Kirkman Talks Image United

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In the summer of 1991 I didn’t even know what a comic book store was.

I’d been reading comics for a little over a year by that point, but I’d been purchasing them at gas stations, drug stores and my small town Wal-Mart. I was 12 years old. When my mother drove by The Comic Interlude, I almost jumped from the moving vehicle. I couldn’t believe there was an entire store dedicated solely to selling comic books. My whole world had changed.

It took some convincing to get my mom to drive me back to the store and actually allow me to go inside, but I was very persistent. As I entered, the first thing I saw, in a small foyer before you got into the actual store was a poster for a brand new comic, something I’d never heard of, called YOUNGBLOOD. This new title was created by Rob Liefeld, one of my favorite comic book artists. But as far as I knew, Rob was still drawing X-Force for Marvel comics.

I walked into the store, marveling at what I saw before me, rows upon rows of comics. The middle of the store was lined with boxes of comics, and hanging on the wall behind the clerk… more comics. I’d never seen such a place. I went to the shelf and proceeded to snag all the comics I’d been regularly purchasing at Wal-Mart. Wolverine, drawn by a fill-in artist, Spider-Man, drawn by a fill-in artist, X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, both drawn by a fill-in artist… even X-Force was drawn by a fill-in artist. I didn’t know what was going on.

When I got to the counter I asked the clerk about Youngblood: Was that a new Marvel book? He replied that it was an Image Comic. I was learning about a lot of new things that day. He explained to me that essentially all my favorite comic artists at the time, who had all done high profile work at Marvel Comics, were leaving that company to form a new comic book company that would publish all of their new creations.

That’s why Marc Silvestri wasn’t drawing Wolverine, and Erik Larsen wasn’t drawing Spider-Man, and Jim Lee wasn’t drawing X-Men, and Whilce Portacio wasn’t drawing Uncanny X-Men, and Rob Liefeld wasn’t drawing X-Force.

Todd McFarlane, arguably the most popular comic artist in the industry at the time, was enjoying a period of semi-retirement after the birth of his first child. He had just completed a run on Spider-Man that broke all kinds of sales records. His involvement in this new Image experiment was a big deal. Jim Valentino, who rounded out the original Image crew, wrote and drew a book called Guardians of the Galaxy at Marvel that I’d never read, but his new series for Image, ShadowHawk ended up being one of my favorites.

All the Image Comics rolled out over the summer of 1992. By then, I was 13, and I purchased every single one of those books: Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood and Brigade, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S., Jim Valentino’s ShadowHawk, Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce. They quickly became my favorite comics. By the end of the year, I’d stopped buying Marvel Comics altogether.

Up until this point it had never occurred to me that comic book characters even had creators. There were people out there who created Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The X-Men… everyone… and their names weren’t Marvel or DC. Creator-owned comics had been around for a couple decades by that time, but seeing the top creators at Marvel leave to form their own company instantly drew a massive amount of eyes to the movement.

I quickly learned about how Jack Kirby, co-creator of some characters you may have heard of like The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The X-Men, Captain America and countless others wasn’t making a dime off of them. At that time those characters had been around for 30 years or more and this guy hadn’t gotten so much as a thank you from the fine folks at merry old Marvel. And this happened across the board, at both Marvel and DC Comics. For every character enjoyed by millions, there was a creator out there watching his creation live on without him, without any kind of compensation, and in many cases, credit.

The Image guys said, “No more.” They were going to pave their own way. They were going to turn the tables and instead of allowing Marvel to profit from their creations years down the road, they were going to use their popularity, gained from working on Marvel titles, to launch their own company as a place to create new characters they and others could profit from for years down to come.

And it worked.

Within a year, and with only a fraction of the titles published by Marvel or DC, Image Comics passed DC to became the number two comics publisher. Image never produced enough titles to maintain that ranking, but it has continued, for the last 17 years, publishing cutting edge creator-owned comics that provide the industry with a model for creator rights and fair treatment of creators that is often imitated, but never duplicated.

Image Comics was and is something special.

The exodus from Marvel Comics and the formation of Image Comics has informed nearly every step I’ve taken in my humble career as a comic book writer. I was privileged to start my career with creator-owned work, self-publishing a little known comedy/superhero series called Battle Pope. I eventually gained notice by Image Comics founder Erik Larsen who helped me move from self-published comics to actually producing original, creator-owned comics of my own for Image Comics. Comics that I, as the creator, own – not Image Comics.

After working at Image for a year, I got the call from Marvel offering me tall dollars to come work for them. I did so – I’m not going to pretend I don’t love their characters – and working for Marvel is something that will always impress my mother. But I only did so, provided I could continue to work on my Image titles at the same time. To their credit, Marvel complied and while there I created more than a few characters that remain in use at the company today (albeit in much smaller roles than say, Spider-Man, or even Howard the Duck). But I always knew in the back of my mind that Image was where I belonged. I had a good time at Marvel and was treated well, but I much preferred writing my own characters and having the freedom to do whatever I wanted within the context of any story.

So after spending four years working for both Marvel and Image, I left Marvel, deciding to focus solely on my creator-owned work, titles like INVINCIBLE and THE WALKING DEAD, that by that time had been running for years and were quite successful in their own right. It was at this time that the remaining Image partners, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino decided to bring me into the company as a partner, something they’d never done before.

Now I’ve gone from learning about Image Comics on my first ever visit to a comic shop to actually participating in running the company, deciding what books we publish and what actions we take in this ever-changing publishing world.

Which is kind of a dream come true, if I’m honest. But the icing on the cake of this life I could only dream of when I was 13 is a little thing called IMAGE UNITED. For the first time ever the founders of Image Comics have, heh… united to do a series together where they all produce the art. So they’re each drawing the characters that they created each time they appear – which is another way they’re breaking the mold and doing something completely different. Each page of this series is going to showcase the work of multiple artists, all working together to tell one story in a way that has never been attempted before in comics. When Spawn is on the page, he’ll be drawn by his creator, Todd McFarlane, when Savage Dragon is on a page, he’ll be drawn by Erik Larsen, and so on down the line.

And they asked little old me to write this series. What an honor.

As I write this we’re knee deep in the production of this series, which has been an undertaking of monumental proportions for all involved. But I find myself constantly thinking back to that chubby little kid who grew into this chubby little man and what he would say to me if he could see me now.

-Robert Kirkman
Backwoods, KY
November 2009

[The following preview consists of all variant covers including Jim Lee’s cover, the first nine pages of Image United #1 and three exclusive sketches from Erik Larsen and Ryan Ottley from the Image United prelude. –ed]

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