One Fan's Opinion: Issue #30

Thu, March 23rd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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"Savage Dragon" #1
One of the subjects I'm asked most often to write about is the early days at Image comics.

I get the feeling that folks think a lot different things were happening than actually happened and I kind of like the illusion that exists. The mystery of what went on behind closed doors.

But people persist, What was it like working with Todd McFarlane?" and "What's Jim Lee really like?" and "How come Marc Silvestri is such an incredible stud?"

The thing is that the reality is a lot less interesting than the fantasy. The reality is that we were just a bunch of guys trying to make some cool comics and that we didn't work together in the same room at all. In fact, we didn't even live anywhere near each other!

The only time we worked together side-by-side was during one of our Image meetings where we got the whole gang together. At one of those you might catch me inking or Todd inking or Valentino working out cover designs or what have, you but even then there were generally a couple folks on hand that weren't actively producing pages.

Todd would frequently impose on others to pitch in. I can remember a double page spread from an issue that Frank Miller wrote being split in two and worked on by two different guys. The funny thing there was that Todd's pencils were so vague that when the spread was pieced back together; the two sides didn't match up! An arm on one side would turn into a foot on another, but since it was a pile of broken bodies Todd messed around with it and added in some smears and spatters and called it beautiful.

There was surprisingly little ego involved in any get together. For all of the talk about certain creators having swelled heads, I've found that to be pretty much not the case. At a meeting you might hear Todd ask Jim to help him figure out a tricky bit of anatomy that was giving him trouble or catch me patiently trying to explain perspective to somebody that was struggling with it. Cover sketches were passed around. Plots were suggested. Characters were designed or redesigned and there was never any animosity about it. Nobody ever hinted of wanting to be compensated for helping out another creator - even if they were helping design a character that another artist would use for years to come. We were in this together and we all wanted Image to be producing the best comics possible.

"Cyberforce" #1
There weren't any parties or celebrations or drunken binges or orgies.

As a group we were remarkably clean cut. Nobody drank or did drugs or chased skirts in my presence. There was a lot of trying to sort things out and figure out ways of doing things better and some clowning around, but nothing too crazy.

A typical Image meeting would start out with six guys entering a room, some weighed down with pages and drawing tools and there was often somebody with an agenda. Business would be conducted while work was being done. Pages would get passed back and forth and at the end of the meeting, some guys would leave the room. Where six normal guys with their own voices would enter that room, six guys would exit, all doing Todd McFarlane impersonations of varying qualities. It was pretty funny to witness as Todd's distinctive voice mannerisms took root. It would start with Todd, of course, but a fellow couldn't help sticking in a "bud" or affecting Todd's marbles-in-his-mouth mutterings during the course of the meeting. By the time it was over, six vocally challenged idiots would wander out into the world to drive home or catch a plane.

There weren't a lot of arguments. If there had been differences or disagreements prior to a meeting, they got sorted out in short order.

Others entering our realm found it more than a little unorthodox. I can remember a meeting in a hotel suite where the lot of us sat on or around a big bed. Jim Lee was pacing the room and rocking his kid to sleep in this weird blanket arrangement that he had slung around himself and people were running late and it just seemed so disorganized and flaky and unprofessional and those entering the room couldn't have helped but be baffled by it all as one guy nodded off, "and he's the one making all the decisions" said another, pointing at him.

We started off as an imprint of Malibu comics. Our deal with them was pretty straightforward. They got $5000 and 10% from each book - we got the rest (it may surprise you to know that Image comics today offers a far better deal to creators, but at that time this deal was the best deal in town). After a year of being under their wing, the Image boys pulled out and formed our own company independent of Malibu comics. Although Image started in 1992, we weren't on our own until 1993.

And Image changed everything.

"Spawn" #1
Marvel's stock took a major hit following our departure. DC became, for a brief time, the #3 publisher! Orders were insane. Speculators were out of control! Fans went wild!

I remember Marvel buying their own distributor (Heroes World) and the mad scramble that followed that less-than brilliant move (in a few years, Heroes World was kaput). Diamond was controlled and cooperative as they tried to get other companies to go exclusive with them. The other major comic book distributor, Capital, on the other hand, offered worse terms than we had with them before in an effort to sway us to sign up with them! It was no wonder we signed up with Diamond.

It was a fun time. We'd gather at Marc's Malibu home or go to some hotel or, later, some meeting room at the Image office.

There ended up being a lot of hangers on - guys that smelled success and wanted to get in on the action. Guys that aspired to market characters or make movies or cartoons or lunch boxes, trading cards, toys or pogs. Mistakes were made. Some folks thought the good times would never end and rented lavish studios and employed dozens of people. Others kept things more under control. A lot of people pissed away a lot of money out of sheer stupidity. Guys would hire people away from Marvel and offer to pay them four times their page rates.

Marvel struggled to keep up. The Image books were state of the art. As a group of creators, we got the best colorists in the business and the other books on the shelves looked flat and shoddy in comparison. Marvel bought Malibu comics shortly after we left them to go off on our own and raided their coloring department in an effort to catch up. Page rates went through the roof for those that stayed behind.

Things were frantic at the conventions. Lines would be long. Crowds, uncontrollable. For a brief period it was like being a member of the Beatles as we were shuffled from one room to the next. It was impossible to do a lot of the things we used to take for granted like walking in the convention hall and poking through back issue boxes or going to the bathroom ("Can you sign this?" "I've only got this one 'gold pen' on me, but it's a little runny -- maybe if I shake it a little!")

It was fun hanging out or horsing around at shows or at one of our infrequent meetings, but most often we spent time in our own offices doing our own work on our own books. The time we actually spent together was brief. We took no vacations together or made any unnecessary trips. We had work that needed to get done and despite evidence to the contrary, getting work done was a high priority.

The distractions were many. Folks wanted to do toys and cartoons and movies and video games. Guys would call up and drop by the house and pull us this way and that. A lot of work was done on projects that didn't pan out. A lot of time and effort was wasted. A lot of hangers on made life a little more hectic than it should have been.

And eventually things cooled down.

"ShadowHawk" #1
(Note: foil embossed covers don't scan so well!)
Some guys left, some were shown the door and some slowed to a crawl.

I think some terrific books came out and a whole mess of lousy ones, but there was nobody doing anything that began to approximate quality control and it was pretty much every man for himself. Readers and retailers, for good or bad, saw Image as an entity, not as a group of individuals, and if one guy was late, Image was late not just the one guy (and this perception plagues us to this day).

Knowing what I do now, I'd probably have done things differently. I'd certainly have made a much better effort to make my deadlines (although my track record wasn't that bad in comparison with some of the others). I really have few regrets.

Years later, the hype has dwindled, but the books we put out are a lot better than those that came out during our peak sales period. If you haven't checked them out, I encourage you to do so.

The Image explosion was a fun thing to go through and I'm extremely lucky to have had the success that I had. I can't thank the readers that supported me and continue to support me enough. I am extremely grateful.

Although most of the Image founders are still at Image I don't foresee a time when we'll get the whole band back together again. What we had was lightning in a bottle. The closest we had to a genuine reunion was the Image Comics hardcover from last year. It contained the work of the four remaining Image partners, Todd McFarlane, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri and myself. I don't think getting the original six together could possibly measure up to what we had before. I'd rather leave readers with a fond memory than become one of those sad groups of individuals that reform in an effort to cash in on past successes. I'd rather be the Beatles than the Who.

Sometimes it's best to leave your audience wanting more.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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