by Kenneth Kimbrough
Presented as an oral history of Image Comics’ founding, The Image Revolution, from director Patrick Meaney, features interviews from the company’s original partners — Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio — along with some of the more prominent figures in the company’s history. Unlike with Image’s largest competitors, the key figures are all alive and willing to share their stories, giving the film the effect of being straight from the horse’s mouth. But despite the filmmakers’ good intentions, I’m somewhat mixed about the documentary. Running at a scant 81 minutes, it at times feels like stories weren’t given the necessary time to develop. Because there are few dissenting opinions, compared to the overall pro-Image stance, the interviewees at times seem, perhaps unintentionally, self-aggrandizing. Additionally, the film sometimes lacks context to fully illustrate the company’s place within the larger comics community. But despite these misgivings, the film stands rather well as a record of a major movement in comics history. And on top of that, it’s entertaining too.
As with any documentary, The Image Revolution lives and dies by its editing. Meaney and his colleagues do a great job splitting the film into three distinct movements: Image’s founding and boom, its decline after the burst of the speculator bubble, and its revival following both the appointment of current publisher, Eric Stephenson, and the addition of partner, Robert Kirkman. But the strength of the film wavers initially, opening without much context. McFarlane, Lee, and Liefeld are established as Marvel’s top-selling creators, but there’s very little in the way of actually explaining what that meant at the time. The information on the millions of issues sold isn’t presented with any comparable sales figures. The addition of other bestselling titles during those months would have gone a long way in expressing the unheard of celebrity surrounding Spider-Man, X-Force, and X-Men. Another problem the film has with context is that it lacks any substantial discussion of work-for-hire versus creator-owned. And rather than an even-handed look at the difference in practices, the filmmakers are content to show only times when Marvel and DC have been unfair to creators. There isn’t really a solid case made for how healthy work-for-hire relationships are supposed to work. The film is heavily stacked in Image’s favor, which is disconcerting, since Image itself is arguably a company of comparable size to the Big Two.
Despite the abrupt start, once the film gets moving, the narrative flows much smoother. There’s drama at every step of the way, and the company’s trajectory becomes easier to understand as the film progresses. The filmmakers use simple but helpful infographics illustrating the way that Image initially worked, as something of a conglomerate of smaller companies under a larger umbrella. The intracompany rivalry is perhaps the most interesting element of the story, especially as each of these smaller divisions struggle with overnight success.
If I have any more complaints about the film itself, it’s that I would have liked to see a larger variety of creators talking about their individual works. Robert Kirkman gets an interesting anecdote about his Walking Dead pitch, but there aren’t many details on other successful Image books. The Spawn movie is skimmed over, and the Witchblade series aren’t even addressed in the film proper. It would have been nice to delve a little deeper into examining exactly what niche Image comics seemed to fill.
As a firm believer in special features, I was glad to see that the disc contained an hour’s worth of additional interview footage. However, I found myself wishing that these interviews had been included in the film proper because they not only present some much-needed context, such as Valentino’s comments that Image wasn’t the first prominent creator-owned publisher, but they also provide a more even-handed tone towards Marvel and DC. Some of the most interesting anecdotes are sequestered away in the bonus features, such as Liefeld’s jeans commercial, Silvestri’s Witchblade television series, and Lee’s experiences breaking into comics. It’s a shame that these didn’t make it into the final cut, because with these bonus segments, I feel that I learned more about the character of Image as a publisher than I did from the main feature. Aside from that, my only other complaints about the DVD are that the disc doesn’t include subtitles (this is particularly upsetting because McFarlane’s interviews sounded muffled on my television) and that the cover art could use fewer blurbs crowding out Eric Zawadzki’s art.
On the whole, The Image Revolution is a fascinating story of a publisher emerging from, and more importantly surviving, the 1990s comics boom. Although more of a character drama than an informational piece, the film is still enjoyable and one that I could easily recommend. I can only hope that as Image continues to grow in its influence and market share, it will accumulate enough fascinating history to rival that of DC and Marvel.
Also, I’m still waiting on a Dark Horse documentary.
Check out these collections from some of Image Comics’ founders: