In the early 1990s, several freelance illustrators doing popular work for Marvel Comics grew frustrated with the company's policies and practices. Their primary complaint was that the artwork and new characters they created were being merchandised heavily, with the artists receiving only standard page rates for their work and modest royalties on sales of the comics. In December 1991, a group of these illustrators approached Marvel president Terry Stewart and demanded that the company give them ownership and creative control over their work. Accounts vary as to whom this group included, but it is generally accepted that Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld were among its leaders. Marvel did not meet their demands.
In response, eight creators announced the founding of Image Comics: illustrators Todd McFarlane (known for his work on Spider-Man), Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (X-Force), Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men); and long-time Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont. This development was nicknamed the "X-odus", because several of the creators involved (Claremont, Liefeld, Lee, Silvestri, and Portacio) were famous for their work on the X-Men franchise. Marvel's stock fell $3.25/share when the news became public.
Image's organizing charter had two key provisions:
- Image would not own any creator's work; the creator would.
- No Image partner would interfere – creatively or financially – with any other partner's work.
Image itself would own no intellectual property except the company trademarks: its name and its logo, which was designed by writer Hank Kanalz Each Image partner founded his own studio, which published under the Image banner but was autonomous from any central editorial control. Claremont was not part of the partnership, and Portacio withdrew during the formative stages to deal with his sister's illness, so Image originally consisted of six studios:
- Extreme Studios, owned by Rob Liefeld
- Highbrow Entertainment, owned by Erik Larsen
- ShadowLine, owned by Jim Valentino
- Todd McFarlane Productions, owned by Todd McFarlane
- Top Cow Productions, owned by Marc Silvestri
- Wildstorm Productions, owned by Jim Lee
Image's initial titles were produced through Malibu Comics, a small but established publishing company sympathetic with Image's position on creator ownership. Malibu provided administrative, production, distribution, and marketing support for the launch of the initial titles.
The first Image comic books to arrive in stores were Liefeld's Youngblood, Larsen's The Savage Dragon, McFarlane's Spawn, and Lee's WildC.A.T.s. Propelled by the artists' popularity and the eagerness of comic book collectors to get in on the "next big thing", these series sold in numbers that no publisher other than Marvel, DC, or Valiant Comics had achieved since the market's decline in the 1970s. (The company experienced lesser successes with Silvestri's Cyberforce, Valentino's Shadowhawk, and Portacio's much-delayed Wetworks.) Within a few months, the Image titles' success led to Malibu having almost 10% of the North American comics market share, briefly exceeding that of industry giant DC Comics. By the beginning of 1993, Image's financial situation was secure enough to publish its titles independently, and it left Malibu.
Some of the founders' studios came to resemble separate publishers, each with several ongoing series set in a shared universe. (At first there were indications of an "Image Universe" shared by all the studios, but these decreased as the studios developed their own directions.) The use of freelancers to write or illustrate series that were owned by the Image partners led to criticism that some of them had reproduced the very system they had rebelled against, but with them in charge instead of a corporation. Image partners such as Larsen and Valentino, who did not take this approach, assumed a neutral position on it, in keeping with the requirement that none of them had any say in how the others' studios were run.
Some of the Image partners used their studios to also publish works produced outside of their studios, allowing the creators to retain ownership and editorial control over those series, an arrangement which was then uncommon among large publishers. These included Sam Kieth (The Maxx), Dale Keown (Pitt), Jae Lee (Hellshock), and the team of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (Astro City). Later, some established self-published series also moved to Image, such as Jeff Smith's Bone and Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil.
The partners had little business or management experience, and many series fell behind their intended publishing schedule. Retailers' orders of newly offered issues were typically based on the sales of recent issues, but as the issues shipped weeks and even several months late, fans' interest tended to wane, leaving retailers with unsold inventory. In response, retailers cut orders to reduce their risk. This significantly hurt the studios, which were each responsible for their own cash flow and profitability. In late 1993, the partners hired independent cartoonist Larry Marder to act as "executive director" for the publisher; Valentino quipped in interviews that Marder's job was literally to "direct the executives" (i.e. the Image partners). Marder developed better financial planning and had some success in disciplining creators to deliver their work on time, in part by insisting that retail orders for new issues would not be solicited until the books had been illustrated, usually ensuring they would be ready to ship when promised.
By the mid-1990s Image series such as Spawn and The Savage Dragon had proven themselves as lasting successes (the former frequently topping the sales charts for months in which new issues came out), while new series such as Wildstorm's Gen¹³, and Top Cow's Witchblade and The Darkness were also successful. Image had become the third-largest comics publisher in North America, exceeded only by long-established industry leaders Marvel and DC Comics.
Clashes between partners began to harm the company. Several of the partners complained that Liefeld was using his position as CEO of Image to promote and perhaps even to financially support his own separate publishing company Maximum Press. Silvestri withdrew Top Cow from Image in 1996 (although he retained his partnership in the company), protesting that Liefeld was recruiting artists from his studio, including the highly popular Michael Turner (Witchblade). The other five partners discussed ousting Liefeld from the company, and Liefeld resigned in September 1996, giving up his share of the company. Silvestri subsequently returned Top Cow to Image.
Wildstorm's Cliffhanger imprint, established in 1998, was a commercial success, launching high-selling creator-owned properties by Humberto Ramos, J. Scott Campbell, Joe Madureira, and others. However, Jim Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics in 1999, citing a desire to exchange his responsibilities as a publisher for the opportunity to do more creative work.
The founders of Image were best known for their dynamic and extravagant art, and for character-driven thinly-plotted stories in the superhero genre, and although the company published dissimilar works, many readers came to perceive this as the "Image style" of comics. Valentino had become less active as a creator after the company's first few years, and responded to this by using his position as a partner to seek out and publish a number of titles by other creators in distinctly different genres and styles, in a deliberate attempt to diversify Image's output and its perception. Although most of these series — ironically dubbed the "non-line" because of their lack of commonality — did not sell well and were soon canceled, they introduced an increasingly important business model for the company: offering other creators the same total-ownership terms the partners enjoyed, but taking a fixed fee upon publication for the company's administrative costs. This practice was later formalized as a function of "Image Central", the business unit independent of any of the studios. This focus on non-studio comics increased when Valentino took on the role of Image's publisher, assuming many of the responsibilities held by Marder until he left the company in 1999. In February 2004, Larsen replaced Valentino as publisher, largely continuing existing business practices. Larsen stepped down as publisher in July 2008 and executive director Eric Stephenson was promoted to the position.
Shortly after Stephenson's appointment, Image added a new partner. Robert Kirkman, whose black and white series The Walking Dead had emerged as a long-running and popular series, and whose Invincible had become one of the longest-running series featuring a newly created superhero series in recent years, became the first partner added since its founding. In July 2010 he announced that he would create an imprint under his direction, known as Skybound.
The company's position in the North American direct market diminished in the first decade of the 2000s, challenged by Dark Horse Comics and IDW Publishing for the position of "third largest publisher" after Marvel and DC. As of 2010, the majority of titles Image publishes in a given month are non-studio productions. McFarlane's Spawn and related titles, his McFarlane Toys line, Silvestri's Top Cow imprint, and Kirkman's various series remain a substantial segment of Image's total sales. Larsen's Savage Dragon continues as the longest-running owner-created title by an Image partner. Valentino has returned to operating his own studio with his Shadowline imprint.