IMAGE EXPO: Eric Stephenson's Keynote and Multiple High-Profile Announcements

The first Image Expo of 2016 will unfold Wednesday, April 6 -- the day before the start of Emerald City Comicon -- at the Showbox theatre in Seattle. Per Image Expo tradition, a host of surprise guests and new series announcements followed Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson's keynote address, which opened the one-day event.

Stephenson started his speech by stating "nothing is impossible" and discussing his early comics fandom, as a self-admitted "reluctant reader" before discovering the medium. He also discussed how there was once a perception that comic books weren't "for" women, and remarked on how that has changed.

"I know very few women who don't read comics, and fewer and fewer people are surprised by that," Stephenson said.

Discussing some of the major changes in our nation -- marriage equality, widespread legalization of marijuana -- Stephenson said that change in comic books is possible, and "small stuff" in relative scale compared to those issues. He recapped the famed inception of Image, with the seven founders leaving Marvel to start their own creator-owned publisher.

"Image has succeeded for the same reason anything worth doing succeeds," Stephenson said. "The seven artists who founded our company believed so strongly about what they were doing that they worked tirelessly to make their dreams come true."

"Nothing is impossible as long as you do the work," Stephenson continued.

Continuing on the theme of change, Stephenson commented, "It's not enough to simply believe in change, you have to participate in change."

"Success, failure, they're not mutually exclusive," he stated. "To do one, you have to do the work. To resist the other, you also have to do the work." "Nothing is impossible," he said at the close of his comments. "You just have to do the work."

Image's David Brothers joined the stage to host the announcement portion. First creator up: Jim Zub. He describes his new title as something "totally different" than what he's done before, a "Hollywood horror" titled "Glitterbomb." Tagline: "It's time to eat the rich. For real."

"Our main character, Farrah, she is a middle-aged actress and she can't get roles anymore," Zub said. "She wants to tear this Hollywood system down, and she's doing to do it in the most violent, horrific way possible. I've never done a horror title like this before -- we're just going over the top."

"Glitterbomb" will be illustrated by a Djibril Morissette. "We're going to tear down Hollywood piece by piece," Zub said.

Next creator on the stage: Leila Del Duca, who is writing a young adult graphic novel for Image, a fantasy/science-fiction adventure titled "Afar." Kit Seaton is the artist.

"[The characters of 'Afar'] have to flee across the desert and find a new life in a bustling metropolis," Del Duca said. "They live on a desert wasteland, but it also takes place on a bunch of different planets -- aquatic planets, other desert planets. Earth is even in there, for a panel."

"I'd say it's more fantasy than sci-fi, it's not based on any science truth," Del Duca added. "I wanted to write a book for Kit that took me back to my own childhood."

"Drifter" writer Ivan Brandon joined next. His new book is a science-fiction title called "VS," illustrated by "Secret Wars" artist Esad Ribic. "Things are shifting, and the demographics of how people fight, and the technology is changing," Brandon said of the book's world.

"VS" aims for a fall release. "He's got a level of time and detail, and he's building the entire world from scratch," Brandon said of Ribic's work. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm just standing next to him and hoping not to screw up."

Brandon's also co-writing a new series with Jason Latour, titled "Black Cloud." Art by Greg Hinkle and Matt Wilson.

"Essentially, the elevator pitch for this one is, something along the lines of 'Jessica Jones meets Roger Rabbit,'" Latour said of the series, before speaking of his longtime friendship with Brandon. Latour said "Black Cloud" "completely embraces what it's like to work in art and work on art."

"It's a story about a deposed rebel leader, she comes from a world where imagination is literal," Latour continued. "My crappy analogy is sort of a sword and the stone story, where the person is supposed to take the sword and doesn't really feel like it," Brandon added.

"It's sort of a story about the ills and benefits of collaboration, telling stories," Latour said. "In that regard, we're co-writing it, and working with Greg Hinkle and Matt Wilson, who are both tremendous artists." Like "VS," also scheduled for a fall release -- Brandon said that "Black Cloud" will likely be out "a little before" "VS."

Next creator up: "Genesis" co-creator Alison Sampson, who is illustrating a book written by Steve Niles titled "Winnebago Graveyard." "What it's about is Satanism," Sampson said, describing the book as a family getting stuck in a town of Satanists. "It's what happens next. This is very much Steve doing what he's so good at -- taking a bunch of humans with a preexisting set of relationships, and putting them in a gnarly situation. We're going to get quite into what Satanists actually do. There's human sacrifice, rituals, nudity. It's just amazing."

"I'm doing this comic with my 13-year-old nephew, he's working on me with it," Sampson said, adding that most people are drawn to horror at a young age. "This is for him."

"It's gross," Sampson said, when asked by Brothers what type of horror the team is aiming for. "It's psychological in that you don't know what's going to happen. Really, what you're talking about is the dynamic within a family. It's a fairly straight-up scary story."

Artist Juan Gedeon and writer Brandon Thomas are next up. They're working on "Horizon," a series from Skybound Entertainment. "Horizon" is a "sci-fi conspiracy thriller" debuting in July. "This is pretty much the biggest secret of my life, I've been working on this for about two years now," Thomas said. He's written 10 script, the art for four issues is finished.

"It'll be examining how humanity looks from the outside," Thomas said. "The series is going to delve into what happens if maybe everyone on Earth doesn't deserve their ultimate fate. It's a book basically about, how many second chances do Earth and humanity get?" Brothers said it sounds like a "reverse gentrification story."

"They've been treating us like family," Gedeon said of Skybound, adding that he was contacted by the Robert Kirkman-headed studio after his work on Marvel's "Ghost Racers" #1 was released. "'Ghost Racers' was all fire and leather and metal, with the characters for 'Horizon,' I went with black and neon." Thomas said there's a "very clear reference" to a famous Image Comics book in "Horizon."

Colin Lorimer joined the presentation to introduce "The Hunt," a Shadowline series he's writing and drawing based on Irish folklore "with a modern twist." It'll feature fairies, but don't expect Tinkerbell: "These fairies are grotesque, an the evilest thing you can imagine."

"They don't have to wait until people are on their deathbed to take their souls, they're killing them now to take that soul right out of them," Lorimer said. "It's an incredibly dark tale. It's a book I've been working on for quite a while. I hope you come along for the ride, and bring a few pairs of trousers, as well."

Colorist Nathan Fairbairn was next up, to talk new book "Lake of Fire," set for release in July. Taking place during the Crusaders, "It follows a small group of Crusaders, as an alien spacecraft crash-lands in the French Pyrenees." Fairbairn is writing, and "Barbarian Lord" artist Matt Smith is drawing.

Fairbairn said about a couple years ago he felt he started developing the idea for "Lake of Fire," and first asked artists he works with regularly, like Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham. "Turns out, they wanted to work with Grant Morrison," Fairbairn joked. He said he and Smith are definitely a "two-man band," as they are working on all aspects of the book together.

Next up: Howard Chaykin, talking new series "The Divided States of Hysteria," which Chaykin said is, unlike much of his recent material, neither "historical" or "erotic." Chaykin said he believes a "world-changing event" is inevitable, which is the inspiration for the series. "I grew up terrified that I would be nuked before I lost my virginity."

"If we identify people as villains in our head, we succumb to an idea I think is fraudulent," Chaykin continued. He'll be writing and drawing the series, with colorist Jesus Aburtov and letter Ken Bruzenak. The book stars an "up and coming" Central Intelligence officer who "fucks up royally," when it comes to predicting a major attack. According to the tagline seen on screen, he's assisted by "four serial murderers."

"And there's a love story that I'm not going to go into," Chaykin said. "There's a romantic component that will emerge."

Ronald Wimberly joined the presentation, to announce a "definitive version" of his "Prince of Cats." "If you're not familiar, 'Prince of Cats' is like a Shakespeare b-side, like if you flipped over 'Romeo and Juliet,'" with an influence of "New York street culture." It follows Tybalt (from "Romeo and Juliet") in the setting of 1980s New York.

Jen Van Meter and Rick Burchett were next up, to talk "Prima." "It's an adventure/espionage/romance/thriller/comedy, about a ballet company that used to be a front for a resistance cell during World War II," Van Meter said. "Now the war is over and they're going to continue to use their ballet and espionage skills to help people in need."

Van Meter praised Burchett as "one of the best artists in the world." Burchett talked capturing the period of the 1950s; "It wasn't that hard for me since I was alive then," he said. "It's a lot of fun. There's a little bit of nudity in it. Have you ever tried to draw a slender woman with legs like a draft horse? It's tough."

Joe Harris joined the presentation to introduce "Rockstars," drawn by Megan Hutchison, who he calls a "really talented new artist." It's not a dystopian story unlike much of his recent work, Harris explained -- "It's essentially a rock-and-roll thriller sent against a magical backdrop." He dubbed it "'Almost Famous' meets 'Supernatural,'" with the central character investigating rock and roll mythology.

"It's a story I've wanted to tell since I was a little kid," Harris said. "The majesty of rock and roll, particularly it's '70s heyday, is which this series is going to take its root. The plan is for each story arc to center on a different era of rock history, from British Invasion to '80s metal." "Rockstars" is slated to debut in the fall.

Bryan Edward Hill joined to talk the previously announced "Romulus," written by him and illustrated by Nelson Blake II. It's about a group called the "Order of Romulus," who are behind "all of the bad" in the world.

It centers around an assassin for the Order or Romulus -- all assassins for the order are women -- who turns on the group. Hill said it's an "unapologetic story of heroism." "We will never make it easy for her," Hill said of the main character. "I know how strong women are, I was the kid of a single mother, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, which is a pretty hard place to grow up if you're my color."

Hill said it'll like be fall or winter for "Romulus" #1.

Acclaimed former Vertigo editor Karen Berger joined the stage, along with documentary producer Sara Kenney. "I always knew I'd be back in comics," Berger said. She's editing a new sci-fi book titled "Surgeon X," about a "daring and subversive surgeon who risks her life to saves others" in a, according to the tagline, "world on the brink of medical collapse" -- endangering her own morality in the process.

Kenney told the crowd that her story is inspired by the potential threat of "killer diseases" coming back with vengeance, like tuberculosis and cholera. The main character, Rosa Scott, is called "her own worst enemy." "As her moral compass spins out of control, she makes decisions about who lives and who dies," Kenney said. John Watkiss, a Vertigo veteran, will illustrate "Surgeon X."

"Early in his career, he was a teacher of anatomy in London," Berger said of Watkiss. "Who better to draw this story than someone who knows the human body quite well." James Devlin is the colorist of "Surgeon X," and Jared K. Fletcher is the letter.

Berger said that Kenney, "really did her homework, to create this very believable, and very possible world, that could happen in 20 years." Berger said that Kenney has ideas to "expand the story world" or "Surgeon X" beyond this series, but declined to elaborate further.

Writer Ed Brubaker joined Brothers on stage to talk his latest with Sean Phillips, "Kill or Be Killed." Brubaker said that it's a tricky collaboration for him and Phillips, in that it has "a main character you can root for -- assuming you like to root for someone who is forced to murder people."

Brubaker said unlike much of his recent books with Phillips, "Kill or Be Killed" is an ongoing series. "Everything this guy does caused a ripple that we get to explore further and further out," the writer said. "It's almost a soap opera about murder." Brubaker said it was their take on a vigilante story, and compared it to both "Death Wish" and early 1970s Spider-Man comics.

"I kind of missed the serialized nature of monthly comics," Brubaker said. "There was something about it that really taps into my own personal anger about how fucked up the world is right now. I wanted to do a story about a person who is aggressively angry about the world." The main character is in his 20s, and Brubaker said, "I wanted to tap into that generational anger. People are fucking pissed right now."

Brubaker praised the work of colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser. "I think she's one of the two or three best colorists in comics," Brubaker said. "She jumped on to help us with 'Fatale,' and almost immediately meshed with Sean. We basically said, 'Be our colorist forever.' She's pretty much a full-time member of our team now."

Jonathan Hickman entered to tell the crowd of "The Black Monday Murders," inspired by the real-life financial Black Monday of 1987, which he said led society to where it is now. "It's the death of the nation state, and it's kind of an environment that's ripe for financial corruption," Hickman said. "I don't need to elaborate on that, because we live in it each and every day."

Hickman said he's always wanted to do a story about magic, thus "The Black Monday Murders." "This is a book about schools of magic. The only difference being that instead of schools of magic, it's financial institutions. Power is accumulated through wealth. It's about a bunch of guys, a bunch of schools, that gathered together and generated a financial collapse" in order to attain power.

"It's probably the best thing I've written in about three years," Hickman said. The book will be illustrated by Tomm Coker. "He's just an amazing artist, this is going to be a really good book for him," Hickman said.

Mentioning the importance he places on the presentation of comic books, Hickman said, "This is the first book I've done where it's to the point that I feel like it's an actual manifestation of how I think a comic should be done." Issues will include "world-building" back matter relevant to the larger story of "The Black Monday Murders."

Frequent collaborators Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña were next up, debuting fantasy series "Seven to Eternity," colored by Matt Hollingsworth and lettered by Rus Wooton. The book is scheduled to debut in the fall.

"We follow a dying knight, who is a member of a disgraced family," Remender said. "He is afforded an opportunity to save the world from a malevolent evil known as the God of Whisperers. He controls the entire place with a prevalent fear. At the core of it, it's very much a story about compromise."

Remender called the book a "level up" for Opeña, who said he's inspired by Mœbius for the series. "It's genius work," Opeña said of his affection for Mœbius. "Seeing Jerome tap into that has been one of the great joys of my career," Remender said.

Brian Azzarello joined to introduce "Moonshine," illustrated by his "100 Bullets" collaborator Eduardo Risso. "Finally we made it to Image," Azzarello said.

"Remember those old Reese's commercials, about chocolate and peanut butter coming together?" Azzarello asked the crowd. "That's 'Moonshine,' except it's gangsters and werewolves." (There will also be hillbillies, Azzarello promised.)

Azzarello and Risso have completed two issues, and Risso is coloring the book himself. "I hate it when people say this, but it really is the best work of his career." "Moonshine" is slated to debut in October -- stay tuned to CBR later today to hear more from Azzarello and Risso on the book.

The celebrated now-former "Batgirl" team of co-writers Cameron Stewart & Brenden Fletcher and artist Babs Tarr took the stage to talk their new project: "Motor Crush," described by Stewart as a "science fiction action series" about a young girl named Domino Swift. "By night she fights in illegal bike races," Stewart said, which are "half-race, half gladiatorial brawls."

Along with art, Tarr is also co-writing "Motor Crush" with Fletcher and Stewart. Fletcher said that this is the team's chance to "cut loose." "This is going to be our team, kind of uncensored," he said.

Stewart said this book is "skewing a little bit older" than "Batgirl." "It's based on an old concept that Brenden had years ago that was originally going to be a children's television series, but we decided to go a little bit older."

"I am so excited, because I can go crazy with the fashions," Tarr said. "Burnside was sort of one-note, very hipster-y. Each gang will have their own style. Like 'The Warriors,' but amplified to the 10th degree." Stewart and Fletcher named "FLCL" and "Akira" as further visual comparisons. "Motor Crush" is eyed for a December debut. "The three of us writing together, I'm doing storyboards, Babs is doing final artwork and color," Stewart said.

But wait, there's more -- from Fletcher. His "Gotham Academy" collaborator Karl Kerschl joined Fletcher on the stage. Kerschl told the crowd that the two have known each other since they were 10, around 30 years.

Their Image book is "Isola: Isalnd of the Dead," which Kerschl said is the culmination of "everything they've been working on for the last 16 years." Fletcher said "it really means everything to us as professional peers and as friends. It's a project that has a tone that we've always wanted to capture." Kerschl named Miyazaki films and "Elfquest" as inspirations. "It's tough to work that stuff into the mainstream comics work I've been doing," the artist said.

"Isola" centers on the titular mythical island, and centers on two women -- one who has been transformed into a tiger -- and their search for Isola, to return her to human form.

"What we're really telling is the story of these two women, and the love they have for each other, and their journey to find this island," Fletcher said. While there will be action, "It's a gentle story. It's a fantasy world. It's about two women trying to relate to each other."

Kerschl said he's working on the book now, though it won't be out until spring 2017. "But you will see it turning up before then, in another publication I may have something to do with," Fletcher revealed.

Nick Dragotta, Joe Keatinge, Remender, Hickman and Del Duca joined Brothers for the final announcement of the presentation: "Creators for Creators," a new grant set to award $30,000 to a creator or creative team. Charlie Adlard, Jordie Bellaire, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Robert Kirkman, Jamie McKelvie, Declan Shalvey, Fiona Staples, Eric Stephenson, C. Spike Trotman and Brian K. Vaughan are all also involved in Creators for Creators.

"It's been incredibly powering as an artist," Dragotta said of working at Image. "Not only creatively, because I basically get to draw whatever I want, but also the education has been huge." Dragotta invited other creators to contribute to Creators for Creators -- a non-profit -- and to potentially be involved in a mentoring aspect of the program.

"There's no stipulation, too, on what the work is," Dragotta said. The first submissions open on May 1. There's a legal aspect as well, to provide legal advice to creators.

"Image is probably now the destination location for the best comics in the industry," Hickman said. "We're looking for people who are hungry and are just dying for that one small opportunity. We know there are a ton of super-talented people out there and all they need is a tiny chance."

"The goal is for this to grow," Hickman added. "We don't want to do this once. We want to keep going."

Brothers thanked Image for the stage to announce Creators for Creators, but said that the initiative is meant to be "comics industry-wide." If a recipient chooses to self-publish, that's welcomed: "Being a creator is about making your own decisions," Brothers said.

"Dispel those myths about what you have to do," Keatinge said of Creators for Creators' goals. "Let's get to work."

With that, the announcements wrapped, but keep reading CBR for more from Image Expo!

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