Thursday, April 10, 2014

A strong Image

It didn't take long for Image to become a joke, back in the nineties. Within months of the publisher's founding, it had already built up a legacy of remarkably unprofessional behaviour and lousy, lousy comic books.

It even destroyed the whole perfect ideal of creator ownership – if only these artists could throw off the shackles of the big publishers they could do wonders, or they could do exactly the same shit they were doing before, only worse.

I still got the odd Image comic over the years, because there were always one or two gems worth following, but they floated in a river of utter shit. So I'm not just surprised that Image is still going strong 20 years later, I'm amazed that it's somehow, after all this time, become my favourite comic publisher.

I now get half a dozen Image comics a month, which is about half of my regular monthly input. I've never bought that many regular Image comics before.

It's not really due to any particular fondness for the publisher themselves, other than Image's commendable habit of getting the hell out of the creators' way, and letting them get on with it.

I dig the resurrected thrills of Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage and David Lapham's Stray Bullets, and the beautiful illustrated slices of Mark Millar's world that are Jupiter's Legacy and Starlight. I adore the existential noir thrills of Fatale, and Prophet is just peachy.

That first issue of the new Stray Bullets is an absolutely cracker – a brutal return to that brutal world, with a story that pulls no punches. It also does that Stray Bullets thing of skipping around all the major events and showing this harsh, strange world through the eyes of somebody who stumbles across the stories of blood and revenge, without ever getting – or needing – the full picture.

Despite the brutality, it's almost comforting to enter the world of Stray Bullets again, and it's certainly reassuring to read some new Minimum Wage as well. Fingerman's comics are still charmingly clumsy and unexpectedly heavy, but it's also a treat to see his old characters grow up a little, and realise they really are getting too old to be fuckin' about so much.

I like Mark Millar comics, which accounts for those other two Image titles I regularly get, and I'll follow Brubaker and Phillips onto anything, even if Fatale is finishing up soon.

As for Prophet....

Prophet is fucking awesome.

It's a dense, stylish and mindbending comic. Brandon Graham and chums have carved out a properly mental sci-fi epic, set thousands of years in the future, in a universe that has moved on without humans. It's the usual story of solid individuals standing up against a vast galactic empire, but it makes no concessions, or spends any time making sure you're keeping up with it, and that abandonment of strict narrative laws is simply liberating.

I often have no idea what just happened when I read a new issue of Prophet, and it can take months – and several re-reads – before I figure it out. When so many stories are so easily disposable, Prophet intellectually worms its way into the head. Hilariously, the only reference points are to old Rob Liefeld comics, but everything else is up for grabs – physical forms change and grow into monstrous unknowns, and even the food the characters eat is unrecognisable. This is no Star Wars, where seventies haircuts are still in fashion in another galaxy – there is little recognisably human here.

Graham has already proven adept at world building with his previous comics, but his collaborators are just as inventive, with the various artists creating these new worlds with imagination and style – it has one of the finest color palettes in modern comics, and whenever the art gets scratchy and unclear, it only adds to the complexity.

And those references to old Image comics reveal that Prophet has a great joke at the core concept – this smart, stylish comic is using some of the worst characters ever created in comics. They might have evolved over the millenia, but half of Youngblood is still running around the universe and getting into mischief.

This does occasionally give the comic some unexpected depth, as the weight of centuries is peeled back, and you remember that Die Hard was the one who was usually posing just in front of Badrock in some godawful comic you never could read, and that they've gone through so much since those long lost days (which are now two decades away from where we are now).

But it's mainly just really, really funny to see these characters re-purposed, and given such heft and passion. It makes a dent in the idea that there are just bad characters, instead of characters used badly, because there was nothing great or special about any of these creations, not until they raised their heads again under Prophet's alien skies.

The most impressive thing about Image in 2014 is that creator-led comics like the ones I pick up every week are the new norm – not the exception. Instead of building up vast, over-complicated universes of the same old shit, Image comics are often tightly self-contained visions of the world, offering up unique thrills and chills.

And there is such a wide variety, with something for everyone. I get these six, but that's just my tastes, and I could be buying half a dozen more if I had slightly more affection for respected creators like Kirkman, Rucka, Fraction or Hickman. Established creators like these writers and their collaborators are often visibly enjoying the ability to do what they really want, and new names are making their own mark. The fact that many of the Image series kick off with a dirt cheap collection also helps, as it makes it a lot easier to pick something up when you can get six issues of content for the price of two.

Some of the comics are blatant attempts to sell a TV or movie concept, but that doesn't mean they have to be awful comics, and one of the more notable legacies of the company is that it was founded by artists, and the artwork is, in general, pretty bloody good. The strong art varies in style and effect, but there is a lot more effort going into the visuals than you see at companies like Dynamite and Avatar.

There are still signs of the old Image around - McFarlane and Larsen are still there, laudably doing their thing through thick and thin, and there are those cheap thrills in seeing Suprema evolve into a being of light in Prophet.

But the modern Image, the one that offers up smart, stylish and self-contained stories, is the one that I find most attractive, and make it my favourite publisher. That's no joke.


Anonymous said...

You're cherry picking. Half the books at Image Central are hideous and no better than the artistic work at any of the indies. I'd say the top artists at Avatar, Dynamite, Oni, IDW, etc are easily equal to the mid/lower tier of Image any day. Sure the best at image rival the best in the entire industry but I see no reason to disparage the indies as if there was no talent to be found.

Bob Temuka said...

Well yeah, when there are hundreds of comics to choose form every week, you have to cherry pick the stuff you like, and write off the vast majority.

Of course there are fine artists at those other companies, and of course there are still terrible comics at Image, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm enjoying - and buying - more Image comics than ever before, and getting more comics from them than any other company.

I do think those top artists at those other companies are as good as anybody, but I also see a lot of comics from those publishers with bland, uninspired work. The licensed stuff, which fills the shelves at my local stores, is particularly poor, often amateurish, and actively puts me off ever reading them.

And there's a LOT of Image books I don't like, including some very popular titles, but there is enough good stuff to keep me happy.