Image’s Eric Stephenson, in many ways, has become one of the more dominant tastemakers in comics. He’s guided Image to become the third biggest publisher as well as one that is filled with some of the most exciting and critically acclaimed titles around. Not only that, but 2012 marked his return to writing, as his book “Nowhere Men” with artist Nate Bellegarde and colorist Jordie Bellaire has been met with resounding applause, and it keeps getting better with each issue.
We talk to Stephenson about the year that was for Image, what’s coming for them, how he’s felt the response to “Nowhere Men” has been, and much, much more. Thanks again to Eric for chatting with us, and enjoy the interview.
2012, the 20th year of Image’s existence, has arguably been the best year yet for everyone involved. The market is booming, and many pundits around the industry have targeted Image’s growth as a big reason why. Not only that, but thanks to books like Saga and The Manhattan Projects, you’re cleaning up in all the year-end hubbub from critics. How successful do you feel the year has been for Image, and what goals do you have for 2013?
Stephenson: Overall, it was a pretty good year. Diamond just released their year-end figures for the Direct Market and especially where trade paperbacks are concerned, Image seemed to make a real impact. I was really pleased to see the first volume of Saga at #12 based off only two and half month’s sales. You look at the top 150 books and we’re all over it. Chew, Fatale, Invincible, The Manhattan Projects, Thief of Thieves, and of course, The Walking Dead. New books like Prophet and Revival, again a book that only had a couple month’s sales under its belt, did really well. And it’s not just within the Direct Market. I was just reading some analysis of the New York Times graphic novels list and Image was fairly dominant there as well, which gives you some indication of our growing reach outside the Direct Market. So yeah, we didn’t have a bad year at all.
The goal for 2013, though, is to do better. That is the goal every year.
Stephenson: Launching Saga was insanely awesome. I am so, so proud of that book. At New York Comicon, I moderated a Saga panel with Brian and Fiona and it was in one of those gigantic halls, and completely packed. I’d ever done a panel in a room that big, and when I got there, I was kind of blown away. Brian was sitting at the side of the stage and he was kind of saying, “Um, who are all these people here to see, dude?” Both Brian and Fiona are remarkably humble about what they do, despite the fact they’re genuine titans of their respective crafts, and for me, it was really interesting to see how surprised they were by this huge outpouring of love for this thing they created. We were up on this big stage with all these chairs, and the spur of the moment, I turned to Brian and Fiona said, “When we do the Q&A, I want to bring the fans up on the stage to ask their questions.” There was just such a great energy in the room and I wanted the whole experience to be as fun as possible. So we brought people up to ask their questions and I took photos of them while they were sitting with Brian and Fiona, and it was probably the most fun I’d ever had on a panel. I’ve been working conventions for over 20 years at this point, and it’s easy to lose site of why we do them, I think, but it’s about connecting with the fans, and that Saga panel was hands down the best example of that I’ve ever been involved with, so that’s the moment that stands out in my mind.
A slew of Image creators — namely John Layman, Justin Jordan, Jim Zubkavich (Editor’s Note: Jim Zub has now been removed as writer of Birds of Prey, strangely) and, if rumors are true, Charles Soule — are getting recruited to take over DC titles. To you, is this just part of the nature of the beast? In a way, do you look at it as a sign of respect to Image’s — and their – success that they’re being picked to take over high profile for-hire books?
Stephenson: No, I look at it as a sign of weakness of their part. It comes down to laziness and a lack of vision, really, and you know, it’s not just DC. It’s also nothing new. Apart from Image, there are very few publishers scouting for new talent these days, and it’s kind of deplorable if you ask me. There’s nothing stopping other publishers from seeking out and developing new talent, but they lay back in the cut and wait for someone else to do it for them. More often than not, that someone else is Image Comics, which is fine by me. I mean, I love being right almost as much as I love finding new talent.
One thing we’re always excited about from Image are the new creators that are unleashed on a yearly basis. 2011 brought the Luthor Strode guys, 2012 saw the Danger Club team finding a new audience and Ken Garing breaking out. To us, 2013 looks even more promising with books like Five Ghosts and Great Pacific either starting or continuing their runs with new-ish creators involved. How important do you think it is to Image’s identity to continue to pursue new creators, even when big names are flocking to work at Image?
Stephenson: I actually just got 13 pages from a new project illustrated by an amazing new artist, and it’s a pretty great feeling to know that, not only is Image going to publish this fantastic new work, but we’re helping a bright young talent fulfill his dreams. It’s pretty cool, and honestly, I think find and cultivating the next generation of writers and artists is essential not only to Image’s success, but that of the whole industry. Every hot writer or artist was new talent once, and they wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for somebody looking at their work and deciding it was worth publishing.
Regardless of the status of Vertigo post Karen Berger’s departure, in many minds Image has replaced Vertigo as the place to find well-crafted, adult-oriented comics. Would you say that’s a fair assessment, and is that a — and I can’t believe I’m saying these words — niche you’d say Image is targeting?
Stephenson: Well, if the niche you’re talking about is “well-crafted, adult-oriented comics,” then sure. I think that’s just another way of saying we’re trying to publish good material, really, and whether it’s what you describe as “adult-oriented comics” or anything else, that’s what we’re trying to do here.
In many ways, it feels like 2012 was the year that public sentiment — if not the dollars behind it — has shifted behind creator-owned comics. Do you think there is a future in sight where the average consumer’s pull list might match the sentiment?
Stephenson: I don’t see why not. I mean, it’s already happening with trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Look at the last month of the year. The top six books were Image titles — The Walking Dead, Saga, Chew, Fatale — and I think that’s going to be more and more common as we go forward. I made a list on my blog a while back of all the great new additions to comics over the last 20 years and they were overwhelmingly almost all creator-owned books. That’s the future of this business, if you ask me.
It’s been a while since I asked you about digital comics, but with DC’s full embrace of them and the success of efforts like Monkeybrain and Thrillbent, it’s becoming a bigger part of the pie. In 2013, will that be a bigger focus for Image?
Stephenson: Yes. We’ve got some exciting ideas regarding digital.
Stephenson: Overall, it was pretty nice to come back to writing after a long break and get such a favorable response. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but you know, not everything is. Plenty of people seemed to enjoy it, though, and I think even more will as the series continues.
Tying into that, do you feel like the plan of not sharing much of anything about the book ahead of time enhanced the reader experience? I can say that not knowing much about it ahead of time improved my experience, for sure.
Stephenson: I do, and that’s why we made such an effort to keep a lot of the details under wraps. I’ll also add that I think it worked pretty well for All-New X-Men, because when I first heard the basic premise — the original X-Men come to the present — I didn’t think that book was going to be for me. I picked it up on a friend’s recommendation, though, and it wasn’t what I expected at all. I was completely surprised by the hows and whys of some of the stuff Bendis did and I absolutely loved it. Coming into something with a minimal amount of information is a lot more fun than knowing everything in advance. More comics should take advantage of that.
One aspect that stood out as different than almost any other comic I read were the graphic design aesthetic to some transitional pages and the additional materials — like the interview with Thomas Walker at the end of issue #1. What drove the decision to add storytelling elements of that kind?
Stephenson: Well, first and foremost, we wanted to make the comic as immersive an experience as possible. One of the things I’d pitched to Steven Finch at Fonografiks was the notion of putting the credits on the back cover instead of the IFC, because I just wanted to fill the interior pages with content. Obviously, it would be pretty unrealistic to expect Nate to draw 30 pages every month, so that forced us to think of other ways to approach the material. We’re building a whole world from scratch, so it just seemed like finding as many different ways as possible to illustrate the impact World Corp has had on things would be a worthwhile exercise. The real trick is going to be keeping that stuff fresh, so that it’s not just interviews and book excerpts and stuff over and over again.
The thing about the first issue that struck me was how much of a world and big of a cast you built just in the confines of that one issue. When you’ve been developing this story, how do you keep track of all the moving parts? Do you have a process to keep the Nowhere Men world in order?
Stephenson: I have something like half a dozen Moleskines filled with Nowhere Men notes. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. In some cases, I know more about the characters than will ever appear in the comics. That actually wound up being one of the more daunting aspects of writing this thing, narrowing down the info I wanted to include out of everything I’d put together over the years. And going back to your question about the design elements and how they fit into the series, they’ve been really useful in that regard.
You have a crack team working with you on this book, as Nate Bellegarde, Jordie Bellaire and Steven Finch all are truly some of the best in the business. What made each of them such an ideal fit for this book?
Stephenson: As far as Nate goes, the book simply wouldn’t be what it is without him. I worked with about a dozen other artists during the process of developing this series and as good as they all were, they weren’t Nate. I asked Nate on a whim. He, Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and I had driven down to the Baltimore Comicon from Lexington, KY one year and before we left, I asked Nate to a Hector Plasm sketch in my sketchbook. He did it on the drive, in the backseat of Robert’s car, and I was just stunned how effortlessly fantastic it was. Some of us were sitting around in the bar later that night, and I think Ryan Ottley and I got to talking and in the midst of that, he asked why I didn’t talk to Nate about doing Nowhere Men. I had just kind of assumed Nate was going to be busy doing something else after finishing Brit for Robert, but I lucked out and Nate was extremely receptive to the idea.
Steven had done all these really cool retro-themed paperback covers for books like Watchmen and X-Men and both Nate and I thought he had the perfect design aesthetic for the book. We’d already talked about the kind of look we wanted to establish for the book, and Steven was the first and only letterer/designer we considered.
And Jordie…. If Jordie isn’t the busiest woman in comics, I don’t know who is. She colors everything! Tommy Lee Edwards had recommended her for something else we needed colored, but then Nate and I got to talking about getting her to do Nowhere Men a little while after that. She has such a great eye for color. We just sent issue three to press, and it’s my favorite so far in terms of her colors. She takes Nate’s work to another level, really, and I think we’re all — Nate, Steven and myself — thrilled to have her on the team.