Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson: "We Want to Be Number One"

It's been another notable year for Image Comics. Headlined by "The Walking Dead" further expanding its multimedia dominance and "Saga" continuing its run as one of the most celebrated ongoing series in years, Image also launched a number of new titles to critical and sales success, including "Lazarus," "Pretty Deadly," "Black Science," "Velvet," "Zero" and "Sex Criminals," named the top comic of the year by "Time."

The past year has seen Image further cement their position in the industry -- this past November, Diamond's numbers showed a 9.77 percent unit market share for Image, up from 6.67 percent in November 2012. Yet Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson (himself the writer of an acclaimed Image series, "Nowhere Men") isn't content with being number three behind work-for-hire superhero stalwarts Marvel and DC Comics: He wants Image to be number one.

With just a couple weeks before this year's Image Expo -- held Jan. 9 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, with announced guests including Robert Kirkman, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Rick Remender and James Robinson -- CBR News spoke with Stephenson on a variety of topics, including the arrival of "Stray Bullets" at the publisher, ongoing struggles with Apple blocking content on comiXology's iOS app, the influence of creator-owned comics and the upcoming Expo itself, which the publisher promises to have more announcements than the last two years combined.

CBR News: Eric, let's start by talking about last week's big news -- that "Stray Bullets" is coming to Image Comics. What has you specifically excited about "Stray Bullets" at Image? And what motivated the unconventional rollout that got a lot of people excited -- with #41, the massive "Uber Alles" collection and "Stray Bullets: The Killers" #1 all hitting on the same day?

Eric Stephenson: Well, first and foremost, I'm a huge fan of the book. I've been reading "Stray Bullets" since it started, and like everyone else, I've been waiting years to see it return to print. It's one of the finest comics ever created, and to be able to work with David and Maria Lapham on continuing the series here at Image is nothing short of amazing. I've wanted to read issue #41 for so long -- now Image is publishing it.

The rollout, releasing everything all at once, is something David and Maria wanted to do, and I thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea. Nobody's really done anything like that before, and we all agreed it was a unique way to showcase the book's return.

Lapham's "Stray Bullets" Hits Target at Image Comics

On the "Stray Bullets" train of thought: It's not the first time we've seen an already-known property make its way to Image. Is that something Image pursues fairly actively, or reserved for special cases? For you personally, are there quite a few other books out there, like a "Stray Bullets," that you'd like to see under the Image umbrella?

It just depends, really. "Stray Bullets" was published by David and Maria throughout their own El Capitan Books, and nothing had been done with the book in years. There was no new material, the backlist was out of print, and the first time I reached out to them, which was a few years ago, I just thought it was worth a shot to see what was going on and if there was any way Image could get involved.

More often than not, though, it's the other way around. Tim Seeley's "Hack/Slash" is a good example -- Tim came to us with that. Mike Allred came to us with "Madman." There have been a bunch of instances like that over the years, but generally speaking, unless it's a situation like what I described with "Stray Bullets," we don't really make a habit of chasing down existing comics and trying to convince the creators to bring them to Image.

The Image Expo is approaching in just a couple of weeks. What motivated the timing of holding the event in January this year? And how important to you is the keynote you give each time around -- a concept that's a traditional part of conferences, but really isn't something you see at North American comic book conventions?

2014 is going to be a big year for us, and it just made sense to get in front of it instead of waiting until convention season to start talking about all the fantastic things we have coming up. This is such a great time for comics, and one of the things I really liked about Image Expo when Robert Kirkman first suggested we do an event like this, is that it's not like everything else, it kind of pushes us into a different direction in terms of how we do things. Comic book conventions are fun, and it's awesome to see how successful so many of them are becoming, but there's so much going on at them, especially the bigger cons, that staging a smaller, more focused event just seemed to make a lot of sense. The keynote kind of plays into that, because it gives us an opportunity to let people know where we're at and where we're going in a way we really can't at more traditional comics events.

Much has been made of the sales success Image has had this year -- beyond the obvious power of "The Walking Dead" and "Saga," books like "Sex Criminals," "Pretty Deadly," "Velvet" and "Black Science" have all had successful launches, and Image's market share has risen. Though sales are on an upswing in general, do you see the beginnings of a shift in the marketplace, with readers more readily accepting of creator-owned books and new concepts? 

I think readers have always accepted creator-owned books and new concepts. If you look at the last 20 years of comics, the most enduring work produced in this industry is, by and large, creator-owned material. There hasn't been a lot of new creativity on the work-for-hire front, you know? There are lots of reboots and relaunches, a vast proliferation of titles featuring the same characters on different teams or in different costumes, but when it comes to genuinely new ideas, those are being road tested in creator-owned comics, and I think the shift you're seeing is simply the result of more and more writers and artists realizing they can do the kind of work they've always wanted and be successful at it.

Image has received praise for being receptive to female creators, but at least anecdotally, it seems to attract more female readers than most other major comic book publishers. How important is a diverse readership to you, and how are you looking to grow it even further? 

Diversity of readership is tremendously important, and we absolutely want to continue to expand our appeal. I think a big reason our industry is experiencing so much growth right now is because we're finally doing the kind of comics that resonate with a diverse readership. It's kind of like what happened a decade or so back when comics first started gaining acceptance in bookstores and getting written up in the mainstream press, really, because it's a slow process and there's no one way to reach everyone. I mean, for a very long time, comic books and superheroes were practically synonymous, and it took a lot of unique work by a lot of different men and women to finally open things up to the point where someone other than the standard comics reader see the full potential of our medium. If you do different things, you attract different readers. It's that simple.

2013 is almost over, and by just about all indicators, it's been a good one for Image. From your perspective -- which is presumably very different from what outsiders are able to observe -- what do you see as the biggest successes in the past year?

There have been a lot of great moments over the last year, but "Sex Criminals" has been a real highlight for me. I think what Matt and Chip [Zdarsky] are doing is really special, and I just love that book to death. It's nothing short of an honor to publish work that amazing. "East of West" is another one, a book that just gets better and better. I've always liked Nick Dragotta's work, but I was completely unprepared for the way he just blew the doors off that thing, right from the start. I'm a big fan of seeing an artist take his or her work to the next level, and "East of West" is one of the best examples of that in a long time.

Similarly, it's really cool to see both Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios stretching themselves on "Pretty Deadly." I knew it was going to be good when Kelly Sue first pitched me, but the finished product has exceeded even my greatest expectations. Honestly, I could sit here and rattle off names and titles all day long, because from "Black Science" to "Lazarus" to "Velvet" to "Zero," I think we've just been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the absolutely best people in this business to put out some incredibly cool comics. I'm very proud of how awesome all these folks are.

On the flipside of that, given that we already know a few books on the horizon like Jason Aaron and Jason Latour's "Southern Bastards," what are you most looking forward to at this point from Image in 2014? 

IMAGE EXPO: Aaron & Latour Launch "Southern Bastards"

I think by the time they're sweeping up at the Yerba Buena Center in a few weeks' time, you'll have a pretty good idea what I'm looking forward to. I'm really excited about what we have in store, and I think the people coming out to Image Expo are in for a real treat this time. We have more announcements in store for 2014 than we did in 2012 and 2013 combined, and it's going to be really fun rolling this all out.

Another part of Image's past year has been the ongoing issue with Apple blocking the sale of multiple Image titles on comiXology's iOS app, and the pre-censorship of "Saga" #12. Surely that's a frustrating situation, but do you see it as possibly having any positive effect in the long run -- maybe increasing reader awareness of censorship issues, or helping to galvanize support for these books? And are there any steps that can be taken to avoid it becoming a further problem for Image?

Apple Blocks "Sex Criminals" #2 on comiXology iOS App

Yeah, it's frustrating, and yes, it never hurts to have a news story out there about something like "Saga" or "Sex Criminals," but ultimately I'd prefer readers be able to get the material they want through their app of choice. comiXology is by far the most successful comics app, and it just strikes me as short-sighted for Apple to place such arbitrary restrictions on comics content. It's disrespectful of the medium, of the creators, and of the readership, and honestly, it seems a bit out of character for Apple. I'd personally expect the company that gave us the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad to be a bit more forward thinking.

Is there anything we can do to avoid it being a problem? Well, yeah: We could encourage the creators we work with to alter their content so it doesn't run afoul of Apple's restrictions, which would result in watered-down versions of things like "Saga" and "Sex Criminals," which isn't a course of action I'm at all enthusiastic about, or we could simply stop making those series available via the iOS app and direct people to comiXology's website, our own website or Google Play. I say all the time that we're still in the very early days of the digital comics market, so there's really no reason for us to get in lock step with Apple over something that may be irrelevant in a few years' time.

Eric Stephenson on the New State of Image Comics

Given the benchmarks Image has been able to clear in recent years -- both creatively and sales-wise -- what do you specifically envision as the next steps for the company?

You know, every year we have the same goals we've always had, and the same goals we always will have, which is to help creators produce their best work, without interference, and publish the absolute best comics we can. Everything we've ever achieved at Image is the result of accomplishing that goal, and that will never change, but I also have to say -- I always laugh when I see a publisher bragging about being number four or hoping to eventually be number five or number three. We all work our asses off here, day in and day out, all year round, and that's not because we're trying to come in third place. We want to be number one. It may take time, years even, but we're playing the long game here and every single day, more and more people are catching on to the fact that we're not just doing something right, but doing it better than everyone else.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Image Comics and the upcoming Image Expo.

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