Image's Erik Larsen: Fostering Work from Creators’ Hearts

A comics interview article by: Tim O'Shea
Erik Larsen and I crossed paths in a hotel lobby during this year’s HeroesCon. He was in the midst of a conversation with Baltimore Comic-Con’s Marc Nathan, which I was fortunate enough to join. Prior to this, Larsen and I had never met, but within 15 minutes we were discussing all things Image and his take on the market in general. And over the next hour or so, he was that welcoming to anyone that walked up to him in the lobby, be it stranger or fellow pro. I was impressed with both what he had to say and his willingness to share time with folks off the “con clock” (so to speak). I had intended to conduct this interview immediately after the con, but dropped the ball. Despite my initial lack of follow-through, Larsen still was game for an interview when I emailed him recently. Next year will mark his fifth as publisher of Image Comics—we discussed his role as a publisher and as creator of Savage Dragon, as well as some topics in between. Thanks to Larsen for his time and SBC’s Keith Dallas for assistance in this interview.

Tim O’Shea (TOS): As of February 2008 you will start your fifth year as publisher of Image. Is Image where you wanted it to be when you took the publishing reins--and are you surprised you've stayed in the position for so long?

Erik Larsen (EL): There's always room to grow. Image is certainly on its way to where I want it to be but it's not there yet.

TOS: What can you tell folks about your seeming homage to Kafka, Cheeseburger-head, and how did you decide to run it in the upcoming Popgun anthology? Sneak peaks of the work seem to be garnering a great deal of attention as it's seemingly a departure from your typical stories.

EL: I was asked to participate and Cheeseburger-head was what resulted. It wasn't really an homage to Kafka so much as it was an opportunity to screw around and do something different.

I love doing Savage Dragon and I love the characters I've created there but it's nice to do other things as well.

TOS: I've loved the idea of the Next Issue Project since I first heard about--since the initial announcement have you brought some new project names onboard that you care to mention?

EL: I don't have a huge shopping list of guys. There are a few new guys that want to jump in and it's going along just fine.

TOS: At your message board, in answer to a demographics question, you wrote the following: "American comic books skew 80-90% male, generally 15 to 40. there is a large Manga readership as well and it tends to include more female readers and is generally younger. Manga readers are generally 10-30. "
Image has had some manga titles in the past, is Image open to more manga down the road? Not necessarily on a related note, do you think Image has made strides in bolstering its female readership (a challenge not solely of one comic book company, per se, but industry-wide).

EL: Sure. But really—the point is to do good comics and some books attract more female readers than others. The Luna brothers' books: Ultra, Girls and now The Sword attract more female readers. A Distant Soil and Age of Bronze attract more female readers. I don't want to do a deliberate program that focuses on female readers because I think those kind of programs limit books' potential audiences. When you say "this book is aimed at girls" you're saying to boys that "this book is NOT for you" and ultimately that hurts more than it helps. The drive is to do more good books—period.

TOS: While I've always appreciated the diversity of Image's publishings under your leadership, I was pleasantly surprised to see books by Scott Morse and Doug TenNapel. You seem comfortable taking creative risks in publishing--as you broaden the variety of Image offerings have you experienced a growth in getting unique first-time Image consumers?

EL: Absolutely. The ultimate goal is to make it so that no comic book reader can honestly say that they don't read Image Comics. I want us to publish something for everybody.

TOS: Logistically, how frustrating is it to still satisfy your storytelling needs (through Savage Dragon) and still meet the demands of your job as publisher?

EL: Very. But part of that has been my own struggle. I'll sometimes run into a brick wall creatively. I'm working through that but a big part of the delay was due to a kind of writer's block. I had so many possible directions that I didn't know which one to go with and that slowed me to a crawl.

As you might expect—having a demanding day job didn't make it any easier.

TOS: Will Frank Fosco be doing more work with you on Savage Dragon?

EL: Occasionally.

TOS: What's a common misconception about Image Comics that you feel needs to be cleared up or that you find yourself constantly clearing up?

EL: The very basic misunderstanding of how Image works. We take on projects—not individual creators and yet we get a lot of samples from people showing us their stories or art.

Also—we don't assign work. We don't decide who draws this book or that one. A fan was sending me emails pretty regularly and suggesting that we move artists and writers from one book to another and that isn't something we do. The individual creators own their own books—Image owns nothing.

And there are people that assume that we're all making money off of the creators and their books. This isn't true either. The Image fees keep the office lights on and pay for the staff but individual owners don't profit from other Image books that they don't own. If you do a book at Image you aren't paying for Todd McFarlane's balls.

TOS: Is there an Image title that pleasantly surprised you? In other words, is there a title that you initially were hesitant to accept for publication but that became a success?

EL: No. The books I was hesitant about were dismal failures. The ones I thought would be huge were big successes. There were a few that I thought could be big that weren't—but I can't think of a book that I didn't think would do well that was a surprise hit.

TOS: Is there a title that you rejected that you wish you hadn't--a title that ultimately has been published elsewhere?

EL: No.

TOS: What's the one thing you'd really like to change at Image Comics and what's stopping you from making that change?

EL: I'd like to see certain creators come on over that haven't and that's often due to them being under contract or unable to come up with a commercial idea or unable to swing it financially.

And there are things that do make life difficult. We can't make people do things that would ultimately benefit them and their books and that can be frustrating.

TOS: It seems that Image Comics publishes a limited number of super-hero titles (Dynamo-5, Invincible, After The Cape). I'm wondering though how many submissions Image receives that involve super-heroes. Is your standard for accepting and publishing a super-hero project different than your standard for accepting and publishing a project of a different genre? Would you rather Image avoid publishing super-hero titles and instead focus on other genres?

EL: My only concern is the quality of the books. We do Invincible, Spawn, Savage Dragon, Madman, Brit, Jack Staff, Gødland, Dynamo-5, Bomb Queen, the Astounding Wolf-Man and those are all ongoing superhero books but the perfect Image book is one that comes from the heart of its creator,. I'd rather publish Mice Templar from Mike Oeming and Bryan Glass than a superhero book that they might not be as passionate about. I want books that the creators want to work on—Image is a place where these guys can cut loose and finally do the stories they always wanted to do. At the same time—there are genres that are more popular than others and we do need to keep an eye on the bottom line to some extent.

But—again—my major concern is that the books are good. I'd rather have books that are worth reading.

The standards are the same for everything.

TOS: How beneficial is it to their Image titles when a writer like Kirkman or Fraction takes on a Marvel assignment? Do you think the exposure they gain on a Marvel (or if an Image creator does some DC) assignment transfers on some level to more folks buying their Image work?

EL: Not really. It may legitimize them to some people but unfortunately, given the choice, there are readers that will always choose to read Spider-Man or the Punisher over any creator-owned book. And stores too will make that kind of decision for them. Despite the fact that Spider-Man books have come and gone and that numerous books from DC and Marvel have been cancelled over the years, there's still this impression that their books are here to stay while ours aren't. And this is in spite of the reality that Kirkman has a couple books getting close to their 50th issues while most of his Marvel books haven't made it that far.

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