Guide to Image Comics: The Plucky Underdogs

This Guide to Image Comics will help you understand one of the most profitable comic companies to exist alongside the powerhouses of Marvel and DC comics. 

Image Comics has produced some very iconic characters, many of which you may know even if you’ve never heard of the company itself. This is because these popular characters have made their way into live-action, feature-length cinematic releases, and cartoons across television since the 1990s.

Video games and action figures, Image comics have them all. Yet, many fans don’t talk as openly about their name as Marvel and DC? They have simply maintained their love of producing comics as individual properties and not as large Universes in which their characters often interact with one another. 

Many fans of these comics can pick up their favorites and never need to pick up another Image Comic to learn what’s going on in the larger world of the Image Universe. This has made them much more accessible than other companies for new fans to pick up. 

Let’s dive right into this powerhouse of an underdog company. 

Bottom Line Up Front

We will introduce you to Image’s most popular work, their plucky underdogs, and explore their founding and film franchises.

Not Always for Children

Image comics do not shy away from adult material in their publications. This does not just mean serious storylines or deep looks at character struggles that other companies are also known for. It is to state that they don’t shy away from some very graphic depictions of violence, sexual acts, and often vulgar language. 

The creators of the comics didn’t make it for the marketability of the mainstream as much as they did for other comic book fans. While they initially had runs of X-Men-like works, such as Youngblood or WILDC.A.T.s, the company made most of its profit and fame from more intense properties. 

Thus, it never seems as if they need to make adjustments to style. Parental Advisory Warnings on most of their work is my first note to you.

Unique Practices

The company is so unique in its approach to comics that it can be considered a standout in many of the best ways. Its founders started their publications under the Umbrella of the more prominent name: Image Comics. 

In a direct shot at Marvel and DC’s practices and treatment of its hired talent, at Image, the creators of characters had complete control over them. They could say what each character could or couldn’t do if they interacted with other comic characters. They could even sell or benefit from the marketing of those characters as they were the ones who made them. 

This practice seemed to go by the wayside for a short time but was picked back up again in the late 90s by Image and remains true to this day by the company. 

Several one-shots or indie comic book creators flock to Image because of this. The benefit of Image’s reach for publication and distribution purposes, but no fear of losing their creative control. 

Here are the original sub-companies founded by Image Companies you may have heard of. 

  • Extreme Studios, owned by Rob Liefeld (forced out of the company in 1996)
  • Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen
  • Shadowline, owned by Jim Valentino
  • Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane
  • Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri
  • Wildstorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee (sold to DC comics in 1999)

Most Popular Titles

Here are some of the most well-known titles unique to Image Comics and the publications(listed above) that fall under its comfy Umbrella. 

The Walking Dead

I figured I would get the best seller out of the way. That is correct. The popular television series was originally a graphic novel (owned by its creator) published under the Image umbrella. It is one of the highest-rated, selling, and most well-known comic properties. If in part thanks to the television show.

It is about a world overrun by Zombies and the crazy lifestyles of those trying to make a living in that world. From creepy cults wearing the skin of the dead and whispering into the ears of zombies. Able to manipulate the undead herds to move around. Or military bunkers run by savage despots who keep people safe by running their land under an iron thumb and randomly killing newcomers to instill fear.

The Walking Dead interestingly avoids the word zombies. While the TV show can be quite graphic, the comic series often one-ups its counterpart in terms of gore and horror. It’s an amazingly written tale full of dramatic tension and character beats. Many fans prefer the comic over the live-action adaption, even if they were brought in by the live-action property first.

Spawn

One of the earliest comic characters and properties created by Image Comics, Spawn is McFarlane’s creation, his baby. 

With multiple animated shorts in its honor and a live-action film that performed very well, there are talks about bringing a new version of this to the cinema. 

The toy line of Spawn is one of the hottest selling action figure lines in comic history, and the themes of the comic have always been dark. 

It is one of the most intense tales. Interestingly, it never shies away from nudity, grotesque violence, or killing beloved characters. It has maintained popularity over the last 3 decades if in some way, thanks to the number of comic fans being adults vastly underrated by larger companies like Marvel and DC. 

Spawn follows the tale of a man chosen by what is depicted as the Devil. He is given great power with the intention of one day leading the armies of Hell against Heaven and taking over the Earth. Only Spawn decides to flip off the demon world and keep the powers for himself to right his wrongs in life and be the hero he failed to be as a man. 

Witchblade

A trendy title released under the Image umbrella, with very, let’s say, controversial art. 

Witchblade has been under discussion as a live-action movie, already having been made into a short-lived anime series. It depicts very scantily clad characters with unique, otherworldly armor/weapons.

The lead female protagonist is different in the anime and the comic series. Still, her image and the revealing armor she bares are iconic. You may even recognize it on-site if you aren’t aware of the comic or anime. 

While the art is sexualized, it is not as vulgar as some of Image’s other comic properties. It has put out some highly praised dynamic story arcs. 

The lead character adopted an artifact, the Witchblade, unto herself. It morphs into body armor and weapons at will. She uses it to fight a plethora of antagonists, some of which wield similar artifacts. 

The Savage Dragon

Here’s one I had the pleasure of reading for the first time in research for this guide. It is the longest-running owner-related title by an Image partner. 

Savage Dragon is Larsen’s marque comic of his Highbrow Entertainment branch under the Image Comics. It is about a mutant dragon-like character with a mysterious past who assists the Chicago police with other villainous mutant problems. 

It dives into more serious, adult-related scenarios a character with green skin and powers may have in a world. It’s done on a level intended to be more mature than popular brands like DC or Marvel. Still, it strays away from purposefully adult target material unless they fall within the confines of the story arc being told. While it can be graphic, it is never gratuitous simply for the shock value. 

It has done very well for itself with over 260 issues and is still being printed as of this writing. Be warned if wanting to share this with your child, however. It depicts a lot of actual crimes associated with being a police officer. Topics like suicide, murder, and…well, you get the idea. 

Those acts can be shown graphic enough that their horror is meant to linger on the reader. Not for children.

Invincible

Image comics can claim this now popular TV series as one of its original properties. While currently an animated cartoon on Amazon as of 2022, it came to animation first in 2008. A version of the show aired for one season in 2008 on MTV2.

Fans of the show will notice similarities to the comics. Despite being a cartoon or comic, it is not kid-friendly in its delivery, and these characters’ powers have pretty serious consequences when used. 

In addition, it does a wonderful job of showing the stress and pressure its main antagonist deals with, having to attempt and fill in his father’s shoes. Mark Grayson is the 17-year-old whose father is the all-powerful Omni Man at the start of the series. 

Mark is only beginning to develop his powers, and his father is the one to guide him. It’s a rocky road, and one many have enjoyed going along the ride for.

It takes a Spider-Man-like approach to its main hero. They try to balance everyday life and stress with that which also comes from being a hero. 

But this character is no Peter Parker. 

He has a unique, teenager-orientated personality. It carries well into the drama as this comic and cartoon world unfolds. 

See also: Captain America vs Thanos

Kick-Ass

The comics are similar to the movies of the same name. The fun, violent, heroic journey of a teenager foolishly stepping up to be a superhero in a troubled world of caped villains and crusaders. 

Through bruises, blood, and grit, he becomes what he set out to be. It is not as pretty of a thing as he had hoped, but he never backs down.

This was originally a Marvel property before shifting over to Image. Its creator wanted to fall under that comfy umbrella Image offers to keep control over their characters and world. It has remained there since, though it does appear the story has been wrapped up.

You can pick up the complete collection in a few graphic novel releases of the comics.

The Maxx

This is no longer an Image property, perhaps, having been bought out in 1999 by DC comics and now published under IDW publishing. 

However, this comic originated under the Image Umbrella and is probably one of my favorites. It was so fun and strange that MTV picked it up for a short cartoon run shortly after its release. Though that run didn’t last long, again, I loved it. 

This tale is of a homeless man who believes he is a hero with great powers in the OUTBACK. He follows and protects this sweetheart of a female social worker, Julie. Who, of course, tends to him and listens to his crazy ramblings about the OUTBACK and his adventures there. The OUTBACK is a world separate from our own but to which we are all connected.

All the while, a serial rapist is pursuing Julie, and the Maxx does protect her from this character. He does so in both the OUTBACK and the real world. It is honestly brought into question what the OUTBACK represents and the deepness of its meaning. It may be a place where people wounded early on escape to be something different in place of psychological scars. 

DC doesn’t capture this as well when they take over the story. So, I highly suggest the original Image run of The Maxx and that crazy TV show that MTV produced sometime back. It’s much different than any other comic property on the market.

WildC.A.Ts, Youngblood, and Gen13

These popular series have had short-lived TV series and a video game (WildC.A.T.s), a popular cartoon series (Gen 13), an animated movie (Youngblood), and carried the earlier days of Image Comics. Directly competing with X-Men and DC Justice League sales. 

These three comics share one main thing in common now: they no longer are part of Image Comics. When Wildstorm got sold to DC comics, like The Maxx, these went with it. 

Gen 13 was ahead of its time or perhaps borrowed some of the best of the past. One might be able to make both arguments. Young teens are invited to a trap where they are tested on. Activating the “special genes” in them to unlock their mutant powers. It became a popular series, as evident by its TV property.

While WildC.A.Ts initially felt like a fresh new world to explore, mutants with an edge and less inclination to be clean cut. These rebels of the hero team genre were no longer part of the rebel comic franchise. 

Youngblood was a comic of remarkably similar characters, troubled mutants working together. They did work together better and had somewhat different personalities. 

Youngblood, Gen 13, and WildC.A.T.s crossovers happened but felt rare and special at a time. Still, they have become less popular in their DC incarnations and fall by the wayside of larger and more streamlined titles of the mogul company. 

One cannot mention the beginnings of Image Comics without them, though. WildC.A.Ts, especially for myself, was the first issue that ever turned me to the world of comics other than Marvel and DC. Even I was a teenage boy at the time. For that, I will always be thankful. 

Danger Girl

This is the Charlie Angels of comic book tales. Three badass women fight against villainous fools with the help of a British agent who gives them information. 

I mean, literally the Charlie Angels of comics. I can’t say much more as that is generally the baseline of the comics, but it has been going on since 1998 and is well-liked. A video game does exist of this!

A feature film is also coming out! If you are looking for a fun read and a very easy to get into comic, Danger Girl is a fine place to start. 

A fair warning, it is very provocative in its artistic choices. 

Jupiter’s Legacy

This comic book follows a unique, alien-themed rise of altruism and corruption in our world if it had been affected by Superheroes in the mid-1900s. 

It takes place in a modern world similar to ours. It is only different due to the insertion of heroes early on. While the drugs, the slang, and the styles of clothes vary in minor ways, the hero culture is unique to their depiction of the world we know. 

Yet, so much of it now revolves around Super Heroes and the legacy the strongest is leaving behind. 

Stakes in this comic are genuine, and who is right or wrong is often more blurry than any other depiction of heroes and villains. 

The comic is focused more on the struggle between what was once considered righteous and how it has changed. It argues what lines should be drawn in the name of “good” and if and when those invisible lines of morality should be crossed. 

The “Old Guard,” as it were, is led by the Utopian. He is the strongest of all the heroes in the comic. He sets in stone the laws that those with powers should adhere to. 

The comic pits the new, younger generation of heroes(Utopian’s kids included) in arguments and sometimes fights against the reigning generation of heroes.

While the Netflix show didn’t do as well as hoped, it is a unique take on the hero genre. A comic fan may enjoy it far more than they could expect if only reading reviews of a TV show many had trouble piecing together. 

Birthright

This eerie comic immediately tackles some complex story arcs. The main character is a child who goes missing. His father gets accused of murdering him, mother nearly goes insane. 

The boy returns a fully grown man, having spent a year of our world’s time in some terrifying version of Narnia called Terrenos and is now a warrior. 

He is destined for a dark and dangerous future that he must be vigilant to face as a chosen savior. 

This tale picked up traction so fast it has already been opted to be turned into a feature film by Skybound Entertainment. Keep your eyes open. Give the comic a try. It isn’t so many issues deep you couldn’t jump on board before that film comes out.

Saga

A space opera of a comic book. First published in 2012, this powerful and beloved by its fan series depicts two lovers fleeing two empires. 

The lovers, of course, are from two different alien empires who don’t just hate each other. They are currently in a galactic war.

Perhaps one of its most flattering descriptions, which I can agree upon, is “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones.” 

There’s a lot to like here if you are a science fiction fan. Or a medieval monarchy-themed fantasy fan. Or even a reader who likes a bit of love and drama in their wildly dangerous tales. 

Won a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story and received praise for not shying away from topics like ethnicity, sexuality, and gender social roles. It’s won more than 20 other awards over its run for its writing alone.

In all seriousness, it is often some of the most genuine and fearless writing in the comic book world. It also does not shy away from the severity of the war within it. 

Franchises that Came in and Out of Image

Several creators’ comics have been published under different Umbrella companies, like Image. Some of the most well-known comic creators started in or have put work out under the Image Comic Logo.

The Crow

This popular film series which originally starred Brandon Lee(RIP) in a harrowing performance that would sadly be his last, is a comic franchise. 

The murdered victim returns from the dead to seek vengeance on those who gruesomely wronged him. Who had killed him and did so to his beloved. 

With supernatural powers, the unkillable Crow gets revenge on those who did this and then continues to do so for that left at the bottom of society’s bucket. Where justice seldom sees the light.

It’s a tale that doesn’t shy away from tragedy. Swims in it. It has come through Image Comics on a few occasions, but not always. A new film is currently in the works for this character. 

Big Bang Comics

Resembling sometimes Justice League and the Avengers type heroes of the early years of comics. Big Bang Comics and its many characters were with Image for quite a while.

Eventually, the creators would take Big Bang Comics to start their own company. These tales are all about Golden Era-type heroes, mimics of popular characters from that age.

They are more of an homage to the era than a farce, and the heroes and tales are fun and coherent. While it isn’t my style, I can say as I researched them, they are pleasant reads. 

A TV movie was made called Knights of Justice in 2000 about the characters from the Big Bang Universe Ultiman and Thunder Girl. Though it didn’t do well.

Wynonna Earp

This famous (at one time) TV series was originally a comic published under the Image Umbrella before moving to IDW comics in 2003. 

It follows the Wynonna and her battles against villains and cliches galore. It is witty, full of humor with occasional depth.

It’s one of the more accessible comics to pick up and read for fun without needing too much back story, though the longer arcs have made this perhaps less accurate as time has gone on.

This is your comic if you want a badass, strong female character battling Vampires and Gremlins as an everyday job in the modern world.

Bone

Although not originally under Image Comics, Jeff Smith partnered up to continue keeping Bone in the market with Image Comics. This is again thanks to their policy of allowing the creator to maintain control over the characters. 

Bone is one of the more instant classics in comic lore. A unique art style, charming character design, and somewhat sophomoric if not innocent humor. It is one of the comics that could be considered “child friendly” amongst the brand. 

The story follows three main characters, specifically Bone, on random misadventures. It is usually Bone flirting with a human girl and generally just humorous problems with monstrous creatures of fantastical design. 

It’s an imaginative, original work and holds up over time quite well. 

Underrated Gems

Here’s a shortlist of some lesser know comics that have come through or are still published under the Image Comic Umbrella.

Carbon Grey

This is historical-fiction meets steampunk and dieselpunk. It has some of the most imaginative ideas I’ve ever seen in a comic. 

Twin sisters are born into a family that has protected these nobles forever. One person is assassinated, and one of the twins is charged with the killing. The family and others chase her down as she tries to prove her innocence in the wake of the coming industrial age. 

A war starts raging, and all hell breaks loose. It’s a limited series and easy to get through.  

As of this writing, it is ten issues in and still ongoing. 

Shadowhawk

One of the founding comics of Image. It simply did not perform as well as the others that came out. Still, it is a staple of the company in its way and has a pretty diehard fanbase for what it has managed. 

Paul Johnstone grew up in Harlem but avoided a life of crime and even became an attorney. An attack sadly in his adult life left him infected with HIV. This led to him slowly becoming angry, and his life was tumbling downhill. 

Finally, he decides that he will use his remaining time alive to deal out justice to people like those who attacked him. Eventually, getting an exoskeleton suit and dawning the name, ShadowHawk.

It’s a pretty intense story, as you can see, and perhaps worthy of a glance by more eyes.

Cyber Force

Originally it was tied much with the WildC.A.T.s and Youngblood storytelling style and even did some crossovers. 

Over time, while the other two franchises moved over to DC comics through the sale, Cyberforce didn’t do so well in the long run of its tenure. Hitting hot and cooling off. It has come back now and then and got some positive reviews in its later run. 

It’s a team of mutants experimented on(against their will) by a company known as Cyberdata. As the name suggests, these mutants end up with cybernetic enhancements due to this experimentation. 

Escaping control of the agency that wanted to use the new enhanced mutants as their special forces, Cyber Force swears revenge. They spend their comics trying to bring down Cyberdata. 

The same company tortured them and forced the cybernetic enhancements on the mutants. Huh, I wonder if this comic was a metaphor for the creator.

I Kill Giants

I saved this for last because I hope if anything you take away from this article, it is to go and watch this film. It is a graphic novel published by Image, but the film was a random buy in a bin at a Dollar General for me, and I was moved. 

I Kill Giants, is the story of a little girl who believes she is protecting her entire coastal town from many different types of Giants. 

She uses runes, a magic Thor-like ax, and several crafty tricks to ward them off, including alchemy and traps. 

Doing this in secret alienates her from her classmates and family. It makes her seem like a problem child. Troubled and in need of help, all the while, she fights this battle alone. 

Check out the movie, then read the graphic novels. There are seven wonderful issues. It was rated “Best Indy Book” in 2008 by IGN. 

It’s a brilliant tale. 

Founding

Image Comics was founded in the early 1990s after several of Marvel’s most notable writers, and illustrators became angry with how the company treated them. The sentiment was common among creative talent at both DC and Marvel, where the characters created by a writer were considered worth more than those that made them. 

Determined to treat themselves and other creative minds better in the comic industry, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio quit started their own company. 

By 1992, Image Comics was born with its goal to always give the creator control over their characters. History was born.

Is That All?

There are hundreds of comics that have been published under the Image brand over the years. I’ll list a few more before we end, but explore their website and perhaps find something that peaks your interest.

  • A few highly rated ones include The Wicked+Divine, Monstress, Paper Girl, Chew, Descender, and Deadly Class.
  • A few of their oldest titles include Wetworks, Astro City, The Darkness, and The Authority.

FAQs

Question: Is Dark Horse Comics the same as Image Comics?

Answer: No, they are two different publications.

Question: Are the Ninja Turtles from Image Comics?

Answer: No, though they may have made some appearances, the Ninja Turtles predate Image Comics by many years. 

Question: Why was The Maxx in a Batman comic?

Answer: DC now owns the rights to The Maxx and decided to do that. 

Question: What’s the best Image Comic to start with?

Answer: That’s hard to say. It depends on what you enjoy. Some people love The Walking Dead, but WildC.A.Ts original run and Cyber Force are fun for more classic comic format fans. I think Spawn is excellent, and after researching this article, I have begun reading Saga myself. It is living up to its hype.

To Summarize

This has been a fun recap of one of the best, if sometimes unknown, powerhouses in comics. Their Graphic Novels and the vast array of different takes on stories remain of interest to the comic and film world. 

Their business practices are some of the kindest toward creators and writers like myself, and for that, I will always hold them in high regard. I hope you’ve got plenty from this Guide and find some Image Comics for yourself to pick up and enjoy. 

Farewell, and pleasant reading.

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