The best comic books aren't coming from Marvel or DC.
They're coming from a company called Image.
Those comic books are called The Wicked + The Divine, Saga, East of West, Bitch Planet, Chew, Rat Queens, Sex Criminals, and Pretty Deadly. They dominated 2014's "best comics" lists. They told stories of gods as pop stars, sci-fi Westerns, people who can stop time with their orgasms, and melodramatic space operas filled with both magic and Shakespeare — stuff you wouldn't find anywhere else.
And the people writing and drawing these stories are the comic book equivalent of the 1992 Dream Team. Names like Kieron Gillen, Marjorie Liu, Matt Fraction, Jamie McKelvie, Emma Rios, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Brian Vaughn, Fiona Staples, Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire will be instantly familiar to comics fans. And they're all creating books for Image.
But Image's current strength was never a given.
"Image was a huge success from the very start back in 1992, but obviously, you stick around for a while and you start hitting some bumps in the road," Image publisher Eric Stephenson told Vox. "The end of the ‘90s wasn’t a great period for the company, honestly, but I think we started turning a corner once we crossed over into the 2000s and starting around 2009, we just started going from strength to strength."
The antidote to superhero fatigue
Back in the 1940s, comic books were absolutely massive. But comics readers were largely looking past superheroes toward other genres. They fell in love with comics that explored crime, non-conformity, romance, and horror.
That sounds a lot like today. We've been on the pop culture precipice of superhero fatigue for a while now. Between 2016 and 2020, we'll be slammed with 20 new superhero movies, just from DC and Marvel. And on television and streaming, Netflix will premiere four Marvel shows to join the already existing fray that includes Arrow, The Flash, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The question to many isn't if that superhero bubble will burst — but when.
In fact, if you look at what's happening in comic books, there's been a creative shift happening that's not unlike what happened in the 1940s.
Comics writers and artists, many of whom have helped make Marvel's and DC's superhero comics so very good, are now exploring crazier stuff. Sex Criminals, for instance, is about two people who can stop time when they orgasm and then use this power to rob a bank. It's sexy, weird, hilarious, and beautifully drawn. And these writers and artists are finding an audience that appreciates these inventive tales.
"I think we’re living through the true golden age of comics right now, honestly," Stephenson said. "The awesome success of things like Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy notwithstanding, I really do think we’re nearing the end of the superhero’s stranglehold on the comics market."
The loss of a stranglehold isn't death. As they always have, people will still buy new issues of Batman and Avengers. But they also might pick up an issue of Deadly Class, a story about the academy where crime families send their kids, or Wicked and Divine, a tale about gods and goddesses as super-powered pop stars, too, or something even more out there.
And that's where Image steps in.
"More people are recognizing that comics can be all of these things, and that it doesn't have to be 'us vs. them.'" Kelly Sue DeConnick, the writer behind Image's Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet and the driving force of Marvel's Captain Marvel, told me. "And most of the top tier creators do both. And we're internalizing, in a way we haven't in the past, that comics are not a genre — they're a medium."
This realization has benefited Image and its vast array of stories.
"Image marked in March its highest one-month market share since 2000, more than 11 percent," Jonathan Jackson Miller, the creator of the comic sales site ComiChron told me. Miller explained that Image peaked in 1993, a year after bursting onto the scene, but spent the middle of the last decade flailing in the 3 to 5 percent range.
"Comics and graphic novel sales in general and for Image in particular have improved greatly, and the 2014 figure will likely be its best finish since 2000," Miller said.
Image's crackling beginning and its fall back down to earth
Image wasn't always enjoying this type of success.
The company began in 1992, when a band of very popular Marvel artists like Jim Lee (now the publisher at DC) and Todd MacFarlane dreamed it up. Image was founded on the idea that creators owned their work and consisted of six studios (led by each of the founders). Image rode the popularity of titles like Spawn and Savage Dragon to nearly 15 percent of the market share in 1993.
"With the departure of Jim Lee's Wildstorm studio, purchased by DC in the late 1990s, its market share retreated to the single digits," Miller explained, bringing into context what Stephenson referred to as "not a great period for the company."
Competing with Marvel and DC in a superhero arms race is like going into the Hunger Games with a broken leg. In the '90s, Image's gameplan was to out-sex and out-violence the big two, but it began to hit the point of diminishing returns.
"For much of the '00s, it was unclear what, exactly, Image was supposed to be. Sure, there were acclaimed series like Invincible and, of course, The Walking Dead, but the company, as a whole, was not the artistic force it had once been," Abraham Riesman, a multimedia editor at New York magazine, told me.
Image comics nabbed three spots on Riesman's end of the year list. He explained that the company's winning formula was finding its identity around 2009, when the company took a turn into newer, bolder ideas.
And Riesman's astute observation is in lockstep with Stephenson's goal.
"I think the thing Image wants to be known for is doing things that are new or different," Stephenson said. He added:
Comics fans can sit around and debate the virtues of the Avengers over the Justice League, or whether Spider-Man’s better than Batman, but at the end of the day, those are all superhero comics and they’re telling more or less the same type of stories. The only thing connecting the books we publish is that they’re unique, and I think I’d rather Image’s legacy be that our creators were brave enough to follow their own path rather than simply do the same thing as everyone else.
The comic book-reading audience has changed
Superhero comic books got their push after WWII. Because of bad press and growing public discontent, comic book publishers cracked down on terror, gore, and more adult comic books. They instead pushed their resources into safer superhero stories and focused on tailoring their comics for their strongest market: teenage boys.
"When I grew up, you were either a Marvel fan or a DC fan, and today, I think it’s a lot easier to just be a comics fan," Stephenson said.
While elements of that period still exist, things are changing slowly. Comics are as accessible as ever. Trips to the comic book shop, like trips to the record store, are no longer needed. Comic shop gatekeepers are an endangered species as downloading comic books every Wednesday is no more complicated or intimidating than online shopping. And digital comic book sales at companies like Comixology have grown exponentially year after year.
With each wildly popular Avengers movie, Groot toy, or Batman debate, the stigma of comic books being for the nerdy is slowly fading away. Comic books are mainstream. And you can see that in the heroes readers are consuming.
Back in the '90s, the X-Men comic books were the top-selling books month after month, year after year. The X-Men were portrayed as outsiders and outcasts. For the last decade or so, Batman has become the go-to comic book. Of course, Batman/Bruce Wayne is depicted as a very rich, powerful, handsome, and ideal man (despite George Clooney's best efforts).
More recently however, you'll notice that a couple of the top ten best-selling comics of 2014 don't have the historical clout of Batman or the X-Men — titles like Image's Walking Dead, Marvel's Thor #1 (where a woman assumes the title of Thor), and Rocket Racoon each nabbed a spot. And Image dominated the top 10 best-selling graphic novels and trade paperbacks of 2014, grabbing nine out of the 10 slots (trade paperbacks are a collection of multiple issues or an arc of a comic book, they're lumped in with graphic novels when counting sales).
"Readers gravitate toward good books, regardless of who puts them out, and I think that’s not just good for us, but for the industry as a whole," Stephenson said.
If comic book creators are like rock stars, Image is the acoustic concert
Thanks to the connectivity of the Internet and platforms like Tumblr, getting in touch with people who love a specific comic book is really easy as is getting in touch with authors and artists.
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, the co-creators behind The Wicked and Divine comic book are active on social media and Tumblr. Their fanbases are too. And when the two were creating their comic (which is splendid by the way), they indulged their loyal fans with a Spotify playlist and, a WicDiv Tumblr where they (or someone on their team) answer questions, show off previews and interact with their fandom.
And on Twitter, writers and artists have followers in tens of thousands range. Their fans will follow them everywhere. Accordingly, companies like Marvel and DC ink many of these talents to exclusive contracts, meaning no writing for the competition.
But Marvel and DC primarily care about each other. And that means writers are allowed to create and write their own comics.
This is how Image thrives.
"They have the best deal in town. You own and control everything," DeConnick told me. "You choose everything, down to the paper stock. It is the most control, freedom, and ownership that you will find anywhere."
Gillen echoed DeConnick's feelings.
"The thing that stays the same whether you're making no money or quite a bit of money is the complete and utter freedom of it all. Image is yours. You own it all," Gillen said. "And you make this into whatever you want."
Both writers made clear that this type of freedom and ownership isn't a knock on their work or their editors at Marvel. It's that editors at Marvel and D.C. have to think of the big picture, and how one comic from Gillen or DeConnick has ramifications across the comic book universe.
"There is a perception sometimes that at the big two [Marvel and DC], there's a heavier editorial hand than what I have actually experienced," DeConnick said. "[The editors at Marvel] have the herculean task of coordinating continuity, herding freelancers, and getting everybody's story arcs on the same page in what is longest-running continuous narrative in human history."
And, again, Image doesn't have to worry about any of that.
What's next for Image
Earlier this month, Image held its Image Expo — a convention of sorts for everything Image. The company has hired a staggering amount of new talent.
- Scott Snyder (Batman) and artist Jeff Lemire (The New 52) are teaming up for a comic book that explores immortality called AD: After Death.
- Brian K. Vaughan (Saga) and Cliff Chiang (Green Arrow/Black Canary) are working on a comic book about newspaper delivery girls called Paper Girls.
- Marjorie Liu (Astonishing X-Men) and artist Sana Takeda (Ms. Marvel) are working together on a stunning comic book about a girl with a connection to a mythical creature called Monstress.
In our conversation, Stephenson also teased a new series from Grant Morrison and Chris Burham, as well as a graphic novel called Sexcastle and new work from Warren Ellis. Morrison and Ellis are comic book royalty, and Stephenson explained that Sexcastle was something Matt Fraction, the writer behind Image's wildly popular comic Sex Criminals, recommended.
"Really, if I were to just say 'more of the same,' that would be the easiest way to sum it up," Stephenson said. "Whereas 'more of the same' from everyone else is exactly what it implies, 'more of the same' from Image is just another way of saying we’re going to continue doing the kind of new and exciting comics that have made us so successful over the last few years."
And readers would have no problem with that.