At this year's Comic-Con in San Diego, indie upstart Image Comics held a panel introducing new top-tier creators and series. The news is evidence of the rise of creator-owned material, Image's unique specialty.
The now 20 year old Image Comics, formed with the purpose of publishing works owned by their creators, has taken full advantage of its anniversary celebration. They've released something in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 #1 issues so far this year, both for miniseries and ongoing titles. Between the surge in new creator-owned properties and the gargantuan success of The Walking Dead, I think it's safe to say that Image is worthy of being grouped together with Marvel and DC — the Big Three of the comics world.
Image was started in 1992 by seven superstar artists (Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane among them) who wanted copyright and editorial control over their original contributions. To this day, the company owns no intellectual property except for its name and logo; all of its IP belongs to the creators. Image started with superhero stories (Witchblade, Spawn and WildC.A.T.S are among the most famous titles) but gradually expanded their portfolio into horror, romance and everything in between.
Image is now experiencing a creative renaissance. My first thought as to the reason relates to talent scouting. Image may have started with established artists and writers, but it's since become a place where Marvel and DC look for new talent. Before his mega-success on Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil and every Avengers title ever, some guy named Brian Michael Bendis published Torso, Fortune & Glory, and Jinx through Image. Superstar Robert Kirkman enjoyed success at Image with Invincible and The Walking Dead before becoming a Marvel mainstay (Marvel Zombies, Ultimate X-Men). Newer talent like Nick Spencer, Rick Remender, Justin Jordan, Joshua Hale Fialkov had foundations at Image before their works with Marvel and DC. This trend is driving newer creators to Image in hopes of being noticed by Marvel and DC, so Image has plenty of talent to provide fresh, new titles. Lucky for us readers!
Of course, another reason for Image's popularity with creators is exactly counter to this: creator ownership of their creations. DC and Marvel subsist on established franchises whose ownership is rarely contested. Every writer joining with these big names can leave a mark on the universe, but ultimately the fame, glory, and wealth lie apart from their work. When Nolan adapted ideas from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One for Batman: Begins, Frank Miller's name was nowhere near the credits roll. One can assume he was never compensated for the adaptation of his ideas, either. Image, meanwhile, lays no such claims to any of its material. Robert Kirkman can easily tap into the wealth his Walking Dead franchise generates. That is a key component for the kind of creativity these kinds of people have.
These fresh and new ideas are what keep me coming back to comics. Don't get me wrong, I love Superman and Green Lantern more than is probably healthy — I've been reading superhero books since I was 7 and I see no reason to stop now — but the most enjoyment I get from the medium right now is from creator-owned titles. Look at a shelf of creator-owned books and find me two titles that are exactly alike. Books like Saga (which is great), Mind The Gap, Invincible, Morning Glories, The Walking Dead, Casanova, I Kill Giants, Hack/Slash, and Fear Agent show us that there is truly a comic out there for everyone: suspense, horror, psychological thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, you name it. Comics are a medium, not a genre and it's books like these that help our beloved medium garner the praise it deserves.
Of course, not everything Image touches is gold, and nor does all the best indie stuff come from Image. The Sixth Gun comes from Oni Press, TMNT comes from IDW and all of the Buffy-verse projects are Dark Horse. What is clear is that Image is the place to be for original ideas, even just on sheer volume alone. Of the many #1's that I've picked up from Image this year, there have only been 1 or 2 titles that I didn't particularly care for.
Whatever the reason for the creative surge, I hope the gravy train keeps rolling for Image. Unique titles without capes and compelling stories keep you coming back for more. Now is the time to try a creator-owned book because chances are that you'll enjoy it. Without looking at numbers, I'd wager that the Image 20 year anniversary event has helped propel Image name recognition and creative drive through the roof in the way that DC's New 52 initiative wanted to and Marvel's NOW! initiative hopes to. Image has one thing that DC and Marvel always promise but rarely deliver: "all-new, all-different!" Pick up an Image book and know what it really means when a comic says that nothing will ever be the same.
If you're looking for a place to get started, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is a currently running series well worth anyone's time.
Stay nerdy, my friends.