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The Big Two. Marvel and DC. These are the comic book giants. The Titans. The ones who have shaped the medium for nearly a century. Comic book history is infused into their foundation, in their walls, in Stan Lee’s mustache.
In the 90s, creators including Jim Lee jumped ship and created Image Comics. This new comic book company focused on original, creator owned comics that would sometimes feature Rob Liefield’s questionable art. At the time of its creation, it was a real shock to the status quo. Especially when some of their comics began outselling the Big Two’s. Its popularity has risen and fallen, as has its quality, but it has remained afloat when many said it would not.
Now, after some careful and somber consideration, I think Image might be outrunning the Big Two. On many levels. Let me explain.
First, don’t misunderstand me, there are good books coming from the Big Two. Batman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Uncanny X-men, Thor: God of Thunder, the recent Deadpool, Avengers, and New Avengers are all great, solid reads. I’m just saying, if you took the bulk of books from the Big Two and compared it to the bulk from Image, you’d find more quality in Image’s pile.
Lets get specific.
The comic book is one of the greatest artistic mediums because it is without limits. The stories can take place anywhere and include anything. The same could be said for animation and, with today’s special effects, movies, but both of those require vast, expensive resources that ultimately limit what can and can’t be done. Comics are drawn images on a page. The limit is your imagination.
However, with all this potential, the Big Two — for the most part — have revolved around set characters in often times similar situations. I’m not saying they have to make Batman a robot centipede or Spider-Man a 400 foot tall energy demon, but they do seem reluctant to publish books that break new ground.
Sure, that’s not really true of Vertigo and we have the occasional untraditional comic casting, like Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Simon Baz as a Green Lantern, but that’s about the long and short of it. With Marvel especially, we don’t really get a lot of stories outside their respective multiverses, not to mention stories that could be considered risky.
Yep, that’s a comic called Sex. It’s a superhero comic from an unexplored angle. What is it? Pet ownership? No… of course not. It’s sex. Jeez. Image has a whole bunch of comics that deal with original, sometimes risky, stories. Stories that we haven’t seen before. And that’s fun!
Not that Superman or Wolverine can’t be fun, but they’ve been getting into scrapes for decades. I’m well versed in what they’re all about. Its just more refreshing to read about the world of Saga or the villains in Bedlam.
It comes down to taking chances. They’re willing to go out on a limb with a comic while the Big Two, victims of their own success, have to play it safe. Image can publish things that get banned by Apple, but Marvel has to answer to a lot more people if they’re not hitting their quota.
Not every Image book is my cup of low-calorie tea, but I can appreciate the effort and expertise put into them. So its pretty clear they’ve been putting out one quality book after another as of late, and I’m not really sure how. There are a lot of people doing a lot of things right.
Saga is one of the best comic in years. It’s imaginative, unique, and irreverent. The Big Two have recently put out some great books too, but none that compare. None that really excites or intrigues in the same way. Lets put it like this: I like Deadpool, but I don’t look forward to the next issue like I do with Saga.
I don’t read The Walking Dead, but I recognize its a solid book (many times better than the show). I recognize Invincible has the wherewithal to show the realistic physical damage a superpowered fight could cause, and that Sex Criminals can be quality sex comedy without being all “oooooo, lookit dees boobs”.
But why is this? What’s causing this sudden influx of quality?
Hey, you know what’s really appealing to writers and artists? Creative freedom and 100% creator-owned properties. That seems much better than toiling on Avengers AI for two years only to have your book canceled (apologies to the team on Avengers AI, just using you as an example. I’m sure your book is going to last a while. Um, keep it up).
At the recent Image Expo new books were announced by authors such as Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, and Ed Brubaker. That’s not even mentioning writers already with Image like Matt Fraction taking on another series, another for Rick Remender, another for Kyle Higgins, and THREE new ones for Nick Spencer. That’s a lot of established, quality talent churning out projects for Image.
Normally I worry about passion projects as they tend to exist outside the much needed vetting phase, but Image has shown a keen eye and good taste. What does this mean? That there’s a lot of great books in the future.
There are plenty of reasons people are focusing their efforts away from the Big Two including the creator-owned aspect I mentioned above, but I suspect there’s another big reason.
Here’s a cover from Marvel that you’d find out on the shelves:
Here’s one from Image:
Notice the lack of glaring ads or logos or infringement on the art in general? Pretty much all the Image covers are this way, and I think it’s representative of the company’s attitude towards their books in general.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of oversight on their titles so they all feel very much their own, and, ultimately, it benefits both the reader and creator alike. It’s easier to create and a better read overall.
The Marvel and DC universes have to be edgy and heavy enough to keep their 20-40 year old fans happy, but they can’t be too extreme as to neglect new, younger readers. As unrealistic as that sounds, it is indeed the attitude held by the money men. And with this attitude comes a prison. A book with a Marvel logo or a DC logo can’t get too violent or too sexual or too hot button because the kids their movies, TV shows, and toys are marketed to can’t be bringing that to their parents.
Image is free of that because their brand does not represent a shared, static universe. And I think that’s an advantage, they don’t have to be. There is Super Dinosaur for kids, and that’s great, and there’s Sex for adults, and that’s great too.
Think I’m wrong? Think Image can’t scratch the ivory towers built by the Big Two? Let me know in the comments below.