Image United #1

Image United #1 by Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri, Matt Yackey, Mike Touris, Nikos Koutsis, Rob Liefeld, Robert Kirkman, Todd McFarlane, Tom Orzechowski, Whilce Portacio.by Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri, Matt Yackey, Mike Touris, Nikos Koutsis, Rob Liefeld, Robert Kirkman, Todd McFarlane, Tom Orzechowski, Whilce Portacio.

Party like it's 1992

While Image Comics survived the industry implosion of the early nineties*, the publisher's nascent attempt to establish a viable creator-owned superhero universe ended in mutual recriminations and the company's founders going their separate ways. Comic serials that once sold millions of copies are now seen as also-rans. The founders themselves have lost much of their former rock star status. Their once popular house style, first seen when they were working on various Marvel titles, are now the subject of ridicule by the very fans who faithfully followed them from Marvel to Image. At first there doesn't seem to be much demand to see them revive the old Image Universe. And yet Image United has reunited six of the founders and their respective characters to produce a company wide crossover that's less than two decades too late to capitalize on the company's initial success.** The one hold out is Jim Lee, who sold the creative control over his characters to DC. His contribution to this quixotic project is limited to an alternate cover. Joining them is writer Robert Kirkman, probably the publisher's highest profile creator since the time of the Image founders.

Before I continue, I'd like to share some personal background info. Image Comics was founded when I was returning to comics after a long absence. I was for a short time interested in the company's more violent take on superheroes before moving on to Will Eisner, alternative comics, eurocomics, and manga. I was already too old to be convinced of the originality of their ideas. But I wasn't completely immune to the speculator frenzy surrounding the company. I must admit, to my embarrassment, I read Wizard Magazine and to some degree bought into the hype over hot artists. I purchased several Image titles in the vague hope they would finance my retirement or something like that. Those comics are still around, unread since the mid nineties. As I mentioned before, Image seemed to be integral to the ubiquity of the local comic book retailers. But after the tsunami created by the first issues, came the long delays of subsequent issues. I saw the frustration among local fans, followed by apathy. Then the industry crash occurred. By 1995 the surviving comic stores were shifting their emphasis to selling manga. Local TV networks were already broadcasting their own dubbed versions of Dragonball and Sailor Moon before the Americans were aware of it. And the internet would further feed the burgeoning otaku subculture.

The Image house style was once seen as cutting edge partly because of its acknowledged manga influences. But with each passing year, it seemed less and less relevant. Its influence can still be spotted at Marvel and DC. But it appeals to a shrinking fan base while a newer mainstream is drowning in a sea of kawaii. ***

Image United #1 first splash page
So what do the Image founders have to offer after all this time? I haven't been followed their careers all that closely, so the comic was an opportunity for me to see if they had changed or developed in any way. However they all seem to draw like it was still 1992. They're like aging band musicians who've reunited to play the old tunes in exactly the same way. So the art has all the stereotypical features that were once considered cool, but are now sometimes treated as weaknesses: The minimal backgrounds, the abundance of speed lines, the large and irregularly arranged panels, the splash pages that doubles as pin-up poster art, the distended bodies, the heavy cross hatching, the hyper masculine or feminine proportions, the armour-like costumes, the eternally flexed muscles, the facial grimaces, the overly-posed action sequences. And of course there's the coloring. Those original comics introduced many fans to digital coloring techniques that are now standard in the industry. But with hindsight those pages now look excessively bright, saturated, and metallic. It doesn't help that too many artists contributed to the making of this comic. Rob Liefeld lends some consistency by doing the layouts. But the small stylistic shifts between artists creates too much dissonance for this to be a successful collaboration.

There must be someone who was fourteen at the time and whose nostalgia is served by this crossover. But for former fans who now expresses contempt for early Image, this comic points an accusatory finger at them to say "Despite what you often claim, you used to love us. Don't deny it fanboy. We were crying all the way to the bank. So suck on this."

IMAGE UNITED #1 splash page battle
Robert Kirkman does a capable job of introducing this ensemble and having them split off into their respective mini adventures. The story is fairly easy to follow. But he seems to be slumming. The characters never establish their own distinct individual voices. The reader needs to be already emotionally invested in the Image Universe for this issue to have any emotional impact. Otherwise it's just a bunch of costumed jokers worrying about some undefined threat that no one cares about.

This is obviously a bad comic book. But it's a bad comic book produced by the biggest name creators from the early nineties. Certainly much of the criticism leveled against them is justified. But I often suspect that a lot of the backlash at the time was from fans who were not just embarrassed by their own tastes, but who were angry that so many of them considered venturing outside the acceptable confines of Marvel and DC. But before the Image house style officially existed, it was thought of as a darker and grittier version of the Marvel House style. Many of its features have since been absorbed by the next generation of mainstream artists. The Image style as an overall package may look laughable now. But for better or for worse, it was very much a next step in the evolution of the superhero genre.
*A set of circumstances the publisher has arguably contributed too
** Cue the late comics jokes
*** And a bookstore-based mainstream market