Image United #1
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artists: Larsen, Liefeld, McFarlane, Portacio, Silvestri, Valentino

Working for Marvel Comics may be a dream come true for a lot of young artists, but it’s a raw deal when you think about it. If you just do your job and get your pages in on time, nobody but hardcore fanboys will ever remember your name. But if you’re actually creative and introduce some new characters and ideas, Marvel “rewards” you by taking ownership of all your creations and maybe paying royalties if by a miracle your characters appear in other media. In 1992, several superstar artists said enough was enough and they left Marvel to form Image Comics.

For a brief period, Image was king. Everyone* was excited about the next generation of superheroes, who all had cool names like Spawn and Savage Dragon. But according to Internet wisdom, those early Image comics weren’t any good. Lacking in competent characterization and storytelling, the comics relied instead on flashy art and lots of gore and cheesecake. I can’t personally confirm any of that, as my knowledge of Image was limited to a few issues of Spawn and WildCATS that I borrowed from my brother and neglected to return. I didn’t hate them (I was a kid and easy to pander to) but they must not have made much of an impression because I don’t remember anything about those books and never bothered to collect them.

But that was back in the 90’s. It’s almost 2010 now, and Image is an established publisher (if nowhere near the size of Marvel or DC). And being an established comics publisher in North America means publishing superhero crossovers. Even a cursory glance at the Direct Market sales for Secret Invasion or Blackest Night reveals that everyone** loves superhero crossovers. That’s why the hot shot creators from 1992 (minus Jim Lee) came together to give the fanboys one more thing to buy, Image United. And I bought it too, because what the hell, it’s only money.

So what does a creator-owned crossover look like?

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Right off the bat, I recognized Spawn, Savage Dragon, and Witchblade, but I had no clue who the rest of them were. To his credit, Robert Kirkman seems to understand that Image United could be a reader’s first exposure to Image, so he spends a good portion of the book laboriously introducing everyone. And since these are Image characters they all have hardcore names like Badrock (big guy in back), Ripclaw (below Spawn), Shadowhawk (upper left), Fortress (middle), and the unironically named Shaft. Things get complicated fairly quickly though, as a dozen more characters are introduced in rapid succession. With such a large cast, it’s not surprising that most of the characters lack distinguishable personalities.

With all the introductions, the story just barely gets started. Supervillains are simultaneously causing trouble in various cities, and the heroes don’t know who’s coordinating the attacks. But the readers do, because the main villain shows up at the end. Apparently, the Image Universe is being threatened by none other than Al Simmons! Don’t feel bad if you have no idea who the hell Al Simmons is, I didn’t either. If you look up “Al Simmons” on Wikipedia you’ll find entries for a baseball player and a Canadian musician who specializes in children’s music. But Al Simmons was also the civilian identity of the original Spawn, who I guess lost the job at some point. You learn new things every day.

But screw the story, let’s talk about the art. Six different artists worked on this book, but don’t ask me who did what because … I’m going to level with you guys. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic book artists. I don’t know what Whilce Portacio’s style looks like. I’m pretty sure I can recognize what Rob Liefeld drew but only because of the extra teeth in each mouth. Does that mean I’m not qualified to review this comic? If you’re a hardcore fanboy, my opinion probably doesn’t mean shit to you, but I’m okay with that. I’m still going to argue that the art in this comic leaves something to be desired.

(The following image may be offensive to people who hate cheesecake and/or bad anatomy). Let’s begin with this panel featuring Cyberforce.

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There’s a lot of linework and detail, but it’s all in service to a rather drab scene. A bunch of generic, techno-themed heroes are standing in front of boxes and gray walls. That’s not eye-catching. And the woman on the far right is trying her hardest to pull off the brokeback pose.

Moving on to big fight scene. There are about five gallons worth of steroids in this panel.

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This is supposed to be the dramatic smackdown of the issue, but it feels rather flat. Like so many listless fight scenes in so many mediocre comics, the characters come across less like they’re pounding each other and more like they’re posing for a picture. The static nature of the fight is only reinforced by the tendency of the characters to have lengthy chats in between punches. Of course, many superhero fans would argue this is just a convention of the genre. But it’s a shitty convention perpetuated by lousy comics, so why defend it?

Now for the big reveal.

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I have to admit, if I were a 12 year old I’d probably think this was the coolest image ever (except for the left hand, which seems detached from the rest of the body). But how many 12 year olds are actually reading superhero comics these days? I suspect that Image United is geared towards the same adult readership that DC and Marvel compete for. And judging this panel as an adult, Omega Spawn comes across as a design that tries too hard but doesn’t get very far. He looks just like regular Spawn, but with more pointy crap layered on the standard outfit.

To sum up, the creators tried to make a book that was appealing to new readers, but they couldn’t think outside the tiny box that is mainstream superhero comics. While the story is easily comprehensible, only the true believers will give a shit. In my case, I didn’t know who half the characters were but I was able to follow along. But the comic didn’t have any emotional impact on me, as there’s nothing in the story that leads me to care what happens to these people. I’m not terribly concerned that Omega Spawn is going to blow up the Image Universe and deny me the awesomeness of (white) Shaft. The art is also intended for the true believers, relying heavily on genre conventions like talky fight scenes, steroidal men, and ridiculously busty women.

But maybe the Image creators were only ever interested in pandering to the same old base. And if they wanted to produce a crossover as insular and self-reverential as Secret Invasion or Blackest Night, then they’ve succeeded.

*By everyone, I mean 12 year old boys.

**By everyone, I mean 30 year 0ld men.