"Jim 'DC' Lee will not be here today," Todd McFarlane told a packed room Saturday in Oakland, California, at the inaugural Image Expo. The room was assembled to hear the Image Comics partners and founders talk about the company's 20th anniversary this year. In attendance were original founders Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld as well as their newest partner, Robert Kirkman. Ron Richards of iFanboy.com hosted the lively discussion that saw the founders happily reminiscing about the origins of the company, how it's evolved in 20 years and, of course, lots of McFarlane's trademark speeches.
"Rob was the beginning seed of it. He has the most clarity here," said McFarlane on how the germ of Image Comics first started in the early 1990s.
"The reason Image worked is because it was a collective," said Liefeld. "We were all jonesing to do our own thing. We loved our time at Marvel, I'm just speaking from a place of honesty, and I was just excited to do something else. It wasn't like 'I'm done with Marvel' or 'Marvel's treated me wrong.'"
"Our rapport with the fans was genuine and it was organic and there's a reason that Todd's Spider-man is the best selling of all time. People just loved it," he added before being interrupted by Erik Larsen belatedly waking up onto the stage.
"What'd I miss?" shouted Larsen as he sat down.
Liefeld then continued discussing the origins of the company, saying that the fact that McFarlane was on a sabbatical at the time for the birth of his first child was an important factor.
"Todd and Valentino were my mentors in the business early on," Liefeld said. "He gave me some of the best advice I ever got in comics. We talked all the time; we talked more than his mom. I called him too much!"
During these calls, McFarlane first brought up this new character he was developing, Spawn. He was coming back from his sabbatical soon and wanted to work on his own properties. "Todd became the greatest recruiter [of talent] in the history of comic books!" said Liefeld.
Liefeld wanted to do a comic called "The Executioners" but Marvel threatened to "sue him in to the ground" after they saw an ad for it because it was too similar to "X-Force". "I had to do something else, so I got 'Youngblood' together."
Liefeld then took his recruiting efforts to New York City in order to bring Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee on board.
"We used [Marvel's] dime to get to New York!" said Liefeld. Marvel had paid for Liefeld, Lee and Silvestri to go to NYC for an X-Men conference, but they used the opportunity to lay the groundwork for what would become Image Comics and bring in even more creators. While in NYC, Liefeld had McFarlane meet up with them to help. "[McFarlane] closed the deal with Marc [Silvestri] right then."
McFarlane says that although they "were going to do Image comic books anyways" he knew that if "we could get Jim Lee, he was going to be the lynch pin and here's why. At this point in our career, Rob and I were the bad boys of comics. They knew we had that attitude. But if we could get the golden boy, and I'm not saying it in a bad way, I'm saying it in a positive way, Jim Lee was the face of the company and if we could get him it would send a message. They understood that Rob and Todd were maniacs, but if Jim Lee went…. Wow. They would go 'You know what? Anybody could leave because Jim's gone.'"
Lee happened to be staying in the same hotel as McFarlane at the time so McFarlane cornered him in the lobby and pitched Image Comics on the spot. Lee decided to join up and the rest is history.
Just getting Lee wasn't enough, though, so they decided to flaunt their new independence by marching in to DC's offices unannounced.
"Jim Lee who was the golden boy who had never done a page for DC and back then there were only two outfits. If you quit Marvel you went to DC and if you quit DC you worked at Marvel. So we walk into DC with Jim Lee and all of the editors just went 'oh my god! The golden boy is here!' He had never walked in to their offices ever. They sit there and they get all the editors and they go 'what can we do for you?'… [McFarlane told them] 'Well we just told Marvel we are never going to work for them again and we thought we'd just give the same courtesy to you because we aren't working for you either.'"
DC tried to recruit them anyways, though. They claimed to have come up with the perfect business plan to make their creatives happy. McFarlane asked them if they had gotten any input from creatives for their new plan. "When I got the pregnant pause [from DC's executives] it was all I needed in that moment to cement that we were making the right move."
"We hadn't built an infrastructure yet, so we hired Malibu Comics as our infrastructure figuring it would take a year to put all that together. Image was never an imprint of Malibu. Malibu worked for us from the start, day one," said Jim Valentino. Malibu also allowed the Image creators to use Malibu's coloring house, which was among the industry's best at the time.
"After the first year we were like 'we're outta here!' We were totally on our own," Valentino added. "We had the power of seven. We had that buying ability. It gave us individual autonomy but with the buying power of a co-op."
That first year saw the birth of many characters that are still published today, like Spawn and Savage Dragon. "I've had one idea ["The Savage Dragon"] and I've just been coasting on it. I had it when I was like eight," joked Larsen.
"I created Spawn in high school," said McFarlane.
"Marvel Comics never in a million years would have published "The Savage Dragon." Even if you would have given it to them, they never would have published it," said Silvestri. "It was a singular vision… They were never gonna give someone that power."
"They might have let Todd do 'Spawn,' just because you're Todd," Silvestri added. However, "it would have been editorialized and it would have been watered down to the point where Spawn would have been walking around with webs all over his costume and shooting out all the goopy stuff that you were famous for."
"In spite of what the fans may have thought, we didn't have a whole lot of say [at Marvel]," Silvestri said, even when their comics were selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
McFarlane commented that another reason Image was able to be successful was because they were artists and not writers. When writers have tried ideas similar to Image, it always fails, according to McFarlane, because writers water down their output too much. However, artists only have one book a month, so if fans want to read a Todd McFarlane comic book, there's only the one comic to buy each month. There is no selection like when a writer juggles multiple books. If you put out five books a month, you give people five options.
"I gave you no option but to buy ['Spawn']," said McFarlane. "It's why Robert Kirkman became the first partner, because he figured out the same thing we did. He shut it off [by leaving Marvel] and he moved over here…[No one else] has made the move, the ballsy move, that Robert Kirkman made and I applaud him for it."
"I still don't know that I should be on this panel!" said Kirkman to huge laughs from the crowd. "I was 13 or 14 when all this stuff started."
"I've benefitted a great deal from all their hard work. I know I've thanked them before but I'm going to do it again. You guys are the best. My kids are getting fat because of you guys!"
"Image Comics has never owned anything, ever. Image owns nothing," explained McFarlane. "20 years ago we thought we had the best deal for creators and, 20 years later, bar none, we have the best deal for creators… You don't have to work for the same two guys over and over if you don't want to. If you want to, fine. God bless you."
"We are an option. We are 20 years now into the failure," Silvestri added, laughing. "Maybe 20 years from now, it will [fail.] But I don't think so. I think it'll outlive all of us."
"I'll tell you what my biggest disappointment has been at Image," said McFarlane. "It's running into creative people who allow 90 days of eating macaroni and cheese dictate the rest of their natural life… The way that it works is you walk in, you come up with an idea, you hire your buddies, you publish this book and in about 90 days you'll get the numbers and eventually collect the money and eventually get money. Their answer has been, and I've heard this dozens of times in two decades, and it's staggering to me, that they will sit there and go 'well I have money now, but I can't afford to not get a paycheck for three months.' And so they will never, ever, put out the possibility that they could have a 'Walking Dead' that will carry you for the rest of your life and get your kids fat."
"They'll let a thousand dollars stop them from potentially making a million. It is inconceivable for a guy like me, who will jump off a cliff and wonder if there is a safe landing halfway down."
Richards than prompted the panel to talk about how they think things have changed in the 20 years since Image was founded.
"What's going on over at Marvel and DC, things are getting worse for creators from everything that I hear," said Kirkman. "Image doesn't take any of your rights or tell you what to do at all."
Silvestri joked, "I have to agree with Robert that zombies are cool!" The panel burst out in laughter.
"The thing about Image Comics when we started 20 years ago, and it still holds true today, even though we have more experience and we've learned a lot, both from successes and failures, is that the dysfunction of Image is actually the function of Image. Image was formed by seven lunatics who, like Todd said, backup for a running start off a cliff," said Silvestri. "The beauty of Image is the fact is that now, with 20 years of retrospect, what Image did, what it stood for, has literally become a part of pop-culture history."
"We could all get hit by a bus and Image is going to survive regardless," said McFarlane. He added that Image thrives today because it is bringing in so much new talent. He pointed out that down on the convention floor, very little of the work being produced is by any of the Image founders themselves.
"Our obituaries were written that very first year. They thought we were going to fail," said McFarlane. "I also want to go on record that I admire Erik [Larsen] most out of all my partners for just being single minded in his vision of just wanting to do comic books the way he saw. He didn’t have any bigger visions, he just wanted to do comic books."
McFarlane finished by saying that he "will have an Image logo on 'Spawn' until the die that I die."
Richards then opened the panel up to questions from the floor.
A fan asked to what degree the Image partners work together as friends, either through advice or mentoring. Kirkman said that he owes McFarlane quite a bit for helping him steer his properties through various different media.
"Image Comics to me is about camaraderie," said Liefeld. "That's why Kirkman fit in. He's like our kid, our mutual gangbang!"
Another fan asked how Image creators secure rights for properties in other media. McFarlane explained it was up to each individual creator. "It's your game. You get to raise your baby the way you see fit."
"[People looking to develop properties in other media] will call Image, but we just pass phone numbers on to individual creators," added Larsen.
The next question asked whether there there were any characters the Image founders created for Marvel or DC that they wish they had used for Image. McFarlane intentionally "never created anything at Marvel or DC unless they asked me to. I never gave them anything." McFarlane would just make Marvel's stuff "cooler" but not give them any of his own original "cool" ideas.
Silvestri said he "was fully prepared to pitch Cyberforce as an ["X-Men"] offshoot."
Liefeld, much to his mentor McFarlane's dismay at the time, created many huge properties for Marvel, but said, "I don't have any regrets. There's never been a time, ever, where I thought I should have kept Cable or Deadpool for me."
Larsen had a few character designs he wished he hadn't given away to Marvel. Cardiac is one character in particular he wished he had kept for himself. "I should have just erased him and put some idiot there."
Kirkman revealed he pitched two Cardiac mini-series while at Marvel but they were turned down.
One fan wanted to know whether the conclusion of founder jam-session series "Image United" would be published this year. Kirkman wouldn't give a firm answer but has "seen a ton of pages from issues four and five."
Everyone but Larsen is still excited about the project, even though it was Larsen's idea. It was not clear if this was a joke or not.
"I want to go on record that when they pitched it to me, I went 'this is gonna be fucked!' But everyone else was in, so I went with the team." joked McFarlane.
Asked about animation projects, Silvestri said that "Witchblade" and "Spawn" have already been made in to cartoons that are available now.
McFarlane wrapped up the panel, against Kirkman's protestations, by revealing that "Haunt" might also be becoming a cartoon. "We've been doing a couple things in Hollywood and people have been bugging us about 'Haunt'… We'll see what happens in the next month or two."