This weekend will see the first Image Expo, a comic book convention supported by local Bay Area publishers Image Comics. Famous for their creator-owned comic books, Image Expo promises to be a very different sort of convention. With the move of Wonder Con to Southern California this year, this leaves the field wide open for something new and Image seem ready to meet the challenge. I spoke to Image Comics Publisher; Eric Stephenson about the convention and asked him some questions about what we could expect to find there.
Sonia Harris: First of all, what made you decide to do Image Expo?
Eric Stephenson: Robert Kirkman and Rob Liefeld had both attended the Amazing Arizona convention in 2011 and got to talking about how great it would be if there was an Image-focused con during Image’s 20th anniversary year. I wasn’t particularly taken with the idea at the beginning, but then Amazing Arizona’s Jimmy Jay said he was scouting locations and that his top choice was the original home of WonderCon, the Oakland Convention Center, and that made the idea more appealing. Downtown Oakland is a really compelling success story. When I first came up here, almost 20 years ago now, Oakland’s downtown was rundown and kind of sketchy, but in recent years a lot of independent businesses have started moving in and creating first rate bars, restaurants and art spaces. That’s something I’m personally very into, and something I really wanted to expose our readers to. It’s a smaller venue than the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and seemed perfect for a smaller, more specialized event, and I really liked the idea of doing something that would support the local community.
SH: When it was announced that WonderCon was moving away from San Francisco, there were fears that there’d be no local convention, so I know that people are pretty excited. Did you see this as a gap in the market to fill?
ES: To a certain degree. I think Jimmy was thinking along those lines, for sure, and he would have probably put on the show with or without Image’s involvement.
It’s a real shame that WonderCon was forced to move down to Anaheim this year. Comic-Con does a great job with that show and everyone up here loves it – it’s a big part of comics culture in the Bay Area. And as a publisher, it’s definitely nice to have a convention that doesn’t require a lot of travel. So yeah, it’s good to be able to do something for fans in the Bay Area to kind of make up for WonderCon’s absence. If there are fans disappointed about WonderCon not being here this year, they can come to a different kind of show over in Oakland, and hopefully WonderCon will be back up here next year.
SH: Is this going to be an annual event or a one-off? If WonderCon moves away permanently, would this affect your decision to run Image Expo again next year?
ES: Man, with this thing only a few days out and no idea whatsoever what it’s going to be like, I have absolutely no desire to speculate on any of that. First off, I really hope WonderCon doesn’t move away permanently. I think that would be a real tragedy. Secondly, Image Expo has been a tremendous undertaking and has required a lot more of Image’s input than we originally anticipated, and you know, our main priority is making comic books. At the moment, I think we all just want to make this year’s show a good experience for everyone who comes out, so thinking about doing another one is literally the last thing on our minds.
SH: Image Expo will be the first comic convention that I’ve attended which is supported by a single publisher. Does this mean that only Image books and creators will be featured?
ES: No, not at all. IDW is exhibiting, Archaia is there, Aspen is there, Diamond is there, and there’s a wide array of independent and self-published creators from the local area, along with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Hero Initiative and digital providers like iVerse.
Really, it’s not all that different from something like the Brooklyn Comics & Graphics Festival, which is sponsored in part by PictureBox, but includes Fantagraphics, and D&Q, alongside a diverse group of individual creators.
SH: What do you feel will set this convention apart from other similar-sized comic conventions?
ES: Well, considering the guest list includes Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Robert Kirkman, Jonathan Hickman, Blair Butler, Fiona Staples, Matt Wagner and all but one of the Image founders, just for starters, I think it’s an opportunity to meet some of the most creative people in comics in a more intimate environment than, say, Comic-Con International in San Diego or New York Comic Con. Those shows are great, but they’re so big that it’s often hard to get quality time with every single creator. Here they will be be much more accessible, and there will be specialized programming that focuses directly on them and their work.
SH: Image is characterized by a tremendous range and variety of types of comic books. Will this be reflected in the choice of panels people can attend? Are there any that you’re particularly excited about, in terms of content or potential audience response?
ES: Definitely. We’re doing everything from a Womanthology panel to a spotlight on comics and TV, there’s a live version of Chris Hardwick and Robert Kirkman’s weekly discussions about The Walking Dead television series, featuring Steven Yeun, who plays Glen on the show, and we’re also doing some smaller workshops aimed at aspiring creators. Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Jonathan Hickman and John Layman are all doing these hour-long workshops in small classroom-sized rooms that that focus on various aspects of the creative process. We’re also hosting a screening of the Warren Ellis documentary, Captured Ghosts, and instead of sprinkling our big announcements throughout the weekend, I’m going to be giving a keynote speech on Friday evening, to talk about some exciting things to expect from Image later this year. I was very hands on with determining the programming, and it’s my hope that people enjoy all of it.
SH: Which guests are you most excited about? Will it be possible for people to meet and talk to comic book creators?
ES: I think one of the great things about Image Expo is that since we have such a terrific guest list for such an intimate show, there’s an almost unprecedented opportunity for fans to get some quality interaction with some of comics’ very best. I think that’s one of the real benefits of more focused gatherings like this – for fans and guests alike.
Which guests am I most excited about? This is going to sound like a cop out, but all of them. It’s going to be really cool to have this many Image creators in one place at one time.
SH: As a local publisher, running a convention in your home town, can we expect any foreign creators, or is this primarily a Californian gathering?
There are a lot of creators in California, but people are coming from all over. Nick Spencer lives in the UK; Fiona Staples is up in Canada; Tim Seeley is in Chicago. We’ve got creators coming from North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona, Utah, Oregon…
SH: What kind of attendance are you expecting? Will it be possible to buy tickets on the door?
ES: Absolutely, people can get tickets right at the convention center, throughout the weekend.
In terms of attendance, well, we have pretty modest aims, but we’ll see how it goes. Part of the reason WonderCon couldn’t simply move back to Oakland as an alternative to the Moscone Center was because it’s a much smaller space by comparison, and it’s not like we’re shooting for that kind of attendance. This is something for Image fans, and for Bay Area comic book fans, and we’re looking forward to providing a good experience for everyone who walks through the door.
SH: Thank you for talking to us, Eric. We’ll see you at Image Expo this weekend.