SDCC: Image Expo Keynote Address; New Projects from Busiek, Lemire, Cloonan, Remender and More

Image Comics has brought their Image Expo event to Comic-Con International in San Diego, with company publisher Eric Stephenson set to address fans, retailers and press on Wednesday afternoon -- sharing thoughts on the industry, and providing plenty of announcements of upcoming Image projects.

CBR News will cover the event live, so keep refreshing this page to follow along with all the very latest Image Expo news.

Entering to "Bigmouth Strikes Again" by The Smiths and a Warren Ellis quote on the screens -- "The only rules are the ones we create." -- Stephenson took the podium at the Hilton Bayfront and thanked the attendees. Stephenson started by saying it was sad that "grave-robbing the past" was considered "new" in the comic book industry -- but he's at Image Expo to talk about the future.

Stephenson shared a story of speaking to a California College of the Arts group about comics, and said he was encouraged by the diversity of the students interested in the medium. He mentioned legendary Silver Age creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, saying that they made their names by "changing the rules," not "churning out the same ol', same ol'."

"You have to fight for the future," Stephenson said. He added that though comics are still thought of as a "boys' club," he sees that changing, with comics that appeal to a broader audience than young white males.

"It is of utmost importance that we produce comics that appeal to as wide an audience as possible, because people who aren't reading comics are not going to suddenly decide they want to work in this business," Stephenson continued. "Change is absolutely integral to our future. Standing still didn't work for comics in the 1960s, and it's not going to work now."

Turning to sales figures, Stephenson cited Diamond reports indicating sales are down from last year. "Down is the direction you go when you stand still for too long." Contrasting that, Image's motto, he says, is "move forward."

Stephenson shared charts showing increased sales for Image, which led to a video. The clip opened with Image partner and "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman stating, "If I described Image in one word, it would be life-changing." That led to video of more creators gave their thoughts -- Kelly Sue DeConnick said "Pugnacious;" Brian K. Vaughan said "Original;" Matt Fraction said "Diverse," and multiple creators cited, "freedom."

The video briefly recapped the founding of Image in the early '90s. Vaughan stated that he considered going to Image as "going to college" after his time at Marvel and DC. In the clip, Rick Remender praised Image for putting control in the creators' hands. Image co-founder Erik Larsen shared a story about an editor telling a creator that a character wouldn't do something, which he said would never happen at Image.

"Image is the best deal in town, period," Fraction said in the video. "It is true creator-owned comics."

"Even the most outlandish thing that you put out there has a chance to find an audience," Joe Casey said in the video. "From a business perspective, it's the best deal you're going to get, hands down," DeConnick stated. "From a creative perspective, the sky's the limit."

"In an ideal world, we would just suck in all the talent, and everyone would be doing their own books," Larsen said at the close of the video. "I think the world would be a better place. So really, that's what I'm after."

Returning to the podium, Stephenson stated that he says the things he says and makes the decision he makes because he thinks "the future of comics is worth fighting for," and that they are more than "mere marketing material for movies, toys and video games." He clarified that doesn't mean there aren't good comics based on movies, toys or video games, but no matter how good those comics may be, "that's not the future of comics."

Stephenson set his sights on the term "creator-driven," saying that it's the "bare minimum" of what should be expected from comics, and not something that should be championed. Stephenson calls "creator-driven" double-speak for something that should be a given, and "creator-owned" something worth fighting for.

Presenting a new chart, Stephenson closed his speech by citing Image's dollar share in the market increasing from around three percent to 10 percent in the past five years. Next up, the announcement portion of the event.

Rick Remender then arrived on stage, currently writing "Black Science," "Deadly Class" and "Low" at Image. And he's got a fourth series coming at the publisher.

"The opportunities afforded to me now are too good to pass up," Remender said, citing his 20 years in comics. His new project is titled "Tokyo Ghosts," with art by Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth.

"Sean is one of the most talented artists in comic books, if not the entire world," Remender said. "We're playing with ideas like 'Judge Dredd,' Lobo' and the kind of action movies that I grew up in the '80s." Yet this series "turns it on its nose" and does something unique, the writer said.

"The law is whatever the entertainment conglomerates and the different companies that rule the world say it is," Remender said of the "Tokyo Ghosts" plot, calling it an "exponential increase" in what people are seeing in their digital lives. "Tokyo Ghosts" is scheduled for next year.

Next up: Marian Churchland, Claire Gibson and Sloane Leong, the team on "From Under Mountains," part of Brandon Graham's "8House" universe.

Gibson described the series as taking place in a nation that's "insulated both geographically and politically," and described the book's characters. "They're all going to become entangled in the struggle for power and supremacy." Gibson stated that she and Churchland went to high school together, and collaborated on comic books back then. "From Under Mountains" is scheduled for spring 2015.

Joe Casey joined the presentation, introduced by Stephenson as a "sunglasses enthusiast." "Valhalla Mad" is Casey's new project, with artist Paul Maybury. "Gods coming to Earth, having fun, doing a little drinking," Casey said. "It's been a while, the world's different than what they're used to." Casey said it's a bit lighter than much of his recent Image work.

"I love Kirby's 'Thor,' and this is our chance to do our own kind of Thor comic," Casey said. "Without turning him into a woman?" Stephenson asked. "Writing the faux-Shakespearean accents is a fucking nightmare," Casey added. "But I committed to it." Casey continued that he and Maybury are "using the language" of the Jack Kirby "Thor" to an extent. "Valhalla Mad" is also scheduled for early 2015.

"B.P.R.D." veterans John Arcudi and James Harren aren't in attendance, but they're doing a series called "Rumble" at Image. Stephenson shared Arcudi's description: "Scarecrow Conan fighting in a world similar to the Louis CK TV show, but if it were directed by David Fincher."

Ray Fawkes joined Stephenson on stage, calling Image likely the only company not afraid to print his new series, "Intersect." Fawkes said it's like "if all of 'Twin Peaks' happened within the Black Lodge," and described it as a "very Lynch, very Cronenberg, body-focused story." Fawkes is writing and painting the series.

"Intersects" is slated to start in November, and it's the first Image series for the "Batman Eternal" co-writer, but Stephenson said it's the first of a couple projects Fawkes has in the works at the publisher.

Tom Neely and Keenan Marshall Keller arrive on the stage to discuss "The Humans." Stephenson said the project came to him a little more "ready to go" than most Image projects. Neely shared that they were originally going to self-publish "The Humans," as they're used to a d.i.y. mentality. Both Neely and Keller have experience writing and drawing comics themselves, but for "The Humans," Neely is writing and Keller is drawing.

Next up to the stage: Frequent collaborators (and husband and wife) Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko. Hardman's bringing "Kinski," originally published digitally by MonkeyBrain, to Image for a collected edition scheduled for release in November.

Hardman and Bechko are working together on a new Image ongoing series, "Invisible Republic." Stephenson asked about the co-writing process between the two. "We basically do every bit of it together," Bechko said. "We write the stuff upstairs, and then I go downstairs to draw it," Hardman joked.

Hardman described "Invisible Republic" as a "huge passion project" and a "big story." "We've been spending years thinking about it," Hardman said. "This is a huge opportunity for us to do a book that's 100 percent ours."

"This is a human story," Hardman continued. "There are sci-fi elements, and there is sort of a 'Breaking Bad' level of the simultaneous rise and descent of one of the characters. But it's not about big space battles or stuff like that."

Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger join the presentation to talk "Southern Cross," a sci-fi mystery story. Cloonan will write, Belanger will draw. Cloonan said they're planning a "wintry" release for the book. Belanger described "Southern Cross" as "'Robotech' meets Stephen King."

Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen -- both DC Comics mainstays in recent years -- enter the presentation to talk "Descender," about "a boy robot on the run from pretty much everyone," as Lemire put it. Nguyen is water-coloring the series.

Lemire said that he and Nguyen met on a DC panel years ago, and had been hoping to work together for a while, but they both were under exclusive contract to that publisher. Before bringing the duo to the stage, Stephenson said that Lemire originally pitched what became "Essex County" to Image, something he and then-publisher Erik Larsen deliberated a long time over before it ended up at Top Shelf Productions.

Stephenson asked Nguyen if it's "liberating" to do something other than Batman. "It's not like I'm breaking away from Batman," Nguyen said. "With the schedule we have on a monthly book, it doesn't allow me to prove what I want to, as far as painting." Nguyen also classified his interest in robots in it being the "crap [he] grew up with." "Descender" is set for spring 2015.

The next creator to emerge is writer Ivan Brandon joins Stephenson to talk his new project with "Viking" artist Nic Klein, "Drifter," about humans needing to flee Earth to new habitations in space. "The idea for me is that space has always been presented as a very glossy, starch version, and that's not really how things get built," Brandon said. "'Drifter' is about the dirty hands it takes to build a future."

"We're playing with the dirtier side of science-fiction," Brandon said. "And the danger of trying to expand society beyond the overwhelming point it's maybe already at." Brandon gives a scheduled release date of Nov. 12.

Stephenson stated that the presentation is near its end, but there's at least one more creator to make an entrance: Kurt Busiek. Stephenson said that he and Busiek talked years before about working together, during the publisher's time working for Rob Liefeld -- on both "Supreme" and "Youngblood" -- but it didn't end up happening.

SDCC EXCLUSIVE: Busiek and Dewey Attack With "Tooth and Claw" at Image

The series, drawn by Ben Dewey, is titled "Tooth & Claw." Busiek describes it as a "big, sprawling adventure about animal people" -- and there's a thematic reason it's animal people, the writer said. "There's a challenge to it," Dewey said of drawing animal people. "I try and keep a certain amount of accuracy while I'm drawing the creature, but put in a way that it's going to be relatable."

Stephenson asked Busiek how "Tooth & Claw" is different than "Kamandi." Busiek said it's because "Kamandi" was sci-fi, and this is fantasy -- and also that "Kamandi" was by Jack Kirby, and he and Dewey are not Jack Kirby. Busiek said he wanted to do "Kamandi" for years at DC, but was always told they were saving the property for someone -- using Grant Morrison, even, Busiek said, at times that Morrison was exclusive for Marvel. Busiek said "Tooth & Claw" "cured him" of wanting to write "Kamandi." The series is scheduled to debut on Nov. 5.

Stephenson introduced the final creator slated to appear: Artist Declan Shalvey. Shortly into Shalvey and Stephenson jokingly saying negative things about Warren Ellis, the writer joined the presentation via Skype. "I'm here to remind Declan I know where his family is," Ellis said.

The new project is "Injection," from the "Moon Knight" team of Ellis, Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Ellis said it's about a group of people who have found a way "to make the world more interesting for them," but then have to deal with the consequences -- as it "gets out of control pretty quickly."

"We were barely halfway into 'Moon Knight' issue #1 when I realized this was working very, very well," Ellis explained. Ellis knew they were only on "Moon Knight" for six issues, so they discussed what to do next -- with the team quickly settling on a creator-owned project at Image.

Shalvey said that "Moon Knight" was a significant project for him as an artist, where he felt liberated to experiment with his artistic style. "I would have found it very hard to do any project after 'Moon Knight' unless it was with Warren," Shalvey said. "I didn't expect it would happen, but I'm delighted."

Stephenson brought Tula Lotay, artist of "Supreme: Blue Rose," to the stage to discuss that collaboration with Ellis. Lotay said that Ellis recently made her drink 12 shots of whiskey at an Irish bar on the Sunset Strip. "Oh, I made you," Ellis said, jokingly.

"It is one of the more stunning artistic debuts of the last 10 years," Ellis said of Lotay's work on "Supreme: Blue Rose." Ellis also briefly discussed "Trees," drawn by Jason Howard. With that, Stephenson wrapped the presentation.

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