INTERVIEW: Eric Stephenson on 25 'Revolutionary' Years of Image Comics

Image Comics has proclaimed Feb. 1, 2017 as "Image Day," with events across the country marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the creator-owned comics company, one of the more storied events in the history of the mainstream comic book industry.

Twenty-five years after the company's formation following the departure of creators Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino from Marvel Comics, Image Comics stands as the clear No. 3 to Marvel and DC Comics, publishing a celebrated and diverse line of books ranging from "Saga" to "The Walking Dead" to "Monstress" to "Sex Criminals" and many more. Yet while the company's current output as a whole looks very different from the largely superhero (or at least superhero-influenced) fare that defined Image at its start, the commitment to providing a purely creator-owned experience for creative teams has remained constant.

Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson has been a part of the company since nearly the beginning, then working as an editor and co-writer on titles in Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios partner studio. In 2008, he became publisher of Image Comics, replacing Erik Larsen, and has remained in that role for nearly nine years, along with writing his own comics, "Nowhere Men" and "They're Not Like Us," and delivering provocative -- and sometimes controversial -- keynote addresses at Image's "Image Expo" events.

CBR spoke in-depth with Stephenson for a typically frank interview on 25 years of Image Comics history, how the company has changed and the important things its retained, why there likely won't be an Image Expo in 2017, the performance of Image and the direct market as a whole in 2016, an update on his own comic books, and the latest on the move of Image Comics' headquarters from Berkeley to Portland.

"The Walking Dead" #164 variant cover by Ryan Ottley, paying homage to "WildC.A.T.S." #1 by Jim Lee.

CBR: Eric, let's start with the move, since I know it was planned for early this year: Where is Image in the process of moving from Berkeley to Portland? And given the inherent work involved in physically moving a company across state lines, how is it going thus far?

Eric Stephenson: We’ve been fully operational here in Portland since the beginning of the year, so the move has gone pretty well, actually. Our staff moved up here incrementally over the last three months of the year, so although it wasn’t a quick move by any means, there were fewer interruptions than if we’d just done it all at once. To a large degree, that's a testament to both the wonders of modern technology and the flexibility of our staff, because even split up and in some cases working remotely from home, it’s more or less been business as usual. It hasn’t always been fun, but overall, we’ve been thankful we didn’t have to shut down for an extended period of time or anything like that.

You've spoken before about the reasons for the change, but what are you hoping will be some of the long-term benefits of the move? Given that Image will now have a bigger office space than before, are you looking to grow Image Central, and add employees?

It’s a better environment, both for the company and for our staff. The Bay Area had changed drastically over the 12 years we were in Berkeley and it no longer felt hospitable for a company like Image. There was a point where we kind of talked around the office about Oakland being the next location, but commercial real estate in that area skyrocketed as a result of businesses leaving San Francisco for the East Bay. Or expanding into the East Bay, in the case of some of the tech giants. We do want to grow our staff, so yeah, the move to Portland better facilitates that goal.

Feb. 1 marks Image Day, the 25th anniversary of the founding of the company. As someone whose history with Image dates back to some of the earliest days, what do you see as the most important ways that company has evolved to where it is now?

Image is more of a business now, for sure. The early days were much more freewheeling. There’s still a bit of that -- and one of our greatest attributes to this day is that, as a small company, we’re quite nimble and very adaptable -- but there’s a lot more structure than there was in the beginning. Some of that comes with time, obviously, but also I think systems were put into place around the time Valentino became Publisher and then carrying on with Erik Larsen and then myself, that created more oversight and organization than there was before. It was a little bit like the Wild West initially, which served the company very well for a while, but that’s not sustainable over the long haul.

Beyond that, I think it’s pretty easy to see that whereas partner studios like Extreme, WildStorm, and Top Cow dominated Image’s output throughout the '90s, the bulk of what we publish now are independent titles with no affiliation to the Image partners.

Savage dragon

At the same time, even as Image has obviously grown, the origins of the publisher are still very resonant --  the fundamental mission statement of creator-owned comics, but also titles like "Savage Dragon" and "Spawn" are still ongoing, and down to the 25th anniversary covers paying homage to company history. How important is it to you to celebrate the formative years of the company?

Generally speaking, our focus is always on the future, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge how Image started and who brought the company into being. Image Comics is a pretty monumental achievement, not just in comics, but in the entertainment world as a whole. If Rob, Todd, Erik, Valentino, Marc, Jim and Whilce had just set up shop to do their own comics, that would be one thing, but instead of stopping there, they invited other creators to share in what they’d created, and that changed everything.

Beyond just making creator-owned comics a cornerstone of the industry, the creation of Image Comics caused huge change throughout the business, impacting everything from production values to page rates to the type of material that’s published. It was a revolutionary event that hasn’t lost its luster over time. Other publishers are still reacting to Image’s formation, whether it’s through exclusive contracts designed to lock talent down in one place and prevent them becoming part of the competition, or creative teams being shuffled around to prevent writers and artists -- and especially artists -- from building the kind of following that would allow them to have greater self-determination. Image has had a remarkably positive effect on the comics industry, and we wouldn’t be here without Todd, Erik, Rob, Valentino, Marc, Whilce and Jim, so yeah, even if it’s just something like the tribute variants we’re doing this month, I think our history is worth an enthusiastic nod of appreciation. There’s always something a little invigorating about looking back as you prepare to move forward. 

We haven't yet heard about an Image Expo for this year, so I'm guessing it won't be paired with the Emerald City Comicon, which is earlier than usual this year -- is an Image Expo planned for 2017?

Not at present, no. We are partnering with Emerald City Comicon to celebrate our 25th anniversary, and we’re going to be doing an Expo-esque announcements panel there on the first Thursday of the convention, but going back to your question about the move, something had to give when we were making the transition and that something was Image Expo. Even working with ReedPOP last year for the Expo in Seattle, it’s a tremendous amount of work for our staff, and stacking another Expo on top of the move just seemed cruel and unnecessary. So we’re doing something a little different this year -- we’re doing a big announcements thing at Emerald City and instead of the Spring Formal we held at the Showbox for that con last year, we’re going to do a Homecoming dance for Rose City Comic-Con here in Portland this September.

To dip back into 2016 for a bit, last year was definitely an interesting one for the direct market -- DC Comics' "Rebirth" initiative having a major impact in the second half of the year -- with Image remaining a strong No. 3. Overall, what were your thoughts on the past year for the comics market, and Image's sales performance?

Sales-wise, it was a good year overall for us, but it seemed like the year ended with kind of a thud in terms of market enthusiasm, which I put down to general complacency on the part of the publishers. Flipping through "Previews," there’s just too much of the same old, same old in there, and relaunching everything over and over again has to be taking its toll on the readership. There are books that have been relaunched close to a dozen times at this point, and when people sit around wondering why single issues aren’t doing better, I think it’s pretty obvious that the two biggest publishers in the business have gone out of their way to make them seem insignificant. There are books being relaunched before they’ve even been out a year -- what incentive is there for readers to get on board for a series that is more likely to end prematurely than continue?

A lot of this stuff is just being treated like widgets without any real concern for long-term readership, and ultimately, that’s damaging -- to everybody. I think we’d all benefit from spending less time doing things that have been done over and over again and figuring out what we can do that hasn’t been done before, or what we can do better than anyone else. Comics are such a unique medium and there’s so much more freedom in comics than in almost all of entertainment, but in a lot of ways, we’re stuck in the 20th century. The sooner we break with the past, the better off we’ll be in the future.

Eric Stephenson cites "Hinges" by Meredith McClaren as an overlooked release.

One thing that I think gets overlooked about Image is the depth of its releases. The big name titles get the bulk of the attention, but Image also releases plenty of quality material that flies a bit under the radar for whatever reason, despite critical acclaim. How often are you personally frustrated by a comic that doesn't get the attention that you think it deserves? And what recent Image releases do you see as underappreciated?

Oh, I’m frustrated on a pretty much daily basis. There’s a Noel Gallagher quote -- Noel Gallagher out of Oasis gives some of the best interviews you’ll ever read, because he’s got a mouth that just will not quit -- and there’s this quote where he describes his brother as "a man with a fork in a world full of soup." Somedays I feel like that, because like you say, there are books we put out that get fantastic reviews and still somehow don’t get the attention they deserve. It’s perplexing. Whether it’s a long-running title like David Lapham’s "Stray Bullets" -- which even more than Sin City set the tone for virtually every crime comic that has been published since the ‘90s -- or something new like Nathan Fairbairn & Matt Smith’s "Lake of Fire" or Meredith McLaren’s "Hinges," there are always books I think should have a wider audience. Rich Tomasso’s "She-Wolf" is pretty great -- the list just goes on, you know?

There are books like "Shutter" -- Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca do an amazing job with that book, and it’s so different from everything else on the market -- or "Mirror" by Emma Rios and Hwei Lim that are just incredible pieces of work -- and Gael Bertrand’s "A Land Called Tarot" OGN falls into the same category, too -- but they tend to be overlooked for some reason, and even on a good day, that’s bothersome. Obviously, not everything is going to to connect with every reader exactly the same way, but I’d say we have a higher than average number of good-to-great books that should easily be outperforming other books in the marketplace. "Injection" by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, "Deadly Class" by Rick Remender and Wesley Craig, "Black Road" by Brian Wood and Garry Brown -- even books that probably seem like they’re doing just fine, to me, they all deserve even more attention.

On a similar note, looking at 2017, what are some genres or types of releases that you'd like to see more of from Image?

Things I’ve never imagined. One of our recent books I’m most proud of is a book called "The Few" by Sean Lewis and Hayden Sherman. Fantastic book that is very different from anything we’re doing, that's worlds away from the last book Sean wrote, "Saints." Things like that appeal to me, because it’s not something I could have asked Sean and Hayden to put together, anymore than I could have asked Jonathan Hickman for "The Black Monday Murders" or Matt [Fraction] & Chip [Zdarsky] for "Sex Criminals." What genre is "Sex Criminals," you know? Is it sci-fi? Is it comedy? Is it a romance book? And does it matter?

There’s a book we’re doing in April called "Rock Candy Mountain," and it’s about hobos. The creator, Kyle Starks, previously did a book with us called "Sexcastle," and there’s just something about his work that defies classification. He’s an amazing talent who thinks more about telling an entertaining story than worrying what genre he’s working in. We can always use more of that.

Stephenson admits that "Nowhere Men" is "kind of cursed."

It's not blowing smoke to say that Image Comics has the market lead for creator-owned comics, but other publishers remain active in that field, including some relative newcomers -- AfterShock is a newer publisher and has had some big-name creators involved. Do you see any other publishers as true competition for creator-owned comics? And since competition can often be beneficial, are you hoping to see more emerge in the future?

I think it would be pretty awesome if all comics were creator-owned, honestly. And sure, competition is always good, but to date, there are very few publishers who offer what Image offers. Everyone else wants a piece of media rights and things like that, and that’s not what we do. Does that make what they do worse? Not necessarily, but I do think it takes balls to claim you’re doing creator-owned comics when you’re taking a hefty percentage of media rights or a big chunk of their profits. You can promise people all the walks down the red carpet you want, but at the end of the day, if you have your hand in their pockets while that’s happening, it’s not really creator-owned.

Finally, wanted to ask an update on your comics -- we just got a new issue of "They're Not Like Us," but is "Nowhere Men" #12 still on track on February?

Yeah, "They’re Not Like Us" just started what will be its final arc, so we’re looking to have that wrapped up in June. "Nowhere Men" is just kind of cursed, and truthfully, I don’t know when the last issue is going to be out. We’ve had some problems to work through with that, and it’s been a real drag, but unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about it. As it stands, we’ve pulled it from the release schedule, and it will be re-solicited when the issue is completed. After all that, the plan is to do something new.

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