Is Image Still Indie? Does it Matter?

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The insurgent inevitably becomes the incumbent. When Image first took the scene, they were the very definition of an insurgent company. They were founded by some of the best artists and writers from DC and Marvel, launched a bevy of original properties with which their creators could explore any plots they wished, and those creators directly benefited financially from the success of their work. They were unchained from the restrictions of continuity and corporate branding, and the results reflected that with varying degrees of quality.

Now, more than twenty years later, Image has become the third-most dominant publisher in the business. The Walking Dead, which has seen its sales grow by leaps and bounds in the wake of the successful AMC live-action adaptation, regularly leads monthly sales charts for single issues and is the reigning champion of collected edition sales by nearly every metric.

With the announcement that superstar creators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (the team behind Incognito, Sleeper, and Fatale) have signed a five-year exclusive deal with Image, it’s becoming clear that the publisher has begun to metamorphose into something that straddles the line between so-called mainstream and independent.

In an October 2010 interview with Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston, Image Publisher Eric Stephenson stated that one of the most important things separating Image from their mainstream competition was the lack of the very kind of exclusive deal that Brubaker and Phillips have now committed to:

Image really isn’t about limiting creators’ options. That’s why we don’t have exclusives. We’re not trying to tie anyone down so they can’t get off the plantation, and make no mistake, the shackles may be solid gold, but there’s only so much freedom in that kind of arrangement.

Now, certainly the nature of publishing arrangements between Image and the creators contracted there represents a significant difference between their business model and that of Marvel or DC, work-for-hire creators are paid a rate for a particular book which doesn’t change regardless of the book’s success or failure.

Also regarding Image’s status as an independent, the comic-reading community points to the lack of what is referred to as a shared universe. While this is still true to a large extent—books like Saga, Fatale, and Lazarus all exist completely apart from each other—the idea that Image completely lacks a shared universe as a part of its offerings is wrong at its core. The most obvious example is the use of multiple characters from Robert Kirkman’s Invincible in Phil Hester’s Invincible Universe, as well as the main character’s documented history of crossing over with a wide variety of characters who have been published under the Image imprint, including Spawn, Savage Dragon, and characters from Top Cow such as Witchblade and Darkness. Guardians of the Globe is another instance in which a spin-off title has emerged whole cloth from one Image book to create another. Obviously Image doesn’t exercise this practice to the same extent as the others, but it is most definitely a part of their repertoire.

Whether or not Image is referred to by industry analysts will, of course, have very-little-to-no impact on the quality of their offerings and should not have any measurable impact on sales. In the same way that certain music fans will write off a band once they go “mainstream,” a small slice of the readership will surely be vested fans of indie comics, and that sort of fan is one that the industry can, in my humble opinion, do without. What remains important is the quality of the work and Image’s unique relationship with creative teams. A wildly successful title at Image will net a creative team vastly more profitable than a similarly successful title at either of the other two largest publishers.

In determining whether or not we should continue to consider Image an indie publisher, it may be useful to look on the removal of that title as an acknowledgement that Image has reached the point in its existence where it can be looked upon as a legitimate challenger to either DC or Marvel in terms of consistent quality, overall unit output, and their share of the dollars being spent on comics. If that is the measuring stick that we choose to apply, then the publisher deserves to be lauded for reaching this latest stage in its development and growing to the point where they may begin to cause the other publishers to look at how they do business with creators. If that happens then the industry as a whole will be better for it.

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Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He also hosts the weekly Infinite Crossover podcast in cooperation with Fanboys Inc. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-life Smallville. contact: joshuadepstein@gmail.com

Opinions expressed in this piece reflect only the opinion of the writer and not of any employer. 

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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