Image Expo: Publisher Eric Stephenson on Where Image Is and Where It’s Headed

The week of Comic Con International: San Diego (aka SDCC) is already one that is frankly insane, filled to the brim with news breakers and game changers in and around the world of comics. It’s a hard time to really get your announcement out for the most part over the weekend, as when everyone is yelling at a party, who can hear you talking? Thankfully, the team at Image Comics found a solution to that problem: just make your own party the week before it.

Today is Image Expo, the all Image event that has run twice yearly over the past two years – once up in San Francisco in January and once around SDCC – and it will be where you can find out about all of the latest and greatest Image Comics titles from some of your favorite creators. It’s also where Image publisher Eric Stephenson regularly drops a keynote address, which tend to be a combination of an update of where Image is and where they’re going. It’s a hell of an event, and last times before the colossal SDCC weekend where the industry focuses in one direction.

To kick off Image Expo day, I’m happy to present a recent chat I had with Stephenson on the state of things at Image, from what he’s happy about to what they’re trying to improve on. We jump into a lot of subjects, and Stephenson – as per usual – is his frank and honest self in the process. Take a read and get some perspective on the fastest growing publisher in comics, and where its publisher thinks they’re headed next.

Image has announced and published a lot of new books over the past couple years. To you as the publisher, what is the most exciting part about the growth in the Image line? Is there something about it that you take particular pride in?

ES: Just being able to assist so many great creators in sharing their work with the world, first and foremost. I was talking with our staff here not long ago about how highly I regard the work we do at Image, how much pride I have in Image’s “mission,” as it were, because I think the model the company’s founders laid down at the very beginning made Image a very special company. There aren’t a lot of examples of companies – in all of entertainment, let alone comics – that allow creative people to not only chart their own course, but retain full ownership of their work in the process, but I think that approach has resulted in some truly amazing work over the years. We wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now, attracting the type of talent we’re working with or experiencing the kind of growth we’re seeing, year over year, if we were doing things differently. So yeah, for me as kind of the standard bearer of what Image is all about, that’s a tremendous source of pride, and the thrill of having the best seat in the house as so much great work passes through our doors pretty much never ends.

The Walking Dead #143If there was a specific genre or type of book you’d like to see more of at Image, what would it be?

ES: You know, I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead, but as I’ve noted in the past, I’m not really that into zombies. The thing that appeals to me most about The Walking Dead, or really any comic I like, really, is the interaction between the characters, so I think the type of book I’d be most curious about at this point would be a solid character drama without anything else tacked on. Not a horror book or a science fiction book or a crime book, just a compelling story about the characters involved. I love reading biographies, because people are just fascinating creatures, and a lot of my favorite fiction is just about these interesting things that happen in everyday life. You look at something like Mad Men, and I guess that can be classified as historical fiction or social commentary or whatever, but really, at its heart, it’s about those characters and how they’re making their way through a certain period in their lives. Television does that really well – film, too – and it’s something I’d like to see more of in comics, and yes, here at Image Comics, specifically.

It often seems the comic industry is one with an extremely internal focus, looking for ways to capture more of the existing audience rather than expanding to new ones. For Image, how important is trying to expand your reach into new audiences and markets, and what do you think are the most important channels to do so?

ES: Reaching new audiences and new markets is always important, and it should always be a topic of discussion. The day we collectively accept that we’re reaching as many readers as possible is the day we’re done, really. I mean, the Direct Market is great for catering to comic book readers, but generally speaking, you have to be a comic book reader before you seek one out and there are always going to be people out there who don’t know they like comics yet. It’s up to us – and by “us,” I mean everyone working in this business, not just Image – to find ways of engaging those people, whether they’re kids just developing an interest in reading or adults looking for someone a little different from what they’re used to. Over the last 15 years or so, bookstores have been a big part of that, and I think bookstores and libraries will continue to be important markets for comics. Same goes for digital content – we’re still only a few years into that, but there’s a tremendous amount of growth that is going to come from that area.

It seems bookstores and their audience – which is often quite different from comic shop’s customer base – is a huge point of importance to Image, and it’s something you’ve been succeeding with. What do you think it is about Image’s current lineup that crosses over so well to that more “mainstream” audience? Do you feel that the general public has grown to accept comics as a medium much more than they used to?

Sex Criminals Vol 2ES: Oh, absolutely. You know, when I was younger, I worked for the public library in Riverside, and I would constantly bring up comics with the librarians I worked with, only to be dismissed time and time again. Comics weren’t “real” books they said, or they weren’t “appropriate” reading material. Nowadays, librarians are incredibly supportive of comics, and I think that’s just one indication of how far things have progressed the last 15 years or so. Graphic novels are one of the healthiest categories in bookstores right now, and I think that’s largely to do with the fact people realize comics aren’t just superheroes or stories for kids. I think the superhero books have helped to a certain degree, because with the superhero movies that have been made over the last decade or so, there’s definitely been more attention on comics. That said, though, I think the fact that The Walking Dead has been such a huge mainstream media phenomenon has shown people that, yeah, there are these superhero films based on comics, but that’s not the end of the story where comics are concerned. Then you get things like Sex Criminals being named comic of the year by Time or The Fade Out showing up on Entertainment Weekly’s Must List and on and on. If someone goes looking for those books, they’re not only going to see that are there more to comics than what they see in superhero movies, but that a lot of it comes from Image. And again, maybe every book we’re putting out isn’t going to hit every reader the same way, but there’s a lot for people to choose from, and I think being able to dip into different things is very appealing to readers just discovering comics.

Conversely, retailers are doing better than they have in a long time, and many I’ve spoken to cite Image’s growth as a blessing to them. What is Image doing to continue to bolster its relationship with retailers and with so many different initiatives, how do you keep growing in other areas without impacting the direct market channel?

ES: Well, the unfortunate reality for both comic book stores and bookstores is there aren’t as many of them as there once were. There are cities without comic book stores, you know, and there are cities without what I would describe as “full service” bookstores. Sometimes there’s overlap going both ways and sometimes there isn’t, but generally speaking, I think an important thing the entire comics industry has learned over the last decade or so is that those two markets can not only exist alongside each other, they can help one another. I think the same goes for digital, and bottom line, it’s better for the whole industry if there is greater access to the books we’re publishing.

Diversity has become a more significant word than ever in comics, and few publishers showcase that more than Image. How important do you view diversity – not just of gender and ethnicity of creators and characters, but in genre and aim of story – to Image overall?

ES: I think it’s important on an industry-wide level, really. The business isn’t going to grow by doing the same things, aimed at the same readership, over and over again. I think historically, if you look at who was producing comics and who those comics were aimed at, it’s been primarily male readers. The superhero universes at Marvel and DC were created, by and large, by men, and their primary goal was to entertain young boys. That was the demographic for most comics for decades, and I don’t think it’s at all surprising that the talent pool that came out of that was more of the same. Comics were very white, and very male, and even when the types of characters featured in comics began to diversify, in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, those characters were still being created by white men. What’s happening now, though, is much different, because as the readership diversifies, the talent pool opens up a bit more, and the people interested in working in comics and telling different kinds of stories come from a much broader demographic. I think that’s incredibly important, and moreover, incredibly positive. The more comics that appeal to more readers, the greater variety we’re going to see, both in terms of content and the writers and artists developing that content. If that weren’t happening, I think our future would look pretty bleak.

In the past, it seemed to me that many creators would view working on books for smaller publishers, sometimes including Image, as a stepping-stone of sorts to being hired at Marvel or DC. Recently though, it feels like publishing creator-owned work at Image and other publishers has become the new endgame creators envision. Why do you think that is?

8House Arclight #1ES: Because it’s the way it should be? I mean, that’s the way it was in the ‘80s when creator ownership first became a thing, you know? The vanguard of creator-owned comics was not made up of writers and artists trying to break into comics, they were the biggest names in the business, moving up to the next level. Someone like Frank Miller – he worked at DC and Marvel and established himself as one of the industry’s brightest talents, and then he did Ronin. Howard Chaykin did American Flagg! after putting in years at other publishers. Doing books that they had a personal and financial stake in was a step forward, it was progress. That’s what Watchmen was originally supposed to be, this great leap forward for creators, and it’s why so many people still get very passionate about how that ultimately worked out. There’s nothing wrong with doing work for hire, with writing or drawing the characters you grew up reading, but the notion that working on characters somebody else created is the pinnacle of success is a little backward. Dozens of different writers and artists contribute to long-running superhero titles, working on those books, as fun and as profitable as it can be, just adds your name to the list. Creating something of your own is a chance to make a dent in the industry’s history.

The comic industry is at an interesting point. Records are being set even in a period of arguable transition for several publishers, and Marvel and DC are making major moves to try and push things even further up. But there are some parallels between today and the market growth that came in the 90’s right before the comic bubble burst. Do you think the industry – not Image, but the industry – in general has learned its lesson and what we’re seeing is real, sustainable growth?

ES: Not really, no. There are still people speculating on first issues of comics and then abandoning the same books the minute the next thing comes along, which is not only harmful for the industry in terms of artificially inflating numbers, but also just poor logic. If a book’s numbers don’t hold up, it’s not going to make it, and if it doesn’t make it, that first issue is ultimately worthless after a little while. If a book turns into a long term success, that first issue is going to be worth way more down the line, not just because it’s a “collectible,” but because there’s an actual audience for it. Same thing goes for multiple covers, stopping and starting series, and these sweeping crossovers that keep being trotted out as a method of meeting sales goals. The best way to grow the business is by giving people something they can depend on for solid entertainment. That’s harder than it sounds obviously, and not everything is going to be a hit, but just trying the same tricks over and over again just produces the same results.

Image’s growth has been staggering over the past five years or so, even in an expanding market. Typically though, growth is much harder the higher up you get. What do you think the keys are to Image continuing to grow going forward?

ES: More creators continuing to fulfill their destiny by taking greater control of the work they create, and an even greater commitment on our part to helping those creators steer their work toward the broadest audience possible. There’s not a day that goes by that we aren’t looking at what else we could do, or what more we could do to improve things. Change is a continuous process, and I think we all recognize that the moment we become complacent or feel satisfied with the way things are now, as opposed to how much better things could be, then yeah, we’re dead in our tracks. Everything can be better, always, and our goal here is always to be pushing for that.