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Inside the Image Comics' founders exodus from Marvel - from Marvel's perspective

Chicago Comic Con 1992 poster
(Image credit: Chicago Comic Con)

In 1992, seven writers/artists left behind a lucrative career at Marvel Comics and decided to strike out on their own. The move shocked fans and industry professionals, but it led to the founding of Image Comics, a publisher that has offered creators complete ownership of their properties for 20 years now.

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane (Image Comics))

Tom DeFalco, who was editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics in 1992, remembers well the events that led to the formation of Image. After all, he was in the room when then-company president Terry Stewart met with the now-legendary group of artists who were leaving Marvel. He was one of the first people to find out that Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio were leaving Marvel under his regime as E-i-C.

Yet although he does resent some of the things that happened in that meeting, it isn't necessarily what fans may expect. And as a comic creator himself, DeFalco understands the importance of what Image offers the comic industry.

Newsarama talked with DeFalco to get his side of the story, and to get his ideas on how Image Comics has affected creator rights.

Newsarama: Tom, what was the status of the industry at the time, before this happened, that not only set the stage for it, but maybe even encouraged this kind of thing?

Tom DeFalco: Boy, that's a good question and I don't know if I can sum it all up in one answer. 

(Image credit: Bob Kane (DC))

Back when comics first started, a lot of creators had rights to the characters they created. Like Siegel and Shuster with Superman and Bob Kane with Batman. As years went on, other deals for those characters fell into place and other contracts were signed. And far be it from me to understand all these lawsuits over the Superman stuff.

But as time went on, and the company started to own everything.

Nrama: That was influenced somewhat by the Copyright Act of 1976, right?

DeFalco: Yeah, but it had been already starting in the '50s and the '60s, this whole idea of work for hire. The company started to approach these things as, you know, they owned it from the get-go. And by the time the '70s came around, that was the norm at the big companies.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 cover

(Image credit: Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird (Mirage Studios))

Then underground comics started in the late '70s and into the '80s, and creators started to own the material that they were publishing. By the time the direct market started to come about, there were established creators like Dave Sim with Cerebus, and Richard and Wendy Pini with ElfQuest. They would self-publish, and they basically owned everything.

As time went on, companies like Eclipse made deals with creators, where the creators would own it and they would publish it. As we got into the '80s, some of the independent publishers sold well, and some didn't. It all depended on the property.

There were other companies too, and I apologize to any of the key players I'm leaving out, but you get the gist of what I'm saying. The stage was being set, as you said, over time, for what we saw with Image. It was a long process, but that set the stage.

Nrama: What was the atmosphere at the major companies?

ElfQuest #20 cover

(Image credit: Wendy Pini)

DeFalco: The major companies, and by that, I mean Marvel and DC, eventually started to react to these developments, and Marvel certainly took some steps in that regard with Epic Comics, which was an imprint Marvel had that, essentially, allowed creators to retain ownership of properties but gave Marvel the publishing rights.

Around the time of the Image guys, a couple of things happened. The first one was that Marvel was in the midst of a winning streak. We were getting a lot of publicity, and sales on a lot of our comics were moving forward and upward. And Marvel was actually paying creative incentives and royalties on the comics. So creators were actually making a decent living. More than a decent living.

I think around the time Marvel went public, the whole universe became aware of comics, and sales took another big leap. And suddenly, the direct market was on fire and sales were going up and everything was going terrific. And people started making real, serious money.

(Image credit: Jim Lee/Scott Williams/Joe Rosas (Marvel Comics))

On the publishing end, to our own surprise, we started launching titles that were selling 500,000 copies, a million copies, 3 million copies — especially X-Men #1 and the Spider-Man title that Todd McFarlane did.

And I'll give you the true back-story of the Spider-Man title. I don't know how much of the truth is out there, but it might surprise you.

I was in Europe, I think at the London Book Fair, and I was talking to all our licensing people. And every one of our licensing people that was publishing Amazing Spider-Man complained that we were not publishing enough Spider-Man material for them. Every one of them.

And I sat down with our licensing person, and I did some quick math, and I realized, "Oh man! I could publish another Spider-Man title, and we'd make a profit even if we didn't publish it in America!"

So when I came back, I went to the editor of Spider-Man, Jim Salicrup, and I said, "Jim, you've got to publish another Spider-Man title."

And he said, "What are we going to call it?"

(Image credit: Todd McFarlane (Image Comics))

I said, "I don't know! Call it Spider-Man. I don't care what you call it. But you're going to publish another Spider-Man title."

And then later on, at some point, he came to me and said, you know what? Todd McFarlane would like to try writing. What do you think if we let him write and draw it?

I said, you know, "if you think he'll do a good job, go for it!"

I know people think we created the title for Todd, but he was kind of an afterthought.

Now he was a great afterthought. Because it was Todd, and Todd was really very hot at that particular time, I think the first issue of that Spider-Man title sold something like two million copies. I thought, we didn't even have to sell a copy in America -- what a bonus!

Those comic books made some very serious money. Very serious money.

I'm a student of history. I always knew what was coming down the pike. The history at Marvel is, people become superstars, and then they leave. Some guys go off into advertising. Some guys go off to television. Some guys go to DC. And some guys just go off. But if anybody becomes a big superstar, chances are, they're going to leave.

Nrama: So you saw it coming.

DeFalco: I knew they would leave. But what surprised me — the good thing that surprised me — they stayed in the industry and they created a new company. And not just a small studio, but it's been a major company. It's made up of creative people, and it's like United Artists that way. It actually happened, and I honestly thought it was a pretty terrific thing.

Youngblood #0 cover

(Image credit: Rob Liefeld/Danny Miki (Image Comics))

And what ended up happening was that the industry was big enough at that time, and the support for Image was strong enough, that they became a company that could publish other people's comics and give other people the same chance they gave themselves. That's the good news. 

The bad news was, for the first year, the publicity was all about how they had been mistreated at Marvel. And most people at Marvel were aware of how much money these guys made. We were walking around saying, boy, I wish they mistreated us the way they mistreated those guys. But you know, publicity is publicity, and you've got to go with what works. In our industry, there's always a hero and there's always a villain. And Marvel was cast as the villain because if you were going to be the hero, you needed a villain.

Nrama: McFarlane has said he felt like he didn't have creative control over what he had to do in the comics he made. He said it wasn't just about the money, but it was about creative freedom. 

Do creators have more freedom at the big companies nowadays? Or is it pretty much the same way it's always been, where work for hire required that creative person to follow what the company wants?

DeFalco: There's always a conflict, because creators tend to think short-term, and editors and the company have to think long-term. How does that story affect the character for the future?

Executioners ad

1991 ad from Comic Buyer's Guide (Image credit: Rob Liefeld (Image Comics))

When I was editor-in-chief, and when I was editor on Spider-Man, at least once a week, someone would come and say, "I've got this great idea for a story! Aunt May dies!!" When I was the editor of Spider-Man, I heard that pitch at least once a week, from somebody different. And I'd say, "Ok, and then..??"

From the creator's point of view, they can do a great emotional story where Aunt May dies. But editors have to think, what happens the issue after that? And the issue after that? Is it good for the franchise and the character? And that's what an editor has to do.

Nrama: You're working as a writer in a shared universe now. Do you feel like there's any more creative input than there was in, say, 1985? Has the editorial-creator relationship changed at all?

DeFalco: I'm not sure. Every once in a while I hear about somebody having a tantrum, and I wonder, what were their expectations? I haven't really noticed a change from where I sit. I think that as a creative person, we've got to toss a lot of ideas at the editors. And some ideas they'll accept, and some ideas they won't accept. It's been that way since I can remember.

And if you have a lot of good ideas, then you have a lot of creative control. If you have ideas that the editor doesn't like, you have no creative control. It always depends on the individual creative person and the individual editor.

Nrama: We also heard from a few of the founders that there was a meeting where a few of these Image guys came in to talk to the powers that be at Marvel. Were they demanding anything? Or were they just saying goodbye?

Sotheby's book

(Image credit: Sotheby's)

DeFalco: I'll always remember this, because there was supposed to be a big auction at, I think, Sotheby's. And I went in to Terry Stewart, and he said, "you and I should go to that tomorrow." And I said, OK, we'll go to it.

Then about 6 o'clock that night, a lot of people were in town, and the Image guys were there, and I thought, "I haven't talked to Terry about whether we're going to meet here to go to Sotheby's, or if we're meeting there."

So, like a big jerk, I go up to Terry Stewart's office, and I just wanted to stick my head in and ask him where we were going to meet. And he was meeting with these artists - the guys who became the Image guys.

And I said, "sorry to interrupt, but I just have one question."

And Terry says, "No, no, no, come on in. Come on in."

Nrama: Uh oh.

DeFalco: Yeah. Three hours of my life disappeared. [laughs]

Basically, they were up there because they had decided that they didn't want to work on the Marvel characters anymore unless the company gave them certain concessions, and they wanted to create some things of their own. And it became just a big discussion.

Image Comics logo

(Image credit: Image Comics)

The problem with the discussion - and I'm really simplifying it - is there was no united consensus. They wanted a better deal, but they didn't know what kind of deal they wanted. Did they want 80% of profits? Or did they want 80% of gross? Or did they want 80% of net? You know, what did they want?

And Terry Stewart and I had a very rocky relationship, but I'll tell you, he handled this thing perfectly. After three hours, during which I think I chewed off at least one of my arms, Terry turned to the guys and said to them, "Guys, you're obviously conflicted. You aren't sure what you want. Why don't you guys go and have a meeting, decide exactly what you want, and then tell us what that is? Then we'll either be able to give you what you want or give a counter-offer or just discuss it. But figure out what you want first, then we can negotiate. But it's hard to negotiate when you're not exactly sure what it is you want."

And they said OK. And everybody shook hands and went off.

Then I finally got my question answered about where I was going to meet Terry. And I went home. 

The next morning, I go to Sotheby's. And I see one of the Image guys talking to a gentleman of the press. And I go over to him, intending to basically say, you know, "what was the purpose of that meeting last night?"

But as I get over there, he's explaining to this press guy how they're announcing Image Comics later on in the week. And that they had already signed a deal. And that sort of thing.

So I got a hold of him, and I won't say who it was, but I said, "Hey! If you already had a deal, why were you wasting our time last night for three hours?"

And he said, "Well, we thought it would be good publicity if we could tell the world that we went to Marvel Comics and they wouldn't give us a deal."

And I said, "If you already knew that, you should have clued me in and I could have gotten the hell out of there!" [laughs]

You know? I said, "Did you have to include me?" And he said, "Well, you weren't supposed to be there!"

Badrock/Wolverine

(Image credit: Rob Liefeld (Marvel Comics/Image Comics))

That was really the only thing I kind of resented about the whole Image thing.

They were friends. And we remained friends.

Here's an example. There was one time at a convention where we were walking down the hall, and one of the Image guys was coming down the hall with his wife and his baby, and we all stood around, you know, playing with the baby and asking, how's it going? How's life? And all that other stuff. And a couple panels opened up around us, and suddenly all the fans came out. And we suddenly realized, "Oh no! They'll see us fraternizing with the enemy!" And we started moving away from each other.

So, the Image guy says, really loudly, "And I'll never work for Marvel again!!"

And I said, "We don't want you anymore anyway!!" [laughs]

But you have to play the audience.

Nrama: I know that back then, there was some talk about some kind of union. And that's something that obviously hasn't happened at all. Do you think it ever could, or does it not make sense at this point?

DeFalco: You know, I don't know enough about unions and guilds and that stuff. But yes, for many years there was talk about a comic book writers guild or comic book writers union.

I have always thought that when the industry was making lots of money and everybody was doing well, that was the time to form it. And I always hoped the industry would form something like that.

But the trouble was, when things were really good, nobody was interested.

These days, where sales are not the greatest and guys are struggling to get assignments, it would be tough to form something like that. Everybody is competing with each other.

I've always thought that setting up some sort of real professional organization where you could get a group health insurance policy, which I think is something the industry has desperately needed for years, would be a great thing. And maybe have someone on hand to offer tax advice and that sort of thing.

Chicago Comic Con 1992 poster

Chicago Comic Con 1992 poster (Image credit: Image Comics)

Nrama: As the final question, Tom, what do you think the legacy of Image Comics is? It's probably never going to happen again quite like that, but how do you think the industry as a whole benefitted?

DeFalco: To me, the wonderful thing that Image brought is these guys - the original group of partners - put their money where their mouths were.

They championed the idea that creators should own their creations. And they created a company where that was possible.

I think that in itself is an amazing legacy. I applaud them for that.

It's no big secret that there's always been a question out there about Image: "How long will it last?" Certainly, in the early days, there were all sorts of betting pools and that sort of thing. Six months? A year?

Well, look at this. Twenty years! Image has outlasted a lot of major companies. They set out to prove a bunch of things. And they did.