Multiversity Comics Presents: Eric Stephenson

By | July 11th, 2011
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

This week on Multiversity Comics Presents, we chat with Image publisher Eric Stephenson again. In January of this year, we spoke with Eric about where Image is, where it is headed and the general state of the comic union, and we thought so highly of it we decided we wanted to talk to Eric every half year about what is going on at Image and his thoughts on all aspects of his comic book world.

In this interview, we chat with how 2011 is going for Image, Warren Ellis, Image’s next big creator finds, DC’s reboot/relaunch, why 2012 is going to be a huge year for Image, and a whole lot more. Thanks a ton to Eric, one of the greatest interviews in the industry, and we hope you all enjoy what you read after the jump.

2011 has been a year of continued growth for Image, going from 4th place at 4.53% of overall dollars in 2010 to 3rd place at 5.56% in the first 5 months of 2011. What would you say have been your biggest successes year-to-date as well as your biggest drivers of growth?
Eric Stephenson: There have been a few. Nate Simpson’s phenomenal Nonplayer, obviously, and Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston’s Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker. The first Morning Glories trade sold through really quick and continues to move at a fast clip. Same with the Skullkickers trade — just getting that back into stores now. Infinite Vacation has been great, Who is Jake Ellis? and of course The Walking Dead and Chew are still earning their keep. Not all of our successes are gigantic hits like The Walking Dead, but there have been a lot more of them this year. And then there are things like Spawn #200 — that was a huge success.

In our last interview, you said one of your biggest goals for Image in 2011 was to properly convey the quality of your comics to both retailers and fans alike. How well has that gone year to date?
ES: More and more people seem to be paying attention to what we’re doing, so I think we’re getting there. People tell me they’re reading more Image titles than ever, and that’s encouraging. I always think we can do better, though.

I mean, I’d like to get to a point where people are kind of buying Image titles in the same way kids bought Motown singles back in the ’60s. Even if they’d never heard of the singer or the band, it was Motown and that meant it was going to be good. I think the goal is to establish the Image “i” as a mark of quality, so that people hungry for new talent and new ideas don’t have to think twice before buying something like Nonplayer or Who is Jake Ellis? or Memoir.

We’re not there yet, but it’s constantly getting better.
This year has brought a significant amount of successful book launches for Image, including Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic’s Who is Jake Ellis, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Scott Kowalchuk’s The Intrepids, and Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston’s Butcher Baker: The Righteous Maker. Is Image looking to continue to be aggressive in the launching of new titles, or is this flurry strictly part of your 1H plan of 2011?
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ES: New ideas are our bread and butter, so yeah, definitely, that’s not going to stop. By the end of this year, we’ll have released something like 50 brand-new projects. Not revamps or relaunches, because that’s not new. 50 brand-new projects. Nobody else is doing that. I’m not sure any other publisher can do that.
Does everything hit the same? Well, no. You win some, you lose some. That’s not just a cliché, it’s the truth. Doesn’t stop us from pushing forward, though, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. Next year is our 20th anniversary, and we’re going to celebrate by blowing some minds. This year was just the warm-up.
In terms of the major comics publishers, Image has by far the most diverse line-up when it comes to genres of story. How important is that diversity to Image’s identity?
ES: Well, we wouldn’t be so steadfast in our support of such diverse material if it wasn’t important. I mean, to me, that’s like asking how important variety is to eating.
There are publishers that specialize in certain types of material, and we do some of that same stuff but it would be foolish for us to just do what they do. Had we committed to that at some point in the past, we would have cheated ourselves out of some of our most successful books. Can you imagine if at some point, it had been decided that Image was just going to publish superhero comics? There would be no Chew, no Walking Dead, no Turf. No Fell, no Phonogram, no Age of Bronze. There aren’t many other series in comics like Age of Bronze. Phonogram is virtually its own genre. Nobody had done a music-related anthology like Comic Book Tattoo or Put the Book Back on the Shelf before we did them. Things like that wouldn’t have been possible if we were a different type of publisher.
It seems every day we get notification of another Image title selling out at a distributor level. Is this due to Image as a company producing smaller amounts initially to insulate from being stuck with stock (while also knowing a second printing could follow very quickly), or is it simply due to these new titles massively exceeding expectations?
ES: A little of column a, a little of column b. We do announce a lot of sell-outs, but honestly, there are plenty of books that sell out regularly and we don’t say a word about. Every issue of The Walking Dead sells out within a few weeks of its release date, no matter how much we increase orders. Same with things like Invincible, Chew and Morning Glories. There are trade paperbacks we over-print on by huge amounts, and they sell out and we go back to press without a peep. Lots of stuff sells out over time, but when something sells out faster than expected, it’s worth pointing out to people. Things that sell out anywhere from a week after release to on the same day of release, that means everyone up the food chain was caught off guard — from the reader to the retailer to us — and that warrants an announcement.
This seems to be a sticking point for some people, though, and here’s the reality of the situation: It costs money to print comics. There was a time when it was a widespread industry practice to print lots and lots and LOTS of extra copies for first issues. When I started here as Marketing Director back in 2001, there were books in stock that were published around the time Image first started. Not a few copies, but in some cases, a few THOUSAND copies. And when you’ve got that many books laying around, long after their sell-by date, that costs money. You don’t want to drag storage fees around for years or even months on end. But everyone got smarter about overprinting, and I don’t think we’re alone in setting fewer copies aside for inventory. So when demand actually does exceed supply, you sell out.
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And it’s kind of a gamble, because here’s what happens when you sell out: The book is not available for sale. To get a second printing to market, there is a lag. The second printing has to be offered to retailers, orders have to be collected, the book has to ship. In the meantime, there’s an announcement about the sell-out, which is nice, because you know, it’s a second stab at promotion, but there’s no guarantee people are still going to be as keen on it by the time the second printing actually reaches stores.
Ideally, we’d like our books to sell out within four to six weeks so that they’re on the stands until the next issue comes out. The best advertising for a book is to actually be there on the racks when customers are looking for things to buy.
Since we last spoke, Image announced titles written by two of the hottest names in comics – Scott Snyder and Jonathan Hickman, as well as a trio of books from Frank Cho, and we also got word from Christian Ward that he will soon be working on a title with a very prominent name in the industry at Image. As a follow-up to the question I had last time about major names working at Image, have you seen increasing interest from big name creators in bringing titles to Image in 2011?
ES: Yes, but at the same time, we’re constantly talking to people and sometimes those conversations take years to result in something you can go down the shop and buy. Guys like Frank and Jonathan have worked here before and doing more work at Image has kind of always been on the cards. Scott Snyder and Severed came to us somewhat out of the blue. There are a couple things coming out in 2012 that, one way or another, have been in the planning stages for several years. So, yeah, there are more people talking to us, but being totally upfront, some of the more recent stuff isn’t necessarily the product of that.
2011 has brought increasing spotlight from many high profile creators (such as Steve Niles and Eric Powell) to the need for those that work in comics to focus more on creator-owned works. Have you seen a related increase in submissions to Image?
ES: I don’t know if the level of submissions has increased all that significantly over the course of this year. We always get a lot. Most publishers don’t accept blind submissions anymore, so we’re one of the only outlets for that, creator-owned or otherwise.

Do you see the industry as a whole ever making a bigger move to titles of that sort?
ES: In its current state? No. Which isn’t to say there won’t be more support for creator-owned work or more successful creator-owned books, but I think there would have to be a seismic shift in the comics business for that to happen on the kind of scale you’re talking about.
A person who has long been affiliated with Image thanks to the Popgun anthology series has been having a big year thanks to his work with Frank Cho. How important to Image is Joe Keatinge, and is he one of the underrated names in comics?
ES: Actually, I think 2012 is going to be Joe’s big year. Joe’s editing 50 Girls 50 for Frank, but the work they’re doing together isn’t going to be released for some time yet. And Joe’s writing some other things, but again, that’s all next year.
Joe’s a valued friend of the company, and I’m happy that he’s finally doing the kind of work he’s always wanted to produce. Is he underrated? Well, he doesn’t have much of a CV at this point. He’s done a few short stories here and there, but he’s really just embarking on his career as a comic book writer. I think he’s come a long way from his first efforts, and based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m looking forward to his continued development.
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Shit, that sounds really professorial, doesn’t it?
The bottom line is this, though: Joe’s not content to wallow in the past. Like most people in this business, he has a healthy appreciation of the comics and creators that made him fall in love with the medium, but he’s not chained to that stuff. He’s eager to try new things, to explore new ideas, to create. Creators like that are indispensable.
The question on many of our minds at Multiversity is tied to an answer you gave us in our last interview. You’ve seen a new script to Warren Ellis’ Fell. When might we see another issue?
ES: We’re not soliciting another issue of Fell until Warren and Ben are done with the series. When will that be? Only Warren and Ben know for sure, and I’m not saying that to be vague. Warren is juggling a number of projects; Ben is dealing with his own stuff. They both want to finish the series, that’s the best I can tell you right now.
The Walking Dead is a massive hit on TV. Chew is being developed into a show itself. How does this and the increasing interest from Hollywood in comic properties benefit Image as a company?
ES: The most basic benefit is increased sales on the books. You look at things like Watchmen and Scott Pilgrim, which, whatever their respective merits, did not perform to expectations, and they still moved thousands upon thousands of books. Then look at a runaway success like The Walking Dead and do the math. We sell a lot of Walking Dead books. Film trailers, TV commercials, magazine covers — all those things raise awareness of the property and the seriously curious go in search of the source material. And as awareness increases for the individual properties, so does the awareness of the company, which is good both for Image and for the creators who publish here.
DC is rebooting/relaunching their entire line in September, hoping to bring in new readers in droves. Inspired thinking or desperation ploy?
ES: You know, it’s an interesting idea. When I first started working in comics in the early ’90s, I remember hearing the story about how DC had originally planned to follow Crisis on Infinite Earths with a similar plan, and the idea kind of fascinated me for a while. I don’t think they planned to launch 52 new titles all at once, but there was something about the original idea — the Crisis would happen and then the DC Universe would slowly be put back together, piece by piece, title by title — that seemed kind of neat.
But then the rest of the ’90s happened and books were launched and relaunched. Heroes Reborn. Heroes Return. Marvel has been relaunching and renumbering books for well over a decade at this point. DC did their Zero Hour thing… Starting things over doesn’t seem like a terribly novel idea at this point. I mean, really, it’s a bit old hat. 70 years on, though, I’m not sure that people really go to DC Comics in search of new ideas.
But all the same, I’m pretty far removed from the average fan, and I don’t think what they’re doing is designed to appeal to people like me. Will it appeal to the wide, general audience they’re seeking? Well, that’s the big question, and honestly, I don’t think we’re going to know until we get to the end of the year.
DC is also going to move to releasing all titles day-and-date digitally after the relaunch. Is this something Image is looking to do as well, and how do you perceive this as affecting the digital platform for the industry as a whole?
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ES: Well, I think one of the challenges facing digital distribution is that with a few exceptions, there’s this kind of digital back issue bin out there. For the most part, digital comics are not new comics, and as long as that remains the case, digital sales will always be a fraction of print sales.
I’m on record as saying the print market is different from the digital market, and I personally think it’s unfair to penalize people who want to buy digital comics in the vain hope that it will drive more people to comic book shops. The people who want print comics are going to buy print comics. There is another audience that has no interest in hoarding boxes of comics, that is more satisfied having this stuff on their iPad or their laptop or their phone. I don’t see how that audience is any less valuable than the print audience. From a creative perspective, a publishing perspective — we’re in the business of telling stories. If people want to read those stories in a format other than print, we can either stick our heads in the sand and pretend it’s a fad, or we can acknowledge that this is the 21st century and adapt to the demands of the changing times.
As it currently stands, how does your digital sales compare with your print sales, and is digital trending significantly upward for Image?
ES: There hasn’t been a tipping point to date. Print sales outnumber digital sales by a wide margin, even on something as successful as The Walking Dead. Are those numbers going up? In some cases, yes, in some cases no. There isn’t some form of alchemy that allows us to magically translate lackluster print sales into robust digital sales, and the books that sell well in comic book stores tend to sell well through the app. The things that don’t, don’t.
Image releases the Liberty Annual every year, a book that features tons of major talent with all proceeds going to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. This project came to Image the year you arrived, and is only getting bigger each year. Did you bring it to Image, and what is it about this project that makes you so passionate about it?
ES: It’s something Charles Brownstein and I had been talking about for a while. I’ve known Charles since I first started working on staff at Image and he’s someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for, both personally and professionally. I mean — you know, I actually first met Charles when he was very young, in his early teens at a store signing Jim Valentino did back in 1991 or 1992, and then he self-published this fanzine called Feature when he was a teenager, so he was kind of always on my radar. Then I started at Image and he became the Executive Director of the Fund and I got to know him through that and found him to be a very smart guy with wisdom well beyond his years. But yeah — he’s suggested a number of different ways Image could support the Fund over the years and this was one of the best.
As far as what makes it important, I think it should go without saying that free speech is one of our most fundamental rights as citizens of the United States. Our right to free expression is challenged on a daily basis, and sometimes, those challenges occur within the comics world. Without the diligence of people like Charles and organizations like the CBLDF, I guarantee you, we’d all be worse off. You only have to look at their site and read about some of the cases the Fund has been involved with to say why the work they do is so important.
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In the solicitation copy for Liberty Annual 2011, editor Bob Schreck referred to the censors constantly challenging free expression as “bullies,” and I think that’s right on the money. There are always bullies out there trying to prevent everyone enjoying the rights we’re all entitled to, but thankfully, there are also people willing to stand up for those rights. I’m proud to be a small part of that, proud that Image is able to lend a hand.
On your blog, you recently hyped up October for Image as the month everyone “meet(s) their new favorite comic.” That book is Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore’s The Strange Talent of Luther Strode. What is this book, and why should fans pre-order it as soon as possible?
ES: I hate to be coy, but you’ll have to wait and see. There’s some basic story info out there about it now — skinny teenager get gets powers from a book he ordered from an ad in a comic — but there’s more to it than that, and it’s just executed very, very well. It’s a really cool concept and Justin and Tradd have done a great job with it. And you know, Justin and Tradd are newcomers to comics, but they’ve got three issues in the can as of right now and the fourth should be done by the end of this month. Everyone who’s seen and read this stuff has been blown away.
In the world of comics, a lot of the hype out of the publishers is just that: hype for the purposes of marketing. Yet when you rave about a book, it is because you genuinely love it and to me, it establishes it as an immediate must buy – like with Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston’s Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker and the upcoming Luther Strode. Working so closely with all aspects of the industry, how do you maintain your passion for the medium, and how difficult is it to do that?
ES: Well, I love comics. I love reading, period, but I’ve always found comics to be kind of special. I like serialized storytelling, and I like the fact that comics can do things in 20 or so pages that often can’t be replicated in any other medium, no matter what the allotted time or how big the budget. Maybe it’s just when I was raised and how I first came into contact with comics, but getting lost in a good comic book, no matter who it’s published by, that’s still a huge thrill for me. And I especially love getting my hands on something, so being able to put things like Butcher Baker or Luther Strode is really exciting.
I remember when Image started in 1992, and then when Dark Horse launched Legend in 1993 — that was an amazing time. All those new books! Some of the stuff may not have panned out the way it could have, but man, it was so cool to see all this new stuff coming out, just this great flurry of new ideas. Same thing when Joe Mad, J. Scott Campbell and Humberto Ramos launched Cliffhanger, and then later still, when Warren Ellis started doing things like Transmet, Planetary and The Authority — I think Mike Allred launched The Atomics through his own AAA Pop imprint around the same time, and Paul Grist was starting Jack Staff — there are these brief instances when several new things hit at once and not to get overly precious about it all, but really, they’re kind of these magic moments in time.
I think comics do “new” better than just about anything else, and I feel pretty lucky to be part of that process, so… yeah. The new stuff keeps me pretty stoked about what I do.
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A few weeks back you lamented the disappearance of both Warren Ellis and fresh ideas from comics, partly placing the blame on readers for buying multiple versions of books that star the same character instead of unique books that tell original and challenging stories – like the ones Ellis creates with his eyes closed. Why do you think truly original comic storytelling struggles so much to find an audience, and do you think the future is brighter for comics of that sort?
ES: I think part of it comes down to economics: If you’re on a tight budget, you can’t buy everything. To buy something new, you have to drop something you’re already following. Even if you want to try everything that looks interesting, you can’t. I know, I’ve been there. Comics aren’t cheap and I think there is definitely an element of people sticking with what they know, precisely because they know it, instead of branching out when something new comes along.
I mean, look, I grew up a huge Fantastic Four fan. I could talk your ear off about Stan and Jack’s FF, and you know, I was in Earth-2 Comics down in LA a couple weeks ago, and only seeing a portion of a cover, I asked Judd if I could take a look at a copy of FF #64. But even though I pretty much stopped reading the book after Walt Simonson stopped doing the book back in the early ’90s, I kept buying it long after that. Same with a number of other books: I bought them because I’d always bought them. Things like Hellboy and Sin City, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, Rick Veitch’s Rarebit Fiends, Paul Pope’s THB and various Image titles broke me out of that. I was just devouring all this new stuff, and there literally came a day when I was at the shop with some of my old favorites in hand and I thought, “Why am I still buying these?”
That’s only part of it, though, because there’s also the unfortunate truth that not every new idea is a good idea, and for every over-hyped bad idea a reader comes in contact with, there’s that much reinforcement not to try something that is actually really good. Apply that to the retail level, and that becomes even more of a concern: If your customer base is feeling burned by certain types of books, you’re not going to keep ordering books they’re not buying. Everyone gets a little gun-shy, and it’s a shame, because one of our medium’s great strengths is the potential for a wide variety of content.
And yeah, like I said on my blog, I miss the days when Warren Ellis was rattling off new ideas every day, whether through his old Come in Alone column on CBR or via Bad Signal or just posts on various forums — all whilst writing some of the best comics of they day. It’s kind of sickening to see the brilliance of something like The Authority recycled for this new Stormwatch book, because the work Warren and Hitch did, and then Millar and Quitely, did on The Authority was truly inspired. I mean, all the stuff that came after Mark’s run was the kind of disaster I’d imagine a sequel to The Watchmen would be. And The Authority was just ONE of Warren’s ideas. The least of his ideas are better than a whole publishing slate of revamps. As far as I’m concerned, Warren Ellis is a national treasure wherever his comics are read.
Overall, though, I think there’s hope. I think the future is brighter for original storytelling than it has been in some time. Seeing the positive reaction to so many of our new titles this year makes me incredibly optimistic for the coming year. The readers I talk to seem hungry for something different, and more and more, the creators I come in contact seem eager to feed that hunger.
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At Emerald City ComiCon this year, we attended a panel that focused on Image and its stable of rising stars – such as Nick Spencer, Jim Zubkavich and Kurtis J. Wiebe. Who do you see as the next person to break out at Image?
ES: Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore, the Luther Strode team. They’re both phenomenal. Justin pitched Luther Strode to me back in November, and I was like, “Yes, please!” As far as first-time efforts go, I’d put them in the same class as guys like Jonathan Hickman and The Luna Brothers. The whole package, right out of the gate. I’ve also been developing a couple projects with a Los Angeles-based writer making the jump from film development work to comics, Kel Symons, and he’s very good. Very sharp writing and a lot of great ideas. He’s a 2012 guy, but I think people are going to love him.
Renumbering. Relaunching. Rebooting. These are buzz words in the industry right now, but Image continues chugging along with good, old fashioned storytelling in comics. What is Image doing through the rest of 2011 to keep the momentum going amidst all that jazz?
ES: Yeah, reboot, relaunch, renumber. The three Rs of comics. It’s funny: In 1991, Marvel was re-booting the X-books with X-Men #1 and Jim Lee, and 20 years later, Jim Lee’s at DC re-booting their whole universe with 52 new #1s… and Marvel is re-booting the X-books with X-Men: Schism and a new Uncanny X-Men #1.
C’est la vie, c’est la guerre. We’re going to continue publishing new comics.

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).