In the early 2010s, Image Comics launched a plethora of kick-ass, hype-generating monthly comics series, written by a murderers’ row of writers pulled from Marvel and DC. Those series, including but not limited to East of West, Lazarus, Sex Criminals, The Wicked + The Divine, and Bitch Planet, quickly became the books I was most excited to buy each month (or every six months, for those I bought in trades).
At the time of this writing, most of those early 2010s Image hits have either ended, gone on hiatus, or shifted to irregular release schedules. And while I love plenty of Image’s current output, as a whole, those series are not generating the same amount of hype or sales (maybe arguable, but I looked – compare Image’s market share from 2014 and 2019) as Image’s early 2010s line-up.
So where did that heat Image Comics had at the start of last decade go? Well, in the 2020s, there’s another indie publisher that’s pumping out hit after hit written by some of Marvel and DC’s current top writers – and that’s BOOM! Studios.
Fresh Big Two Writers + Breakout Artists = Indie Success
There’s a reason that I, a used-to-be-mostly Big Two superhero comics reader, began buying so many Image books in the early 2010s. It’s the same reason that many of those books received the hype they did. Those 2010s Image books were being written by some of the biggest names in superhero comics at the time, including Matt Fraction (Invincible Iron Man), Kieron Gillen (Uncanny X-Men), Jason Aaron (Thor), Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel), Jonathan Hickman (Fantastic Four), and Greg Rucka (Detective Comics). All my favorite Marvel and DC writers hopped over to Image Comics at the same time and created a bunch of new series where they could do anything, and the immensity of that movement made me and readers like me take notice. We bought the books because we knew the names; we kept buying them because the stories inside were fantastic.
Of course, a writer is less than half of a comic’s creative team. If Lazarus, The Wicked + The Divine, and Sex Criminals hadn’t all arrived with great artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers attached, the 2010s Image movement would not have caught fire as it did. But, notably, I did not know who Chip Zdarsky was before I started buying Sex Criminals. The only Jamie McKelvie comic I’d read before The Wicked + The Divine was Young Avengers. I was not following artists to Image’s 2010 series; I was following writers. From there, the art teams impressed me enough that I began following their work and picking up their other books.
In 2019, BOOM! Studios released Something Is Killing the Children, a horror comic by the writer of Batman and a fantastic artist I had not heard of at the time. In 2020, BOOM! released Seven Secrets and We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, two series written by two of DC and Marvel’s freshest, best writers and illustrated by artists who are best known for doing (really, really good) Power Rangers books.
Does that formula sound familiar? Because it does to me.
The constant “sellouts” these BOOM! books are achieving may be influenced by the publisher’s conservative printing habits, as well as speculators’ interest. But regardless of how they’re getting there, these latest BOOM! titles are selling out at the distributor level – which generates hype. They’re also quite good, which keeps readers like myself coming back for more.
But the sellouts and the wide readership would not be happening in the first place if BOOM! hadn’t cracked the 2010s Image formula, which is:
Fresh, Heavyweight Big Two Writers + Breakout Artists = Indie Success
There’s a reason David Harper and Oliver Sava couldn’t stop talking about We Only Find Them When They’re Dead writer Al Ewing and Seven Secrets writer Tom Taylor in the 2020 “Superhero State of the Union” episode of Off Panel – it’s because those two writers are producing some of Marvel and DC’s most compelling books. They are the Matt Fractions and Kelly Sue DeConnicks and Jonathan Hickmans of 2020, and they have chosen to pull their superhero readership over to BOOM!. The sales we’re seeing on those books seem to tell us that readers have followed them there.
The Whys and What Nexts of BOOM! Studios’ 2020 Rise
This phenomenon of fresh, massively-popular creator-owned books launching from BOOM! begs a lot of questions. The first is, “Why are writers like James Tynion IV, Tom Taylor, and Al Ewing launching these books at BOOM! instead of Image?” I won’t pretend to know all the answers to that question, but I believe that a) BOOM! is able to pay artists before their books launch, whereas Image pays only after the book sells and b) BOOM! provides larger in-house support and promotional pushes for teams that launch books there. Every time a BOOM! book sells out, every comics news website receives a BOOM! press release hyping that fact. BOOM!’s promotional staff is responsible for scheduling creator interviews that push their books. Meanwhile, for better or worse, Image Comics creators largely run their own ship, so the success of their books (and their teams’ payment) is almost entirely on them.
The second question is “What, if anything, can Image do to regain the heat they’ve lost?” Part of the answer to that question, of course, is just publishing great books by fresh, heavyweight writers. Notably, the aforementioned James Tynion IV is launching a new book at Image this month, and Marvel star Donny Cates is launching a new Image series in November. Tynion IV specifically said that he doesn’t “know that there’s another company that exists that would let me do what I plan to do with this series. The subject matter is a bit too dangerous, a bit too wild.” That, I think, is the biggest strength Image Comics still has going for it: The ability to publish any kind of story that a writer can imagine.
All of BOOM!’s sellout hits to date are (or at least appear to be) relatively straightforward action-adventure books. Meanwhile, in the 2010s, Image was publishing not just East of West and Lazarus, but Sex Criminals and Bitch Planet. Given the difference in the two publishers’ output, it’s easy to understand how Tynion IV’s smoke-dark Department of Truth ended up at Image even though the writer has a pre-existing relationship with BOOM!. Department of Truth was likely not a book BOOM! was interested in publishing. It doesn’t match their aesthetic.
At the same time, Image may have to up their in-house game to continue attracting the kinds of writers who can produce these mega-hits. (I want to be clear about the term “mega-hit” here. It is not a judgment of quality. It is a judgment of a) sales and b) possibly more importantly to this post, hype.) Because while Al Ewing is talking about how BOOM!’s support structure was crucial to launching his own creator-owned book, Scott Snyder is out there running a Kickstarter to fund his next Image project (and, to be fair, a bunch of additional projects). If BOOM! can continue paying at least part of a creative team up front and continue selling books at the level they’ve been selling them, the Big Two’s biggest creators may continue launching their creator-owned books at BOOM! – at least, when the publisher lets them.
Who Will Launch the Next Big BOOM! Book?
The third question, though, is the one that excites me most as a comics fan. And it is, “Which other writers will BOOM! attract, and what will the publisher’s next big books be?”
I enjoyed BOOM!’s output even before they began launching their recent mega-hits. I am almost as much a fan of BOOM!’s Giant Days, Power Rangers, and Klaus as I am Sex Criminals and Lazarus. But now that the wheels of a new fresh-from-the-Big-Two creator-owned movement have begun spinning, I’m interested to see what else BOOM! is able to publish. Off the top of my head, Kelly Thompson’s (Deadpool) star has risen since the last time she published a BOOM! book, G. Willow Wilson (Wonder Woman) is a great writer in need of a home now that Invisible Kingdom is ending, and N.K Jemisin (Far Sector) could easily match the BOOM! aesthetic. I’m sure more names can and have come to mind in the halls (or home offices) of BOOM! Studios.
Because let’s be clear: A handful of books does not a movement make. It was the gravity of Image’s full, star-studded 2010s line-up that attracted me to it, as much as any one individual name. And it was the continued quality of the books, from title to title to title, that kept me buying each freshly-announced Image #1. BOOM! Studios has started to play in the same ballpark Image did in the 2010s. Now, we’ll have to see if they can keep hitting home runs.