February marks the 25th Anniversary for Image Comics. In the time we’ve been doing the show, Image has experienced a creative renaissance as the financial model for creator-owned comics has improved enough to make it a viable alternative to pursuing Big 2 work. Yet, as a new generation has fallen in love with Image thanks to titles like The Walking Dead, Saga, East of West, Southern Bastards and Black Science, many of today’s readers forget that Image exists thanks to the revolutionary and rebellious decisions of the original founders: Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino and Todd McFarlane.
They decided to break away from the major publishers with no safety net in order to create and publish their own ideas. In retrospect, we can look back on the massive commercial success of early image books like Spawn, Savage Dragon and Youngblood and see their decision as a “no brainer.” But let’s not forget that those seven creators left VERY well-paying gigs at Marvel at the time and could have easily found themselves in debt and blackballed, had their initial titles not struck a chord.
It was their incredible early commercial success that sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Trailblazers always invite followers, and many other creators quickly began dreaming of their own Image-backed hit series. So in honor of the 25th Anniversary, let’s look at some of the books that were NOT the blockbusters their predecessors enjoyed. Some of these creators are now legendary, but their early Image forays ended up as footnotes in the comic ether.
1963 (published in 1993)
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Rick Veitch, Murphy Anderson, Dave Gibbons, Stephen Bissette, Don Simpson, John Totleben
Alan Moore jumped into the Image mania with a parody series that was meant to spoof Marvel Comics, in particular. He collaborated with many of his long-time artistic partners, and put out six issues. Unfortunately, the series was meant to be completed with an oversized annual that would vault the 1963 characters 30 years into the future to meet up with all the popular Image characters of the time. The issue was to be drawn by Jim Lee, but a falling out between Moore and Lee meant the issue, and the series, would never finish.
Bodycount (published in 1996)
Written by Kevin Eastman
Art by Simon Bisley
Kevin Eastman, one half of the team that revolutionized black and white independent comics in the 80s, joined the Image rocket ship in the mid 90s. Bodycount was a crazy story that paid homage to John Woo films, ultra-violence, and…the Turtles. Yes, this was originally meant to be a mini-series called Casey Jones and Raphael at Mirage, but was repackaged as Bodycount a year later after Eastman decided to start publishing the entire TMNT line at Image. The series ran four issues and now stands as a minor asterisk in the storied history of the Turtles.
Celestine (published in 1996)
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Pat Lee
Warren Ellis is a household name today and an accomplished writer across multiple genres and at just about every publisher. But in 1996, Ellis was largely known in the UK and was still a year away from his first masterpiece, Transmetropolitan (DC/Vertigo). Extreme Studios tapped him to write a comic about Celestine, a character introduced by Alan Moore and Rob Liefeld earlier in the year. The mini-series lasted just two issues.
Hellshock (published in 1994)
Written by Jae Lee
Art by Jae Lee
Jae Lee was rising to prominence at Marvel around the same time the founders were leaving to start Image. Known mainly as the artist who succeeded John Byrne on Namor, the Sub-Mariner, Lee went on to X-Factor before leaving for Image where he drew for both Wildstorm and Extreme. He took a shot in 1994 at his own creator-owned book, Hellshock. The story centered on Daniel, a half man-half angel who seemingly couldn’t be killed and tried to save his (human) mother from going to Hell. The series ran for four issues, and a second volume came out a few years later although went unfinished until nearly a decade later.
Shaman’s Tears (published in 1993)
Written by Mike Grell
Art by Mike Grell
Mike Grell was quick to join the Image founders in his attempt at creator-owned riches, and came up with Shaman’s Tears, the story of Joshua Brand, a Native American with animal powers. The series ran 13 issues, making it one of the longest tenured in this list. Yet, the series was controversial from the start as Image considered cancelling the book after just a few issues due to low sales (rumored to be in the 250,000 copy range – which would make it the top selling book by today’s standards). There was a year and a half delay between the 2nd and 3rd issues, and Grell eventually brought another of his characters – Jon Sable – into the series in order to spur interest.
Strikeback! (published in 1996)
Written by Jonathan Peterson and Kevin Maguire
Art by Kevin Maguire
Kevin Maguire and Jonathan Peterson had a wild ride with Strikeback!, a mash up of romance comics and 90s extreme superheroes. Lovers Nikita and Rascal are torn apart when Nikita is kidnapped, so Rascal grabs a team of crazy heroes to help get her back. What makes this series fascinating is that unlike many Image series that never finished or were finished elsewhere, Strikeback! was a book originally published by Bravura and reprinted, and finished (issues 4 and 5) at Image.
Trencher (published in 1993)
Written by Keith Giffen
Art by Keith Giffen
Trencher was an over-the-top story about Gideon Trencher, whose job was to kill people who were wrongfully re-incarnated. The book was an on-the-nose satire of the time, perhaps most notably as Trencher hunts down a handful of Elvis’ who bear striking resemblance to the four characters who replace Superman upon his death over at DC Comics. Trencher was among the many Image series that never finished. The book lasted four issues, but the 5th issue was solicited but never finished.
Tribe (published in 1993)
Written by Todd Johnson and Larry Stroman
Art by Larry Stroman
Four years, four issues, three publishers. Tribe may be the poster boy for the craziness that ensued at Image after the initial success. Larry Stroman’s Tribe followed a team of superheroes based in Brooklyn. It lasted a whopping one issue at Image before finding a new home (for two issues) at Axis Comics. The final issue (oddly given the “0” issue status) was published three years later by Good Comics.
Union (published in 1993)
Written by Michael Heisler
Art by Mark Texeira
The character Union (real name: Ohmen) would go on to make regular appearances in the Wildstorm universe as an associate of Stormwatch, but he was introduced in 1993 by Heisler with art by Mark Texeira. “Tex” was another rising star at Marvel, most notably on Ghost Rider, Punisher and the X-Men, before coming aboard the Image train. Unfortunately for Tex, Union only lasted five issues.
Wildstar: Sky Zero (published in 1993)
Written by Al Gordon
Art by Jerry Ordway and Al Gordon
Legendary cartoonist Jerry Ordway tried to jump on the Image freight train with Wildstar: Sky Zero, the story of a man named Micky Gabriel, who is imbued with superpowers after bonding with an alien symbiote. He is stuck in a time loop (think Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds) as he attempts to break free and fix his troubled future. Probably best remembered as the book featuring a cosmic starfish not named Starro, this book only lasted four issues.
As someone who was knee deep in comics during the 90s, I’m nostalgic for the period even if it wasn’t without its creative and financial travails. Image Comics is a bastion of the industry today, and the creator-owned model allows for a vibrant set of unique titles to grace the shelves each and every month. Although today’s series bear little resemblance to the early 90s books, we can’t forget that those stories made today’s stories possible. Do yourself a favor, and take a walk down memory lane with some of these long-forgotten (or unfairly ridiculed) titles.