Image Comics—Are You Really Indie?

Rise and Current State of the Third Comics Estate

Welcome back to our post-millennial analysis of the current state of fandom. Today we’ll examine what it means to be an “Indie” comic. Is being creator-owned and controlled enough, or is there something else, something more ephemeral and authentic?

Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.

I recently found myself grappling with a difficult question. How exactly do I define publisher Image Comics? Is it indie? Is it mainstream? I kept coming back to many of my favorite comics, including Saga, The Wicked and the Divine and Phonogram (among others), and going “Well, where do they really fit?”

The answer is “it depends.” More specifically, it depends on how you define “indie.”

Image Comics very much has its roots squarely in the middle of this issue. In the 1990s, comics creators Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Valentino met with Malibu Comics editor-in-chief Dave Olbrich. At the time, Malibu was a small-but-established publishing company that was sympathetic to creator-ownership, something that differentiated it from both Marvel and DC (hereafter referred to as “the Big 2”); in fact, a number of freelance illustrators doing popular work at the time, especially for Marvel Comics, were growing increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the company’s work-for-hire policies and practices that effectively stripped away creative rights and control.

Olbrich expressed interest in publishing comics created by Valentino, Liefeld, and Larsen, something these comics creators were seeking—their primary complaint against outfits like Marvel was that, despite how much the characters they created for the company were promoted and how well their merchandise sold, they weren’t being paid appropriately. This lack of credit where credit is due prompted a group of illustrators to approach Terry Stewart, Marvel’s president at the time, and demand ownership and creative control over their creations [ 1 ]. Marvel famously refused.

This conflict of interest is very much at the heart of indie versus mainstream. In all artistic works, signing with a big label has both advantages and disadvantages. The success of Image’s early endeavors was directly related to the notoriety and success that its founders had working for Marvel. Signing with Marvel in the first place allowed them to become big names and earned them the cachet they needed to push the case that they were being treated unfairly; the merits of that case and the way DC and Marvel treat artists generally is a subject worthy of its own article.

That being said, the complaints illustrators had about their treatment at Marvel would shape the policies of Image Comics. The publisher was founded on two core values: Image would not own any creator’s work; instead, the creator would remain in complete control. Additionally, Image wouldn’t own any intellectual properties except for its own trademarks—its name and its logo—thus insulating creative partners from any interference. For artists, this resulted in some similarities to self-publishing, but with the benefit of administrative, production, distribution, and marketing support for comics that pass Image’s editorial screening process. Artists pay a flat fee to cover these costs.

At first, given that none of the founders were administrators, the company hit a few snags. In response, Image consolidated its upper management from its initial loose conglomeration of six imprints. Image really burst onto the scene in 2009, producing some of the most diverse, critically acclaimed, and financially successful works in the industry. Perhaps the most recognizable work is The Walking Dead, which was adapted into a long-running TV series on AMC. Even for someone who doesn’t consider themselves a fan of the zombie genre, it’s worth a read.

If creator-owned is the proper definition of indie, Image Comics fit the bill. The publisher has its roots firmly in creator-owned and operated comics and gives the artist an opportunity, after going through a vetting process, to gain access to the publishing infrastructure of a mainstream publisher without losing their rights or creative independence. Like a distribution center, Image’s role as a publishing company is simply providing easy access to infrastructure, rather than being a centralized brand with its own universe.

However, the vetting process mentioned above is rigorous and extensive. Image goes through every submission and has specific rules, including things like requiring an already established team to have not only a plot synopsis but at least five finished pages to vet quality. They also state on their website that they actively suggest editing and design changes, along with comments on art and overall story [ 2 ]. This means that even though the creators maintain the rights to their comics, Image ultimately still has a lot of say over what and how they publish. The company also takes a flat fee from every issue or book, which helps them cover the costs of the publicity, promotion, and other work they do on behalf of the creative teams who publish with them.

As a result, Image falls short of what most people would consider a publisher. They are more of a quality control center, working with independent teams to ensure a standard quality of product, though they work across genre, style and medium to a degree. This obviously takes the form of visual story, but this includes more than just sequential art—serial comics, like those published by Marvel and DC, are published alongside visual novels and short stories. This makes sussing out the nature of Image Comics that much harder.

Alternative? Or Mainstream with alternative PR?

The persistent duopoly of Marvel and DC, aka “The Big Two” in the comic book marketplace, rather than driving creativity, had caused certain otherwise overdue market corrections to stagnate, and with it creativity to be warped by certain considerations, from white-straight-normativity, to a distribution monopoly by Diamond, only recently disrupted.

There is a second, more complicated definition of indie that isn’t quite so clear cut when it comes to exploring Image Comics.

The word “indie” is often used as slang for underground or alternative. While Image definitely started out as an alternative to mainstream comic and remained that way until the early 2000s, it’s difficult to argue that Image Comics and the bulk of the titles they publish are alternative or underground at all. Yet within the past five years one of the primary complaints leveled at Marvel and DC is that Image is raising the bar regarding diverse, compelling, and new work.

According to Diamond Comic Distribution, The Walking Dead Volume 18 was the bestselling book of September 2017 and, four of the top 10 trade paperbacks sold that month were also by Image [ 3 ]. Various Image titles have also won the Eisner Award for best ongoing comic — the comics equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture—the past four years in a row and six of the last 10.

This was hard won success however, and there were periods where Image was not as stable. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, management struggles, combined with up-and-coming independent comics studios Dark Horse and IDW Publishing, meant that Image was in a bit of a lull. This was furthered by the fragmenting of the original founders, who due to their lack of experience as publishers struggled to meet deadlines, honor commitments to retailers, and produce a reliable and consistent product. It seemed that too much freedom was potentially just as bad as too much oversight. The founders, all strong personalities as well as established writers and artists, seemed to struggle both with the administrative and publishing aspects as well as with friction between the founders themselves.

However, the addition of Robert Kirkman in 2008, the author of the smash hit comic Walking Dead, as Image Partner kicked off the Image revival of the 2010s. Additions of critical and commercial successes like Saga furthered Image’s reputation as a genuine publishing house and not just the vanity project of a few angry men with a bone to pick [ 4 ].

The advent of creator-owned content such as Spawn and Savage Dragon, allowed Image’s founders to rightly challenge the prior market dominance of such household names as Marvel’s X-Men or DC’s Justice League.

An increasing number of the top names in Marvel will also have an Image project (or two or three), and as mentioned before, this seems to be where the most cutting-edge, envelope-pushing comics live nowadays. In some cases, artists and writers will leave the Big 2 due to corporate issues and will work entirely through Image despite critical success. This happened most notably with Ed Brubaker, who left an incredibly successful and critically acclaimed run on Captain America due to restraints from management and his editorial staff.

In an interview with Comics Alliance, Brubaker talked about the restrictions that work-for-hire comics like Captain America put on him:

I’ve always been a character-driven writer, and that goes for all my work-for-hire writing, too. I was able to do my kind of writing for a long time in that genre, but ultimately, I feel like there’s only so many in-continuity superhero stories any writer has in them. Mostly, I just feel like I want to only write my own stuff from now on, whatever it may be. And I tend to look at each project as something with an end in mind, even if it’s a long way out sometimes. So, like most things in life, it’s that eternal struggle to realize what you don’t want to do [ 5 ].

Brubaker found that being unable to use certain characters because they were in other series made it difficult for him, citing how excited he was to finally be able to use Falcon while writing the short-lived Captain America and The Falcon series. Ultimately, the conflicts between the story Brubaker wanted to tell and the constraints of the work-for-hire, large-continuity style of a publishing house like Marvel became too much for him and he left Marvel entirely to work on projects like Fatale, a noir spy comic that was intended to be just a short novel but turned into a continuing story that spanned from 2012 to 2014.

In fact, authors have spoken at length about their choice to focus on creator-owned content over work for hire, as companies like Marvel and DC have made huge profits while the creators of iconic characters receive next to nothing.

In 2015, longtime DC creator Gerry Conway voiced his frustration with the way DC was handling the royalties for characters from their TV shows, including Power Girl and Killer Frost, characters that Conway created. “Caitlin Snow was created by Sterling Gates and Derlis Santacruz,” Conway wrote on his Tumblr page:

Except, according to DC Entertainment, she wasn’t. Because she was “derived” from the original creation of Killer Frost. Which means Al Milgrom and I created her. Except, according to DC Entertainment, we didn’t. Nobody created her. Or, rather, nobody gets credit and creator equity participation for creating her. And that, my friends, is truly obnoxious and despicable. DC Entertainment has created a marvelous catch-22 that allows them to cheat creators by using both sides of an argument to serve DC’s interests [ 6 ].

This problem resulted in an exodus from DC. However, this isn’t even the most heartbreaking example of issues regarding creative control and ownership rights. Bill Mantlo, known as the creator of Rocket Raccoon as well as his work on titles like The Incredible Hulk and Spiderman, was in a hit-and-run car accident in 1992, which caused him severe head trauma that left him in perpetual need of around-the-clock care [ 7 ]. Despite his profound influence on Marvel, and the legacy of the characters he helped mold and create (both Guardians of the Galaxy movies have cumulatively made over a trillion dollars worldwide), Mantlo has often had to depend on the charity of comics fans to receive the care he needs to live a decent life.

At one time, relinquishing creative control was thought to be the price of doing business; without a publisher like DC or Marvel, you wouldn’t be able to make a profit, thus making the cost worth the potential risk and frustration down the line. This was what Image set out to change, and by all accounts they seem to be succeeding. In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Brubaker himself said “Once you get established enough that you can attract readers to your product, there’s no reason to give away complete ownership.” But where DC and Marvel excel is that they are “a pretty good deal if you’re just breaking in” [ 8 ]. Because DC and Marvel as a studio shoulder a lot of the cost for artists and writers who aren’t as well established and cannot guarantee a market, exposure without being forced to completely self-finance is a driving force behind Big 2 contracts.

Spawn’s breakaway success has allowed McFarlane to launch McFarlane Toys, and take dramatic other steps, altering the landscape of the action figure market.

Furthermore, the bullpen style staffing of Marvel and DC has a tremendous amount of draw to this day. An author can step in without an artist or an inker or any other member of the team, knowing that the Big 2 have a tremendous amount of draw and talent at their disposal in a way that few comics publishers do. Many collaborations that we see to this day came out of these bullpens, and Image itself exists because of these collaborations.

Even longtime Image authors have noted this, as I have previously mentioned in my discussion of Brubaker’s experience with Marvel and his approach to his own work. While concerns about creative control are real, the Big 2 format is not without its benefits either, and the foundations laid by Marvel and DC are what allowed the comics industry to become what it is today. The push and pull between Image and other independent artist and established comics universes like Marvel and DC, especially as they have expanded to TV and movies, becoming a bona fide cultural phenomenon that even non comics fans are at least passingly aware of, pushes the whole industry forward.

But the pushback from established authors that a company like Image allows is powerful and is changing the way both companies and readers interact with comics. While Image only has an 8.88 percent share of the market [ 9 ], that still places it third behind DC and Marvel; that number, along with the number of comics published and issues sold, is steadily on the rise. Image also differs in its formats as well. It includes comic miniseries, defined as contained comics that run 2-8 issues, and graphic novels, which are typically self-contained, novel-style comics, in addition to standard, 32-page comic periodicals. This diversity also spans genre, with Image publishing stories that range from historical fiction, sci-fi, and even traditional, superhero style comics.

This variety, the high quality of Image’s products, and its provisions for creator-owned content have become the driving force behind Image’s growth as a publisher of cutting-edge, exciting comics. With the growing success of shows like Walking Dead and its spin-offs, even casual fans have likely heard of Image, and I, like many others, have at least three or four Image Comics on my “must read” list. In this regard, Image may not be indie—it’s right on the heels of the Big 2 in regard to influence and popularity among comic readers—but it is certainly a juggernaut for critical acclaim and awards, as well as a force shaping the larger comics industry.

So, what’s the answer? Is Image indie? Like I said: it depends.


  1. “The persistent duopoly of Marvel and DC, aka ‘The Big Two’ in the comic book marketplace, rather than driving creativity, had caused certain otherwise overdue market corrections to stagnate, and with it creativity to be warped by certain considerations, from white-straight- normativity, to a distribution monopoly by Diamond, only recently disrupted.”
  2. “The advent of creator-owned content such as Spawn and Savage Dragon, allowed Image’s founders to rightly challenge the prior market dominance of such household names as Marvel’s X-Men or DC’s Justice League.
  3. Spawn’s breakaway success has allowed McFarlane to launch McFarlane Toys, and take dramatic other steps, altering the landscape of the action figure market.” Krikkiat. Shutterstock. Bangkok, Thailand – September 12,2018 – A Spawn action figure from famous Mcfarlane.

Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.


  1. Lauer, Jonathon. “The History of Image Comics.” The Nerdd, The Nerdd, 30 Nov. 2018.
  2. “Submissions.” Image Comics, Image Comics, 28 May 2020.
  3. “Diamond Announces Top Products for September 2017.” Diamond Comics, 2017,
  4. Meaney, Patrick, director. The Image Revolution. Respect Studios, 2014.
  5. Brothers, David. “The Ed Brubaker ‘Captain America’ Exit Interview.” ComicsAlliance, 1 Nov. 2012,
  6. Conway, Gerry. “Who Created Caitlin Snow on #TheFlash? According to @DCComics, Nobody.” Conway’s Corner, 29 Apr. 2015,
  7. Hatcher, Greg. “Friday with David Yurkovich.” Comic Book Reviews, Valnet Inc., 27 Oct. 2006.
  8. Gustines, George Gene. “Image Comics Is Having a Creative Renaissance.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 14 July 2012,
  9. Comics, Image. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Image Comics, Image Comics, 10 Feb. 2020.