The Avengers and Teen Titans," he said. Liefeld had approached DC about the possibility of doing a new version of Teen Titans, and, according to Larsen,Youngblood is a slightly revamped incarnation of Liefeld's plans for the DC heroes. "If you look at the pages," Larsen said, "you'll see that Shaft is Speedy."
But Youngblood was a superteam with a twist. Liefeld realized that to be a superhero was to be a celebrity, which meant dealing with fan expectations, contracts, media exposure, agents and public relations, things that weren't generally acknowledged in comics. "I wanted to do something with the cult of celebrity," he said, "icons that crossed every border -- like sports figures, Madonna or Michael Jackson. I got a whiff of that when Youngblood #1 was coming out and all these Hollywood agents were wanting to represent me, and I was able to bring some of that back to the book."
Liefeld had courted that celebrity status. When Levis ran a series of commercials and ads asking "What do you do in your Levis?" he wrote them to volunteer himself as a Levis-wearing cartoonist and ended up on TV as part of the campaign. The other Image partners complained that Liefeld, at the peak of his popularity, would often brag about the various Hollywood celebrities he had been hanging out with. Even today, forcibly ejected from the superteam he brought together, he waits patiently for the big break that will make him a true Hollywood player. The truth is if Liefeld had created his own It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, it would've looked something like Youngblood.
Welcome to the Tent Show
The first sign the Image creators had of just how far their own celebrity stock had risen was at a series of book-signing appearances at the Golden Apple comics shop in Los Angeles just as the first Image comics were coming out. Liefeld appeared on the front page of the LA Times, TV cameras converged on the shop, helicopters hovered overhead and police were brought in to control crowds of as many as 2,000 fans. "By the time we got to [the] Chicago [Comicon], we were just riding the wave," Liefeld said.
The comicon organizers began to get a little spooked at the prospect of that wave, which, as it continued to grow beyond all expectations, looked like it might swamp the con's facilities. Marder was then working at Moondog with Gary Colabuono, and a stipulation of Colabuono becoming a partner of the Chicago Comicon was that he make a pitch to get the Image crew to come to the con. Marder, who had been friends with Valentino, was the link that made that happen. But no sooner had all parties agreed to the appearance than the con organizers began to have trepidations. It was the last year the Comicon was held at the Ramada Hotel, which longtime congoers will remember for its small ballrooms and tight hallways. Already organizers were beginning to realize the con had outgrown its venue, and now it was facing what threatened to be the biggest draw in its history.
Marder said, "They had had a hard time with lines of 20 or 30. The idea that they might have hundreds of people lining up scared them."
The solution that the organizers came up with was to keep the Image creators from ever setting foot in the con. Instead, a tent was set up around the Image artists outside the hotel, and an elaborate system was devised, involving the issuing of tickets that allowed the holder a limited audience with each creator.
"They wouldn't allow us to appear on the floor of the con," Valentino told the Journal. "I remember talking to Rob about it and asking, 'What do they think is going to happen?'"
What happened were lines a mile and a half long. Valentino was told an estimated 26,000 people passed through the Image tent. "All I know was we saw an endless stream of belt buckles for three days," Valentino said. "Our necks were crimped. Our backs were crimped."
According to Marder, who was on hand to observe the spectacle, it was Marvel and DC's failure to take the upstart creators seriously that helped to make the Image launch the colossal success that it was. "Marvel and DC had made some serious miscalculations," he told the Journal. "They really thought Image would fail. They could have seriously counter-programmed against the Image appearances. At this time, Image only had a couple of issues of YoungbloodSpawn and Savage Dragon out. If Marvel had produced a big Spider-Man extravaganza, they could have drawn fans away. But they canceled Spidey's 30th birthday party, which they had planned for the con, and nobody counterprogrammed anything against Image. People didn't feel they would be missing anything by going out to the tent."
Marder blamed Marvel's blindness in part on the loss of key marketing personnel like the then recently deceased Carol Kalish. "Kalish would have been smart enough to see that they had created an enormous vacuum for Image," he said.
But as fans were swarming to the Image banner, resentment was growing among the Image artists' comics-field colleagues -- especially writers, who appeared to have been left out of the Image formula for success. It didn't help matters, when Image set up a tent outside the Comicon and left the rest of the industry twiddling its thumbs and tossing paper planes while waiting for fans to finish having their copies of Spawn #1 signed next door. Valentino said, "The entire comics professional community was deriding us for being too good for the con."
According to Marder, "There may have been a belief that they were getting special treatment, but it was really a comfort and safety issue."
Meanwhile, partly spurred by a burgeoning speculator interest in comics, Image titles were selling out in comics shops across the country. Spawn, the most popular, was selling in the neighborhood of 2 million copies, and even Image's apparent weak link, Shadowhawk, sold approximately 750,000 -- which Valentino noted is "better than the output of most entire companies today."
In fact, the launching of Image probably fanned the flames of speculation as much as speculators boosted sales of Image titles. Marder said,"The tenor of the industry was such that speculation was probably at an all-time high," a state of affairs that he named as a key factor in Image's success. And Image, in turn, was a key factor in the ascendancy of Wizard magazine, which had been featuring the fan-favorite Image artists since before they left Marvel. Along with the Overstreet GuideWizard was the speculator's bible.
In short, only months after announcing their existence, the Image partners were on top of the comics world, high-fiving one another and slapping each other on the back. In a 1992 interview, McFarlane, aglow with camaraderie, told the Journal, "I like Rob. Rob's like a brother to me." Five years later McFarlane would describe Liefeld to the Journal as "a fucking loony ... He's delusional and he tells a bunch of fucking lies, too."
According to Valentino, "When you first get married, you expect everything to be perfect. I think the honeymoon lasted until about 1994 at Image."
Image's fall, as was that of the comics industry itself, was rapid and from a great height. As our overview of Image continue, we will look more closely at the serpents in the garden.

Part Three: What Went Wrong
Image Comics took its name from the prominence it gave to The Picture, the product of a comics artist's inspiration, talent and labor. Appropriately then, the company owed the great success of its launch to a picture -- the one that had formed in the minds of hundreds of thousands of comics fans. To the readers, it was a larger-than-life picture bleeding off the page with its promise of coolness and radical novelty. To comics artists, it was a picture of solidarity -- the triumph of art over big business. It was the picture that was worth a thousand words and even more dollars. And, of course, it was all wrong. By the end of the decade, that "image" of solidarity had deteriorated so much that Image artists were filing suit against one another.

In one shining moment, however, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Jim Valentino, Erik Larsen and Marc Silvestri had put aside the comics artist's traditional isolation and formed a unified front. McFarlane had lobbied hard to convince his co-conspirators that the only way to send a message to the industry was to make their departure from Marvel as a group and all at once. And he got his wish. When Liefeld, McFarlane and Lee walked into then Marvel President Terry Stewart's office in December of 1991 and told him they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more, they spoke as if with one voice for themselves and for the absent Larsen, Silvestri and Valentino, and even for all the powerless, exploited comics artist slaving under corporate bosses. Although they hadn't intended to become the salvation of the industry, they had hoped other artists would follow their example and that Image Comics would be a haven for the best of the artist refugees.
In Part One of this series (TCJ #222), we saw how the six partners came together to make their break from Marvel. Part Two (TCJ #223) covered the honeymoon years (or year), in which the creators released their first Image titles and rose to demi-god status in the eyes of the industry.
A Confederacy of Gladiators
The trouble was: The group of creators who formed the core of this potential artists' rebellion had been trained all along to be as fiercely competitive with one another as any gladiator-slaves of the Roman Empire. Despite their common interests and personal friendships, the future Image artists were mutually mistrustful and jealous of one another, as only simultaneously budding superstars can be. In place of Liefeld and McFarlane, imagine Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio sizing one another up across a crowded party at Spago's.
"They all appeared within the same year -- '87 to '88," said Larry Marder, who was Image executive director from 1993 to 1999. "They all emerged in the post-Dark-Knight-and-Watchmen days, and the rivalries between them had been set in place as early as '88. They were all friends and they were all rivals, like basketball teams. Some of those rivalries had been put in place by the editors at Marvel. That is one of the ways a company traditionally motivates its creators. These guys had been fighting the whole time at Marvel."
Liefeld told the Journal, "It was very competitive. There was a lot of 'I can draw Spider-Man better than you' sort of thing. There was the whole aspect of 'I'm pushing the envelope more than you.'"
Silvestri and Lee were friendly enough that they were sitting together at a Christie's auction when McFarlane approached Lee about joining the Image rebellion. According to Larsen, it was only this chance proximity to Lee at a key moment that resulted in Silvestri becoming an Image partner. Silvestri was not at that time a rising star and had just been dumped from a gig drawing the X-Men to make room for an artist who was a rising star -- Jim Lee.
Liefeld brought Jim Valentino (who recently ascended to the position of Image publisher) into the group over the objections of McFarlane, who felt Valentino didn't belong in the same artistic league as the others. Valentino described the personalities of the Image partners as "disparate" and "complex."
Image gradually went from being a loose coalition of artists to a corporate entity, printing and releasing titles through the facilities of Malibu for a year before beginning to publish under its own banner in 1993. The partners met to handle official business three or four times a year in meetings that typically lasted all day or all night. According to Valentino, arguments would break out among the disparate and complex personalities at the table. When asked what the arguments were about, he said, "I won't tell you." Valentino did confirm that one source of contention was the concept of multiple-cover promotions. Surprisingly, McFarlane, whoseSpider-Man #1 for Marvel had been a particularly notorious example of using multiple editions to pander to speculators, opposed the idea. "Todd hated multiple covers and that whole bit and he still does," Valentino told the Journal. " It has been a subject of heated debate. Some members don't like it; others do."
As much as Image has come to be thought of as a house style that spread inexorably throughout the industry, Valentino said the partners were anything but homogeneous in their aesthetic attitudes. "You couldn't find six people more dissimilar. Erik and I didn't want to do television or movies the way Rob and Todd did. My taste was diametrically opposed to what Marc Silvestri thinks are good comics. That doesn't make me right or wrong, just different. Some partners were dead set against even having the Image 'i' on the covers of all the comics."
Marder told the Journal, "They were all building their own infrastructures in the studios. They were all inventing themselves at different speeds and didn't know how to deal with each other." Despite the friction, Marder said the partners were able to reach agreement with one another through what he called, "coalition politics. They either talked a problem to death or solved it. Image never did anything that wasn't agreed upon unanimously."
According to Valentino, the meetings went more smoothly than most people thought: "We had fostered publicly the idea that our meetings were screaming matches, which kept everybody saying we were going to be breaking up in six months. People said we were a bunch of loose cannons with overblown egos and there was no way the company could stick together. There were always factions [in Image], which varied depending on the issue, but things were pretty copacetic at least in the early days. Most of the meetings were filled with laughter. They were very funny. There has yet to be a split Image vote. It never happened. The table was small enough that democracy actually worked."
One reason that Image was not hampered by the various disagreements between partners was that they didn't have to agree. That was the whole idea behind Image. The partners vowed allegiance to only two principles: 1) that Image would own no creator's work and 2) that no partner had to agree with any other partner. No interference in a creator's creative or financial decisions concerning his own work was permitted. "When Erik did that 'Don't fuck with God' thing in Savage Dragon," Valentino said, "we all went, 'Oh god, Erik! We're going to get so much shit for that.' But it was his decision. And, as it happened, we got more shit for Todd running a Gay Comics ad."
Another reason was that, almost from the beginning, the partners were beginning to drift in their own directions with their own goals and studios. Liefeld was accused by the others of being preoccupied with dreams of Hollywood -- or just plain dreaming: McFarlane complained that Liefeld would frequently fall asleep during meetings. Liefeld didn't deny these accusations. "For me to say I took an interest in the business side of things would be ridiculous," he told the Journal.
Asked about the specifics of some of Image's business policies, Larsen told the Journal, "I'm not really sure. If it doesn't directly involve me, it's not my concern."
How Image Destroyed the Comics Industry
During this early period, all of the partners were to a greater or lesser extent being courted by Hollywood dealmakers. Fans were lining up to see them in unprecedented numbers. And retailers were ordering all the copies they could get of any title Image promised to publish. Unfortunately, their new celebrity status distracted the artists from not only business details but also what had once been the motivation for it all -- the act of creating comics. For all their differences, the partners had something new in common, as they all fell increasingly behind in their work.
According to Liefeld,"We'd call each other up and say, 'What page are you on?' 'Page 3.' 'Me, too.' The dark side of Image Comics was that we didn't ship the books. We were not prepared to deal with the business side of things."
Of the six partners, McFarlane, who had discontinued his work for Marvel earlier than the others, was the best-prepared to begin turning out issues for Image and the last to run into deadline problems. "Nobody knew the success we were going to have, but Todd was ready for it," Liefeld told the Journal. "He was stockpiling comics material. I went from X-Force one day to Youngblood the next day. Jim Lee went straight from X-Men to WildC.A.T.S. But Todd was coming off the bench with fresh legs. He had six issues out to our three or whatever, and he never hesitated to point it out at shows. He was the most dedicated to his product, he'd say. 'I'm the guy who's giving it to the fans.'"
Even McFarlane, however, reached a point where he was forced to use fill-in issues by other creators in order to catch up. And, as he became increasingly distracted, eventually all of McFarlane's comics became fill-in issues by other creators. According to Marder, "Todd always had the most discipline, but it's hard creating comics while being asked to meet with toy manufacturers and pitch movies."
Larsen proved most able to harness himself to a regular schedule, and after initially stumbling, he settled into the most steady creative output of any of the Image partners. "When we were starting out," he said, "I had two books that were late enough to be returnable [including work done with Don Simpson and featuring Simpson's Megaton Man character]. I took substantial hits in returns. I lost about $52,000. I had already paid the money to Don and he'd already spent it."
Marder said, "Todd had a period of time with fill-in issues. Extreme and Rob Liefeld were always anarchy. Whilce Portacio was ridiculously late. [Portacio, the seventh original Image founder, was so far behind schedule due to a death in the family and other problems, that he dropped out when it came time to officially incorporate. He was bought out of his creator-owned Wetworks property by Lee.] All young talent has trouble with deadlines. The young tend to forget that the art form is also a business. That's happening right now with Cliffhanger. When something is hot, you need to get it out. They weren't good at prioritizing what needed to be done."
The ones to suffer the most from the Image creators' undeveloped sense of priorities were the retailers, who had invested enthusiastically in heavy up-front orders. Valentino said, "It was a problem for retailers because they had so much money tied up, so much cash outlaid for these books."
As the Image creators chatted on the phone with one another and dallied over Page 3, a chain reaction had begun that some speculate was responsible for virtually destroying the direct market in comics. Retailers invested heavily in Image issues that failed to ship on time, which meant the retailers could not recoup their investment on schedule. Due to the required lead time for orders, retailers had, in some cases, ordered second and third issues of Image titles by the time they learned that the first issue had not shipped on time. The problem was further multiplied by the variant covers and high-priced bagged and foil-covered editions with which Image shamelessly pandered to speculator interests. The money invested could not be regained until the tardy issues finally arrived in stores and found buyers. When issues arrived so late that fan interest had waned, retailers found themselves stuck with titles that were no longer hot. Even so, they were not quick to learn their lesson. "The Pitt, for example, was consistently late every issue," said Valentino, "but every time he [Dale Keown] solicited orders, it sold."
The unstinting appetite of the retailers meant that initially there was little incentive for the Image creators to get their act together and on schedule. Instead, the problem snowballed until it reached its peak with the release of Deathmate, a variant-covered, crossover-event mini-series in late '93 and early '94 that sapped substantial amounts of retailer dollars but failed to reach shelves before reader interest had turned to apathy. Cliff Biggers, proprietor of Dr. No's Comics in Marietta, Ga., told the Journal, "Deathmate was a concept that we all thought was a great idea, until we had five, six, eight months to think about it. The lateness killed any reader interest in the book. But Deathmate also underscored the big difference between a company like Image and a company like Acclaim. Image was a very appearance-based company and Acclaim was more content-based." Deathmate, in other words, had been something to savor and anticipate, but its appeal had faded like cotton candy by the time it reached readers.
"That was probably when the retailers finally lost faith," Valentino said, "but by then their revenue lines were definitely clogged."
These circumstances created severe cash-flow problems for comics shops just as the comics market was beginning to tighten up. Distributors adjusted the rules for returnability, which had formerly allowed a book to be more than six months late before retailers could return it. The new rules narrowed the window to 60 days before a book became returnable, but for many retailers it was a measure that was too little, too late. Stores not able to weather the period of disrupted cash flow ended up closing their doors for good, and, publishers competing for fewer retailer dollars resorted to exclusive distribution contracts that edged out all but one major distributor and left Diamond Comic Distributors with an arguably monopolistic hold on a deflated industry. For those who subscribe to this chain of events, all the industry's current woes can be traced back to the day the Image "i" first took shape in Liefeld's mind.

Angry Words
If retailers did not "lose faith" until the time of Deathmate, Image had already been the object of a backlash by creators almost since its inception. Many creators who had spent years paying their dues in the industry were resentful of the way the Image superstars were being coddled and fawned over even to the point of getting their own tent set up outside the Chicago Comicon. Particularly unen-thused were comics writers who appeared to have been overlooked in Image's creator rebellion. The new titles coming out from Image implied that artists not only didn't need corporate control or editorial direction, they also didn't need writers.
"From Peter David's point of view, how could it be good that the lunatics were taking over the asylum," Marder said.
In letters pages and at conventions, David, the longtime writer, waged an ongoing debate with McFarlane. Liefeld said, "Peter David rode a career wave out of criticizing us."
The most consistent criticism leveled against the core Image titles is that they have tended to be composed of dynamically posed super-hero pin-up art with little substance, character development or storytelling sophistication. To writers like David, these flaws are the consequence of artists thinking that just because they can draw large breasts and rippling muscles they can also create coherent plots and believable characters. To Marder, the writer-artist creator of Beanworld, the Image founders were justified in the emphasis they placed on The Picture: "As far as the average consumer is concerned this is visual stuff. The comic book is an art-driven medium, just as movies are a director-driven medium. Fans have systematically rewarded artists more than writers. Even the best writers are held hostage by the people who draw their work."
Asked about Malibu's Ultraverse line, which was built to a large extent around name writers like Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart, Marder said, "It is disingenuous to compare Ultraverse to Image, because Malibu started Ultraverse to make up for Image leaving [its printing contract with Malibu]. With the best artists at Image, there were not enough artists left to start an artist-based line, so they launched Ultraverse. But it was a coalition of writers that didn't work." Whether it could have worked in the long run was rendered moot when Marvel bought up Malibu, absorbed its state-of-the-art coloring department and trashed the Ultraverse line.

Marder and the Six Marx Brothers
Marder, a longtime friend of Valentino, had always been sympathetic to the Image enterprise, and, as angry retailers added their voices to those of resentful writers and disappointed fans to form a growing public backlash, he was a logical choice to help pull the beleaguered company together. In 1993, the title of publisher was held by Tony Lobito, but Lobito had no power to act without the unanimous approval of the Image partners, a circumstance that made Image about as efficient as the League of Nations. Image was clearly hampered by the partners' lack of interest in business matters and undisciplined work schedules, and it was felt that someone was needed to provide focus to the company's day-to-day operations.
Marder had already dealt with Image, helping to arrange in-store signings and convention appear-ances, and had handled the marketing campaign for Alan Moore's 1963 Image mini-series. "Jim Valentino called me and said they were looking for some help in managing the company," he said, "some better guidance from above."
Valentino had some initial misgivings, not about Marder's ability to help Image, but about Image's capacity to be helped. "My concern was that they wouldn't let Larry do what they wanted him to do," he said. "But very much from the get-go they treated him as a peer. Larry was used to the Six Marx Brothers Routine that the partners carried on. His job was to be a small voice of reason. This would be a guy who would come in and tell you 'No,' someone to be a sounding board, an advisor, a mediator. They had to respect his decision-making process."
Marder's title was executive director, which Valentino said was appropriate because, "his actual job was to direct the executives, to keep misunderstandings down. He's a consigliere, a diplomat. And he takes information in his head and turns it into coherent press releases. Todd described Larry's function as being to protect the 'i,' and he did it very well for us for six years."
What, in Marder's view, had gone wrong with Image? And what was necessary to fix it? "I found more stability than I had anticipated," he said. "There were two main things that were hurting Image. 1) Comic books had begun a spiral downward that, quite frankly, is still going on today. 2) The direct market had had lenient rules about lateness that it was just beginning to correct. My primary goal was getting all the creative teams up to speed about their responsibility to retailers for getting their books out on time. The first thing we did was stop soliciting books that weren't already drawn."
As for the "complex" personalities of the Image partners, Marder said, "As I've often said, it was like being coach on a team of all-star players. Egos were a problem. But they're a problem everywhere, especially in public. When the Image partners get together in private there's an amazing lack of ego."
By all accounts, Marder's influence helped to stabilize the Image studios and get them back on track. McFarlane, Lee and even Liefeld began to adhere to a more regular schedule for their books, though reducing their own creative involvement in the titles in the process. Only Larsen was able to maintain a consistent schedule while continuing to do virtually all his own writing and drawing. According to Marder, Silvestri's Top Cow went from being the most consistently late studio to being the most on time after Silvestri moved out of Homage, a studio that Whilce, Silvestri and Lee had shared.

The Two Faces of Rob
But even as the partners learned to work more efficiently alongside one another, they continued to drift in their own directions. Despite the medi-ating efforts of Consigliere Marder, the center could not hold for long. Ironically, it was the partner who had had the most to do with bringing the creators together to form Image who became the most divisive element in the partnership. Liefeld formed Maximum Press in 1994 as an outlet for his own projects outside the Image camp, and Image partners and staff members began to suspect that he was advancing his own interests to the detriment of Image. In June of 1996, Silvestri announced that Top Cow was going its own way and would no longer be part of the Image banner. Though Silvestri pointed no fingers, it was no secret that he and Liefeld had been involved in an escalating conflict.
Marder told the Journal, "When Marc Silvestri chose to leave in protest that he felt he had been substantially hurt by an Image partner, it was the first time I realized Rob was no longer willing to reach a compromise to hold the partnership together."
How did Liefeld, a clean-cut, profanity-hating fanboy turned pro, go from being everybody's pal to being the thorn in everybody's side? According to McFarlane, there was more than one Rob Liefeld. "You had to ask yourself, is the real Rob the nice guy with with the smile that makes you melt or the Rob that you can't trust? In hindsight, we probably should have voiced our concerns earlier, but the digression was gradual and went from 'Don't worry about it; that's just Rob being Rob,' to the point where it became detrimental to the company. It all began at the same time sales began decreasing in comic books. You've got a true indicator of who someone is when times get tough -- and we saw a different Rob appear."
Despite his admitted disinterest in Image business affairs, the partners had seen fit to invest Liefeld with the powers of its top corporate offices, including that of chief executive officer, chief financial officer and secretary. Liefeld, who was notorious for snoozing through official meetings, was principal check-signing officer of the company. Among the many accusations against Liefeld, which came to light in subsequently filed legal complaints, was the charge that he routinely used his check-writing powers to cover personal debts from Image funds. Other dissatisfactions with Liefeld ranged from his alleged habit of copying art from other partners' comics to his plans to move titles that had been established at Image to the non-Image Maximum Press. In addition to allegedly siphoning funds, he was said to have used Image staff to do promotional and production work for Maximum.
According to Marder, "When they were talking about leaving Marvel, Rob was quite the firebrand, but once they had to start a business, he lost track of basic business practices -- like that it's better to make more money rather than lose money. A lot of things went wrong in a very short period of time. You will find that the partners all have a different laundry list of complaints. He was making an increasing number of business decisions that were counterproductive to being a business partner. It was becoming ridiculous. He was a person it was impossible to deal with."
Several partners described Liefeld as seeming to be oblivious to the rancor he was generating in the Image offices. McFarlane said, "He always had a warped sense of logic to justify it all."
Asked if the complaints against Liefeld had been made known to him all along, Marder said the technology of the time may have contributed to miscomunications. "These are the kinds of things that happen with voicemail and faxes," he said. "We didn't have e-mail until later. But he was given every opportunity. He just believed he was going to do better on his own."
On Sept. 4, 1996, separate press releases issued from Liefeld's studio and Image Central, the former announcing Liefeld's regretful resignation from Image, the latter announcing that Liefeld had been booted out of Image by a unanimous vote of the Image board. The Image release noted that Liefeld had handed in his resignation minutes before the board was to vote on terminating him as a partner. Addressed to all of his ex-partners, Liefeld's note of resignation read, in part, "It has become apparent to me by your recent actions that it is your intent to not only drive me from the company I helped to found, but also to destroy my career in the process. These actions have had a severe emotional impact on my wife and me. In light of these circumstances, I have no choice but to resign as a member of the Board of Directors, Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Secretary of Image Comics, Inc."
In fact, the partners had already voted to take away his check-writing powers and to eject him from the partnership a month earlier. The Sept. 4 vote was intended to cover objections that Liefeld had been given insufficient notice of the previous meeting. Silvestri, who was still technically an Image partner even though he had taken Top Cow out of the company, was among those who voted to remove Liefeld.
Lawsuits followed. In a suit filed Oct. 6, 1996, Liefeld sought $7.6 million in damages from Image for libel, slander, mismanagement of corporate funds, breach of contract and wrongful termination. The libel and slander charges related to allegedly defamatory statements made in person, in letters, in the Image press release and in computer postings. The breach of contract referred in part to Image's refusal to turn over an estimated $200,000 in proceeds from the sale of Liefeld books sold through Image.
Image responded with a cross-complaint, in which it accused Liefeld of misusing Image funds and staff for Maximum Press projects, copying pre-publication artwork from other Image artists and using Image as leverage to force vendors to provide services to Maximum Press on credit. The Image complaint alleged damages in excess of $1.2 million, including $85,000 in funds overpaid to Liefeld in 1993 and more than $240,000 in Image funds used by Liefeld to pay his own expenses. The cross-complaint also alleged that Image had suffered financial losses and damage to its reputation as a result of titles that were marketed and solicited through Image but taken out of Image's hands when Liefeld departed to start his own line.
In 1997, Liefeld and his former partners reached an undisclosed settlement. Reportedly, only McFarlane was opposed to settling the legal conflict with the partner he had once referred to as his "little buddy." With Liefeld gone, Silvestri brought his profitable Top Cow line back into the fold. Things did not remain stable for long, however.
Last year, Lee abandoned ship, taking his WildStorm Studios, as well as Alan Moore's America's Best Comics line, to DC. Shortly afterward, Marder resigned as executive director to take a position with Todd McFarlane Productions. Valentino, who no longer published his own line of comics, replaced Marder, taking the title of publisher of Image Central.
McFarlane commented, "Whilce left. Rob left. Jim went back to the Plantation. But Image Comics is going to go on forever. We have built an entity that's beyond the individual."
In the concluding segment of this series, we will take a closer look at Image today, its likelihood of survival, how it functions, what kind of deal it offers creators, how it has affected the industry for better or ill and whether it has lived up to the promises made in 1992 by Liefeld, McFarlane, Lee, Larsen, Valentino and Silvestri to each other and to the comics world.

Part Four: An Accounting
Some will say The Image Story is the story of comic books. All the elements that we associate with the medium are there: the exuberance of youth, the centrality of the superhero, teamwork, renegade underdogs vs. corporate empires, collector-mania, hyperbole, extravagance, collaboration, great power, great responsibility, great irresponsibility.
Image's triumphant inauguration in 1992 coincided with a glorious heyday of comic-book popularity, which it celebrated in a profusion of variant editions decked out in foil or embossed or die-cut so that even the blind could share in the plenitude. Image inspired so much faith among comics retailers that it soon bore the fate of many on its back -- and it failed them. Image titles quickly lost creative steam, falling further and further behind schedule even as retailers threw more and more money into heavily hyped events like the ill-fated Deathmate crossover. As they collapsed together, Image and the industry became Deathmates of a sort. Some will say the declining industry pulled Image down with it, while others will say that, by promising more than it delivered, Image carried much of the blame for the industry's slide.
For whatever reason, as the decade progressed, many comics readers began to turn their attention to other media -- movies, videogames, toys -- but no more so than the Image creators themselves. Within a couple of years, all but one of the founding partners had virtually ceased to draw comics, focusing instead on opportunities promised by Hollywood and the toy market. By the end of the '90s, the partnership's solidarity had degenerated into cross-filed lawsuits, Rob Liefeld had been ousted, and Jim Lee had, as Todd McFarlane put it, gone "back to the plantation" at DC Comics.
But as with the story of the comics industry, the Image story is not over yet, and everybody has his or her own way of telling it. As current Image Central Publisher Jim Valentino said, "It's like nine people watching a car wreck and the only thing they agree on is that two cars crashed."
In the previous three parts of this series, we have heard the metaphorical car wreck that was Image Comics described by several of its closest witnesses. In this final chapter, we will look at Image as it exists today and ask some hard questions about whether it has lived up to the promise so many saw in it eight years ago.
The Story So Far
But first, like any good comics series, we need to recap the story so far, and to do so we will turn to a voice not yet heard from: Top Cow Publisher and founding Image partner Marc Silvestri. Not surprisingly, Silvestri's version of events varies slightly from the stories told in this series by partners Liefeld, McFarlane, Valentino and Erik Larsen and former Image Executive Director Larry Marder.
As Silvestri recalls the origins of Image, "Jim [Lee], Whilce [Portacio], Rob and I had been talking about starting a studio together. I was out there [in New York City in 1991] for an X-Men meeting and Todd came up to me at the hotel with this idea of leaving Marvel to form Image. It all happened pretty quickly." Silvestri had been the penciller on Uncanny X-Men before being replaced by Lee and moved to Wolverine. According to various accounts, McFarlane, who dearly wanted Lee to be part of the planned group resignation from Marvel took the opportunity of being in town at the same time as Lee to broach his proposal. Silvestri happened to be with Lee at the time and thus was drawn into the conspiracy.
Given the competitive nature of working for mainstream comics companies, how easy was it to shift gears and act in concert with other creators when they made their Image move? Did Silvestri feel any animosity toward Lee, the fast-rising star penciller who had taken over his X-Men gig? "No," he said. "I had a heavy schedule and X-Men had been a big work load, anyway. I was thrilled to be asked to join them. I jumped at the chance to work with these guys. As an artist you start to get isolated. Your neighbors don't understand why you're staying up all night working. It was great to be around other artists who do understand. Also, working with them raised your bar a little bit."
Silvestri was in agreement with the other Image partners that an eventual showdown between Marvel and its most popular artists had been inevitable. "We didn't get a whole lot of recognition from Marvel," he said. "They had always had the attitude that 'It's not the creators; it's the characters.' The Image artists created the comics star, something Marvel didn't want to see, because, consequently, they needed to pay big bucks. There probably was a happy medium between Marvel and Image, but they [Marvel] weren't interested."
In the face of a threatened group exodus, the compromise that then Marvel Publisher Terry Stewart reportedly offered the star artists in December of 1991 was management of Marvel's then-still-struggling Epic line. The artists scornfully rejected the offer, choosing to launch their own line with the help of Malibu Comics' printing facilities.
Image was born in 1992 in a burst of creator camaraderie and all the partners were given a warm welcome in the marketplace. Even artists who had not developed a particularly large following, such as Valentino and Silvestri, basking in a kind of popularity by association, found themselves with a new fan base beyond their wildest imaginings. In the beginning, Silvestri said, "We psyched ourselves up. We had an attitude of 'Fuck the people who don't understand us.' There was a lot of getting in each other faces, but it never went very far. It was us against the world."
Rifts quickly began to appear, however. As reported in earlier chapters of this series, McFarlane had been opposed to Valentino's membership and the partners found they did not see eye-to-eye about aesthetic goals. "I always had this thing," Silvestri told the Journal. "I had a problem with some of the books. From my point of view, some of the books we were putting out were shit. They were like filler books just to put something out. It seemed like they were just grabbing people off the street and letting them do work for us."
The trouble was, once the artists were away from Marvel's corporate conveyor belt, they began to let deadlines slide. As they scrambled to find creators to help with the scripting, inking and even pencilling of stories, they found themselves drawing from a dwindling talent pool. Though McFarlane had hoped that artists everywhere would follow Image's example and add to a mass backlash against the big companies, artists had instead rushed to fill the vacuum left at Marvel. "It was hard for us to get people," Silvestri said. "There weren't a lot of Scott Williamses around. I had to ink my own work in the first issue. Putting together my own company (the Top Cow studio), doing my own comic, and setting up a studio in San Diego just overwhelmed me. We got behind and delivered a lot of books late."

Promises, Promises
Disappointment therefore followed hard upon the glowing promise of the new comics company. Retailers and fans were disappointed when books failed to materialize. Those, like McFarlane, who had hoped Image would spark a revolution, were disappointed that artists continued to bow to the guaranteed paychecks of the Big Two. Critics were disappointed that the unleashed creators had merely produced another line of generic superhero comics. And even the partners were disappointed in the quality of work being produced by their fellow Image artists.
But what exactly had Image promised to begin with? Certainly there is a distinction to be made between what the Image partners said they would do for us and the unspoken promise that Image represented to so many in the industry. Even among the partners, the motivations behind Image differed considerably. According to Liefeld, "Todd left Marvel to hurt Marvel. Rob left to help Rob."
Notice that in neither case is anything said about helping the rest of us, whether readers, retailers, critics or fellow artists. From the beginning, Image championed creators' rights as long as the creator happened to be an Image partner. "'Creators' rights' sounds like we were taking up a mantle," said Liefeld, "but we didn't create Image for that purpose. It wasn't a fight."
As McFarlane explained the more modest ambition behind the company, "Image meant that there was an option. There should have been 50 Images."
As it took shape in a private meeting in 1992, Image's mission statement had only two fundamental principles: 1) Image would never own another creator's property; and 2) Image Central would never interfere creatively or financially with any Image partner. According to Valentino, "Over the years, we have managed to keep those two resolutions."
It's not the partners' fault, in other words, if many saw other potentials like better comics and better working conditions for artists in the emergence of Image. For those who blamed the editorial pressures of the big companies for keeping the comics industry bound to the narrow path of superhero serials, the release of yet another line of superhero titles by the unfettered artists of Image seemed to be nothing less than a betrayal.
Creators like Liefeld and Larsen will almost apologetically defend their choice of material, saying they simply liked superheroes. To paraphrase John Lee Hooker, superheroes were in 'em and they had to come out. Talk to Valentino, the company's current publisher, however, and you get a different view. Though best known for his work on Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and his Image character Shadowhawk, Valentino broke into comics with Normalman, a parodic indy series that was part of the black-and-white boom of the 1980s. "Even a cursory glance at my career in comics will show that my roots are in the undergrounds and alternative comics," he told the Journal. "That was my work up to the point where I went to work for Marvel. I firmly believe it's in the best interests of the medium to present a diversity of books. To do otherwise is basically an act of self-strangulation."
After a run with various incarnations of his Shadowhawk character in 1993 and 1994, Valentino told theJournal he became sick of the limitations of the genre, as well as his own limitations as an artist. He published his own black-and-white coming-of-age story -- A Touch of Silver -- then quit drawing altogether. Instead, he became a kind of Image talent scout, picking up one nongenre, black-and-white project after another and publishing them under the Image banner. The creators of these titles were not Image partners. Image solicited and printed the books, then repaid itself off the top of the books' sales income, passing any remaining profit on to the creators. Valentino brought so many of these titles into the fold that they became known as the Image nonline. Not surprisingly, most of these titles failed to generate significant sales, and in 1997, the nonline was abandoned.
Though the nonline is no more, Valentino has continued to recruit properties from outside the superhero genre since becoming publisher of Image Central in 1999. "Almost from the day we started Image, I wanted to do something like that," he said. "It's still something I'm trying to do. I saw the nonline as being a stepping stone hopefully to comics that would challenge [readers] more."
When accused of catering to superhero fans, Valentio responds, "Name a traditional superhero good-guy/bad-guy title that Image publishes. We don't have a title where a bunch of teen-age mutants dismember each other over a metropolitan street and we haven't for a long time." Rather, Image has mutated the genre itself, combining its more traditional elements with bits of gothic fantasy, manga, paramilitary technology and pubescent titillation.
If one detects a core of superhero power fantasies remaining just beneath the surface of titles like Spawnand Witchblade, Valentino admits that, "Judging from what makes it onto Diamond's list of Top 100 books I can't deny the fact that it's still a superhero market. [As an industry,] we're completely out of step with the rest of the world in that. To the rest of the world the mainstream is not superheroes. My philosophy is that I want to produce a diverse and quality line. Here's what I want: books that are well-written and well-drawn and come out on time. Except for Westerns. I don't want any Westerns. And I don't want any eros comics."
What about books that sell? "Salability has to be a factor," he said.

Fighting in the Toy Aisles and Hanging Out with Tom Cruise
It's possible to forgive an artist who produces a simplistic superhero tale as a labor of love, but it's hard not to see much of what comes out of Image as cynical market manipulation, when the founding artists themselves seem to have lost interest in creating comics. Marder, who ran Image Central from 1993 to 1999, said, "Image was always about comics and Image is still primarily about comics," while admitting, "It's true that Todd runs a giant toy company and Silvestri is producing a TV show in Canada right now as we speak."
Liefeld charged that "Todd's biggest passion is sports, not comics. Now he manufactures plastic for a living and gets to tell other people what to draw."
McFarlane has a straight-forward explanation for why he has applied himself to toys and movies instead of drawing comics: "I'm at the point where I want to take my energies to outlets where people will see the results. I want the fucking world to see, because I'm goddamn proud of my work. I like to show it to everybody. I'm not doing it to hang out with Tom Cruise. I've gone 35 years without hanging out with Tom Cruise and I can go another 35. But billions of people watch TV and go to movies. Billions of people don't read comics."
McFarlane said he finds plenty of creative stimulation in his current activities. "People complain just because Todd McFarlane himself is not doing all the things that are coming out," he said. "just because I don't put pencil on paper to draw the final product. To come up with a script takes a lot of work and creativity. And I still draw. I did some design sketches today for a toys video conference."
Marder, who left his position as Image executive director to work under McFarlane at Todd McFarlane Productions, said, "I know that Todd is a scrapper and a fighter. When he was at Marvel and DC, he was fighting. And now, Todd is fighting the same good fight in the toy aisles that we did in the comics aisles. We're radicals in this industry. We have fundamentally changed the way the Big Two (Matell and Hasbro) look at action figures. Our action figures are not really action figures. They're more collectible touchstones, conversation pieces."
McFarlane's latest piece to inspire conversation is Deathrow Marv, which gives consumers the chance to fry Frank Miller's Sin City character in the electric chair. The Marv collectible touchstone lights up and contorts in response to a thrown switch, then asks "That the best you can do, you pansies?" Recommended by TMP for ages "13 and up," the toy has drawn considerable media attention, including an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. McFarlane's products typically appear on consumer watchdog groups' annual lists of the most violent and reprehensible toys on the market.
"To me he's a visionary, a genius," said Marder. "Because he went to school on a jock scholarship, people lose sight of the fact that deep down inside he's just an awesome designer. There are stories associated with every action figure that comes out of here. He'll ask, for example, 'What if we had a line of biomechanical animals? How would they work?' He really drives so much of this stuff today. And the ways that he pitches ideas are very unorthodox."
In addition to his hot toy lines, McFarlane is the only proven Hollywood success at Image, with a 1997 Spawn animated HBO series and Spawn movie. McFarlane's comment about having no aspiration to hang out with Tom Cruise, was a backhanded slam at Liefeld, who, his former Image partners complain, frequently bragged about the Hollywood celebrities he had lunched with and the fabulous deals he was on the verge of finalizing with studio suits.
Liefeld admitted that Hollywood had been a major distraction from his comics work. "When you get called up for a meeting with Steven Spielberg or you're hanging out with Tom Cruise four days a week, you don't want to go home and draw; you want to find some friends and tell them about it. I was able to meet a whole lot of people that I had never conceived of meeting. It seemed that comics were very much in vogue, and I was only 30 minutes out of LA. Someone would call and say, 'Hey, you want to come and meet so-and-so?' and I'd say, 'OK.' "
It was Liefeld, however, who announced suddenly in 1995 that the founding Image artists had lost sight of their original creative goals and that he was going to return to his pencilling roots by drawing the next 12 issues of Avengalyne. He challenged the other partners to do the same.
According to Liefeld, "Todd's reaction to that was, 'That's funny to me. That's a joke.' But I lived up to my statement."
Liefeld also picked up his pencil in 1996 to join Jim Lee in drawing their versions of classic Marvel characters for Marvel's Heroes Reborn mini-series event. The once-hot penciller found that his style had begun to fall out of favor with fans, and some critics made fun of the anatomical exaggerations that had always been part of his art. Marvel kept Lee but dropped Liefeld from the project before its completion.
By the time the Heroes Reborn series had run its course, Liefeld had also been dropped from Image itself. Accused of using Image resources for nonImage projects for his own Maximum Press, Liefeld was voted out of the partnership. Today he continues to publish an average of two titles a month through his Awesome imprint. Dreams of Hollywood retain a powerful hold on him.
Asked if, after years of stillborn projects and undeveloped options, he had come, like many in the comics business, to see Hollywood as a mirage, Liefeld told the Journal, "No, I don't see it that way. My intention is to make films eventually. Youngblood is my bestselling comic and I've never sold it as a property yet. I'm in contact with all these people still -- Cameron, Cruise, Spielberg. They're brilliant people. I think there are things coming from all these relationships. It just takes years and years to build."
Silvestri, whose Witchblade, is about to make its television debut, is also smitten by Hollywood. In fact, he had been about to leave comics for a career in movies when he had been sidetracked by the formation of Image. "I was looking for ways to get out of comics," he said. "I was going to go to film school to become a storyboard artist. Movies have stimulated me again. The Witchblade show looks good. It's fun. I love playing around in this other medium."
Silvestri vacillated somewhat when asked if the comics industry is becoming dependent on Hollywood. "It's all a question of how you're running your business," he said, at first. "At Top Cow, the comics support themselves. We don't really need movies to be profitable." Pressed on the subject, however, he said, "If you want to be profitable, there's generally not enough income to support the comics industry without movies." Asked if Hollywood had become a distraction from the art of making comics, Silvestri said, "Quite frankly, without the distraction of movies, there's no comics."
Valentino, like McFarlane, Liefeld and Silvestri, has virtually ceased to draw. He resents those who complain that he has abandoned his artistic calling. "I find those criticisms insulting," he told the Journal. "Don't people have the right to grow and change? I stopped drawing and writing for personal reasons. I just hit a wall and didn't want to do it any more."
Amid the hotshots at Image, Valentino apparently developed a growing inferiority complex. "My book was definitely DOA from the beginning," he said, despondently. "I'm not stupid. And anyway I hated Shadowhawk. I hated him so much, I killed the motherfucker. I was free to do that at Image. I couldn't have done it at Marvel."
Larsen is the only founding Image partner to continue to draw new comics. After a flirtation with an animated Savage Dragon series, he has washed his hands of Hollywood. "The thing is, when you're doing comic books, you have complete control," he said. "But when it comes to cartoons, for example, a lot of different things come into play."
Larsen said the Savage Dragon show included four or five black characters, "but when I described one of them as fat and lazy, I was told that these were black stereotypes and the character couldn't be both black and fat and lazy."
Production personnel rejected his selections of voice actors and objected that Larsen's Hispanic character Alex Wilde should have a more Hispanic name. Larsen refused. "So they said, 'What if we color her Hispanic but never call her Hispanic?' I said, 'OK.' Then they said, 'Now, we need another Hispanic character.' There were too many things along those lines. I was paid very well. Is that just compensation? Well, yeah, and they were good people who were involved in the show. But do I want to battle the battle necessary to make a Dragon movie? No. I'd rather use the time to produce another 30 or 40 issues."
Larsen's Savage Dragon is Image's longest-running title and it has been written and drawn by Larsen since its inception. He is perhaps the only artist in the comics field without a property in turnaround in Hollywood. "I know it's freaky," he said, "but I got into comics because I wanted to do comics."

Image and Creator's Rights
Larsen was not the only Image artist who entered the field with high ideals. McFarlane, for example, was known at Marvel as a rabble-rouser who complained about working conditions and urged artists to unionize. Now that McFarlane has left the ranks to become the owner of a company that threatens to dwarf Marvel, the Journal asked him in what way his own employees are better off than he had been at Marvel. The question reduced him to a rare moment of speechlessness.
Asked if the conditions of the contracts under which his employees worked were the sort that would meet the approval of a union, he said, "They have no contract. It's totally free here. The best contract is no contract. If I have someone who does good work, the only way I can keep them is if they're satisfied. If they're not satisfied with me, they can leave. It's not for me to save everybody's life."
The first issue of Spawn was produced by McFarlane himself with the assistance of Terry Fitzgerald. Today he has approximately 120 people on his payroll. Among his employees are artists and writers who produce stories on a work-for-hire basis, as he once did for Marvel. What rights, if any, do these creators have with respect to characters, designs or story elements that they introduce into McFarlane's comic? "It depends on my involvement," he told the Journal. "Most of the characters, I created. I'm very loose, but I can't let anyone dictate to me. You have to trust the people you work with -- This is where it gets weird -- The way I see it, everybody gets treated fairly, but what's fair is predicated on what I think is fair. A lot of people don't see eye-to-eye with me."
One of those people appears to be Neil Gaiman who, as a guest-writer on Spawn, created the character of Angela, then saw her become a recurring character and a toy without any royalties being paid to him. Gaiman confirmed that an out-of-court (so far) legal dispute over the character has been under negotiation for several months.
"Todd has become that which he criticized," Liefeld said. "You don't own anything you create for Todd McFarlane."
Image's minimalist mission statement explicitly allows each partner to determine his own work-for-hire arrangements without interference from Image Central. "The subject was absolutely taboo between us," Valentino told the Journal. "Work-for-hire agreements are up to your own discretion. Some did work for hire on one basis, some did it on another, and some didn't have it at all. Noninterference means noninterference, even when someone does something onerous."
As a result, work-for-hire arrangements vary from partner to partner and even from creator to creator. At Liefeld's RPL Inc., creators are entitled to at least partial ownership of characters they create, as they were at Liefeld's Image studio. "If somebody creates a character for me, they have an ownership percentage," he said. "Others have brought their characters to me and they own those characters."
When creators worked for Valentino's studio, they also retained rights to the characters they created. "The advantages of work for hire outweigh the disadvantages," Valentino said, "but I believe in creators' rights. A creator should own whatever he or she creates. When I asked Kurt [Busiek] to write Shadowhawk, there was an understanding that I had created Shadowhawk, but if he created a character in a story, there was a deal under which he would be compensated every time it was reprinted."
According to Valentino, the only troubling episode occurred when Busiek pursued a storyline involving Shadowhawks from other eras. Were these original characters or variations on one character? "I was concerned about that and called him," Valentino said, "but as far as he was concerned, they were all Shadowhawk, and there was no problem."
Silvestri said Top Cow's work-for-hire contracts are "all different to a point. In general, Top Cow controls ancillary rights to a property, but I believe in creator rights, and I want to make sure people have something in their hands after they've created a character."
As for Image Central, according to Valentino, the question does not arise. "Image is a fulfillment house," he said. "We don't own and we don't create. And we only take creator-owned books."
Valentino's definition of creator-owned book, however, apparently would extend to a book not owned by the book's creator. "The person who approaches us has to own the book," he explained. "How they got the property is none of my business." What exactly would be turned down? Valentino gave the example of "a nonpartner vendor studio that wanted us to publish someone else's book through them. We said no."
That is a prohibition, however, that does not apply to the partners. "A third party can come into Image through a studio," Valentino said. "The partners can do that but nobody else can." For example, Portacio, a founding partner, who dropped out when Image incorporated, sold his Wetworks property to Jim Lee, who continued to publish it as an Image title.
Marder noted that "Mike Turner worked his ass off on Witchblade and they gave him Fathom." In other words, Top Cow agreed to publish Turner's creator-owned Fathom title as a reward for his work-for-hire performance on Witchblade. (Unfortunately, Turner's already snail-like pace on Fathom has been further delayed by his recent hospitalization for emergency reconstructive hip surgery.)

The Image Deal
What kind of deal does Image offer creators? According to Marder, "Image is an alternative to the big companies. If you go almost anywhere else, people will want to own your film negatives and your movie rights."
Image asks to own nothing. The creator risks only the time and labor it takes to generate the pencilled, inked and lettered content of a book without any advance payments. Image then provides what amounts to an interest-free loan for soliciting, coloring and printing the title. The company's contract with Diamond Comic Distributors ensures that solicitations for titles published through Image will get a prime space near the front of Diamond's catalog. Once the orders come in, Image repays itself the cost of the book's production. Initially, the company also charged a percentage of a book's profits after cost, but Marder did away with that after he took over as executive director. "I didn't like the fact that if a book was a success, Image was sucking off that success," he said. Marder also discontinued Image's early practice of representing foreign rights for titles it published.
Although this apparent zero-sum proposition means Image can make no profit as such, the company could lose money if a title fails to make back its printing costs and a creator is unable to pay what is owed. Marder admitted, "From time to time, I would carry worthy books that couldn't make back their costs. I'm not sure if the partners knew who I was carrying or by how much."
Nevertheless, Image is not a charitable foundation. The flat rate it charges to recoup its production costs includes all the salaries and administrative costs that allow it to continue operating, which means that publishing through Image genrerally costs a creator more than self-publishing. A self-publisher without benefit of the Image connection, however, is not likely to have access to up-front credit from printers or up-front catalog placement by Diamond.
In the past four years, Jinx-creator Brian Bendis has had every sort of relationship with Image short of a full partnership. He has published his own titles through Valentino's nonline, becoming one of the few to survive at Image after the breakup of the nonline, and has produced stories for Todd McFarlane on a work-for-hire basis. In every instance, his working relationship has been satisfactory, he told the Journal. "It was a healthy place for my book to be," he said. "I'll take a flat rate charge any day. Once you pay the nut, it's all yours. All I require is that you do everything you say you're going to do, and at Image, they always do a little more in terms of promotion and other things."
As for Todd McFarlane Productions, "Working for Todd is not working for Image," he said, "but it's a good work-for-hire situation. It's very creator-friendly."
Jeff Smith's experience at Image, however, was one he decided to cut short. He found that the fixed production costs through Image were greater than the cost of publishing himself through Cartoon Books. "Jeff made it clear that he wasn't going to be around for the long term," Marder said. "He felt it was going to be a rocky road out there for a while and wanted a safe place to publish. Also, I think he anticipated the Bone movie was going to have moved along at a faster clip and his infrastructure in Columbus was going to be otherwise occupied. To me it was a good thing that he came in and got out with no real horror stories about getting involved with Image."
Rich Koslowski told the Journal his experience publishing Geeksville through Image has been a positive one, with the expanded readership due to his association with the Image banner more than making up for additional costs.
Steve Conley said he is pleased with his arrangement with Image, but noted that his Astounding Space Thrills was unusual in that it had built up a readership, as well as income, via the Internet prior to publishing through Image.
According to Liefeld, it isn't just altruism or a search for quality work that motivates Image's recruitment of a steady stream of small publishers. Image must publish and sell a certain volume of books in order to keep its position in the Diamond catalog, he said. Neither Image nor Diamond will reveal details of Diamond's exclusive distribution contract with Image, and both Marder and Valentino deny that there is any such provision, but according to Liefeld, "It absolutely exists. Their position in the catalog is based on maintenance of a marketshare percentage."
McFarlane scoffs at the idea that Liefeld, who often slept through Image business meetings, would have any idea of the details of its contract with Diamond.
Even if its contract with Diamond forces it to value quantity of titles over quality, Liefeld admitted that Image is a good place -- maybe the best place -- for a creator to take a book. "Image still lives up to its offer of freedom to a lot of creators," he said. "I can't match their deal. The Image deal is probably the best creator-owned deal in comics."
According to Marder, "We do have a system that will allow you to do your own books. Images exists for creators to be able to do that, which makes it an important entity in the marketplace."
Image in Decline
Nevertheless, the heyday of Image's first years has passed. None of its current titles come close to the sales levels of its early issues. "Image has the same problem as everybody else," Marder said: "a dwindling consumer base in conjunction with declining sales outlets. Now, the decline in sales outlets has been stopped by retailers finding other things to sell than comics. The problem is the stores that have leveled off seem to have the ability to sell less and less new comics. It's increasingly hard to find people to sell comics to."
Does Marder see any way around the problem? "I don't believe the [comics-shop] direct market is the only way, but it's the only way right now," he said. "It always seems that bookstores and newsstand distribution should be doing better for comics, but they have their own problems. It's a general crisis in newsstand print in America. Comics are the canary bird in the coal mine of the industry. Other areas have also been hit. There is a serious decline in the sales of chewing gum. Where did all the 8-year-old girls go in the Barbie market? Comics lost the kid customer a long time ago and never realized they were gone. If they had realized it, why would they still be putting out summer annuals? Now a comics connoisseur begins reading as a young adult, and they're not nec-essarily geared to going to the comics store every week. At Nickelodeon, comics are the most popular part of their magazine, but every time they try to put out comics on their own, they tank."
Did Marder leave Image to work for McFarlane out of a loss of faith in the comics industry? "My role had changed to that of a publisher -- finding talent and publishing them," he said. "I realized that this wasn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My real skills had always been in getting people who were located far apart to work smoothly together. My long-term interests have increasingly moved toward branding and worldwide marketing. Image was always a difficult brand to sell. Brand identity got away from us as each studio promoted its own brands more and more and as people came in from the outside."
Image: Pass or Fail?
Which brings us to the question that must finally be asked: Was Image a failure? "I don't see how you could leave Marvel Comics and end up with a 10 percent market share and call that a failure," Marder said. As a measure of Image's continuing success he pointed to the fact that Image "was there for Mike Wieringo to create and publish Telos."
Certainly, Image would seem to have been an unqualified success for people like Larry Stroman, who were able to get in and out of the company at the right time. According to Liefeld, Stroman made a million dollars by publishing a single issue of The Tribe at the peak of Image's popularity. When his next issue fell too far behind for even the chronically late Image partners to tolerate, they voted to drop the title. Valentino asserts that there has never been a split vote in the history of Image, and this vote was no exception, but only because Larsen, who wanted to keep Stroman on, was unable to attend. In any case, it may have been the best thing that could have happened to Stroman, who left with his million intact.
Image a failure? "We are the biggest independent comics company in the history of comics," said McFarlane. "How is that a failure?"
McFarlane, of course, is speaking from the top of a huge toy empire. "The empire is just a bonus," he said. "If all I had was my own comic to draw, I'd still be happy. I think people don't realize how much of a love I really have for comics. There was a sense of community in the old days. Even The Comics Journal used to have it. But I don't get that any more. We're a dysfunctional family and that bugs me. The system itself fell apart because nobody kept their eye on the ball. Short-term thinking is the demise of everything, and we're all part of the problem. I can kick and scream all I want, but one lone voice is not going to save this community."
McFarlane's wistful nostalgia for the comics community, however, comes and goes as he speaks. The story he wants to tell is, in the final analysis, not the Story of Comics but the Story of Todd McFarlane. "The comic-book world could blow up tomorrow," he told the Journal. "I'm taken care of. The guy you got to worry about the least is Todd McFarlane. I'm bulletproof. I will make no apologies for anything Image has done. I left Marvel to be free. Eight years later, is Todd free? You're fucking right he is. I can't even envision the day when I would go back to the plantation and do Spider-Man or Heroes Reborn. I'm free, goddamn it! I've got everything I want!"
Looking back on his time with Image, Liefeld, the man who brought the partners together in 1991 and was later forced out of the company by those same partners, summed up his feelings: "Given that it's 10 years later nearly, I believe that, in that decade, Image has changed dramatically, but it still offers a good haven for creators, and I will always be proud to have been part of that."
"We said it at our first press conference," said Valentino: "The face of Image may change drastically over time."
Marder: "Is Image what it was when it started? No. Back then it was a tear-down-the-walls motherfucker of a company. But we are living in a different world than we were in 1992. And not just in comics."


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