Baltimore Comic-Con's "Image United" panel featured appearances from Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Robert Kirkman, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino. Indeed, all of the book's creators were on hand--except for Todd McFarlane, whose absence prompted Silvestri to mock the "Spawn" creator's voice and demand that no one else get a microphone.
Larsen traced the origin of "Image United" back to a signing at Arizona's Atomic Comics in 2008. After working on a jam sketch with the other Image Comics founders and getting a good night of sleep, Larsen woke up and decided: "Whoa, wouldn't it be cool if we did a comic that was a jam like that? It seemed that that'd be a cool idea." The next step, of course, was to enlist the rest of the artists to the cause. Larsen approached each of them before getting McFarlane to agree as well. With all of the artists on board, Larsen made the next logical step--securing a writer.
"I was in Texas at a signing when I got a call from Erik Larsen, who doesn't usually call me on a Saturday," Kirkman recalled. "I figured it was important, so I interrupted the signing and picked up the phone-- which I try not to do--and he said, 'We're all doing a crossover, and we want you to write it.' I didn't even know they were all drawing it at the time."
Kirkman admitted that the idea behind "Image United" is brilliant in theory, but could potentially be much more difficult to execute in reality. "It's a very massive undertaking," Kirkman said. "My immediate thought was that it'd take a while--and it has--but it's all come together in a pretty good way."
The Image founders aren't making it any easier on themselves, either. "Image United" is drawn entirely on paper, save for some digital inking from the McFarlane camp. "It's all being done on the board," Larsen said. "These pages get sent all over the place. FedEx is making a killing on this book."
While the logistics of sending pages across the country might be a challenge, Kirkman said that watching the art process unfold is nothing short of awe-inspiring--thanks in large part to his own affinity for the Image Universe. "The thing about Image is that all of these characters are really cool," he said. "They look cool and they have cool premises. It's kind of a dream come true for me to tell a six issue story that's basically a road map to the Image Universe, showing what's cool about these characters and hopefully putting it in front of new eyes."
The panelists revealed that there would be many more characters featured in "Image United" beyond the already revealed main cast, with Whilce Portacio's Fortress taking a front-and-center role. Portacio spoke about how creating Fortress so many years after the founding of Image Comics made for an interesting experience, because Fortress can reflect how a superhero would operate in the modern day and age.
"Fortress [represents] my thoughts on what it would really be like to become a superhero in this day and time," he said. "Think about the world right now where Joe Schmo can get on Twitter, and if he has something interesting to say or is at the right place at the right time, he can become a celebrity. He gets rushed with all that stuff that celebrity really means. Now, multiply that by ten when you're a superhero and you have something to contribute to society and the world as a whole. I'm putting a lot of serious thought into that concept."
"The crux of the series is all about Fortress appearing on the scene," Kirkman added about Fortress's importance. "He's bringing these characters together after a vision of an apocalyptic future that he doesn't really understand. He knows that he has to stop it, so he's trying to band the heroes of the Image Universe to face against this unknown threat."
Portacio revealed that he's already working on future "Fortress" stories, but he has no intentions of releasing anything until "Image United" is completed. In fact, the artist said that working on "Image United" and its prelude--currently unfolding in the pages of "Savage Dragon" #153, "Witchblade" #131, "Invincible" #67 and "Spawn" #197--would actually benefit his future "Fortress" work. "In the prelude and in 'Image United' and then when the series comes out, you'll see a progression in my art as I get used to the character," Portacio said. "I'm getting to practice and perfect the way I want to handle Fortress artistically, and you'll see all of that in the actual 'Fortress' series itself."
Aside from "Fortress," the rest of the Image Comics characters will be profoundly affected by the events of "Image United." "It's going to lead to a lot of things that we'll announce later," Kirkman said. "There will be aspects of 'Image United' spinning out into different books that'll be coming out on the horizon. This isn't a book just for the sake of being a book--there will be a lot spinning out of this."
During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, one fan asked about the art process for the book--specifically, how the creators figured out layouts and backgrounds with all of the many artists involved. "When Robert writes a script, he'll break it down into pages and put a list together of who is involved on what page," Larsen revealed. "One guy lays out the whole issue--[Liefeld] laid out issue #1 and I'm laying out the rest. There are some basic shapes of where people are supposed to be, and it's passed onto the individual artist who then fills in their character."
When asked about how they each came up with their character designs, Liefeld said that he looks towards the things he likes and incorporates them into his work. "If I like something in anime or manga, or stuff from 'Star Wars' or 'Star Trek,' you can incorporate that into your characters."
"I design things that you don't have to draw exactly the same way twice in any same issue," Silvestri laughed. "If you get close and look at the Darkness, you go, 'Yeah, that's the Darkness!'"
A fan asked why "Image United" was drawn traditionally, using paper, instead of digitally. "We're a bunch of techno-tards," Valentino joked. Larsen said that the artists wanted something physical and tangible, and getting the pages from other artists was always inspirational.
"I will never draw on a computer," Liefeld added. "I like the paper. I like the pencil. I know that Todd has gone to the other side and is all about pixels and pressing buttons, but I just can't get into that mindset."
Another audience member wondered how long it took the artists to complete one page of the miniseries. "Some pages have literally six artists working on it, which is a pain in the ass and takes a while," Larsen said. "Some pages are just one artist, and that can take less than a day."
Kirkman was asked to touch on the story of "Image United" once again. "Fortress is gathering the heroes to fight an unknown villain that will be revealed next week," he teased. "Once everyone knows who that villain is--it's a very hard guess--everyone will know who this character is. It's a very big deal. He's basically out to take over the world, and Fortress is the only one who knows what's coming."
The panelists took some jabs at Larsen, saying that he hasn't had any new ideas since he was twelve. Liefeld leapt to Larsen's defense and said that many of his own characters were first conceived during childhood, and even McFarlane drew Spawn as a kid. "Image launched with a lot of our childhood notebooks being raided," he said.
A fan asked whether or not Kirkman would involve any of his own characters in "Image United." "I'm hesitant to shoehorn my own characters in here," he answered. "But there might be some surprises along the way."
Kirkman revealed that one of Invincible's villains, Doc Seismic, recently popped up in the "Image United" prelude as illustrated by Ryan Ottley. "That may be a hint of things to come," Kirkman suggested.