Comic books have been around since the 1930s, with superhero stories traditionally getting the brunt of the attention. Marvel and DC have created an empire where their titles have reigned supreme for decades. But even though they dominated the market, some of their artists were unhappy in their positions. They weren’t getting paid enough or rewarded fairly for their hard work. A group of artists and writers eventually left and formed Image Comics in 1992. Their vision was to create their own works of art without having to jump through any copyright or legal hoops.
24 years later, Image is one of the biggest publishing companies in North America. While Marvel and DC writers have a certain structure to abide by, Image writers have complete creative freedom. They can be as dark, bloody, and dirty as they want to be. Because of the lack of of boundaries, readers have started to make their way over to Image’s work. Since Marvel and DC have gotten numerous complaints over their lack of originality and diversity, perhaps they should take a few pointers from Image’s biggest successes.
Here are 15 Image Comics That Marvel And DC Wish They Printed.
Just when you thought that psychic powers were an old and cliche trope, Chew reels you in with a brand new take. Instead of being the traditional telepath, our protagonist, Tony Chu, is a cibopath. A cibopath is someone who gets a vision of whatever they eat, including the last moments of a living thing. It’s perfect for Tony’s police work, but doesn’t exactly make him a perfect dinner guest (nothing ruins the mood like knowing how your burger was killed). When he is brought on by the Special Crimes Division of the FDA, he must use his unique ability to take on the strangest of cases.
John Layman and Rob Guillory have way too much fun with this series. It’s already 55 issues in and the jokes never seem to get old. Guillory focuses very much on visual gags and has some sort of nonsense or Easter egg in every panel. For a plot that seems very limited, Layman is able to come up with different, disgusting ways to go about it. Now whether you’ll be able to eat again after reading the first volume is completely up to you.
In media, there seems to be a pattern that Oregon is the state where all the weirdness is contained. Written by Joshua Williamson with art by Mike Henderson, strikingly colored by Adam Guzowski, Nailbiter is no exception. The premise centers around Buckaroo, Oregon— the small town that has been home to 16 of the worst serial killers in history. The most recent perpetrator to come out of there is Edward “The Nailbiter” Warren, a murderer who bit his victims’ nails to the bone before slaughtering them. When NSA Agent Nicholas Finch goes back to Buckaroo to find his missing friend, he has to team up with the vicious serial killer in order to solve the bloody mystery.
Nailbiter is essentially Se7en mixed with Twin Peaks. It has all of those classic murder mystery moments put into a small town setting: good cops, antiheroes, and a small town’s darkest secrets. There is always something huge happening on every page and doesn’t give the reader a chance to rest. Be sure to have the next volume handy because there is almost always a cliffhanger waiting at the end!
13 Paper Girls
Even if you’re weary of his work, one thing that we can all agree on is that Brian K. Vaughan works with diversity so well. He has continuously mentioned his love for writing female characters and it shows. His adaptation of Marvel’s Runaways had a superhero team predominantly made up of women—something that didn’t fly with a lot of the readers—and Saga’s female characters had plenty of badass moments. But in his newest book, Paper Girls (art by Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson), Vaughan decided to go back in time to his childhood in the 1980s. Think of Paper Girls as the female version of Stranger Things. It revolves around a group of five girls who face off against aliens and other abnormalities in their suburban neighborhood.
Similar to the Netflix show, Paper Girls pays its own homage to the eighties in both style and writing. Vaughan doesn’t hold back on the language and offers an unsanitized view of the era. The girls casually curse and call each other names like the boys would (one of them even uses a homophobic slur so casually, which horrified readers). These girls aren’t dainty or fragile, but rather realistic people who can fend for themselves. Vaughan made them their own people rather than characters defined by relationships that they were chasing. This unique group perfectly encapsulates a female version of The Goonies and Stand By Me.
12 The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw
Even if you’re not a fan of the fantasy genre, The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw is worth buying for the art alone. Benjamin Dewey is wonderful illustrator and is able to make anthropomorphic animal protagonists as detailed as humans. The book is dense and may seem daunting at first, but once you’re strapped in, there is no turning back. Kurt Busiek takes worldbuilding to a whole new level and it’s hard to figure out how he was able to fit everything into a graphic novel rather than regular prose. When the wizards of the Autumnlands go back in time to retrieve a legendary hero, they don’t get the savior that they expect. But in a time of civil war and abandoned hope, he’s the only one who can save their shattered way of life. Magic, battles, and time travel are beautifully interwoven into a complex plot that starts out as a slow burn but eventually erupts into a high fantasy epic.
11 Black Science
If there is one genre that Image excels at, it’s science fiction. Heck, a good amount of these entries belong in that category. With Image giving its writers and artists complete creative freedom, they really have the opportunity to go outside the box and realize their vision.
Black Science follows Grant McKay, a scientist who has created a device called The Pillar, which allows him to create holes into different dimensions. Grant has his family and coworkers with him when The Pillar malfunctions, causing them to travel through unknown worlds and dimensions.
Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, and Moreno Dinisio truly deliver a stunning series in Black Science with a beautifully crafted concept which paves the path for countless stories. The art is incredibly vibrant and introduces the readers to vivid and colorful races. The first issue draws you in with the deep blues and purples as Grant runs for his life from frog people. However, the illustration isn't the only thing that Black Science has going for. Remender pays close attention to his characters and gives them distinct personalities. In Grant, we see a deeply flawed man who blames himself for the death surrounding him. Remender creates this inner struggle in his narration ,which allows the reader to gaze inside his mind rather than simply watching from afar.
When you’re already being handed movie deals right before your first issue debuts, you know that you’re doing something right. That was writer Jeff Lemire’s reaction when studios were bombarding him for the rights to his new comic, Descender.
Descender has the feel of classic science fiction, but also a premise that is all too relevant in this day and age. It unfolds a world where androids were thought to bring prosperity for humanity, before things take a bad turn. Then the focus switches to TIM-21, a young robot boy who struggles to stay alive in a new time where all robots are outlawed, and bounty hunters will do anything to track them down. Very similar to Steven Spielberg’s film, A.I., it deals with heavy themes such as humanity and abandonment. But even with the dark subject material, Tim’s lovable personality keeps the pages turning. Dustin Nguyen's watercolor art helps bring a childlike feel to the book and makes the reader relate to TIM even more. Even if you’re not a lover of science fiction, Descender is a universal read that has incredible characters to invest in.
9 Sex Criminals
You can tell from just from one look that Matt Fraction is one of those shy, odd geniuses. He has no problem transferring that eccentricity into his work. Not one comic of his is the same as another, and they vary from superhero titles to controversial topics. One of his most well known titles is Sex Criminals, which is just as strange as it sounds.
On the outside, Suzie is just a regular girl; she works in a library and has casual sexual encounters like everybody else. When she sleeps with an actor named John, she discovers that they can both stop time when they orgasm—a perfect skill to have when you want to rob banks.
It sounds like a typical premise for a Seth Rogen film, but it’s much more than a raunchy comedy. Every panel oozes with energy and has its own strange sense of humor. Sex Criminals prides itself in talking about taboo subjects in such a positive light. Art by Chip Zdarsky and color by Becka Kinzie result in sex scenes that are colorful and funny, encouraging sexual behavior rather than shaming it.
8 The Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram
Drenched in the themes of mortality and music, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s work is poetic in both color and dialogue. They manage to combine mythology and rock 'n' roll so naturally and creates compelling characters that also serve as allegories.
Gillen and McKelvie’s first graphic novel, Phonogram is a love letter to pop music and its fans. In the comic, Britpop lovers aren’t just fans—they’re phonomancers. Their love for music powers the Gods and Goddesses of Britpop and keeps them alive. The comic is mainly one shots of phonomancers and their struggles and passions in the music world. Since Gillen was a video game journalist in the past, it makes sense that he would write a comic about fandoms and its frustrations.
One of Gillen and McKelvie’s most popular books, The Wicked + The Divine, goes down a similar path: Every 90 years, a group of superhumans, known as the Pantheon, reincarnate into normal human beings. Known as the Recurrence, this cycle only lasts two years until they die and the cycle starts over. Laura, a normal girl, becomes embroiled in their politics after Lucifer’s reincarnation takes an interest in her.
One of the biggest highlights of The Wicked + The Divine is the art. McKelvie brings a large Britpop influence and that’s shown through the retro colors (done by colorist Matt Wilson). One of the characters has David Bowie-like makeup on and the art feels like an actual Bowie cover. Even though the tone is more on the serious side, you can’t help but feel like you’re in an Andy Warhol painting with every page.
7 Deadly Class
Rick Remender has been in the comic business for a while, and he has delivered every single time. No matter the genre, he’s able to create a diverse world with quality plots and characters. At Image, he’s already established himself with Black Science and Low, but he’s got one more successful title to claim: Deadly Class, co-created by artist Wes Craig. Like his other titles, Deadly Class establishes a vivid world that could easily create different plots and spin-offs.
The plot focuses on Marcus Lopez, who seems like a typical teenager: he gets picked on by jocks, has a crush on a popular girl, and hates school. But there is something slightly different about his life. His bullies are the children of Joseph Stalin’s top assassin, his crush is a member of a Japanese crime organization, and his school is teaching him subjects such as “Dismemberment 101.” Instead of the traditional high school, Marcus goes to a brutal academy where crime families sent their children to be trained as assassins.
And it looks like comic book readers aren’t the only ones intrigued by this premise. Sony Pictures TV and the Russo brothers will be adapting the comic to television. Since the comic is extremely gory, it’ll be interesting to see how they go about it. But since it’s getting the Russo brothers treatment, at least we know that it’ll be handled with care.
6 East of West
East of West can fit into so many genres; it’s hard to really categorize it. It’s part-western, part -science fiction, part-apocalyptic thriller, and even part-high fantasy. The story is dense and confusing at first, but once you finish the first volume, you will be immersed in this complex universe that Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta have created.
East of West is set in a dystopian version of the United States where the Civil War never ended. The country is divided into sections and their fate rests in the hands of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After a prophecy was told about the end of humanity, the four horsemen strive to make sure that it is fulfilled. However, that mission is halted when one of the horsemen, Death, falls in love with a human woman and bears a child with her. When his family is mysteriously murdered, Death splits away from the other horsemen and swears revenge.
That premise alone sounds like any typical western (it also doesn’t help that Death looks like a Clint Eastwood character), but science fiction tropes help make it stand out from the rest.
5 Rat Queens
One of the most glaring issues with the fantasy genre is that it’s usually male dominated. Female protagonists don’t get nearly as much representation as they deserve. Instead, they get reduced to the busty bar wenches or helpless princesses.
Rat Queens decide to take that trope and turn it on its ugly head. In a nutshell, the comic is Dungeons & Dragons and Sailor Moon on crack. The “Rat Queens” are a rambunctious party of adventurers in a medieval setting. It’s comprised of the rockabilly elven mage (Hannah), hipster dwarven warrior (Violet), atheist human cleric (Dee), and the hippie halfling thief (Betty).
And while the plot is mainly episodic, it’s worth it for the amazing dialogue that Wiebe pens. It’s snarky, dirty, and adorable—not holding back on any material. They drink excessively, destroy property, and try to hook up with anything that moves. Kurtis J. Wiebe makes these women real adventurers which makes the story feel even more authentic.
4 Robert Kirkman's Work
When it comes to name recognition, Robert Kirkman might be considered the god of Image Comics. Two of his most popular series are currently airing on television, and he is the C.O.O. of Image when he’s not writing award-winning comics.
Everybody knows and loves The Walking Dead, his zombie apocalypse epic that has been running for over 10 years. However, many forget about his other beloved work such as Outcast and Invincible. Kirkman is very talented in the horror genre because he knows exactly how to get under people’s skin. Most of the time, a horror writer has to be better than a screenwriter because they don’t have a film soundtrack to scare the audience with. Kirkman’s ability to make readers’ hair stand on end with one of the oldest horror tropes (demonic possessions) shows that he can do what many filmmakers aim for with just the written word.
And he’s not just a one trick pony; Kirkman also takes on the superhero genre with Invincible— a book that he’s been writing since 2003. With the amount of characters that have appeared in that series, he could create his own extended universe if he wanted. Even though Kirkman has announced that he will be ending the run next year, there are so many potential spinoffs. And if he didn’t want to continue it on paper, surely there is a network or studio that would take it on. You can never have too many superheroes, right?
3 Bitch Planet
More often than not, comics’ protagonists have been straight, white males. They have been the superheroes while women took on the damsel in distress role. Kelly Sue DeConnick decided to change up that formula in Bitch Planet. Inspired by 1970s exploitation films, Deconnick creates a prison setting with a feminist spin.
In her world, men rule over society and women’s bodies. If a woman doesn’t act how she’s supposed to, she gets sent to a space prison called Bitch Planet until she adheres to the patriarchal standards. The panels by Valentine De Landro are raw and empowering, featuring different body sizes and races without sexualizing them. DeConnick makes it a point to particularly focus on the minority characters to show how they’re more prone to criticism and shaming.
DeConnick also makes sure to have “obligatory” shower scenes in the graphic novel but not for the male gaze. In fact, DeConnick takes a satirical approach and purposely blocks out the “desirable” female body parts to focus on the actual conversation at hand. She gives the reader the chance to look at these women as people rather than sex objects.
Even though it debuted just last year, Monstress has become a sort of phenomenon in the comic book world. Writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda concocted a stunning book that combined both fantasy and feminism. It’s set in an alternative Asian country where magical beings (Arcanics) are at war with human sorcerers. In the very first panel, we see our protagonist, Maika, chained up and naked with her left arm ending at her elbow. But instead of emitting sexuality, her face and stance give off a look of confidence and rebellion.
Even though the characters are mainly women, Liu doesn’t hold back with the violence. The female villains are still evil and brutally torture adults and children to get what they want. It’s bloody and gory and the first issue even shows a child’s decapitated head. Liu wanted to show that even though this world is filled with mainly women, that doesn’t mean that violence doesn’t exist.
Besides the repercussions of war, one of the most important themes that Liu conveys is about finding one’s identity. Maika keeps trying to what find out what it means to be human and where she fits inside this dark world. With her race being hunted, she doesn’t trust anyone or anything. But the allies that she makes show the true power of female friendship.
Saga is not only one of Image’s biggest publications, it’s also one of the most popular comics in general. Saga has something for everyone, even if they’re not a comic book fan. It offers romance, action, horror, and the weirdest creatures you can imagine (think sexually active TV robots). The story revolves around Marco and Alana—two creatures who fall in love and have a child in the midst of a bloody civil war between their two worlds. Because their child is a product of forbidden love, she is considered an abomination and is ordered to be killed. In order to protect her, Alana and Marco travel the galaxy to try to give their daughter a better life.
Brian K. Vaughan is one of the most in-demand writers right now. His resume includes Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man, and even a Swamp Thing adaptation (which he is trying to forget). Saga is so heavily praised because of its colorful diversity. Its characters come in all different shapes and sizes and that’s mainly thanks to illustrator Fiona Staples. No matter how bizarre the situations, Staples makes them accessible and draws the reader in with her covers alone.
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