Sunday, September 20, 2015

How Image Comics Have Left Marvel and DC For Dust

This is the current list of Image titles I read: Bitch Planet, Chew, Descender, The Fade Out, Lazarus, The Manhattan Projects, Saga, Sex Criminals, Southern Bastards, Velvet, We Stand On Guard.

This is the current list of Marvel titles I read: Avengers, Ms. Marvel, Star Wars, Thor.

This is the current list of DC titles I read: Batman.

In truth I have never been a big DC reader, except for the Vertigo imprint towards the end of its heyday. But I’ve always been a big Marvel fan, and now Image has well overtaken it.

In part this is because Marvel is now eating itself with its constant stream of re-treads and re-launches. Image though now has it beat for creativity hands down, and has for some time.

Marvel started off the century well, with its best stretch of titles since the ‘80s – including New X-Men, X-Force/X-Statix, the Ultimate line of comics, Brian Michael Bendis’ and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil, and Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. But Marvel just can’t get away from its roots as a superhero line. Even when it tried to branch out into other genres, such as Bendis’ detective-based Alias series, it still had to implant the story in its superhero universe.

Not that this necessarily has to be a bad thing. However Image Comics have now become the home for creators to launch their pet projects – top writers such as Jason Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Kelly DeConnick, Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman, Greg Rucka, and Brian K. Vaughan – in tow with great artists such as Steve Epting, Sean Phillips, and Fiona Staples, as well as heretofore relative unknowns such as Chew’s team of John Layman and Rob Guillory. And of course, while I don’t read it regularly (preferring to wait for the omnibuses), there is Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.

Marvel’s top creators, the ‘architects’ as they are termed by the company itself (many of whom cross over with Image’s line-up of creators), are good at what they do, but all they can do really is play with the same worn-out sandbox and come up with slightly off-the-wall Avengers line-ups. Image is the home to the fresh new concepts. They play well to my twelve-issue theory; that is, that comic book series are at their ‘hottest’ for their first twelve issues before the concept starts to become stale. (See for example American Flagg, Animal Man, Astro City, Bone, Hawkeye, Incredible Hercules, Madman Comics, Planetary, Powers, Stray Bullets, and so on ...) It’s comics’ equivalent of the debut rock album.

Image’s current place used to be taken by DC’s Vertigo. One by one though the series that made Vertigo the ‘HBO of comics’ – Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, 100 Bullets, and finally Hellblazer and Fables – have ended, without anything substantial enough or (semi-)popular enough to replace them. If Vertigo were the HBO of comics, perhaps Image are the AMC.

It seems a little strange that the company which started off in the 1990s with mostly flashy, but god-awfully written titles should come to be the highest quality of the ‘big three’ companies. A lot of credit seems to go to current publisher Eric Stephenson. Stephenson’s own Age of Bronze series was somewhat acclaimed, and along with Astro City and Powers started to move Image away from its X-Men clones and towards more diverse, more thoughtful titles. He seems to be even better though as a talent-spotter or at least a facilitator for good creators and their work.

Also Image is probably not that concerned with selling movies or toys.

Don’t get me wrong: Image is hardly selling high literature here. Even Saga and The Walking Dead are just well-developed genre pieces. But as far as doing really good genre work, which is what ‘mainstream’ comics at their best do as well as any medium, Image is currently streets ahead.

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