INTERVIEW: Eric Stephenson Plans to Celebrate in Style with Image Expo & Spring Formal

Earlier this year, Image Comics made its plans for the latest installment of Image Expo official: A day's worth of announcements and panels at The Showbox concert venue in Seattle, followed by a "Spring Formal" dance. In case you were thinking that, for any reason, that the Spring Formal part wasn't meant to be taken literally, Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson would like to assure you that it is.

Image has indeed planned a dance for Wednesday evening between 8 p.m. and midnight, and formal attire is encouraged -- as is actual dancing, buoyed by DJs and comics superstars Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, of current Image hit "The Wicked + The Divine." The event will pay tribute to two organizations: the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and women retailer group The Valkyries, with "Batgirl" artist -- and creator on an as-yet unrevealed Image project -- Babs Tarr emceeing a "Valkyrie crowning ceremony." On top of all of that, the event will also include a screening of the pilot episode of new Cinemax series "Outcast," based on the Image comic of the same name by Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta.

CBR News spoke in-depth with Stephenson about the plans for the event, the inspiration for doing a Spring Formal dance in the first place and moving past the stereotype that comic book fans are simply "scruffy, unkempt dudes in t-shirts."

CBR News: Eric, the Image Expo after parties in San Francisco held a pretty familiar pattern. What inspired changing it up for the Seattle show-and as a Spring Formal, of all things?

Eric Stephenson: Actually, it started out as a bit of a joke, because so many industry parties just tend to be everybody crammed into a room, getting drunk and talking shop, and sometimes it seems like there's a secret contest to see who can provide the smallest, sweatiest venue for that sort of thing. So we were talking about past Expo parties, which we'd been fortunate enough to do in partnership with the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and how we could change things up in Seattle. That lead to this discussion of how so many people refer to things like Comic-Con International in San Diego as "nerd prom," and it was like, if SDCC is nerd prom, then what does that make Emerald City? And we kind of jokingly decided ECCC was comics' Spring Formal and then New York was Homecoming. It got a bit silly.

But then I started thinking about what a great job Thought Bubble has always done with their parties and how there is that element of everyone talking and drinking, but it's very much like a dance -- there's great music and people are out on the floor in a big way, all night long -- and I thought, why not do that? We have a fantastic venue for Expo with the Showbox, and Emerald City is such a great convention in one of America's best cities -- why not celebrate all that with something a cut above the standard comics after party?

Two groups are at the center of the event-The Valkyries and CBLDF. Image and CBLDF have teamed together for multiple events in the past, but how did The Valkyries get involved? I know you specifically praised the group in your ComicsPRO speech a few weeks back.

We wanted The Valkyries to be involved, because we felt they should be recognized for all the work they're doing to grow the comics marketplace. The Valkyries have had a real impact on comics over the last couple years, and it's all because of their passion for the material they support. As I said at ComicsPRO, that starts with actually reading the books, and you only have to speak with one the Valkyries about some of the books they've championed to know they don't get behind something they've read and loved. The Valkyries have been such strong advocates for diversity only the new creativity that comes from it, and once we got talking about the kind of things that happen at events like this, it just seemed right that we shine some of the spotlight on a group that is helping to change comics in such a positive way.

Image Expo will be at one of Seattle's most famed concert venues, the Showbox. As a music fan, are you personally excited are to be holding an event there?

I am! We were actually up there just a couple weeks ago to do a walk-thru, and it was really cool to poke around backstage and look out at the room from the spot where so many great bands have performed. It's a silly thing, I guess, but it's kind of cool at the same time. What's weird, though, is that I've never actually been to a show there. I'm going to see Lush there a couple weeks later, but for all intents and purposes, my first Showbox experience will be Image Expo. Working with the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco over the last few years has been great, and I think we probably felt a little pampered by their excellent support staff, so as exciting as it was to change venues, I think there was a bit of apprehension, too. The Showbox has proven to be a very willing and wonderful partner for both Expo and the party, though, and the manager there, Jay Cox, has gone above and beyond to help out. We're all very excited.

Babs Tarr-a newcomer to Image (so new, we don't yet know what she's working on for Image!)-is emceeing the event. What made her the right pick for that spot?

That kind of grew out of the decision to involve the Valkyries, because once we started thinking about that, we started talking about how, if not uninteresting, then downright inappropriate it would be to get someone who didn't have some kind of connection to what they do. Babs and The Valkyries represent different aspects of the same thing, which is basically the changing face of comics in the 21st Century. I hate using the term "no-brainer," but it really wasn't a difficult decision. We're thrilled to be welcoming Babs to Image -- I think people are going to be blown away by the project she's announcing at Image Expo -- and getting her involved with the Spring Formal just seemed like a natural extension of that.

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are DJing, which is a natural fit. How committed are they to getting people to put their post-event networking on hold and actually dancing? (Which, I suppose, can also be a form of networking.) And are you putting in any requests for the night?

Jamie and Kieron have been doing this for years -- anyone who's been to the Thought Bubble parties in Leeds knows how great they are -- and I think both "Phonogram" and "The Wicked + The Divine" offer strong testimony to how passionate they are about music of all kinds, so no, no requests fro me. I mean, my favorite song at the moment is PJ Harvey's "The Community of Hope," and I somehow don't see that as much of a floor filler, so... Yeah, Jamie and Kieron have got it covered and then some.

Since some may be curious-exactly how formal is the event planned to be? I've found that no matter what stereotypes may lead people to believe, comic book folks are actually pretty game to dress fancy.

Well, that's just it, isn't it? For years -- decades, even -- comics has been saddled with this image of scruffy, unkempt dudes in t-shirts, and even though that's never really been a 100 percent accurate portrayal of comics culture, it's absolutely not the case now. Whether it's creators or fans, there are some wonderfully stylish people in comics these days, so we definitely want people to go as all-out as possible and embrace the glam. Someone already made a joke about tuxedo t-shirts, and you know, that's definitely not what we want.

Our whole approach to this has been to do something a little bit different, and honestly, everyone in comics could use more excuses to dress up. People talk about how comics have been a greater part of mainstream pop culture, but I think that kind of ignores something most of us have known for years, which is that comics fans are some of the best in all fandom. Comics rock, first and foremost because of the dedication of the fans, and I don't think they get enough credit for how vibrant they've made our industry, so we want everyone to come out and kind of revel in that. In style.

Image Expo takes place Wednesday, April 6 at The Showbox in Seattle.

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