20 years ago a revolution happened in comics. Seven creators, some of whom sold more copies of one single comic book than the entire comics industry sells in one year today, all decided that enough was enough. They were working in their familiar sandbox, but they had no control over their work. They were rock stars, but a team of untalented and often jealous middlemen tried to tell them what they should do, how they should approach their work, what they could do to make their living. Does that sound familiar, dear creator? Does it sound like what your life would be like or is like at the Big Two?
Imagine that experience for a second: twenty years ago, seven of the most famous men in a growing industry, best-selling creators all, were being pushed around by people who had no real stake in their business. Jim Lee was selling more copies of X-Men per month than had ever been sold in the history of that team, but he didn't control his destiny. Marvel Comics condescended to give Lee a really nice royalty on his sales, but of course, they could pull that royalty any time.
Heck, they could pull Lee off the book any time they wanted too. Or they could insult a creator by asking him to make arbitrary changes. Marvel didn't like the way that Todd McFarlane drew Spider-Man's webbing. Fans loved it, and Todd loved it as he followed his own personal vision for the character. But Marvel had the right to insist that Todd to change the way he drew webbing. Change it or move off the book he was doing. Change it or give up the amazing level of royalties that Marvel condescended to share with the man who had turned a moribund character into one of Marvel's bestsellers.
Finally the creators said: Enough. Enough with the heavy handed management, enough with the arbitrary changes, enough with the creators not having control of their own destinies, and, most of all, enough of having to split royalties that they earned from their hard work and creativity with an unfeeling, arbitrary, craven, and political corporation.
Enough with the bullshit. Enough.
So the seven creators decided that they would work for themselves. They created Image Comics as a collective in the truest sense, a place where they could pursue their dreams in peace. They could create what they wanted without having anyone make arbitrary decisions about the size of a spider's web or the size of pockets on a character's belt. The seven creators could collect their own royalties and get rich off their creations without having to share them with a corporation. They could be free to do whatever they wanted, create whatever they wanted, and follow their own artistic hearts without any consideration for what anyone else wanted them to do.
They took their own artistic freedom.
And best of all? They invited all of you along, too. You can experience the same artistic freedom that Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane felt 20 years ago simply by refusing to put your limited time, resources and energy to work supporting a small arm of a giant, unfeeling corporation. Because that's what you would get working for Marvel/Disney or DC/Warner. Your work may be great and you may be well paid for it. But in the end you're just not cutting yourself a deal that will make you the most money, give you the most freedom, allow you most to pursue your own unique vision, and allow you to create the best legacy for your family.
If you work through Marvel and DC you'll be stuck like the great Jack Kirby, whose legacy has been tainted a bit in the last few decades because of ongoing disputes with Marvel and DC over who owns the characters he co-created. Kirby is still a genius for the work he's done, but it's tough to see his estate not control the characters that should be his legacy. Jack created or co-created dozens of amazing characters but he can't share in the royalties for those characters because he didn't control his own destiny. You may be the next Jack Kirby but if you don't actually own your characters, you won't be creating the legacy for your family that we all want to create.
Or you could be the next Alan Moore – in which case congratulations – and create an evergreen best-seller for DC, a book that earns you royalties for the rest of your life and which becomes your legacy. But even with all those amazing accomplishments, you'll still be stuck with a Pyrrhic victory in which you can never control your own work, let alone control whether your publisher ignores your wishes and creates unauthorized prequels to your series anyway.
Because Image wasn't just a closed club for seven guys who were lucky enough to be hot at the right time. It's a completely open club where creators can pursue their dreams and earn all the money off of work that they create themselves.
So Image has brought us Spawn and Witchblade and Savage Dragon from the Founders. But it's also brought us scores of unique works that we would not have been able to read otherwise – from Jim Zub's Skullkickers to Derek McCulloch's Stagger Lee to Joe Keatinge's Hell Yeah to John Layman's Chew to Jimmie Robinson's Bomb Queen to the most popular of all, the proof of the success of the Image model, Robert Kirkman and his Invincible and his massively, hugely successful Walking Dead.
Because there's no better example of why it's important to break away from the corporate teat than the success that Robert Kirkman has had. Look at the number of books that Robert Kirkman sold in 2011. By my reckoning, a breathtaking 13 out of the 25 best-selling GNs of 2011 were volumes of Walking Dead, and altogether he sold an slightly over 200,000 books last year. Two hundred thousand books, at a minimum cover price of $10 per pop — for work that was already created, already issued in single-issue form. This is every author's dream – an annuity that seems to stretch from here to infinity, generating large streams of money seemingly forever.
And because he releases his books through Image, Kirkman gets to keep a vast majority of the money these books make. He has to pay a small fee to Image for things like production, promotion and the actual costs of publishing, but the royalties are all shared among the creative staff. Think Marvel would cut a deal like that? Heck, think Marvel would even keep the trades in print? According to that sales chart I linked to, Marvel's best-selling book was the fifty-fourth best-selling graphic novel of 2011, behind volumes of Image books like Walking Dead, Chew and Morning Glories.
It's fair to say that not every comic succeeds like Walking Dead. Heck, Kirkman's Invincible is 166th on the list, and heaven knows that numbers are even lower for other books that are really terrific, like the dearly missed Green Wake and the woefully underrated King City. Our own Daniel Elkin can te
ll you all about why he misses Sylvia Faust so much and, to be honest, you could wallpaper your whole house with Image Comics that didn't sell. The freedom won't ensure that you get exposure; you have to work for that yourself and I'm sure that Riley Rossmo can tell you a bit about how hard it can be to turn hard work and artistic ambition into good sales.
Working at Image is a risk. But life is full of risk, and isn't it worth taking a chance that your dream project might find a following? Wouldn't you rather take a chance on putting your own work of comics art out there in front of people than creating the 18,000th new version of Spider-Man or Wolverine? Even if your comic doesn't sell, isn't it worth following your passions and getting it out there? At the very least, you'll have something cool to show at parties – and heck, you'll qualify for a Professional badge at San Diego Comic-con.
There are plenty of other publishers who also publish great creator-owned work. Fantagraphics publishes some of the greatest cartoonists in the world and doesn't own a bit of those creators' work. And publishers like Oni, Dark Horse and BOOM! all have healthy lines of creator-owned comics. This is a great time to be a creator of content that you actually own.
We here at Comics Bulletin love creator owned content, which is why we love Image Comics so much. Image was created to be an oasis for creator-owned material, to be the place where creators could go to earn a great living if things cut just right. If you're vacillating whether to bring your vast and amazing talents to Marvel or DC or to own the rights yourself forever – well, come on, isn't the choice obvious? Don't put up with the bullshit. Take your freedom. And become the next Robert Kirkman. You're the only one who can make it happen!
Last week's Image Expo was a real call for action for me as Publisher of Comics Bulletin. The Bulletin has always been focused on creator-owned work that is unique, personal and important. But the Expo radicalized me a little. It made me want to devote even more attention to the creator-owned area of our hobby. Comics Bulletin will continue to cover Marvel and DC Comics, but we're also going to cover Imge Comics even more than we already do. We're going to do more work with our friends at Archaia, BOOM, Fantagraphics and other publishers to explore their wonderful line of creator-owned comics and graphic novels. And we're going to be committing to do more work in the webcomics space, creating a new column that explores webcomics as well as a directory of webcomics. We'd love to hear your suggestions for what you would like to see in such a column and setcion.
At CB our staff has a slogan that I've adopted: we're fiercely independent. We don't believe in being beholden to the large comics publishers or the need to keep a section of our readership happy. We trust ourselves to think through the comics and issues we discuss, to come up with smart, interesting views on the industries that we cover which are different from what you might find elsewhere on the web. Like Image Comics, we're fiercely independent. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
Please share your thoughts on Image and the site's direction below! This column will be a weekly soapbox that will hopefully spark some interesting conversations with all of you.