Stephenson on the State of Image Comics

It's a strange and wonderful time to be a comic book reader. While some fans and pundits clamor for fewer crossovers and event books from Marvel and DC Comics, those same series outsell almost everything on the stands. Meanwhile, the internet and comic shops are packed with people looking for something different when it comes to monthly comics, tired of the same-old-same-old. Enter Image Comics. A collective company that includes Image Central, Top Cow, Todd McFarlane Productions as well as imprints like Robert Kirkman's Skybound and Jim Valentino's Shadowline among others, Image continues to further the creator-owned ethos its founders championed back in 1992

Originally formed by Erik Larson, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Whilce Portacio, Image now serves as the staging area for some of comics' most interesting and ground breaking books. Without company-wide events to weigh them down or a half-century's worth of continuity to keep straight when it comes to their biggest books, the company remains lean and mean while publishing fan favorite series like "The Walking Dead" and "Invincible" as well as brand new sell-out hits like "Nonplayer" and "Green Wake."

To get a better idea of Image's inner workings and how they keep scoring such big hits, CBR News spoke with Publisher Eric Stephenson about everything from the current state of the industry to how backwards he thinks the talent flow currently runs and more.

CBR News: Eric, the comics business is currently in what we can, at best, call a period of change -- particularly in regard to the direct market. With books selling at lower levels than they have in years and companies having to work in a more lean fashion, what kinds of practices have you tried to focus on to keep Image competitive and at the forefront of the business?

Eric Stephenson: Well, Image has always been a pretty lean operation. We've never had a huge staff, ever, and I think that's been one of our strengths over the years. The main practice we focus on is finding new talent and putting out good comics. As long as we continue to do that, I think we'll be in fine shape.

In the past few months, there have been a few structural shifts at Image in general, including Image Central taking on some responsibilities for Top Cow and a few other staffing adjustments. How do you feel about the working shape of the company a few months out from those moves?

It's all been fine. I'm always kind of amused by the amount of attention people pay to that sort of thing, but in actuality, it's business as usual. People come and go at companies all the time, for various reasons. People get fired every day, people get hired every day, and while it can be tragic for the individuals involved, it's part of daily business. It's not always representative of some huge upheaval or, to borrow your term, "structural shift."

With Top Cow, I can tell you that when I came on as Marketing Director at Image in December of 2001, it was one of then-Publisher Jim Valentino's goals that Image and Top Cow have a closer relationship. He felt there was some redundancy in efforts that impacted efficiency on both sides, and once I became Executive Director and then Publisher, I came to share that opinion. I started talking to Matt Hawkins pretty early on after I took over, mainly about the possibility of bringing some of the day-to-day production of Top Cow titles in-house here, and it happened when it did, because it took a while to make a strong case for the change. Once we were able to sit down and talk it through, it all happened pretty quickly, and I think we're all satisfied with the results.

As far as staffing goes, there's always room for improvement, but I'm actually really pleased with the people we've got right now. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a harder working, more dedicated crew, and considering the fact that working on staff at an independent comics company isn't the quickest path to a lifetime of riches by any means, I'm often humbled by the effort everyone puts in here.

Speaking of imprints, Image currently consists of Image Central and all of its other divisions from Skybound to Shadowline and from Todd McFarlane Productions to Top Cow. How do you keep track of everything? Do you ever run into problems where, say, Top Cow is developing a book that winds up being an awful lot like something being planned for Shadowline? If so, how do you deal with that?

That doesn't really happen, honestly, because Top Cow doesn't do the same kind of comics as Shadowline, just as Shadowline doesn't do the same kind of comics as Skybound. I think you just have to look at everyone's output to see there isn't a whole lot of overlap. I think we're all -- Image Central, Shadowline, Skybound, TMP and Top Cow -- working to our individual strengths better than at almost any time in our nearly 20-year history. There was a point when Image was actually very fractured in its approach, especially when you consider the sheer competitiveness that existed between Extreme, WildStorm and Top Cow during the early years. That's pretty much nonexistent at this point. Everyone specializes in different types of material, and everybody is putting his best effort into the books we're publishing. I mean, people take shots at Todd McFarlane all the time, but you know what? Todd looked at the scheduling problems on Spawn, saw what needed to be done and got things sorted. He brought in an amazing new artist, shipped the book bi-weekly throughout the beginning of the year and got things back on track.

Overall, do you think Image's role in the comic industry has changed since its inception?

I don't know if Image's role has changed, but I think the industry has changed around us. Presently, there are fewer opportunities for genuine creator-ownership than at any point since Image started. Creator-ownership is not a popular concept on a corporate level, and I don't think I need to remind you that the two largest publishers in the industry are owned by gigantic media corporations. Image Comics was formed by creators, for creators, and we're still here doing exactly what we've been doing for almost 20 years now. Going forward, I think that's going to become more and more important.

Although I guess if you were to ask someone at one of the other publishers, they'd tell you our role is find new talent for them.

Image always seems to have buzz around its books, particularly over the past few years. You've got the always-changing, don't-spoil-it-for-me nature of "The Walking Dead," last year's freshman class of "Morning Glories," "Orc Stain" and "Skullkickers" and a slate of new books gaining attention this Spring, like "Green Wake" and "Nonplayer." Do you have a sense for why certain titles seem to catch the public's interest over others?

Man, I wish I did. There are any number of books we've published over the years, by both new talent and established creators alike, that haven't generated as much interest as some of our current titles, and it's downright perplexing at times. I think we do a pretty great job at picking the books we publish. We're not just sitting around and relying on the latest movies or TV shows to drive our slate, and we don't have 70-plus years of characters to trawl through for "new" ideas. People come here to put out new material, original material. You couldn't get something like "Orc Stain" anywhere else. I mean, you can get James Stokoe to draw a Silver Surfer story or whatever, but you're not going to get something like "Orc Stain." It's not the same thing.

But getting back to your main point -- what drives interest in some books, while others go unnoticed -- I think some of it comes down to timing. What we're doing hasn't changed all that much over the years. There was a point where we were doing "Casanova," "The Nightly News," "Fear Agent," "Phonogram" and "Girls," right alongside proven successes like "The Walking Dead," "Fell" and "Invincible," and while people were aware of them, they didn't get nearly the same amount of buzz things like "Morning Glories" and "Nonplayer" have had recently. Is it because they weren't as good? Well, that's subjective, obviously, but just using "Casanova" as an example, I defy anyone to tell me that book is inferior to anything we're putting out now. What Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon were (and are) doing on that book -- that's inspired stuff. Same with Jonathan Hickman on "The Nightly News" and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie on "Phonogram." It's certainly not a question of regularly coming up with the goods on a creative basis.

Have practices at Marvel or DC -- from major event pushes through pricing changes -- changed how you do business at Image?

No. What they do is completely different from what we do. Marvel's and DC's business practices are designed to prop up these huge libraries of inter-related characters, and that's not a concern here. There is no Image Universe to stage some massive annual crossover event on. And in terms of pricing, we've been fairly stable on that front for years. We don't have to do big marketing campaigns about "holding the line at $2.99" or whatever, because we were already doing that before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. There's just not much similarity in how those companies do things and how Image works. We're not like everyone else, and I think we're better for it.

Image produces everything from superhero comics to a series about a sad sack cartoon boy. How important is diversity of products? How hard is it to get readers to take notice of books outside the bread-and-butter action genre stuff?

I think diversity of product is incredibly important, but it definitely can be tough. At one point, a few years into handling marketing for Image, a well-known retailer pulled me aside and said that he appreciated the diversity of our line, but kept insisting, "You can't sell that to people. There's no hook for diversity." A little later on, I think Warren Ellis caught wind of that, or at least something similar, and suggested that Image's slogan should be, "Image Comics = new comics." Later on, the conventional wisdom shifted from "You can't market diversity," to "It's hard to sell anything new." Well, here we are, continuing to sell a diverse line-up of new ideas, and four months into 2011, we're continuing to grow, continuing to thrive, at a time when everyone is saying that's not possible. There's a lesson there, somewhere.

I've worked in comics for 20 years and not one of them has gone by without someone in the industry talking about how desperately we need more diversity. We need comics for kids. We need comics for female readers. We need comics for people who don't like superheroes. When Image first started, the founders were roundly criticized for just doing superhero comics, perhaps most publicly by Peter David. 20 years later, Image has an incredibly diverse line of books, and the reality of the situation is the Direct Market continues to be geared mostly toward selling superhero comics. I think things like "The Walking Dead," to cite just one example, have done a great job of moving us a little past that -- you can walk into a comic shop and overhear people talking about what's happening in that book the same as they would a superhero comic -- but most shops still seem to revolve around what happened in the latest Marvel/DC superhero event book. And it's weird, because you'll get retailers complaining about the lack of product for younger readers or new readers, but most stores, you go in there and they're pontificating about superheroes like they're the only things that matter in comics. And as much as I love superheroes, there most definitely is more to this medium than men in capes and tights.

Writers like Jay Faerber and Joe Casey have moved away from the big two in recent years to write almost exclusively for Image. Do you see that becoming more popular in the coming years? Does Image actively look to bring established creators who have done work-for-hire comics over to the fold?

Oh, definitely. I'd love to see more established creators bring their original ideas here. I could rattle off a whole list of guys I'd like to see writing and drawing new material at Image instead of just polishing up old wood over at one of those other companies.

Once upon a time, work-for-hire was something writers and artists had to do in order to become popular enough to do creator-owned work. Someone like Frank Miller started off on "Daredevil," a title that was not selling at all well for Marvel when he came on board in the late '70s, and he built his name there, not on "Sin City" or "Ronin." The Image founders -- pretty much all of them started off on some of the least illustrious titles Marvel or DC published before rising up through the ranks and then finally charting their own course with the projects they created at Image. Nowadays, it's all backwards, and really, it would be nice if more creators realized that. There's a certain point writers and artists reach where it's really in their best interest to take the audience they've built on work-for-hire comics and bring them to the next level, bring them along to the great ideas they've been mulling over for however long.

Some of these guys can't wait. Joe Casey has been full of ideas since I first met him back in the mid-'90s. He's done -- and continues to do -- work-for-hire, but I think he learned very quickly that he would get the most satisfaction out of bringing his own ideas to fruition, on his own terms. Same with Jay Faerber or the Luna Brothers or Robert Kirkman. Instead of making their ideas fit within the context of someone else's ideas, they explore the full potential of that stuff on their own. John Layman didn't have to come up with a way to make his ideas for "Chew" work within the context of a Batman story. He told his story, the way he wanted to see it told, and people responded to that. And as an added bonus? Showtime now wants to turn his idea into a television show. Not his idea for Batman, but his idea. It's the difference between Robert Kirkman doing "Marvel Zombies" and "The Walking Dead." There's a hugely successful AMC show called "The Walking Dead" and that's his idea, not his idea grafted onto something that already existed, and he profits from that, he gets all the acclaim. And it's not just him. Mike Mignola had Hellboy. There's Mark Millar with first "Wanted" and then "Kick-Ass." There's Brian Bendis with "Powers." Phil Hester and Andy Kuhn's "Firebreather" was an animated movie on Cartoon Network. Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, Steve Seagle and Duncan Rouleau created "Ben 10."

Does everything become a huge seller or get turned into a movie or a TV show? Of course not. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that everyone who publishes a creator-owned comic is going to wake up a millionaire in a couple months, because that's not how it works. But contrary to the myth propagated by some, there are lots of people doing very, very well from creator-owned work, and the potential for more, especially if you're an established creator, is pretty staggering when you think about it.

On the flipside, when evaluating projects from new, non-estblished creators, what do you look for?

Generally speaking, I look for things that are a little unique. Whether it's "The Walking Dead" or "Chew" or "Morning Glories" or "Nonplayer," one of the key components in those books' success is you can't get what they're doing anywhere else. Considering the amount of titles on the market that feature the same characters or the same ideas regurgitated ad nauseum, it just seems that the quickest way to stand out is to do something no one else is doing. Or no one else is doing well. Have an idea you're genuinely passionate about, a story you really want to tell.

Stan Lee had a story about creating the Fantastic Four that has always stuck with me. He was kind of ready to jack it in at Marvel, and he'd been asked to come with Marvel's take on the Justice League of America. His wife told that if he was planning to quit anyway, write the kind of story he wanted, do the kind of comic book that would appeal to him as a reader. And Stan took that to heart and created the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby, jump-starting not only his own career as a comics writer, but Marvel as a whole. He wasn't cynically trying to fabricate a hit; he was doing what he wanted to do, and in doing so, begat the entire Marvel Universe. I think that should be an inspiration to anyone looking to do comics: Do the kind of comics you want to read yourself.

Are there any common trends you see in folks who are pitching Image or any advice you have for new writers or artists looking to get a book published through Image?

Apart from the fact that people submit pitches for zombie comics no matter how many times I publicly say that's the absolute last thing we're looking for, not really. I mean, the one common trend in something like 98% of all blind submissions is that they're not very good, but in terms of actual ideas, the pitches we get are all over the shop. I think the fact that we publish such a wide array of material is pretty well-reflected in the submissions we receive -- even if something is crudely drawn, there's usually a unique idea behind it.

While Marvel and DC seem to be closing ranks more and more every day, Image stays open to new creators. What's your take on hiring rookie writers? Some say it's risky because they've never worked professionally in the medium while others think that talent is talent and needs to be snatched up. How do you navigate these issues, if at all, and how important is new blood to the company's continued success?

It's incredibly important, absolutely vital. Whereas someone else might look at an unproven writer or artist and see risk, I see potential. Comics are built on ideas, and the more fresh ideas we have, the better. The people who think it's risky hiring new talent are the same cowards who sit back and let Image find the new talent, then come running to coax them away the minute there's even the merest hint of success associated with a creator's name. There's not a publisher in comics who hasn't come after talent that started out here, and it's actually kind of pathetic when you get down to it.

I mean, it's pretty easy to tell if someone has talent or not. With an artist, it's as easy as opening an envelope. I get submissions every day, and there are times I don't even have to pull the artwork out of the envelope or scroll all the way down through the email. It's pretty obvious when something is bad, or when something is completely unpublishable. A very high percentage of what comes in through the mail, both via email and USPS, is just unbelievable dreck. When something is even the slightest bit good, good enough to warrant a second look, it stands out. It's a bit more involved with writers, but if the cover letter or introduction is so garbled you have trouble making sense of it, it's a safe bet you're not dealing with someone capable of writing a middle school book report, let alone a monthly comic book. When a good writer sends something in -- it's immediately clear he or she gets it.

And that's how you find someone like Jonathan Hickman. I throw his name around a lot in talking about things like this, but he really is the best example, because we very literally pulled him out of the submissions pile. He sent something in cold, a blind submission, and we opened the envelope and it contained "The Nightly News" and we were blown away. It's that simple. When someone sends you something as awesome as "The Nightly News," seriously, where is the risk? Where is the risk in green-lighting something like "Nonplayer?" I'd never heard of Kieron Gillen before Jamie McKelvie and he pitched "Phonogram" to us, but I stand by the decision to publish that book 100%. I didn't even have to think twice about it.

Finally, the summer con season has recently gotten underway. What are your plans for Image through the rest of 2011? What kinds of books do you hope people will be paying attention to, and where do you hope to take the entire line by year's end?

Well, the main plan is to continue moving forward and to keep doing good comics, and looking ahead, that doesn't seem to be a problem. We've got a new book by Jonathan Hickman called "The Red Wing" on deck, and the artist he's working with, a newcomer named Nick Pitarra, is turning in some simply astounding pages on that. More of that new talent that's so risky. Robert Kirkman is following up "Super Dinosaur" with his first real collaboration with Rob Liefeld, "The Infinite," and it has a similar vibe to the "New Mutants" and "X-Force" material that originally drew me to Rob's stuff back in the early '90s. People tend to forget that Rob's run on "New Mutants" leading into "X-Force" was pretty exciting. I remember going from shop to shop trying to track copies down on the day of release, especially around the time he introduced Deadpool, Domino, Shatterstar and all those other characters he created for the title. Frank Cho has a new book in the works called "Brutal" that probably won't see the light of day until next year. He's doing that with former Image PR & Marketing coordinator Joe Keatinge, but in the meantime, he also has a book out this summer with Doug Murray and "Elephantmen" artist Axel Medellin called "50 Girls 50." "Who is Jake Ellis? "writer Nathan Edmondson has a great new series, plus we've got a book in the works from a hot young writer/artist called "Epic Kill." If you were disappointed by "Sucker Punch," this is a book that's kinda sorta in the same vein, but actually delivers.

And those are the things I can think of the top of my head just now. Or that I'm at liberty to discuss.

I'm actually working with a crew of very talented young writers and artists on a group of new titles that we'll hopefully launch in the fall of this year, and I'm really curious how everyone will respond to the books, both individually and as a group. I don't want to say much about that until we actually have a solid amount of work in the can. I think announcements fall a bit flat when they only consist of a book title and a couple names that may not be particularly well-known. Like, if I'd said a year ago, when we picked up "Carbon Grey" and "Nonplayer," "We're launching two amazing new books by Hoang Nguyen and Nate Simpson," the collective reaction would have been, "Okay, whatever." But we announced them when we had something to show people, so that everyone could see what we were so excited about.

And there's a lot to be excited about as we head toward the end of the year and 2012, frankly. Next year's our 20th anniversary, and I think we'll be celebrating with some of our all-time best titles and a line-up of creators that will make your head spin.

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