Comics are big, and their blockbuster adaptations even more so: The Dark Knight was on top of the box office for four weekends in a row; The Avengers amassed $1.51 billion worldwide and is the third highest-grossing film of all time; four films based off of Marvel Comics properties will be hitting theatres in just this year alone. While comics themselves don’t reach as large an audience and, consequently, haven’t made nearly as much money, the industry and its history are filled with success stories that have shattered records. The following five creators are some of the most successful in the medium.
5 Mark Millar
Hailing from Coatbridge, Scotland, Mark Millar is one of the most widely read and successful creators currently working in comics. Having had a lifelong interest in the medium—he drew Spider-Man-esque webbing on his face in permanent marker just days before his first communion photo—he names Alan Moore and Frank Miller as two of his biggest influences. Millar got involved in the industry after interviewing comics writer, fellow Scotsman and future mentor Grant Morrison, who convinced him to focus on writing as opposed to both writing and illustrating. Not long afterward, he was contributing stories to popular British comics anthology 2000AD. Millar’s work is comprehensive, having written for both of the major publishing houses, Marvel and DC, as well as independent publishers such as Image, Top Cow and Fleetway. Some of his most notable works for the Big Two include Superman, Swamp Thing, Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, the last of which was a modern reinvention of the Avengers that would greatly influence 2012’s blockbuster Avengers movie. But his work is mostly known through the adaptations of two of his original graphic novels, Wanted and Kick-Ass. Adaptations of his series Nemesis and Superior are also currently in development. In June of last year, he was given the Order of the British Empire, recognized for his “services to film and literature.”
4 Frank Miller
Frank Miller might be one of the more recognizable names to people outside of comics fandom, having co-directed and attached his name to the critically and commercially successful adaptation of his own series Sin City in 2005. He gained further recognition with the even more successful translation of his original graphic novel 300 two years later. Sin City and 300 were unprecedented in their largely strict adherence to their source material, with filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder, respectively, even using panels from the comics themselves for story boarding. Miller’s history in the comics industry stretches back to the late ’70s when he made a name for himself writing and pencilling Marvel’s Daredevil series, taking the blind superhero away from his colourful, swashbuckling roots and emphasizing its realistic New York City setting. But perhaps his biggest contribution to comics as a whole was 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, which saw an aged and jaded Bruce Wayne don Batman’s cape and cowl once again to fight crime in a significantly more violent and dystopian Gotham City. Along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns spurred a long-lasting “grim and gritty” era of comics that led to the industry’s booming success in the early ’90s. In recent years, Miller has pursued more independent ventures, including directing an adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit—which was ultimately a box office bomb—as well as the controversial Holy Terror, a former Batman-related comic that pitted a now only Batman-inspired vigilante known as the Fixer against Islamic terrorists. Reactions to the latter were, understandably, mixed, with several critics describing the piece as anti-Islamic propaganda.
3 Todd McFarlane
Calgary native Todd McFarlane was one of the biggest comics industry figures during its commercial boom in the early ’90s, as well as its most successful. He began his career pencilling three of the issues of Batman: Year Two as well as Peter David’s acclaimed run on The Incredible Hulk. In short time he was working on Marvel’s flagship Amazing Spider-Man series, where his detailed and acrobatic portrayal of the Webslinger, as well as his popular depiction of then new villain Venom, sent his popularity skyrocketing. To give a better idea of how iconic his work on the series was, his cover of ASM #313 sold for $71,200 in 2010. In 1990, McFarlane was given his own Spidey series to write and draw. Originally titled just Spider-Man, the first issue shipped with a variety of collectible variant covers and sold over 2.5 million copies. After clashing with the series’ editor, McFarlane left Marvel as a whole and co-founded Image Comics with fellow artists Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and writer Chris Claremont. Image, a company independent from Marvel, DC and other imprints, placed emphasis on original and creator-owned works (where the writer and illustrator would retain copyright of their characters). McFarlane’s main contribution to Image was Spawn, one of the most popular comic book series of the 1990s—its first issue sold 1.7 million copies, which remains a record for an independent comic book—and the basis for the writer-artist’s future company McFarlane Entertainment, which also produces toys, animation and even video games.
2 Rob Liefeld
Apart from being incredibly successful, Rob Liefeld is one of the most polarizing figures in the comics industry. On one hand, he helped to define the look of comics in the early 1990s. On the other hand, he helped to define the look of comics in the early 1990s. Liefeld got his start in comics at a San Francisco convention in the late 1980s, where Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald gave the artist the opportunity to illustrate a backup story for an issue of The Avengers. While the story went on to be published using another artist’s pencils, Liefeld went on to illustrate a five-issue Hawk & Dove miniseries for DC—characters he would return to for DC’s company-wide New 52 reboot in 2011. His big break, however, came when he landed a pencilling gig on Marvel’s The New Mutants series, a spinoff of the X-Men. His art, as well as his co-creation of cybernetic mutant antihero Cable, helped to vastly increase sales on the series, and ultimately led to the successive X-Force series that he drew, inked and plotted, with writer Fabian Nicieza handling dialogue. The premiere issue of X-Force, released in August of 1991, sold over four million copies, and helped make the young artist such a star that he was even the subject of Levi’s jeans commercial directed by Spike Lee. Not long after his star had risen, Liefeld’s relationship with Marvel became tense and he left the publishing house in 1992 to form Image Comics with several other high profile Marvel and DC artists. His flagship title was Youngblood, which centred on a high-tech superhero team, and would eventually feature scripts from famed writer Alan Moore. Since the height of his fame in the early ’90s, Liefeld’s art has been frequently negatively re-evaluated by critics who point out the penciller’s reliance on impossible physique, miniscule or obscured feet and the truly excessive number of pouches on his characters’ costumes. Nevertheless, his art style helped to define a generation of superhero comics and he remains a big influence on the industry.
1 Jim Lee
Even if you’re not a comics reader, there’s a very good chance your mental image of one superhero or another has been heavily influenced by Jim Lee’s illustrations. Try to picture the X-Men: if you’re seeing coloured latex, crisscrossing belts and an abundance of trench coats, you’re probably remembering the X-Men cartoon from the early ’90s, the designs of which were explicitly based on Lee’s. Along with Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld, Lee’s aesthetic dominated comic book art for close to a decade. Born in South Korea and raised in St. Louis, Lee identified with the outsider nature of superheroes such as the nerdy Peter Parker or the mutant X-Men. While attending school in the hopes of one day becoming a doctor, he took an art class and discovered his passion for illustration. Following the completion of his psychology degree, he began submitting his work to various publishers, eventually meeting editor Archie Goodwin and consequently getting hired by Marvel Comics. He moved quickly from Alpha Flight—basically the Canadian Avengers—to Punisher: War Journal and finally to the Uncanny X-Men series itself, which helped thrust his art into the spotlight. Lee and Uncanny writer Chris Claremont were given their own X-Men series in 1991. It was so successful that its first issue remains the best-selling comic book of all time with over 8.1 million copies sold and $7 million earned, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Lee was one of several artists, along with Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld, who left Marvel to found Image, where he created the series WildC.A.T.S. He eventually moved to DC Comics, where he’s currently its current co-publisher and in charge of the look of the New 52 reboot.