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    Looking Back on Another Banner Year with Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson [Interview]

    By | December 18th, 2013
    Posted in Interviews | 2 Comments

    This past Friday, we named Image Comics the Best Publisher in comics for the third year in a row. We have plenty of great reasons for that, but a huge driving factor behind the ascendence of Image to being the most exciting publisher in comics has been their Publisher, Eric Stephenson. He’s spearheaded efforts to not only bring in big name creators like Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Greg Rucka, but helped continue finding new, original voices in comics like Tradd Moore, Frank Barbiere and many more. He’s been a huge part of making the “i” on Image comics a stamp of quality on each cover for discerning comic readers.

    In short, he’s pretty much the bee’s knees.

    We’ve talked with him many times in the past, and today, we have an extended talk with him about Image’s year, their place in the industry today, women in comics, Image’s interest in new readers and all-ages comics, social media, what the future holds for them and much more. Thanks to Eric for chatting with us, and keep an eye on Image in 2014. We have a feeling it’s only going to get better.

    For the third straight year, Image is our publisher of the year. It’s for very obvious reasons for those who pay attention. Books like Jupiter’s Legacy, Pretty Deadly and Velvet had towering debuts, The Walking Dead had the biggest selling issue of the year, Image Expo has somehow become the most exciting event in comics, and, frankly, Image has become a brand name that is synonymous with quality. That said, I know you’re someone who isn’t going to rest on your laurels and pat yourself on the back. What do you perceive as the main ways Image can improve in the New Year, and how do you plan on making 2014 an even bigger year for Image?

    Eric Stephenson: Our main priority, as always, is to publish good comics, but beyond that I think we’re constantly looking for new and better ways to broaden our reach. Every year, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, is a learning experience, and I think it’s important to constantly reassess what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. We get a lot of feedback from the writers and artists we work with, from our retail partners, from the fans, and all of that is helpful in determining how we can improve. Some of it comes down to refining our messaging, how we communicate our pride in the books we publish to the rest of the world, and some of it is down to the types of creators we’re working with and the kind of material we’re publishing. We don’t ever want to be in the position of just doing the same things over and over again.

    Creator-owned is as big of a buzzword as ever, and with it comes escalating expectations for Image. What do you think Image represents both in today’s marketplace and for today’s creators and readers?

    ES: Well, to be fair, creator-owned comics should have high expectations. Higher expectations than corporate comics, really. If you’re a writer or an artist doing creator-owned comics, you should have higher expectations of yourself, because you’re doing it for yourself, and not for some company that dictates what you can and can’t do.

    Doing work-for-hire comics is kind of like being a racehorse. You can run around lots of different tracks and you can win a lot of awards for being the best racehorse, but at the end of the day you’re still galloping around a racecourse, with a jockey on your back hitting you with a riding crop and telling you to go faster. Creator-owned comics are the opposite of that, because you’re running free, charting your own course.

    So for creators, I think Image represents unparalleled freedom to do their best work, to raise their game, by letting them do what they want, how they want, and I think that as more and more writers and artists look at things like Saga or Sex Criminals or East of West or Black Science, they realize that Image is a place they can do new and different work and better yet, retain complete control over it. And they can look at the tremendous success of The Walking Dead and know that if their book finds success outside of comics, that’s 100% their success, because we aren’t cutting ourselves in for a percentage of their media rights.

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    And what all that means for readers is that they get some of the best comics ever published, by some of the best talent this industry has ever seen.

    The cover to Saga #15

    Saga and The Walking Dead, perhaps more than any other books in recent memory, are great examples of crossover hits. They’re not just connecting with comic audiences, but they’re getting readers outside the comic shop. What is it about those stories you feel resonates so much with readers, and how does Image work to help make other deserving books – like East of West or Velvet or Pretty Deadly or even something like Five Ghosts – connect with similar audiences?

    ES: I think the main thing we do is stay out of their way. People like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ed Brubaker don’t need me or anyone else here to tell them how to do their jobs, you know? The whole point of getting into business with good people is to let them do what they’re good at, so we give them that platform and then do everything we can to make the rest of the world aware of how awesome they are. We’re pretty tireless advocates of the work we publish, and as I just noted, I think the end result of the whole process is that readers have an amazing slate of work by some fantastic writers and artists that is unlike anything else being done right now. The books you mentioned, among others, stand on their own because we let the men and women creating them do their thing. Readers aren’t getting some super-distilled version of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ vision, that’s been deliberated over by a roomful of people trying to figure out how to wring the most dollars out of each and every idea until all the energy and enthusiasm has been sucked out. Saga, The Walking Dead, Pretty Deadly, Sex Criminals…those books are what they are because the creators involved are doing exactly what they want to do.

    While Image deservedly earned a lot of buzz for the books announced at this year’s Image Expo, for me, the most exciting announcement was the DRM free digital copies that are now sold on Image’s site. What was the genesis of that idea, and how has that affected digital sales since announcement?

    ES: You know, Image Expo was essentially Robert’s idea, but from the moment he first suggested it, I knew we needed to announce something more than just an exciting slate of new books. One of the first things we tasked Ron Richards with when we brought him on back in January was a makeover for imagecomics.com, and based on the work he and our developer were doing with that, it became clear that unveiling the new and improved site was going to be a crucial part of our Image Expo presentation. We’d previously run all our online digital sales through Comixology’s site, which worked well enough, but then Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin launched The Private Eye on their own, and I just loved the simplicity of that and the fact they were giving readers options in terms of file format instead of taking a kind of one size fits all approach. I asked Ron how difficult it would be to implement something similar and when it turned out it wasn’t difficult at all, we focused our efforts on making sure we had that ready for Image Expo, and I’m really happy with what we accomplished. I think we still have some work to do in order to make the user experience the absolute best it can be, but it supplements our digital business quite nicely.

    This year’s Image Expo is right after the turn of the year, as Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, Robert Kirkman and many more will be joining you at a single-day event on January 9th. It’s the third straight year Image has had an Expo, with many of Image’s major announcements coming at this event rather than comic conventions like San Diego or New York. You had mentioned that the Expo was essentially Robert’s idea, but to you, what are the advantages to hosting your own event such as this, and why has it become something of a staple for Image’s year?

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    ES: You know, I was just telling Robert the other day that he and I balance each other out fairly well in terms of temperament. A lot of the time, I’m a black cloud in search of a silver lining, and Robert’s boundlessly upbeat, but yeah, with both Image Expos, the big anniversary convention in Oakland and last year’s media event in San Francisco, when Robert suggested we do those, my initial reaction was essentially a cross between unbridled revulsion and abject despair. It all sounded like considerably more trouble than it was worth, frankly, but as typically happens, I got caught up in Robert’s enthusiasm for the ideas, and what do you know? Everything was fine. Better than fine, actually, because what we quickly learned was that there’s real value in making big announcements outside the circus atmosphere of the regular convention circuit.

    At the big cons, there are a multitude of other things happening all at once, and there’s a lot of jockeying for attention, but with more focused events like Image Expo, the announcements have some room to breath, and we’re able to control the presentation a bit more. Plus, conventions have become such a…thing…over the last few years. Even if you’re on a panel with people you want to talk to, everyone’s being whisked away to their next meeting or signing as soon as it’s over, so there’s little opportunity to talk to one another for more than a few minutes at a time, and at Image Expo, we’re able to actually connect, to sit down and spend time together, and it’s a lot of fun on that level, not to mention beneficial to the overall working relationship.

    The cover to Nowhere Men #6

    One of the interesting trends in Image titles recently has been how creators have been using every inch of space for storytelling. Obviously Nowhere Men is a great example of this, but Ales Kot is great at doing this with Zero as well along with an array of other examples. It’s not something Image mandates, clearly, but it is a trend. What do you think drives that trend, and why do you think we’re seeing it more and more?

    ES: You know, it’s funny. When I was at Thought Bubble in Leeds last month, I wound up talking to Tom Muller about this and the whole thing with Zero was actually kind of a happy accident to start, and they’ve kind of run with it since then. I think that’s really cool, because as a result, Zero is an incredibly unique looking comic. Brandon Graham has taken a similar approach with Prophet, by inviting other artists to come in and do these amazing little back-up stories, and Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky are doing a lot of fun things with the back matter in Sex Criminals.

    I think a lot of it comes down to various creators’ desire to squeeze every last bit of juice out of the standard 32-page comic book. We’re not beholden to advertisers, so I think that frees things up quite a bit on a creative level – it doesn’t have to be 20, 22, 24 pages of story and then an ad farm. Credits don’t have to be on the story pages, or on the inside front cover. Creators are waking up to the fact that the whole package can be made to look as unique as possible, and I think it’s almost like a liberation of the format in a way. Instead of regarding comics as some throwaway relic from the last century, creators are finding ways to make them interesting and new, and as a result we’re getting these perfect little masterpieces that readers are just as happy to have on their desks or coffee tables as their favorite magazines, books and graphic novels.

    Women in comics has been maybe the biggest topic of 2013 in the industry, and while most of it has focused on what has been going on at Marvel and DC, I’ve even seen some pundits making comments about the amount of women working on Image books. Obviously there are notable examples of successful books at Image with women creators – Rocket Girl, Pretty Deadly and Saga, for three – but it’s still something that is coming up. Both inside the industry and at Image, do you feel like this is an issue? For those who would say Image is lacking in women creators, what would your response be?

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    ES: I think for the comics industry as a whole, it absolutely is an issue, and what’s more, it’s an issue I’m glad we’re finally discussing in a meaningful way. As the percentage of women reading comics increases, more and more women are going to want to write and draw their own stories, and I think that’s really exciting, for all of us. As I’ve noted in the past, though, we don’t pass out assignments here at Image. Since everything we do is creator-owned, we can only publish what is submitted to us.

    But Emi Lenox approached me about collecting her Emitown strips at Image. Amy Reeder approached me about doing Rocket Girl. Kelly Sue DeConnick came to me with Pretty Deadly. As an admirer of their work, I was ecstatic. I mean, have you heard Kelly Sue speak on a panel? She’s hands down one of the smartest, most articulate people in comics. She’s an asset to every conversation she’s part of, and you’d have to be flat out stupid to not want her on your team. Same goes for artists like Fiona Staples and Ming Doyle. They were both on a panel I moderated at Thought Bubble and they just knocked me out. Their sheer brilliance forces everyone else to raise their game, you know? So really, for Image, it’s more a case of just needing more opportunities to publish work by female talent, and I think as this conversation continues, we’ll get those opportunities.

    That said, I think it’s on me as publisher to be a little less passive in regard to diversifying our talent pool, and I’ve been more active in reaching out to women whose work I enjoy.

    The cover to Pretty Deadly #3

    One thing I’ve always been curious about is how exactly Image works through submissions from creators. How does that process work, and obviously being a good comic is the number one answer, but is there anything in particular you look for in submissions?

    ES: Well, first off – I look at everything myself. How long I look at it depends on the quality of the work. The vast majority of submissions we receive are nowhere near professional quality work, and I’m being as generous as humanly possible with that description. If something is interesting, though, I take my time with it. I show it to some of the other folks on staff and we’ll discuss its merits. More than anything, we’re looking for something that can stand alongside the rest of the books we’re publishing without seeming out of place. Things that have come out of our submissions pile – Ultra by The Luna Brothers, The Nightly News by Jonathan Hickman, The Strange Talent of Luther Strode by Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore – regardless of the type of stories involved, it all looked like professional work. Every one of those guys was walking the walk, right out of the gate, so that’s what we want.

    Speaking of that, another topic that has come up a lot is the idea that Image isn’t looking at newer creators anymore, which is one of my personal favorite ideas to dispel. From what we’ve seen and heard, 2014 looks particularly full of new and exciting creators for Image. For you, what creators are you most excited for people to discover out of the ones that are upcoming? James Harvey is one we’re particularly excited to see more from, for one.

    ES: I’m glad you like to dispel that notion, because I hear that all the time, too, and it’s complete bullshit. We’re publishing more work by new and up-and-coming creators than anyone else and that’s how you get books like Five Ghosts, Todd, Zero, and I Love Trouble.

    Right now, I’m really excited about a book we’re doing in February, Undertow by Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov. This is something we picked up at New York Comicon in 2012, and I’ve been looking forward to getting this out ever since. It’s incredible work, and I’m thrilled to be publishing it. Same with The Mercenary Sea by Kel Symons and Mathew Reynolds, and as you already mentioned, the stuff James Harvey is working on is really cool. We have two projects in the works with him, and it’s just fantastic. I met some great new creators at Thought Bubble this year, too, and hopefully we’ll be bringing some of that work out over the course of 2014.

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    The cover to Zero #2

    In interviews with Image creators, I’ve often heard that their first step towards getting a book to Image was a conversation with you. What are the main things you look for when it comes to pursuing potential creators to work with at Image?

    ES: I think first and foremost it’s whether or not the creator in question has a burning desire to do creator-owned work. If someone has to be talked into doing creator-owned comics, or developing their own project, that’s not always the best start. Whenever someone asks me what we’re looking for, I tell them I want the thing they’re dying to do, the story they absolutely have to tell. I didn’t tell John Layman to pitch a book like Chew – it was something he had to do. When Kelly Sue came to me with Pretty Deadly, her enthusiasm was positively exhilarating. I was buzzing off that for the rest of the afternoon after we discussed it the first time. There are projects we’ll be announcing for 2014 that are the result of similar conversations with creators who are so excited by the possibility of finally writing and drawing the comics they’ve always wanted to do that they can barely contain themselves, and it’s actually kind of humbling at times.

    With greater power comes greater controversy, as it seems the words and actions of Image are now being dissected at a level not dissimilar to what Marvel and DC goes through. Do you attribute that to the perpetual buzz about Image, being a natural part of today’s social media driven society, or something else?

    ES: Well, on the most basic level, the more creators choose to be part of Image, the more people are going to talk.

    We’ve talked about this before, but one type of book that has difficulties succeeding in comics are all-ages titles, and besides Super Dinosaur and maybe Rocket Girl (if you count that, which so far I do), Image isn’t currently publishing anything of that nature. I know it’s something you’d like to produce more of, or at least have interest in. I have to ask, due to the difficult to sell nature of all-ages titles, is that a segment that Image just doesn’t see a lot of submissions or proposals for, is it something that is hard to justify producing in today’s marketplace, or is it some combination of both?

    ES: Both, really. We don’t get a tremendous amount of all-ages submissions, and by and large, the ones we do get aren’t anything that would set the world on fire. Comic book stores don’t really go out of their way to support all-ages material, and bookstores tend to rack all-ages material in the wrong place, so it’s tough. Ron Richards and I were speaking with a buyer at a large book chain last month, and when I noted that it seemed like a good idea to rack all-ages comic material with other all-ages books, instead of in the graphic novels section, the buyer responded that it did make sense, but that children’s book buyers don’t necessarily agree. So there’s this whole section in bookstores for kids’ books and YA books and all that, but comics that would appeal to those readers are put in a section they or their parents might not think to look in for all-ages material.

    Similarly, I think the comics industry has done such a good job of proving that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore,” that most people think comics flat out aren’t for kids anymore. This is anecdotal, obviously, but from conversations I’ve had with parents I know, I get the impression that comic books stores rank only slightly lower than sex shops on the list of places they don’t want to go. There are some great, kid-friendly stores out there, but unfortunately, they’ve become the minority, largely because there is this hard-headed belief in the direct market that all-ages material simply doesn’t sell.

    The cover to Rocket Girl #2

    When we first talked a few years back, I asked you about the health of the industry. Since then, sales have surged throughout the industry. What do you think were the dominant factors driving this turnaround, and do you think this growth is sustainable for the foreseeable future?

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    ES: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the industry is changing. Over the past few years, we’ve seen digital comics become a serious and increasingly important part of the business, we’ve seen the mainstream media paying more and more attention to comics and how they filter out into other mediums, and perhaps most telling, we’ve seen the leading lights of the Direct Market embrace new creativity. I think the best stores are able to look at something like The Walking Dead and realize it was kind of a turning point for our industry, because it was birthed, nurtured and grown into the multimedia phenomenon it is today in the Direct Market. The Walking Dead should be as much a success and a source of pride for comic book stores everywhere as it is for Robert or for Image – and it’s representative of a new breed of comics that will ultimately have far more staying power than the fan-baiting reboots and cash grab “events” that continue to distract people from our industry’s true potential.

    You’re a busy man, but hopefully you still have time to read comics. What comics and creators did you most enjoy this year?

    ES: I really like what Matt and David have been doing with Hawkeye. The Private Eye is something I always look forward to, as well as new issues of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. The last couple of those have been among the best things he’s ever done, I think. Paul Pope’s Battling Boy was fantastic, well worth the wait, and there’s a graphic novel by a cartoonist named Evan Dahm called Rice Boy that I picked up at Stumptown and I really enjoyed that. Lots of great stuff coming out right now.

    One of our former favorite haunts for both thoughts on music and the comic world was your blog, It Sparkles, which ended last year. After that ended, outside of interviews, you really don’t have a web presence, which is pretty atypical in today’s society in which everyone shares everything via Twitter/Facebook/Instagram like it’s their job. Why is that? Do you intend to change that in the future, or perhaps relaunch It Sparkles? We do miss your candid takes on industry happenings.

    I kind of despise Twitter, honestly. I think it’s probably one of the single worst things to ever happen to the creative community in comics, because you know, there are people who go on there and spout off all day, about any and every little thing that pops into their heads, and the net result is they generate less work. Same with Facebook and Instagram. I think they’re all fine tools, but so many people just abuse them in the absolute worst ways possible. A lot of people take it as license to become these repugnant assholes. The amount of racist, sexist, homophobic, jingoistic bullshit that belches out of social media is really kind of staggering. It’s sad to think that someday, that crap will be a document of our times.

    In terms of the blog, I just…I read this short interview with Bill Callahan on my flight back from Thought Bubble last month, and he was asked what the best thing he’d heard all year was. His response was, “Silence,” and I think that’s something the world could use a lot more of, both literally and figuratively. The Internet unleashed the potential for everyone on the planet to communicate their thoughts with everyone else, which is a powerful thing, but the reality of the situation is that not every fleeting thought is a pearl. Not every experience needs to be catalogued, not every sentence needs to be committed to writing. If you have something that needs saying, by all means, go for it, but to a large degree, a lot of what makes it online is by people who only think they have something to say, or people who are in the process of figuring out what they want to say. I suppose there’s some value in being able to road test your ideas in that way, but speaking for myself, these days I’d rather there was a bit less white noise on the Internet so that people can get to the good stuff a little easier.

    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).