Welcome to Image30, Comic Watch’s celebration of three decades of Image Comics! Throughout 2022, each week we’ll take a look back, chronologically, at the comics that built the publisher into the powerhouse it is today, and changed comics forever! In doing so, it’s our hope to paint a clear and definitive picture from a finished product perspective how the company originated, grew, evolved, and changed into the diverse juggernaut it is today.
Image30 Chapter 21:
Battle Chasers and the Sale of WildStorm
19998 and 1999 were the years that would change everything for Image. Liefeld was out, Silvestri had returned. McFarlane was still chugging along with Spawn despite a colossal flop at the box office and declining sales. Valentino had more or less stopped creating comics altogether, and was more focused on the behind-the-scenes business of Image as their publisher, taking over for a relieved Larry Marder. Larsen was plugging along with Savage Dragon, and Portacio was MIA. Image was in a state of flux, but if there was one bright spot for the company, it was Jim Lee’s WildStorm imprint.
WildStorm was publishing a healthy chunk of Image’s output by the close of the decade, with its own universe that included stalwarts WildCATs, Gen13, StormWatch, and so on holding strong. Then there were the WildStorm imprints: Homage, which focused on writer-driven, more Eisner-caliber comics such as Astro City or Leave it to Chance; Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics (or ABC for short) that featured The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong, Top Ten, and more, all written by the industry powerhouse; and lastly, Cliffhanger, which had launched the year before by J. Scott Campbell, Humberto Ramos, and Joe Madureira, to focus on creator-owned comics with a more action-adventure lean. The latter’s first launch, Danger Girl by Campbell, was a riff on the Charlie’s Angel’s formula in March 1998. It was followed by Joe Madureira’s sword-and-sorcery action-adventure book Battle Chasers a month later, and Ramos’ teen vampire drama Crimson the month after that. The imprint was touted as the next big thing right off the bat, and for all the hype behind Danger Girl and Crimson, it was Battle Chasers that was poised to be the breakout title due to its hotter-than-hot creator/writer/artist, Joe Mad.
Madureira was, in a lot of ways, the yin to Lee/Liefeld’s yang in terms of artistic style. Whereas the Image founders’ stock-in-trade was slick visual bombast with a thousand cross-hatches, Madureira’s adopted an Americanized version (some might say bastardization) of anime and/or manga that came to be known as Amerimanga. (He inspired a small cottage industry of imitators, including Roger Cruz and Jeff Matsuda who would go on to varying levels of industry success for the next few years.) Rising to prominence as a superstar on Uncanny X-Men throughout the mid-’90s (and able to claim at least partial credit for helping keep the comics burning up the charts in competition with Image), Madureira was the kind of star that was absolutely set to write his own ticket at some point in his career.
Part of it was Madureira’s raw skill, but part of it was luck of timing, too. Anime and manga had been percolating under the surface of American pop cultural consciousness since the 1970s and ’80s, but hadn’t quite broken through to mainstream geekdom just yet. But by the mid- to late-’90s, it was everywhere: whether it was movies like Akira or Ghost in the Shell, breakthrough shows like Sailor Moon or Dragonball, or manga like One Piece or Ranma 1/2, seemingly overnight, everyone was an anime and manga fan. American pop culture’s appropriation of Japanese concepts had been churning since the early ’80s, but had for a time seemed more like a fad as the Ninja Turtles faded out of vogue. But manga and anime imports never went away, and artists like Madureira was as influenced by its style far more than American artists like Adams or Kirby or Aparo or whomever. And so it went – the biggest comic in the world, Uncanny X-Men was for three years in the hands of a young hotshot determined to bring Japanese style to the masses.
When the opportunity to come to the creator-owned arena came calling, Madureira was hardly in a position to say no. He was only twenty-four years old in 1998 and was already an A-lister – who wouldn’t leap at a chance to be the next Liefeld or Lee or McFarlane? And so, Battle Chasers was born.
When it launched in April 1998, Battle Chasers was the book to beat. No artist was hotter than Joe Mad at that time, so anything with his name on it was going to go hog wild. No one knew quite what to expect from the young auteur (though it would have been reasonable to guess some sort of martial arts book, given Madureira’s obvious influences), so when he announced a sword-and-sorcery epic as his first outing, industry tongues started wagging and the hype-meter, aided and abetted by indefatigable ’90s prime mover Wizard Magazine in a world where the internet existed but was hardly the undeniable force it is today. After all, sword-and-sorcery was a long-dead genre in comics, so what if Madureira was the guy to resuscitate it? And what would his own unique, hybrid art style bring to the genre?
As it turned out, though, not much. Despite a respectable launch (number-twelve book overall for that month according to Comichron, with a respectable 78,479 units sold), it sold scantly more than half of Uncanny X-Men and trailed behind Captain America, Avengers, and Iron Man, by then surging thanks to Marvel’s “Heroes Return” initiative. The comic itself was a rather rote affair populated by token fantasy trope characters: the old wizard, the stoic swordsman, the smoldering yet untrustworthy femme fatale, and so on. The story itself had something to do with a pair of oversized magic gloves worn by a girl named Gully, and the accidental freeing of a number of villains to plague the realm. Once the initial sizzle wore off, fans were wondering why the heck they’d been so excited in the first place.
And then there were the publishing delays. Without the stricture of a monthly deadline hanging over his head as had been the case at Marvel, Madureira quickly proved he couldn’t maintain a monthly pace on his own. As of September 2001, only nine issues had been published, and the title was put on indefinite hiatus as Maduriera left comics to work as a designer in the video game industry. Burned by unmet hype, no one cared anymore.
But perhaps the failure of Battle Chasers was a bellwether for a changing of the guard that would soon take place at WildStorm, signaling a sea change for Image as a whole. Since comics sales had been on the decline since the collectors’ bubble burst in the mid-’90s, Jim Lee had been looking for a buyer – and in 1998, DC obliged him. WildStorm was sold to DC for an undisclosed sum. Rumors had begun swirling during late summer of that year, and by the fall, it was confirmed: Jim Lee, one of the Image founders and crusaders for creators’ rights, was selling his entire imprint to DC. It felt to some like a betrayal of the founding Image principles; to others, it was a savvy business move. After all, although owned by DC, WildStorm was essentially still its own world: it wasn’t part of DC’s continuity, and in fact, its offices were all the way across the country in California while DC was housed in New York.
And in fact, the move to DC coincided with a massive creative resurgence at WildStorm: The Authority and Planetary would both launch in 1999 and completely change the tenor and focus of the shared universe; a couple of years later, Sleeper would bring a crime noir sensibility to its world and introduce crime story maestro Ed Brubaker to a larger audience. Alan Moore’s ABC line went with WildStorm; the creator, who had long ago vowed to never work for DC again, said he was fine as long as he never had any interaction with WildStorm’s new parent company. Cliffhanger and Homage went along for the ride, too. And Jim Lee himself would, in time, become one of the key strategic minds at DC as a whole, and an integral force for the company writ large both artistically and behind the scenes.
But what about Image? As could be imagined, there was a certain amount of panic as one of the company’s foundational pieces – and most consistent financial contributor – was suddenly ripped from it. But the company continued right along, although, it was clear that as the times and industry were changing, it was going to have to reinvent itself. Gone were the days of beefcake he-men with guns the size of cattle running amok alongside women with broken backs and G-strings for uniforms. Heck, by this time, even Savage Dragon had morphed into a loving Kamandi and Kirby homage. It was time to be something new. But what would that look like? The dream of a creator-ownership focused company was alive and well, but what would that look like at the turn of a new century? It was time for some experimentation. Time for some new ideas.
Time for a new Image.
NEXT: Stripped of two of its founding members, Image turns to the next generation of superstar artists in search of its next big hit – and found it with Michael Turner’s FATHOM!
Click below for links to previous Image30 chapters:
- Savage Dragon
- The Maxx
- Astro City
- Bone COMING SOON
- Alan Moore’s Supreme
- Strangers in Paradise
- Mage: The Hero Defined
- The Darkness