When Image Comics debuted back in the early 1990s, I was underwhelmed. Everything that came out in those initial few years struck me, still a teenager at the time, as a overly stylized artwork with little regard for good stories or good storytelling. To be fair, that was based largely on what I was seeing in ads and hearing in comic news stories, and I didn't actually sample any of the books at the time. I think I flipped through an issue or two of Spawn and Youngblood and promptly ignored Image's output.
Sometime in the late 1990s, though, I was asked to review some of their books. I was getting paid per review, I was able to effectively read somewhat extended runs of their books for free. I was still seriously underwhelmed. The stories, such as they were, plodded along at an agonizingly slow pace, and I didn't find the artwork THAT compelling to keep coming back after my reviewer gig went south.
I didn't really start branching out from marvel in my comics reading again until about 2005, not long after Erik Larsen took over as Image's publisher. Then, as now, I was primarily looking for comics that struck my interest, regardless of who published them. I distinctly recall at least sampling the likes of Girl Genius (Airship), The Goon (Dark Horse, by then), The Atheist (Desperado), Rocketo (Speakeasy), Lullaby (Alias), and Godland (Image).
I have to admit to being somewhat surprised by the quality of Godland (which didn't seem much like the Image comics I knew) and also that Desperado had some kind of partnership with Image. I remember being even more surprised when Rocketo got picked up by Image in 2006. And there was more: Stardust Kid, PvP, Mage, Battle of the Planets... This didn't seem to be the Image of a decade before; they were publishing books with stories in them, not just pretty pictures.
It took me another year or two before I really made the connection. Image started becoming a publisher of good stories -- not just good art -- shortly after Larsen took the helm. He was directing the company's output in a way that hadn't been done before. Now, to be fair, this was based on the efforts begun by Jim Valentino towards the end of the 1990s, but the material that Larsen either approved or suggested or solicited was of an overall higher caliber than what had been tried before. Today, after having grown exasperated by the schlock put out by marvel and DC, I find myself buying a number of titles from Image: a company who was largely based out of imitating the styles of marvel and DC. My pull list these days includes Mice Templar, Pirates of Coney Island, Proof, Fell (TPBs only), and Fear Agent (TPBs only). I've had my LCS pre-order Scud, The Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang, The Nearly Complete Essential Fred Hembeck Archives Omnibus, and The Complete Captain Victory.
I think it's worth noting that Image has changed their publication outlook significantly in the past few years and, in my opinion, it's decidedly for the better. In the January prior to Larsen stepping up, Image had five books that were selling more than 10,000 copies an issue and nine titles that were between 5,000-10,000. This January, they had 14 titles sell more than 5,000, nine of which were more than 10,000. That might not seem like a huge difference -- and it certainly pales in comparison to the mid-90s when Image books regularly broke 100,000 -- but I think everyone would agree that it's a substantially different market now than it was then and, more significantly, a market that would not likely sustain a publisher like Image as it was originally founded.
So what Larsen is doing is working against a decade-plus-long perception of Image Comics as the purveyor of popular artists' vanity projects. That perception isn't going to change overnight, but I think he's making some excellent decisions in that regard. I give him a lot of credit for doing what he's doing, especially coming from the other side of the drawing table. (I might point out, too, that it was only today that I ever got around to sampling Larsen's Savage Dragon, one of Image Comics' mainstay titles. Larsen's work never happened to be in my sampling of Image books back in the 1990s. While the first stories are saddled with some annoying crossovers from other Image characters, the book moves along at a good clip and seems reasonably solid compared to the other Image titles I sampled once upon a time.)
Personally, I've really been enjoying the overall diversity and quality of output from Image the past year or two, and it looks only to increase. I hope Larsen continues in his role as publisher, and is able to move the needle of people's perception of Image. If you're one of those 30-somethings who, like me, got turned off to the early days of Image, it might be worth a look to see what they've been doing lately. It still may not be your cup of tea, but they're a much broader company focusing more on substance over style these days. And the comic industry needs, in my opinion, a lot more of that.