For decades, Marvel and DC Comics have had a stranglehold on the American comic book industry. The Big Two and their respective superhero universes have dominated the hearts, minds, and wallets of fans and dictated the way creative talent are treated. The term "work-for-hire" didn't exist when the comic book industry was born in the 1930s and '40s. Thus, publishers regularly took away all rights from creators often without any formal contract. And when copyright law was revised in the 1970s, the contracts that companies began offering favored the corporations over individuals. But there were glimmers of hope. Self-publishing became a viable option, and smaller publishers like Eclipse and even Marvel's Epic imprint offered creators a chance to own their characters and stories. But the company-owned Marvel and DC superheroes still topped the bestsellers lists. But then, in the early 1990s, something happened to change the comics world forever.
By 1991, seven artists best known for their work on Marvel titles were becoming enormously popular. Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen were getting noticed for their work on Spider-Man. Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, and Marc Silvestri all did eye-catching artwork for X-Men. Rob Liefeld retooled the X-Men spin-off New Mutants into X-Force, introducing the mysterious cyborg hero Cable and the wisecracking assassin Deadpool along the way. And Jim Valentino (previously known for autobiographical comics and the superhero satire normalman) made Guardians of the Galaxy, then the most successful non-Spider-Man or X-Men-related book from Marvel. So, the question was, was the name recognition and fanbase of the artists driving the books' success, or was it the popularity of the characters? While these artists were mostly happy with the people they worked with at Marvel, there was some unease. Trading cards, t-shirts, and video game covers reused their artwork, without any sort of compensation whatsoever. And characters created by them (like Jim Lee's X-Man Gambit) were being made into action figures, and an X-Men cartoon based visually on their work was right around the corner.
Around this time, the publisher Malibu Comics courted Liefeld, Larsen, and Valentino, saying they would publish anything created by them. In mid-1991, Liefeld took out an ad in Comic Buyer's Guide for The Executioners. It was meant to be a mutant superhero team book published by Malibu in association with an imprint devised by Liefeld called Image. Liefeld got the name from a TV commercial for a camera with the tagline "Image is everything". Marvel threatened legal action, and said they would fire Liefeld from X-Force, so the book was scrapped. But Liefeld in association with his friend Hank Kanalz reworked the book to feature a team they developed in the late 80s, the government-sponsored Youngblood. But Liefeld didn't want to launch Image on his own, so he got McFarlane (then taking a hiatus from comics due to the birth of his first child), Valentino, and Larsen on board. During a comic book art auction in New York City, they talked Lee, Portacio, and Silvestri into joining them, and promptly went to Marvel's offices to tell them off. They then went to DC's offices (where Lee had never been before), only to say that they wouldn't work for them either.
In early 1992, the formation of Image Comics was officially announced, leading to a drop in Marvel stock. Malibu would help distribute Image's books for the first year, but the Image partners still called the shots. Youngblood was finally released that spring to massive success. Many of the Image partners dusted off characters that they created in their youth, now that they would retain all rights. McFarlane introduced Spawn (the first issue of which is the bestselling non-Marvel or DC comic), a government assassin whose deal with the devil brings him back to Earth as a powerful undead being. Larsen revamped his character as the Savage Dragon, a more character-driven superhero book with a green, fin-headed guy at the center.
Lee and Silvestri both came out with series that had a similar aesthetic to the Marvel series they had cut their teeth on, Uncanny X-Men. Lee and longtime friend Brandon Choi unleashed WildC.A.T.s: Covert Action Teams, a team made up largely of members and descendants of the Kherubim, a benevolent alien race that crash-landed on Earth eons ago along with the sinister Daemonites. Silvestri's Cyber Force told the tale of a ragtag band of mutants rebelling against the wicked corporation that turned them into cyborgs. Both titles were based on characters that their respective creators had created in the past but never used. WildC.A.T.s and Cyber Force also both lead to multiple titles set in the same universe. Lee used WildC.A.T.s as a springboard for other "WildStorm Universe" titles such as Gen 13, StormWatch, and Deathblow. The "Top Cow Universe" that rose from Silvestri's Cyber Force would include such popular titles as Witchblade and The Darkness.
Valentino had planned to put out a series called The Pact at the start of Image, but shelved it after seeing a glut of team books in the company's initial lineup. So, he instead unveiled ShadowHawk, a vigilante not unlike Batman, but with brutal methods and an unrevealed (at first) identity. Eventually, Paul Johnstone, the first ShadowHawk introduced to readers, died from AIDS, and a little later, the young Eddie Collins took up the mantle.
Portacio had planned to collaborate with veteran X-Men writer Chris Claremont on Claremont's character The Huntsman, though that book failed to materialize (Claremont did get use Huntsman and company in story-arcs of WildC.A.T.s and Cyber Force he guest-wrote, however). Portacio's own series, WetWorks, was delayed for over two years due to Portacio dealing with his sister's illness and eventual death. WetWorks, which ended up being part of the WildStorm Universe, focused on a military team enhanced by golden symbiotes.
Soon, other creators joined Image. Some notable books including Sam Kieth's surreal urban-bum-hero-in-Wonderland saga The Maxx, Dale Keown's Hulk-like Pitt, and 1963, a dead-on homage to early 60s Marvel comics, written by Watchman's Alan Moore, with art by his erstwhile Swamp Thing collaborators Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch, among others. There was some controversy. While anyone who creates a book published by Image Central owns their work outright, it was a different story for those who worked for the Image partners' respective studios. WildStorm, Top Cow, McFarlane Productions, and Liefeld's Extreme Studios all partook in work-for-hire practices not much better than those at the Big Two. This was seen by Bissette and the comics journal world as unbelievably hypocritical.
Lee did use his Homage imprint to showcase other people's creator-owned works, such as Kurt Busiek's Astro City, Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, and James Robinson's Leave It to Chance. Other popular indie titles like Groo, Bone, and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all found a home at Image during this period. The work from Liefeld's studio was given a big boost when Alan Moore took over Liefeld's Superman analogue Supreme. Unfortunately, when Liefeld was accused of trying to steal artist Michael Turner away from Silvestri's studio, he ultimately left Image in a huff.
Only 2 years later, in 1998, it was announced that Lee was selling his studio and family of characters to DC Comics. With only four partners left and a changing, unstable market, Image was hurting for material to publish, and ended up releasing just about every kind of comic under the sun. From 1999 to 2004, Valentino was named the company's publisher (Larsen replaced him in 2004, and would in turn be replaced by former Liefeld assistant Eric Stephenson a few years later).
In 2003, Robert Kirkman (who had become involved with Image due to collaborating with Larsen on the latter's character SuperPatriot) pitched a zombie apocalypse comic that supposedly involved an alien invasion. When the comic, now called The Walking Dead, was released that fall, Kirkman revealed to Image that the claim about alien invasion in the series was a red herring.
Kirkman even managed to get Liefeld involved with Image once again. While Liefeld is still no longer a partner in the company, he currently publishes several books through Image, several which have gained cult following. Kirkman became the first new Image partner since the company's launch, and vowed to never work for Marvel or DC again.
Image's publications have grown even more popular over the last decade. Many creators (like Grant Morrison and Bryan K. Vaughn) known for their more mainstream work, come to Image in order to create stories and characters that they own whole-cloth. And Image's deals with creators prevents the publisher from having any involvement with movie or non-comic merchandise rights. Thus, ensuring the creators benefit the most from their creations, not the publisher.