Man, the early 90’s were a crazy time for comics. Riding the crest of the mid-to-late 80’s and its near overabundance of fantastically written comics, the artists had started to become the ‘rock stars’ of comics, and none were bigger than the 7 men that made up the founders of this new and ambitious new publisher. Each came from Marvel comics, where they were each an artist on one of the House of Ideas’ main titles. Their departure flipped Marvel- and the comics world- on its head.
(Seriously, I cant understate what a big idea this was for Marvel. Think about what they lost! Rob Liefeld’s relaunched New Mutants book, X-Force, was one of the 3 best selling titles of all-time. The second best was Spider-Man, by Todd McFarlane, and of course the all-time best seller, X-Men, was by Jim Lee. Add in Marc Silvestri from Wolverine, Whilce Portacio from X-Factor, Jim Valentino from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Erik Larsen from Amazing Spider-Man. So in one very short period of time they were informed that they were losing half of the Spider-Man artists, half of the X artists and the guy that took the goofy Guardians of the Galaxy* and made it a hit. Damn.)
*Not the movie version. This version included Charlie-27, Starhawk, Marjor Victory, etc.
When they next reared their heads, it was as self-publishers for their own creator-owned titles, two of which are STILL being published today, over 25 years later!
While some of the titles were more successful (and just better) than others, each was a success to the point that the publisher became a huge deal and started attracting even more talent from both Marvel and DC. Additional titles quickly started showing up (like Sam Keith’s The Maxx, Al Gordon and Jerry Ordway’s Wildstar, and Dale Keown’s Pitt), but the first 7 will always have the special feel of being the first. But of those 7, which was the best?
Created by: Whilce Portacio (artist), Brandon Choi (writer)
Premier: June 1994
Unfortunately, this title was plagued with delays due to tragedies in Portacio’s life, so it feels a bit of a disconnect from the other original titles. The story, which was tied to Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. universe, immediately fell into the trap a lot of 90’s comics did; there were immediately shadow operators, evil organizations with no backstory but ominous hints of connections to the main characters, leg pouches, and guns, guns, guns! The dialogue isn’t terrible, and the character work is OK, but because of the delay in its release it missed the sweet spot books like Cyberforce and Youngblood were able to take advantage of. Still, it’s worth a look for Portcacio’s artwork, which is always strong.
Created By: Marc Silvestri
Premier: October 1992
Silvestri, who might be the best pure artistic talent out of the original Image guys, might have done better work on Wolverine, but there’s no denying his skill for character design. While Cyberforce is basically ‘X-Men as Cyborgs’, characters like Velocity and Ripclaw were immediate hits with fans. Of course, this being the 90’s, there were immediately hints at shady pasts, mysterious origins, conspiracies, etc. with none of the groundwork necessary to make that stuff really work, so while the effort is there to build a cool universe for the characters to inhabit, they tried to get to too much, too soon. The first year could have been spent really digging into who these characters are as people and SHOW their origins and the origins of the organizations involved in the story, and by year three or so you can get to some of the stuff they try to do in this one issue, but to much, much greater effect.
Created By: Rob Liefeld
Premier: April 1992
The temptation is strong to put this at number 7 because it’s like X-Force, but without the minimalist character work, and the artwork, while it popped off of the stands and has legions of fans, is… not great. I’m not as big a Liefeld hater as some others, but it’s pretty striking in a few instances.
The concept- superheroes as mega celebrities- has been done to death since Youngblood, and to be honest to much greater effect, but credit where credit is due: Liefeld really did it first (as far as I am aware, at least). The problem lies in the execution. The plots are very minimal and simplistic, and the characters seem to have been named by a 10 year-old: Chapel, Shaft, Badrock, Vogue… the genius is that it appealed to 10 year-olds across the world, so maybe he was onto something.
Bonus points will always go to Youngblood for being the first Image title to hit the stands. It might not have been the best, or best looking, book on the stands, but there is no denying that it felt like the beginning of something big back in the spring of 1992.
Created By: Jim Valentino
Premier: June 1992
Jim Valentino is probably the least known of the original Image guys, and Shadowhawk is probably one of the least known launch titles. It stuck around for a few years, with multiple volumes. The story is interesting, with some of the most bonkers twists and turns you’d ever see in a superhero comic at the time. The art was… fine, for the time period, but does not hold up so great.
The story is very violent and dark, which matches the tone of the character pretty well. Shadowhawk is like a mix of Wolverine and Batman, with the violent tone and world to match. The Shadowhawk, who preys on criminals, likes to leave them with shattered spines and broken bodies.
The book dealt with a lot of heavy subjects, particularly for the early 90’s. They covered racism, HIV, gang violence, police brutality, and facing your own mortality. It just so happened to do it while a guy dressed like a weird cosplay runs around breaking spines. They also did a great job of not revealing Shadowhawk’s identity right away; as it is one of the big mysteries for the characters in the story, the audience is just as in the dark as they are.
Worth a read, but keep in mind that the artwork didn’t age as well as some of the other titles (at least in my opinion. Everyone has their own!).
Created By: Jim Lee (artist/plot), Brandon Choi (script)
Premier: August 1992
Jim Lee might be the biggest name in the history of comic books, and his first self-published title was a massive success. The story suffers from some of the exact same issues as Wetworks and Cyberforce do, but has the incredible Jim Lee artwork and some extremely strong character design to lean on, which it does to great effect.
The team is centered around Jacob Marlowe- aka Emp- who is a little person with tremendous wealth, some unexplained powers, and weird connections to characters he doesn’t recognize (as with nearly all of these titles, there are a lot of mysterious organizations, vague hints of unknown shared histories, amnesia… it’s like everyone has to share as much in common as possible with the worst elements of Wolverine). He’s got a companion named Void, who can teleport herself and others seemingly unending distances, and a team leader in the android Spartan (my personal favorite) who is awesome. Also on the team from the get-go are Maul, the size changing strong man, and Warblade, who has the ability to make his fingers into super long claws and stretch his arms (super weird- think of the T1000 in Terminator 2).
They are joined in their fight against the Daemonites (a conquering alien race) by the most popular characters: Voodoo, an exotic dancer who can see through the Daemonite human disguises, Grifter and Zealot (two mega badasses with a shared past and shared love/skill of hyper violence).
While a pretty standard superhero title for the time, it’s worth a read for the artwork alone. It’s also worth checking out the horrible animated series that briefly aired on the USA network. Ugh.
2. Savage Dragon
Created By: Erik Larsen
Premier: July 1992
Not only one of the best Image launch titles, Savage Dragon is one of the best Image titles, ever. It’s still going strong today, and most impressively every single issue has been written AND drawn by Erik Larsen! When you consider they are past 250 issues this is absolutely nuts.
Throughout its long run Savage Dragon has introduced an unreal number of characters, brought some public domain characters to new heights, played with every trope superhero comics have to offer, flipped convention on its head over and over and over again, played with alternate realities as well as anyone has ever done it, and even gone so far as to kill off and replace the main character (and never bring him back!).
While the book has been a great, fun read for decades now, there is something about the initial 3 issue mini-series and the first year or so of the main, ongoing title. The sheer level of creativity on display is fantastic, and brings to mind the guy Larsen seems to most enjoy: Jack Kirby.
Created By: Todd McFarlane
Premier: May 1992
While Savage Dragon or WildC.A.T.S. are probably the books I enjoyed the most, Spawn was always near the top. As time has gone by, it might be my favorite. The writing is a little stilted from the young McFarlane, but the art is great and the story holds up as very interesting, if not always very well executed.
The concept is very strong- former black ops agent Al Simmons is betrayed and killed, and the loss of his new marriage and happiness is too much for him to bear. He makes a deal with a devil for a new lease on life, but the bargain is as Faustian as they come: he is allowed to come back as a Hellspawn, a soldier of hell and agent of the apocalypse! Also, years have gone by since his death, and his wife (who he did all of this for) is now married to his former best friend and they have a child together! Damn! So Simmons, who now has incredible power, finds himself completely, hopelessly lost, and now must try to find his way while demons attempt to manipulate him, angels try to kill him, and he tries to keep his sanity while also trying to solve his own murder, get revenge on those that betrayed him, and protect his widow and her family.
The comic is still going strong today and is the longest running independent book of all time at over 300 issues!!! There is also a live action feature film we all pretend didn’t happen (and reportedly a new one in the works from McFarlane himself!) and the big kicker: one of the most badass animated series of all-time in HBO’s Spawn!
All hail the king, baby.