Eric Stephenson: A Book for Every ReaderA comics interview article by: Linsay Powell
Our week of in-depth Image coverage continues with a special featured interview with Image Publisher Eric Stephenson, courtesy of guest contributor Linsay Powell, from Comics Anonymous. Linsay met up with Eric in Glasgow to share a pint or two and discuss the state of the Image union and what's on the horizon for the company.
It seems that every year-end and upon each new title solicitation the internet and comics press is set alight with phrases such as "Image: Their Best Year Yet," "Year of Image" and other such platitudes. Publishing quality creator owned books and bringing forth vital new talent into an arguably declining industry has been the mainstay of Image Comics for the past 20 years, not the past 12 months. That's why I jumped at the chance to interview Eric Stephenson, Publisher at Image Comics for Comics Bulletin when he visited Glasgow recently.
Following hot on the heels of the announcement riddled Image Expo, Eric's trip to the UK was a frantic one as he tried to meet with each and every UK based creator of those books both currently and yet to be announced. I caught up with him over a beer in Glasgow and gained some insight into his work at Image, his vision for the marketplace and of course some yet to be revealed details on those new and exciting titles.
We also looked back over Image's output and reception over the past few years and found quality, groundbreaking releases to be almost a constant. The biggest variable here is the marketplace. Several key titles-- many of which are either critically acclaimed, sell very well or are perfect to introduce people into comics-- have been released by Image in years gone by and didn't get the rapturous reception they might have if they were released today.
Phonogram, a favorite of Stephenson's, initially sold poorly
The growing apathy comic books readers have for the "non-stop event" culture so embraced by Marvel and DC is certainly partly responsible for the growing focus and desire for new and quality stories. Is it just a question of getting them in front of consumers?
Eric describes the main high of 2011 as more people paying attention to Image, although he maintains this did not come a result of something they did or didn't do in 2011 but rather as a result of groundwork they started laying in the form of quality titles a number of years ago.
"People are paying more attention [to Image]. In retrospect I've always been kind of, I guess disappointed, because in 2005 we had Fell, we had Phonogram, Casanova, Fear Agent, and a huge, fantastic crop of books that I would put up against a lot of the stuff we're doing now, it just didn't gel under the same kind of mood. All of those things that people talk about and everyone says 'Oh, Phonogram is great,' and everyone is very excited that Phonogram is coming back. But at the time there was this really muted response to it that I didn't get, because I was like 'We're doing all this good stuff,' we were doing those things [like Phonogram] and we were still doing Walking Dead.
"I think it's been a matter of continuing to do what we do because one of the things I've talked about lately is that other publishers will go back to the same world, 'Oh, we did this fabulous event before, let's do it again because we know that works,' or 'This story was popular X number of years ago, so let's do it again.' We don't have that luxury-- which is both a blessing and a curse-- because we are at the mercy of what the creators who work with us want to do. So, from one year to the next it can be completely different. Look at Image Comics in 1992 and we're nothing like that now; look at Image Comics in 2002 and we're nothing like that now. The change year to year is what defines our whole output.
"I can't really think of anything that I have any regrets over [for 2011]. Things moved along pretty well, I thought. There have been years where things have happened, maybe projects getting pushed about, but last year wasn't like that at all. It was actually really nice because something like Strange Talent of Luther Strode was pitched to us like a year earlier; I actually got that in my email in October 2010. I knew that I didn't want the book to be late at any point, so we didn't tell people about it until we had a certain number done. I was really astounded by the level of quality of the book. So it was like, "That's going to come out in October 2011" and there were a lot of things like that over the course of 2011, like Saga with Brian K Vaughan, so we weren't going to try and force that into 2011, we decided we were going to put that out in 2012."
One of Image's biggest recent successes has been The Strange Talent of Luther Strode
Measuring the success of any comic book can be fraught with difficulty. Not all books are measured against the same yardstick, the monthly floppy vs. the trade, etc. However, one constant of the comic book industry in the past two years is the acknowledgement of the success and relative cross over appeal of The Walking Dead, but awarding success to other Image properties can be a little more complex.
When talking to Eric it's clear that he's passionate about great comics. He loves his job and I can't help that think, from the way he talks about it, his job is very different to that of a publisher at DC or Marvel.
"I approve all of the pitches we get, or don't approve as is more likely the case. It's a pretty even mix between business and creative. We're quite small, I don't think people are aware of how small we are. At DC, or even Dark Horse, there are 100 plus people working there. At Image Comics we have 13 people. After Image Expo, I kept telling people we had very humble goals for the Expo and we were thrilled with how it turned out, we were really proud of everyone. We're like the guys in 300, where they take on thousands. 13 people who do a phenomenal amount of work. When you're in it you don't notice it as much, but when you step back it's kind of amazing...
"I read something online that said Image was just the same as everyone else, just out to make money. And we are out to make money, but we're out to make money for the people who are doing the books. Image takes very little from the books that we publish. If we were taking in a ton of money, maybe we would have a huge staff, but for what we take from the books it's a limited amount of resources... It makes my job probably very different from what another publisher would be doing, I have my hands into just about everything. There is a lot of what I do that is similar to what an editor does, there are times when things come in, they look perfect and then there are other things that need to be changed. The current advertising that we've been doing-- the creator photos-- that's something that I've been heavily involved in. "
As well as continuing to trawl through huge amounts of unsolicited submissions and working with creators on new and exciting properties Eric has also been involved in the relaunch of books from Image's past. The relaunch of Glory has been particularly successful:
"Well, with all these books, the first thing we wanted was instead of going to people and saying 'We want you to do this,' we wanted to say 'This is what the character is about, what would you do with it?' and kind of strip it down to its basic elements. Joe [Keatinge] came back and had a great take on it. He didn't do anything to alienate those who had enjoyed the book before and it just started as if it was a first issue, which I felt was important with all of these books, that the reader be able to come in and read it without knowing anything in advance. The thing that Joe also brought is that he has a great fascination for a lot of European comics and that really informed what he was doing. He is really immersed in that side of comics. When I first read his pitch I was like 'This is great; it's superhero comics melded with European comics,' just a different sensibility to what you see from everything else. That was great but at the same time both Joe and I knew that it wold only work depending on who the artist was. If you had a straight superhero artist, it wouldn't work. We needed it to be more nuanced and that's where Ross Campbell came in. It doesn't really click in your head but the minute I started seeing pages I was like 'This is great,' there's lots of action but it looks different from a superhero comic. Across the board everything has been done in a way that Rob Liefeld completely approved of, he's seen all of this stuff and is as excited abut it as I am. Whether it's Glory or Prophet, there is nothing about the new comic which disavows what has gone before. That has been one of the cool things about this, monitoring the reactions of people who would have never picked up the book, but are now actually looking forward to it coming out each month. "
Joe Keatinge's Take on Glory Helped Relaunch the Extreme Studios Line at Image
Eric has been very vocal elsewhere, sharing his opinions on both the DC relaunch and Marvel's event driven stories. I was curious as to whether these fabled and long absent comic fans who had been back on comic shop turf thanks to the DC "New 52" had made an impact on numbers at Image. Eric doesn't believe they have. Whilst October through December immediately following the reboot were great months financially for Image, Eric believes this was due to Image, and not any other publisher.
He talks about the typical Image customer, and is thrilled to tell me that there is no "typical Image customer." Fans of Image books are fans of great comic books:
"Years ago we had a slogan that was 'A book for every reader,' and the point of that was we're not trying to sell you a whole line of books but if you like a particular type of comic we probably do it and I think that's still the case. The Walking Dead reader is completely different from the Invincible reader or the Luther Strode reader or the Phonogram reader... Image readers across the board tend to be discerning and hungry for something different...somebody who buys a lot of Image Comics is probably also going to be buying books from Oni."
All ages comics and the importance of marketing comics to kids and the younger generation should be a bigger issue in the industry than it currently is. Doom watchers and nay-sayers are fond of pointing out the ever declining numbers of comics sold and the increasing age of the average comic book buyer. Hooking the next generation of comic fan is going to be a key factor in the future of comics publishing and Eric had some interesting thoughts on both the current situation and solutions:
"I wish they sold better. All ages comics have a tendency to be regarded as children's comics and the frustrating thing for me is that when I was growing up the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, those were all considered all ages comics, they were books that appealed to adults just as much as they appealed to children. Now all those things are geared towards a more adult audience and they do a kid version of them. I think that that stuff hurts all the other all ages comics because I was a kid, and I've been around kids, and kids don't like things that are targeted to them or dumbed down. They look at them almost like baby comics. So I think the fact that you have these all ages versions of popular superheroes and then there are other all ages comics-- like Super Dinosaur, which I love-- it's no different from any other superhero comic, it just happens to have a kid and a big talking dinosaur...the all ages tag is like a mark of death in some cases."
Super Dinosaur is One of Image's Most Notable All Ages Comics
He believes the digital revolution in comics will yield major results here, but the key will be in making things accessible to a generation of kids and parents who aren't frequenting comic shops. There is no easy solution or instant application of the success of all ages movies like Shrek. There simply isn't the same money behind comics books as there are movies. Eric says the staple of Image's strategy to expanding into the youth market is to "continue to do good books," but cites monthly comics being at a disadvantage in this area. Parents who aren't already comic fans aren't going to buy from comics shops for their children. Original graphic novels sold online or in bookshops will help here.
Eric advocates a "new approach to involving kids into comics through existing digital medium, iPads, iPhones and through games." Ideas like these are discussed a lot at Image. It's clear they don't want to rest on their current readership.
Getting involved with the digital side of the comics industry is hugely important today. Eric has a sensible and measured approach to the pros and cons of today's comics legal downloads and torrents:
"I'm at odds with the mindset that if you're buying the digital comics you're going to stop buying the print comics. I think that in some cases that may happen, but really it's two different audiences. There are an awful lot of people who are hungry for content that aren't necessarily collectors. I think that the number of people who are illegally downloading things through torrents gives you a pretty good education that there's this pretty good market of people over here who just don't care about having the physical comic book. For us, Walking Dead is the most torrented comic we do, but sales have continued to go up both on single issues and trades. Those readers are coming from somewhere; although I don't think there is 100% overlap, there are those people who started out torrenting stuff who probably got into it enough to start picking it up. The other side of that is since we've been working with Comixology, sales of the Walking Dead digital comic have gone up and up, right alongside the print comic. A better example of that is Fatale, where the third issue of the print comic outsold the first issue of the print comic but at the same time the digital sales are going up, too. I think that the two things exist alongside each other. It's less a case of embracing digital and more not ignoring it."
The Walking Dead is Image's Most Torrented Comic, Yet Its Sales Continue to Increase
Image has recently benefited from the renewed availability of current Marvel star Jonathan Hickman. Most notably Manhattan Projects and Secret have just begun and so far received both favourable numbers and reviews. I asked Eric about the "battle" to keep creators free from exclusive contracts with other, larger publishers.
"Robert Kirkman went to on to do Marvel Zombies and stuff like that, after doing books with us. And once it got into snapping people up and locking them down with exclusives, that could be a little frustrating. In some situations, [Marvel and DC] offer people the big packages but less than people might be aware. They do offer them a guaranteed page rate and stuff which, if you're Jonathan Hickman and you're starting off with the Nightly News and doing okay and you're doing the next book which is doing better and then Marvel comes along and guarantees you X amount of dollars per issue, then that is an appealing offer. Nobody begrudges anybody anything, but at the same time when somebody like Jonathan signs an exclusive with them, well, it's always going to happen. It's built into how Image operates that we're not going to force people into decisions that are going to affect their lives. Generally, whenever that happens, we've always been pretty supportive of it."
And on the subject of finding new talent, Eric is as enthusiastic as he is honest:
"We get so much stuff sent to us that we don't have to be proactive. I didn't have to go looking for Justin Jordan or Tradd Moore, they came to us. We're one of the only publishers that accept blind submissions. I get a gigantic bin of submissions and that's something I get excited about and I dread at the same time, because the exciting thing is maybe I'm going to pull Jonathan Hickman out of that pile, maybe I'm going to pull Justin Jordan out of there. The depressing thing, and the reality of the situation, is that for every one of those there are hundreds more that are never going to make it."
Jonathan Hickman Continues to Create Popular Titles for Image
At the recent Image Expo, a number of titles were announced that allowed the comics press and fans alike to go into full on excitement/ speculation mode. I managed to get a few extra details from Eric on these titles as follows:
"It's a crime comic and Grant hasn't really done crime comics before. That's something I'm really excited about, anytime somebody steps outside of their comfort zone. I think Grant is so good he has a very wide comfort zone, but at the same time he cold have done anything he wanted but he wanted to something he hasn't done before. I think that's pretty cool. He's never worked with Derek before. I actually just got the first script before I came over here and so I've read that and it's very cool. It's a very gritty crime story with a very Grant-like twist to it."
Steve Niles' Books
"The one that he's doing with Scott Morse [Crime & Terror] is something that they've been working on for quite a while, actually. It's one of those things that we've been talking about since last year, but the thing he's doing with Tony Harris is kind of cooler just because Steve had an idea and he talked to Tony about it and they just wound up being on exactly the same page and are really excited. Chin Music is going to be more crime noir mixed with supernatural. It's going to have horror and crime aspects. With Steve, he's done both, so this is going to be his most effective melding of the two in one concept."
"'The Immaterial Girl.' I think that gives some hints as to what that's about, along with the teaser image that's out there. It's not a daft punk comic. It's set in the eighties. Everything up until now has been more nineties. "
"Bedlam, well, that's another one I don't really want to talk about. Nick had talked to me a lot about it and it's really cool and there is a really specific hook to it that I don't want to say out loud because one, I think people are going to judge it, and two, because I think it gives away one of the fun parts of the story. This is also more crime oriented. I think that's where people's minds are at right now. Originally, it was something I kept thinking about 'Well, does he do this, could this happen.' There are a lot of possibilities for it. I think if people like Dexter, they will like this. Character-wise there are similarities, tortured morality issues."
Black Kiss 2
"I've read most of it at this point and it takes place over the course of the Twentieth Century. It's funny, because it's Black Kiss 2, but it's more of a before than after. From what I've read so far, it's my favourite thing that Howard's done in quite a while. I'm really excited because it's going to be black and white, same format as the original series, which I think benefits his work. It's something I'm personally really looking forward to because Howard's great. Especially his own work; if he's doing stuff for Marvel or even some of the stuff he's done for Vertigo, it's like a different Howard from what you get when he's fully in charge of what he does."
"Planetoid is something that people can actually go online and read the first issue of right now. It was a webcomic and available through Graphicly. We're going to start with the first issue and then move off from there. The way that came about was I was talking to Ron Richards from Graphicly and he asked if I'd seen it and I wasn't all that aware of it. So he sent me the link and I was like 'Well, this is really good.' Then he put me in touch with Ken and we started talking and Ken reminded me that he'd talked to me about doing a print version a while ago, like back in the fall of last year and we just lost touch. He's like a Nate Simpson, who just came out of nowhere and is really good at both writing and drawing. We haven't done anything like that before. I'm curious how it's going to work out. I think that the fact that anybody can go check out the first issue will be a real benefit."
"That is a sci-fi comic with a female protagonist. It's funny because the image we have out there, when we first started talking about it, it really has a whole different side to it and [the athletic feel] is not necessarily the inspiration for it but it's Brian, so... Brian's goal was more to do a female superhero story that wasn't like any other super hero book. Just because you have super powers doesn't mean you're a super hero. I think that when all was said and done, it has more in common with things like Logan's Run. It's not going to be like a superhero sport comic, it's very heavy on the sci-fi.
" There is something we're doing for FCBD, which is this book called Revival by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton and that's for Mike, a book that gets back to doing what he first started in comics, like The Waiting Place but a horror comic. So I'm really excited about it and it starts in the second half of the year. And Mike is doing something else for us, he's going from doing no Image work to doing two monthly books for us. The other one, It Girl, is written by Jamie S. Rich with characters from the Madman universe, but it's not going to be a Madman comic, It Girl is actually going to be really cool and Mike Allred is doing the covers for it, Mike Norton is writing it."
Don't miss the our series of interviews with the Image founders!