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By Vaneta Rogers, Newsarama Contributor
(Courtesy of NEWSARAMA: Original article at http://www.newsarama.com/comics/jim-valentino-image-comics-20th-annivers...)

When Image Comics was founded 20 years ago, artist Jim Valentino already had a lot of experience with creator-owned comics.

And he wanted more.

Under his guidance — both as the founder of the company's Shadowline imprint and in his four years as publisher at Image — the company has continued to put the priority on maintaining its properties as creator-owned. In fact, Image Comics owns nothing it publishes. Each title is owned by the writer and/or artist who created it.

While some of the other Image founders came up through the work-for-hire ranks, Valentino began his career in the '70s creating small press and autobiographical comics. It was in this environment that he thrived, creating critically hailed comics like normalman and Valentino.

Even though he spent some time drawing superheroes for Marvel Comics in the late '80s, he was enthusiastic about joining the six other artists who were leaving to start their own publishing business in 1992.

As most comic book fans remember well, the comic book community was shocked 20 years ago when Valentino joined Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Lee as they left Marvel to give creator-owned projects a new foothold in the industry.

And Image Comics was born.

Today, Valentino continues to publish graphic novels and comics under his Shadowline imprint, and he's credited for being publisher when future stars like Brian Michael Bendis and Robert Kirkman first did work for Image.

Newsarama has been talking to the various founders of Image Comics upon the company's 20th anniversary.

Newsarama: Jim, what do you think was the biggest motivator for the move to leave the Marvel/DC system and start Image Comics?

Jim Valentino: Self-determination. The ability to chart your own course, to own your creations without fear that anyone would not only not steal them from you, but perhaps even more importantly, that you couldn't be replaced on a book you created. That you controlled those characters' destiny, not an editor or a board of directors or a guy sitting in Hollywood without a creative thought in his head.

Nrama: Is that still the motivation for Image's existence, or has the mission changed?

Valentino: Yes, I think it is. I don't think that basic desire to steer one's own ship has changed. In fact, due to comics' recent corporate culture, I'd say that desire for self-determination has only increased. And I think the level of talent we're seeing coming over to Image recently only underscores that.

Nrama: What was your personal motivation at the time for joining the move?

Valentino: Coming from small press, underground and alternative comics and having done work-for-hire (which I do not believe there's anything wrong with) and having mostly written as well as drawn my own stuff, I was no stranger to creator-ownership. It just made sense to me.

Nrama: What was your experience like when it happened? And now that you've had 20 years to reflect on it — what sticks out?

Valentino: I think now, as I thought then, that it was an amazing time. We did something no one before us had done — we were riding an enormous wave of popularity, unprecedented in our industry. We allowed others in to share not only the wave we were on, but allowed them to do so without fear of having their creations stolen or altered by editorial whim or corporate influence. We were in the eye of the hurricane and, for me at least, it was a very surreal experience, one I'm grateful to have been a part of and one I'll never forget.

Nrama: You mentioned the "wave" of popularity. But what was the reaction like, at the time, from the comic industry in general?

Valentino: Fans were behind us. I think they were digging it as much as we were. For the younger fan this was a company that they could collect from issue one. One of our mottos at the time was "not your father's comics." It was true when Marvel launched back in the early '60’s and it was true for us. The professionals in the industry fell into two camps — those who got it and saw Image as a possible alternative for working with Marvel or DC, and those who didn't. We always figured the latter camp was just jealous and we enjoyed making fun of them. We still do.

Nrama: How did the creation of Image Comics influence creator rights in the comic industry?

Valentino; I think it had enormous impact on mainstream creators. We were not the first to champion creator's rights and ownership. Far from it. Will Eisner owned The Spirit back in the '40’s, underground comix, alternative comics and many forward-thinking creators owned their own work. There were several other companies that afforded creator-ownership before us. I think Image helped to bring it into the mainstream super-hero consciousness due to the attention the company had received.

Nrama: What has it meant to your career?

Valentino; Everything. If it wasn't for Image, I'd either be stacking tires at Sears or be a greeter at Wal-Mart. Image gave me the opportunity to help other creators get a foothold in the industry. I either "discovered" them or gave them their first big break and I'm really proud of that and grateful that I was in a position to help. Being a part of Image has enriched my life in more ways than I can say.

Nrama: For the comic industry in general, what do you think is the legacy of the creation of Image Comics?

Valentino: Image proved that you can do it. You can own your own work and you can be successful. Our legacy is the fact that we elevated the way creators were compensated, even for those who didn't work with us. Page rates rose across the board. Exclusive contracts were created because of Image. More, production values rose. Computer coloring and better quality paper became the norm in the industry following our lead. We neither get, nor do we take, much credit for these things, but we I think we deserve it.

Nrama: What do you think of the status now of comic creator rights?

Valentino: I think they're exactly as they have always been — a creator has the right to choose. A creator can go for the paycheck and do work-for-hire and, again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. Just like everyone else we have families to feed, bills to pay. Or a creator can bet on himself and own and control his own destiny. There is no guarantee of success with that but, then again, there's no guarantee that any job will last a lifetime. Everyone has a choice and everyone should be allowed to choose the path that best suits them. The cool thing is that it isn't an either/or proposition...you can do both.

Nrama: Where would you like to see creator rights go?

Valentino: I'm not sure where they can go. If you expect to retain full ownership of something then you can't expect someone else to foot the bill for you — what would their motivation be? "Hi, I see you eyeing that Lexus. Let me just buy it for you!" You make the choice about your life and about your career, no one else. If you want to drive that Lexus, you'd better work hard and save yer sheckles.

Nrama: Do you think there could ever be a comic creators union, similar to the writer's union in the movie/TV industry?

Valentino: It's been talked about almost since the comics industry began, but has never happened. I doubt that it will ever happen, but I'm certainly willing to participate in the discussion.

Nrama: Then to finish up, Jim, is there anything else you want to say about the 20th anniversary of Image Comics?

Valentino: Only this. When we first formed Image, the pundits gave us six months before our egos blew the thing apart. The suits all told us that you couldn't be successful in business without owning the IP’s and treating the creators like workers. Here we are, 20 years on, and stronger than we've ever been in terms of creativity and looking forward to the next 20 years. I think we were right. I think we did the right thing for all of the right reasons. I think history has proven us right. I feel vindicated.