When Kyle Puttkammer opened his comic book shop 21 years ago, he didn't know he was witnessing an event that would change the industry forever.
“Back in 1991, there was a wave of interest in superstar artists," said Puttkammer of Galactic Quest Comics, Games & Toys, which has two stores in Georgia. "All of these artists were generating a following."
Six of these superstars – Marvel Comics illustrators Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, and Jim Valentino – left Marvel to create Image Comics. Their attempt to get full creative control sent shockwaves through the industry. (Whilce Portacio and writer Chris Claremont, of "Uncanny X-Men" fame also left Marvel at that time, but eventually withdrew from the Image Comics project.)
How important was Image in the 1990s? The company made a "huge difference in our business," Puttkammer said.
(To be sure, Puttkammer noted that Dark Horse Comics allowed creative control six years prior to Image Comics' launch, but Dark Horse mostly concentrated on established franchises, with a few exceptions like Mike Mignola's "Hellboy.")
“Image was the first to say, we’re artists, we want to put our best foot forward when it comes to presentation," Puttkammer noted. "It might cost a little bit more but the paper quality’s gonna be better. It’s gonna be glossy, heavier stock."
The company was an overnight sales success.
"In the past, having that 'i' on a book guaranteed a strong seller," said Puttkammer. "A lot of Image Comics would get on the cover of Wizard magazine (which carried a price guide for investment comics). Retailers wouldn’t order enough. The price would go up in value. If you can take $2.00 and turn it into $20.00 within a year, that’s a no-brainer."
At the time of the launch, Silvestri told CNN, "It will be nice to write what you wanna write and draw what you want to draw, and it will go straight through – without someone saying, 'Well, I'd kinda like to change this.' "
Marvel Comics "had just worn me out," "Spawn" creator McFarlane recently told CNN Geek Out. "They kind of had their thumb on me artistically. As soon as I got to the top, some of the things I did to get the book there were not good enough for them.”
Marvel chose not to comment to CNN Geek Out on McFarlane's claims.
"Youngblood #1," Image Comics' first title, was released in April of 1992. Twenty years later, the company is still going strong, with nearly 50 titles released this past month alone.
Each of the founders had their own imprint within Image Comics, such as Todd McFarlane Productions, and Jim Lee's Wildstorm, and they were ultimately responsible for practically everything about the comics.
The name "Image" was a fitting one, because the art of Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane and the rest permeated the 1990s comics scene. After their fame at Marvel Comics, they became even bigger names at Image. As Puttkammer pointed out, for the first time, the artist was just as much of a star as the superhero.
"Dale Keown, Michael Turner, and J. Scott Campbell very much so inspired the next generation of artists, and Image gave them the voice to do so."
That celebrity status has extended to writers like Robert Kirkman, Grant Morrison, and Brian Michael Bendis. Fans will gravitate to their favorite creator's work. The name Geoff Johns, for example, can make an also-ran like "Aquaman" a top seller.
But the biggest impact Image Comics may have had went beyond its emancipation of artists and writers, and new characters, Daniel Dean of Smyrna, Georgia's Titans Games and Comics said.
Image Comics' importance, said Dean, "wasn't that they gave retailers, readers, and creators a viable third party candidate to vote for with their money aside from Marvel or DC. When these high profile talents broke and took their stand, it reminded the industry that the Marvel or DC dichotomy was a false perception to begin with.”
Image showed for the first time that independent comics can outsell mainstream comics and characters. One year after its launch, it had the top title for seven out of 12 months (in contrast, however, no Image Comics ranked among the top 25 in sales for January 2012).
Image Comics' success was a hallmark of the boom in comic book sales during the 1990s, Jeff Ayers, of New York's Forbidden Planet comic book shop said.
"Collectors were encouraged (to be fair, not necessarily by Image directly) to buy multiple copies of books whose eventual value 'one day' would put their kids through college," he said. "The reality that millions of copies and millions of collectors had the same idea burned these speculators, many of whom just used to read the comics for their stories. Many fans were turned off and never returned."
There was also the phenomenon of "gimmick" foil covers and the like during the 1990s, which Image popularized.
"It was flash over substance. That backfired," said Puttkammer. "Anytime you tell the general public that something is going to be a collectible, they buy it up. It’s important to have the quality behind it."
Along with Image Comics' influential first impression came some "early hiccups," Ayers said.
"Books shipped late, readership dipped, and many of Image's founders became studio heads farming their creative work to other writers and artists just to turn out product," he said. "Those creators were now in charge of a system similar to that which had railed against."
Founder Jim Lee took this trial-by-fire editorial expertise to new levels within the comic book industry. He sold his Wildstorm imprint to DC Comics several years ago, and he is now the co-publisher there.
That's likely why DC's recent "New 52" relaunch gives Puttkammer a little deja-vu.
During the much-hyped lead up to DC's renumeration, fans thought "it felt like an act of desperation," on the comic book publisher's part, Puttkammer said.
"It seemed like they were turning their backs on longtime fans. After they launched it and after sales doubled at the comics shop, suddenly it was a stroke of genius – and that’s Jim Lee," he said.
Lee previously rebooted Marvel Comics characters, along with Liefeld, as the pair returned to Marvel Comics in 1996 with "Heroes Reborn," which was also a sales success, though controversial with readers.
Today, Image continues to make waves, according to Ayers.
"They take just as many, if not more, chances on new creators and books as they did when its original founders left the bullpen system in place at Marvel twenty years ago. They publish a diverse array of titles, attract top established talent by their continued promotion of creative freedom, and encourage the work of aspiring writers and artists."
Image's impact even reaches the art classes Puttkammer teaches. "I have artists in the stores all the time. Many of them look to artists that have worked at Image at one time or another," he said.
Many writers and artists will now begin at Image and move on to DC or Marvel, but some stay true to their independent roots, like Kirkman, Puttkammer said. Kirkman's Image Comics title, "The Walking Dead" is a current phenomenon.
"The Walking Dead" looked past the horror and "told a fresh, human story. It’s not something that would be told through Marvel and DC, it would have to come through Image," Puttkammer said.
“The importance of Image today and in its inception and going forward are the same thing," McFarlane said.
"We are an example of a alternative option. Big industry wants you to think that if you don’t take their deal or do it their way, there is no way to break through the high hurdle. It makes the climb steeper, but it does not make it impossible."
Do you still read Image Comics? Do you think it or another company can achieve the same level of success that it had in the 1990s? Share your view in the comments.