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Image X Month – When Founders Switched Books

Image X Month.  Remember that?

When you Google for it, not much shows up these days, so let me refresh your memory:

In September 1994, the six partners of Image Comics swapped titles for a month.

This is Image X Month.

Inside Image X Month cover

Finally, we had the answer to, “How could you make an event even more exciting than asking me to clip out coupons in six comics and pay $2.50 shipping for another comic?” (See Image Zero)

We didn’t have blogs back in 1994. We do now. So let’s talk about this event.

 

Table of Contents

 

An Idea Is Born

It was an idea born at an Image Founders meeting. It was also relatively last minute.

Erik Larsen explains what happened from his point of view in the text page of “WildC.A.T.s” #14:

I first heard of Image X month at one of our Image meetings.  Apparently the other Image boys had been talking over the idea with Tony Lobito and Larry Marder while I’d been blissfully drawing away on The Savage Dragon.  While I’d get the occasional letter from a fan asking if Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino or Rob Liefeld and I would switch books for an issue I never gave it too much thought.  I was perfectly content drawing The Savage Dragon.

We’d all left Marvel, one of the reasons was so that we could write and draw what we wanted to — the idea that we’d intentionally do otherwise seemed ludicrous to me.  I was doing what I wanted — why do anything else?  Yet here I was facing my five enthusiastic partners in crime who all thought it was a cool idea.

Today, they call this an agile company, capable of swift movement after quick decisions.

Stick around to the end of this article and you’ll hear what one of the other ideas they discussed was.

 

 

The Problems With Secrets, i.e. “Making More Friends With Retailers”

To keep interest high, Image didn’t announce which creators were taking over which books.  Creative teams would be a surprise as the books landed on the store shelves.

Almost.

Retailers were concerned that they didn’t know how to order books.  Some creators naturally sold more comics than others. Without knowing who was drawing what, they would be forced to order lots of everything to cover all their bets.  That would result in lots of unsold comics sitting on shelves, and lots of tied up cash flow.

As if Image hadn’t already done enough in its first two years to tick off some retailers…  The “Deathmate” fiasco with Valiant, for one example, still stood fresh in their minds.

In the end, Image did let the retailers know, and everyone kept the secret. I’m sure it leaked somewhere on Usenet back in the day, but they still surprised the vast majority of people.

Almost.

“WildC.A.T.s” and “CyberForce” both pre-announced the Image Founder who’d be drawing the Image X book in the letters column of their previous issues.

I don’t know if “Spawn” did that or not, because that’s a confusing situation.  This all happened at the time of the “Todd Can’t Count” era when McFarlane published a whole series of issues out of sequence. And “Spawn” was a Top 20 selling book at that time.

Remember how pleased I said retailers were with Image at the time? Yeah, that didn’t help, either.

 

The Ultimate Image X Month Review

The purpose of this article is to review all six titles that made up Image X Month.

As a bonus, I’m going to throw in the one do-over issue.

Then we’ll look at where Wizard went wrong, my feelings on the crossover now versus then, and whether it was all worth it.

Along the way, we’ll touch on the big surprises, the big wins, the big losses, the grand experiments, and the problems of working on a tight deadline in a last minute event.

 

The Six Books

This, then, is the list of the issues that took part in Image X Month:

 

Savage Dragon #13 by Jim Lee

Savage Dragon #13 cover by Jim Lee for Image X Month

  • Written by Brandon Choi and Jim Lee
  • Pencils by Jim Lee
  • Finishes by Richard Bennett, Alex Garner, Dan Panosian, and Scott Williams
  • Colors by Monica Bennett and Joe Chiodo
  • Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft

Ugh, is there anything more disappointing in comics than seeing a credit for “Finishes” over Jim Lee’s art?

It’s a frustrating experience where you can see Lee’s art hidden behind an ocean of inks that vaguely resemble his work, but without the polish.  It usually winds up either over-rendered in an attempt to make up for his missing lines in the breakdowns, or under-rendered, because only Lee (and Scott Williams) can work those details out in his mind.

The story barely guest stars Dragon. It’s mostly a Grifter story, as we follow him back to his hometown of Chicago. He’s attempting to take on some organized crime figures before the superpowered villains take control of the city. A boat filled with a large shipment of weapons is sailing out to sea. Grifter and Dragon are forced to work together to stop that.

Dragon and Grifter do not start off on the right foot, and that tension leads to basic ugliness between the two.

I can’t complain that Lee drew a WildC.A.T.s issue here, mostly because Larsen returned the favor in WildC.A.T.s, where Dragon characters stole at least half the show.

While I give Lee credit for telling a complete story in an issue (with the help of a couple extra pages at the end), the story lost me a number of times.  There are a couple story points that are held back from the characters that seem obvious to the reader.  The mystery almost seems unfair.

This might be my fault, though.  I’m looking back at this story having read lots of WildC.A.T.s and Dragon stories afterwards. I was slightly confused on a couple of points if I wouldn’t have known certain things as I was reading this issue at the time or not.  As much as I tried to ignore that nagging feeling, I didn’t win that fight.  (You also need to have read the four issue “Kindred” mini-series from earlier in the year to keep up with Grifter, which I hadn’t at the time.)

The book is self-contained and you get everything you need inside of it to understand the story, but I remember just a little too much not to have that nag at me.

A bigger problem would be the end of the issue when — spoiler warning! — Grifter fires a rocket launcher to kill the bad guys, and Dragon just stands there and cheers him on.  Dragon, as a police officer, wouldn’t ever allow that, I’d have to think.

The “Savage Dragon: Greatest Team-Ups” trade paperback collects this issue.

 

Hiatus Time for Jim Lee

This issue also marked the end of Jim Lee’s monthly comics grind.

He announced in “WildC.A.T.s” #13 that he was taking a break from comics for a bit to spend more time with family.  He had no immediate plans to return to comics.

He wound up drawing covers and even two fill-in issues on “Gen13” (#6 and #7).

He didn’t return on a monthly schedule again until “Heroes Reborn” with his stint on “The Fantastic Four” a couple years later.

Coincidentally, Image X Month started not long after Rob Liefeld returned from his brief comics hiatus.  You don’t hear much about comics hiatuses anymore…

Now let’s take a look at what Larsen did with “WildC.A.T.s” before we come back to another “Savage Dragon” #13…

 

WildC.A.T.s #14 by Erik Larsen

WildC.A.T.s #14 cover by Erik Larsen for Image X Month

  • Written by Erik Larsen
  • Art by Erik Larsen
  • Colors by Reuben Rude and Antonia Kohl
  • Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Special continuity note: For a very real story reason, this issue should be read after “Savage Dragon” #13.

This is a great little issue of “Freak Force,” with some guest stars from the WildC.A.T.s series.  If nothing else, Larsen went to town drawing Maul as a Kirby character:

Erik Larsen draws Maul in WildC.A.T.s #14

The thing that stuck out most at me with this issue is how much gentle ribbing Larsen gives Jim Lee.  Most notable is the tendency of WildC.A.T.s characters to use abbreviations for the most mundane things. If you’ve read those early issues of Jim Lee’s series, you’re familiar with Brandon Choi’s tendency to write dialogue that needs lots of caption boxes to spell out two, three, and four letter abbreviations/acronyms.  Larsen uses “BYOB” and “BFD” and “ASAP” as examples in his script.

Erik Larsen draws the WildC.A.T.s team for Image X Month, spouting nonsense acronyms

And while Larsen is not unfamiliar with drawing busty women with extreme proportions, there are a few WildC.A.T.s he draws who appear to have adopted not just Jim Lee’s costume designs, but also their figures, with the impossibly long-legged women standing out almost satirically.

That said, he didn’t quite nail Maul’s proportions, as the purple giant grew larger through the issue. Something was off about the bones coming off his back, also, and the length of his legs compared to the mass of his upper body.

 

The Fun of Standard Superhero Plots

This is otherwise a pretty standard superhero comic.  It opens with the WildC.A.T.s beating up a bad guy, before confronting Freak Force over a misunderstanding that they eventually clear up.

Though the plot mechanics are as old as comics, themselves, they still allow for some fun character moments. I like a lot of the lighter moments, which counteract the very serious issue at the heart of the issue: Mighty Man saves the city, but an innocent is harmed in the crossfire.  Mighty Man takes it hard, but the innocent has a very angry friend in Maul.  That brings WildC.A.T.s to Chicago, where the melee occurs.

There’s no way I’m passing up the chance to run a Freak Force image. I’m kind of a fan.

I think Freak Force comes off a little stronger than they really are here, but that’s the prerogative of a creator when doing a team-up like this: their characters will always beat up the other guys’ characters. C’est la vie.

Trivial Fun: No publisher in Japan localized Erik Larsen’s titles.  They did, however, publish WildC.A.T.s.  John Pannozzi shows how the Japanese publishers handled this issue, to introduce new fans to the glories of Freak Force.

This issue is collected in the “Possessed” trade paperback in the Savage Dragon series.

 

Savage Dragon #13 (yes, again) by Erik Larsen

The second Savage Dragon #13 cover by Erik Larsen a year after Image X Month.

  • Written by Erik Larsen
  • Art by Erik Larsen
  • Colors by Reuben Rude and Antonia Kohl
  • Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

The Streak Must Be Unbroken!

It bothered Erik Larsen that someone else drew an issue of his series.  At the top of the letters column in the first “Savage Dragon” #13, Larsen writes:

And I’ve got to admit, the thought of not being in the driver’s seat for an issue is driving me nuts!  Prior to the Image meeting where we decided to swap books, I’d intended to do at least a hundred consecutive issues of The Savage Dragon. I guess I’ll have to draw it until issue 113 now!

With the series in the 220s, as of this writing, that seems almost tiny.  Still, at the time, you can understand how it might bother a creator.

Less than a year later, Larsen went back and did his own “Savage Dragon” #13 to fit into the continuity at the time and preserve his unbroken streak as the creator of the series.

How To Fit A New #13 In

The first half of the new issue #13 sticks to the continuity of the series, featuring a team up between Dragon and Star as they go into The Underground looking for Cyberface.

It’s about halfway through the issue where we join the story from “WildC.A.T.s” #14 already in progress, starting with the double page spread of Jim Lee’s team hopping into action in Chicago.  The rest of the issue follows loosely the same events as in the “WildC.A.T.s” issue, but from Dragon’s perspective . It reuses a lot of the art, though chopping some pages in half to switch the vantage point.  Larsen actually fills some plot holes from the Image X issue in the process.

We get to see Mighty Man reveal his identity to Dragon, something which he revealed earlier (though not to Dragon) in an issue of “Freak Force.” We see Dragon talk his boss out of pressing charges against the WildC.A.T.s.  We see Dragon enter the fray in the first place.

And then we see the final page on the island they all went to vacation on from Dragon and Rapture’s perspective.

It’s a nice way to mix and match the old with the new.  The color on the pages in “Dragon” #13, however, grow a little more saturated and darker.  It’s the same coloring job, but the “Dragon” issue’s paper is a little shinier than the WildC.A.T.s issue, resulting in deeper colors that works against the art, sadly.

 

“Youngblood #9 by Jim Valentino

Youngblood #9 cover by Jim Valentino for Image X Month

  • Written by Jim Valentino
  • Pencils by Jim Valentino
  • Inks by Dan Fraga(-BOOM)
  • Colors by Extreme Color
  • Letters by Mike Wolfe

Jim Valentino takes over for an issue to tell a cautionary tell of Hollywood.  Badrock signs a movie deal, flies out to Hollywood, wants to absorb all the trappings of fame without paying any attention to the particulars of business, and then the system rakes him over the coals.

You can see the parallels to the comics industry in this tale.  From a modern viewpoint, you see even more of comics’ relationship to Hollywood.  Badrock is the stand-in for the comics creator, anxious to sign away everything he owns for the taste of Hollywood stardom and fame.

Liefeld set Badrock up in Youngblood to be the one most susceptible to the lure of the media’s fascination with superhero celebrity, so Valentino’s choice of a focus character for the issue is right on target.  Being young and naive, Badrock also plays the perfect patsie.

If Only Image Had More Characters…

Along the way, Valentino exercises his comedy chops, packing this issue with lots of sight gags, inside jokes, and as much Hollywood humor as he can muster.  He pulls off a number of fun storytelling tricks, and features a guest star-laden finale that went so far over that top that it needed a page starring what has to be 100 characters from across all of Image.

Youngblood group scene, with guest stars from the entire Image Universe at the time

At the bottom of the page, it says, “George Perez, eat yer heart out!”

Indeed, it’s an impressive page for Valentino’s pencil and Dan Fraga’s pen to put together.  The only drawback on it is that it’s colored in monotone.  Coloring everything realistically would no doubt blow your eyes out, but it would help to separate the characters, who instead looks like a giant mass of indistinguishable people.

Let’s zoom in for one small example of the thought and work Valentino put into this page. The 100 characters aren’t just posing, they’re reacting to each other.

Velocity looks uncomfortable sitting down next to Boof and Horridus, even with the Bruise Crew not present.

Poor Velocity sat down next to Boof and Horridus.

There are in-jokes aplenty.  Badrock is accompanied in Hollywood by a handler who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mark Gruenwald. While driving through Los Angeles, he openly wonders if he might run into the Golden Apple comic shop’s owner, Bill Liebowitz.

 

Continuity Note

A caption box at the top of the story says, “This story does not necessarily conform with any known continuity.”

Given that Liefeld was busy with a storyline ramping up Badrock’s obsession with media stardom, that warning is there to avoid any confusion people might have with the surrounding issues after reading this one.  I’m sure Valentino didn’t want to step on Liefeld’s toes with his story, either.

This would have been a good model for Image X Month: Out of continuity, one shot stories. Keep the restrictions loose on the guest creators and let them do whatever they want.  If they wanted to go a step further, make it a skip month for all the series and make it a six part event, where each creator does one of the “Image X” issues starring a different character.

Maybe not that last part.  Retailers would have hated that one even more, I bet.

Sigh. Nothing is ever easy in publishing.

Tangent: Check out Dan Fraga’s Instagram account.  His speed drawing videos are amazing;. He doesn’t rough anything out.  He goes straight to the final line.

 

Shadowhawk #0 by Rob Liefeld

Shadow hawk #0 cover by Rob Liefeld for Image X Month

 

  • Written by Rob Liefeld
  • Pencils by Rob Liefeld
  • Inks by Rob Liefeld
  • Colors by Kiko Taganashi
  • Letters by Kurt Hathaway

The story features Bloodstrike and friends making Shadowhawk a deal he can’t refuse: Help them defeat a mad scientist who’s threatening the world’s population with an extra virulent strain of HIV, and they’ll cure Shadowhawk’s AIDS.

I’d call that a win/win, if only it were that simple…

It’s a tight one-and-done type of story, with double dealing machinations and suspense throughout.  There’s plenty of bloodshed along with a big explosion, plus clearly defined motivations and characterization. It’s not deep, but it’s purposeful and logical.

Jim Valentino describes the creation of this issue in the letters column, as well as a justification for his use of a #0 issue, pointing out an alternative comics predecessor while doing so.  It’s a well reasoned explanation.  And since the series was between arcs, it made sense to set this one off somehow, particularly when covers and descriptions had already been made for the on-going series’ next few issues.

If it makes you feel better, think of this as #0 in “ShadowHawk IV”.

The Exploratory Art Stylings of Rob Liefeld (and Friends)

The first and most obvious thing you’ll notice when you open this book is that Liefeld is experimenting with his style for this issue.  He goes into Frank Miller “Sin City” territory, much like Jim Lee did with “Deathblow.”  Liefeld’s version is far simpler, though.  He concentrates here on the larger shadows to define the characters and their spaces, with Kiko Taganashi’s colors there to fill the gaps.

Rob Liefeld's opening page from ShadowHawk #0 during Image X Month

The style isn’t completely consistent for the whole issue. You can tell Liefeld is experimenting throughout.  Some of the abstract shadows get very abstract and possibly too simplistic in places.  But the overall chiaruscuro look is interesting as an experiment.

Liefeld brought a whole team with him to fill out this issue. He’s credited with art and story, but it’s Robert Napton who handles the script, and Karl Alstaetter who does the layouts. Alstaetter does a good job in keeping the storytelling in Liefeld’s wheelhouse, complete with sidewise double page spreads and lots of pouches.  He does, also, challenge Liefeld with some new angles and body positions. It doesn’t all work completely, but it works well enough.

It’s an appropriate style to associate with ShadowHawk, being a sort of street-level noir action piece.

Rob Liefeld tries a new art style in ShadowHawk #0

Marv! Seriously, though, this is another cue pulled from the Frank Miller book: The intricately detailed face with the more abstract body.

 

Bonus: The issue includes a poster in the centerfold of “ShadowBart.” Yes, it’s Bart Simpson as ShadowHawk, as drawn by Matt Groening with Bill Morrison.

Spawn #25 by Marc Silvestri

Spawn #25 cover by Marc Silvestri for Image X Month

  • Written by Todd McFarlane
  • Pencils by Marc Silvestri
  • Inks by Batt and Billy Tan
  • Colors by Brian Haberlin
  • Letters by Tom Orzechowski

As you can see from that creators list, Silvestri didn’t totally take over this issue of “Spawn.”  He came in with his inkers and colorist, but McFarlane wrote the issue, and Tom Orzechowski stayed on as editor and letterer.

The end result is an issue that you might not have even noticed was done by someone other than Todd McFarlane or Greg Capullo.  McFarlane wanted to maintain the consistency of the series, so he wrote a story for Silvestri.

I don’t know if it was McFarlane’s script dictating the storytelling or a conscious effort by Silvestri, but this issue reads exactly how it would if McFarlane had drawn it.  The panel layouts, the angles on characters, the extreme closeups, and the overall look don’t vary much from the first 24 issues.  Even Haberlin’s colors maintain the dark feel of the book, punctuated by Spawn’s bright red cape, and lots of blue moody night light.

Still, Silvestri’s art is very pretty.  He does interesting things in his ink work, specifically.  He can make a gradient looking thing in the background with pure ink lines.  He’s great with indicating light sources by applying dramatic shadows on the sides of faces or in the creases of a cape, or deep in the background with the details on the city’s buildings.

Marc Silvestri draws a page of Spawn with a classic McFarlane storytelling tic

This page is a great example of the kind of storytelling that made Todd McFarlane famous, even if it makes for a bad story.  David Michelinie started him down this road on “Amazing Spider-Man,” where he’d write a page or two of Spider-Man thinking his way through the plot, leaving McFarlane to draw something cool looking.  Some of the best-remembered interior pages from McFarlanes Spider-Man run are those pages where Spider-Man is swinging dramatically while dumping a ton of exposition on the reader.

That trick carried through to “Spawn.”  Here’s Spawn sitting on a gargoyle in the city while thinking about things.

I do like Silvestri’s buildings in the background of the first panel, though.  Great use of inks (by Tan and Batt) to let the glow come up from inside the city, below skyscraper level to start.

The issue features Tremor, formerly known as Bludd, who was initially seen as a pin-up in McFarlane’s contributions to “Image Zero”.

This issue also came out in the middle of the infamous “Todd Can’t Count” era of “Spawn.”  Things had almost settled down by this point, but issue #20 still hadn’t been released. It shipped the following week.

This issue is collected in the fourth volume of the Spawn trade paperback series:

 

Cyberforce #8

Todd McFarlane's CyberForce #8 cover for Image X Month

  • Written by Eric Silvestri
  • Pencils by Todd McFarlane
  • Inks by Todd McFarlane, Greg Capello, Mark Pennington, John Cleary
  • Colors by Steve Oliff and Olyoptics
  • Letters by Dennis Heisler

The Story

The CyberForce team guards the life of a blue mutant who is set to testify the next day against a mafia don. But someone gets through and takes shots at the mark and runs off.  The rest of the issue is CyberForce chasing after the perpetrator.

The story is strong enough.  Eric Silvestri tells a complete tale in one issue.  There’s a good display of everyone’s powers, and enough exposition to choke a horse– er, to keep a new reader informed.

There’s even some honest-to-goodness characterization and depth added to some of the characters along the way.  This is not a throw-away issue at all.

There is also no subtlety, but the style of the day dictated that.

 

Problems with the Art

Todd McFarlane, in his career, has done little in the way of team books. The big exception was “Infinity Inc.”, which wasn’t that long a commitment and was a job taken at a point in his career where he had to take any monthly job to prove his worth.

Since then, he’s done solo books. “Hulk,” “Spider-Man,” “Spawn.”

In Image X Month, he dropped into a team book with a very specific look and style associated with it. The story never called for many pages with lots of people on it, thankfully. There’s not big team-versus-team battle sequence here. It’s slightly busier a story than your average issue of “Amazing Spider-Man,” but not by a whole lot.

McFarlane had plenty of room to spread his art, but Eric Silvestri’s story kept him from going too crazy with any double page spreads or empty pages where characters pose while having deep thoughts. Without those crutches, McFarlane was forced into storytelling on every page.

This is also the time of the infamous “Todd Can’t Count” run on “Spawn.” Deadlines and time crunches could not have helped this book.

The fact that three additional inkers join McFarlane for this issue tells me that there was a time crunch also at play. The last time McFarlane let someone else ink non-Spawn work was when he injured himself playing baseball during the adjectiveless “Spider-Man” days. Before that, it was only when Marvel forced bi-weekly issues on him and he couldn’t keep up the crushing pace of 22 pages every other week.

Todd McFarlane draws the CyberForce team well in this panel.

This is a panel from one of the not-so-bad pages.

So the pages come out looking a little uneven. The bones are all there, and it’s still 90% of McFarlane’s style showing through, but the ink lines definitely do drift from page to page. There’s some very intricately detailed pages, and some more 90s-style inked pages. Some of the smaller faces look unfinished in spots. Some storytelling choices appear to be made to simplify how much drawing is necessary, rather than telling the story clearly.

There are a few nifty pages in the book, and some nice choices on angles, but it never quite comes together. It can be tough for any artist to show up to do a fill-in issue. They don’t get the time necessary to get a feel for the book or to adapt their own style to the characters in the series. There’s some of that going on here, too.

Steve Oliff and Olyoptics’ coloring didn’t do the art many favors. There are a few decent pages, but a lot of this issue has sickly greens combined with dark metal bodies and blue costumes set against slightly lighter blue backgrounds. Combined with a different paper stock than the normal “Spawn” issue, the whole thing is a little dull looking, and particularly muddy in the darker scenes.  Bright daylight scenes are clear, though, and show off the art better.

Todd McFarlane draws CyberForce's Ripclaw for Image X Month

I’m uncomfortable looking at the way Ripclaw’s head sinks into his left pectoral muscle somehow. His left shoulder juts out 90 degrees forward.

 

The Cover and the Nit-Pick

McFarlane homages Marc Silvestri’s cover from “Spawn,” which is a neat little trick.  Others on-line at the time saw it as the lazy way out.

Internet people are never satisfied, are they?

The ironic thing is the the cover might be the best drawing in the issue, though I can’t say I particularly care for the hot pink background.  The “Spawn” cover got the much better blue and orange treatment.

McFarlane CyberForce cover signature scroll

Nit-pick Alert: I like McFarlane’s idea to sign the cover with his traditional scroll in perspective. It fits nicely in front of the building Ripclaw is crouched on top of.

The problem is, his screwed up the perspective.  The scroll is drawn as if you’re looking at it straight on, but in reality it should be tilted away from the reader on the left side. Only the right side of the scroll should show the flaps behind the body at the top and bottom. Being an up angle, you’d see more of the underside of the bend, and less at the top.

 

The Perils of the First Time Artist

The story is OK, though a key moment early on is not communicated clearly by the art. I flipped back and forth a few times to understand what happened. That’s never good.

The issue is set up as a one and done, and doesn’t dig too much into the mythology of the title. “Spawn” fans can drop in on “CyberForce” and understand what’s going on pretty easily.

The whole team feels a bit like a cliched superhero team book, though.  There’s the angst and the in-fighting and the childhood traumas, all wrapped up under one cover.  (And it’s a cardboard cover, not just regular paper sack.)

You can tell that McFarlane didn’t have enough time to familiarize himself with the characters, or to get comfortable drawing them.  Some of his more cartoony habits come out to play in this issue, and those can be distracting.

In the end, though, it feels like a missed opportunity. Selfishly, I wish McFarlane drew “Savage Dragon,” because there are a lot of crazy colorful characters in that series that it would have been fun to see McFarlane draw.

 


“Wizard: The Guide to Comics” Is Misguided

Wizard Image X Month Article was wrong

From the “Wizard News” section of the magazine…

I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t find some schadenfreude in this, but —

In “Wizard” #35 — dated September 1994 — published an article with a “scoop” on who would be drawing which Image X Month book, citing “an industry insider.”

That insider correctly identified Rob Liefeld as the artist on “Shadowhawk.”

The article was wrong on everything else.

Here’s the interesting part of the article:

Throughout the month of September, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino are swapping books, letting one of their cohorts write and draw an issue of his main title.  The six call this event “X-Month,” for “crossover month,” and are terming the issues “X-Books.”  However, they’re keeping a mystery as to who will be handling what book.

An industry insider has told Wizard that they believe that Larsen’s Savage Dragon will be handled by McFarlane, Lee’s WildC.A.T.s by Silvestri, McFarlane’s Spawn by Valentino, Liefeld’s Youngblood by Lee, Valentino’s Shadowhawk by Liefeld, and Silvestri’s CyberForce by Larsen. None of the six creators would comment on whether or not any of these were true.

I had completely forgotten the hilarity of “X-Books” to poke at Marvel!

Part of Wizard’s problem is that they didn’t realize partners would literally be switching books.  When Erik Larsen drew Jim Lee’s book, that automatically meant Jim Lee would draw Erik Larsen’s.

Wizard’s “industry insider” didn’t know that, apparently, and Wizard didn’t get a second source, if they even had one in the first place.

It would be far from the last story Wizard got wrong.

The Case For Image X Month

The Image founders were correct when they planned this event thinking that the kids (who were only about five years younger than Liefeld at the time, really) who were their biggest fans would find this the most exciting.

No matter how random the selections were, there would be interesting issues along the way, and sales would likely only rise from the lower half of the titles.

Sure enough, seeing “WildC.A.T.s” by Erik Larsen and things like that George Perez tribute in “Youngblood” by Valentino were real highlights.

The books came out on time, though a few came out at the last possible moment.  Still, for a company that traditionally couldn’t get on top of deadlines for its entire existence, that’s a major achievement.

Come to think of it, this is likely the only time Image’s Founding Fathers came together on a project and (A) finished it (B) on time.  Can’t say that about the 10th Anniversary hardcover or “Image United,” can you?

While I may view the books from a distance of 23 years differently than I did back in the day, it’s still an interesting publishing experiment.  No other company could have pulled this off at the time, or even today.  Although it might be funny to envision a world where, on the “Spirit of Independence” tour c. 1995, Colleen Doran, Jeff Smith, and Dave Sim agreed to switch series for a month…

Image did it.  We should see more companies take those kinds of chances, rather than just pile up crossovers.

And, Now, for the Embarrassing Part

Two months after Image X Month, the letters column to “Spawn” #27 started off with a long letter from — me.

It begins, “I am writing to you about Image X-Month.  Put quite simply, I think it was a failure.”

Ouch.

My letter in Spawn #27 regarding Image X Month

I was such a whiny fanboy…

It’s too long for me to sit here and type it all out, it sounds like I didn’t enjoy Image X Month very much at the time.

Let me break down my issues:

  • Putting team creators on solo character books and vice versa didn’t play to anyone’s strengths.
  • Swapped books should not include the original series’ creator as writer.
  • Swapped books should not feature characters from the new creator’s stable.  No guest stars allowed.

 

Was I right or wrong back then?  Or Now?

It’s a mixed bag.  Everything in life is a compromise.  Re-reading the issues now, the event doesn’t disappoint me.  It’s about what I expected.  If anything, I am delightfully surprised by a few things.

Timing is always an issue in comics, but also its greatest strengths.  It’s a bit of the old rule of thumb about how a task will always expand to fit whatever time it has available for it.  Yes, McFarlane likely rushed his work to beat the deadline, but would he have done any better if someone gave him more time?  Or would other issues — like Spawn’s chaotic publishing schedule at that moment — distract him from getting the book done?

I don’t know. But probably.

I’m far more patient and understanding of these things today.  I’m not a purist.  I’ll let more things go.  I get it.  This was a publishing stunt pulled together at the last possible moment to give the mostly-younger fans something to be excited about.  To that end, it worked, and there’s lots to recommend most of these issues.

Back in 1994, I wasn’t quite so charitable.

Working against an artist’s strengths is often the best way to strengthen their work. I thought trading a solo artist for a team book was working counterintuitively back then, and against the kind of judgment necessary to produce the best books.  Today, it would be a challenge that could produce more interesting work.  You’ll never get better until you challenge yourself to do something new or different.  Image X Month provided that opportunity.

But if they just wanted to produce the best books on a short deadline, then maybe they should have eliminated some of the speed bumps and let solo artists draw solo books, and team artists draw different teams.

Nothing I say in that letter is wrong.  I just was likely too nit-picky with how they explained the event at the time.  The results are the issues which speak for themselves.  Take the marketing part out of it and judge the works on their own merits and they’re not that bad.

Oh, I did get one thing wrong, in retrospect.  Maybe. Erik Larsen’s issue of “WildC.A.T.s” doesn’t look rushed to me today. But, then, Larsen’s style has loosened up a lot since those early Image years.  Maybe I’m just more accustomed to that style of linework from him now.

In Image’s Defense

Todd McFarlane’s response to my letter says, in part:

One of the things that drives Image Comics is our youthful enthusiasm.  This can result in us getting all excited about something on a creative level, but not really figuring out the logistics of it in terms of delivering the product.  Everyone at Image would agree that the Image X-Month could have been better fined[sic] tuned, and that if we did do anything like this again in the future, we will think out the entire results in advance.

I’m sure plenty of people would read something like that and cry foul, that McFarlane and his buddies at Image were irresponsible and short-sighted.  And, to a certain very small degree, I’d agree.  Or, at least, I’d see their point.  There ought to be room for experimentation, but the Image Founders were far too big in the industry to do crazy things that could hurt the entire industry — or, at least, lots of small businesses.

But you know what?  I appreciate and love enthusiasm and experimentation.  Too often, people dull the work for themselves by overthinking them.  They suck all the energy and all the uniqueness out of the experiment by carefully planning everything out.

It’s a tricky balancing act.

Sometimes, though, it makes more sense and is a lot more fun to say “Yes” to something you want to do and then figure it out as you go along.  It’s not quite “fake it until you make it,” but something like that.

Also, as far as “risky experiments” goes, Image X Month is ridiculously minor.  Let’s not go too crazy here. Image still published those books in that month, and they still sold a ton of copies.

The Other Option

Did you read Todd McFarlane’s entire response to the letter?  There’s a side bar in there worth mentioning.

Our other idea was to take all six books, cancel them, change the title of each of them, and bring them all back as an issue #1.  But, we ultimately decided again this because we all felt that this would be taking advantage of the readers.

Cancelling all of Image’s series and restarted them with new #1 issues in 1994 would have been shocking.

In 2017, we call that Marvel’s annual publishing plan.

That Was Image X Month

This article was a lot of fun to put together.  I read a lot of books I hadn’t opened in twenty years.

The gimmick made for comics that are a lot of fun to talk about, and I’m sure plenty of conversations and debates could develop from these books today.  The gift of more than twenty years of hindsight makes for interesting points of view.

The final comics are a real mixed bag.  The winners of the month are slight surprises to me today.  I think Jim Valentino with “Youngblood” did the best work within the spirit of the event.  I think Rob Liefeld did something new and interesting that’s worth looking at, even if it’s just as a style experiment.  Erik Larsen’s “WildC.A.T.s” issue had a lot of good laughs at its host’s expense, but that’s a big part of the fun.

Marc Silvestri’s “Spawn” played the perfect chameleon for its host.  The end results are beautiful, but it’s just another “Spawn” issue, at the end of the day.  Jim Lee’s “Dragon” misfired, and Todd McFarlane’s “CyberForce” disappointed, with a few cool isolated panels.

If you treated this as one big anthology book, then a 50/50 divide between good and bad would likely be OK.

Maybe that’s how we should look back at Image X Month: A distributed anthology, spread across six comic books.

And a fun publishing experiment, the likes of which we just don’t see people try today.

 

6 Comments

  • Long Time Reader April 8, 2017 at 2:32 am

    Good day,

    I would first like to thank you for this article, it was a unique insight into something that most on the web would mock or trivialize instead of taking a second glance at it. The whole Image retrospective has been wonderful and informative and I wouldn’t have found out except through this sight.

    I would not see it fit as to tell you how to run your own website, but I find that the size of images uploaded do not allow for as close an inspection as you might want, as I sometimes cannot afford the books pictured in the articles. I would like to suggest that you make them expandable and large enough to read by probably hosting them on another site.

    You have built up a reputable library of content focused on different forms of comics and the craft. I hope more people reward this. Thank you for this insight, once again, I hope I did not ruffle any feathers with my suggestion, just an observation I find myself repeatedly making in articles.

    Sincerely,
    A long time reader. 😉

    Reply
    • Augie April 9, 2017 at 8:43 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts. Image size is something I’ve struggled with since starting this site. Since the main body of the site where all the text goes is 600 pixels wide or so, that’s usually where I cap the image size. And then, just to save space (though all images are stored on Amazon’s web services), I try to fit them down to under 100kb. A page like this might take forever and eat up half your phone’s monthly bandwidth limit otherwise. 😉

      But I do want everyone to see them. I need to play around more with how to present them — like you say, maybe clicking through to see the whole image size is the way to go, then uploading a thumbnail that links to the full image. I just want to be careful that I don’t load the whole image, but have the browser shrink it down. That doesn’t save any bandwidth at all.

      I’m going to keep working on this and maybe experimenting with a few ideas. Thanks for the kick to get restarted on that. =)

      -Augie

      Reply
  • JC Lebourdais April 11, 2017 at 8:27 am

    At the very least, Image founders can be praised for their spontaneity when they attempted this; they were figuring it out as they went along, which is something that doesn’t happen much in comics anymore since Stan Lee stopped being the driving force and jester-in-chief at Marvel eons ago. These days, everything is PC and panel-tested to death, especially at the big two. That’s also what I miss about late night TV, the idea that anything unexpected could happen.

    Reply
    • Augie April 11, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      Ooh, I think you’re late night tv analogy is perfect. You’re right; we’ve lost that feeling of ANYTHING could happen at all the companies. They SAY anything might happen, but we also know it’ll be reversed immediately. An improvised “event” like this is really just crazy enough to work, but it’s not “safe” enough. sigh

      Reply
  • Darryl Brian April 16, 2017 at 9:11 am

    Great read! Thanks for the stroll down memory lane!

    Reply
    • Augie April 18, 2017 at 11:57 am

      Thanks, Daryl, for stopping by! It was a fun one to, er, “research.” 😉

      Reply

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