Eric Stephenson (Part 2): Market Habits, Competition and What's NextA comics interview article by: Morgan Davis
In part one of our interview with Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson, we discussed Image's exciting 2011, what it means for a comic to sell out, and the the controversial Village Voice interview. Part two of the interview with him is equally as compelling, as Stephenson digs into topics such as the Walking Dead TV series, why creators find Image a good company to work for, and the departures of high-profile titles like Powers and Casanova.
Morgan Davis: In the press release that announced Image had several sell outs from its pilot season, you stated your concerns that retailers were still underordering issues. Is this something that you're constantly dealing with?
Eric Stephenson: Yeah, it really is. We could raise the print run on certain books every issue even more than we've done, and they would still sell out, because some retailers are in a state of perpetual shock regarding Image and any measure of success.
Davis: Why do you think some retailers underorder, even in the case of a book like Nonplayer, which generated significant buzz beforehand?
Stephenson: I think it's mostly because there are stores that had a bad experience with certain Image titles at some point in the past, primarily when the company first started, and they've ordered very conservatively – or in some cases, not at all – ever since. And you know, on one level, I can't really take issue with that. Image made some mistakes starting out, and I understand that when a publisher's mistakes put your business on the brink of closing, that can be hard to forgive. I definitely get the once-bitten, twice-shy mentality that some retailers have in some cases.
On the other hand, though, Image has evolved into a very different publisher than the one that launched in 1992, and that's been the case for about 10 years now. What we publish has changed, how we work with the direct market has changed -- we've really come into our own over the last decade. But we're still viewed as though we started yesterday in some cases, and I think that colors the perception of some retailers when it comes to ordering.
Davis: Do you typically see those same retailers correcting their numbers for reprints or second issues? Or do they stick to their ordering habits?
Stephenson: It's a mix of both, really. Depends on the book. Sometimes retailers correct their numbers right away, other times it takes a few issues. With something like Nonplayer, I was just looking at the orders for the second printing, and they're higher than the initial orders for the first printing, so in that instance, the message was definitely received.
Davis: Were any of the sellouts particularly surprising to you?
Stephenson: Not really. We overprint on all our books, but we do so conservatively. Selling out is always a possibility.
Davis: How do you view Image's relationship with the Big Two? Do you see them as competition or do you feel that you court different areas of the market?
Stephenson: Different parts of the market. I don't give them a lot of thought, unless I'm pissed off because they're cherry-picking our creators.
Image has kind of set the gold standard for launching new talent over the last decade or so, and the minute a writer or an artist gets some heat, different guys from other publishers are on the phone convincing them to give up on their own ideas and come work on 50-70-year-old superhero or film, TV or toy licenses. The really classy ones even come by our booth at conventions to chat creators up, which is actually kind of amusing because it's like wearing your lack of manners and integrity on your sleeve.
Davis: Image has also had some of its books leave for the Big Two, specifically Powers and Casanova moving to Marvel's Icon imprint. Were those simply cases of the creators trying to unify their ongoings under one publisher or do you think it was motivated more by a desire to potentially reach new readers?
Stephenson: Well, with Brian Bendis, I think it was a case of Marvel gently pressuring him to bring Powers over after years of working with Marvel on everything else, and there was a change in the guard at Image during 2004, so he felt like that was a good time to bow out. He and Jim Valentino had a really great relationship, and I think that in the midst of all the success he was having with things like Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil over at Marvel, it became harder and harder for him to justify having a book at another publisher.
When Jim was no longer Publisher at Image, I think that decision became much easier, especially since Marvel was essentially offering him the same deal to do Powers over there. And no one faulted Brian for that decision, because from the get-go, Image was set up for creators to make that type of decision, for creators to do what's best for them as individuals. Would I have preferred for Brian to stay? Definitely. I lovedPowers, and it's been kind of disappointing to see that become a secondary concern over the years. Maybe it's me, but it doesn't seem to get much attention over there, and I think the sales reflect that. It shouldn't be that way. Powers is a fantastic book by two amazing creators, and my biggest gripe with Brian's decision to move on is that I'm deprived of reading one of my favorite books as often as I once could.
With Matt, I think he was just really disappointed with how Casanova did at Image. I mean, history's been kind of rewritten at this point, thanks to the excellent Icon reprints, but Casanova wasn't all that well-received upon its initial release. It was very much a love or hate it sort of thing, with some people saying they didn't understand it and that it was too pretentious and they didn't get why it wasn't in full color. All of that boggled my mind as much as it did Matt's, because I thought that was hands-down the best book we were publishing at the time.
I just re-read the first arc in the trade Icon put out recently, and it's just brilliant, brilliant work. I have a blow-up of the cover of Casanova #2 on the door of my office -- I love what Matt did with that book, and I love the Twins' artwork, and I was completely stunned that book wasn't a huge runaway hit. Especially given that it was priced at $1.99 when other books were beginning to raise their cover prices to $3.50 and $3.99. The first issue of that book was a full 32 pages of story for only $1.99. Unparalleled brilliance on a monthly basis, for mere pennies a helping and the collective response was, "Meh."
So things didn't work out here for Matt, and then they did at Marvel and he had an opportunity to retrofit Cass over there, and it's been lovely seeing that work in color. I think the color reprints would have sold exactly the same at Image as they did at Icon, though, if not more.
Davis: There's also the example of books coming to Image from other publishers, i.e. Vertigo's The Crusades. Do you seek those properties out or is it more often a case of the creators coming to Image?
Stephenson: There have been a few archival type things we've gone after, but in most cases, that stuff is brought to us. There are lots of instances where a creator gets the rights back to something done at another publisher and then bring that material over to us.
Davis: What brings the creators to Image?
Stephenson: Well, in the example you just used, that was a case of Steve Seagle coming to Image with the other Man of Action guys and then saying, "Hey, I just got the rights back to The Crusades. Would you want to reprint it at Image?" I think that is very much a case of the creators unifying things under one brand.
Beyond that, though, I think creators mostly come here for the freedom to do what they want without a lot of interference. In some cases, they want to increase their audience. When Tim Seeley broughtHack/Slash to Image, that was definitely part of the appeal for him, and it's worked out just great for everyone involved.
The virtues of creator ownership mean a lot to certain writers and artists, though. They don't want someone to take 50% of their media rights or their publishing, they don't want to be treated like they work for a publisher when their properties are actually what make that publisher successful.
Or they don't want their work to be shunted off into the corner while their publisher focuses on turning their books into movies, or turning movies into comics.
Davis: I've made a point in the past of comparing Image to a television network like HBO or Showtime, which specializes in a certain kind of programming that major networks tend to ignore. Now that Image has a few properties in the process of being adapted by cable networks or already being hits for those networks, like Walking Dead at AMC, have any of those networks reached out to Image about establishing direct relationships? I.e. giving them first looks at books you publish for possible adapting?
Stephenson: Actually, no. AMC has a wonderful relationship with Robert Kirkman, but they certainly haven't come knocking in regards to other Image titles, and while Chew looks set at Showtime, there hasn't been any other interest from them, or from HBO. Are there other things in the works? Sure. Things get optioned all the time.
People forget that the Luna Brothers' Ultra was optioned for television and CBS actually shot a pilot for that. It didn't go anywhere. B. Clay Moore's Hawaiian Dick was a going concern as a film for a while. Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards have had interest in not only Turf, but their next project after that. Top Cow does very well with getting their various properties out there. I think virtually everything that's been done through their yearly Pilot Season books has had interest at this point.
Because of how Image is set up, though, the interested parties don't always come to us first. That's how the Image Founders set things up, and like I said just a bit ago, that's a big reason why creators continue to seek Image out today.
Davis: In an interview with Rich Johnston last year you spoke out about the perception that Image was struggling to compete with IDW. You went so far as to say that 2010 was shaping up to be the company's best year yet. Do you still find yourself defending against that perception?
Stephenson: Well, 2010 did turn out to be a great year for Image, though, and like I said, 2011 is shaping up to be even better. Does that translate into a more favorable perception of the company? I don't know.
There was an analysis of the numbers recently that highlighted the fact that our market share dropped somewhat, despite the fact we were still the number three publisher for that month. There tends to be more of an emphasis on the bad than the good when it comes to Image, which gets a little tedious. It is what it is, though. Everyone's entitled to good months and bad, based on their output. We're doing better now, because the books are good and people are interested in them and we're actually getting them in to stores. It's not something I sit in my office and wring my hands over. At the end of the day, I would prefer that IDW do well, and that goes for all the others, too. I want Image to succeed because we're doing awesome comics, not because everyone else is shit.
Davis: That same piece also found you speaking out about the idea thatWalking Dead (and thus Image) was only succeeding because of the AMC show. Obviously, the show being such a success for AMC must have helped sales numbers but do you find that the books Image has recently launched, like Nonplayer and Morning Glories, have helped take some of that focus on the adaptation angle away?
Stephenson: I think so, but really, you'd have to tell me. Has it?
I look at it like this: The Walking Dead show happened because The Walking Dead comic was a success, not the other way around. It's not like The Walking Dead was struggling to find an audience and then suddenly the AMC show lifted it out of obscurity. People tend to forget, in the midst of all the constant stories of doom and gloom surrounding the comics market, but The Walking Dead has been steadily increasing in sales for years.
Orders for the first issue, way back in October of 2003, were right around 7,000. It sells in the mid-30s now. And it was selling in the high 20s before the marketing for the TV show even kicked off. Has everyone benefited from the show? Of course. Of course, we have, but you know, Chew is a successful book now and while there's talk of a Showtime deal, that isn't a reality yet, in the sense that nothing is actually on the air. People are responding to the comics.
Davis: In the past, you've also indicated that erratic schedules rather than other factors may be to blame for a book not selling as well as it needs to in single issues. Some of the big Image books that have come out this year already have journalists speculating on their release schedules. When you agree to publish a book, is this something you discuss with the creators beforehand? Does it factor into your decision to publish the book?
Stephenson: It is, and it does. We're actually doing a much better job of backlogging material at this point, in an effort to prevent scheduling hiccups like we've seen in the past. We can't go back and fix what's already been done, especially with ongoing titles, but it's helping with the new material. We're doing a new book for Joshua Hale Fialkov later this year, and right now, it's looking like we'll be three or four issues ahead on that before the first one even ships. That's a much better place to be, as opposed to rushing to have something wrapped up a few weeks before it hits the stands.
Davis: Would you say Image's focus on trade sales has increased in recent years, as that kind of erratic scheduling has become more common?
Stephenson: Well, trade paperbacks are a benefit of all that, but our increased focus on trades are dictated more by the overall direction of the industry over the last decade. There are readers who wait for trade paperback collections rather than investing in a potentially late-shipping series or miniseries, and I think the market has kind of adapted to that outlook. It's kind of the silver lining to the dark cloud of late-shipping, I guess, but at the same time, there are plenty of instances where retailers and readers simply don't support the book no matter what.
If people can't be bothered with a late-shipping series, there's not necessarily an incentive to give it a second chance as a collection, you know? If there's a lot of buzz around a book or if reviews for the individual issues are really favorable, then sure, there's a market for the trade, but we can't count on that. It's still better to get the books out on time and build an awareness of the work.
Davis: Are there any books that you'll be publishing soon that you're especially excited about?
Stephenson: There's actually an entire slate of books on the horizon, for the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, that I'm very excited about, but unfortunately cannot discuss all of them in specific terms just yet. Leading up to that, though, I have to say I'm really looking forward to Jonathan Hickman's Red Wing book and Nathan Edmondson's follow-up to Who is Jake Ellis?
David Hine and Shaky Kane are working on a sequel to The Bulletproof Coffin that sounds amazing, too -- I met with them in London at the Kapow! show and came away confident that their next book will be even more incredible than the first. Robert Kirkman and Rob Liefeld are doing their first book together – The Infinite – and I don't know if you were reading comics in the late '80s/early '90s when Rob was doing New Mutants and then spun that off into X-Force, but this hit me the same way.
Looking forward, I actually think the second half of this year and moving into 2012, we're just going to pick up even more momentum. Some fantastic comics on the way!
Now read part one of the interview with Eric!