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Image: Gnawing its way to the top

Since what seems like the beginning of time there have been two major comic book companies: Marvel and DC.

Together, the two companies sold more than 70 percent of all comics in 2013 and occupied nine of the top 10 best-selling issue slots, according to Diamond Comics Distributor's year-end sales announcement. At their feet sit a few independent comic companies, unknown to those who don't pick up comics.

However, it may be time to stop talking about the big two and start talking about the big three. Image Comics, started in 1992, is still considered a small, independent publisher. The company had an 8.49-percent unit share, which is nothing compared to Marvel and DC. However, in 2010, it had less than a 4-percent unit share, its norm since its previous high in 2003. Its unit share has been climbing steadily since 2010 and the announcements coming out of the company indicate that number will continue climbing.

If you'll allow, I would like to climb up onto my soapbox's soapbox briefly. I want to point out that the numbers from Diamond don't necessarily tell the whole story. While Image's share is a small hill compared to the mountains from DC and Marvel, those two companies sometimes release as many books in a week that the other publishers release in a month. These titles also are established properties with decades of history and fans. Image's roster features original ideas from the creators. It's similar to looking at how original movie properties fare against sequels and franchises based on existing properties at the box office. Generally, people don't know what they like; they like what they know.

OK, back down to the main soapbox. The major reason most casual observers would point to for the rise in popularity for Image would be "The Walking Dead." Robert Kirkman's zombie series started in 2003, but reached the popular consciousness in 2010 when it became a television show on AMC. The series then exploded into one of the most watched shows on the air now. Issue No. 115 marked the series' 10th anniversary and was the top-selling comic book of 2013.

While that's an easy book to point to, the reason for elevating Image's status to a major company is more than a hit TV show. The 2014 Image Expo on Jan. 9 announced the new titles that fans can expect in the coming months. On the list were new series created by the people working for Marvel and DC that make fanboys and fangirls go "SQUEEE!"

These names may or may not include Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder and Rick Remender (they do!). This adds to the list of Marvel and DC writers and artists with existing series at Image.

Now to be clear, there is not a mass exodus of creators from those companies to Image. These writers and artists will continue their work at Marvel and DC, adding their Image titles to their workloads each month. Image is a company that publishes creator-owned titles. This means exactly what it sounds like: The creators own the characters they create. This means that creators can come to Image with their passion projects and not lose the rights to the company.

With its list of creators growing, Image has become the playground for Marvel and DC's top talent. The playground analogy becomes more prevalent when reading the books that come out of Image each month.

The titles at Image are perhaps some of the most creative and fun reads in comics today. Within the titles I read alone, there are stories of Death's daughter in the old West, dystopian futures, a time-traveling teenager with a jet pack and a revisionist story of the Lewis and Clark expedition (with monsters). Rather than be confined to a world created 50 or more years ago, these creators are truly able to be, as their title implies, creative, building new worlds that haven't been explored before. With the new announcements from the Image Expo, more Image titles are poised to find their way onto my subscription list, possibly bumping titles from Marvel and DC.

Now, I want to be clear, this is not to bash DC or Marvel. I still look forward to such books as "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "Batgirl" each month. It's just that when it comes to the books I get a genuine excitement about, Image has a 100-percent success rate with me. Marvel and DC can hit lulls with some of their titles.

Image is not a minor league company. Simply put, if Image were a person, it'd be like me, an adult in his early 20s, striving to get noticed in an industry populated with elder statesmen who have decades of experience on them. Image is doing just that with zombies and teenage cops with jetpacks.

Ian Hand is assistant editor for Tempo and an enormous geek. Follow him on Twitter @IanHand_MT.