How fitting that the first time that this column goes up a day late, it’s in covering Image United — currently three and a half issues down, to be completed who-knows-when. For the most part, we’ve used this weekly space to consider crossovers and events that have been buried by history, and asking whether that these burials were just.
This week, let’s stretch our legs for a walk through the far-flung present of comics, and look at whether Image United is there alongside us — or trapped in the past with all the other stuff this column usually hits on. C’mon, it might be fun. But you’ll never know till after the jump.
It’s hard to talk about Image United because really, the full shape of a comic book series — especially one designed to be finite, and especially one designed to be both finite and brief — can only be determined in retrospect. This means both as a complete story unto itself, and as a part of a timeline, measuring its effect on other works. Effect doesn’t just mean in-continuity character changes, like, say, Jean Grey and Scott Summers getting married (and thus, every X-Men story after this will have them as a married couple). It also means the career opportunities afforded to the creators as a result of it, and the comics other creators make that draw inspiration from that wellspring. A lot of this depends on being able to place a complete work in a surrounding context; we can’t really do that with Image United.
Then again, when I read these three issues (and a #0 — it’s an Image Comics megacrossover of course there is a zero issue come on) back to myself, I’m not sure if putting this into a critical and historical context will mean anything. If this column is about stuff that history’s buried, Image United has pretty much shipped with its own coffin ready to go. The catch is, it’s missing the body inside — you’re getting a limb every couple months. If that often. We still have yet to find the thing’s head.
If this was 1993, Image United would be an explosively popular event. You would also be reading about it in Wizard or something and not here. If this was 1993, it might even be popular based on the characters it’s telling a story about! Looking at the stars of Image United, it’s hard to see anything that’ll grab the comic-buying public’s attention much as another Marvel vs. DC or whatever. Spawn and the Savage Dragon have retained cultish fan audiences. Witchblade, as well, is still going fairly strong, with her own little semi-cottage industry as the centerpiece of Top Cow’s shared universe. Youngblood sputters through comeback attempts every couple years before disappearing back into oblivion. Shadowhawk may or may not have a book being published these days. I don’t even know, and to be honest, it’s funnier to me if I don’t check. Whilce Portacio brings us a new character, Fortress, because his famous Image launch, Wetworks, is owned by Wildstorm (that is, DC) these days. Jim Lee’s WildCATS are similarly occupied.
So already, we’ve got a problem in creating the definitive Image mega-event. If the idea is to bring all of the founders and their most popular characters together, the loss of Wildstorm means that you’re going to a Rolling Stones gig without Keith Richards on stage. Sure, Mick Jagger’s still up front, and other members have come and gone, but without Keith, is it still the Stones? So it is here: without Jim Lee, is it truly the Image Founders’ mega-communion? In the end, it’s only really a problem for those who want to let it be a problem. Five out of seven ain’t bad when it comes to the founders’ big guns.
The catch, as there must always be a catch: A lot of these characters really aren’t that interesting. I mean, okay, maybe they are to you. Maybe you grew up with Shadowhawk or still cling to the Savage Dragon every issue or… whatever. From my point of view, though, I can’t find anything in these 3 issues to make me care, to grab me by my metaphorical lapels and say “Hey! Tobin! I bet you’re sorry now that you’ve missed out on all that stuff going down in Spawn comics! Huh?!” There’s nothing character-driven about this story; the entire allure is to see six of the seven Image founders co-draw a big story that uses all of their big characters.
Right now you are probably thinking: Well, duh.
Robert Kirkman doesn’t have an easy task in drawing the lines between all of these characters, so to his credit, he doesn’t really seem to try. It’s a weird aspect of the Image line that when they decide that there’s a shared universe (see also: The Pact), everyone lives in the same world, and when they don’t feel like acknowledging one another’s presence, suddenly there are big partitions. So in Image United, everyone just happens to live on the same planet and rock out together; this neatly avoids the issue of “but everyone has to have a misunderstanding and fight!,” but it also makes the whole enterprise feel less special. If it’s no big thing for Savage Dragon and Witchblade to hang out together, the event gets undersold. Without the spectacle from its sheer construction, the thing has to live or die by its plot, and, well, we’re talking Image here. Kirkman’s a fanboy and unapologetic about it, so he tries hard to ape the style and tics of all those 90s Image events. Unfortunately, those things were as deep as a puddle and just flat-out not very good.
So there’s the art, right? It’s a jam book with six artists, how can that go wrong? McFarlane draws Spawn! Liefeld draws Youngblood! Larsen draws the Dragon! And on and on. That should be the book’s real selling point, and to whoever’s buying it, maybe it is. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work for me either. The inking is what does it, probably. Back when the company started, each founder had their own markedly distinctive style and worked with inkers that complimented that (when they worked with inkers at all). There was no mistaking a Liefeld for a Portacio, and McFarlane was in his own world entirely. Valentino was a classic-storytelling, no-frills kind of guy; Silvestri was sleek and sharp. Over the years, they’ve all come into this space that artists like to drift toward, where they’ve gotten looser, more expressive, with scratchier lines and less hyperactive detail. Nothing really stands apart from the rest in this book, where it should be showcasing how it’s the sum of its parts.
I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s hard for me to write about Image United in any great depth, both because it’s unfinished and yet to be victimized by history, but also because there’s just not much there to write about. “The founders got together to make a comic — that’s cool, right?” That’s all this event offers and that’s all there is to take away. In the end it’s just another big dumb Image-superhero fight, a wink and a nod for the fans who are already there and a somewhat mildewy signpost for the new kids pointing toward a past that’s way over the horizon.
Reading Image United makes me think of those jams that they do every year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. They’ll put four guitarists or whatever the hell up on stage with two keyboardists and nine singers and on and on and on, and everyone will be flailing around doing their thing, but they’ll be sticking to old standards and stuff that’s impossible to flub because there’s just not enough time to write, negotiate, and rehearse a twelve-person original rock monolith. So you just get the guys you like playing an okay but overloaded version of a song you probably like better in the version that’s been on the radio for ages. Then they unplug, shake off their music machines, and walk off stage, and you go back to watching Mad Men or whatever’s on TV next, thinking, “Huh, it’s nice that they gave those guys a showcase together, I guess.”