This week on Multiversity Comics Presents, our interview series here at MC, we’ve got Image Comics’ Publisher Eric Stephenson chatting with us about Image’s success from 2010, where they are headed in 2011, and the overall health of the medium. Everyone here at MC was very excited about this interview, and it turned out even better than we could have expected.
Thanks to Eric for talking with us, and check out the interview after the jump.
2010 brought healthy gains for Image in terms of market share, as your retailer dollar market share jumped from 3.67% to 4.53% year over year. You also retook the number four spot in the industry from IDW. What were your overall tactics and how satisfied were you with the results?
Can I say moderately satisfied?
I think we had a pretty good year, but at the same time, I always think we can do better. We’ve made some huge strides over the last few years, but there’s still so much we could improve on. I think the overall quality of our books is phenomenal, but getting that message across to retailers and fans is definitely something we could do much, much better. That’s one of the goals for this year.
We did a good job of keeping the books people were looking for in print, whether it was trade paperbacks and hardcovers of The Walking Dead or various issues of Morning Glories, Hack/Slash, Skullkickers and the like. I think that’s made a big difference, because while it’s nice to sell out of things, it doesn’t help our retail partners or the people who want to read the books if they can’t get them.
Beyond that, in terms of overall tactics, it’s really the same as it ever was: put out good comics.
Where do you see growth coming from in 2011?
A few different places, really, but for the most part, I think there’s a vast and growing readership that’s just plain tired of being force-fed endless events and regurgitated ideas. People would prefer one good comic featuring his or her favorite character instead of four or five that clearly exist just to make money. The whole “this is a movie, so let’s whore the concept out as much as humanly possible so we can make a huge cash grab” thing is pretty transparent at this point and I don’t think people like being treated like marks. I think you can look at some of the market share shifts over the last year and see that readers are moving away from that sort of thing, not falling for those old tricks anymore, and they’re starting to look for books that deliver good stories and interesting ideas without breaking the bank.
I think the nature of the overall readership is changing, too. Readers who get into comics through something like Watchmen or Scott Pilgrim or The Walking Dead aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to standard superhero comics. There are people coming to comics through the increased exposure the medium is receiving in the media, and I think they favor more diversity than old guard fans. Image isn’t the only publisher that stands to benefit from that kind of shift, but it’s definitely something we’re very conscious of here.
From our perspective as a site, Image Comics has seen one hell of a resurgence in recent years from a creative standpoint. What has been pushing the company creatively, and what changes have been the most influential?
The desire to continue doing new things and work with new talent, for the most part. When someone asks me what kind of books we’re looking for, I always say I want to publish the book he or she has always wanted to do. We’ve had a great deal of success creating an environment where writers and artists can tell the stories they want to tell, and I think that’s what sets us apart from other publishers, really. There are so many mainstream comics that exist solely because they fit a company’s marketing plan, things just designed to milk fan interest for all its worth, whether through crossovers or licensed product or multiple titles featuring the same character, and that’s never the genesis of any project at Image. From what I’ve seen over the past few years, creators respond to that and the work just gets better and better as a result.Continued below
Image as a whole has a reputation for being a spot for newer creators to make a name for themselves. What do you think creators find attractive about the Image system of creator-owned works?
Oh, I think that’s easy: The freedom of doing what they want and the potential for reaping the rewards of their work.
New creators come in as unknowns but leave for other publishers as budding stars, like Matt Fraction did post Casanova or Jonathan Hickman did after his Pronea books wrapped up. Has Image as a whole looked into altering the payback system to keep creators around longer, like the incredibly busy and talented Nick Spencer? What can you do to keep the talent you have now?
I don’t think it has anything to with the “payback system.” A lot of people go to Marvel or DC thinking that doing work there will increase the profile of their creator-owned work, then get so bogged down in tending to corporate marks that they have no time for their own work.
But the bottom line is that if a book isn’t selling, that’s because people aren’t buying it. Would Matt Fraction still be working at Image had Casanova sold by the boatload? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the bottom line is people didn’t support that book when it was here. It was (and is) a brilliant piece of work, and you know, people just ignored it for the most part. There were negative reviews of that book on sites that sings its praises now. It actually kind of pissed me off, because Matt’s a fantastic writer and he was working with two insanely gifted artists on a comic that stood head and shoulders above other work coming out at the time and there were people who just didn’t get it. Now he’s writing Iron Man, and I get that some people think that’s a great thing, but for me, I’d rather read more Casanova. I’d rather read more of Jonathan Hickman’s original ideas than his take on the Fantastic Four.
Altering the “payback system”… Creators get virtually everything a book makes here at Image. We take very little. But if no one is buying the book, they’re getting the majority percentage of nothing. The only way to alter that system is to pay creators for something that isn’t selling, regardless of the fact we don’t own it, and it’s a gamble if the book’s going to earn out on that.
It’s a thorny subject, but you know, there are people who make it work. Sometimes it takes time, and I understand that not everybody has the patience or the luxury to invest the necessary time, but ultimately, that’s what it takes.
Image launched two new creator owned imprints in the past year, as Marc Guggenheim rolled out Collider Entertainment and Robert Kirkman launched Skybound. Is this something you’re looking to pursue in the future, and could this be a route to keeping top names around going forward?
Honestly, no. I think we’ll always do that sort of thing in certain instances, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference in terms of sales in the long run.
Who is the one creator in the industry you’d get to work with your company if you could?
Brian K. Vaughan.
Having previously interviewed a few Image creators, many have raved about the hands off approach Image as a whole takes when releasing a book, but also claimed that it is also the biggest flaw of the system. What’s your take on that?
I think it depends on the creator, really, and it also depends on what they want more input on. I’ve also found that when strong opinions are suggested about the best way to market or present a book, more often than not, creators tend to bristle at that. Most people come here specifically because they want to do their books with as little interference as possible. The people who want help typically ask for it, and honestly, if there’s someone who feels we’re too hands off, they’re not saying that to me or my staff.
There’s also a difference between not getting help and not accepting help. If I suggest to someone that a book should be in color and then he chooses not go that route, and then readers complain that the book’s not in color, the problem isn’t that no advice was given, the problem is that the advice wasn’t listened to. If someone wants to pack extra pages into his first issue and keep the price the same, and I tell him that’s going to cut into his bottom line, but he goes ahead with that plan regardless, it’s not as though I didn’t warn him, right? Some creators want help, they want advice, they want feedback. Others don’t want to know.Continued below
Has the process ever backfired significantly between acceptance of submission and actual release?
Yes. I’m not going to name names, but there have definitely been instances when something looked extremely promising at the submission stage and then just… Well, then it was turned in and it was just remarkably bad. It’s not something that happens often, but when it does, it’s pretty disheartening. It casts everyone involved in a bad light.
From what I understand, Image Comics works purely from a submission structure. Does the company ever bend the rules and pursue new creators specifically to get them before they are snatched up by other publishers?
There are no hard and fast rules to bend. Yes, we definitely go after people, and we ask specific people to pitch ideas. More often than not, though, they’re established creators. There’s one writer in particular that I’ve been hassling to write something for us for ages, and while he’s done a short story or two for us here and there, it just hasn’t worked out for various reasons.
I don’t think many people recall that Invincible was originally released as part of a line of new superhero books back in 2003, and that was a case where we actually went out to a group of writers and said, “This is what we want to do, would you like to be involved?” We were already doing Tech Jacket, but Kirkman came back and said, “How about this other book I’m developing with Cory Walker?” and that’s how we got Invincible. I think we kind of worked Firebreather into that, but we had also approached Jim Krueger and Keith Giffen, who brought us The Clockmaker and Dominion. Sadly, neither of those books were completed, but that’s how we got them.
Fell was the result of me asking Warren Ellis to do something else after he finished Ministry of Space. GÃ¸dland grew out of Erik Larsen asking Joe Casey if he’d be interested in doing a book at Image with Tom Scioli. There are loads of examples of that sort of thing happening.
And yeah, there are a few new creators we’ve gone after: I knew the minute I saw Emi Lenox’s work that I wanted to put EmiTown out through Image. I think she’s an amazing talent, and she’s only going to get better. Joe Keatinge and Richard Starkings turned me on to Marian Churchland’s work, and I couldn’t wait to get her Beast graphic novel in front of people. Jim Valentino made it a point to go after Nick Spencer.
Again, there are no real rules regarding this stuff. Going through the submissions pile is kind of a soul-crushing experience. Granted, people like Jonathan Hickman and The Luna Brothers did their first work based off blind submissions, so good stuff does make it through, but if we relied solely on submissions from unknown talent to fill our publishing slate, I guarantee you, that would be no good.
One of the hottest topics in comics these days is pricing structure. For the most part, your books have stuck it out at $2.99 or $3.50 at most, sort of playing the gap between DC’s new found hard line approach at $2.99 and Marvel’s “content over cost” ideals. Do you see Image sticking it out at the current level for the foreseeable future?
That’s the plan. Apart from raising prices from $2.95 to $2.99 several years back, we’ve stuck it out at $2.99 for the most part. I wish more of our books were $2.99, frankly, but there are instances where it’s a choice between doing a book at $3.50 or $3.99 and not doing it at all. I’d prefer something like Age of Bronze come out when it does at $3.50 or $3.99 rather than cease publication altogether or just become a graphic novel that only comes out every three or four years, and that’s the trade off, really.
As a publisher, what’s your take on pricing as a whole? Do you think comics as a medium are pricing fans out?
I think we run that risk, yeah. I was just talking to someone about this the other day, actually, and my stance is basically that it’s unreasonable to expect people to spend $3.99 on a comic book when they’re worrying about how to pay the rent or put gas in their cars. And holding the line at $2.99 is all well and good, but I don’t think there’s anyone who feels good about standing at the counter and forking over $10 for three comics. I mean, not to go old geezer on you, but I grew up in a time when you could get four comics for a dollar. Obviously, everything is more expensive now, and I’m not suggesting comics should cost a quarter, but I don’t think we want to emulate something like the recording industry, where they just kept raising the prices on CDs until people had had enough. Now you can get an album off iTunes for nearly half what you’d pay for a CD, and those poor bastards are sitting around, wringing their hands and wondering what the hell happened. You priced people out, that’s what happened. People don’t want to pay $18 for a CD when they can get the same thing online for $9. Or free.Continued below
Image’s digital presence is expanding rapidly, with top book The Walking Dead recently going day-and-date digital. How important is digital to Image and the industry as a whole?
More important every day. I think it’s going to be a while before we reach the tipping point where print comics are outsold by their digital counterparts, but you’d have to be a fool to think that’s not going to happen within the next few years.
Both DC and Marvel have been making significant changes within the upper levels of their offices, and have been facing a steeper downward turn in their sales. Where do you think Image can start taking market share from them, and what do you perceive as weaknesses in their current structure?
Well, I think that whenever your structure becomes dependent on a continuous cycle of events and meaningless spin-off titles, you’re in for trouble. I mean, it was what? Eight months ago that Marvel claimed they were sympathetic to readers’ claims of “event fatigue,” and they said they were backing off the big events for a year, but their market share suffered over 2010, and now they’re right back to the same old tricks with “Fear Itself.” I don’t know what their expectations for that are, but my guess is it’s just going to drive more readers away. I mean, I’m a reader myself. I grew up reading Marvel comics almost exclusively, and at a certain point, it just got to be too much. I loved a lot of what Joe Quesada did when he took over as Editor-in-Chief. Bringing in Grant Morrison to write New X-Men? Brilliant. Pete Milligan and Mike Allred on X-Force and then X-Statix? Loved it. Bendis and Maleev on Daredevil, Garth Ennis on The Punisher, Millar and Hitch on The Ultimates, Brian Vaughan’s Runaways, Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men… Quesada and his team ushered in a lot of great stuff, but at some point, it just became all about these huge crossover events and doing three or four versions of every title. Deadpool. Wolverine. Spider-Man. Avengers. X-Men. Iron Man. Thor. Clearly a lot of it was being done to capitalize on films or upcoming films or whatever, but you know, it’s viewed as kind of openly crass at a certain point. People just feel taken advantage of. “Hey, you like Deadpool? Well, guess what? We’re going to give you Deadpool ’til it HURTS.” And the weird thing is, you know, Quesada kind of campaigned against exactly this sort of thing. When he came in, he trimmed back the number of overlapping titles, pared the X-Men line down, cut out some of the unnecessary junk, but now we’re right back where we started from. And DC’s just as guilty. Identity Crisis has a lot to answer for.
We don’t do all that, and as I said earlier, I think there’s a growing segment of the readership out there that appreciates that.
2010 brought sales decreases across the industry overall. What is Image Comics going to do to ensure relevance both in the upcoming year and beyond for the comic book medium?
We’re going to keep putting out good comics and do a better job of letting people know that’s what we’re doing. I know that sounds simplistic, but really, it’s all we can do. I mean, we can take advantage of the changes in technology and find new ways to deliver our comics to readers, but ultimately, if we’re not putting out comics people want to read, we could be beaming them directly into people’s brains and it wouldn’t matter.
What’s your take on the overall health of the medium?
I think the industry has certainly been healthier, but I’m not going to go on my blog and write about how the sky is falling, like some have done. I mean, I get it: The sky has fallen for you, but don’t try to apply your weird logic to the rest of the business just because bad decisions have pushed you personally to the brink of collapse. I mean, look: This year is actually my 20th year of working in comics in one form or another, and pretty much from day one, it’s been nothing but doom and gloom from all quarters. Is the industry in perfect health? For fuck’s sake, no. Things could be much, much better, but you know, we’re slogging through this shit economy and then asking people to buy five Deadpool comics. People aren’t having it.Continued below
The medium on the other hand, I think that’s in fantastic shape. Whenever you’ve got a piece of work like Darwyn Cooke’s Parker book, The Outfit, coming out or something like Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Daytrippers, something like James Stokoe’s Orc Stain or Marian Churchland’s Beast… There is a lot of amazing work out there right now, a lot of insanely talented people doing incredible work. Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Ryan Ottley aren’t enjoying the success they’re having with The Walking Dead and Invincible by accident. They all work really, really hard to squeeze as much juice as possible out of their phenomenal talent and they’re not alone. Smart, talented people are doing world-beating work in comics right now and if the direct market were to somehow dry up tomorrow, I guarantee you those people would find a way to get that work in front of readers and be successful all over again. So yeah, the medium? Fucking top shape. The industry? We’ve got some work to do.
What books are you enjoying in particular lately?
I always hate this question, because most of the comics I read are from Image and at a certain point, that sounds like I’m just sitting here drinking my own piss. I mean, I loved Who is Jake Ellis? — fantastic book that I can’t wait for more of — and the latest issue of Invincible was really great. I think that’s the best superhero comic on the market, bar none. There are lots of things at other publishers I like, but they tend to be miniseries or graphic novels, things like the Parker books from IDW or Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon’s Daytrippers over at Vertigo. I love what the Hernandez Brothers are doing with Love & Rockets theses days: I think the book’s current format really suits the material. Mark Millar’s and Ed Brubaker’s Icon books are great. I’ve been enjoying the color versions of Casanova, too. But yeah, the vast majority of what I read and enjoy in terms of comics are from Image: The Walking Dead, Chew, Savage Dragon, Haunt, Turf, Choker, The Bulletproof Coffin…
And not to brag, but one of the best parts of my job is being able to read some awesome material before anyone else. This book Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston are doing — Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker — is incredible. I don’t think people have any idea how awesome that is going to be. We’ve got a book coming up called Blue Estate, and it’s drawn by four different artists — Toby Cypress, Viktor Kalvachev, Nathan Fox and Robert Valley — in a really unique way that serves the story well. We’re doing this book called Nonplayer by a young cartoonist named Nate Simpson and reading that was a pleasure. It’s a stunning debut. Reading the new Elephantmen stuff Richard Starkings is working on has been great. I don’t think people give him enough credit for the amazing world he has created. He and Axel Medellin are doing ground-breaking work with the arc that begins with the “Man or Elephantman” one-shot. I just got a new Fell script from Warren Ellis…
Honestly, with all the great work passing across my desk on a daily basis, I never run out of great comics to read.