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Review: The Image Revolution – Nineties comic-book nihilists

Posted by on January 29, 2014 – 7:45 am

The Image RevolutionIf you were a comics fan in the early nineties, or even if you were just a comic book speculator that was grabbing up first editions while dreaming of an early retirement and putting your kids through college, then you’re probably already aware of the impact that Image Comics had on the comic industry – some of it very good, some of it really bad. (That coveted first issue of “Youngblood” now sells on eBay for about $0.99 cents.)

The new film, The Image Revolution, had its first public screening at the Amazing Arizona Comic Con this past weekend, and it is an overall entertaining and informative documentary about a lively slice of comic-book history that covers the inception of the upstart comic company through to its biggest and most recent hit, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.

If you are like Kirkman and grew up reading comics during the “Image revolution” of 1991/92, then you are likely to have a little more reverence for its founders (comic book illustrators: Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio and Jim Valentino) than old school fans like myself do. I’ve never really understood the appeal of books like Spawn and WildC.A.T.s. – but they were, without a doubt, extremely popular at the time.

The Image Revolution takes you back to that era, when a handful of artists, led by the arrogant, egotistical and equally talented, Todd McFarlane (who had become well known for his work on Marvel’s Spider-Man books), got tired of “working for the man” and jumped ship from what was once their dream jobs to go be their own bosses; taking their respective fan bases with them and leaving Marvel in the lurch. But they quickly found out they knew more about penciling a comic than running a business.

What these seven artists did was certainly revolutionary and it empowered and encouraged creators to own their own work; but this film is extremely one-sided and leaves out plenty of details by focusing mostly on the loud marquee names and egos involved with the Image start-up (mostly McFarlane and Liefeld.) While these young men made millions with their mediocre comics, what about the lesser known guys that worked for them? In the end, did they treat their employees any differently than Marvel had treated them?

Erik Larson in The Image Revolution

Erik Larson in The Image Revolution

I’m not of a mind to defend Marvel – they pay people to do that and I’m certainly not being paid – but as someone who has worked a multitude of jobs I’ve never felt like my employer owed me anything beyond the salary that I signed up for. So I can see both sides of the artist vs. Marvel controversy and I don’t get why the original Image folks, Jack Kirby or Siegel & Schuster feel so angry and mistreated. It’s like a baker quitting or suing because he feels he’s owed more of the bakery’s profits. Welcome to America.

On the plus side, The Image Revolution has a lot of great historical footage, from CNN news stories to company promo videos (from both Marvel and Image.) The quality of these snippets is pretty bad for the most part, but it’s still a lot of fun seeing the artists in their nineties haircuts and outfits.

On the negative end, the film is also interspersed with some pretty bad graphics, including lengthy comic-book styled text boxes that are barely on screen long enough to read. A simple voiceover would have worked better and considering the artistic talent involved with this film one would think the graphics would have been incredible.

There are also a few images of early art by McFarlane and Jim Lee (from when they were teenagers), which is a nice treat for fans of those artists. The film is interspersed with interviews from a slew of insiders and comic historians, like Marvel Comics: The Untold Story author, Sean Howe; and former Image director and publisher, Larry Marder, who has a great quote about dealing with the egos of the Image artists, that it was “like coaching a basketball team with seven all-stars, who are also owners, and who each want the ball.”

Despite less than perfect production values, The Image Revolution is a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes drama and tension involved with the rise, fall and resurrection of a company and its superstar owners – who had too much success, way too soon. And as the story is told in this film, you have to give credit to McFarlane and Erik Larson for being responsible and keeping the business afloat long enough for The Walking Dead to come along and bring the company back to life.

There are also a lot of funny moments in this film and the Liefeld impressions of McFarlane are priceless; although they made me wonder how these two guys ever got along together or thought they could/should go into business together.

If you are interested in comic history, or if you were a big fan of early Image Comics, then this movie is a must-see. It is directed by Patrick Meaney, who has also done documentaries about legendary comic book creators Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Chris Claremont. This is by no means a perfect or evenly balanced film, but it is a much needed documentation of an era and its lasting effect on today’s comic business.