Making Image the #1 Comics Publisher is Eric Stephenson's Goal

Before you go further, read the first part of CBR's interview with Eric Stephenson.

Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson is proud of the growth the company has shown over the years, both in the company's dollar and unit share of the Direct Market, and creatively, thanks to a roster of some of the most acclaimed comics published today. But he's not interested in becoming complacent. Stephenson has said before, his goal is for Image Comics to become No. 1 in the industry, and he's enjoying the freedom inherent in the creator-owned publisher. In his words, "We can do things our own way, make our own rules."

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In the first half of CBR's latest interview with Stephenson, the publisher and writer discussed Image's business numbers for 2015, the books he's excited to see in 2016, and why he's tired of the prevalent reboots, re-numberings and relaunches at Marvel and DC Comics.

Today, Stephenson details his hopes to see a growing audience of comics readers rather than collectors, the lack of a January edition of Image Expo for the first time 2013, under-the-radar titles that fans shouldn't miss, and Image Central's relationship with its partner studios.

And, we discuss Image's ongoing efforts to lower the number of late books. "The notion that if you build it, they will come, no matter when the job is finished, is just plain wrong," Stephenson said. "Especially if you're doing a long, involved story -- drip-feeding that to readers over the course of years is not going to work."

CBR News: Eric, In addition to Image publishing more titles targeted towards an all-ages or Young Adult readership, what audiences would you like to see Image reach that it may not be hitting right now?

Eric Stephenson: Anyone and everyone. Seriously. Any publisher in comics who tells you he or she only wants this audience or that audience, to just occupy one niche, is either stupid or lying. We all -- everyone in comics -- should want every type of reader we can get. And by reader, I mean READER. Put that in caps, and bold. Collecting comics is nice, and I did it myself for years, but that is not the road to the future. Our business is only as strong as its reader base, but honestly, I think we've all gotten a bit too cozy with the notion that we have this dependable group of comics fans that keep us all in the black. That kind of thinking isn't doing any of us any favors, really, and it's something that bothers me about things like variants, or when people complain about digital comics. The digital comics thing, especially, because those aren't collectors -- they're readers, they're people interested in the stories, the work. They're looking to be entertained, not for the most perfect copy to flip on eBay.

And you know, kind of related to that -- after David Bowie died, somebody sent me this great quote of his. "If you feel safe in the area that you're working in, you're not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in; go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting." I felt like that was something literally every single person in comics could benefit from taking to heart. We need to stretch more, in terms of format, in terms of the types of stories we're telling, in terms of the readership we appeal to -- we should never, ever be comfortable with what we've got. That's when the rot sets in, and I think 2015 stands as a testament to that, to be perfectly frank.

Last year, you pointed to late comics at Image as an ongoing concern, and discussed approaches on how to address it. Since that time, how do you rate Image's progress towards keeping books on schedule?

I'd give us a B-minus right now, but the policies we were implementing largely went into place at the beginning of this year, so it could be I'm being a bit harsh. I'll tell you what I tell every creator I've discussed this with, though, and that's that late books will drain every last bit of momentum from any title, no matter how good it is. The notion that if you build it, they will come, no matter when the job is finished, is just plain wrong. Especially if you're doing a long, involved story -- drip-feeding that to readers over the course of years is not going to work. There is too much competition for people's attention -- and not just from comics. They will move on. Most writers and artists seem to get that, though, and the overwhelming response from the talent we publish has been very positive. We're definitely in a better place than we were a few years ago in terms, and we'll continue to improve as time goes on. 

Obviously books with big-name creators generally tend to get the most attention from readers, but are there books in Image's lineup you see as overlooked that shouldn't be?

Always. We just did a book called "Limbo," lovely new book by a fresh new creative team of out England -- Dan Watters and Caspar Wijngaard. The first few issues are out so far, and while it's done okay, it's something I think a lot more people could stand to discover. It's one of those things where I look at the books themselves and then the overwhelmingly positive reviews, and it's a bit of a head scratcher why it's not getting more attention. Alex de Campi and Carla Speed McNeil's "No Mercy" falls into that camp, too. They're a creative dream team, and that book is so, so good. David Lapham's "Stray Bullets"? Right around 20 years on from its inception, it's still one of the absolute best comics on the market, but, yeah, totally overlooked by most readers. If you're a fan of virtually any crime book, you could do way, way worse than checking out "Stray Bullets." Brian Wood and Danijel Zezelj's "Starve" is another one. Wonderful, inspired, and very, very different from anything else on the market. Instead of just poking a stick at the same half-dozen genres that seem to make up comics year-in and year-out, they're doing something new.

Honestly, I could do this all day, because I'm just insanely proud of the books we've put out. Even when you look at top name creators, people like Warren Ellis or Joe Kelly -- I think there could be a lot more people paying attention to things like "Injection" or "Four Eyes." The list just goes on and on.

In 2016, how do partner studios Skybound, Top Cow, Shadowline and Todd McFarlane Productions relate to your overall goal as publisher? How do they fit into your current vision of the company as a whole?

By and large, the partner studios do their own thing. I work for them, not the other way around, and there's no point where I or anyone else here at Image is telling the partners or their respective staffs what to do. We're here to support them in their endeavors, as is the case with all creators publishing through Image, and the very fact this office exists is a powerful statement. Those guys didn't have to do this. They could have just published their own comics. But they opened Image up to other writers and artists and set a standard for creator-owned comics where everyone who comes is able to do the kind of comics they want exactly how they want, which was pretty unprecedented, really. It was even more unprecedented that they agreed from the very start to be as hands-off as they've been. It kind of blows me away sometimes, because the partners created Image to be what it is, the way it is, and they've been very generous about letting me run it as I see fit.

For the most part, we are all in touch on a fairly regular basis, and we all want what's best for Image. That said, they all operate their own studios in their own ways. That's how they set things up. If they want feedback, I'm happy to give it, and if they don't, that's fine, too. They've been doing this long enough that they seem to have things sorted.

In 2015, Image went through some publicized personnel changes. Image Central has a small staff as it is -- how did last year's shifts affect the company, and how has Image adjusted as a result?

I don't think there's been a year I've worked at Image that there weren't personnel changes. People come and go, it's part of any job. Regarding last year -- well, I honestly think that whether it's today, tomorrow, next month, or some unseen point in the future, everyone involved will look back on the those changes as being for the best. In the meantime, we do have a small staff -- we number just a little over 20 -- and I presently couldn't be happier with everybody here.

I'll tell you something: I didn't get into comics to be a publisher. The idea of running a business or telling people what to do, the notion of hiring and firing people, none of that was ever on my to-do list when I was trying to break in, and starting with editing comics back in the '90s, everything that point forward was kind of happenstance. But I've learned a lot as a result, and one of the things that has really stuck with me over the years is how important it is to be part of a team and to value the input of the people I work with. I don't look at the Image staff as people who work for me -- we all work for the creators we publish, we all have different responsibilities, and we all support each other in different ways. It's a delicate balance, and when it's off, it slows everyone down. It shows. Right now, though, we're in a very good place, and anyone here would tell you that. We get together for each other's birthdays and things like that, and sometimes I kind of look at everyone and I'm just, I don't know... humbled. Being part of a team, a good team, for me, it's a humbling experience. There's just something really special about working with the caliber of people we have here. I love the lot of 'em.

The last two years, Image held an Image Expo right around this time. There's none scheduled for this month -- what motivated skipping this January for Image Expo? Is one planned for July, as has also been the case for the past few years?

Um, the short answer here is "stay tuned," but without going into a lot more detail, I think we just wanted to put a little space between the holidays and Expo this year, both for our own sanity, and for the sake of everyone who comes out to the event. Doing it first thing after Christmas -- it's cool to kick off the year that way, but it's a lot of work, and it was taking a toll on everyone involved. It cut down vacation time and made printing materials for the event even more harried of a process than is typically the case. It's just a lot to dump on people at that time of the year. Plus, you know, it never hurts to mix things up, so y'know -- stay tuned.

Let's wrap with this: Approximately two years ago, you did an interview with CBR where you clearly stated that the long-term goal was for Image to be #1 in the comics marketplace. Is that still the goal? How are you planning on moving closer towards that goal in the near future?

Of course that's the goal. That's always the goal. If that wasn't my goal, I wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- be here. Like I said earlier, everyone in comics could stand to aim a bit higher. For Image, I think that means branching out a bit more and continuing to try new things, not just in terms of content, but in terms of how we reach new audiences. There's no point where anybody here sits back and says, "Well, we've done all we can do -- everything is perfect," and I think that's one of our strengths, really. When we were talking about market share earlier, I said we'd more than doubled our yearly totals since I took over, and that didn't happen because I'm satisfied with how things are. We're in a unique position as a comics publisher, because we really can do anything. That's something Brian K. Vaughan reminded me of back when we first started putting breaks between each story arc on "Saga": We don't have to do what everybody else does -- we can do things our own way, make our own rules.

So yeah, if we can do anything -- why just do the same thing everybody else is doing? So I think that's going to be a big part of what 2016 is about for us, kind of embracing change and looking forward to what's down the road, to what's next. I don't want Image to ever be number one by capitalizing on the mistakes of others or because someone else imploded. I want us to be the best.

Catch up with the first part of CBR's interview with Eric Stephenson!

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