Throwback Thursday: the Launch of Image Comics (1992)

I talked about Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” in last week’s Throwback Thursday post; these are some very early issues of a few of Image Comics’ other titles when the company launched in 1992.  I remember snapping them up in earnest when I was 19 years old — as I said last week, it was exciting for a comics fan to see a new company challenge the “Big Two,” Marvel Comics and DC Comics, with a new superhero universe.

I and other ambitious collectors also grabbed these off the shelves because we naively expected they all would one day be very valuable.  (Investing in comic books is a little more complicated than that — they’ve generally got to be in extremely good condition to fetch high prices.)

The first Image comics were a mix of good and bad.  If memory serves, Jim Lee’s “WildC.A.T.s” was very good; Rob Liefeld’s “Youngblood” was less so, but was at least interesting.  The art and writing for Jim Valentino’s “Shadowhawk” was truly mediocre.  That didn’t stop me from buying a few issues, though — the novelty of these new books just gave them too much appeal.

There were a lot of creative things going on with early Image titles.  Some of the new characters were pretty neat.  I remember being partial to Youngblood’s “Diehard” for some reason, along with the WildC.A.T.s’ “Grifter.”  (The former has the red, white, and blue full bodysuit; the latter has the trenchcoat and pistols.)  And I definitely liked WildC.A.T.s’ “Warblade.”  He’s the guy below with the ponytail and the shape-changing, liquid-metal hands.  He was a favorite of mine despite the fact that he seemed to borrow a trick or two from the newly iconic liquid-metal terminator.  (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” had hit theaters a year earlier.)

Image comics were quite different than those produced by Marvel and DC.  (As I explained last week, Image was formed by artists who revolted against their prior employers’ unfair, work-for-hire payment policies — their new company gave them complete creative control over their characters.)  Despite the popularity of Image’s new books, however, they sometimes appeared to have been developed without some needed editorial oversight.

The violence and gore was often far more graphic.  And Image’s creative decisions ranged from the inspired to the strange to just being in questionable taste.  (It all depended on your disposition, I guess.)  WildC.A.T.s, for example, portrayed Vice President Dan Quayle as being possessed by an unearthly “Daemonite.”  (Damn, those Daemonites were wicked-cool bad guys, and Lee Illustrated them beautifully.)  Shadowhawk’s signature move was breaking the spines of criminals.  He was also HIV-positive, the result of some gangsters’ reprisal — they captured him and injected him with infected blood.  The character thereafter spent some of his history trying in vain to locate a cure for AIDS.  (This was 1992, just after the epidemic became fully entrenched in the public’s anxieties in the 1980’s.)

My interest in these titles eventually waned, though I did still pick “Spawn” up when I had the money.  The Image universe was densely crowded with new characters, and it was just too much information to sustain my interest.  (Seriously, look at the first couple of covers below.)  I spent far more money on DC’s various “Batman” and “Green Lantern” titles.  And if I wanted edgy comics, I had discovered the various incarnations of Matt Wagner’s “Grendel” that were available through Dark Horse Comics.  Those boggled the mind.

But Image comics did burgeon into a great success, even if these early titles have since been retired.  “Spawn,” of course, is still being produced.  And today the company’s wide range of books includes Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead.”  It’s hard to imagine either of the Big Two picking up Kirkman’s gory epic masterpiece … so I suppose we have Image to thank for the TV show.

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Throwback Thursday: the Debut of “Spawn” Comics (1992)

I remember greedily snapping up the first two issues of Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic in the spring of 1992.  Comics fans were excited about it — it was the de facto flagship title of the newly created Image Comics, which was bringing its own ambitious interconnected comic book universe to the shelves to compete with “the Big Two,” Marvel and DC.

There already was a competitive third major comic publisher — Dark Horse Comics.  But it had no successful superhero titles or shared universe; it instead was known for science fiction and horror comics.  I also remember seeing comics back then from the short-lived Valiant here and there — or maybe it was mostly ads in the Comic Shop News.  I didn’t know a single soul who read them, though.

McFarlane was nothing short of famous in the comic book fan community, after his broadly popular work on “Spider-Man.”  (I still love his unique style.)  And “Spawn” had an absolutely subversive flavor to it.  Its title anti-hero was nothing less than an agent of hell, and the comic revolved around hell, sin, damnation and various demons.  There was also far more violence and gore.

“Spawn” felt subversive, too, because of the impetus behind its creation.  Image Comics was launched by a group of artists who were unhappy with Marvel’s failure to grant them creative control over their work (or, according to the artists, proper merchandising royalties).  They included McFarlane, and fan-favorite artists Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri, among others.

I don’t pretend to know how justified their complaints were, as I was only a fan and not an industry insider.  But they sound right … I’ve always heard that major comic companies have historically screwed over their creative talent with restrictive “work-for-hire” payment arrangements.  (This is why Stan Lee, creator of so many of Marvel’s first heroes, is not absurdly wealthy.)  The start of Image seemed to fans like their favorite artists rebelling against the status quo, and that was kind of exciting.

Some of McFarlane’s acrimony with Marvel was pretty overtly expressed in the pages of “Spawn.”  There was a weird, slightly confusing plot digression early on in which McFarlane editorialized heavily about creator-owned characters … Spawn actually visited a kind of purgatory where various leading Marvel and DC heroes were imprisoned.  It seems in retrospect like a labored and self-indulgent metaphor, and it detracted from the title’s story.  But the college kids then reading “Spawn” had never seen anything like it.  It was interesting at the time.  (Bear in mind, please, that this was before the Internet.)

I started picking it up regularly.  I was going to the comic shop that was on … George Street, I think, in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia.  There were only two comic shops in the downtown area in the early 1990’s — this one, and a seedy shop across from the Hardee’s on northern Princess Anne Street, in a tiny corner of a ramshackle, abandoned hotel.  There was a categorically unpleasant, batshit-insane woman staffing the latter – she was nasty to everyone who entered, and accused them of touching the merchandise.  (That part of Princess Anne Street has since been improved – I think the huge hotel building has since been renovated.)

As the “Spawn” title progressed, its fandom became firmly entrenched.  The art truly was fantastic, and of course it remains an incredibly successful group of comic properties today.  Over time, McFarlane’s critics also grew in number … no matter how gifted he was as an artist, fans said he wasn’t a terrific writer.  (And I do get what they’re saying.)  I will say this — the “Spawn” comics I was reading were a thousand times better than that weird movie adaptation in 1997.  I’ve only seen bits and pieces of that, but they were terrible bits and pieces.

I still think I’d have a great time perusing my back issues.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Spider-Man and Wolverine teamup in “Perceptions” (1991)

These were the first comics featuring Wolverine that I ever owned — the 1991 Spider-Man “Perceptions” storyline in which he guest-starred.  This had gorgeous, unique art by Todd McFarlane.  (I think he scripted it too.)

This would have been when I was a sophomore in college, and it was even before McFarlane would go on to form Image Comics and launch his most famous character, Spawn.

 

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