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 23:
If there’s any late-’90s comic indicative of the creative evolution that was sweeping Image in the wake of WildStorm’s departure, it was Rising Stars. The brainchild of TV maestro J. Michael Straczynski, Rising Stars was the Babylon 5 auteur’s first foray into the world of comics, and when it hit shelves in August 1999, the impact could be felt throughout the industry.
With Liefeld and Lee gone, McFarlane enamored with Spawn-world and toys, Portacio MIA, Valentino behind a desk running the show, and Larsen generally content to do Larsen things, Marc Silvestri was the de facto last Image founder at Image to still be pouring his heart and soul into his piece of he pie. Top Cow was Image’s premiere imprint now, and with it having the most drop-dead gorgeous comics on the shelves, it was in the best position to steer the Image ship into the 21st century and continue to define what the company was.
The future in comics, at least at that moment in time, seemed to be entwined with Hollywood. Just the year prior, Marvel had made national (non-comics) news by hiring director/professional fanboy Kevin Smith to salvage Daredevil, to blockbuster effect. The move presaged a decade-long land rush to cross-pollinate Hollywood writers (preferably those with pre-existing fanbases) with comics, and let the receipts roll in.
Straczynski (or JMS, as he was commonly known) wound up being a perfect fit for the world of comics. The writer/producer had been active in genre television for about fifteen years at that point, writing numerous episodes of Masters of the Universe and anchoring Babylon 5, which ran for a planned five seasons under Straczynski’s supervision. That the show had a planned end was (and frankly still is) anomalous in TV storytelling at the time: typically, a show would go for enough seasons to make it to syndication (the standard was/is typically 100), and then anything beyond that was gravy until someone’s contract ran out. Babylon 5, though, was different: not only did Straczynski plan the beginning, middle, and final acts from the beginning (again, extraordinarily uncommon), he structured it in an episodic, television-esque manner, as well, giving the sprawling cast spotlight issues that built into the larger narrative. And while this may be commonplace now in the post-decompression comics writing landscape, in 1999, it was a uniquely different and even nominally highbrow, approach than readers were accustomed to.
Rising Stars told the story of the Specials, 113 individuals gifted superpowers by a mysterious comet. The saga took the classic “what superheroes existed in the real world” trope but used it in a more far-reaching way than, say, Watchmen did, which focused predominantly on politics and and the social impact superheroes might have on the real world. Celebrity, religion, science, corporate sponsorship, environmental issues – all were at least in some part tied to Rising Stars‘ overarching narrative. JMS’s writing, too, served this scope: portentous in its delivery, the first issue dripped with the conviction of a writer one-hundred percent in tune with his skill. It was lightning in a bottle, a herald that Image was in the midst of a meaningful self-assessment in the wake of all its change behind the scenes.
There was the original mystery behind the comet that bestowed the Specials’ powers, of course. Then there was the government conspiracy that emerged from it (because of course there was a government conspiracy). There were great loves gained and lost; a secret that tied all the Specials’ together; a corporate tool who went by “Flagg” who wrapped himself in the American flag and was the ultimate propaganda. There was a guy named Poet and another named Ravenshadow and another named Pyre. And in the end, there was an excellently cyclical finale that brought everything full circle in a meaningful way that thoughtfully closed the narrative.
It didn’t hurt that the hype was huge, either. Both Straczynski and RS were heralded near and far as the next big things; industry wags couldn’t get enough of either. Wizard offered a promotional zero issue comic. JMS was atop a multitude of “hot writers” lists and in 2001 would resuscitate Spider-Man’s popularity for Marvel, which was still on the wane after their disastrous Clone Saga. The comic would eventually be optioned by Hollywood. But like just about any “next big thing,” Rising Stars‘ fortunes would eventually fade.
Less than five issues in, and the comic started being cursed with shipping delays. Those delays got longer and longer, causing an already-decompressed story to feel interminably longer than it was supposed to. It didn’t help, either, that that same episodic nature of storytelling that made RS unique in the first place left it vulnerable to character introductions that didn’t pay off: someone would be introduced and presented as important to the story, and then within an issue or two, would be dead. That sort of thing coupled with the shipping delays caused the story feel like it was spinning its wheels rather than going anywhere.
Rising Stars was pitched as a twenty-four issue series (plus three supplemental minis), but it took until 2005 to complete. Beyond the on-again off-again shipping nature of the series, the final three issues’ scripts were withheld by Straczynski due to disputes with Top Cow. By the time they were finally published, it’s fair to say that far fewer cared anymore than there’d been in the beginning; fans – and the industry – had moved on. What was intended to be the next big thing had become a victim of the unceasing march of time.
That’s not to say that Rising Stars is a bad comic. Flawed, maybe, but no more so than the next comic in the final assessment. But it was, from the start, marketed and sold on the strength of is writer – a turning point for comics at the time. Sure, certain names like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore or Frank Miller could be guaranteed to carry a certain amount of cache, but by and large, the industry was still artist-driven. By the close of the ’90s, that was just starting to change, and by the ’10s, a fair argument could be made that as far as the Big 2 were concerned, artists were a distant secondary concern to writers, whose names can now be counted on to sell a comic about any old Z-list character as a means of marketing. (On that cynical note, Rising Stars‘ artist was Keu Cha – but unfortunately he’s barely remembered for his contributions to the comic. Such are the vagaries of writer-driven comics marketing.) That sea change may seem anathema to a primarily visual medium, but the era of the auteur author – and comics’ relationship with Hollywood writers – had begun in earnest.
But as far as Image was concerned, Rising Stars was the beginning of something new. Something different. Something that signaled to the industry at large that they were far, far beyond the ’90s tropes they’d helped codify. Whatever faults it may have eventually had, Rising Stars proved that Image was playing a whole new game, and that the loss of WildStorm hadn’t shaken them. In fact, it had emboldened them to evolve into something new – something that would define the company a new century.
NEXT: POWERS brought some guy named Brian Michael Bendis to the mainstream, and word balloons would never be the same!
Click the links below for 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
- Battle Chasers