Eric Stephenson on the New State of Image Comics

Image Comics has come a long way from their early days as a group of comic book rebels joining forces to make comics their way twenty years ago. And yet, that same sense of creativity and variety that made the original line of books so popular continues to bring in readers old and new alike as well as creators. With series' like the zombie-filled "The Walking Dead," the sci-fi epic "Saga," the supernatural noir of "Fatale" and a slew of others, the company offers something for everyone with one unifying thread: these are stories fully driven and controlled by the creators.

That was made all the more clear at the recent Image Expo convention which revealed new projects like Ed Brubaker's "Velvet," "Southern Bastards" from Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, Rick Remender's "Deadly Class" and Kieron Gillen's "Three" which are all currently in the works. In addition to new books, Image also opened a new digital storefront on their website offering DRM-free digital comics in a variety of formats that can be read by existing apps on your computer, tablet or phone, a move that surprised many.

To get the low down on the store, the influx of big name talent and the company's overall place in the industry, CBR News spoke with Image Publisher Eric Stephenson who spoke frankly about the recent announcements, the future and much more.

CBR News: Eric, Image Expo has come and gone with a lot of news across different segments of comics publishing. What do you feel the event said overall about where Image is at today? How were these announcement reflective of what you want the publishing line to be?

Eric Stephenson: Well, on the most basic level, I think the announcements we made at Image Expo reflect the quality and diversity of our lineup in 2013. Image is kind of an ever-changing, ever-evolving creature, and ultimately, we are defined by the talent we're associated with, but those announcements reflect where we are right now.

Hopefully, the event itself gave people a better idea of who we are and what we can be, because whereas some people have characterized it as the culmination of what Image has been doing over the last few years, it's really just the beginning. I think where we go from here is going to surprise people.

In the last few years, Image has been able to bring in an increasing number of established mainstream creators back to the creator-owned fold in a significant way, and the Expo was a big marker of that. A lot has been said about the reasons why people are migrating back to their own projects, but what do you think that influx of talent means for Image? Does it at all change the focus of the line?

The focus is and always has been to put out awesome comics, so in a general sense, no. Does it raise the bar? Well, of course it does, not just for what we're looking for in terms of new series', but for what creators pitch as well. It's like in baseball, when a team's batting rotation starts heating up everybody feeds off that energy and it raises everybody's game.

Still, we often hear stories that it's tough to make a living on creator-owned work for anyone but the few folks with very high-charting books. Is it realistic today for more creators to avail themselves of fully creator-owned work in the same way folks like Robert Kirkman, Brian K. Vaughan and Ed Brubaker have? What role could Image play in making that kind of a shift more common?

Look, here's the thing: It's not tough to make a living from creator-owned work, it's tough to make a living from creator-owned work that doesn't sell. I don't think I'm divulging any deep, dark secrets by saying that not every comic we publish is a massive hit. Some books make it, some books don't. Do I wish they all made it? Well, sure. There's no book we agree to publish with the notion that it's going to be D.O.A. when it hits the stands. To a certain extent, that's down to the buying public getting what the buying public wants, and if the buying public doesn't want something, there's not much we or anyone else can do to change their minds.

I've said before that sometimes creators need to cut their losses and move on to something else. Robert Kirkman's first creator-owned book was not a roaring success. Robert routinely canceled books and moved on to the next thing. Lots of creators have dealt with that, lots of editors and publishers have dealt with that, whether we're talking creator-owned comics or whatever. Not all books make it and not all talent is created equally. That's why there are hundreds upon hundreds of canceled comics, and that's why there are different page rates for different creators doing work for hire at the other publishers.

The thing is, though, at Image, creators rise and fall on their own merits. We give them the support to succeed, but what it really comes down to is how well their work connects with readers and how willing retailers are to support that work. Over the past few years, we've been publishing some fantastic work by some really wonderful creators, and the result of that is you don't just have Robert Kirkman, Brian K. Vaughan and Ed Brubaker, you have Mark Millar and Jonathan Hickman and John Layman and Kurtis Wiebe and Brandon Graham and Tim Seeley and so on.

Supporting and promoting established creators who are bringing their wares to the company for the first time -- Jason Aaron comes to mind -- is obviously important for Image both in terms of attracting their fans and building strong market share. But as more and more of those books join the lineup, how is Image continuing to support unknown or up-and-coming creators? Is there a challenge in trying to keep the line from seeming "two tiered?"

You know, I've been hearing rumblings about this over the last couple weeks, since Image Expo, I guess, and it kind of boggles my mind that anyone would even question our support for new and up-and-coming talent. Have you ever looked at how many books at Marvel and DC are written or drawn by talent that started out at Image? Just recently you had a story up on your site about Joe Keatinge and Piotr Kowalski doing a Hulk book. Did they start out at Marvel? No, Joe and Piotr both started out at Image; Joe with "Popgun," "Glory" and "Hell Yeah," and Piotr with Joe Casey on "Sex."

Ales Kot. Kurtis Wiebe. Nick Spencer. Joe Eisma. Ken Kristensen. Frank Barbiere. Ken's "Todd the Ugliest Kid on Earth" and Frank's "Five Ghosts" have both done very well, those are brand-new books by brand-new creators. Duffy Boudreau on "Blackacre." Michael Moreci on "Hoax Hunters." Josh Williamson. Ed Brisson. Kel Symons. Whether it's writers or artists, generally speaking, we're ahead of the curve in finding and publishing new talent. Nathan Edmondson didn't just start writing comics for DC. He wrote "Olympus" for Image, then "Who Is Jake Ellis?", then "The Activity," then "Dream Merchant."

And how do we support new talent? By bringing them up to the big leagues. In July, we gave new books by Ed Brisson and Joshua Williamson the same attention as a new book by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin. Kurtis Wiebe's "Rat Queens" and Ales Kot's "Zero" are right there next to Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky on "Sex Criminals." The month "East of West" was solicited, "Five Ghosts" #1 was right there with it.

So yeah, that's how we do that, and I think that makes us fairly unique, actually, because we're set up to cater to the creators we work with, not constantly push multiple books featuring the same characters to appease shareholders.

One of the most unexpected pieces of news out of the event was your plans to sell digital comics direct through the Image website. This obviously combats the idea that you don't actually own a piece of entertainment in DRM media, only pay for the right to enjoy it in a particular format. But in what kinds of ways are you looking to support for the formats you've chosen to sell? Is there a chance of a specific Image Comics reader for tablets or desktops? Does this kind of sales venue necessitate more technology development on your side of the equation?

I don't know that it necessitates more technological development on our side, but it's definitely something we're thinking about it. As it stands, we're doing our digital content in formats people like, that are already supported by multiple applications. That was a win-win for us, because we're a comic book publisher, not a technology company. So we're able to provide our readers content in formats they're familiar with, without getting into the expensive and time-consuming business of app development.

What has the reaction to the digital store been so far? Have there been specific complaints or praises given with regards to the new service? Are sales where you expected?

Reaction has been great so far. The first couple weeks of sales data has been incredibly positive, and I think as we ramp up on content, this is going to become a larger and larger part of our business. When we first started with digital comics, I used to liken it to adding an extra week to each month in terms of sales, and we're seeing the same kind of expansion here. And based on the e-mail I'm receiving, fans seem to love the idea of DRM-free digital comics, which is incredibly heartening.

How did you decide which books to start with and which back issues from the back catalog will be added first?

The first priority has been making current, ongoing material available, because that's what readers are going to be seeking out first. From there, we're filling in the blanks, but it's not feasible to say that every Image title ever published is going to be available. If a title ceased publication in, say, the late '90s, or moved to another publisher at some point, it's no longer an Image title and we can't retroactively make that so. If something is available in the digital format on other platforms, it will eventually be available directly through Image. As with the rollout of other digital distribution systems, it's going to take a little time, but we're adding new content daily.

Was the direct sale of digital comics part of Image's original contract, or has this been something that needed to be worked out on a series-by-series basis? What are your goals in terms of bringing the full line to this platform eventually?

Image's original contract was first put together in the early '90s, so no, unfortunately, direct sales of digital comics was not part of that document. Our publishing agreement was updated later, though, as digital comics became part of our ongoing business. That being the case, we want the digital catalogue to be as representative of what we publish as the print catalogue.

What has been the reaction of partners like comiXology, Apple, Amazon or brick and mortar stores since launch?

We haven't heard a negative word from any of our partners at this point. On the contrary, the feedback we're getting is overwhelmingly positive. There's a lot of support for DRM-free content out there, and I think what we've done is viewed as an important step, and not just for digital comics.

Looking at the line as a whole, at this point a wide range of genres and formats are available at Image from sci-fi to westerns. Are there any areas where you'd like to expand out more? It feels like Image has had some scattershot luck in the past with kids comics, for example. Is there a way to present that kind of material collectively that could help its odds of success?

Perhaps, but kids' comics aren't our primary focus, largely due to the fact that that isn't what creators are bringing to us. Chris Giarrusso is pretty heavily invested in his "G-Man" series and Robert Kirkman and Jason Howard have "Super Dinosaur," but those are more all-ages books than kids' comics. Same with things like Ian Churchill's "Marineman," Paul Grist's "Mudman" and Todd Dezago and Craig Rousseau's "Perhapanauts" -- they're books aimed at the widest possible audience, much as the superhero comics a lot of us grow up on were. Of those books, only "Super Dinosaur" is an ongoing series, with the others coming out as the creators generate material, so it's not like we have a critical mass of all-ages material to place under a single umbrella.

And even if we did, there aren't too many examples of that actually working. You can go all the way back to Star Comics in the '80s and see how easy it is for material to be ghettoized by that kind of imprint.

Similarly, Image has occasionally worked in packaging or licensed books from outside partners or ideas like "Dead Space" and the recent "MacGyver" series. With a renewed focus (though it never went away) on fully creator-owned series, is this kind of publishing dead at Image?

Well, first off, "MacGyver" actually wasn't a license. Tony Lee wrote that with "MacGyver" creator Lee Zlotoff, and Lee controls the character's rights. In fact, if you ever get a chance to talk to Lee, he's a very sharp, very fascinating guy, and I think one could make the argument that he is MacGyver.

To answer your question, though, yeah, licensed comics aren't something we're pursuing at this point. Image was founded as a publisher of creator-owned comics, and one of the things I've been focused on over the last few years is making that our central focus. If you want your TV, movies, video games and toys recycled as comic books, there are plenty of other publishers who specialize in that sort of thing, but that's not what we do.

In general, are there areas you see that Image Comics isn't doing as well in or projects that you need more of? Taking a look at the company you head, how could Image Comics continue to improve?

Going back to your question about kids' comics, I definitely think we could stand to improve there, but like I say, it depends on what creators bring us. Maybe the perception is that Image isn't open to pitches for all-ages material, but if that's the case we should clear that up right now: Image Comics is open to pitches for all-ages material. If you have a great all-ages book that you're dying to do, we would love to publish it.

Likewise, I think there's a perception out there that we aren't really seeking out work from women, but two of the new series we talked about at Image Expo were Amy Reeder's "Rocket Girl" and the new series by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, "Pretty Deadly." We've published some excellent work by female creators over the years -- Marian Churchland's "Beast," the Emitown books by Emi Lenox, "Between Gears" by Natalie Nourigat -- but the bottom line is that as a creator-owned publisher, we're not passing out assignments. The books we publish reflect the pitches we get. The overwhelming majority of the pitches we receive are from men. That said, I think we would absolutely benefit from publishing more work by female creators. There are a number of women in comics whose work I've admired for years -- it would be pretty awesome to be working with them here at Image.

Beyond the types of books we publish, I think there is always room for improvement, just as a matter of course. We haven't been as successful as we've been over the last few years by sitting on our hands and assuming everything is great. We are constantly looking at how we can do things better. Some of that is internal, operational stuff, some of it is how we deliver information to our retail partners or to readers, some of it is how we can better facilitate the creators we work with. And you know, we listen to advice. We've made numerous changes over the years because a creator questioned something or offered feedback on a better way to do something or other. We've received some invaluable feedback from retailers. I think the day any business stops looking for ways to improve is the day that business done, and we're not exempt from that.

In terms of the Image readership, "The Walking Dead" obviously continues to draw in legions of new comics readers. Beyond that beachhead, who do you feel the typical Image reader is? Are there a lot of folks we might qualify in the "Marvel Zombies" category following their favorite creators over to new Image series, or has the market split in some respects where the people buying your books aren't necessarily the traditional Wednesday crowd?

You know, for years, I've said that one of my goals wast to get to a point where people bought our comics just because the Image "i" was on the cover, kind of the same way people bought records on the Motown label back in the '60s, or the way jazz aficionados flocked to releases on Blue Note or Impulse. We're not talking mere brand loyalty here -- people responded to those records because they associated those labels with quality.

So with that in mind, I really hope there aren't any Image "zombies" out there, because based off the interaction I've had with people who read our books, I think the typical Image reader is intelligent and discerning, more interested in seeking out entertainment that genuinely appeals to him or her as opposed to just filling in holes in a years-old collection. That's partly because of the books we publish, but also, I think the overall readership is changing. I think more and more readers are just looking for comics that appeal to their sensibilities, without any kind of allegiance to this publisher or that publisher. They like what they like, and they follow their instincts. I think that's the kind of reader we all want, because the more exacting their tastes, the more demanding their expectations, the better the work we all publish.

At the end of the day, what you want is a readership that shows up for quality, not quantity. Sure, there are collectors out there, and I think they'll always be a part of our business, but there's not a lot of similarity between something like "Spawn" or "Saga," you know? Or "Saga" and "Satellite Sam." That's one of Image's greatest strengths, if you ask me, and whereas I was once told that there's no way to harness diversity in our favor, I think it's a large part of why we've done so well. The audience for eight different comics with the same character or group of characters isn't one that can be maintained long-term. People like new. People like different. That's not just what our readership is after, it's what readers in general want.

Publisher's Weekly just published their Annual Comics Retailer Survey and noted that "Saga" is one of the most requested books in the 10 stores surveyed. What is it about that book that continues to draw people in, and are there plans to capitalize on that in an effort to introduce readers to similar books from Image?

I think that's already happening with "Saga," just as it happened with "The Walking Dead." I think it will happen with "East of West," too, because that book is currently tracking very similarly to "Saga." I think what Brian and Fiona are doing on "Saga" is contagious, not just in terms of building the readership for that book, but in raising people's expectations. You read something as accessible and well-considered as "Saga" and it makes you want more comics like that. Well, it just so happens, we've got more where that came from.

Ultimately, what do you see Image's role as beyond being a place where creators can do whatever they want? Are there goals for the line in regards to the kind of platform you're building which fall outside the bread-and-butter ideas of talent recruitment?

You know, one of the things that makes me proud to work for Image is that the founders set this company up to be unlike any other. We don't recruit people to work for Image; we set them up to work for themselves through Image. And more to the point, the idea of creative freedom isn't just about the work itself, it's also about how creative people are treated, and the fact that we're on their side as the business continues to evolve. I wrote something on my blog last year, in reaction to the "Before Watchmen" news, about the notion that Alan Moore wasn't handed any worse of a deal than Jack Kirby or Siegel and Schuster, and my point was essentially that we shouldn't just accept things as they are. We should try to make things better.

Now, Image is far from perfect, but I do think that as a company, Image has been a positive force in this industry. Two decades ago, Image was an upstart in the comics business, but as we've grown, we've moved to the forefront of the industry in a lot of ways. I like to think that in taking the steps we're taking with digital publishing that we can continue to push forward, not just on basic publishing issues, but also in the broader sense of continuing to show people that it's possible for a company to be successful without compromising its core values.

Stay tuned to CBR for even more Image Comics news and announcements coming out of Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Jonah Weiland and Kiel Phegley contributed to this article.

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