Image's Eric Stephenson Looks Beyond the Saga of "Saga" #12

It was the banning heard round the world -- that turned out to be less of a ban and more a lesson learned about Apple's restrictions on digital comics' content.

Last week, after a statement from writer Brian K. Vaughan made it seem as though his and Fiona Staples' "Saga" #12 was prohibited by Apple for sale via comiXology's iOS apps, a series of statements from the digital distributor revealed that it had preemptively declined to add the book to its apps over concerns the issue's explicit sexual content violated Apple's rules. The ensuing blog posts, clarifications and discussions not only led to the comics community taking a harder look at what digital platforms work best for creators, they also led to the release of a number of previously unavailable Image titles through comiXology's apps.

With the discussion bringing renewed focus to Image Comics' place in the market as a home for creator-owned content unfettered by outside forces, CBR News reached out to Image Publisher Eric Stephenson for a wide ranging discussion that included the "Saga" confusion, Image's long term plans for digital offerings and its overall outreach on major titles like "The Walking Dead" and incoming books. We also discuss Image's plans for 2013, from the future of the Extreme Studios relaunch to the status and profit potential of creator-owned comics today.

CBR News: Your interview with Heidi MacDonald about all the "Saga" drama did a pretty good job of laying out a timeline of how all this stuff hit from your point of view. Looking forward, what, if anything, has Image learned from this experience in terms of approaching the digital marketplace?

Eric Stephenson: Well, that's not really the issue, is it? Within the structure of our relationship with comiXology, it's not like there's something we did or didn't do, so short of creating a situation wherein we handle everything ourselves, it's not like we've come out of this with a list of action items. We're certainly not going to censor the work of the creators we publish, either digitally or in print.

An oft-cited idea on the web as this all shook out was that this may have ironically brought more eyes to "Saga" than if #12 would have just come out, business as usual. At this early stage in the game, do the numbers back that up? Could you share any info on how big "Saga's" digital sales tend to be, and did those sales jump for this issue above what the average release does in its first week on sale?

The print comic sold out at Diamond overnight. I mean, the comics sells pretty well as it is, but I don't think the extra exposure hurt. As I've said to Heidi, and to David Steinberger before that, it was a shitty situation that happily turned out okay for everyone involved. At one point, "Saga" #12 was the number two book in iBooks, and there's no denying that's directly related to the amount of attention generated by all of this. Luckily, for people drawn in by the spectacle of controversy, "Saga" is the single best comic book currently being published in the United States, so everybody wins.

Overall, what's your take on the digital side of Image's business? We still hear a lot of vague talk about the potential of digital to reach a wider readership, but in the data you've looked at, are Image's books growing in readership there? Is it at a pace with print sales? Or if not, has it plateaued?

Yes, yes and no. Both digital and print are growing at a similar pace, although not on a book-by-book basis. It would be nice to say our top 10 print comics are also our top 10 digital comics, but based on the information we've received from comiXology, that's not the case. It's something we'll paying closer attention to the further we get down this particular road.

I think there's a lot of room for growth for both formats, honestly. Digital isn't the be-all and end-all, it's just another format. Nobody wants one milk, one bread, one food -- why should it be any different with our entertainment? People like choices.

Would you ever be interested in publishing something digital-first if the project warranted that kind of format?

Under the right circumstances, sure.

I think this whole "Saga" occurrence has brought up a lot of interesting discussion on censorship in general. Apple's system is, of course, nothing like the actual web. It's a closed system. Do you think there's a lesson to be learned in all this for how publishers approach selling through these big corporations? Is it time to start looking at some other web-based options to sell directly to the readership?

Well, I think everyone is always looking at other options, and I think we'd all be foolish not to. We are in the very early stages of the digital distribution model, and I'd be willing to bet the landscape will look completely different five, ten years from now.

It's like -- remember Friendster? That was, what? 2002? And then MySpace was the next big thing in 2003, only to be quickly supplanted by Facebook. When Bob Dylan sang "The Times They Are A Changin'," he wasn't just whistling Dixie, and he wasn't just talking about 1963. Things change, sometimes faster than we'd like, but I think it's ridiculous to assume the way things are now is the way things will always be, or perhaps more importantly, the best way.

I think another broader discussion to have whenever we talk digital is outreach to new audiences. Of course, everything "Walking Dead" is doing gangbusters these days, and I know it's got its own solo app in addition to the offerings through comiXology's core app. Do you have any metrics that track how new audiences are coming to some of this material and whether there's a "discovery" factor that happens around all of Image's digital offerings?

Actually, I think it's kind of a naive assumption that digital just automatically has a broader reach. Lots of people talk about that, but you know, at the end of the day, "The Walking Dead" Vol. 1 has sold millions of copies, compared to tens of thousands of its digital counterpart. Yes, the potential for a broad reach is there, because digital stores are literally open 24/7, but people still have to seek out that material, and at the end of the day, more of them are coming to it through the print version. I mean, "The Walking Dead" is in Walmart and Target now, and that's been tremendously successful for that book, because those trades become an impulse buy. People see them while they're shopping and bam, into the cart it goes. To me, that's a greater level of outreach, as opposed to the kind of "build it and they will come" mentality a lot of people seem to associate with digital.

Shifting into the print side of the line, I know another outreach program you guys are continuing with is the Image Firsts #1 reprint program. I understand that's welcomed some really new titles like Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo's "Bedlam" recently. How successful has that program been in driving readers to ongoing series? Does it help build some long term confidence with regards to the discussions you guys have been having recently on print runs with retailers?

Yeah, the next batch of Image Firsts books are "Bedlam," "Morning Glories," "Great Pacific," "Super Dinosaur," "Peter Panzerfaust" and "Mind the Gap," and really, the main goal here is for retailers to use them as sales tools not just for the comics, but also for the trades. Speaking with retailers at ComicsPro this year, one of the big takeaways was that retailers love to have cheap entry level books to put into prospective readers' hands. They're such a low cost item for retailers that they can literally give them away and say, "If you like this, come back and get the trade." Better still is that most of the first trades have an introductory price point of $9.99, so if whether you get the Image Firsts edition of something free or for a dollar, it's a pretty painless transition form that to the first trade.

Does that build confidence with the retailers? Based on the feedback I've received, and the feedback Ron [Richards is] getting, I'd say it is, definitely. We print the Image Firsts to be available over a long period, and it lets them know we're committed to those books, that we're committed to helping them build readerships for these series over time. It's a program I'm really proud of, and I'm incredibly happy that it has worked out as well as it has for the retail community.

Let's talk about Image's plans for 2013. Coming into the year, there were a number of initiatives you guys were focusing on: celebrating milestone issues for books like "Invincible" and "Chew," keeping momentum on ongoing series and launching series from known creators and up and comers alike. Can you give me a picture of how you felt about the line across that first quarter and what you're planning on doing more of as we look towards the latter half of the year?

Our first quarter in 2013 is right around double our first quarter in 2012, both in units and in dollars, so on that level, things are looking good. I mean, we had a truly phenomenal 2012, so to come off that and kind of keep rolling is a great feeling, especially given that the first quarter is traditionally the slowest part of the year. We've been very fortunate to be associated with so many great writers and artists, though, and yeah, one of the things we've been doing -- and something we'll be doing more of as we head into the summer -- is focusing on our ongoing books, instead of just striking up the band for the new series. There has been such a glut of relaunches over the last few years, and I think a lot of readers realize that anyone can relaunch a series with a new first issue, it's getting to issue 25, to issue 50, to issue 100...that's the trick. If you're going to put out a bunch of first issues, do it right. Give people something new. We've got a pretty good balance of new and existing material going right now, and I think it's just as important for people to know how awesome "Chew" is and what John Layman and Rob Guillory have got going in that, as it is for them to know we're launching a new book -- "Lazarus" -- by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark.

On the front of established creators, we're about to see the last wave of new series announced as part of the Image Expo last year from folks like Matt Fraction, Howard Chaykin, Kelly Sue DeConnick, J. Michael Straczynski, Joe Casey, Chris Roberson and others. I know it was a goal of yours for a while to attract more and more folks to come to work at Image. Where does that work go from here? Are you looking to do more work with folks who came over like Grant Morrison? Are there other talents you're eyeing to bring to the company?

Answering those three questions in reverse: Yes, yes, and the work doesn't end. We're busier than ever in that regard.

Last year, creator's rights and the push to creator owned seemed to be the story that dominated comics news more than any other, and Image was right in the middle of that. What do you think is the best way to keep that momentum going in comics as a community and for Image as a publisher moving forward?

Well, we were right in the middle of that, because that's what we do. It's not an aspect of what we do, it's what we were built for. Whereas other publishers have decided they're going to create "a line" of creator-owned comics, we are creator-owned comics. I think staying true to the original vision of the company has worked in our favor over the long haul, and I think that's what keeps us moving forward. Image is constantly evolving. We'll be celebrating the 10th anniversary of "The Walking Dead" later this year -- that book didn't exist at this point in 2003. You can look at almost every year since Image was founded and the company is just ever-changing.

As far as the comics community as a whole, back when Jamie S. Rich was still at Oni -- I guess this would have been around 2002 or so -- he wrote this great piece about how writers and artists should aspire to something a little higher than just becoming the next writer on "Iron Man." By all means, go do "Iron Man," but once you've built up a name for yourself and you have a following, do you own thing. Working for yourself is always better than working for someone else. Why would you want to do that any longer than you have to?

Because I'm always curious what your take is on these kinds of things, the discussion that seems to be growing bigger and bigger is one of how to make a living in the short term and the long term in comics. At Image, we've had guys like Jim Zub speak in pretty frank terms about how tough making a profit can be even for successful books in the market. What's your take on all of this, and how do you advise creators who are starting out about what they can do to maximize their chances of success?

Image has always been invested in new talent. There have been times in the past, even, when new talent outnumbered more experienced creators at Image, and I think our track record for supporting new talent speaks for itself. I mean, using Jim as an example: "Skullkickers" book would have been canceled by now anywhere else. We work with the creators we work with because we believe in them. Sometimes it takes a while for a book or a creator to catch on, but generally speaking, we're willing to wait and let talent develop. Robert Kirkman's first book wasn't "The Walking Dead." He started out with things like "Tech Jacket" and "Cloudfall" and "Capes."

Which actually brings me to the best advice I can give aspiring creators: Don't shackle yourself to one idea. Take a page from Robert's book, and know when to close up shop and move on. If things aren't working out, don't drive yourself into a hole trying to bend the universe to your will. Move on to the next thing. If you're creative enough to make it in this business -- create. Learn from what did or didn't work first time out and apply those lessons to your next book and the next and the one after that. Whether it's comics or music or film or whatever -- if you're serious about doing something, you have to be prepared to work for it. And you have to be aware that you might not be immediately successful.

Extreme's revival was one of the big stories of 2012, and while work continues with Brandon Graham and Simon Roy's "Prophet" as well as Rob Liefeld's return to a few of his own creations, titles like "Glory" and "Supreme" have wound down as their creators finished their stories. Have you and Rob talked about doing a second wave of titles or continuing this initiative in some way in the future?

Not really. I think we're more or less satisfied with where things have wound up, and we don't want to force anything. Not all the books were huge hits, and no one wants to have stuff just constantly recycled. Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell did a fantastic run on "Glory" -- "Prophet's" going to continue until Brandon and his crew get to their end point... I'm sure Rob and I will sit down and stock of all this and look at what else can be done, but we're not there yet. Better to let things happen as they happen.

Like I said above, Image Expo was a major event not just for fans of the company last year but for you guys in terms of announcing new major series. Has there been any talk recently of a return engagement for the show?

We don't have any plans to do another convention, no.

Image always is -- and you personally are -- very supportive of new faces as well. Recently, I spoke with Ales Kot who I know you've really gotten behind, and I asked him something I'd like to ask you as well: What kinds of comics do you want to see more of in the marketplace? And what kinds of talent do you look for to help make that desire a reality?

When people ask me what kind of books we're looking for at Image, I tell them I want something they're going to be excited about, that they're burning to do. I hate the idea of people pitching something that someone else wants. Bring me the book you want to do, the book you've been dying to read, but it doesn't exist, so you have to create it yourself. I aways hold John Layman and "Chew" up as a great example of that. There has never been anything remotely like "Chew" in comics, and when John first came to us, he was totally expecting the book to last about five issues. But he and Rob put their hearts and souls into it and created something really special.

There's no white board here in the Image office where we draw up a list of what we want -- you don't get "Elephantmen" that way, or "Saga," or "Revival," or "East of West," or "Sex" -- those books were born inside those creators' minds, and it's through their sheer passion for their ideas and what they do that we have them here amongst us.

Speaking of new faces, what are some of the titles Image has on tap for the months ahead that you think deserve a shot from readers outside of the stuff made by folks who are known quantities at this point?

Man, there is this one book -- it's called "Undertow" -- and I cannot wait to put that out. We're holding off on soliciting it until we have a few issues in the can, but man. It is amazing work. Every time I get new pages in, it's the absolute high point of my day.

To bring things full circle, this whole hullabaloo with "Saga" has seemed to fit with the dictum that all publicity is good publicity in the end. I'm not sure that's always true, but this has seemed to draw some positive light to the series and Image's platform. What would you rather be talking about if you weren't making timelines for the press on who knew what when about what Apple does or doesn't think about Brian and Fiona's comic?

Right now I'm kind of wondering how it is that Fiona didn't get an Eisner nomination for her work on "Saga," or for her excellent covers. I think it's awesome that so many Image creators received nominations this year, but at the same time, it seems a little strange to nominate something for best new series and best continuing series, but then to completely overlook the artist. Likewise, it's kind of astounding that Jordie Bellaire was completely shut out in the coloring category. She's one of the most in-demand colorists in the business and has amassed just an incredible body of work. Whether it's her work on "Rocketeer" or "The Massive," "Captain Marvel" or "The Manhattan Projects," she is consistently brilliant at bringing the most out of the artists she works with, and it's just mind-boggling how that can be overlooked. Bettie Breitweiser is another excellent colorist who got shut out. Very strange.

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