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Image Month: Richard Starkings on Image & Comicraft's Lasting Relationship

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by Richard Starkings

Image isn't the only company in our industry celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, my own small corner in comics, COMICRAFT, is quietly sharing the birthday. In many ways, Comicraft's growth was due largely to the burgeoning success of Image Comics in the 90's, but I took the long way round before settling at Image Comics as the creator of ELEPHANTMEN.

I hadn't been reading comics too regularly after moving to America in 1989, so I was only dimly aware of the launch of Image Comics in 1992... . I was working part time at Graphitti Designs in Anaheim designing FLAMING CARROT t-shirts, numbering limited edition books such as ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, Moebius's HORNY GOOF and Giraud's BLUEBERRY and putting together the hardcover MARSHAL LAW collection.

Bob Chapman, head honcho at Graphitti, made a point of associating himself with prestige projects produced by comic book auteurs -- most notably Dave Stevens' ROCKETEER -- and I remember that the Image Comics explosion seemed crass and populist to us at the time, especially when Rob Liefeld appeared on Dennis Miller's cable show touting YOUNGBLOOD #1.

I don't think we could see then how much Image would affect and shape the entire industry. Nevertheless, Image Comics was very much a part of the increasingly prevalent move towards creators "fully owning what they fully created,"  listed as one of the Creator's Bill of Rights. This bill was formulated by Scott McCloud at a gathering of creators -- known now as the Northampton Summit -- in 1988.

McCloud drafted the bill with support and input from Dave Sim, Steve Bisette, Larry Marder, Rick Veitch, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. At Graphitti, Chapman was already working with Stevens, Dave Sim and other creators who maintained full ownership of their creations, including Matt Wagner, whose own series, MAGE, would one day find a home at Image.

I think it's important to identify that Jim Valentino was already a part of the creator's rights movement before he became better known as an Image partner. Before moving to America I had followed Dave Sim's CEREBUS, published by Dave's own company, Aardvark-Vanaheim, and first came across Jim Valentino's work on a John Lennon tribute strip in the back pages of one of the early issues... that was followed a little later by Jim's series NORMALMAN which soon became its own Aardvark-Vanaheim book. In the late 80's, Jim was writing GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY for Marvel editor Craig Anderson.

I was working in New York for editor Greg Wright whose office was across the way from Craig's, so I would sometimes pick up work from Craig as well, and I remember wondering if the Jim Valentino writing GUARDIANS was the same Valentino who drew the strips I'd seen in the back of CEREBUS. When I saw SHADOWHAWK, I thought it was even more improbable that this was the same guy, especially in amidst all the hoopla surrounding Image's appearances at San Diego Comic Con in 1992 and 93.

I remember watching in bemusement as lines of fans followed a fresh-faced looking Rob Liefeld across the hall to his extravagant YOUNGBLOOD spaceship prop, guarded by a guy in a massive BADROCK costume. Coming back the other way was Jim Valentino, in a black shirt and white jacket, sporting a mullet and looking very much to me like an Italian gangster. How could this possibly be the same guy?

The image, ahem, was appropriate however, as the Image partners seemed untouchable at that time. I had gotten to know Jim Lee through Greg Wright, and in 1990 at Comic Con, Jim had asked me to introduce him to Frank Miller, who I did not know, and I remember telling him "You're Jim Lee! Go and introduce YOURSELF!" A couple of years later, you wouldn't have been able to get Frank Miller over to Jim for the swarms of fans in the Image tent.

At Graphitti, I had started getting familiar with the Macintosh computer which Bob was using to put together his SHIRT TALES newsletter. Up until that point, mastery of computers had escaped me, even though I had worked at the National Computing Center in Manchester, England, the language of computers had remained completely alien to me. But the Mac made everything that had previously seemed complicated very simple to me. I had seen John Byrne's digital lettering on NAMOR and realized that this was the way to go. When Image Comics appeared in 1992, looking for higher production values and faster turnaround times, I was uniquely positioned to offer high quality overnight digital lettering.

Comicraft had already filled the void left by lettering artists Tom Orzechowski (who was snatched off the X-MEN books by McFarlane to letter SPAWN), Chris Eliopoulos (grabbed by Erik Larsen for SAVAGE DRAGON) and Michael Heisler (who moved from New York to La Jolla to work with Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Marc Silvestri at Homage Studios) and so premier Comicraftsman, JG Roshell, and I had become accustomed to working on books with top tier talent that needed a fast turnaround.

Here, again, it's important to note that the Image partners weren't just looking to make a larger share of the profits off their work... Marc and Jim wanted to be able to work with inkers of their own choosing, Todd wanted to work with colourists who were pushing the envelope and they all knew, as partners in their own company, that they could insist on better quality paper stock so that their work could be better represented to their readers.

If you go back and look at the paper, printing and colouring of Marvel and DC books in the very early 90's you might see why the Image partners were unhappy. Only after the first issues of SPAWN hit the stores did the Big Two start raising their own standards... standards which have rarely stayed at the same high plateau McFarlane, Larsen and Silvestri have maintained on their books for twenty years.

Just 7 issues in on Jim Lee's WILDC.A.T.s, Homage called us at Comicraft to meet a seemingly impossible deadline which editor/letterer Mike Heisler admitted even he couldn't meet. It was the first of many deadlines we successfully hit and led the way to Comicraft's involvement with some of Image's most interesting and exciting titles... ASTRO CITY, BATTLE CHASERS, DANGER GIRL, THE RED STAR and the Lee/Liefeld HEROES REBORN titles.

It was a very exciting time and even though it meant a lot of late nights and long weekends, I would happily do it all over again, as it brought me in contact with so many young and innovative creators like Jeff Scott Campbell, Joe Madureira, Chris Bachalo and Christian Gossett. When Rob Liefeld left Image to start Awesome!, Jeph Loeb brought us in to work with creators like Ian Churchill, Steve Skroce, Ed McGuinness and Jeff Matsuda, alongside Eric Stephenson, then editor at Awesome!, now, of course, publisher at Image.

Rob himself spent time at the Comicraft studio giving me invaluable insights into the process of self publishing and working with Image and Diamond. Those insights helped inform my own brief self publishing experiments in the early noughties, when I started work on HIP FLASK with a Mexican artist by the name of Ladrönn -- whose work was best known then for his run on a character Rob had created for Marvel, CABLE.

After publishing only two issues of HIP FLASK, Erik Larsen, who had inherited the mantle of publisher at Image Central from Jim Valentino, suggested to me at Wizard's first Long Beach show that I move HIP FLASK to Image... and a few months later Eric Stephenson made a similar invitation. It took me a little time to get over my desire to totally control every aspect of publishing my own book, but I am still happy to this day to have done so... Image is without doubt the friendliest, most supportive group of people I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and provides the kind of support you don't even realize you're missing as a self publisher.

Being in the company of writers and artists like Robert Kirkman, Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Ed Brubaker, Nick Spencer, Shane and Chris Houghton, Viktor Kalvachev, Paul Grist, Brandon Graham, James Stokoe, David Hine, Shaky Kane, Frank Quitely and Mark Millar and so many more, pushes me to always do better than my best, and makes me feel very proud to be an Image Comics creator. I've also persuaded friends like Dave Hine and Ian Churchill to work on their creator owned books at Image and will continue to do so... it is without doubt the safest harbor for creators in the industry today.

ELEPHANTMEN is approaching its 50th issue, and still growing strong. I always like to remind people that the very first comic available via ComiXology was ELEPHANTMEN issue #1, and it is still available there now, for free, as is issue #0. The recent third printing of ELEPHANTMEN volume 1 was double the amount of the second printing and this coming year we'll not only see volume 5 in hardcover but also Italian, French and Brasilian editions of the first collections and a new Graphitti Designs t-shirt with art by Frank Quitely. It's funny how things come full circle.

Happy Birthday, Image, here's to the next 20 years!

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