Friday, December 7, 2012

A Fan's Retrospective: Looking Back at Image Comics


1992 was a pretty revolutionary year for me as a fifteen-year-old-going-on-sixteen-year-old kid. I'd began reading comics just seven years before, in 1985, with Kitty Pryde and Wolverine # 2.  Sure, I had owned comics before, but I had a hard time reading much of anything at all at that point and, besides, almost all of the comics I owned before then were DC Comics.  I didn't care or like DC's library of books or cast of characters at nine years old.  I thought of the 1960s Batman television show every time I thought of DC and I didn't really wanna even look at comics with a pre-teen boy in tight pants going BIFF POW and WHAM on a bunch of shitty looking criminals.  And at nine years old, I was picky about everything.  When I began reading comics I instantly gravitated to the characters that were familiar to me and the publisher that brought them to life.  I knew who the Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man were because of the live action television show with Lou Ferigno and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends that also featured Iceman and Firestar (Iceman being an X-Men character is a huge catch here, and Firestar was actually created for the cartoon and then introduced to the comics later).  This one comic, one that my mother bought for me on a trip to a grocery store in Virginia, was published by Marvel Comics -- the same publisher whose logo appeared on the television shows I just mentioned -- and I figured it was safe.  It featured a vicious looking, almost animalistic character named Wolverine and the spritely (!), light spirited character Kitty Pryde.  Non-comics reading folks would recognize them as being portrayed by Hugh Jackman and Ellen Page in X3: The Last Stand.  With that single comic I was introduced to a world that would, undoubtedly, change my life forever: The X-Men.  For the next seven years I read X-Men related comics almost exclusively.  There was only one exception: The Amazing Spider-Man.

These comics were presenting a whole new universe of characters, each with their own personal histories as well as a massive overall history, that was quite exiting to me.  I devoured all of it.  So much so that by 1990 I knew pretty much all one could possibly know about the X-Men and Spider-Man without having read every comic published featuring the characters -- hell,I even knew some of the other Marvel characters' histories from books I thought were exceptionally corny on an almost DC-like level; like those Avengers chaps.  My constant quest for knowing everything about these character started drawing me towards the Whos.  The Whos being those responsible for bringing the comics I was reading to life.  The artists, the writers, the editors, the inkers, the colorists; even that Stan Lee guy (who I already knew because he did many voice overs for the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends program). And, as with what I imagine to be a great deal of comic book readers, it was the artists on the book that I learned of first.  Marc Silvestri was the first I gravitated towards with his sharp -- sometimes raggedly sharp -- edges on the Uncanny X-Men and eventually Wolverine's own title.  Then Todd McFarlane's spindly Spider-Man with Spaghetti Webbing on the Amazing Spider-Man and the subsequent, adjectiveless Spider-Man book.  Jim Lee followed Marc Silvestri on Uncanny with sporadic issues, a lot of covers, and a short but amazing run on the title before jumping to an also adjectiveless X-Men book.  This guy blew the doors off of everything with every line he drew.  On X-Factor, a title that followed the adventures of the original five X-Men were the intense pencils of Whilce Portacio who followed Lee on Uncanny.  Over on the younger end of the X-Men spectrum was a book called the New Mutants that followed the newest additions to Xavier's School for the Gifted and it was being pencilled by an equally young Rob Liefeld.  Following Todd on both Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man, oddly enough, was Erik Larsen who is responsible (well, and David Michelinie wrote one of them) for my two favorite stories featuring Spidey: Return of the Sinister Six and Revenge of the Sinister Six. These guys were my favorite artists in comics at the time and all of them drew for Marvel Comics.  In my eyes, no one could touch them.  Not even the saints that had come before like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or John Byrne.  I was a kid.  I was stupid.  Shit happens!  No one at Marvel was this good and no one at DC came even close.

By the end of 1991 all my favorite artists were practically gone from Marvel.  They were either on sabbatical, had permanently left those titles announcing their self-imposed retirement, or were just doing layouts and covers here and there.  Without getting too much into the politics of what was going on behind the scenes, what was going on was that these six artists, plus a guy named Jim Valentino, were exiting Marvel altogether to create something new, something fresh, and, ultimately, something that they owned.  Image Comics was birthed from the collaborative minds of Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio, and it was to be simply a publishing house for comics that owned nothing.  What ultimately followed was a revolution that changed not only myself but the entire comic book industry, and, indeed, the medium itself forever.  Up until that point, I was exclusively a reader of X-Men related comics and Spider-Man, as I mentioned before, and I never thought of reading anything else, nor did I even want to.  Until they left, anyway.  What happened when all of them left Marvel was suddenly there was a void of pretty art as the artists that were replacing these guys were aping their styles and not doing a very good job at it.  But it isn't their fault as Marvel had a horrible habit of enforcing specific styles upon their writers and artists that mimicked the successful team that came before them. It was actually years and years after Chris Claremont left the Uncanny X-Men that they allowed another writer to deviate from the text-heavy caption boxes that rendered the art useless because that was the "X-Men" style. All my favorite comics and favorite characters suddenly got very ugly.  Almost overnight.

The first Image Comics book debuted in April of 1992.  It was called Youngblood and it was the brainchild of Rob Liefeld.  It was followed a month later by Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic; in July Erik Larsen gave us the Savage Dragon.  In August we saw both Jim Lee and Brandon Choi's WildC.A.T.s and Jim Valentino's ShadowHawk and in October Marc Silvestri teamed up with his brother, Eric, to bring us Cyber Force.

I was obsessed.  It was like I had discovered comics for the first time all over again.  New characters, new worlds, new histories, and, for once, they looked better than my old favorites at Marvel ever had.  I abandoned Marvel for the better part of the 1990s, I didn't return until the Fatal Attractions crossover with the X-Men books where Magneto ripped Wolverine's adamantium off his bones, and even then it was for a very short period of time until Grant Morrison came knocking.  I stuck with Image and bought almost every book they published until eventually branching out to other publishers because these seven guys, and those that worked with them and even brought their own creations under the Image banner, had opened my eyes to see past the Marvel horizon.  There was Frank Miller's Sin City, for instance.  Arthur Adams' Monkey Man & O'Brien stories, and a good portion of the books published by Valiant Comics like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Bloodshot, and X-O Manowar proved to be eventual favorites of mine.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Image Comics.  Almost all of those properties that a whole lot of fans and even some professionals said wouldn't last five years are still going, and decently well.  One book, Savage Dragon, is still being written and drawn by its original creator: Erik Larsen. This year saw the return of several of Rob Liefeld's creations as though they had never went anywhere, and Cyber Force was rebooted in October.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Image Comics now is a very different place than it was twenty years ago.  Where it was once a publishing house dominated by creator-owned superhero comics, there's now creator-owned dramas, creator-owned science fiction, creator-owned horror and even a certain creator-owned zombie comics called the Walking Dead.  Everyone's heard of that, right?

In an attempt to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my favorite comics publisher (still!  to this day!) I decided I would revisit those original six comics -- and the seventh one that almost got away -- to see what the thirty-six year old version of myself thinks of the comics my fifteen year old self adored.  So, hold on to your hats, it's bound to be an interesting ride.

First up: Rob Liefeld's Youngblood.

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