SDCC: Image Comics - I is for Inception

With a strong showing at this year's Image Expo 2014, Image Comics brought some of its most popular creator-owned series and creators to Comic-Con International in San Diego 2014 to discuss building worlds from the ground up and collaborating as a team to produce some of the industry's most popular creator-owned books. In attendance at the panel are "Pretty Deadly" scribe Kelly Sue DeConnick; "Saga" artist Fiona Staples; "Sex Criminals" creative team Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky; "Chew" creator John Layman; "Imperial's" Steve Seagle; and "From Under Mountains" creative team Marian Churchland and Claire Gibson.

After introductions by David Brothers, Layman kicked off the panel right with a great Poyo versus everything image -- a double page cover specially for "Chew" #45.

Gibson and Churchland continued the panel's theme of collaboration by discussing their partnership and how it developed -- it mostly consisted of Gibson asking Churchland to draw her ideas. Seagle discussed partnering up with "Imperial" artist Mark Dos Santos -- as it turns out, Seagle gave Dos Santos the choice of two different projects, and Dos Santos actually chose the project that wasn't "Imperial." Staples went over her process with "Saga" writer Brian K. Vaughan, and she stated she doesn't really get notes anymore due to their process being so down pat at this point.

When Zdarsky and Fraction came up, they both discussed the collaboration at the same time for comedic effect. After some riffing, Zdarsky said working with Fraction was "really good," and Fraction said (flatly, for comedic effect) that working with Zdarsky was "Okay."

DeConnick discussed her collaboration with "Pretty Deadly" artist Emma Rios, saying that the way they worked on the book is "so different from every other book that I do." "It's such a shorthand with [Emma]," she said. "The double page spreads she does? I write those in prose. It feels like magic. There's no way we could swap out. That book is very much the two of us, it couldn't be anybody else."

The "Pretty Deadly" writer is also working on "Bitch Planet" with Valentine De Landro. "For such a mean-spirited book, it's the sweetest communication ever," said DeConnick.

Before the panel moved on, Brothers made the call for all the cosplayers to stand up. "You make our job so much more fun," said DeConnick.

"Could all the normal people stand up too? Normal-dressed, I mean," joked Fraction.

Kicking it over to Q&A, the first question was for Fraction and DeConnick about how they check in with one another about their work in comics.

"It's almost more of a domestic thing than a creative thing," said Fraction.

"It's a business meeting," said DeConnick. "Basically, what we do is get together every six months. The first thing we do is go through the minutes of the last meeting ... and then we go through all the projects we're [currently doing] and we set goals for six months, five years, ten years. ... We make sure we're both looking forward and in the right direction and we know where the other wants to go."

"It's a cool way to keep your eye professionally on your ball," said Fraction.

Fraction and Zdarsky discussed some of the other possible variants for "Sex Criminals" after the photo cover. "I don't want to spoil anything," said Zdarsky. "We've had an idea for a while, the idea of promoting an Alex Ross variant, and it turns out to be Alex Ross standing behind us in the photo."

"I don't know if people would be down for that," said Fraction. "For the start of volume three, we're going to have a Skottie Young XXX variant. It's going to have a pink polybag. We're looking to have Skottie do a cover that makes people forget those fucking baby covers forever!"

The origin of the pitch for "Sex Criminals," Fraction said he pitched the series to Eric Stephenson in a hotel lobby. "He knew Chip and loved Chip's work," said Fraction.

"I looked at my schedule really closely and there was -- nothing," said Zdarsky.

In terms of pitching "Imperial," Seagle said, "Eric's very kind. He said, 'I'll publish anything Man of Action wants to do. ... Eric just looks at stuff and says, 'It's cool, do it,' or, 'It's not my thing.'"

Layman had pitched "Chew" to Vertigo "again and again and again," so he raised the money and wanted to do it himself, and asked Stephenson for an artist -- and without actually pitching the book, it got approved. "He said, 'Well, you're on your own for finding an artist, but once you find one, we'll publish it."

Staples discussed drawing some of the creatures in "Saga," saying her inspiration for the most part comes from real-life animals. "I mash them together or make them a funny color. That's kind of my process," she said. "Lying Cat was one of the first characters we designed. Brian described Lying Cat as 'large space cat.' The Will is bald, and it's kind of funny when people resemble their pets. And blue. There's my formula."

Seagle related one of his craziest editorial notes from an editor: "Our comics have more words in them." "So I had to go back and add more words!" he said.

Fraction said he doesn't open the letters for the month for the "Sex Criminals" letter column until the end of the month, and it's always "a nerve-wracking experience," but it always ends up being an "embracing and therapeutic experience."

"And then he cries," said DeConnick.

"I secretly check that email every few days for dirty photos," said Zdarsky.

DeConnick discussed her research that went into creating the world of "Pretty Deadly," saying, "It was useless!"

"I had this whole plan for this book we were going to do called, 'Pretty Deadly.' It was going to be circus-esque. Deathface was going to be a performer -- that was going to be the makeup that she was going to use for her sharpshooting show," said DeConnick. "Then, we started working on the book, and monsters shows up and death has a bunny head."

In terms of shifting tones from project to project, Staples said it's "a good way to reset" before going back to your regular job. However, Staples doesn't really change her style and technique -- rather, she tries to create a particular atmosphere.

Zdarsky has taken the summer off of his newspaper job, and his job at the paper is to make fun of politics -- and the mayor of his city is Rob Ford, so the transition has been somewhat difficult for that reason.

Seagle discussed his work on "The Red Diary/The Read Diary" with Teddy Christiansen, which contains two different interpretations of the same images, essentially re-writing the same story. "And that, M-Fs, is Image method. ... Don't do the same crap over and over again. That's how you make cool comics, I think."

"I'm doing the same thing to 'Sex Criminals,' but they don't know it yet!" he joked.

As for Fraction's "Casanova," the writer said the publisher planned to bank a few issues before publishing them again. However, there are "super fancy hardcovers that are going to have everything" that will be releasing. It hits this fall.

"Saga" is certainly somewhat explicit in its imagery, and Staples said she didn't have "any qualms about it," and the only time she's refused to draw something is when she's objected to the way the concepts are presented. While Layman doesn't have any explicit sexual content, he said that Rob Guillory's style is so goofy that "Chew" can get away with a lot of gratuitous violence. But, there are a few lines he won't cross -- Tony won't eat anything too gross.

A fan asked about how Fraction got into the head space for writing Susie in "Sex Criminals" and characterizing her as coming into her own when it came to sexuality. "Yeah, it was hard," said Fraction. "But I don't know it was difficult necessarily because of a gendered thing, more trying to figure out who she was. ... At no point did I think, 'I'm a man, I have to think lady thoughts.' ... The gender stuff came later, it started with as a human, what is the universal experience -- but still do cum jokes and stuff like that. We finished the first book and I was like, 'I think I kind of love her and want to protect her forever.'"

"She's based on a friend of mine who models for me when each issue is starting out," said Zdarksy. "I don't want to put her in positions that are exploitative because I don't want people masturbating to my friend." Zdarsky also has a model for Jon, and related a funny/awkward experience at his studio where he had to take photos of them on his counter.

In the technological age, DeConnick related how she approaches gauging fan reaction to what she does -- especially online.

"I like people, so I'm inclined to share too much," said DeConnick. "The hard part of it is to make sure that you're still writing the story for you. You can't start trying to reverse-engineer. ... That never works. It's pandering, literally, and it will backfire. It puts a layer between you and the work. You have to have this thing where you engage and it's fun and I love hearing people's experiences with the work." However, DeConnick doesn't let reactions affect the creative directions of her book.

As for the "Chew" cartoon, Layman said they've recorded, and the second round of casting is pending -- it was actually supposed to happen during San Diego, but there's been a delay.

DeConnick closed out the panel with a brief description of how "Bitch Planet" got pitched to Eric Stephenson. "'Pretty Deadly' came out and did way better than we thought it would, and I got this email from Eric that said, 'So, what's next?'" DeConnick had the idea for "Bitch Planet," and got an email back from Stephenson that was one line: "I would very much like to publish something called 'Bitch Planet.'"

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