Film Review: Image Revolution

by mahargen on September 05, 2017

“In the beginning, there were two.  And it was fine.  I guess.”
~ Matthew Mahar, professional comic reader and cranky 30-something.

Today the comic book publishing landscape is wide and diverse.  However, 25-odd years ago that wasn’t the case.  Marvel and DC ruled the sales charts with little exception as the indie world existed on a significantly smaller scale.  Then in 1992 things began to change with the emergence of a new publisher, Image Comics.  Several big-name creators from Marvel Comics banded together and left the House of Ideas, striking out on their own.  The origins and reasoning behind their joint venture are the subject of the Sequart Organization’s documentary “Image Revolution,” which charts the meteoric rise of the publisher and the various problems that inevitably come along with success.
The documentary, directed by Patrick Meaney, gives us a very high level overview of the early days of Image, beginning with the introduction of the seven founders, Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), Jim Lee (X-Men), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), Erik Larson (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men).  One of the key successes on Sequart’s part was being able to interview all the original founders in present day for the film.  This elevated the film above a generic recap of the time period and added a personal touch that really helped me connect with the creators themselves.  Their line of thinking is delved into deeply and takes up the majority of the opening of the film, focusing on their sense of ownership of their work.  Working for a large corporation like Marvel or DC, the creators own neither their work nor the characters they work with.  They are playing with someone else’s toys, so to speak.  At the end of the day, they go back into the toy box.  Todd McFarlane sums everything up perfectly when he muses on Marvel using his artwork for t-shirts without even giving one of the shirts, let alone any compensation for the work.
Ownership plays a part in most of the stories from the founders.  The corporate structure for Image Comics that the team designs lays out a creator’s dream organization – the individuals own their creations and there will be no interference between the founders when it comes to their creations.  It was an ambitious program that defied the norms set by Marvel and DC, and it paid off in a big way for the crew.  We follow them through their early successes and the various records broken by the #1 issues from their various imprints, all published under the Image banner.  As things progress, there are of course problems that arise.  The film almost portrays the young, successful men in the same light as professional athletes.  The mismanagement of funds led to financial difficulties at some points, which the film does not shy away from.  The filmmakers never go “full TMZ,” but they do not portray all the parties involved as perfect.  Infighting and other growing pains are all given adequate screen time, leading to a much needed feeling of honesty with the film.  This could easily have been written off as a puff piece touting the strength of Image Comics, but with their honest approach, the team has delivered something greater.
As I said before, with the lengthy history of Image Comics, there is a great deal that needs to be covered if we’re going to be looking at the full history of the publisher.  “Image Revolution” does its best to hit the main notes, but without overinflating the runtime it is a quite difficult task.   This lead to a somewhat disjointed feeling as the final bits of the film chose to focus on the arrival of Robert Kirkman and a little known zombie comic called “The Walking Dead.”  I suppose I could have lived without the inclusion of this era of the publisher, but it does show an important part of the expansion of the brand, as well as some fun anecdotes about the heavy hitting comic.  I would have rather the team focused in on the core founders for the entirety of the film.  I wasn’t expecting them to go as far forward as they did in the company’s history.  I’d also like to have seen more about the industry as a whole and their reactions to the emergence of Image.  There are a few off-handed remarks peppered throughout the film, but with the word “Revolution” in the title, I was expecting a bit more than the well-produced biography we received.  They briefly touch on Marvel’s “Heroes Reborn” branding from the 1996 where a financially struggling Marvel farmed out production on several of their books to Image founders Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld’s imprints, which was a key moment in the history of the company, as well as the individual stories of those creators.  I’d like to have seen more of that aspect of their history.
The production value itself is top notch.  The interviews are all shot well and the old VHS footage that is intercut throughout is enjoyable and really added to the nostalgic feel of the film.  Footage of the founders in their youth being juxtaposed against their current-day selves is an effective, if obvious, tool the filmmakers use to great success.  The production also is intercut with comic panels showing the founders at various points throughout the company’s history, giving the film some much-needed flair and compelling visuals.  With the inclusion of several different mediums, I have to give credit to the editors.  This film could easily have turned into a mess as the focus is spread across the multiple creators, but the film is tight and focused.  There’s never a question as to where the focus is at a given time. 
If you’re a fan of Image Comics, or of the industry in general, “Image Revolution” is definitely worth your time.  While nothing new is presented, the film can be enjoyable by both a well-informed comic historian or a new arrival to the world.  The early 90’s was an amazing time to be a comic fan.  This film hits all the high notes from those days and delivers an honest look at what was going on behind the scenes while the world was enjoying the rise of Image Comics.
P.S.  Did we know Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston was British?  Is that common knowledge I wasn’t aware of?

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stephengervais's picture
I knew about Rich Johnston being British, what surprised me was I had no idea the actor that plays Rick Grimes from Walking Dead was British!