What Were They Thinking: Marvel’s Image problem

So, here on what were they thinking we usually look at the worst, most ill-advised things to happen in the history of the comics industry. However, since it is the season to be jolly (tralalalala lalalala), today we're going to take a look at something that wasn't actually so bad, in fact you could even say it was a really good thing for all involved, but somehow ended up with what can only be described as Marvel in the 90's. So strap yourselves in Ladies, Gentlemen and extra-dimensional beings because today we are talking about a two year period in Marvel's history and how it led to the creation of Image Comics

So, when talking about the birth of Image Comics it is important to know two things. Firstly, who were the major players in the company at its birth? And secondly, what was the reason for the company forming?

Well, the first question is fairly simple. There were seven people involved in the creation of the company. Of those, six were Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Eric Larsen and Jim Valentino, all of whom were on Marvel's creative team at the time. The other person was Dave Olbrich, the editor-in-chief of Malibu Comics publishing company (though he was not a major player in what happened, he was just the facilitator for the release of Images output). It is also worth noting that, whilst they never actually became part of the Image Comics partnership for various reasons, there were two other names put to the announcement of Image's foundation; those names being Chris Claremont and Whilce Portacio, with both, again, being part of Marvel's creative team at the time, and they are both fairly important to this story as well.

So, with the who out of the way, let's look at the why shall we. And for that we need a brief history lesson and an insight into how the comic book industry is run.

So, the comic book industry mainly works on the Work-For-Hire principle, also known as Corporate Authorship. This means that any work created under a Work-For-Hire agreement is considered the property of the Employer, not the Employee, so in this case any new characters created for a comic would belong to Marvel rather than the writer/ artist who created the character, as that writer/ artist was under contract to Marvel at the time of the characters creation. It is a fairly common practice, not just in the comic book industry but in industry as a whole. However, often the comic book industry also employs its creative staff on a freelance basis, meaning that they are self-employed so they don't get the same benefits as fully employed workers.

Now, at the turn of the 90's, Marvel was doing well. It's stock had greatly risen during the 80's and several of its titles were selling higher than they ever had. This was, in the most part, down to the selection of fan favourite artists and writers that Marvel had accrued. Most famously you had Todd McFarlane working on Amazing Spider-Man and Jim Lee/ Chris Claremont/ Rob Liefeld working on different X-Men titles. So, with that bit of background, our story begins here. In 1990, McFarlane approached Amazing Spider-Man editor Jim Salicrup, saying that he would be leaving the title because he wanted to write his own stories. However, due to McFarlane being such a popular artist, Salicrup offered him the opportunity to write and draw his own Spider-Man title, creatively called Spider-Man, which McFarlane accepted. The new book sold well (2.5 million copies of the first issue, Marvel's highest selling book until that point), thanks to the combination of fan-favourite artist and variant covers, a trick which Marvel employed numerous times to great effect in the 90's.

However, this set a dangerous precedent for Marvel. By 1991, the company made Liefeld head writer for New Mutants, the title he had previously only drawn, which was renamed X-Force and became much more violent, and gave Lee and Claremont their own X-Men title, just to keep the trio from leaving. Now, these gambles would pay off in the short term for Marvel, X-Force #1 and X-Men #1 would both break the sales record set by Spider-Man #1 and X-Men #1 still remains the highest selling comic issue of all time. But in December '91, the aforementioned octet (McFarlane, Liefeld, Lee, Claremont, Silvestri, Larsen, Valentino & Portacio) approached the then-Marvel President; Terry Stewart, and demanded the company give them full creative control and ownership over their work. All were on standard page rates at the time, despite their titles selling in, at-worst, the high tens of thousands of copies per issue, and none were receiving much in the way of royalties for the huge comic sales they were getting. And of course, Stewart refused their demands.

Claremont left the company after X-Men #3 citing creative differences with the series editor. The same would happen with McFarlane after 16 issues of Spider-Man. Though Larsen would take over McFarlane's role on the title, he too would soon leave, alongside Liefeld and Valentino. Lee was soon to follow, accepting McFarlane and Liefeld's offer to join their new company. On the day of the announcement that this group of creators had left to form their own comics company, Marvel's stock fell by $3.25 per share.

So, the obvious thing to do here is to laugh at Marvel and berate them for letting so many popular creators go off an create a competitor when they had the opportunity to stop it. And, whilst that is certainly the case from one point of view, when you look at it from another perspective, Marvel didn't do badly out of this whole deal. Yes their stocks took a pretty large dive on the first day, but they recovered. Hell, when they eventually did go bankrupt, it wasn't until '96, 5 years after this all happened and even then it was because of bad business decisions by the owner, not through a creator exodus. By giving these creators what they wanted for a short period of time and then drawing the line when their demands became "too unreasonable" from the companies standpoint, they got three of the highest selling comics of all time and millions of dollars more than they would have if they'd just let them all go earlier. And let's not forget that all of these creators have worked for Marvel since (with the exception of McFarlane). These six guys (eight if you count Claremount and Portacio) were trying to change the way the business had worked since its inception, a way that had suited Marvel very nicely and they weren't about to budge.

What we have here was a case of rebellion against the establishment, "artist freedom" vs. "corporate control" and in the end both sides won. Image Comics still publishes work for artists and writers who want to keep control over their own work and Marvel made (and still make) a metric butt ton of money.

So why is this a What Were They Thinking? Well, the departure of so many talented and respected creatives left Marvel more reliant on using shock value, huge convoluted events and flashy art over substantial storytelling in order to sell their comics for the rest of the decade. But more importantly, this is a WWTT moment because Rob Liefeld got his own comics company. 'Nuff said.

JR19759

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2 Responses to What Were They Thinking: Marvel’s Image problem

  1. Wow. Now I know why I’ve liked Image better. I must’ve sensed ‘freedom’ in the work. ;^>

  2. As much as I like MacFarlane’s work, Image was too violent and “adult” for my tastes. *shrug*