WW Chicago: New Image Publisher Stephenson Speaks

Earlier today, CBR broke the news that Image Comics Publisher Erik Larsen, who's been at the helm for the last four years, has decided to step down to focus on more creative endeavors - bringing his "Savage Dragon" back to a monthly schedule and launching a variety of new projects that have been percolating for some time.

Stepping into the Publisher's position is now former Executive Director Eric Stephenson, who has worked as Larsen's Number Two for the past four years and has been a part of Image Comics in one capacity or another since it's beginnings.

In an exclusive interview, CBR News spoke with Stephenson at length about becoming the publisher of Image Comics, how this all came to be, what it means to him personally and what the outlook for the company is in the coming months.

When I spoke with Erik, he said the decision to make this switch is one that's been brewing, but really it came to a head after conversations at HeroesCon last weekend. Was it really that quick? How did this all come to be?

Well, I wasn't in Charlotte for HeroesCon, but after speaking with Erik, I got the sense this was something he'd been thinking about for a while. And based on conversations he and I have had over the last year or so, I know he's been really eager to spend more time on "Savage Dragon" and other projects. Erik got into comics to create, not to act as an administrator, and ultimately, I think he just felt it was time to return to doing what he does best, what he really wants to do.

As the Executive Director of Image Comics, you had a role very similar to Publisher and worked very closely with Erik Larsen. In reality, what will really change for you in your day-to-day activities as you accept the Publisher position?

I think that's something I'll have to figure out over the coming weeks and months, honestly. On one hand, it does seem like my day-to-day will be more or less the same, but there are things Erik does that I don't, and it's going to be a matter of whether I'll integrate those things into my routine or delegate them to someone else.

With the shift to you as Publisher, in the immediate future, will anything really change?

Not immediately, no, but I think Erik and I have different enough views on certain things that changes will occur over time. I'm not coming in with an agenda of sweeping change, though.

Erik spoke about achieving the goal of getting the Image ship back on track, which included bringing in more mainstream product and audience. What's next for Image under your leadership? Do you have specific goals set out that you hope the company achieves in 2008? 2009?

I have a lot of goals, actually, but I think my biggest goal, the one that kind of arches over everything else, is to make more people aware of some of the great comics Image is putting out, getting our books in front of more eyes. And I'd like to do more music-related projects. Our "Belle and Sebastian" anthology did very well for us and our new Tori Amos book looks like it's going to do even better, and I think there's just a tremendous opportunity to use that kind of project to turn more people on to comics.

As far as reaching a more mainstream audience - I think getting comics in front of people who might not typically read them is a big part of that, and cross-pollinating comics with other mediums is a great way to accomplish that.

Speaking of goals, while the industry itself is quite behind in this regard, a number of publishers are finally making forays into online publishing. Is that something Image is looking at and is it in the plans?

It's definitely something we're looking at. I think anyone who says they're not looking into that is either lying or completely out of touch with the realities facing publishing in the 21st century. The way people read is changing, and while it hasn't reached the tipping point yet, I think it's eventually going to be an adapt or die situation.

Looking forward, what are some of the challenges you feel Image may face?

I think I just touched on a couple of them: the changing face of publishing in the digital age, widening our audience. Looking outside comics, though, the current economy poses a challenge for everyone. I think Image creators are responding to that particular challenge, though. Everyone here realizes that with gas at almost $5 a gallon some places and people watching every penny that we really have to make our comics worth their cover price. We're putting as much as we can into our books so that readers feel like they're getting their money's worth.

With you and Erik working side-by-side on steering the ship, I'm guessing that team effort often helped offset some of the pressures of the position. With you moving forward into the Publisher position, will you be appointing an Executive Director yourself?

Not right away, no. I've got a great staff here at Image Central and rather than rely on the input of any one person - a second in command, if you will - I think I'll be working with my team.

Right or wrong, a number of creators out there have felt that under the Erik/Eric period of leadership that Erik was more amenable to "mainstream" product while you were more amenable to "indie" product. First, is that a fair assessment or completely incorrect? How so?

I'm not sure how correct that is, really. I think both of us like a pretty wide variety of material. We both grew up on superhero comics during the '70s, and if you were to ask either of us to name some favorite comics or artists or whatever, you'd get fairly similar answers. And if you look at the things I've written over the past 16 years or so, nearly all of it has been superhero work.

Besides, it's not like Erik subsists solely on a diet of superhero comics and I'm only interested in indie books. I think maybe the things I'm reading these days tend to fall more in the latter category and that probably informs some of my choices in terms of approving projects to some degree, but really, I just get excited about interesting work. Some of my favorite things Image has published over the last few years - "Casanova," "The Walking Dead," "Godland," "Wanted," "Fell," "Girls" - they're hardly indie books. They're just great comics, and that's what I'm interested in, more than anything else.

OK, continuing on, speaking to the style of product Image publishes, what are you looking for? Will anything change moving forward?

I think we're always looking for the same thing: good comics. I'd personally like to see more books from the Image partners. Other publishers have these characters with fifty or sixty years worth of history to help prop them up, but what makes Image special is the creators working here. Four of them - Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino - did a pretty amazing thing when they left Marvel to start Image and I think that's undervalued at times. They still demand a lot of attention, though, and I think that was pretty apparent when the Image founders all got together on stage last year in San Diego and again when Mike Malve had them out to Atomic Comics on Free Comic Book Day. So, yeah, I'd like to see more out of them, whether they're doing more Image work individually or together somehow.

Beyond that, I think I'd like to see different types of material. We get a lot of submissions here and so many of them are just different takes on the same thing. Whether you're just breaking into comics or you're an established writer or artist, it's really in your best interest - not just in terms of pitching to Image, but in terms of the overall market - to come up with something people haven't seen before. Comics readers get enough of the same thing from other publishers - if they want to read half a dozen titles about the same characters cycling through the same types of stories ad nauseum, they know where to go for that sort of thing. Going back to the very beginning of comics, though, the best stuff is always a little different. Nobody's going to be excited by yet another take on zombies or another cookie cutter superhero team.

You've done some writing in the past and it's been published by Image. Will you still be exploring your own creative work or will you be concentrating only on your position as Publisher?

My primary focus will most definitely be my position as Publisher, but I will continue to write here and there. I actually just finished a couple short stories for an upcoming anthology and I have another of those that I need to bang into shape before too long. I just started writing my second graphic novel, too, and I have a sci-fi/superhero thing I've been mucking about with for a while now, but when or if those two projects come together really depends on how much time I'm able to devote to them amidst everything else. All of that is secondary to my duties as Publisher, though. My main responsibility is to the company and the creators that work with us.

I want to follow-up on that. I ask this question without passing any judgment, but is it appropriate in your mind for a Publisher to publisher his or her own comics with the company they are the head of? That being said, it's not like Mike Richardson, Joe Quesada or Paul Levitz haven't seen their own work published by their respective companies, even recently.

I don't think it's inappropriate, but I can see where it could present problems under certain circumstances.

Like I said, my main function within the company is to act as Publisher. I'm here to serve the needs of the company and the people we work with, not my own. Where you get into problems, when it does become inappropriate, in my eyes, is when... Well, I think it would be highly unethical if I was sitting here writing on company time or insisting I participate in every anthology Image publishes or that kind of thing.

That said, I've been working at Image on a purely administrative level for quite a while now, and I think my track record with creative stuff speaks fairly well for itself. You can count the things I've written on a single hand. I've been pretty focused on Image these last several years, and that's not going to change now.

Wrapping up, I remember working with you when you were the Marketing Director of Image Comics. At that time, was it ever a goal of yours to be Publisher of Image Comics? What does it mean to you to attain this position?

Well, it's certainly gratifying. I've been involved with Image in one form or another since the company started, with the exception of a couple years around the end of the '90s, and I really believe in what Image stands for. So, yeah, being entrusted with the company's well-being after all that time means quite a lot to me. I feel very privileged. Was it a long-term goal of mine, though? Not really. I think I've always been confident I could do the job well were it offered to me, but I was fortunate enough to be working alongside two guys I consider pretty good friends, first Valentino and then Larsen, and it's not like I was sitting there actively coveting their jobs.

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Tags: image comics, eric stephenson, erik larsen, wwc2008

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