Stephenson Looks to Image Comics' Future

Regardless of the shape of the comics market, the state of its trends or the rankings in the sales charts, Image Comics always maintains a unique space in the business. A creator-owned company first, the decentralized style of Image Central has allowed series as unique as John Layman and Rob Guillory's "Chew" and James Stokoe's "Orc Stain" to find purchase in the superhero-dominated Direct Market while more organized labels from Top Cow to Shadowline have been known to turn out big genre books from "Artifacts" to "Morning Glories." Yet at the same time, publishing that's so very much under the control of its creators has made the struggle to let series make a big and sustain a presence on shelves.

Recently, the publisher took a step towards a different kind of uniformity by introducing a brand new ratings system soon to be carried on all Image titles. The move comes on the heels of a number of new Image series that have struck the market strongly and ahead of Comic-Con International in a year where the big two publishers will be battling over marketshare in the biggest, most important manner in years.

To help place the move and the summer in context for the company, Image Publisher Eric Stephenson spoke with CBR News about ratings, new sellout titles including "Shinku" and "50 Girls 50," the M.I.A. "Image United" and how all the moves surrounding these issues are in his mind as he prepares for a big promotional push at next week's Comic-Con International in San Diego as well as 2012's 20th Anniversary of Image's founding.

CBR News: Eric, let's start with the most recent news to come out of Image as a whole: a move to a ratings system on the monthly comics. While I'm sure no one who knows thing one about Image will view this as anything akin to censorship, the going rate throughout the company's history has been to simply let creators do as they wish in terms of content and let the books speak for themselves. Why add this level of labeling now? Is this something that retailers and readers seemed to ask for or something that fits better in the modern marketplace of book stores and digital sales?

Eric Stephenson: Retailers, yes. It's been brought up time and again -- it's something that makes it easier for retailers to identify who they can or can't sell things to. It's not censorship by any means -- no one is being told what to put or what not to put in their comics -- it's simply a rating system to let retailers know what type of material is in each book. We've always noted mature content in our Previews listings, but retailers have been asking for some time for us to be a bit more specific.

Why do it now? Well, up until about 10 years ago, the only rating system was the Comics Code Authority, and that did limit what type of material made it into comics. If you want approval from the CCA, the material essentially had to suitable for a wide general audience. No Image title was ever submitted to the CCA, but as other publishers started to move away from that system, there wasn't a consistent rating system in place. DC unveiled their ratings system earlier in the year, and it's very clear and straightforward. It seems like a system that could work for the whole industry.

On the other side of this, I was speaking recently with Nick Spencer about how in "Morning Glories" he's "bleeped" out the hard swear words, but as the series has developed, he may look differently at that practice for future arcs considering some of the other content in the book. Overall, has Image made guidelines for what kinds of inclusions constitute what ratings, or will the system work in a way that creators just make the books as they feel and ratings will be applied after the fact on a "I know what it is when I see it" basis?

Well, yeah -- those guidelines were actually included in the press release announcing this. Those guidelines were circulated to creators well before the announcement was made.

  • E - EVERYONE (all ages, may contain minimal violence)
  • T - TEEN (12 and up, may contain mild violence or mild profanity)
  • T+ - TEEN PLUS (16 and up, may contain moderate violence, moderate profanity use and suggestive themes )
  • M - MATURE (18 and up, may contain nudity, profanity, excessive violence and other content not suitable for minors)

Breaking this out into Image's wider moves, while I'm sure the ratings system will be labeled on books in all their formats, it does seem that this will have the biggest impact on the monthly comics sold in the Direct Market. In a time when comics are still expanding out into digital and (to a lesser extent) book markets, is the DM still the bread and butter for Image in terms of both sales and readership?

Yes, definitely. Anyone who says otherwise is being dishonest.

Jim Lee actually got up at the ComicsPro retail summit in Dallas earlier this year and likened the digital market to a piece of dental floss. That's basically where we're all at right now. Obviously, DC is aggressively looking to change that and looking at the market in practical terms, I think it's only a matter of time before there is a tipping point in terms of the overall impact of digital material. We're not there yet, though.

In what ways do you work to balance the needs of that community while also being aggressive in terms of other places you take the material?

The way I look at it, there's not a lot of difference in selling digital comics than selling comics through the newsstand or bookstores. We all want to sell our comics to the widest audience possible. Some of that audience is going to come from the Direct Market, some of it is going to come from other markets. Digital is just another market, and just as the audience getting their comics from bookstores is different from the audience that supports the Direct Market, the audience for digital comics is its own beast. Obviously, there's some trepidation on the part of Direct Market retailers, because this is something very, very new, but in the long run, I think all these markets are going to co-exist together and it's going to be good for everybody.

One thing that we see which is a very explicit way in which Image works in the DM (though I know you guys are hardly the only folks who have this happening) is the idea of sellouts of certain issues. Recently, we've seen announcements of books like "Shinku" and "50 Girls 50" going back to press, and I was wondering, what does this really mean in terms of the readership and the perceived success of a comic? Does Image have a set level of copies printed up for each new launch that all of these books are exceeding, or is it more case-by-case basis where these series are launching right where you expect them to? And what do you feel that things like alternate cover second prints offer fans and retailers above just getting more identical copies of the first issue printed up?

You know, it's pretty simple: Our overprints are fairly conservative. It costs a lot of money to print comics and it costs a lot of money to store comics, and nobody wants to get stuck with a lot of inventory. Once upon a time, that was standard practice, but these days, it just doesn't make sense to do that. We print what we think will get shops to the next issue. Sometimes those books sell out, sometimes they don't. When they do sell out -- that's because we underestimated the demand for a certain title and the inventory blew out very, very quickly. If something sells out over the course of a few weeks -- you don't hear about it. And that happens. We sell out of things like "The Walking Dead" or "Morning Glories" or "Chew" and there's no real fanfare over that. We could announce that "The Walking Dead" sells out every issue, but we don't.

Every print run for every book is different, based off the orders we receive from retailers. That's the best indication we have of what demand is and if we fall short of that, then the book sells out. Retailers base their orders off things like pull requests and inquiries from customers. If there isn't a lot of buzz about something in advance, they don't have much to go on other than their gut, and sometimes that buzz doesn't happen until a book is actually on the stands.

Announcing sell outs and putting new covers on second printings -- those things give books a second bite at the apple in terms of publicity and raising awareness of something that maybe didn't get enough attention the first time around. In a perfect world, we'd get that attention right out of the gate, because honestly, doing second printings creates a gap in sales. There's several weeks that the book is not available, and seriously, I'd rather we were selling copies of the first printing than biding our time waiting for the second printing to hit.

The big news that people are talking about these days is DC's impending September relaunch, which (any other considerations aside) will place a ton of new product in shops. Marvel seems to be responding with some aggressive promotion of their own. What do these moves do to companies like Image overall? Does this attention bolster the overall market or make it tougher for wholly original content to find a readership? Have you changed at all how you're approaching your Fall releases in the wake of all this news?

No, because we don't do the same thing. We make new comics, and they make the comics they've always made. Our audiences overlap to a certain degree, but for the most part, I think we have different readerships.

I'm not sure I get what you mean about Marvel's aggressive promotion. Slapping a burst that says something is still issue whatever, even if it's relaunching the month after? I thought that was really funny, but considering the fact that Marvel has been ending and relaunching series on a pretty regular basis since the late '90s, I'm not sure how that's good for anything but a laugh.

All that said, I'll be curious to see how this plays out. If it drives people into comic book shops, that's great. I'm all for anything that gets people to read comics, and I think the market as a whole has the kind of diversity of content new readers hunger for. If someone goes into a shop looking for the new Superman book or "I, Vampire" or whatever and comes out with comics by Image, IDW and Dark Horse to boot, then that's a win for everybody.

On the new projects and big splash front, San Diego is just around the corner, and continued Hollywood talk aside, it's still a major platform for launching new projects and promoting ongoing ones. Last year, the Image booth served as "Walking Dead" central as the AMC show made its big fan push. How are you focusing your planning this year?

Our setup is similar to last year's -- I think there are some graphics on our Facebook page, actually, and on Skybound's. One side focuses on Image as a whole, the other is more Kirkman-centric. Outside the booth, Robert and I are hosting a panel on creator-owned that will feature some special guests and some big announcements.

Some things we know will be big discussion topics at the show are Kirkman and Liefeld's "The Infinite," the glow-in-the-dark cover for an issue of "Chew" and this just-announced Todd McFarlane/Stan Lee project with Japanese rock star Yoshiki. Do you feel San Diego is a show better built for launching projects by talent with established names and publishing records, or is there a place at the con still for brand new books by more up-and-coming talent?

I think there's a place for both, actually. The best stuff tends to stand out at San Diego, whether it's by new talent or guys with years of experience.

Speaking of established names (though this is something of a perennial question at this point) is there any update on how "Image United" is coming along?

It's being worked on. At this point, we haven't solicited the last issue, and we won't until it's done. When 4-6 are done, we'll let people know and we'll put them out monthly. That's the way it should have gone from the beginning, but we didn't go that way, and now we're living with that decision. I don't think anybody's thrilled with the current situation, but all of these guys were busy to begin with and that's just been compounded over the last several months.

Bottom line, it'll get done and we'll let people know when that happens.

I ask because I wonder whether or not you guys have been thinking of changing the release plan for that material in the wake of delays. Might formats from a graphic novel to a digital first release work better for those story pages as they come together in the production process, or is returnability a possibility looking at future print releases?

For the people who enjoyed the first three issues, it will be worth the wait. If it wasn't your cup of tea to begin with, I can't imagine it would be of much concern by that point.

Since we've been speaking so much on how Image navigates the market in the here and now, I thought I'd wrap by asking what your specific "battle plan" is moving forward. Is there a real focus you have for what challenges you want to meet and what accomplishments you'd like to achieve with Image Central in the next three months, the next six months and the next year?

Our battle plan is the same as it always is: Make the world's best creator-owned comics. By the end of this year, we'll have launched over 50 new projects. Next year is our 20th anniversary, and we're going to celebrate that by launching more new projects, and some of them will be among the best we've ever done.

Catch more from Image Comics during CBR's coverage of Comic-Con International 2011.

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