TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, ROB LIEFELD’S YOUNGBLOOD was the first Image Comics title to hit the stands. But it is Todd McFarlane’s creation, released just one month later, that stands out as the upstart company’s most successful character, “spawning” a mini-empire that made McFarlane very, very rich.
Not that money is the most important thing in life; owning the rights to your characters is also kind of nice. McFarlane started his career at industry leaders DC and Marvel, penciling memorable runs on such titles as Infinity Inc., The Incredible Hulk, and The Amazing Spider-Man. (He was also given the scripting chores for the new Spider-Man series launched in 1990; its debut issue set a new sales record.) He reportedly came up with the idea for Spawn — a murdered mercenary who comes back to life after making a deal with the devil — more than a decade before he presented it to the public. But he decided to keep the character safe in his portfolio, as he was wary of presenting it to his employers and losing the intellectual rights to his own creation.
As a result, he never created a new character while working at DC or Marvel. Eventually, he left Marvel along with such artists as Liefeld, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, and Jim Valentino to create Image Comics, a company where the writers and artists would retain the artistic and licensing rights to their own characters.
Image found huge audiences for such titles as WildCATS, Shadowhawk, Cyberforce, and Savage Dragon, but Spawn became far and away from the most popular book, regularly outselling industry leaders X-Men and Batman. Within seven years of its debut, the supernatural crimefighter had starred in — in addition to his own title — several spin-off series, an animated television series, a live-action feature film, and a large lineup of action figures. While he has a way to go before reaching the heights of fame enjoyed by the likes of Superman and Spider-Man, it’s impressive to note how far Spawn had come by the end of the century, a mere seven years after his debut.
Spawn #1 deserves a place on this list mainly for two reasons. First, Spawn and the other Image heroes proved that there were viable alternatives to Marvel and DC, which had enjoyed the latter half of the century as the undisputed leaders of the industry. Image Comics was the first serious challenge in decades to the two companies’ positions in the market. This was all the more important when you consider that Image set out to be a place where comic artists would enjoy the freedom to develop and own their own characters. They didn’t start the artists’ rights movement, but they certainly drove the point home: No longer could comic publishers take advantage of artists and cut them out of the lucrative merchandising pie without serious compensation for their efforts.
The other reason why Spawn deserves mention is that, while many fans liked the directions in which Image had taken the industry artistically, some critics panned the company’s apparent preference for style over substance. Even the most ardent Image fan would find it hard to dispute that there is a definite emphasis on an exaggerated, expressionistic form of art, and many longtime collectors have taken Image to task for encouraging the “bustification” of comics (meaning that everything — from the female heroes’ busts to the explosions and mayhem — comes bigger and more spectacular with each passing issue) at the expense of credible storytelling.
Blaming Image for this shift is probably unfair — Marvel and DC are certainly no slouch in redefining much-loved characters into beefier, grittier, and less-attired super-beings — but it is fair to say that Image’s success encouraged imitation, adding to the plethora of busty babes and splashier ‘splosions in most mainstream comics today. Whether or not this is a positive direction for the industry to take is entirely up to the reader.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
McFarlane’s success has helped him pursue his other interests; an avid baseball fan, he paid a record $3 million at auction for the 1998 record-breaking home-run baseballs hit by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
The success of Spawn also enabled McFarlane to set up McFarlane Toys, a company that’s produced action figures of Spawn, Austin Powers, famous movie monsters and the band members from KISS.
McFarlane has also dabbled in designing rock videos, and once received a Grammy nomination for his work.