Comics are an odd medium. Rarely in any artform do we have such a defined demarcation between consumer segments: There are “superhero comics” and then there’s “everything else.” This is why we have had the unshakable presence of the ‘Big Two’ since time immemorial. Marvel and DC, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others, have been relentlessly churning out superhero stories literally for generations.
While I adore superheroes and recognize them as the time-tested mascots of the medium as a whole, I frequently turn elsewhere because I always need variety in my diet. I don’t mean to chastise anyone who prefers his or her comics to be purely spandex-laden fisticuffs. I have a (frankly) unhealthy number of Spider-Man back issues and merchandise that would scream ‘hypocrite!’ at me if I even tried to guilt someone else over their superhero-worship. That said, however, Image Comics is clocking 25 years in the business, and I’m making the case that the industry has a third titan.
In the early 90’s, Image were mostly putting out C-grade superhero knockoffs that read like X-Force fan-fiction written by teenagers more interested in smashing action figures together than actual story-telling. The plot of most Youngblood books could be described as roid-raging Neanderthals jumping each other, monologuing about how ‘XTREME’ they are through constipated facial expressions composed of razor-sharp gritted teeth while firing laughably over-sized guns. I always imagined that most of the 90’s Image character names were chosen by tossing a large paper-stack of rejected heavy metal lyrics into a wind turbine and collecting whatever scraps were spat back out to cobble together some immensely baffling aliases (I have yet to understand what drives anyone to call their character ‘Overtkill’).
Needless to say, I was not a fan.
But it was probably an unfair impression of their repertoire. I’m told they had some great work in that era, but I simply couldn’t get past the bottom of the barrel bunk I had read as a kid. Nowadays, though, I’m happy to admit I have been proven wildly, stupidly wrong about Image Comics. Their output over the last decade has been stellar to say the least. They’ve become my favourite company, and their logo has become a badge of consistent quality.
By the first 2 issues, Pretty Deadly had become one of my favourite comics of all time, with its eclectic blend of mythology and wild-west influences. Brandon Graham’s run on Prophet is comic book sci-fi at its finest, drawing from Moebius-era Heavy Metal and the bio-punk/space survival genre. Image also picked up J. Michael Straczynski’s fledgling science-fantasy series Dream Police after it was canned by Icon. Dream Police is a book that’s so good at world building and has such a great premise that it’s a travesty more people are not reading it.
Recently, they’ve also tried their hand at the anthology comic genre with their sublime series Island. I was very impressed by the diverse range exhibited by the issues I perused. They managed to balance together quite a wide array of writing and art styles, even throwing in some occasional prose work (most notably Kelly Sue Deconnick’s essay Railbirds, an earnest work of non-fiction dedicated to a friend she lost). The series is worth a try if you’re looking for surprise packages like 2000 AD.
I’m equally enamoured by titles like Nick Spencer’s Morning Glories, an oddly twisted sci-fi ensemble piece with the veneer of a high school drama. It was a thoroughly addictive read. I’m also sampling Zack Kaplan’s debut series Eclipse. It’s a work of high concept, apocalyptic dystopia with great action sequences and impressive uses of lighting in its artwork.
Similarly, you have Matt Fraction’s ODY-C, a gender-flipped, psychedelic sci-fi retelling of Homer’s epic the Odyssey. I’m not even mentioning Saga, Lazarus, The Fade Out or Huck. There are so many more. As yet, I’ve not even delved into half of their astounding portfolio. I could exceed the word count on this article going into the more outré titles they’ve produced over the years.
Even when I don’t love the book in question, I admire that it was given the green light. Grant Morrison’s Nameless is an experiment in surreal metafiction that gets more respect than enjoyment from me. Even though it never dew me in, I recognised that it was a bold move by an imprint that wasn’t afraid sink its teeth into riskier, esoteric material. While I don’t read or watch The Walking Dead, its cultural significance cannot be overstated and its popularity is undeniable (occasionally garnering the monthly top sales spot).
With all of this in mind, I think it’s about time we retire the phrase ‘Big Two’ because Image Comics has shattered the once-secure duopoly held by the preeminent purveyors of tights and capes, and in the process they’ve shown us there is a hunger for something outside of what the nostalgia factories of Marvel and DC have on offer. If your long-box is short on Image titles, I must say you’re missing out on some of the finest story telling in modern comics.