Image Comics is an American comic book publisher. It was founded in 1992 by high-profile illustrators as a venue where creators could publish their material without giving up the copyrights to the characters they created, as creator-owned properties. It was immediately successful, and remains one of the largest comic book publishers in North America. Its output was originally dominated by work from the studios of the Image partners, but later included work by numerous independent creators. Its best-known series include Spawn, Savage Dragon, Witchblade, The Darkness, Invincible, and The Walking Dead.
In the early 1990s, several freelance illustrators doing popular work for Marvel Comics grew frustrated with the company's policies and practices. Their primary complaint was that the artwork and new characters they created were being merchandised heavily, with the artists receiving only standard page rates for their work and modest royalties on sales of the comics. In December 1991, a group of these illustrators approached Marvel president Terry Stewart and demanded that the company give them ownership and creative control over their work. Accounts vary as to whom this group included, but it is generally accepted that Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld were among its leaders. Marvel did not meet their demands.
In response, eight creators announced the founding of Image Comics: illustrators Todd McFarlane (known for his work on Spider-Man), Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men); and longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont. This development was nicknamed the "X-odus", because several of the creators involved (Claremont, Liefeld, Lee, Silvestri, and Portacio) were famous for their work on the X-Men franchise. Marvel's stock fell $3.25/share when the news became public.
Image's organizing charter had two key provisions: Image would not own any creator's work; the creator would. No Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner's work. Image itself would own no intellectual property except the company trademarks: its name and its logo, which was designed by writer Hank Kanalz. Each Image partner founded his own studio, which published under the Image banner but was autonomous from any central editorial control. Claremont was not part of the partnership, and Portacio withdrew during the formative stages to deal with his sister's illness, so Image originally consisted of six studios: Extreme Studios, owned by Rob Liefeld Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen ShadowLine, owned by Jim Valentino Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri WildStorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee
Image's initial titles were produced through Malibu Comics, a small but established publishing company sympathetic with Image's position on creator ownership. Malibu provided administrative, production, distribution, and marketing support for the launch of the initial titles. The first Image comic books to arrive in stores were Liefeld's Youngblood, Larsen's The Savage Dragon, McFarlane's Spawn, and Lee's WildC.A.T.s. Propelled by the artists' popularity and the eagerness of comic book collectors to get in on the "next big thing", these series sold in numbers that no publisher other than Marvel, DC, or Valiant Comics had achieved since the market's decline in the 1970s. (The company experienced lesser successes with Silvestri's Cyberforce, Valentino's Shadowhawk, and Portacio's much-delayed Wetworks.) Within a few months, the Image titles' success led to Malibu having almost 10% of the North American comics market share, briefly exceeding that of industry giant DC Comics. By the beginning of 1993, Image's financial situation was secure enough to publish its titles independently, and it left Malibu.
Some of the founders' studios came to resemble separate publishers, each with several ongoing series set in a shared universe. (At first there were indications of an "Image Universe" shared by all the studios, but these decreased as the studios developed their own directions.) The use of freelancers to write or illustrate series that were owned by the Image partners led to criticism that some of them had reproduced the very system they had rebelled against, but with them in charge instead of a corporation. Image partners such as Larsen and Valentino, who did not take this approach, assumed a neutral position on it, in keeping with the requirement that none of them had any say in how the others' studios were run. Some of the Image partners used their studios to also publish works produced outside of their studios, allowing the creators to retain ownership and editorial control over those series, an arrangement which was then uncommon among large publishers. These included Sam Kieth (The Maxx), Dale Keown (Pitt), Jae Lee (Hellshock), and the team of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (Astro City). Later, some established self-published series also moved to Image, such as Jeff Smith's Bone and Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil.
The partners had little business or management experience, and many series fell behind their intended publishing schedule. Retailers' orders of newly-offered issues were typically based on the sales of recent issues, but as the issues shipped weeks and even several months late, fans' interest tended to wane, leaving retailers with unsold inventory. In response, retailers cut orders to reduce their risk. This significantly hurt the studios, which were each responsible for their own cash flow and profitability. In late 1993, the partners hired independent cartoonist Larry Marder to act as "executive director" for the publisher; Valentino quipped in interviews that Marder's job was literally to "direct the executives" (i.e. the Image partners). Marder developed better financial planning and had some success in disciplining creators to deliver their work on time, in part by insisting that retail orders for new issues would not be solicited until the books had been illustrated, usually ensuring they would be ready to ship when promised.
By the mid-1990s Image series such as Spawn and The Savage Dragon had proven themselves as lasting successes (the former frequently topping the sales charts for months in which new issues came out), while new series such as Wildstorm's Gen¹³, and Top Cow's Witchblade and The Darkness were also successful. Image had become the third-largest comics publisher in North America, exceeded only by long-established industry leaders Marvel and DC Comics.