This article contains several spoilers for "Image United" #2.
Compared to the heroes of the Image Universe, the creators of "Image United" have it easy. The six-issue crossover event — written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Image Comics founders Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino — embarks on its second issue this week, leaving even the bravest of Image's warriors in bitter conflict with their fiercest foes.
After Jim Downing turns down Omega Spawn's offer to join his world-ending plot, the current Spawn is transported to a hospital in Chicago where all hell continues to break loose between Image's expansive roster of heroes and villains. But the battle isn't confined solely to the Windy City, as we see that Cyberforce, Witchblade and other champions are contending with similar conflicts all across the globe. By the end of the issue, it's clear that the war is far from over — indeed, it's only the beginning.
Following the release of each issue of "Image United," CBR News is speaking with writer Robert Kirkman and one of the Image Comics founders for an exclusive commentary track about the development of the most recent installment. This week, CBR sat down with Kirkman and "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane, who is responsible for the issue's opening four-page fight sequence between Jim Downing and the resurrected and vengeful Al Simmons, currently known as Omega Spawn.
CBR News: Right out of the gate, "Image United" #2 picks up one of the biggest threads from the first issue — the first confrontation between Jim Downing, the current Spawn, and Al Simmons, the artist presently known as Omega Spawn.
Robert Kirkman: I wanted to build [Omega Spawn] up as a very powerful, threatening villain, so I wanted to open this issue with him trashing the Jim Downing Spawn and [Downing] having to escape. I knew that was a moment that most readers would want to see — the two Spawns facing off. Rather than hold that back and do the usual thing where I could tease that [for later in the series], I just wanted to get it out of the way. A lot of the things that I'm doing for "Image United" are building up the things that [fans] are expecting me to hold back and just giving it to them right away. I think this series has a lot of different things that I'm keeping up my sleeve, so I'm able to give the fans what they want as early on as possible.
Todd McFarlane: It's a bit of a continuation from the end of issue #1. This goes back, literally, to the very beginning when Robert was trying to come up with some of the ideas for the story. He came back going, "I need to come up with a big super-villain. Can I use 'Anti-Spawn' if you will, for lack of a better super-villain name." I had reservations about it because I had grand plans of what I wanted to do with Al. I'd taken him out of the regular continuity of the ongoing monthly book. So I said, "Okay, as long as you don't go overboard and paint me into a corner that I can't complete what it is that I want to do with the regular monthly book, then you can have a shot at it. See what you can come up with."
Kirkman: I've had conversations with Todd to discuss the differences between Al Simmons and Jim Downing. Jim is more of an action first, talk later kind of guy. He doesn't really ramble on a lot. Al Simmons is a bit of a talker, so there's a personality difference there. There are also some changes in Al Simmons here. He's gone through a bit of a transformation that we'll be learning about as the series progresses, so there are different aspects to this version of Al that we'll be learning. He's even changed a little bit from what people know from the regular "Spawn" series.
McFarlane: We can argue that Omega Spawn is a new character, in terms of it not being the Al that we've known for 185 issues in the regular "Spawn" series. This is the first time he's in print, and it was a big grand idea that Robert was trying to talk me into. I was a little hesitant. So Robert and I had a couple of conversations, but nothing overly deep, because it was virgin territory. To me, I think part of the conversation was, "Robert, as long as you're not trying to make it Al — the Al from 185 issues, and I know where I'm going to be going with Al in the future — there's sort of this sweet spot now that's open for interpretation. You know what you have to accomplish in 'Image United,' so I don't want to have to limit you to what it is you're doing."
I was more concerned with what he was going to do with Jim. We all know that this book is going to end and we're all going to have to go back to our normal monthly books, so we'll need some semblance of order when we get there. The concern wasn't necessarily about what Robert was doing with Omega Spawn — he's never existed for either one of us, so Robert, to me, could knock himself out. It was more for Jim and [making sure Robert] knew my plans for the future. You can't kill him, don't lop off his arm…
Kirkman: Oh, shit! Don't lop off his arm?
McFarlane: Well, glue it back together by the sixth issue or something. [Laughs] I don't know how Robert dealt with the other artists, but I didn't want to limit him with what he could do, as long as he knew some of the sort of basic rules, that he had to give it back to me fairly intact. I don't even mind if you add one or two things that I can carry into the book. That's what's cool about crossovers, so just go and have fun. We'll just tell you whether or not we're able to fit any [of Robert's plans] into our ongoing books. My guess is that the other guys would say, "Okay, that's plausible, we can live with all of that."
Kirkman: There is some stuff that's coming up, especially in issues #4 and #5, where I think certain people will say, "Oh, wow. I can't believe they're doing that in this series. That's a big deal." Eventually, it got to a point where we started doing some crazy stuff, as people will see.
Todd, take us through the construction of this fight sequence.
McFarlane: Issue #1 was laid out by Rob Liefeld, and issue #2 was laid out by Erik Larsen. Erik takes a look at the plot and scripts by Robert in advance, then roughs it out. Since Robert decided to put the Spawn fight up at the front of it, these are my pages, and I get these rough scribbles from Erik and my job, just like all of us, is that I have to go put some Todd-y things on Erik's scribbles. Marc does his Marc things on Erik's scribbles and everyone sort of goes, "Okay." It's interesting: I can sort of see Rob and Erik's layouts underneath us, even though we're trying to do our own gig … Erik has his big way of doing action sequences, so it's interesting to me to see Erik or Rob underneath our pencils and inks, if you will.
For some panels, I was very loyal [to Larsen's layouts]. The big splash, I stayed pretty true to it. I wouldn't have normally done that light coming out like it was running at you. That wouldn't have been my M.O. when I'm doing my dramatic big poses and stuff. It wasn't the way I would have laid it out, but let me take a whack at it. If I don't like it, I'll just redraw it. The first thing I did was that big light, and it kind of turned out okay, I thought. The muscle structure is there, it looks reasonable, so I'll keep going with it and I won't begin again and rework the whole Spawn body. If I was fighting that one piece of anatomy, I would have started altering it to get it into something that was more in my comfort zone, but there's something curious about this whole experiment of trying to see how you can fit into the predetermined boxes that are in front of you. In those first three pages, [for] about 60 or 70% I stayed pretty loyal to what Erik was doing, and the other 30 or 40% I messed around and did my own thing, without disrupting what the story flow was supposed to be.
Jim escapes the battle and transports himself to Hillman Hospital in Chicago, where he's instantly met by Ann Stevens, one of Erik Larsen's characters.
McFarlane: The guy who is the most interesting to [illustrate alongside] is Erik Larsen. I've said before that both Rob and Marc and, to some degree now, Whilce with inking his own stuff, the line quality is sort of in the same gene pool. Erik is the guy who has got the most "radical" style from what we have, so it's always interesting to have to draw next to one of his guys. It actually influences my line weight where I would have done the line a little bit lighter; I'm intentionally making the line just a little bit beefier so you don't have this whispy- lined character next to a big, chunky line weight that Erik might do. You're trying to blend this stuff and make it as seamless as you can. Again, it's part of the experiment [of "Image United"]. Sometimes I think it works and sometimes it's a bit of a failure, but I think the whole is better than the parts.
Kirkman: The bulk of this issue is about moving a lot of the pieces and getting them into play in an organic way with all of the different regions of the country and all of the different characters and where they are and whatnot. This is Jim escaping from his fight with Omega Spawn and ending up in Hillman Hospital where some of Erik Larsen's characters are, and because the Youngblood fight where Vogue was injured took place in Chicago in the last issue, Vogue and Die-Hard just so happen to be in this hospital. We get a couple of quiet moments where we see their relationship and we see Nurse Ann Stevens, a very cool character in "Savage Dragon" that turns into… Mighty Man. She turns into a dude, so that's cool. [Laughs] I took a couple of panels to explain her somewhat.
McFarlane: Now that Robert knows who all of these characters are, we're not far away from doing the Image Comics Handbook.
Kirkman: [Laughs] You could not pay me enough to write that! That would be ten years of my life!
Hillman Hospital comes under attack, and we see Mighty Man and a whole slew of other second tier Image Comics characters in the thick of battle. It shows that "Image United" isn't just about the A-listers — this is about everybody.
Kirkman: Exactly. That's why Marc Silvestri had to draw Warbuck, much to his dismay. [Laughs] I figured that when people are saying, "Whoa, Marc Silvestri is drawing Warbuck!" From that point on, anybody can show up, and most everybody does by the end of the issue. I think this series is an immense amount of fun, especially for me, being able to see all of these characters again and seeing how all encompassing the Image Comics universe is. It's a callback to those earlier days where everyone was interacting more, with their five million characters in each book. It's a fun callback to all of that. I think the hardcore fans are going to enjoy that as much as I am. It's also a cool showcase for these characters for fans that aren't necessarily familiar with them.
We saw Sara Pezzini in the opening vision sequence of "Image United" #1, but this is her first appearance in the book since that introduction.
Kirkman: Witchblade didn't really appear in the first issue aside from that flash-forward vision that Fortress had, so I really wanted to make sure we got her in here, just because, you know, no one else has any female characters! [Laughs] If we don't use Witchblade, then it's just a bunch of dudes! There are a few chicks in Youngblood and Cyberforce, but for the most part, it's all dudes. I wanted to try and get her in as early as possible.
McFarlane: Hey, there are a bunch of angels in my book! What are you talking about? [Laughs]
There wasn't any temptation to bring Omega Spawn in as Alberta Simmons, I guess?
Kirkman: You're ruining the ending here!
McFarlane: That's our interview in a few months from now.
Todd gets back into action here as Spawn joins the battle outside of Hillman Hospital. This is obviously a very different fight sequence for Jim, as he isn't going up against another Spawn this time around.
McFarlane: When you've got two guys named Spawn and you know that you've got two big capes, a bunch of chains and the same color palette, you have to be careful of where you're laying everything [out]. You don't want this to be a confusing read, so color plays a huge role in that. When I just have Spawn in his full regalia going up against the rest of the good guys and bad guys of the Image Universe, I'm less concerned about all of that. There aren't too many guys in the Image Universe with giant capes, these big and dark guys, so you can just draw it and have fun with it against the other characters.
I showed my wife [this page] and said, "Here's me and here's Marc and his crew." I have sort of a medium sized line, Marc has a thin line, and then you get into Erik who is below us with his thick sized line. She actually thought it was interesting to look at; she could pick out the differences [between artists], not because it was overly noticeable, but it's sort of interesting to see three guys finish a page. But it's like I said, when I get into those pages, I sort of just go into my Todd mode and go, "Here's how I draw. I'm just doing my piece of the puzzle." I'm not trying to work around anything. Some of the pages are more of a work around where you have to think your way through to the end result.
In Hartford, the members of Cyberforce are dealing with some issues of their own, including the introduction of new teammate, Barricade.
Kirkman: That last panel on page fifteen, Marc drew Heatwave twice. The little Ripclaw that's in the distance there? That's actually supposed to be Heatwave! [Laughs] He drew it and didn't even notice. Then I scripted it and I had Heatwave talking, both figures talking. The script was like, "Heatwave says this," then "Heatwave says that." I never noticed it. When we got the colored page back and we were putting the final book together, it was like, "Oh. There are two of them in this panel. How the hell did that happen?" [Laughs]
McFarlane: If there can be two Spawns, there can be two Heatwaves!
Kirkman: [Laughs] We didn't notice it until the last minute. There were a few lines that we moved around to make that Ripclaw. It's a fun moviemaking trick.
McFarlane: Let's just say that the entire Image Universe experiment is a very inexact science. [Laughs]
This double-page spread gives a sense of just how widespread the conflict has gotten.
Kirkman: I'm trying to show that there are tons of dudes fighting tons of dudes all over the country, so I wanted to do a couple of panels that jump around and show all of these characters that [the founders] created. It's the whole world in action; these guys aren't just drawing their main characters. It also gives people a sense of the scope of what everybody is up against, and I think it leads into the last scene nicely. I'm trying to make everybody look like they're screwed right now. Also, you've got to get Todd to draw Tremor and you want to get Blacklight in there.
McFarlane: I've got the Curse in there, I've got Cy-Gor. You dropped a couple from my rogue's gallery.
Kirkman: My favorite thing about this whole spread is that I didn't expect the whole goddamn city in the last panel to be on fire! That's a big deal, right? The whole city is on fire! [Laughs] There's a whole city on fire! That was Larsen.
By the end of the issue, several of our heroes — Spawn, Savage Dragon and Die-Hard — are heading to Youngblood HQ. As misfortune would have it, there's going to be a whole host of bad guys waiting outside for them when they get there.
Kirkman: I wanted to leave everyone with a sense of, "You ain't seen nothing yet, kids!" There are a few people at Youngblood HQ, but they're mostly undefended. There are a hundred or 2,000 or so bad guys. [The founders] filled in the holes pretty good there so it looks like there are 4,000 guys there. I wasn't expecting that many, but we'll make it work. [Laughs]
It's been set up that most of the different teams we've seen across the country are heading back to Youngblood HQ for various reasons, so you get the sense that — and this might be a shocker — there might be a very big extended fight scene in the next issue.
"Image United" #2, written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino, is currently available in stores. The third issue is scheduled to arrive on January 27, 2010.