NYCC: The Image Revolution documentary panel

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Last night at the New York Comic Con there was a panel on the forthcoming documentary The Image Revolution, directed by Patrick Meaney and produced by Jordan Rennert. The film chronicles the rise of Image Comics in the 1990s, with focus on the Image founders, the speculator bubble, the effect on the industry, and where Image is at today. Meaney and Rennert also made the documentaries Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods and Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts.

The panel was moderated by F.J. De Santo, and panelists included Meaney and Rennert, as well as Image founder Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), Top Cow president Matt Hawkins (Cyber Force), and writer Joe Keatinge (Glory, Hell Yeah), all of whom appear in the documentary. Also featured in The Image Revolution are Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Robert Kirkman, Mark Silvestri, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, and Nick Spencer.

The Image Revolution is aiming for an early 2013 release, and the film is still shooting. Meaney said that if anyone has pictures and videos from Image Comics panels, signings, or events from the 1990s, he would love to hear from you. It might get incorporated into the film. You can get in touch with the filmmakers at sequart.org or through the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization Facebook page.

Check out our panel recap after the cut.

The panel began with the first of five clips from The Image Revolution. The first clip focused on how the founders of Image became fed up working under Marvel and decided to try to strike out on their own. The most vocal in the clip is McFarlane, who likened his time at Marvel Comics to being in high school, and that he didn’t want to go back once he left. It’s noted that in 1991 or 1992, the Image founders were responsible for 44 of the 50 best selling comics of that year.

The Image Revolution seems to have been birthed at a screening of Meaney’s Warren Ellis documentary. During the post-film Q & A, Ales Kot, who wrote the Image comic Wild Children, suggested they should do a documentary on the company.

Most of the panel involved Larsen and Hawkins sharing stories from the heyday of Image Comics. Hawkins recounted a 1993 Image signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe here in New York City that lasted 20 hours. He described the early days of Image as a “wild, crazy ride.” Keatinge, who grew up reading Image Comics when the company started, said that Image seemed to put greater emphasis on the creators of the comics rather than the books just appearing from the ether. There were a few references made to the Levis button-fly jeans commercial featuring Rob Liefeld back in 1990. (The ad was directed by Spike Lee.)

The second and third clips shown from The Image Revolution illustrate the wild, crazy ride of the 1990s comics industry. In clip #2, Liefeld recounts the release of Youngblood, the first ever Image book, saying that there was a line out the door and down the street from Golden Apple Comics in LA. In clip #3, they examine the “You Can’t Fail” era of of Image Comics (roughly 1993-1994), in which everything they released sold no matter how shoddy and how late. The clip also mentions that during this time, people at Image were pulling in $600,000 to $700,000 for their work.

Hawkins shared his hiring story which typifies the lax Image approach in those days: both he and Jonathan Sibal (an inker who still works in the industry) were hired on the spot at a comic convention. (By contrast, Larsen worked on self-published titles for years before Jim Shooter, then Marvel EIC, gave him a shot at some work at a convention.) Hawkins noted at some point in the panel that Liefeld was rolling in so much money that he would buy people cars, and that a new car was what brought Stephen Platt, then one of the hottest artists in the industry, over from Marvel to work at Image. (I still have a signed copy of Prophet #5.)

Amid all the tales of young hubris and booming opulence, it was pointed out that the biggest paycheck that Jack Kirby ever got from the comics industry was from Image for Phantom Force.

The fourth clip from The Image Revolution focused on how the speculator market hurt the comics industry. I think it was Valentino who noted how the speculators killed trading cards and then shifted over to comics. Hawkins and Larsen both stressed that the market crash wasn’t immediate but incremental and gradual. One sign of the numbers starting to decline involved Deathmate Red, a much-delayed book that was part of the 1993 Deathmate crossover between Valiant Comics and Image Comics. Initial orders for Deathmate Red were between 400,000 to 500,00 copies. When the book was resolicited a few months later, retailer orders shrunk to 80,000 copies.

The burst of the speculation bubble caused many comics creators at Image to reassess their financial situation. Part of this led to Extreme Studios (Rob Liefeld’s wing of Image) and WildStorm Productions (Jim Lee’s wing of Image, which originally went by Homage Studios) getting involved in Marvel’s Heroes Reborn story arc in 1996. The burst bubble also caused Lee to sell WildStorm to DC Comics in 1998.

The fifth and final clip that was shown at the panel focused on how Robert Kirkman got The Walking Dead published at Image. The story’s too funny for me to give away here. All I can say is it involved some good-spirited lying to Image heads Jim Valentino and Eric Stephenson.

During the Q & A portion of the panel, Hawkins said that The Darkness is the likeliest Top Cow property to make it to the big screen, but it’s not certain given the nature of options and movie rights. There are 20 options for every 1 that gets made, Hawkins said. He added that some people he knows make a living solely by selling movie options that they know will never get made. Larsen added that some people hope their optioned work never gets made because it might be a total flop. There are apparently 17 projects that have been optioned at Top Cow right now.

Hawkins also commented on why the comic book version of Wanted is so different from the film. Universal bought the film rights to Wanted before issue #2 was released. The screenwriters had to speak with Wanted writer Mark Millar about the direction of the story before it was even completed, which explains the difference between the source material and the film.

As for the direction of Image today, Larsen said he never anticipated how the company would have morphed, with the founders assuming it would be a Marvel-like shared universe. Today, there are numerous pockets in Image that aren’t part of the shared universe, though the spirit of being able to do what you want remains.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.