George Khoury has written, and TwoMorrows has published another well-researched, profusely illustrated and attractively packaged book on comics history, this time featuring Image Comics, the publisher formed by a group of top Marvel artists in 1992. Former Marvel artists, as they all left to begin Image. As this book of interviews repeatedly admits, it was a monumental success due, in part, to timing. Comics were approaching the top of a boom begun in the 80s when projects such as WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS brought new attention to the field from the mainstream world, and Marvel Comics had hot new artists on their best-selling books. Artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Marc Silvestri. They stunned the comics world when they stepped away to form their own company, and brought even more attention to themselves and their new books, which sold through the roof, in numbers not seen since the 1940s, if ever. It was a boom fueled by speculators, though, and a few years later came the bust. But Image has survived, despite many detractors, largely due to the sheer talent of its artists, and their willingness to keep changing and trying new things.
George has put together a fine overview, with interviews of all the principles except Liefeld, who apparently declined to participate. I didn’t read them all, but enjoyed reading many of them. Everyone seemed willing to be candid and as truthful as their memories allowed. I was never a great fan of the Image books, the only one I read regularly early on was SPAWN, and I tired of that around issue 60 or so. The interviews in this book confirmed what I remembered in shorter ones I read at the time by McFarlane and Larsen, at least: a lot of the time they hardly knew what they were doing themselves. Writing was never a priority, and I think many of the books eventually suffered for it. Attractive art will bring people to the table, but if the stories aren’t engaging, they won’t stay long. Thinking back to those SPAWN issues I read, the ones that I remember are the four issues guest-written by Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller (if I have that right, and I think I do).
The art on the Image books was flashy, ornate, and highly detailed, with a profusion of lines. To my eye, it usually worked better when colored than in black and white. This piece by Silvestri is a good example: hard to see exactly what’s going on there. One telling comment in the book is by colorist Steve Oliffe, who says: “Many times I couldn’t even see some of the pages until I has started coloring them. I would find some basic thing just so that I could separate the planes.” What comes to mind is this definition of Baroque art: “thought to have excessive ornamentation or complexity of line.” Perhaps the Image style represents the Baroque period in comics? If so, where did it come from?
One strong influence is surely Barry Windsor-Smith. A page from his “Adastra in Africa” is above, originally meant for a Marvel comic. Windsor-Smith was doing a lot of the same kind of detail, but to me, in a more focused way. Still confusing to the eye in places, though. And I think he was looking back to classic pen and ink illustrators like Franklin Booth:
who created all kinds of textures with fine pen lines, in the style of even earlier steel engravings from the previous century by people like Gustave Doré.
Other influences cited by the artists in this book include Michael Golden, George Perez and Neal Adams, all of whom did often include lots of detail in their work. There’s something about the Image art, though, that, to my eye, takes it one step over the line separating attractive detail from too busy, too hard to “see.”
Here’s another example by Jim Lee and Scott Williams that probably worked fine in color, but in black and white it’s confusing, hard to separate the figures. I can certainly see why Steve Oliffe burned out on it!
Whether you’re an Image fan or not, this book is well worth your time. Lots of fascinating background information on the creators and the company, one whose like may never be seen again. Jack Kirby, for one, seemed rather envious!