The Image Revolution — a documentary review

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I was a part of the Image Revolution.

Not the part that reaped millions of dollars, fancy sports cars, giant toy companies, and tremendously huge egos. That was for the founders of Image Comics, and they earned all of that.

No, I was part of that mass group of humanity who was funding the cars and toys and egos with my hard-earned dollars. And I was doing it willingly because I didn’t want to miss out on being a part of the biggest revolution in superhero comics during my lifetime.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. These days, anyone who pays attention to comic books at all hears all the big events touted. Like “The New 52.” Or “Rebirth.” On the other side of the aisle: “The Infinity Gauntlet.” Or “Secret Wars,” “Civil War,” or “World War Hulk.” War is always popular.

Or, just insert your own thing here. There’s always a big event in the offing.

I cut my teeth on comic books from the 1970s through the very early ’80s. I owned some Silver Age stuff, but the bulk of my experience was definitely Bronze Age. I was there for all the Jack “King” Kirby stuff at DC Comics. I saw the Green Goblin murder Gwen Stacy. I applauded the increasing social consciousness in comics and the rise of minority superheroes that accompanied this movement. I “discovered” Conan the Barbarian and John Carter through the comics first, then read the Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs source material. I was there when Superman battled Spider-Man, and when KISS poured their own blood into the printer’s ink.

But, I was too young to fully experience what I consider to have been the last Truly Big Event, or revolution if you prefer, in superhero comic books, which was the true birth of Marvel Comics in 1961 with the publication of Fantastic Four #1.

FF#1

Prior to that, it was the publication of Action Comics #1 and the first appearance of Superman in 1938. Waaaay before my time.

ActionComics#1

I quit actively reading comics in the early ’80s. I lost my passion for collecting after a house fire claimed the biggest part of my collection, and, in all honesty, my attention was diverted by other things that were much more entertaining to me for a long time. I was never ashamed for having been a comic book guy (and I feel the same today). I just thought, at the time, it was a past hobby.

I spent most of a decade unaware of the continuity at either of the Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC Comics. I didn’t really experience MacFarlane, Liefeld and Larsen from their work at Marvel. I was peripherally aware, and I admit that I sometimes thumbed through a copy of Wizard magazine (which, sadly, is no longer a thing) or the comic books in a spinner rack at 7-Eleven (also no longer a thing). I knew Jim Lee and Scott Williams from the relaunch of the X-Men line with X-Men #1 in 1991. This was a big-event book, and I bought the first issue (with all of its variant covers), and a few issues after that one, purely as a speculator. I still have them. I bought many of the Death of Superman titles a year or so later, for the same reason.

It was in this frame of mind that I scooped up the first issues of Youngblood, Spawn, Savage Dragon, and WildC.A.T.S as I found them. There were other titles I collected after this one, but these were the first. The art blew me away. I’ll make fun of Rob Liefeld’s oddly distorted physiques with their little feet and overabundance of belts and pouches as much as the next guy. But, the truth is, I’ve always found his art and his layouts to be dynamic and interesting, and his ability to create new heroes and villains is admirable. Likewise, Todd MacFarlane has a style that is uniquely his own, both on the page and off. Erik Larsen has a strong penchant for the weird. And, Jim Lee is Jim Lee. I don’t need to say more about him.

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Plus, I was a part of the new comic book revolution that this documentary tells us about. The actions taken by the original Image partners, including those listed above plus Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio and Marc Silvestri, forever changed the comic book landscape. All of the major players in this real-life drama are interviewed for this documentary, which makes it extra-special. Twenty years further down the road, this will prove to be even more important, of course. We get to hear the oral history of Image Comics from the guys who founded it.

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The premise of the company was a simple one. The creators would retain rights to all of their art and their original creations, something artists and writers were not able to do at Marvel and DC. For instance, Rob Liefeld created the character Deadpool. Now two Ryan Reynolds movies in, who do you think owns the rights to the character? Ultimately, Disney, which now owns Marvel, of course. But, there’s no argument over who owns the rights to the Youngblood superhero team, or characters such as Badrock or Chapel.

The creation of Image Comics fueled the 1990s comics speculation boom and eventual bust as well. I suppose I was an active participant in this boom, but the bust never really affected me much. I still have all the Image comics I purchased during that time and remain blissfully unaware of their value. Considering the large print runs, I assume they’re not worth much. That doesn’t matter to me, since I paid cover price for most of them.

I eventually lost interest in buying Image comics for several reasons. With the exception of MacFarlane and Larsen, none of the other books could meet a set publication schedule. This resulted in too much time in-between issues, and often the stories seemed disjointed. As great as the artwork continued to be, the stories were ultimately lacking. Honestly, I even lost interest in the Savage Dragon and Spawn eventually. It boiled down to a lack of story for me.

The Image Revolution addresses most of the trials and tribulations of Image Comics. A lot of the story will sound like a familiar one. The band forms, has some initial success, runs into difficulties, and the band breaks up. You almost expect Gordon Gecko to step forward and give his “Greed is Good” speech at the beginning of the documentary.

If I have any criticisms to level at the doc, it’s that it is extremely slanted in the pro-Image camp. I wouldn’t expect anything else, truthfully. While much of the story is painted as a David-and-Goliath matchup, it’s not wholly accurate. It becomes a story about two major companies versus a smaller-but-still-major company.

Todd MacFarlane seems to have an ego roughly the size of Asia, but everyone in this film points to him as the glue that held this enterprise mostly together. He turned out a consistent product even while forming his own, hugely successful toy company. He has earned his ego, but he’s still difficult to listen to sometimes.

Rob Liefeld had a falling out with the company, left it, and then later was welcomed back with open arms. There is a hint of nostalgia when you hear about these stories. There is also more than a hint of So then that happened: Who cares? Not surprisingly, not all artistic types are the best businessmen.

Image Comics never ceased to be a force in the comic book industry. It published Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (maybe you’ve heard of it), as well as Saga, the award-winning series by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, plus a whole lot of other titles I’ve never read. The documentary also spends the requisite amount of time describing what the company has become.

I recommend The Image Revolution for any comics-lover, especially if, like me, you were a part of the revolution itself.

Firewater’s Revolutionary Report Card: A

A

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