In my last column, I addressed the problem of stagnant storytelling in many major comics. Brian K. Vaughan, the acclaimed writer of comics like Y: The Last Man and Saga, put it best: “Something like Spider-Man, a book that never has a third act, that seems crazy.” Such complaints rightly address the problems in the “big two” companies, Marvel and DC Comics. But over at Image Comics, where creators operate with relative autonomy from editorial staff, creative suspension is anything but the norm.
In 1992, eight comics creators, including longtime X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, broke off from Marvel and DC to found Image Comics. These founders established two key principles to guide their new company: 1) Each creator would own his or her own work, and 2) No Image partner would interfere creatively or financially with a creator’s work. Today, the creator-owned model set forth by Image has produced a slew of critically successful material. Four of the past five winners of the Eisner Award (comics’ equivalent to an Oscar) for Best Continuing Series (equivalent to Best Picture at the Oscars) have been titles from Image.
One reason for this originality is the fact that Image titles generally are not set in a shared universe like Marvel and DC creations. The model of shared continuity often restricts creativity on a practical level, as writers must design their plots to align with numerous other companywide stories released at the same time. Mark Millar, the architect of Marvel’s Civil War crossover series, described this problem recently in an interview with Comic Book Resources. Just to plot an issue of his crossover series, Millar had to coordinate with forty different creative teams for the logistics of which characters would be where in each book. In addition to freedom from strict continuity, Image creators also own their own work. This is a sizable achievement in the comics industry, where Marvel and DC often stiff creators for work done with company-owned characters. Creators have pushed their claims in multiple court cases, most notably one filed on behalf of artist extraordinaire Jack Kirby.
Image titles span genres and often show creators at the height of their game. For example, there’s Saga, the award-winning tome by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples. The sci-fi romance epic crosses Romeo and Juliet with Game of Thrones as two lovers from warring sides of the galaxy fall in love and have a child. Horror fans should check out Wytches by writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock that puts a creepy twist on the broomstick-and-cauldron ladies. Jock and colorist Matt Hollingsworth have made waves in the industry with their watercolor splash pages. Another favorite series of mine, Fatale (which actually just finished), pairs writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips in a time-spanning epic about Josephine, the living embodiment of the femme fatale.
All of these creators have also done fantastic work for Marvel and DC: Vaughan wrote X-Men and created the acclaimed Runaways series for Marvel, Snyder currently writes Batman for DC, and Brubaker did a terrific run on Captain America, including the infamous “Death of Captain America” story arc. Their desire to write something wildly original brought them to Image, where they have the full reins to take risks as they see fit. Vaughan, who had never worked with Image before writing Saga, said of the publisher, “I love all the other companies I’ve worked with, but I think Image might be the only publisher left that can still offer a contract I would consider ‘fully creator-owned.’” Vaughan’s investment has paid off: so far Saga has received rave reviews and won an astounding six Eisner Awards in its two years of eligibility.
Perhaps no decision better epitomizes Image’s “leap of faith” business model than their approval to publish Sex Criminals, a comic by writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky.Here’s the elevator pitch: two people, Jon and Suzie, meet and start dating. So what’s the catch? When either of them orgasms, they can stop time for the length of their refractory period. The “criminals” part of the title comes in when Jon and Suzie decide to use their “superpowers” to rob banks. Is the series any good? Well, it’s only ten issues in and we’ve already seen a dildo swordfight — which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the series.
From a characteristically goofy premise, Sex Criminals has turned the comics industry on its head, winning the Eisner Award for Best New Series and scoring the top spot on Time magazine’s 2013 “Top 10 Comics and Graphic Novels” list. Moreover, Sex Criminals is becoming a TV show. Fraction and Zdarsky have also cultivated a legion of hardcore fans who refer to themselves as “Brimpers,” a word whose in-story origin is too sexually graphic for me to describe. In each advertising-free issue, Fraction and Zdarsky also answer pages of fan mail, where Brimpers share their (often profane) sex stories and ask Fraction and Zdarsky for relationship advice. The reply letters are often as entertaining as the fan mail stories themselves. As fans exchange sweet remembrances of romances gone by, Fraction and Zdarsky serve as mediators, counselors and fellow raconteurs.
All of this material aside, the form of the comic itself is incredible. Zdarsky’s digitalized art style makes for unusually detailed backgrounds, most of which contain inside jokes. In issue #2, for example, Jon visits a porn store that Zdarsky dutifully decorates with dozens of puns and visual gags. Fraction and Zdarksy also acutely understand the way that a comic depicts time spatially (the panels next to and below each other denote sequences of events), opening up the possibility for deeper character analysis. In issue #10, which wrapped up the series’ second story arc, Jon worries about telling Suzie that he loves her. To visually depict his emotional paralysis, Zdarsky inserts a panel of a black cubic box, presumably representing Jon’s negative thoughts. When Jon is having sex with Suzie, the black box disrupts their act. Jon will begin trying to admit his feelings to Suzie, only to have his failure overlaid as a caption to the “black box” panel.
Sex Criminals ultimately succeeds best by simply telling a good story with good characters. The first arc is prominently told from Suzie’s perspective. She breaks the fourth wall while relating her coming-of-age story and discovery of her unique sexual experience. The time-stopping orgasm is admittedly goofy but serves as a metaphor for the way casual sex often leaves us feeling alone after the most intimate of human acts. Jon, meanwhile, suffers from ADHD and ODD. When he takes over the storytelling of the second arc, his illness keeps him emotionally distant from Suzie. After meeting, Jon and Suzie decide to use their powers to rob the bank Jon works at to pay off the debt accrued by the library where Suzie is employed.
For a comic book to be told from a woman’s perspective and delve into female sexuality, mental illness, and alternative sexual practices is nothing short of ground breaking. These books signal a creative renaissance in comics, a scope unheard of until now. Comics have tackled mature material before, as in Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust testimonial Maus, Alison Bechdel’s coming-out memoir Fun Home, and Chris Ware’s delightful graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. These works are all brilliant but failed to garner much readership until they were collected into graphic novels. With Image, high-profile creators can release their independent work through a major label and reach a mass audience while still retaining ownership of the copyright. No comic is greater evidence of this than one of Image’s flagship titles: The Walking Dead — now a TV sensation. With additional competitors like Dark Horse and BOOM! looking to challenge Marvel and DC, the future of creativity in the comics industry should continue to grow.