This August marks the 20 year anniversary of the big-screen debut of Todd McFarlane’s creation Spawn, Image Comics biggest and longest franchisee comic book character. Since it’s inception in 1992, Image Comics and its seven founders have had varying degrees of success over the years, reaching rock star levels of high and abandon ship lows. They’ve managed to keep a constant 10% share of the marketplace competing with the likes of Marvel, DC, Valiant and Dark Horse.
Nowadays, their main competitor is Dark Horse Comics rather than the big two as they both release similar indie titles and have gotten away from their darker roots to focus more on non-superhero type characters. In particular they have focused their attention on graphic novels with great success, regularly beating out DC and Marvel in that regard.
There’s no debate that Spawn is the publisher’s biggest asset on print and it’s creator Todd McFarlane is the companies loudest and most successful founder/creator/promoter. And while the company rose to big success in the nineties on print and merchandise, even surpassing DC at one point, there’s one area in which they’ve struggled, even so much as to fall behind Darkhorse in this sense, in film.
It’s no secret that Marvel is the king of the comic book universe. It outsells all companies on the shelves and unless you’ve been living on a Trappist planet, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the way movies are made, distributed and viewed. To date, Marvel films, all 46 of them, have made a combined $24 billion at the box office starting with Howard the Duck in 1986. DC’s 23 films to date, starting with Superman all the way back in 1978, has grossed over $9 billion at the box office. And even Darkhorse has managed to make $2.2 billion in reveunue from 17 films thanks to properties like The Mask, Hellboy, Sin City and Zack Snyder’s 300.
But what about Image? Well, that’s a bit of a different story. While massively successful titles such as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead have found them international TV and print fortune, the silver screen success has eluded them so far. Image’s biggest box office return to date has been the Angelina Jolie live action film Wanted (2008) which was a Mark Millar creation distributed by Image though the Top Cow Productions company. The movie would go on to earn $341 million worldwide and be viewed by most, Millar among them, to be a fairly good representation of the source material.
But that would be prove to be a singular event as the only other movies to be made based on Image characters would be few and fleeting. The only notable ones would include cult favorite The Crow (1994), which starred the late Brandon Lee, and while critically embraced only managed a small profit. The other noteworthy release would be creator Michael Avon Oeming’s Bulletproof Monk starring Chow Yun-Fat, which was panned critically and would lose money even with a slim $50 million budget.
An argument could be made that the best “Image” film to date has been the 2013 documentary about the company’s history called, The Image Revolution. Directed by Patrick Meaney, the film goes back in time and retraces the events which led to the original seven artists leaving Marvel and changing the comic book industry forever.
Which brings us back to 1997’s SPAWN starring Michael Jai White as everybody’s favorite anti-hero Hellspawn. Almost instantly, studios were interested in adapting the comic book based on huge sales right out of the gate (almost 2 million) for McFarlane and Co. The scope and special effects would prove to be more expensive than originally thought and the film would double its production costs but would manage a small profit by making $88 million worldwide on a budget of $40 million. However, it received very negative reviews and any plans for a sequel were almost immediately snuffed.
Sadly, that brings us to present day and while the other big companies make record profits, Image is on the sidelines waiting for someone to bite on any of their properties. In early 2015, Todd McFarlane announced a new SPAWN adaptation for the big screen was coming and in February 2016 he confirmed that he had completed the script for the film with a very high page count because he’s “putting in details for myself”. The reason being McFarlane himself plans to direct and have full autonomy, something studio’s seem unwilling to give up at this point.
Garth Ennis’s superhero prostitute series The Pro has been purchased by Paramount Pictures and is currently getting a treatment by Zoe McCarthy, but like most things it’s an uphill battle to get into production. Having said that, The Pro has that R-rated feel, a la Deadpool, that studio’s would be willing to take a chance on, something they wouldn’t have done prior to the huge success of Deadpool and Logan as well.
Image comics continues to pump out great work by talented writers and artists and it’s only a matter of time before one of their books cracks the big money formula. If the other companies can make characters like Ant-Man and Black Panther household names, surely there’s a market for Saga or the Paper Girls or an inevitable Walking Dead film? Seven to Eternity continues to put up big book numbers and East of West and Lazarus both seems like natural fits for a long story format but what’s the hold up? For me personally, I would love to see a Bedlam or Black Science big screen adaptation but seems highly unlikely.
Perhaps its that studio’s spend exorbitant amounts of money on data and analytics and know exactly what mass audiences want so does that mean Image Comics actually has an image problem? Does their artist friendly business model somehow not translate well into mass friendly comic book properties that leap off the pages and onto the screen?
Personally, I think books like Lazarus, Black Science and Bedlam hold up against any Marvel or DC property, but getting these into mainstream hands is proving to be difficult as those companies buy up all the shelf and advertising space. Plus, one thing to keep in mind is DC has Warner Bros. as a backer and Marvel has Disney signing the checks so Image will need to win the trust of a major Hollywood player to stand a chance.
Imagine, after all these years, that a SPAWN reboot might be it’s only shot.
Till next time…