Okay, here we go--part three.
As I've implied in the previous two entries, I was always the sort of fan who followed my favorite artists from title to title. In fact, I can't deny that Todd McFarlane's art on Amazing Spider-Man was a major contributing factor to my increased interest in comics during late pre-pubescence. It was really appealing to an 11 year old boy--adolescent-friendly displays of crosshatching and anatomy. Plus there was almost an issue of ownership involved. Other hot artists seemed more established; they had fans long before I ever heard of them. Todd McFarlane had drawn other comics before Amazing Spider-Man #301 (the first issue of his run which I read), but I wasn't aware of him being a fan favorite or anything close. I'd certainly never heard of him. So McFarlane kind of became "my" artist, emblematic of my superior, distinct taste in comics. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that he was such a popular artist; I took it as validation of my tastes.
Which brings us to Wizard. The popular discourse surrounding Wizard is that it lowered the standards at Marvel (and, to a lesser extent, DC) by hyping flashy "hot artists" over quality craftsmanship or established intellectual properties. As a result, Marvel (and to a much lesser extent DC) adopted a house style which emphasized bad crosshatching, nondescriptive details, and ridiculous costume design. Readers didn't necessarily want this, but Wizard told them they did. And so the industry collapsed, or something like that.
Maybe that's true in a macro sense, but it doesn't reflect my personal history with Wizard. I loved Wizard from the moment I laid eyes on it, but Gareb Shamus didn't brainwash me--he pandered to me. Wizard had everything I wanted from a comics magazine, c. 1991: an emphasis on artists whose work I enjoyed; a feature for aspiring comic book artists; an irreverent attitude; and the added bonus of a price guide! How could I not love Wizard? Best of all, Wizard had kind of a clubhouse mentality; it told its young readers that they belonged, encouraging them to revel in their nerdliness. It was a powerful, hopeful message for young nerds like myself.
(Brief foray back into the present: I've discussed Wizard's growing irrelevance in the face of the internet in the past, but I'd never considered the issue of group membership until now. These days, no fanboy need feel isolated in his nerdishness; there are plenty of like-minded individuals to commiserate, argue, and barter with on the internet. But in the 90s, back when the comics-related internet was still in its infancy, Wizard was a reassuring presence for those who did not have a bunch of comics-reading friends.)
This is not to say Wizard was devoid of hype; from the very beginning, it was filled to the brim with wild-eyed exhortations about the awesomeness of comics. By which I mean superhero comics. By which I mean Marvel superhero comics. This was right up my alley, since I had almost no interest in DC at this time. I still liked the characters (some of them, at least), but I thought the actual comics were incredibly dull. Of course I wasn't actually reading the comics, so what I really thought was that DC's art was incredibly dull. Marvel's most popular artists used lots of little lines and contorted their characters' bodies into improbable positions. Even a relatively mundane Marvel artist like Ron Lim brought a weird kineticism utterly lacking in the DC comics I flipped through. Unlike Comics Scene, Wizard didn't waste my time telling me what Jerry Ordway was up to--it gave me more McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee. On the other hand, Wizard had waaaaay more credibility than Marvel Age, which I had previously relied on as a serious news source. When Marvel Age told me that Todd McFarlane was the best artist working in comics, I recognized it as nothing more than the Marvel company line. But when Wizard fawned over my favorite artists, it seemed to justify my opinions. As for the other publications (Comic Buyer's Guide, Amazing Heroes), my shop either didn't carry them or I didn't bother picking them up. Given my lifelong interest in discourse (even when I didn't know what discourse was), I'm guessing it was the former.
My interest in the art side of comics must have been on the rise during this period, because I started reading X-Men comics just because they featured the art of Jim Lee, While Portacio, and Rob Liefeld. I was familiar with all three artists long before they started working on the mutant titles. I think the first published work I'd read by Liefeld was Amazing Spider-Man Annual #23, but I'm not sure. I immediately noted his similarities to McFarlane and Art Adams (who probably would have been my favorite c. 1985 if I were about five years older). I was excited to learn (via Marvel Age!) that he'd be working on New Mutants, but for whatever reason I never actually bought those comics. I did, however, start buying Uncanny X-Men because of Jim Lee's art. I had no idea what was going on, and I had no real affection for any of the characters. Nevertheless, I dug Lee's highly rendered style enough to add UXM to my pull list. Similarly, I started buying X-Factor when Whilce Portacio took over as the regular penciller. Naturally, I followed Portacio to Uncanny and Lee to the relaunched, no adjective X-Men. My brother started buying X-Force, so I was reading that as well. Hell, I even picked up the David/Stroman X-Factor.
So, it should come as no surprise that I was pumped for Image. I don't remember feeling any regret that these artists wouldn't be working on Marvel's intellectual properties any longer; after all, I was only reading the X-books because of the creative teams, not because I liked the characters. And McFarlane had already left the relaunched Spider-Man by that point. The rest of the Image founders were of little interest to me--I never read Guardians of the Galaxy, Marc Silvestri quit Uncanny X-Men long before I started reading it (and I sure as shit wasn't going to read a solo Wolverine comic, which Silvestri had been drawing immediately prior to the launch of Image), and I still thought Erik Larsen was a hack. Still, my brother and I were buying every single Image comic for those first few months.
This is where I start wondering how much the Wizard hype machine was affecting our purchases. We quit buying all our Marvel comics just to keep up with the ever-expanding Image comics line. Still, I wasn't as enthusiastic about these comics as I had been about the Marvel comics these creators had left. As I've mentioned before (can't find the link, sorry), I think the Image creators were too quick to focus on building mysterious and complex universes for their characters, when they should have been worried about producing readable comics. The lack of experienced writers at Image was a problem, but I think the bad influence of mid-80s Chris Claremont was a factor as well. In their rush to infuse their comics with intrigue and hints of backstory, Liefeld, Lee, and Silvestri neglected the importance of creating compelling characters and stories. (I think Portacio probably would have fallen into this habit as well if Wetworks had ever come out.)
At the same time, I think I was just growing out of the Image founders' style. I was already growing less enamored with McFarlane during his no-adjective Spider-Man run. Obviously the writing was bad, but I was starting to notice the flaws in his art as well (which probably explains my gravitation toward Jim Lee, despite his mutant subject matter). I bought about the first 18 or so issues of Spawn, but I never really got into it. I thought it was an ass kind of comic; muddy, bleak-yet-boring, lacking in interesting characters, and dripping with a cheesy goth-industrial aesthetic which (unbeknownst to me at the time) would become my least-favorite deign motif in the years to come. Plus the writing was idiotic.
Another factor working against Image was the incredible lateness of its books. I bought the first issues of Larry Stroman's Tribe and Dale Keown's Pitt, but none of the subsequent ones because they were so incredibly late. In fact, Image never published another issue of Tribe. WildCATS was slow in coming out. Larsen lost what little good will he had with me (mostly by virtue of his association with Lee, McFarlane, et al) by being so late on Savage Dragon #2. (To be fair, he had a good excuse--his house burned down.) Image just never built up enough momentum to inspire loyalty from me, so I had no regrets about leaving it behind.
Finally, and perhaps most damaging, was my impression that the Image founders weren't really interested in making comics. The sudden glut in work-for-hire comics published by Image really turned me off. I kind of bought into all the talk of creators' rights which the Image founders were espousing, so I was shocked and a little outraged when Liefeld and Lee started hiring other creators to work on their own intellectual properties. Their insistence on publishing so many titles as to necessitate work-for-hire freelancers was maybe even more off-putting--I still didn't know what Youngblood and WildCATS were all about. Why the hell did I need Brigade and Stormwatch? (Answer: I didn't. But I bought the first couple of issues anyway.) And why did Liefeld and Lee seem more concerned about developing toy lines and cartoons than in producing actual comics?
Still, I didn't go back to Marvel. Instead, I fell for more Wizard hype: while on vacation, my brother and I bought all the issues in Valiant's Unity crossover. I wasn't totally unfamiliar with Valiant before reading Unity. My sole triumph as a half-assed comics speculator was in buying and preserving Harbinger #1, which peaked in value at $100 according to Wizard. (I later realized that I would have been hard-pressed to find someone who would have paid me a hundred bucks for that comic.) But Valiant seemed to have the same problems as DC--boring art. I wasn't interested.
What drew me into Unity was the art of Barry Windsor-Smith. I was never a huge fan (partly because he seemed to be working on X-books when I was younger), but I always appreciated his work. For whatever reason, I decided to pick up Archer and Armstrong while at the beach. The art, as expected, was good, but I was absolutely blown away by the writing. Now, I'm not saying that Valiant's comics have held up well, but I loved those comics when I was 15. It's strange--I've read interviews with Jim Shooter in which he claims that he was making up everything on the fly, and conventional wisdom has it that universe-building is a sure way to alienate the reader (it certainly was for me as far as Image went). Despite all that, I totally bought into the Valiant Universe. I loved the themes of prophesy and hidden history. For those who don't know/remember, a handful of Valiant titles took place in the far future, but they were all united (get it?) in this crossover. But there was still a great deal of mystery in how we got from the present to the future. It sounds pretty insufferable today, but it totally worked for me at the time.
Valiant isn't warmly remembered in 2007, but I found these comics absolutely revolutionary in 1992. In the past, I had read comics for the characters or for the art. For the first time in my life, I was reading them for the writing. Strangely, though, I also grew to appreciate the level of craft in Valiant Comics' art. Nobody's going to confuse Bob Hall with John Buscema, but the quality of the anatomy, storytelling, and facial expression was light years beyond the showier art being produced at Image (or Marvel, for that matter).
I'm not sure when I completely swore off Image comics. I bought the Valiant-produced issues of Deathmate, but not the Image ones. The last Image comic I can specifically remember buying is the Cyberforce one-shot written and drawn by Walt Simonson--which might be the only Cyberforce comic I ever bought. That was somewhere around September of 1993. I spent about half of the summer of 1994 in a summer art school, and most of my friends there were also into comics. I know that, by then, I was constantly deriding Image (to the point of annoyance for at least one of my friends). But then again, my reading habits had completely changed by then--a subject I'll cover more in the next, penultimate installment.
A few points I want to emphasize here. The comics I've discussed in this entry, particularly those associated with Rob Liefeld, are today remembered as extraordinarily bad. However, they were also extraordinarily popular. It's a (false) dichotomy which seems to haunt those covering comics in the 21st century. As a result, I think, we've seen the establishment of a sort of Image Myth. To wit: nobody actually liked these comics--they only sold because of hype (especially via Wizard), speculation, or some combination of the two. However, I would have bought these comics even without the massive storm of publicity surrounding them. I was interested in Image before it was Image, from the moment I first heard that Rob Liefeld was planning to produce an independent comic. I was ultimately unsatisfied with Image's comics, but I don't think this was due to a lack of iconic intellectual properties or the bursting of the speculator bubble--it was due to a combination of poor comics, incredible lateness, my maturing tastes, and increasingly evident aspirations of mogulhood on the part of the founders. If the founders had managed to produce comics as good (in a relative, not absolute, sense) as the ones they had made for Marvel, I probably would have stuck with Image for a little longer--at least six months.
Second, it's really amazing how quickly I dropped all interest in the Big Two. Once my favorite artists left, I had very limited interest in what Marvel was doing. My brother and I bought all the issues of the X-Cutioner's Song crossover (partly because I liked a lot of the artists), but we were gone after that. To me, Marvel and DC were totally irrelevant in the face of Image and Valiant. In retrospect, I probably would have liked a lot of what DC was doing at the time, given my interest in Valiant. In fact, I started reading a lot more DC comics around the time I lost interest in Valiant.
Next: Why I quit reading comics for the first time in my life. It's not what you think.