IMAGE EXPO: Eric Stephenson's Keynote Address

"Every so often, people ask me what the best part of my job is and almost always what I tell them is getting to hear and see new ideas before anybody else," said Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson at the start of his keynote address for the first Image Expo. The Image Expo, running from February 24-26, is a unique comic book convention that focuses on Image Comics while also allowing retailers and other publishers to show their wares.

Stephenson revealed that his role in Image Comics began through his friendship with Jim Valentino more than 20 years ago. Stephenson had interviewed Valentino for Wizard in 1991 and the two kept in touch afterwards. When Valentino called Stephenson up and told him that Valentino, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Todd McFarlene, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen and Marc Silvestri were starting their own company, Stephenson recalls how "all I could think to say back was 'are you fucking serious?!'"

Valentino and his early partners didn't "want to do things the way Marvel and DC did them." They wanted a company that focused on creator rights and creator owned properties, things that the bigger companies of the time didn't care too much about.

"It sounded like the best idea I ever heard," said Stephenson. "Image sounded a whole lot like the future. If not for my growing friendship with Jim [Valentino,] I may never have been part of it."

"One of the things that I've always found so great about the Image story, the Image legend, if you will, is that the founders themselves weren't put together by somebody going through a Rolodex. If you're under 30, a Rolodex is like a contact list [audience laughs.]"

"Nobody was picking out the best bets on how to put together a comic book company, let alone a company like Image. Their relationships brought them together. All the founders knew each other. Some of them were better friends than others, but there was a connection between all of them, they were all on the same side," said Stephenson.

He then moved on to discussing some recent and upcoming projects at Image.

The importance of personal relationships at Image was a common talking point of the evening. He pointed out how if not for Robert Kirkman's friendship with Ed Brubaker, Image might never be publishing "Fatale" by Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Kirkman's networking was also the catalyst for "Thief of Thieves," his collaborative writing comic book published by Image that debuted this month.

Stephenson's own relationship with Rob Liefeld is directly responsible for the decision to bring back Liefeld's Extreme Studios creations this year, like "Glory" by Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell and "Prophet" by Brandon Graham and Simon Roy.

Also coming up this year is "The Manhattan Projects" and "Secret," both written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Nick Pitarra and Ryan Bodenheim, respectively. Hickman is another prolific writer who got his start at Image Comics with "The Nightly News". "News" was a blind pitch sent in by Hickman and it ending up leading to several more Image mini-series, as well as launching Hickman's career to lengthy runs on Marvel books like "Fantastic Four" and "Secret Warriors".

Stephenson then spoke about "America's Got Powers," the upcoming series by television presenter Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch. Stephenson mentioned how that book is only happening because of his relationship with Mark Millar, who introduced him to Ross. "Jupiter's Children" is Millar's own upcoming series at Image with art duties going to the legendary Frank Quitely.

The first cover of "Saga" by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples was shown on screen next. "I used to bother the hell out of Brian by emailing him and telling him I really loved [whatever was the most recent] issue [of 'Y: The Last Man,']" said Stephenson. Kirkman, who is a good friend of Vaughan's, also helped Stephenson to get Vaughan to return to monthly books.

Howard Chaykin is another fan-favorite returning to Image Comics this year. His book, "Black Kiss 2" will be a sexually-charged sequel to the original "Black Kiss". "We've covered up the naughty bits," joked Stephenson when he put the "Black Kiss 2" slide up on the screen. The image was of a naked woman crouching down, the book's logo barely covering her breasts.

"One of the things I love about [Chaykin] is that he really doesn't give a shit what anybody thinks about him. He does pretty much what he wants and says what he wants, regardless. I also love that he's willing to challenge his audience. 'Black Kiss 2' is kind of dark and goes to some pretty uncomfortable places."

Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen's series "Phonogram" also returns later this year with "Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl". There's been "far too long a wait" for the series, said Stephenson.

Ken Garing's "Planetoid" is a brand new Image series beginning this June. Garing takes on both writing and art chores on the title.

Nick Spencer, who got his start through Valentino's Shadowline imprint with books like "Existence 2.0" and "Morning Glories," is another young writer with several new projects at Image. Kirkman recruited Spencer to "Thief of Thieves" book, which he is currently writing. Stephenson then announced "Bedlam" by Spencer with art by Riley Rossmo. "Nick lives in England and I'm worried that this one project is going to bankrupt him because of all the phone bills!"

Steve Niles also has two new projects at Image this year. Stephenson showed slides of "Crime and Terror" by Niles and Scott Morse and announced "Chin Music" by Niles and Tony Harris.

"Mara" will be a mini-series coming out this year by Brian Wood and Ming Doyle.

"There's one other thing I wanted to mention," teased Stephenson at the end of his presentation, clearly channeling the late Steve Job's speeches that happened just a few miles away in San Francisco. That 'other thing' was revealed to be "Happy!," a new series by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson.

"Happy!" will come out from Image comics this year. Although Stephenson gave no specific launch date, the image shown, of a single feather against a stark white backdrop, had the year 2012 in bold at the bottom. "Happy!" first began being discussed about after Stephenson went out to dinner with Morrison, Kirkman and Joe Casey last October.

"Just as I wouldn't be here if not for a phone call from Jim Valentino back in 1991, none of us would be here without your enthusiasm and support. You know what, Jim, come up here!"

At this point, Jim Valentino joined Stephenson on stage. Not to be outdone, the rest of Valentino's Image partners, save Todd McFarlene, got up out of the crowd and joined Valentino and Stephenson on stage to pose for fans. Seeing all the founders still together and still smiling after 20 years was a fitting end to the keynote address at the first ever Image Expo.

Image Expo takes place this weekend, Feb 24-26, in Oakland, California.

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