Milagro: Image Comics Makes Creators’ Rights an Issue for a New Generation
Image Comics was the game-changer. Not only did they proactively assert their rights as creators, but instilled in those to follow, the notion of creator autonomy.
It certainly seems a bit odd that, for all the time I spent at the age of fourteen thinking about comics, I had no idea at all how they really worked. Even for that naïve age, I feel like I should have realized sooner that the comics industry was not simply a magical kingdom where Stan Lee sat atop a golden throne, pointing his magical pencil at a blank comics page and filling it with four-color wonderment.
Then again, it is an attraction to just these sorts of flights of fancy that tends to create comic-book enthusiasts. And the PR machines at Marvel and DC did little to discourage this notion of a workplace as free and creative as any of the imaginary universes at their disposal. Yes, to take this sort of idea literally seems childlike at best, but what better an environment for the popular arts than a childlike one?
The business side of a creative endeavor, like the business side of any endeavor, often presents itself as a joyless, cold enterprise. But in the popular arts, it truly is necessary, and will probably remain so until the Medicis or somebody start patronizing the arts again in earnest. The machinery, literal or otherwise, required to process and distribute comics is just as important as the creative side of things. It is a symbiotic relationship, and as with any symbiotic relationship, a balance is mandatory for its survival.
The formation of Image Comics was primarily to address the imbalance between the publishers and the creators and correct it. But by taking this stand for creators’ rights, the men behind Image Comics opened the starry eyes of many young comics’ fans and future creators to the often-ignored business side of things.
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Self-publishing in comics was nothing new in 1991. The underground comix of the late 1960s had established an alternative system for distribution for that genre which was still strong, even if the head shops they had built that system on had all but vanished. The young company Dark Horse Comics had established a toehold in the industry with its comics based on licensed properties--Aliens, Predator, and the like--thereby allowing them to also publish creator-owned books by fan favorites like Frank Miller and Matt Wagner. And Dave Sim was fourteen years into Cerebus, the book he would continue to publish almost single-handedly for the next fifteen years.
But for your average comic-book reader (“average” here defined as “one who mostly reads superhero comics”), there was still only one game in town—well, two games, actually: Marvel and DC. Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, Batman, and all of their ilk still held sway in the marketplace decades after their initial appearances. As popular as these characters were, Marvel and DC (or “The Big Two”, as they are commonly known) were soon to find out that it was the creators behind these characters that were important. The comic-book buying public was showing up for Spider-Man, say, but they were staying for Todd McFarlane.
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In December of 1991, McFarlane and the rest of Marvel’s wildly popular artists of the time--including Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee--marched into Marvel Comics’ President Terry Stewart’s office and demanded their own line of creator-owned books. To say this was unheard of would be a vast understatement. Artists and writers in the comics field were thought of as they had been since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the rights to Superman to DC over fifty years before: hired help. The publishers owned the characters, and the characters were what sold books, not whoever happened to be writing or drawing them at the time.
Today, this sort of narrow-minded thinking seems strange, even for nearly twenty years ago. But comics, as the red-headed stepchild of the popular arts, were still not taken seriously even such a short time ago. Comics were still mostly a stepping stone to screenwriting or graphic design, and if one were lucky enough to carve out a career doing comics, then one would cling to that no matter what.
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Another reason this logic sounds so unbelievable to me is that at that time, I thought of these artists as no less than gods upon the earth. It seems a little silly now, but it was the stone truth back in my early adolescence. However history remembers the creative output of McFarlane or Liefeld or any of Image’s forefathers, the fact that they were on par with rock stars for myself and many, many of my peers is undeniable.
It really seems to me now that there was a real synchronicity going on here. A handful of young upstarts (Rob Liefeld was only 21 when he and his associates held that meeting with Terry Stewart) was challenging the status quo, but they were going into it with a major fan base backing them up. The highly stylized drawing style of these men had hit a major nerve with legions of young comic-book readers around the world, so they were not just fans but wholly devoted fans. Fans who were active, fans who were vocal. Fans who would follow them into a heretofore unknown creative venture.
This Was Then: Image founders posing for a
group photo cannot hide their exuberance
That sort of empowerment of the creator and the readership was unparalleled at that level and has yet to be repeated, for my money. And the effects were almost immediate. In 1993, DC officially formed its own creator-owned imprint, Vertigo, enlisting such creative minds as Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, and continues to publish some of the important comics titles of the day. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, on of Image’s first titles, was an instant hit, and that character’s branching out into TV and film proved that superhero franchises could come from other sources than the Big Two, paving the way for film treatments like Sin City and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
But personally, the longest-lasting and most important effect the creators of Image Comics had was their assertion of their rights as artists. They believed in their creative impulses and sought to pursue them unfettered by any corporate allegiance, and they were immensely rewarded for that. That risk instilled in a young generation of writers and artists a pride in their craft and their chosen medium. And the benefits of that, I can say without fear of hyperbole, are so vast as to be immeasurable on any scale.