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The Image Story
A Four-Part Series
By Michael Dean
Posted October 25th, 2000

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

Part One: Forming an Image

The true story of Image Comics would seem to offer the kind of dramatic arc beloved of classic Hollywood movies: Young men united in a burst of heady idealism revolutionize the comics industry and rise to the top of their field before succumbing to hubris, corruption and conflicting egos and becoming the very thing they had led a revolution against.

It's the kind of story an older, wiser Rob Liefeld might tell the camera as he expires slowly from a gunshot wound to the chest. Or picture Todd McFarlane lying in his palatial bedroom, an autographed baseball dropping from his lifeless fingers.

The trouble, of course, is that everybody tells the story differently. On the subject of how Liefeld went from being the unifying force that brought the Image partners together to launch a comic line to being the unifying force that brought the Image partners together to kick him out of the company, former Image Executive Director Larry Marder told the Journal, "There is a Rashomon aspect to all this. Everybody perceives what happened from their own point of view, though we probably all share bits and pieces. And our perspectives are very emotional."

We have attempted here to piece together a story if not the story from the available perspectives, and what emerges is a picture of a renegade comics company that was neither as noble an experiment nor as ignominious a failure as many of us have imagined it to be. The whole picture will take a little time to develop. This first part is a kind of origin story, focusing somewhat obsessively on how Image came to be.

Storming the Castle

The first person to be confronted with the question of exactly what Image is and what it means to the industry was perhaps Terry Stewart, who was president of Marvel Comics at the time. Stewart was in his office after hours one December night in 1991, surrounded by the bric-a-brac of Marvel-licensed products -- a Hulk gumball machine and the like -- when he looked up to find virtually all of Marvel's top artists entering his door en masse. He didn't know it at the time, but he was looking at Image Comics on the march. Present by all accounts were Rob (X-Force) Liefeld, Jim (X-Men) Lee, Todd (Spider-Man) McFarlane, and McFarlane's wife, Wanda, who reportedly sat in a corner nursing the McFarlanes' newborn baby, Cyan, as one of the most momentous meetings in recent comics history unfolded. (McFarlane also remembers future Image partners Erik Larsen and Marc Silvestri being in attendance, but according to Larsen and Liefeld, neither Larsen nor Silvestri were present.)

Marvel's then editor in chief Tom Defalco had become suspicious at seeing so much of Marvel's talent gathering in one place and found reason to be in the vicinity of Stewart's office when the confrontation occurred. According to Liefeld, "Tom DeFalco is a really nice guy and he gave me my start in comics, but it was like he had his ear to the door and when we opened the door he fell in. I mean that pretty literally." DeFalco had not responded to the Journal's request for comment at press time.

Stewart invited DeFalco to stay for the impromptu meeting, perhaps hoping to feel less outnumbered. The committee of creators had come to issue an ultimatum: Either they were to be given control of their own work at Marvel in the form of their own line of creator-owned titles or they would leave to publish without Marvel. The two administrators were used to artist complaints, but this seemed different, partly because the demands were so ambitious and partly because, for the first time, the artists were all there at once.

McFarlane, who had engineered the gathering, had foreseen the importance of acting as a group. He had been lobbying for several weeks to get Liefeld, Lee and Larsen to coordinate a group departure from Marvel. McFarlane told the Journal, "I said, 'We've got to do this in unison. If necessary, I'll stay on longer. I'll keep involved just enough until we can coordinate this.' Quitting one at a time would not have had the same impact."

The impact that McFarlane wanted to have was to send a message to all the big publishers that the world was changing and artists were not going to be taken advantage of any more. "It was not even just a Marvel thing," McFarlane said. "We also met with DC a short time later."

Although McFarlane was able to mobilize the troops for dramatic effect, the group that appeared at Stewart's office door was not as unified as it appeared. Liefeld, for example, though ready to publish outside Marvel, did not take the meeting as seriously as McFarlane. "I just agreed to go along for the ride," Liefeld told the Journal. "When I left that day, I thought I was going to continue to do X-Force and do Youngblood [for Image]."

This was an attitude that McFarlane had attempted to combat: "They thought they could do Image and keep their day job. I said, 'You guys can't even keep up with one monthly. You're going to do that and start your own books?' The trouble was they thought if they stopped producing every waking moment for 10 seconds, the public would forget about them. I knew that wasn't true because I'd stopped doing Amazing Spider-Man and when I came back to do Spider-Man, I was hotter than ever."

To what extent was the confrontation with Stewart a defiant gesture -- the opening shot of a creator revolution against the comics industry bosses -- and to what extent was it simply a maneuver to allow the artists to negotiate a better deal at Marvel? According to Liefeld, they had come to make Marvel an offer it was almost certain to refuse: "We told them, 'We could run this thing [Image] through you guys, but we get 75 percent. We're leaving if you don't give us this opportunity that you've never given anyone before.' I didn't expect them to do it. My bags were already packed."

Stewart responded to their ultimatum with a counter-offer. It happened at the time that Marvel had its own creator-owned line, the Archie Goodwin-run Epic Comics, which was not exactly generating a lot of big-selling titles. What if Marvel were to hand this line over to McFarlane, Liefeld and Lee to do with as they pleased? The artists found this offer laughable. Liefeld told the Journal, "I remember Terry saying, 'We could give you the Epic line.' And we're like 'Are you on crack? We're not doing anything with that line. The Epic line sucks!'"

Stewart maintained the official Marvel stance that the Marvel brand is bigger than its creative talents at any given time. According to Liefeld, Stewart did not help his case in the artists' eyes when he attempted to make his point with an analogy to slave trade, saying, "There'll always be somebody to pick the cotton." To this day, McFarlane refers to Marvel and DC as The Plantation.

According to McFarlane, the meeting with Stewart was a lengthy one, but Liefeld took it so lightly that he left for another engagement part-way through. "Rob bolted early," McFarlane said. "Here was maybe the most important meeting of his career and he had someplace else to be. His attention span is not very long."

Liefeld denied leaving early, though he admitted not taking the meeting very seriously or following business negotiations very closely. McFarlane's coordinating efforts notwithstanding, however, most seem to agree that Liefeld had been the driving force behind the artists' rebellion and that there would have been no confrontation in Stewart's office without him. According to Image partner and current Image Publisher Jim Valentino, "Rob was the linchpin of Image. There's no two ways about it. He should be given that credit."

Rob the Recruiter

Larsen told the Journal, "Each person thinks Image was born when he personally entered the picture, but Image was much more Rob than anyone else."

A clean-cut, boyish-looking 21-year-old with a short attention span for business matters, Liefeld would not have been anyone's idea of a rabble rouser in 1991. Liefeld said, "Somebody had to get the ball rolling. I probably got the ball rolling because I was young and cocky and had the least to lose."

Liefeld's motivations, however, did not necessarily make him a standard bearer for creators' rights. As he explains it, his split with Marvel was the result not so much of his dissatisfaction with his position there as it was his fear that he would not be able to hold onto it for long. "Image was born out of a feeling that I had that [the days of] our positions at Marvel were numbered," he told the Journal. "We had become too big for the system. Marvel didn't want a star system, but with Todd's, Jim's and my books selling millions of copies, that's what we were becoming. They were trying to reproduce the success of our books. They were going to put out a Cage #1 with an acetate cover. Like, 'We've got to prove it's the gimmicks, not the creators.' But the truth of the matter was Spider-Man happened because Todd had heat on Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men happened because Jim Lee had heat. They were trying to replace us already, and we hadn't even talked about leaving."

Valentino remembers Liefeld expressing such concerns to him in numerous conversations around the kitchen table in 1990 and 1991. Valentino, creator of Normalman, had been involved with independent publishing during the days of the black-and-white boom, and Liefeld began to increasingly pick his brains on the subject. "Rob was doing New Mutants at the time," Valentino said, "and he was always over at the house with my wife Diane and me for whatever reason. I remember him walking into my house one day and asking what it took to self-publish a book and we sort of walked him through that."

Liefeld's first step on the path that would take him away from Marvel was to explore his options. He approached Dave Olbrich at Malibu Comics, at that time still an independent comics line, and asked if he would publish a black-and-white, Liefeld-drawn title. Without hesitation, Olbrich said he would. Then, Liefeld asked if Malibu would publish a book by Valentino and a book by Larsen, and when Olbrich said yes, the groundwork was laid for what would eventually become a printing and production arrangement between Image and Malibu. For Image's first year, it would use Malibu's facilities to solicit, print and ship its titles.

Liefeld got so far with Malibu as to plan the release of a Liefeld title called The X-Tremists or something close to it, and had placed an ad for the title in Comics Buyer's Guide when he received an angry call from Marvel editor Bob Harras. Harras made it clear that Marvel did not look kindly on what it saw as Liefeld's exploitation of the X logo outside of the Marvel stable. "I was reminded that I was completely replaceable," Liefeld told the Journal.

The Malibu title was scrapped, but Liefeld's determination to make a career for himself outside of Marvel was redoubled. He began designing his own logo: the Image "i."

McFarlane, meanwhile, had dropped out of comics for what Liefeld called a one-year sabbatical or what Valentino called an indefinite retirement. "Todd had a baby coming and wanted to spend time with his baby and his wife," Valentino said. "During that time he was trying to create a set of hockey cards."

According to McFarlane, however, he had never intended to leave comics and was only biding his time, waiting for the right coordinated rebellion. If Valentino remembers Image being birthed at his kitchen table, McFarlane recalls it taking shape in the course of a series of phone calls in 1991 between him and Liefeld.

"The seed of what Image was came from conversations between Rob and I," McFarlane told the Journal. "Rob and I spent a lot of time on the phone together, while he was still at Marvel, talking about how we should do something big. Image was Rob and I at the beginning. It was Rob and Todd; then it was Rob and Todd and Eric. Then the others started coming on."

Spider-Man #16, McFarlane's final comic for Marvel, was a crossover issue with X-Force, and a collaborative effort with Liefeld. The two continued to collaborate over the phone after he left, but not on behalf of Marvel. "I left four days after the birth of my little child," McFarlane said. "The issue was supposed to be done before Cyan was born, but the baby came early."

While Liefeld comes across as a choirboy, shunning any kind of profanity, McFarlane has the earthy manner and restless energy of a hustler and a New York accent that the other partners can't resist imitating when they quote him. McFarlane describes himself as the militant wing of the Image partnership. He told the Journal, "People say, 'Oh, Todd got famous and got an attitude.' My militant attitude was there from the first day. A lot of my wide eyes came from reading the Comics Journal interviews with artists who were not satisfied with how the companies were treating them. I thought, 'If they can fuck Jack Kirby, they can fuck anybody.' I was always saying, 'We've got to unionize.' I wanted to start a war. Fuck seven of us. There should have been 7000. At that time, I am being paid the most in this country for doing comics. But they couldn't have kept me on the plantation for a billion dollars."

Liefeld, however, dismisses the "Rob and Todd" theory of Image's genesis as revisionism on McFarlane's part. "That's bull," he said. "Todd figured out the spin-doctoring aspect of the business four years ago and he's been spinning ever since. Back then, he wanted out of comics. He was sick of the grind and was designing a hockey card set. Todd's biggest passion is sports, not comics." What is not disputed is that McFarlane had urged artists to unionize while at Marvel and when the prospect of Image was presented to him by Liefeld he was quick to jump on board.

Even 10 years later, Liefeld sounds amazed that artists like McFarlane, Larsen and Valentino were willing to follow him in his exodus from Marvel. "They were all married. Jim was married with children. Todd was married with a kid. If a young guy came up to me and said, 'Let's start a revolution,' I would've said, 'Forget it.' I was 21 years old and I figured if I fell on my face, I could always go back to Marvel."

With McFarlane, Liefeld and Larsen committed, McFarlane was determined to go after Jim Lee, the last remaining high-profile feather in Marvel's cap. McFarlane and Liefeld went together to attend a Christie's auction in New York and met up with Lee. As Larsen remembers it, "Todd went after Jim Lee, and Marc Silvestri got recruited, too, because he was sitting next to Lee. If Mark Bagley had been sitting there, he would be an Image partner today."

As Valentino recalls the sequence of the bandwagon filling up, he was one of the last to sign on. "Rob finally persuaded Todd to come out of retirement," he said. "Erik said, 'Fuck, yeah!' I was still sitting on the fence. I had five children and did not have a book as popular as these other guys." He was then doing the moderate-selling Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel.

If Valentino resisted joining, his resistance was shared by McFarlane, who, according to Liefeld, opposed Valentino's participation. "I had to fight to get Valentino in Image," Liefeld told the Journal. "Todd would say, 'If us guys are the best artists in comics, what's Valentino doin' here?' Todd was always talking about a union. The way I looked at it, there were other heavy hitters who were afraid to cross the line, and here was Jim Valentino, who had a wife and five kids, who was saying, 'I'll cross the line.'"

The final partner was Whilce Portacio. He is regarded as one of the founding seven members of Image, but he dropped out so quickly that his status is something like that of a fifth Beatle. Personal problems, including a death in the family, had limited his participation so much during Image's first year that, by the time the partners were ready to pool their money and incorporate in 1993, Portacio opted out.

McFarlane vs. Spider-Man

Some partners continued to hedge until the last minute; the first Image press release doesn't mention Lee or Silvestri, referring only to unspecified "other major comics greats." The whole thing came together so rapidly that the first time all the Image partners (except for Portacio, who was in the Phillipines) were in the same room was in February of 1992, when they all gathered at Marc Silvestri's home in Malibu to an-nounce the birth of Image Comics to the press. Valentino remembers that it was a long day. The partners had a short time to talk among themselves before the press showed up, and after the press conference, they held a private meeting -- the first official Image meeting -- and discussed their future until about 3 a.m.

According to Valentino, for all their differences, the partners all agreed on two fundamental principles that would form the basis of how Image functioned: Image would never own a creator's property, and Image would never interfere creatively or financially with any of the creators whose work it published. Even today, all the partners agree that Image was always more about freedom than about money. Valentino describes the company as a cooperative, in which each partner has complete control over his own destiny, something the artists had been frustratingly denied at Marvel. "Everyone had their own idea of what they wanted to do," he told the Journal, "but they all had one thing in common: that Image Central own no characters, no intellectual property other than the Image 'i.'"

It was the opposite of the way things had been at Marvel, where the artists were treated like hired help working on properties they would never own and so lowly valued that, according to McFarlane, the management could not be bothered to comp him a Spider-Man T-shirt. Asked why he left Marvel, that is the first complaint that comes to McFarlane's mind: "They were too cheap to even give me a T-shirt. And they wouldn't promote a top-selling book like mine, because it was already selling. Name any other business where they operate like that. Marvel and DC both would have these editorial summit meetings on the direction of the books -- and they didn't fucking ask the people who do the books! I can't even put into words what that means to me."

Marvel management may have desperately wanted to believe it didn't matter who was picking their cotton, but if so, they were in denial about a shift in public attitudes as plain as the Rob Liefeld Levis commercial on their TV sets. As Marder told the Journal, "In the past, the dedication of a Marvel Zombie had transcended the fact that a cool artist was doing a book. But people were now talking not just about Spider-Man or the X-Men but about Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man and Jim Lee's X-Men."

By failing to hold onto its most popular creators, Marvel had set the stage for a showdown that would test its worst fears: a competition between the top artists and the top characters in comics. There were few who weren't anxious to see who would come out on top. When the Image partners announced that they were opening for business and would soon be releasing a new line of comics, it sent ripples of excitement through the comics industry and beyond. Barron's, the widely read financial publication, ran a feature article, and even CNN turned its cameras on the new comics company. "Everybody anticipated that something big was going to happen," Marder remembered. "It was akin to the way people were getting excited about the astronauts before they went into space."

The public response to the Image artists over the next few months would be overwhelmingly greater than anyone had anticipated. It was a time that was full of promise for both the artists and their fans, but the greater the promise, the harder it is to keep.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4


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