The Third Option

In one corner – DC Comics, the embattled merchandise-driven monster behind such characters as Batman, Superman and the Green Lantern named Ch’p, who resembles an overgrown hamster. Their recent reboot notwithstanding, DC has been the engine behind numerous great and memorable characters and stories that have left a permanent imprint on both comic readers in general and the world at large, despite the fact they’ve recently gone off the reservation a bit.

In the other corner – Marvel Comics, titanic champions of the comic book film business and the creative thinkers giving us heroes like The Avengers and Deadpool, working tirelessly to continue besting themselves after their stellar motion picture revenue over the last five years. Some might even call Marvel the original comic book company, with the plethora of heroes developed by founding fathers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

You would think, given how gigantic they are in contemporary popular culture, that they’re your only two options when it comes to comic books. Most plebs would believe they can only read Batman or Captain America if they want to get in on the comics game, and the stigmatic two-dimensional representation most of the well-known superheroes exhibit in the public consciousness (lookin’ at you, Superman) is enough to turn people off before trying. I myself would’ve once believed these were the only two companies worth following, producing work that might shift in quality but is nonetheless popular and awesome.

Then again, I once believed babies were birthed from the rear.

I’m here to let the unclued among us in on a third company that, in my mind, rivals the DC and Marvel juggernauts. I’m here to tell you about Image Comics.

I’m willing to bet quite a few readers already know about Image and their creator-driven works, if not least of all as the company responsible for zombie epic The Walking Dead. These days Image increasingly feels to me in relation to DC and Marvel the way cable channels like AMC and HBO feel in relation to mainstream American television (read: crap). Yeah, there are usually glimmers of excellence amongst otherwise unremarkable or samey garbage in the Big Two’s comic lines, but you’re more likely to find consistently good material by going to the specialist distributor who really knows what they’re doing.

Image is the best place for creator-owned content that can be as crazy, sexy, sweary or bloody as the writers want. While that description makes it sound like a Michael-Bay-meets-Eli-Roth kind of deal, it’s far deeper than that. Image is, I’d wager, the comic book company all you non-superhero fans should be checking out. Because there is, quite literally, something for everybody.

I did a review of some of their best work I read over the summer, and that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Image is loaded not only with innovative ideas, refreshing changes to existing genres, more adult takes on stories than some of the Big Two and enough gore to satisfy the most feral hematomaniac. Backing up the stories are writers who really know what they’re doing, including some rather big-name talent from the DC and Marvel stables. Remember that dude who wrote the recent awesome Captain America run, Ed Brubaker? Writes Fatale, a combination of Lovecraft and crime noir. Jonathan Hickman, former Fantastic Four innovator and recent inheritor of the Avengers writing post? Has this kickass series called Manhattan Projects, which is like World War II blended with Torchwood. And Brian K. Vaughan, former LOST scribe and the mind behind Vertigo’s acclaimed Y: The Last Man, has my new favourite space-story-meets-fantasy-epic Saga.

And those are just the ones I’ve recently checked out. Looking at Image’s solicits we’ve also got stories like Invincible (acting as a deconstructive and yet still recognisable look at the superhero genre), Chew (a rather quirky twist on detective stories that combines the wit of Pushing Daisies with the artwork of Invader Zim), Elephantmen (which has…elephants, that, er, look like men) and Revival (an undead story without actual zombies). Their releases may be few and far between compared to the methodical monthly process of DC or the fortnightly rush of Marvel’s current premier titles, but so far they’ve been worth the wait. They’re creative. They’re funny. They’re sad. They’re violent. But most of all they feel like something born not out of a desire for another lobby fountain made of bank notes, but rather out of a real desire on the part of their creators to craft a story worth telling.

The recent releases of big budget motion picture adaptations, which has inexorably redrawn the attention of mainstream culture to the once-segregated comic book fandom, has galvanized both of the Big Two into making their books more accessible to newer, casual readers (hence their respective relaunches). This had meant somewhat of a dilution across several notable properties, and it’s really taken the life out of some of the stories. DC in particular is guilty of this – sure, we might have excellence like Scott Snyder’s Batman run, but compared to the other half-dozen poorly written Bat-titles out there (especially those with Tony Daniel on board) it’s just a drop of water in an ocean of money-melting hydrochloric acid. The books from both Marvel and DC are fast becoming entirely product-driven, rather than a split between giving intelligent readers what they love and adore while still making a dent in their merchandising market share.

Image is the complete opposite. Granted, I may not know enough about them to make a declaration like that, but literally every single title of theirs I’ve read has been good. Some of them are excellent. Saga, in particular, is so good I’m seriously considering buying the monthly issues (something I try to avoid doing wherever possible, since money don’t grow on trees anymore). In fact, looking over my small yet still modest collection of Image titles, I don’t think there’s a single one there that I haven’t really liked.

Also, by the sound of it, the company treats their writing and art talent comparatively favourably to other publishers, especially when analysed against DC’s employee treatment. Mind you, battery hens probably have better treatment than DC writers at the moment.

I’m willing to bet most casual readers won’t pick up an Image book because the majority that they’re exposed to are the ones with spandex-clad vigilantes, and you won’t find much like that (besides the aforementioned Invincible and a couple of other options) at Image. And you might well argue that most of these stories could work better as actual wordy novels rather than graphic literature of people doing stuff that could be recreated just as well in your mind’s eye. After all, something like Fatale could potentially be described just as grotesquely with eloquent terminology rather than with blood-soaked imagery, right? You might also think (as I once stubbornly did) that there is no point shelling out cash for stories that don’t have more luminescent colours and outlandish costumes than a Mardi Gras float.

You might also look at me as a bit of a kibitzer (look it up) since I keep insisting what people should be reading in the world of graphic literaria. But the thing is, you really should. Not to sound like a comic book Lenin, but people would do well to check out Image’s works. I’m not saying you should discount superheroes wholesale (and indeed, there are about five recent superhero books waiting to be reviewed on my nightstand at time of writing) and they will forever hold a place in my heart, but Image is the real center of comic book innovation right now. Sure, other places like Dark Horse, IDW, Vertigo and BOOM have got their thing goin’ on right now, but most (if not all) of their works fall within certain strictures in terms of dealing with expanded universes (Dark Horse), media tie-ins (IDW), supernaturality (Vertigo) and…whatever it is that BOOM does well.

Image, to my mind, isn’t nearly as choked by obligation as the other comic companies right now. I mean, if they can publish a story about a quirky detective who solves crimes by eating people, or a collection of scientists beating Nazis with alien weaponry, what can’t they publish?


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