The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Will Marvel's new
Icon tarnish Image?

April 15, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Last week, Marvel Comics announced the formation of Icon, a new imprint for creator-owned comic books. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Icon is Marvel's third new imprint in as many years.

First came MAX, Marvel's stab at "mature readers" comics. Fans hoped MAX would be Marvel's answer to Vertigo, the DC Comics imprint that was home to Neil Gaiman's "Sandman." But today MAX limps along with only two monthly titles, "Punisher" and "Supreme Power," under its banner.

Then came Epic. It promised to showcase new creative talent but folded after a couple of forgettable miniseries and an aborted anthology title.

Icon, however, has two things going for it that MAX and Epic did not. First, Marvel's management now seems willing to publish books featuring characters the company doesn't own. Second, Icon's first two offerings, "Powers" by Brian Michael Bendis and "Kabuki" by David Mack, are established titles. Previously, Image Comics published both.

The announcement is an about-face for Marvel's upper management, which, until now, saw no reason to publish comics that Marvel couldn't franchise as movies, TV shows and theme-park rides. Publishing innovative comics was secondary to marketing existing characters.

Of course, it remains to be seen just how strong Marvel's newfound commitment to creator ownership is. Will Icon be open to all comers, or will Marvel management reserve it as a reward for creators who have served time on Marvel's company books? Will Icon even be around a year from now?

Yes, I'm skeptical. After the failures of MAX and Epic, why shouldn't I be?

With so much in flux at Marvel, perhaps the more interesting half of the story is the fate of Image Comics. Sure, Image is losing only two titles, and of the two only "Powers" is a major seller. But the timing couldn't have been worse.

Since its inception in the early '90s, Image has been a confederation of studios, each producing its own books through Image's shared publishing and marketing system. But recently Image has been coming apart at the seams. Studios like Devil's Due have left, taking with them some of Image's most successful titles, including "G.I. Joe." As a result, Image's market share has dwindled to less than 5 percent as of January.

Diamond Comic Distributors, which distributes most of the comics sold in comics specialty shops, sets a 5 percent threshold for its "premier publishers." If a publisher falls below that threshold, it risks getting pushed to the back of Diamond's monthly catalog. The last thing Image needs now is to lose its high-profile position at the front of the catalog.

The defection of "Powers" to Marvel isn't Image's real problem. Image's problem is what the defection represents. If Marvel turns out to be serious about publishing creator-owned titles, other Image books could also jump ship. Creators of new titles could go to Marvel instead of Image. What began as a trickle could become a flood.

It wouldn't surprise me if Image breaks up, with its remaining studios going separate ways. Erik Larsen could self-publish "Savage Dragon." Top Cow Studios has left before only to return; it could easily strike out on its own again. And Todd McFarlane earns enough money from his toy company and doesn't need anyone's help to publish "Spawn." Other Image titles, like "Rex Mundi" and "The Walking Dead," might find homes at Dark Horse or IDW Publishing, both of which specialize in horror comics.

Image Comics was born when several artists decided to leave Marvel and start their own company. It would be an odd turn of events if Image folds because of a migration back to Marvel.

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