Eric Stephenson on the Rise (and More Rise) of Image Comics [Interview]

By | May 13th, 2013
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

If comics had the equivalent of the Dos Equis man, it likely would be Image Publisher Eric Stephenson. Since taking over as Publisher, Image’s commercial and critical appeal has sky rocketed, becoming a darling of discerning comic fans everywhere and a viable option for some of the biggest names in comics for the projects they’ve always wanted to bring to life. When he’s not doing that, he’s writing one of the most expansive and exciting books around himself in “Nowhere Men.” When he’s not doing either of those things, we’ve heard unconfirmed reports that he may be a professional sword-fighter (undefeated) and one of the top three chefs in the Bay Area.

Regardless of his hyphenate nature, the guy is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating interviews in the industry, providing honest and non-marketing oriented insight into the world of Image and the industry as a whole. Today, Eric and I chat about the successes Image has seen since we started our regular chats over two years ago, the pursuit of “new” at Image, the upcoming Image Expo, sales trends and much, much more. Thanks to Eric for chatting with us once again, and expect another one after Image Expo.

In April’s sales charts, Image took two of the top 8 spots and 3 of the top 27, which is pretty damn remarkable considering this time last year the top book for Image was The Walking Dead, ranked #47. Going back even further, when I first talked to you a little over two years ago, Image’s market share was less than half what it is now. Are you comfortable in calling where Image is at, at least from a sales standpoint, a success? If not, what does success look like to you for Image?

Eric Stephenson: Well, relatively speaking, sure. I mean, when you look at various statistics from last year – which was a pretty good year for us – then absolutely, we’ve managed to build on all that. We’ve actually experienced a good level of growth every single year since 2008, but that had been pretty steady up until last year. We came close to doubling our 2011 numbers during 2012, and right now, we’re up around 50% compared to this time last year.

So, yeah, I think that qualifies as a certain amount of success, but there’s always more work to be done. Specifically, when it comes to things like market penetration and overall awareness of what’s going on with our titles, I see a lot of room for improvement, but it’s nice to see things moving in the right direction.

I feel as if I know what you’ll say here, but what do you think has most contributed to the success of Image recently? My guess: making good comics and the market responding to it, but I’m curious what you think the other contributing factors may be.

Cover to The Walking Dead #108
Stephenson: You know, I think I’d be pretty disingenuous if I tried to deny the impact The Walking Dead has had on Image over the last few years. Being associated with a successful television show has absolutely been a positive thing for us, and it has helped make the comic book series the perfect gateway to other Image titles. In addition to that, I think the success of both the comic book and the television show pointed a great big neon arrow at creator-owned comics, a gigantic sign that said, “IT CAN BE DONE!” and made writers and artists everywhere a little more aware of what creator-owned comics are capable of.

Now, all that said, I think The Walking Dead could be 10 times more successful than it is now and that would be completely meaningless if we weren’t putting out good comics. Likewise, I think if we had settled for what we were doing in 2009 as the best we could possibly do, I think we’d still be selling comics at 2009 levels, but instead, we kind of looked at the opportunities we were being given and decided to double down and work even harder.

To me, the diversity and quality of Image has increased dramatically over the past few years, and you can see that in Multiversity’s coverage. Our writers pursued developing annotations columns on Morning Glories, Manhattan Projects, East of West, Hoax Hunters and Mind the Gap simply because they’re passionate about those books and the quality represented in them every issue, and there simply aren’t stories like those told elsewhere. How important to Image’s identity is the pursuit of new, whether its creators or genres or even how the story is delivered?

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Stephenson: As I said in my speech at the Diamond Retail Summit a few weeks back, Image Comics Is New Comics. The reason you’re looking at what we’ve done over the past few years and seeing such a difference is because none of the books you mentioned were being published before then. I always make a point to tell people that if they look at the Image Comics of 1992 and compare it to the Image Comics of this very second, it’s almost like a different company. And you can do that with almost any year, because we’re constantly changing.

With that in mind, do you feel that with the influx of notable, established creators that Image is still perceived as a place for new voices to have a chance to break in, if the quality of work is there?

Cover to Peter Panzerfaust Vol. 2
Stephenson: I think you only have to look at books like Luther Strode or Five Ghosts for the answer to that question. Better yet, look at Peter Panzerfaust. Kurtis and Tyler aren’t seasoned vets, yet they’re doing one of our most talked about new series. Kurtis is great – he started out here on a quirky superhero book called The Intrepids before teamed up with Riley Rossmo for Green Wake and Debris, and then he did a book Grim Leaper. It’s been really cool to watch.

Here’s the thing with new talent, though: You need to be good. No one likes to say this out loud, but for the most part, the submissions publishers receive are not very good. By and large, the art is so bad that even the proudest parent in the world wouldn’t put it on the fridge if their kid brought it home from school. There are endless pitches that are either re-hashed versions of stories that have already been told, or even worse, completely incoherent. Most of the time, looking through the submissions pile is pretty depressing.

But every now and then you get a Jonathan Hickman or a Justin Jordan, and as long as finding talent like that is a possibility, we’ll keep looking.

Cover to East of West #1
One of the things that has really shocked me as of recent isn’t just the sales growth, but the speculator boom, as books like East of West #1 and your very own Nowhere Men have become hot ticket items that sell well over cover price in secondary markets. At my store alone, I know there was at least one person who purchased ten copies of East of West #1 explicitly for the purpose of reselling the books. As someone both concerned with maintaining the growth of Image and who is a fan of the medium himself, do you think the increase in speculator presence is a good or bad thing?

Stephenson: You know, it’s not something I personally understand, because I buy comics I want to read and that’s it, but at the same time, I feel like those guys help generate buzz about books to a certain degree. It almost becomes a form of grass roots marketing, because as far as I can tell, they aren’t doing it arbitrarily, they’re focusing on books they like. So as far as drawing attention to books, I think that’s positive, but yeah, I can’t stand the idea of guys going into stores and buying up books by the dozen or whatever. It’s like those guys who show up on Record Store Day to buy all the exclusives and flip them on eBay couple hours later. It’s just inconsiderate and it puts them in the same category as ticket scalpers, whom I think most of the world fucking loathe.

I’m a huge fan of Image, and one of my absolute favorite books is “Chew.” But the weirdest thing to me is how little buzz you see about it after its frankly dominant first year of existence. With new, buzzy titles coming on a seemingly monthly basis for Image, how important is it for you to keep attention on the stalwarts of Image’s lineup?

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Cover to Chew #30
Stephenson: This is something we talk about here all the time, because you know, things like Chew or Invincible or Elephantmen are pretty consistently awesome, but don’t get much attention. I was talking to a comics reviewer about this a while back, and the point he made was that with good books, it gets to a point where it’s hard to say anything beyond “here’s another great issue of this great book!” and similarly, that nobody wants to read reviews like that. And you know, I get that, but you’re right, some of those books are overlooked in favor of the shiny new stuff.

One of the things we’ve been working on this year, with our What’s Next campaign is to focus more attention on continuing series, through both ads and retail posters, because it is important for people to be aware of those books. We’re also working on a variety of retail incentives to make it as easier for retailers to support a title at literally any point in its run, whether it’s on issue one or 100.

Jim Zubkavich has run a series of very interesting creator-owned analysis pieces that get deep into the economics of that section of the industry. One thing that consistently hits from his pieces though is that, at least in his experience as a relative neophyte, it’s a hard game to succeed in. To you, what are the key characteristics for a team to make a creator-owned book succeed?

Stephenson: Well, having a good idea that appeals to more than a niche audience is always a good start, but beyond that, I think it’s good to have realistic expectations. I was telling someone else recently, that I think it’s important not to get too hung up on how your first project does and to be ready to walk away from that. I see a lot of young writers and artists who kind of tie themselves to one thing and become obsessed with making that one thing work, when really, they’d be better served by cutting their losses and moving on to their next idea.

I always point to Robert Kirkman as the best example of this. Robert’s first book was Battle Pope, not The Walking Dead, and he did Tech Jacket, Cloudfall, Capes, and then Invincible, all before he got to the book that made him. I think if you’re serious about doing this, you have to be realistic about your work and realize that as much as you personally like what you’ve come up with, not everything is going to work out. I mean, it’s great to look at someone like Dave Sim and his 300 issues of Cerebus and think, “I’m going to do that with my book!” but the reality of the situation is that Dave is the only guy to do that, in a much, much different market than exists today. Very few books enjoy that kind of longevity now.

Cover to Saga #12
In the past year, it seems like retailer relations with publishers have been more turbulent, at least publicly, than in the past. You’ve been someone who is very open with retailers from the start of your tenure as the Publisher at Image, but how important and difficult is it for you to maintain those relationships with a growing and increasingly hard to predict marketplace?

Stephenson: I think as long as the lines of communication are open, it doesn’t matter how difficult or unpredictable the marketplace is. We’re all in the same business, and for the most part, we all realize that we have a shared responsibility in regard to how things work out. The turbulence you’re referring to comes about as a result of not talking to one another, or worse, not being honest with one another, and I’ve tried to make it a priority to make sure that we’re as upfront with our retail partners as possible. As I said in my speech in Chicago, we wouldn’t be here without them, just as they wouldn’t be here without us – our fates are entwined. Do we all get frustrated with one another at times? Absolutely, but since we’re all in this together, it’s always in everybody’s best interest to talk through our frustrations and disagreements. Like any relationship, it’s a lot of work, obviously, but I think it’s well worth it.

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One thing I’ve noticed with Image books recently is that returnability is something that has been increasingly emphasized. How did that decision come together, and was that a reaction to low orders for first printings and the perpetual need to go back to more printings?

Stephenson: In a sense, yeah, because we were getting into these situations where some of our launches seemed to be taking retailers by surprise, where they were winding up shorthanded on certain books. So instead of doing the standard thing publishers do in that situation – tell retailers they should up their orders – we decided to figure out how we could make that happen without putting all the burden on the retail community. Like I said, we’re all in this together, and we can either sit around and gripe about the problems, or we can look for solutions. I don’t think returnability is a cure-all of any kind, but in some instances, I think it makes it a little easier for stores to order with a bit more confidence than they might do otherwise. We’re confident in the books we’re publishing – we want them to share that confidence when they’re playing their orders.

Image Expo 2013 was recently announced, and less than a month ago you had told CBR that no convention was planned for 2013. Why the change of heart, and why the change in format to just one day?

It’s not a convention; it’s a media event.

That’s a good distinction to make. Why the switch to it being a one-day media event? What makes that a better fit for Image as a business?

Stephenson: The kind of event we’re planning wouldn’t work as a sprawling, multi-day affair. More to the point, that’s just not something we’re interested in doing.

I think if you’re looking at this and comparing it to comic book conventions or whatever, it’s kind of apples and oranges.

Cover to Fatale #10
Previously I asked you about Ed Brubaker and how his role has grown in terms of not just a writer at Image, but someone who is a big cheerleader and recruiter for the publisher. With word coming that his next book will be announced at Image Expo, I have to ask for my conspiracy theory question of the day: could it be in the road map for Ed to join Robert Kirkman as the second writer to be a partner at Image?

Stephenson: That’s not something that’s been discussed by anyone at this point, so I guess the short answer there is, “No.” I mean, I get what you’re saying, and I’m certainly not going to dispute Ed’s value, but you’re kind of overlooking the “surprise guests” part of the announcement.

Here, I’ll just lay it out for you: We couldn’t announce something like Image Expo without a couple high profile names. There are going to be a number of awesome people at this event, but it won’t be a surprise for anyone if we say who they are in advance. So for now, it’s Robert and Ed, plus special guests.

Stephenson: Which books that Image is currently releasing or soon will be releasing (excluding unannounced ones, of course) are you most excited about? What would be at the top of your personal pull list? Personally, I’m all about Lazarus and cannot wait for that book to arrive.

Lazarus would definitely be up there. I think Rucka and Lark are doing amazing work on this book. Everything I’ve seen so far has just blown me away, and I think people are really going to love the word they’re building. I’m really stoked about Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s upcoming Satellite Sam. I’m a huge fan of both of them, and having the two of them together on the same book is almost overwhelming, it’s so cool. Similarly, we’ve got a book coming out later this year, Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, and that’s another incredible combination of talent that kind of makes me want to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. They’re both so good, and I think this book is just going to floor people.

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The industry is on a bit of a resurgence right now, both creatively and commercially. The sales of the print books are higher than they’ve been in years, creator-owned comics are both commercially viable and at a creative peak, and turn on your TV and you’ll likely see some sort of programming stemming from comics. There have been a lot of eras in comics, but in a lot of ways, this might be the best so far. Do you think this is the best time to be a comic fan yet? If not, when do you think the zenith in the industry was?

Stephenson: That’s a difficult question to answer, because there are so many comics that are specific to the times. It’s like, someone told me recently that they finally got around to reading Miracleman and didn’t get what all the fuss was about, and I’ve had people tell me they didn’t get The Spirit or the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four run, things like that, and it’s kind of like being a kid now and not really getting The Beatles, you know? Different people like different things at different times for different reasons. There’s no right or wrong there, no good, better, or best – it’s just the way things are. The culture evolves, the people change.

I think the market is more interesting now than it has been in a long time. The fact that you’ve got these amazing books coming out from Nobrow, and incredible self-published work like Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy, alongside things like Saga and East of West and Hawkeye, says a lot about where we’re at right now, I think.

Cover to Nowhere Men #1
Now that you’re actively writing your own book at Image, is there ever a balancing act you have to do as both a creator and as the person who oversees the overall direction of Image?

Stephenson: In terms of how much sleep I get, sure. Like many people working in comics, I have a day job, and I have a side job doing comics. I’m lucky in that my day job is also in comics, but it’s still what takes up the majority of my energy and time. Nowhere Men is something I’m doing in the evenings and on the weekend, and it takes a back seat to whatever is happening with Image at the time.

The Private Eye from Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin hit the industry like a nuclear bomb, and was literally the only thing people talked about for almost an entire day on Twitter (which might as well be an eternity on social media). One of the first things I wondered about was what you thought about it. So how about it, what did you think of it, both as a publisher of print comics and as someone who loves good comics?

Stephenson: Brian’s one of my absolute favorite writers in comics, so I was thrilled, because hey, more Brian K. Vaughan comics! He and Marcos are a wonderful team. I love their Dr. Strange miniseries from a few years back, and when Brian mentioned they were working on a project together, I was immediately excited. I’m not going to lie, either, I was also immediately on his back about doing that project for Image, but Brian let me know right away that he and Marcos wanted to try something different and do it digitally. I have a lot of respect for Brian, so I backed off, especially since I knew Marco had some unpleasant experiences working for other publishers. The last thing I want to do is become one of those guys, so you know, at this point, I’m just happy that The Private Eye exists and is as wonderful as it

Which of the Fab Four of Science from Nowhere Men – Dade Ellis, Simon Grimshaw, Emerson Strange or Thomas Walker – do you see the most of yourself in?

Stephenson: You know, I guess there are bits of me in all of them, same as the other characters in the book, but just specs here and there. I guess if there was someone in the book I aspired to be like, though, it would be Dade Ellis.

David Harper

David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).