• Interviews 

    Multiversity Comics Presents: Eric Stephenson

    By | December 19th, 2011
    Posted in Interviews | % Comments

    2011 has been an incredible year for Image Comics. They’ve released critical darlings, solidified their position as the number three publisher in terms of sales, housed the biggest current crossover hit in The Walking Dead, and earned Multiversity’s Publisher of the Year award.

    It’s been a tremendous year, and one that has been guided by their Publisher Eric Stephenson. Today, for the third time in 2011, I took some time to speak with Stephenson about the current state of Image, where they’re going in 2012 with the impending 20th anniversary of the company, digital comics, and a whole lot more. You can find my chat with him after the jump, and thanks to Eric for sharing his insight into the world of Image once again.

    2011 has been a hell of a year for the comic book industry, namely with DC taking a huge sales leap in the later parts of the year and Marvel struggling with their loss of market and dollar shares. Throughout, Image has maintained as a pretty consistent number three. From a sales standpoint, how do you feel about the strength of your year?

    Eric Stephenson: Our sales for 2011 are up from 2010, and since last year was already such a terrific year for us, I really couldn’t be happier that we were able to keep the momentum going throughout the year. I always think we could be doing better, though. I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. I think we do something really special here, but communicating that message so that we can effectively build on each success is a never-ending process.

    From a creative standpoint, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that this was Image’s strongest year yet. When you look back, what do you feel were the biggest successes and roadblocks you met creatively speaking?

    Stephenson: I think one big success that is kind of being overlooked is the fact that Todd McFarlane took Spawn from being Image’s latest comic to actually shipping 15 issues this year — and without compromising on quality. The artist Todd tapped to take over — Szymon Kudranski — has been doing some incredible work, and the team of writers involved in the book have done a fantastic job of making Spawn the best it’s ever been. Roadblock-wise, though, I don’t think people are picking up on any of that, which is a shame because they’re missing out on a genuinely great book with as rich a mythology as you’re likely to find in comics.

    Similarly, I think it’s a shame more people aren’t giving comics like Robert Kirkman’s Super Dinosaur or things like Reed Gunther or Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors a chance. If you want to talk about roadblocks: Just try selling something that says it’s all-ages material. There’s this really blinkered mentality in comics that “all-ages” means only for kids, despite the relatively easy to understand implication that all-ages books can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Diamond even has this graphic they use for all-ages comics in Previews and it’s these two children that look like toddlers or whatever. People seem to miss the point that most the comics we love from the ‘60s or ‘70s or even the ‘80s to a large degree, were all-ages comics. Stan & Jack’s Fantastic Four was an all-ages book. And it was brilliant. Now there’s the mainline FF book and then this watered-down version aimed at children. It all seems very counter-intuitive to me, but anyway — Super Dinosaur. I love that book.

    And the thing about it is, when Robert first told me he was doing that, I didn’t think he was serious. I thought the name was a little ridiculous, and there was a good long period when I kind of made fun of him for wanting to do a book called Super Dinosaur. But then I started reading it, and the first thing that hit me was how ingenious it was to meld dinosaurs and superheroes in that way, because most kids — most young boys anyway — go through a phase of just loving dinosaurs. So there was that, but the even bigger thing was how Robert tied so much of it into things like Hollow Earth theory and all of these wonderful science fiction conspiracies you can actually go look up on YouTube and find video after video of people claiming it’s all real. There’s a lot of story in the book and a lot of just mad ideas. There’s a lot to be discovered, and it’s a book I would recommend without hesitation to anyone looking to share their passion for comics with their children.

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    On the other end of the spectrum entirely, Chew had a banner year in 2011. Awards, TV deals, it continues to show up on the New York Times bestselling graphic novels list. It sells well, but with all the positive word of mouth it gets, I think it could be doing even better. I get emails from people telling me their store doesn’t order enough copies or doesn’t order it at all, and the fact that it’s one of our fastest growing digital titles seems to bear that out. It’s a great book — an excellent, multiple award winning book — but honestly, it doesn’t get commensurate retail support. The issues come out and disappear as soon as they hit the stand. I mean, I was just informed today that Chew #22 is out of stock at Diamond, after being on sale less than a week.

    And that’s just one example out of many. Creatively, we are doing better than ever. We’re publishing some of the world’s best comics, but the roadblock, just to kind of stick with your terminology, is that they’re not always ordered that way.

    You talk about all-ages books being particularly difficult sells these days, and I couldn’t agree more. I love Reed Gunther and think the Houghton brothers are two of the coolest guys around, but I honestly don’t know anyone else who reads that book. I compared their all-ages efforts to the work of Pixar, in that it’s really something for everyone. We know with things like Super Dinosaur and Bone that all-ages can be a success, but what do you think the key to connecting books like that to an audience – both young and old – is? What’s missing from the equation for something like Reed Gunther?

    Stephenson: I’m skeptical something like Bone would make it today. Nobody would support it. Bone is a success because it came out during a period when retailers and readers were more receptive to that sort of thing. I’m just as skeptical something like Fantastic Four or Spider-Man would be a success today. Those books were targeted at a general audience, and right now, the thing that’s missing from the equation — for Reed Gunther, for Super Dinosaur, for something great like Chris Giarrusso’s G-Man, even for award winning material like Marvel’s Oz books — is that nobody wants to support material aimed at a general, all-ages audience. Everyone likes to talk about getting more kids to read comics, but when work is published that might facilitate that — it’s more or less ignored.
    I think the comparison to Pixar’s films is a good one, though — those are all-ages films. Are they great for kids? Yes. Can they be enjoyed just as much by adults? Absolutely. I think something like The Incredibles has more in common with the superhero comics I just referenced. When I saw that the first time, I thought, “Man, if only Brad Bird was doing Fantastic Four.” Back when Matt Fraction was doing Casanova at Image, there was a great line about comics in the second issue — Cass dismissed comics as “a lot of rape and crying,” and that struck me as spot on. I think things like The Incredibles — all the Pixar movies, for that matter — prove you can create interesting, nuanced stories for a general audience. That audience is there. We’re just not creating that kind of material, and I think the primary reason for that is because it receives little to no support.

    2012 is both the 20th anniversary of Image’s launch and what looks to be a watershed year of creativity and good storytelling from your company. You have an incredibly impressive line-up of titles and creators on deck. How long have you and your team been working on putting this year together, and has 2012 long been a target for you?

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    Stephenson: Well, depending on the specific details, there are pieces of the overall plan we’ve been moving into place for a few years now. When I first accepted the job as publisher, back in 2008, I’d kind of discussed with both Robert Kirkman and Erik Larsen that I thought the best way to celebrate our upcoming 20th year was simply to be at our best. As we moved through the latter half of 2010 and into this year, it started to look like something of an open goal.

    I have no problem with celebrating the highlights of our last 20 years. We have a few things in the works like that — collecting some earlier work under one cover, some variants that celebrate some of our key first issues over the years, fun stuff like that — but we don’t want to be limited to celebrating past achievements, and fortunately, we’re not in a position where we have to. Thanks to some of the biggest and best creative minds in comics, we’re going to spend 2012 expanding not only our own horizons, but those of comics’ as a whole.

    It’s going to be amazing.

    Since we last spoke Image has announced many major projects, but in my opinion the two biggest coups were Fatale from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (brilliant first issue for that, by the way) and Saga from Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. What’s the story behind bringing those projects to Image, in particular Fatale given the established relationship of Brubaker and Phillips with Icon?

    Stephenson: I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouths, but I think where Sean and Ed are concerned, it was really just a matter of them trying out a project at Image. Ed and I had talked about him doing something here for years, and I think he and Robert had similar conversations during the same period. It was just the right time.

    With Brian — that’s another one that goes back years, because Brian came out a while ago and publicly said he wasn’t doing work for hire anymore and that he wanted to focus purely on creator owned work. I’d asked Brian about doing something at Image once or twice before that, but pretty much the minute I read the interview where he made that statement, I was asking again. Robert hit him up, too, and Brian basically came back and said he wasn’t quite ready to launch anything new, but when he was, he would let us know and we would talk. We shot emails back and forth, and Robert, Brian and I had dinner together at one point just to discuss the nuts and bolts of how Image works in general terms, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Brian finally got in touch and said, “I’m ready — here’s what I want to do.” He’d talked to Fiona by then — which was awesome, because I am such a huge fan of her work — and it was just a matter of setting the wheels in motion after that.

    Out of the litany of the announcements for 2012, I’d say the most surprising one was the return of Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios. How did that come together, and what are your thoughts on what you’ve seen so far? I read the first new issue of Prophet from Brandon Graham and Simon Roy and I came away very impressed.

    Stephenson: I guess that overall idea goes back a couple years, too. Kirkman was a big fan of that stuff and he’d been prodding both Rob and I about it for a while. Rob and I kind of bounced thoughts on what should be done with the books back and forth, over the course of several months, and then I started approaching different people. Certain things came together quickly — Tim Seeley was a no-brainer for Bloodstrike, for instance — but I originally thought about getting Erik Larsen to do Prophet with Tom Scioli. I talked about what we were doing with these books while I was hanging out with Brandon Graham at Emerald City last March, though, and I came away from that conversation convinced that he was the perfect choice to write Prophet. I gave him my initial thoughts a little while later, and he just came back at me with one brilliant idea after another. And he suggested we pull in Simon Roy and things just snowballed from there on that one. Similar situation with Glory — I asked Joe Keatinge to pitch the book, he presented a great take on the character and the concept, and suggested Ross Campbell as artist. I think the results will speak for themselves.

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    Erik’s the one who suggested finishing up the story Alan Moore had started. I’d originally been reticent to go anywhere near that material, because I have a lot of respect for Alan and what he did with Supreme. I thought — we’ll just leave it. At one point, I made some inquiries to see if Alan himself would be interested in writing the last issue of his run, but ultimately, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I asked a couple other writers if they’d be interested, but really, no one was crazy about the idea of following Alan. But Erik really felt strongly about putting out the last issue Alan wrote and then tying up the story, and he had a direction he wanted to take things from there. He laid that all out for Rob and I — really made a case for where he wanted to go with things — and we were sold. He’s really excited about it, and he’s now four issues in with the story and pencils.

    John McLaughlin — he’s kind of out of left field. He was recommended by Scott Lobdell: “Hey, you should work with this good friend of mine. By the way — he wrote Black Swan.” Black Swan?! That just seemed like such a great angle, the writer of an Academy Award winning film, doing Youngblood — we had to see what he wanted to do! And as it turns out, it’s pretty great. Rob’s working with an artist named Jon Malin on this, so it’s probably the most visually similar to the old Extreme books. It works, though. I think people will be pleasantly surprised.

    I’m really happy with everything I’ve seen so far, and I think Rob is, too. Both of us were eager to see these books fulfill their original promise. I mean — we worked together for years on these characters and we both have an enduring affection for them. Rob created them, but you don’t shepherd someone’s creations for almost 10 years without developing a bond to the stuff, you know? We think this is exceptional work, though, and we’re looking to build an audience with these books.

    In your recent Into Tomorrow post on Image’s site, you teased a few unannounced projects; including one that you say heavily impacted your own love of comics. Any chance you can share any details about these projects, and if not, when could we possibly expect more details?

    Stephenson: Aw, where’s the fun in that?

    I will say the creator who had an impact on my love of comics is an artist, not a writer, and the specific work just made a huge impression on me when I first saw it. Everything else, you’ll just have to wait and see. It’s going to be a fun year, and that post really only scratched the surface.

    One of the biggest things coming for Image outside of publishing is February’s Image Expo. This is the first one, and it’s described as a “three-day celebration of creator-owned comics.” How did the idea come to fruition, and why did you decide now was the time to roll it out?

    Stephenson: Timing-wise, it was mainly just that it’s our 20th anniversary. Jimmy Jay had pitched the idea a while ago, but it really didn’t make sense until he mentioned doing it at the Oakland Convention Center. That’s where Wondercon used to be held and the idea of doing something there that coincided with our 20th anniversary was instantly appealing. Jimmy had a lot of great ideas for it, and it just seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, especially with Wondercon putting on their 2012 show in Anaheim.

    Arguably the most frequently discussed topic in comics recently is digital comics, and in specific, how to handle their pricing structure without negatively impacting retailers. Do you see a way comic publishers can appease both of those markets without causing push back from one or the other? Additionally, is a major push in digital in the cards in 2012 for Image?

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    Stephenson: I think you’ll definitely see some stronger marketing devoted to our digital content over the next year, but at this point, most of our comics are already available digitally and most of them are same day as print.

    In terms of direct market retailers, specifically — I understand where they’re coming from: If they’re selling comics for $2.99 or $3.99, then why should the exact same thing be sold in a different format for less? And honestly, why should it? What about the digital format makes it any less valuable than its counterpart?

    I don’t think the real problem is with the price or the format, though. I think the bigger issue is how to reach more readers. So like I said, we’re going to put some marketing weight behind moving the needle in a way that will sell both more digital comics and more print comics.

    Obviously this is not the same digital format I asked about before, but comic piracy has become an increasingly hot button issue as well. While most are very passionately against it, there are some instances where creators embrace it – like Steve Lieber with Underground and Jim Zubkavich with Makeshift Miracle – and it pays off for them. Obviously trying to control the ebbs and flows of pirated comics and turning that into sustained sales is likely a lost cause, but what’s your take? For something like creator-owned comics, do you think there are net gains to be had from confronting piracy in a positive way – like Louis CK recently did – and using it as a way to build an audience, either in print or digital?
    Stephenson: Well, in a lot of cases, I think pirated comics ultimately result in more sales. Our most pirated comic is The Walking Dead. Our best selling monthly and our best selling trades are The Walking Dead. Our best selling digital comic is The Walking Dead. I think if people like something that they’ve been pirating, there is a percentage of those people who will start buying the material. Is it anywhere close to 100%? Of course not. But it creates exposure and it creates sales in the long run.
    Does that mean I’m excited about people stealing content? Well, no. I think it’s a pretty shitty thing to do, frankly, especially when it comes down to creator owned work. As Louis CK notes, it’s not like you’re stealing from a big corporation. Everyone from Robert Kirkman on down to the Houghton Brothers are doing this on their own. As I’ve noted in the past, there are people creating comics just because they’ve got a story they want to tell, and the financial rewards are small in some cases. Every time you pirate one of those books — you’re taking money directly out of their pocket. Should comic book creators be able to come over to where you work and steal the fruits of your labor? If you’re flipping burgers — can we all come get free burgers from you? If you’re a bartender — are the drinks on you next time? Will you be cool with that? Because that’s what it comes down to. Most everyone in comics or in music or whatever is just like Louis CK — they just want to keep doing this cool stuff and sharing it with the world. Ensuring they can’t make a living while they’re doing that seems kind of counter intuitive, if you ask me.

    One of the busiest days of every year in every shop I’ve been to is Free Comic Book Day, and with good reason. Turns out people love free stuff, and it’s theoretically a great gateway into new readers. My question is this though: whether for Image or for the industry as a whole, why isn’t there a digital free comic book day? Do you see value in something like that? To me, it seems like there would be of great value to Image to pair the print FCBD with a digital one in which a few under read, quality first issues – like Reed Gunther or Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors – were free for that day only.
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    Stephenson: Look, here’s the thing about Free Comic Book Day: It was originated as a way to get people into comic book stores. Not as a way to promote comics for publishers — that’s a secondary benefit. The whole idea was to get people into comic book stores, the same way Baskin Robbins was getting people into their ice cream shops by giving away free scoops of ice cream. Obviously, the idea is that once you get people into comic book shops, they’ll keep coming back and they’ll buy more comics, but at it’s heart, the whole idea of the event was to feed traffic into the direct market. And beyond that — we make a lot of our first issues available for free. I don’t think we’re the only publisher that does that. We’re making quality first issues available for free on a regular basis, so I don’t see how kind of stomping on FCBD’s turf is going to do anything but aggravate the people that event is intended to benefit the most.

    Recently, you rather famously came out against the Big Two retreading stories, while mostly promoting some of your more impressive future releases. The sad fact about that is that those retreads likely mean vast sales numbers for Marvel and DC (relative to now, rather than years past). To you, does that say more about those publishers or those who are purchasing the books?

    Stephenson: Well, that blog post was actually meant as a joke, but you know… it’s funny because it’s true.

    It’s not so much that they’re retreading stories, but the crassness with which it’s done. I mean, this Avengers vs. X-Men thing, it’s a four-issue miniseries from the ‘80s revamped for the current continuity and melded with Civil War. It’s basically Civil War 2: Avengers vs. X-Men. Even though there’s been some backlash against just doing event after event after event, that seems to be all they can come up with at this point. They either kill characters off and then bring them back, or they gather them all together in a big group and have them fight one another. Civil War, Secret Invasion, Fear Itself — they’re all variations on the same template, really. With DC it’s Crisis this, Crisis that. I reckon Flashpoint was only called that because they’d written themselves into a corner by already doing an event called Final Crisis.

    You make a good point, though, because obviously, they wouldn’t be doing this stuff if people didn’t buy it, even though that audience is becoming smaller and smaller. I’ve said it before, though — I think people get tired of being treated like marks. That’s why the numbers for those kind of events are always just a little bit smaller. The people who just want to read good comics have been tuned out in favor of the fans who root for Marvel and DC like they’re sports teams or something, and at times, it seems like everyone’s just intent on turning comics into a shitty second-rate version of the movie industry, where big budget schlock is expected to do well just because it’s big budget schlock. I find the whole notion of rooting for the super-successful to succeed even when it may not be in everybody’s best interests kind of bizarre, frankly. It’s like going into a casino and wanting the house to win.

    Do you think the idealized world of the best comics also being the best-selling comics is something that could ever become even partially a reality?

    Stephenson: Considering that things like The Walking Dead or Bone or Y: The Last Man or Watchmen are some of the bestselling trade paperbacks of all time, I’d argue that’s in the process of happening already. Especially when you consider the impact trade paperbacks have had on the overall business over the last decade or so. And you mentioned Ed and Sean’s Icon work — that’s all been very successful. There are millions of copies of The Walking Dead in print at this point. Chew is heading in the same direction. That’s a triumph.

    The challenge, though… I guess the challenge is making people understand it’s not limited to just those books. Getting people to realize that the experience of reading all this other great material is equally enjoyable. If you like any one of those books I just mentioned, there are many, many more where that came from. Different comics, similar experience.

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    To me, one of the biggest roadblocks to the success of quality, original comics is the very structure of ordering the industry is built on. Your Average Joe Reader doesn’t realize that whether or not they pre-order something can affect the commercial viability of a title. Do you think that blowing up and reimagining the distribution process is something that could positively impact comics, or do you see this as more of a non-factor?

    Stephenson: I don’t know if it comes down to distribution or simply the practices of the direct market as a whole. Obviously, the comics industry would be very different if there was more than one distributor, but whether or not we’d be better off right now as a result is ultimately an unknowable.

    You are right, though — the commercial viability of many titles is largely dependent on whether a customer is proactive enough to walk into a store and pre-order something. I’ve always viewed that as a hindrance, because it doesn’t take into account all the people who can’t be bothered to pre-order, or don’t know about something or realize they want it until they actually see it in front of them. I have never pre-ordered anything in my life. I go to the store and expect them to have it. It’s one of the old maxims of comics: Having the book on display is the best advertisement. And that’s one area in which digital will ultimately have the upper hand, I think: When people go looking for something, it will be there.

    There are a lot of great things about the direct market, and there are some flat-out amazing people running some truly wonderful stores these days. I’ve met them. I’ve been to many of their shops. They have a tough job and they bust their humps like nobody’s business. Shopping for comics from a good comic book store remains a true pleasure. On the other hand, there are also individuals who seem to think everyone from their customers to the people making the comics should be doing their jobs for them. They like to speak in terms of “partnership,” but when the coins drop, it’s really just about how to make the most money for them in the easiest way possible. I see that as a fundamental problem, something that is extremely detrimental to all of us.

    In its 20 years in the industry, Image Comics has transitioned from a beginning that was a bold leap into the unknown of mass published, creator-owned comics to one of the biggest hotbeds in the industry for top notch, progressive comic book storytelling. In the current state of the industry, is it feasible for an exercise like Image to come together?

    Stephenson: Honestly, I don’t see how it could.

    I mean, you look at Marvel, or at what’s happening with DC’s New 52 — it’s an anomaly for someone to stay on anything for very long. It’s like, they launch Wolverine and The X-Men with Chris Bachalo and then it’s Nick Bradshaw for a couple issues. Carlos Pacheco does a few issues of Uncanny X-Men and then it’s Greg Land. Who knows who will be doing those books this time next year? I don’t know if it’s done by design, but it has effectively devalued artists to the point that they’re more or less interchangeable.

    I re-read Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men recently, and it was kind of depressing. He starts off so strong with Frank Quitely and they have this great thing going, and then it just turns into musical chairs. Regardless of the talent involved — and I really admire some of the other artists on those comics — I ultimately felt it undermined what Grant was doing. You look at wonderful, classic pieces of work like the Dark Phoenix Saga or what Frank Miller and Klaus Janson did on Daredevil — Alan Moore’s work with Dave Gibbons on Watchmen or with Rick Veitch, Steve Bisssette and John Totleben on Swamp Thing or the Lee/Kirby FF books — they’re not pock-mocked by rotating artists.

    And everything over there is like that now. Comic book artists in particular are treated more as commercial artists than storytellers. They might as well be doing greeting cards for all the impact they’re allowed to have these days.

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    Last time I asked you whom you would work with if you could work with anyone, and your answer was Brian K. Vaughan — which has obviously come to be reality now. Who would your answer be now?

    Stephenson: Oh, that’s simple: Grant Morrison.

    You obviously have major projects with names like Brubaker, Phillips, Vaughan, Staples, Luna, Hickman, Liefeld, Keatinge and others attached in 2012. If you had to throw out some under-the-radar creators or titles that will catch everyone by surprise in 2012, ala Luther Strode this year, what would you say?

    Stephenson: Brandon Graham is a titan. Like I said, he’s doing Prophet with Simon Roy and we’re finally collecting King City in February. Brandon’s just an amazing talent. Same goes for David Hine. He’s doing more Bulletproof Coffin, plus he’s taking over The Darkness. He also has another series in the works for us that is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever had pitched to me. Watch out for Landry Walker and Eric Jones. If you liked what they were doing with Supergirl, you’re going to love Danger Club. We have some great new talent on the way in 2012, too. These 2012 books are definitely going to be worth keeping a constant eye on.

    Do you think 2012 will be Image’s best year yet?

    Stephenson: Absolutely.

    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).