Recently, Marvel announced several new series that inadvertently pointed towards the end of an era for the publisher by leaving out a few names. When Marvel revealed their All New, All Different, Marvel Now line up, the announcement left out Kieron Gillen Ales Kot, Nathan Edmondson & Rick Remender, writers who between the four of them had written various iterations of the X-Men and Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Darth Vader, The Punisher, Venom, Black Widow, The Winter Soldier and more in their time at Marvel comics. That combined with the already announced departure of Matt Fraction & Jonathan Hickman points towards a sea change with the publisher where the majority of creators the company recruited off of their work at Image Comics are no longer writing Marvel comics; the Image era at Marvel has ended. While we are now in it’s twilight, I predict Marvel’s Image era will always have a place in comics cannon, the brief period where the outsiders got inside access and created some of the best superhero comics of their time while altering the direction of both Marvel, Image and by extension the entire comics industry.
Looking at the respective rise of Image creators at Marvel, it’s important to understand the context. It involves the direction of Marvel and perception of Image at the time with a few key actors that were willing to shift that for a group of underrated creators who made their name strictly off the quality of their work. Image comics was a publisher that was founded in the early 1990’s when a group of mostly Marvel artists banded together to start their own company and own their creations. It was an ambitious idea that suffered in quality from the product being derivative but was popular enough to sustain itself through many iterations. In the middle of the 2000’s, Image began opening up to new creators which led to a series of talented writers and artists getting there work showcased on a major scale for the very first time. While most of those books didn’t sell all that well initially, their impact was enormous. Anybody who read Fraction Casanova, Gillen’s Phonogram, Hickman’s Red Wing or Remender’s Fear Agent instantly fell in love and evangelized them to anyone who would listen. Meanwhile, Marvel started out the same decade completely revamping their line of books after the success of Joe Quesada & Jimmy Palmmioti’s Marvel Knights imprint. They opened up their comics to some of rival publisher DC best and most popular creators like Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Jeph Loeb, Brian K Vaughan, Geoff Johns, Warren Ellis & Ed Brubaker. These writers revitalized Marvel on books like The Ultimates, Civil War, New X-Men, Captain America, Runaways & The Punisher but over time, those same talents became disinterested in working for Marvel and the restrictions they placed on their series. In the later half of the decade, many of those creative pro’s had either moved on from the publisher or settled into a routine with Marvel. But while Marvel was able to turn themselves around mostly at the expense of recruiting from DC’s pool of creators, they also discovered a new talent in Brian Michael Bendis and he would represent the archetype for Marvel’s next generation of creative talent. Original and independent, Bendis helped kick start the publishers Image era.
Brian Michael Bendis was a writer/artist best known for creating crime books with the short lived Caliber comics & doing work on Spawn spin off’s before being brought on with David Mack to fill in for Kevin Smith on Daredevil. That fill in work was impressive enough to get Bendis a permanent spot writing on the series which was impressive enough to allow him to revamp Spiderman for the Ultimate universe which was impressive enough to allow him the opportunity to reconfigure the Avengers and Bendis was wildly successful every step of the way. Two things stood out about Brian Michael Bendis from other comics creators, the first being that he had a wildly original voice, more so then even some of his more esoteric peers that came out of the DC/Vertigo/Wild Storm line of comics and the second was that he was (and remains) fiercely loyal to Marvel comics for giving him the opportunity to become successful. Bendis sold lot’s of comics, made comics that were like nobody else and loved working for the company. Marvel noticed and when it came time to find new creative talent, they tried to replicate Bendis via the emerging creative’s at Image Comics but what they got, was something else entirely.
In the latter half of the 2000’s, Marvel began to slowly hand over their smaller books to a series of writers that had found a small scale of success at Image comics and those books would often be moderately successful. This created a feedback loop of hype; fans would hear about what a creator did on a less popular book and in turn, would check out their next Marvel series, while Marvel was able to let those writers apply their unique sensibilities on lesser known or lower selling series as a sort low risk high reward proposition for the publisher. If the comic failed, that was alright because failure was expected anyway but if the comic was hit, Marvel would be exceeding expectations while making their contracted writers more popular for future series. Jonathan Hickman was relatively successful on Secret Warriors & S.H.E.I.L.D, but word of mouth of his esoteric style on those books helped sell readers on taking a chance when he started writing Fantastic Four. After Rick Remender turned the Punisher into Frankenstein, fans flocked to see what he would do with Wolverine & Deadpool on X-Force. And to the eternal credit of all parties involved, these books were fantastic. Hickman’s Fantastic Four/FF & Remender’s Uncanny X-Force are up there with Brubaker’s Captain America, Morrison’s X-Men & Bendis’s Daredevil in terms of the best Marvel runs of the current century while Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery & Fractions Iron Man where close enough and among the best and most original takes that the character’s had seen in ages. In the summer of 2012, Marvel doubled down on their new stars, first by joining them together with Brubaker, Bendis and Vertigo refugee Jason Aaron for the Avengers vs X-Men event series and then, by relaunching their entire line with those creators taking over the majority of the publisher’s core titles with it’s Marvel Now initiative. And that would be the beginning of the end.
Once Hickman, Remender, Gillen & Fraction started to really play with the big properties, the one that fans were going to read no matter was writing it, the stakes & the scrutiny became much higher and the writers were on a different level. It’s one thing for Rick Remender to write weird & angsty on Uncanny X-Force & Venom, but doing it on the Avengers & Captain America was an entirely different animal. Readers checked our Hickman’s Fantastic Four because of the way the writer pushed the boundaries and made them look at the Marvel universe differently. Avengers readers read the Avengers because it was the Avengers and a lot of them weren’t interested in following Hickman in creating a 60+ issue universe spanning odyssey on the nature of life and death; they just wanted to see the one to four issue story arcs that they were used to from the book. Even when the creators did manage to really hit on something in the Marvel Now era, like Gillen’s Young Avengers or Fraction’s FF & Hawkeye, those series couldn’t sustain themselves in spite of the love they got from fans. Still, the majority of these comics were at minimum pretty good and occasionally they were great, but the work on the larger books meant a stronger editorial hand, much higher stakes and a bigger profile. When Gillen, Fraction, Hickman & Remender started at Marvel, it didn’t matter if they failed because the books they were on weren’t supposed to be successful anyway. During Marvel Now, the books they were working on couldn’t fail and there is no way they weren’t feeling the pressure of that.
But Marvel stood undeterred bringing on younger and even more esoteric writers from Image in Nathan Edmondson & Ales Kot, in addition to similar indie creators from outside comics mainstream like Michel Fiffe & Felipe Smith in the hopes of bringing those guys up the ranks in the same way their predecessors did. But those books weren’t as successful as Marvel had hoped for & those new creators seemed to have a hard time reconciling that. Instead, writers that had come out of Vertigo & DC Comics like Jason Aaron, G. Willow Wilson or Charles Soule were the ones with breakout hit titles, successful titles with Marvel that could at least partially be attributed to their prior experience with a comics company that was a corporate subsidiary of a major entertainment conglomerate. Meanwhile, the original generation of Image creative talents was doing better in terms of both love for their work from comics readers, creative satisfaction and financial equity with new series at Image Comics then they were with Marvel now that a whole new audience had been exposed to their work via a larger publisher. Series like Sex Criminals, East Of West, Black Science & The Wicked + The Divine were getting loads of critical acclaim and because of Image Comics financial model, were far more financially lucrative. Not to mention that, all those books they were doing with Image Comics were entirely in their control, there was no editorial mandate & no creative restrictions on their story. Their worlds were there’s to do as they choose, including sell them to film studios or television production companies, providing and even more lucrative opportunity for their comics then Marvel could never provide them.
In the end, the Image era of Marvel comics was always unsustainable, but for for the decade or so of it’s existence, it was spectacular. Books like Hickman’s Fantastic Four & Secret Wars, Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, Fraction’s Hawkeye, Kot’s Secret Avengers or Gillen’s Young Avengers & Journey Into Mystery are some of the best comics of their generation. While guys like Grant Morrison or Garth Ennis were able to impose their unique sensibilities on their own Marvel work, that was a sensibility that every one was already familiar with from over a decade of comics at DC & Vertigo. Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Ales Kot and Nathan Edmondson were just getting there feet wet in the comics industry when they started working at Marvel, their voice was one that had yet to be heard by the majority or even fully developed. They came in with a radically unique vision for Marvel comics that was like nothing readers had ever seen on the properties. Fantastic Four became a multiverse space opera, X-Force became a covert death squad, Hawkeye became the voice of a generation, the Young Avengers became a pop group, Black Widow became a pulp spy story, the Winter Soldier became a Moebius comic & as we close out the era on Secret Wars, the entire Marvel universe became a post apocalypse dystopia by way of the Avengers own hubris. In the blink of an eye, Marvel comics went from being the most traditional comics publisher to one of the most radical and unpredictable. Just by proxy, creators like Mark Waid, Jason Aaron, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Greg Rucka and Warren Ellis were able to imprint their own unique vision onto their Marvel books in a way that they had never done prior. And while not everything the Image generation of writers did worked, when they hit, it was spectacular and transcending in a way that a Marvel book hadn’t felt since early days of Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Brian K Vaughan & Brian Michael Bendis. By the end of 2015, all that will be over. Marvel has ceeded their core line of books to already proven writers like Mark Waid or Jason Aaron, more traditional superhero writers like Al Ewing or Charles Soule and left a handful of off brand series for young upstarts like Joshua Williamson or Frank Barbiere. Meanwhile; Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, Kieron Gillen, Matt Fraction, Ales Kot & Nathan Edmondson have a portfolio of Image Comics series with a huge cult following of comics readers and various TV or film deals. We may never read another Marvel book by that group ever again, but the impact they’ve had will be everlasting. The Image era is about to end, but it was too good to ever die.