Is Image "Indie"?
Yes, Image is independent. I've defined independent as not Marvel or DC, so they are.
Except that's circular logic. Should I change my definition? If you think about it, were Marvel and DC the "Big Two" in 1960? Of course not, so it can change over time. Image has been on the rise, so it's not the craziest idea. Are we headed towards a Big Three in comics?
What makes a publisher a "major" publisher, standing out above the rest? It's obvious that DC and Marvel are, but what puts them there?
The most straightforward measure is sales, so here's a link to a graph. We're looking at market share, since it's how they do relative to each other that's most relevant. Image is currently third, but they haven't always been. In 2009, they fell to fifth behind Dark Horse and IDW, and were behind Dark Horse consistently from 2003 to 2010 (hello, Walking Dead TV series!). Image has been in third since 2011 and are climbing, but they're still around half the share of Marvel or DC.
Take a moment and look back to when Image started. In the mid 1990s, they had around 15% market share, with Marvel and DC around 25-30%. I wouldn't have thought it, but comics were closer to a Big Three in the days of Youngbloods and Spawn than The Walking Dead and Saga.
But it's not just sales. Superhero comics have defined the entire medium for decades, so Marvel and DC would still be major publishers even if they fell to third, fourth, or further in sales. Or look at Archie comics. They don't seem to sell a ton (they might sell well in digests, outside of Diamond?), but they're still one of the most recognized comic publishers out there.
Does Image have that recognition? I'm not talking about in comic enthusiast circles. Instead, look at the general public. They know The Walking Dead because it's the biggest thing on TV. They'll probably know about the comic, but would they know what Image is if you ask them and don't mention "They publish The Walking Dead comic"? People might know about Saga, but again, are they going to know that it's Image?
This is Image's recognition problem:
What, exactly, makes something an Image book?
To commit sweeping generalities, here's a rough description of comic publishers (I know there's a lot more nuance, but broadly):
- DC: Superheroes who are gods
- Marvel: Superheroes who are people
- Dark Horse: Hellboy and video games
- IDW: TV adaptations and 80s cartoons
- Image: ??????
Image is defined by their business practices more than what they produce, which is odd for an entertainment company. Looking at it from the outside, what is the link between Saga, The Walking Dead, Revival, Morning Glories, Wayward, The Wicked + The Divine (I could do this all day)? They're all from Image, and they're all on my shelf, but what else can you see? They don't have a pattern like the other publishers. They're defined by giving creative control of both the stories and the business solely to the creators, which is what I love as a reader, but when you can read many of their books and not see the connection, that doesn't make a lasting impression with most people.
We may be headed to a Big Three, but we're not there yet. Image is clearly in the independent camp, with maybe the hope of branding as something like "the HBO of comics" (the closest successful analog I can think of) to bring up that reputation, but they're not there. They also don't have the sales, so this isn't going to change overnight. I want them to be that big and important, but that will have to wait.