Back in the 1990s, a group of disgruntled comic book writers and artists threw off the shackles of Marvel and DC and formed their own company called Image. From their point of view it was a great success as it allowed them to own their own creations and do whatever they wanted with their characters. In hindsight however, the 90s Image stable came to epitomise everything bad about 90s comics.
Thanks to the influence of Image, you weren't a proper 90s superhero if you didn't carry a large gun, wear a brown jacket with the sleeves rolled up over your uniform and festoon yourself with as many pouches, ammo clips and random accessories as possible. It didn't matter what your powers were, you needed this stuff to show that you meant serious business.
It's easy to look back at Image comics and have a laugh and point fingers, especially if they're being pointed at the frequently dreadful artwork of Rob Liefeld. The man couldn't draw hands or feet to save his life but he more than made up for it by concealing them behind phallic weaponry. Compensate much?
Image could have easily died under the weight of its own clichés but these days, I find that I am reading more Image titles than Marvel or DC. Once the initial rush of creator-owned characters had passed, Image went through something of a renaissance and a lot of the stuff they publish these days is very good. Here are a few of my favourites:
The Walking Dead
You have to love zombies and this ongoing series is the daddy of all zombie comics. Created by Robert Kirkman who set out to write a zombie movie that didn't end, this immensely popular series has gone on to spin off its own TV series, which is faithful to the opening issues of the title whilst delivering enough new wrinkles so you're not just watching a live action version of something you've already read. Bleak and relentless at times, it's never dull and it's refreshing to see a series that isn't afraid to kill off its central characters.
Another series by Robert Kirkman (yes I am something of a fan). A stark and colourful contrast to the black & white world of The Walking Dead, Invincible is one of the longest running titles featuring a brand new superhero, apart from Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon. Marvel and DC have a waste paper bin full of failed new superheroes but Invincible soldiers on. It's traditional superhero action but when there's a big fight, it doesn't shy away from the blood and carnage. Remember DC's Death of Superman? When Superman “dies” after a massive slugfest with Doomsday, his costume is a bit torn and there's a bit of bruising on his face, but otherwise he doesn't look like he's fought to the edge of death. Compare that to some of the planet-spanning punch-ups in Invincible and Superman looks like he just needs a bit of a lie down.
A recent discovery of mine. This is a superhero soap opera created by Jay Faerber. The Nobles are family and superhero royalty but the series concentrates on the behind-the-scenes lives of the characters, not their public battles. It's about the people behind the masks and despite being superheroes, some of those people aren't very nice. It's Dynasty in spandex and goes to show that you don't need to cover the page in flashy superpowers or Spider-man angst to create drama.
The good thing about these titles and other Image titles is that they're not weighed down by decades of continuity as with Marvel or DC. If you write a title for Marvel or DC, you've got a list of dos and do-nots and you know that nothing bad will ever happen to any of the main characters because they have a fanbase that can go back 50 years. Even if you get clearance to kill someone off, every fan knows they'll be back in six months and no one stays dead forever. Not so with Image who have a blank slate. The Walking Dead kill people off all the time and in Noble Causes, one of the most likeable characters is killed off in the first issue. The fact that you don't know what's going to happen next is what makes their output compelling. Will The Avengers survive this battle? Of course they will. However look what happens in Invincible when the Guardians of the Globe face off against Omni-Man...
Image are a real creative force to be reckoned with, have thrown off their laughable 90s roots and produced some of the most credible titles around. They're not stomping over old ground and the future is a blank slate where anything could happen. All I can tell you is that they're filling up my shelf space faster than the big two.
If you enjoyed this article, check out more of Mr Crisps musings at his blog, Cynical Cyanide.