Eric Stephenson Previews What's Next for Image, Laments "Bland" Comics Industry

Image Comics has opened the last several years in a bold way with its always-newsworthy Image Expo, headlined by an attention-getting keynote address by Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson.

Now, it's January 2016, and not only is there no Image Expo on the schedule, the company hasn't even announced the date of its next one. But that doesn't mean Stephenson is remaining quiet. In an in-depth interview, CBR News spoke with the publisher (who's also the writer of Image series "Nowhere Men" and "They're Not Like Us") on a variety of topics, including Image's 2015 sales performance, and which of the company's new releases he's particularly looking forward to.

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True to form, Stephenson doesn't hold back. Amid widespread series renumbering from Marvel, and rumors of more on the way from DC Comics, the Image publisher told CBR he believes frequent relaunches and reboots are "leading everyone down a dead end road," and laments "the bland leading the bland" in the wider comic industry. And this is just the first half of our two-part interview -- but you'll have to check back tomorrow for the rest.

CBR News: The year-end numbers were released earlier this month, showing Image's unit share increasing from 10.41 percent to 10.7 percent on the year-end Diamond charts, and dollar share moving up a bit from 9.23 percent to 9.93 percent. Growth appears relatively flat if you go based on the numbers, but we have to imagine that it doesn't tell the whole story. What do those numbers mean to you, as Publisher of Image? And what does Image's current numbers mean for the health of the company and the industry itself? 

Eric Stephenson: Well, I guess where you see flat, I see up, first off, but generally speaking, we had a very solid year -- our sixth consecutive year of growth in terms of both dollars and units. It's our second year in a row over 10 percent in units, and our second year over 9 percent in dollars. You only have to go back to 2013 and we're under 9 percent in both categories. Go back to 2012 and we're below 8 percent. The year I took over as Publisher, we were under 4 percent. In terms of total dollars and total units, we just posted our biggest numbers since the beginning of the century -- but it's been a slow and steady climb over the last seven years to get there. In terms of health, in terms of sustainability, I tend to view slow and steady as a good thing. Image was huge overnight once already, and I think history shows that it didn't work out so well over the long haul. Beyond that, though, yeah, you do have to look at the rest of the industry to get the bigger picture. Aside from Marvel -- who enjoyed a huge bump last year thanks to Star Wars -- DC was down over 3 percent in dollars and over 5 percent in units. Dark Horse was down over a point in both dollars and units. IDW was down slightly in dollars, up a half a point in units, and so on. I'd say we more than held our own during 2015.

It's striking to look at the year-end Top 500 sales charts in single issues and graphic novels -- Image doesn't show up in single issues until "We Stand On Guard" #1 at No. 124, but inhabits seven of the Top 10 slots for collected editions/OGNs. Image certainly had single issue successes last year, but it's still a market ultimately dominated by Marvel and DC. How much are you looking to expand the single issue market for Image in the coming year?

I think I'd go even further there, honestly -- the list you're referring to is dominated by Marvel and more specifically, by Marvel first issues. Over three quarters of the top 100 is Marvel, and of Marvel's total, nearly half are first issues and nearly half are Star Wars. It's also interesting to look at "Bravest Warriors" #1 and "Orphan Black" #1 in the top five, without a single other issue from either series in Diamond's top 1,000. "We Stand On Guard" #1 may be our highest entry at #124, but all six issues of that miniseries made the chart, and I think that best underscores where we're at right now. If you combine that with our strong performance on the trade paperbacks and graphic novels chart, it becomes even clearer. Image is interested in readers. The practice of releasing new number one after new number one simply is not creating new readers, it's not growing the market, it's admitting that the books in question aren't successful enough to continue without being constantly relaunched, and the long-term result is that it diminishes enthusiasm amongst readers and damages the medium.

Do we want to build our single issues sales? Of course we do, but we're not going to do it with retailer exclusive covers or pressuring accounts to qualify for outrageous incentives, we're not going to do it by inflating our numbers through Loot Crate variants and we're not going to do it by playing the relaunch/reboot/renumber game. I mean -- by all indications, DC's going to go that route again this year, and going back to the market share for 2015, I guarantee you it's not because they ended last year on a high note. Dropping 5 percent in units -- that's a sign there's something wrong, and the grim reality there is that it's going to take more than a slew of new number ones to make things better. What's the point of advertising a line's rebirth, when these superhero universes are reborn every few years? First, it was just a case of killing of characters and resurrecting them, now it's whole universes, again and again and again, and it's just leading everyone down a dead end road.

In terms of new launches, what surprised you -- either sales-wise or in reaction from fans -- as publisher of Image Comics in 2015?

"Monstress," first and foremost. It's a great book, and both Marjorie and Sana are amazing talents, but the way fans rallied to that so immediately was pretty incredible. We've gone back to press on the first issue a third time now, and we've done two so far on the second issue -- it's really cool to see people respond to something so positively, especially when it's so, so good. On a creative level, I think Mark Millar's work on "Chrononauts" and "Huck" was a big surprise, especially when you look back at some of the things Mark did in the past -- "The Authority," "Kick-Ass," "Nemesis," that sort of thing. Obviously, Mark has top rate collaborators in Sean and Rafael, so the books are just stunningly beautiful, but even aside from that, there's just so much heart to them and as much as I've always loved Mark's work, I don't know that I would have described it that way a few years ago. It's cool to see someone growing that way. And Robert Kirkman certainly doesn't need any pats on the back from me at this point, but he's done kind of the same thing with "Invincible." I thought the end of his "Reboot" storyline was extremely touching, and I don't know that most people use that as their go-to word when they talk about his work.

In terms of the industry as a whole... not a lot really. I mean, I'm not going to claim we don't have our share of misses along with the hits, or that there aren't things Image can do better -- but looking at the vast majority of comics that came out in 2015, it was just a pretty dull year. I don't think Star Wars was much of a surprise. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and given the kind of talent involved, it would have only been surprising if those books hadn't done well. The fact that Star Wars is bolstering Marvel to such a great degree is more interesting to me than the actual comics, though, and I think that's one of the biggest problems with comics as a whole right now. Talking about comics and analyzing the industry has, by and large, become more interesting than a lot of the work being generated. And I know, there are going to be people out there with pitchforks saying that I'm claiming there aren't any good comics -- that is not what I'm saying. There are always good comics. There's too much great talent in this business for there not to be good comics, but I think the genuinely exciting new work is obscured somewhat by the sheer same-as-it-ever-was of it all. It's like the bland leading the bland, and there's just so much out there, it's hard to sort the good from the bad. I was talking to someone the other day who mentioned browsing new titles on comiXology and just how bland much of it was, the sameness of it all, and this was like the umpteenth person to voice that opinion to me. There's definitely a kind of malaise that's set in over the last year or so.

What are you personally looking forward to that's debuting from Image in 2016?

Since we just got in the first issue of Kaare Andrews' "Renato Jones: The One%," I'm going to go with that for starters. Kaare is just fantastic, and if you saw him speak at Image Expo last year, you know that he's incredibly passionate about this project. And this book does not disappoint. One thing I especially like about it is how different it is from everything else. 

Another thing we just got in, too, is the final issue in the first arc of Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang's "Paper Girls, and you know, I can't say that "Paper Girls" surprised me, because I expect anything Brian and Cliff do to be awesome, but that doesn't stop this book from being one of the best things to come out of the last year. There's a saying -- and I am going to paraphrase this badly, I think -- that goes something like, "Talent is consistently hitting your target; genius is hitting a target nobody else sees." That's Brian for you, in a nutshell, and I'm really looking forward to seeing where he and Cliff take "Paper Girls" over the next year. It's inspired work on every level.

I'm also really excited about Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire's "AD" graphic novel, which has grown in scope since it was originally announced, but that's going to be out in the fall and what's done so far is exceptional. Jeff's such a unique artist, and it's really interesting see how he brings Scott's story to life. We've also got the continuation of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely's "Jupiter's Legacy" coming this year, which is going to be awesome based on what I've seen so far. Bryan Lee O'Malley and Leslie Hung's "Snotgirl" is coming in the summer, and I really can't wait for everyone to see that. And we have new work from Kevin McCarthy and Kyle Baker on the way. That's been coming together for a while, and I'm excited to finally get it in front of people. Comics can always use more work from Kyle Baker.

Oh, man -- and then there's "Blue Monday." I've been a huge fan of that book and of Chynna Clugston's work since I first saw it in Oni Double Feature way back in 1999, so I was pretty thrilled she chose to bring it to Image. Jordie Bellaire is going to be coloring everything, so even if you're familiar with the books already, they're going to be totally different. And then we're getting brand-new "Blue Monday" on top of that, so yeah, very excited about that. 

There has been an uptick in more young adult books at Image recently; "Paper Girls," "Monstress," "No Mercy" and "Plutona" all fit in the YA umbrella. In what ways is Image continuing to target this audience? Given that "Camp Midnight" and "Oddly Normal" are Image's FCBD offerings this years, how much is reaching even younger -- all-ages -- readers a priority? 

It needs to be a priority for the Direct Market as a whole, I think, but yeah, it's something we talk about a lot here in the office. The Image staff is really passionate about expanding into that market -- our sales and marketing heads Corey Murphy and Kat Salazar especially -- and their enthusiasm for YA and all-ages material is pretty infectious. Beyond that, though, it's a growing part of not just the Direct Market, but the book market as a whole. Comics are a growing part of the book market, which is impressive given how other things are shrinking there, but even more so, there's a growing appetite for good all-ages and YA content. I think that's something Direct Market retailers could benefit from paying more attention to really, because there is most definitely money in that banana stand.

Over the years, we've put out some quality all-ages material, whether it's Chris Giarrusso's "G-Man" or Michael Gagne's "Saga of Rex" or Meredith McLaren's "Hinges." Things like Kirkman's "Super-Dinosaur" or Jonathan Luna's "Starbright and the Looking Glass" skew to a younger audience, as do the Doug TenNapel books we've published, and things like "Reed Gunther." Steve Seagle has done some great all-ages books with us, too, and hopefully, "Camp Midnight" will shine a brighter light on his Image backlist. Both he and his Man of Action partner Joe Kelly do great work for younger readers. Then you've got things like "Emitown" and "Octopus Pie," and they're kind of upper YA. So yeah, the foundation is definitely there, and it's not like it hasn't been a priority before, but I think maybe we've been... I don't know, too quiet about it maybe? In a lot of ways, I don't think comics for younger readers is necessarily what people expect from Image, but a few years ago, people weren't expecting something like "Saga" or "Sex Criminals" from us, I think branching out further into all-ages material is just a natural progression for us. We like to defy people's expectations as much as possible.

Check back on Thursday for part 2 of CBR's interview with Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson!

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