‘The Walking Dead’ Creator Robert Kirkman Accuses Marvel of Destroying the Comic Book Industry

‘The Walking Dead’ Creator Robert Kirkman has accused Marvel of destroying the comic book industry. Is he right? Let’s take a closer look at how the rift between Marvel and Image formed, and what it means for the future of comic books.

Leo Sun
Leo Sun
Jan 15, 2014 at 7:56AM
The Business

Last week, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman took a nasty jab at former employer Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney (NYSE:DIS)) during a panel discussion at Image Comics' second annual Image Expo.

Kirkman called Marvel a "poorly run company that is partially destroying the comic book industry." He also called Marvel's upper management "extremely short-sighted" and causing negative effects throughout the industry, and stated that he would rather focus on "long game" storytelling instead.

Image Comics' The Walking Dead. (Source: Image Comics)

Before striking gold with the success of The Walking Dead in 2003, Kirkman wrote several major Marvel titles, including Marvel Zombies, The Irredeemable Ant-Man, and Ultimate X-Men, among many others.

Image vs. Marvel: A 22-year-old rivalry

Kirkman's stance toward Marvel highlights the interesting rift between Image Comics and Marvel, which started in 1990 after a group of top freelance artists left Marvel in protest of its employment practices.

The artists complained about heavy merchandising of their artwork while they were only entitled to modest royalties, and eventually resigned after Marvel refused to grant the artists ownership of their created characters and full creative control over their work.

Those initial artists, which included Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee, in 1992 founded Image Comics, which went on to become the third largest comic book company in America after Marvel and Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX.DL) DC Comics.

The comic book industry's biggest dilemma

To understand Kirkman and the original Image founders' beef with Marvel Comics, we should take a closer look at the North American comic book industry.

There are two ways to measure the comic book industry in North America -- in terms of overall revenue and total units sold.







Size of N. American market

$420-$480 million

$575-$640 million

$680-$710 million

$660-$690 million

$700-$730 million

Total units sold

74.14 million copies

81.85 million copies

81.34 million copies

69.20 million copies

80.55 million copies

Source: Comichron.com

The big problem is that overall revenue from comic sales have surged 67% to 74% between 2004 and 2012, but total units sold have only risen 9%. This indicates that most of the gains in revenue were mainly attributed to higher prices and not new readers.

What Kirkman means when he called Marvel 'short sighted'

To keep readers hooked, comic book companies have constantly cooked up new ideas to keep readers interested from month to month.

Just like a bad daytime soap opera, some of these ideas were absurd, such as killing Superman (1992), crippling Batman (1993), turning Hal Jordan into a genocidal supervillain (1994), tricking readers into thinking that they had actually been following a Spider-Man clone for nearly two decades (1994), Spider-Man trading his marriage with the Devil to save Aunt May's life (2007), and killing off Captain America (2008).

Spider-Man makes a deal with the Devil. Seriously. (Source: Comicvine.com)

Over time, these tales, obviously aimed at generating short-term sales boosts, got so convoluted that DC and Marvel had to regularly reboot their universes.

DC took a radical approach by repeatedly wiping out its universe with bizarre clashing parallel-universe storylines, and Marvel split its known universe into a similar "multiverse," in which different versions of characters exist on different Earths. These worlds were compartmentalized repositories that would fill up with stories until they too became too ridiculous over several years.

In response, Marvel started rebooting its top franchises with repeated #1 issues, repeatedly promising fresh starts for established characters. The problem was that since #1 issues generally sold better, Marvel started flooding the market with #1 issues rather than patiently continuing known series.

As a result, even the long-running series The Uncanny X-Men (1963) was "rebooted" with an "All New #1 Issue" in 2011.

What Kirkman means by the 'long game'

When Image Comics was established, the founders -- McFarlane, Liefeld, Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, and writer Chris Claremont -- agreed that the company would be established with a rule that the artists and writers could retain all creative rights over their characters.

Many of Image's earlier comics were characterized by strong art and weak plots. (Source: Image Comics)

The company was founded on the hope that the characters at Image Comics wouldn't be tarnished by out-of-character story arcs that defined Marvel and DC Comics in early 1990s. For example, more realistic characters wouldn't be casually tossed into space or another dimension simply for the sake of a multi-character crossover.

Of course, many of Image's earlier comics were defined by looks over substance, since the founders were mostly known as artists rather than writers, but their ultimate goals were noble. Whereas Marvel and DC were the Hollywood studios of the comic book industry, Image was the underdog indie studio boasting a phenomenal stable of artists and writers.

Over the years, long-running series like McFarlane's Spawn (which has run 239 issues) have become true "long game" works of art completely shaped by the creator. McFarlane has written the majority of the issues over the comic's 22-year continuous run.

Kirkman, who was made a partner at Image Comics in 2008, enjoys a similarly intimate relationship with his comic The Walking Dead, which he launched in 2003. He has written the entirety of the comic's 119-issue run, with only a single change of artists after the seventh issue.

This idea of creators sticking with their creative works is a stark contrast to Marvel and DC, which repeatedly throw their characters into absurd situations that eventually force a retcon (retroactive continuity) or reboot.

The bottom line

Although the comic book industry is clearly having issues attracting new readers, it's encouraging that creators like Robert Kirkman and companies like Image Comics still value creative integrity.

What do you think, fellow comic book fans? Is Marvel really destroying the comic book industry with its myopic storylines that last for a year rather than a decade? Let me know in the comments section below!