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Image Month: ComicsPRO Chairman Joe Field on 20 Years of Image

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If there’s one man who can say some thrustworthy things when asked to look at Image Comics’ 20-year history from a retailer’s perspective, it’s Joe Field.

Field is the President of Comics Professional Retailer Organisation ComicsPRO and store owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord CA. He’s been in the business for almost 25 years, so he knows all about how Image affected and changed the retailer landscape, what the buzz was like in 1992, and what marks each of the Image Publishers has made on the company.

BROKEN FRONTIER: How do you look back on the early days of Image?

JOE FIELD: It was a very exciting time in comics. There were great things happening and some not so great things that happened. But the founding of Image was one of the gutsiest moves a bunch of young artists with virtually no editorial or business experience could make.

BF: What was your reaction when you heard Image was forming?

FIELD: As a fan, frankly it was a bit of a disappointment to me. I was really enjoying the work the Image founders were doing at Marvel. As a retailer, I wish I could say I had the foresight to know what a game-changer  it would be for the business of comics.

BF: Were you ever worried the formation of Image would negatively affect Marvel sales? Or were you not convinced this thing was going to stick?

FIELD: Well, a company doesn’t lose a bunch of its most marketable talent and not risk a drop in sales. That has always been the case in comics and always will be. Some talent sells more comics than other talent. There was a reason Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, especially, were selling so many comics for Marvel. They had just what fans were looking for. And with the other Image founders, the same was true, but to a slightly lesser extent.

It wasn’t until a year or so into Image that I felt they might have a tough time sticking. When so many of the Image titles were running horribly behind schedule, you could see the cracks in the Image armor. Many of my retailer friends and I not only want “good” we want it on time!

BF: Has Image contributed to any changes in the retailing business, beyond just feeding the collector’s frenzy in the first half of the 90s?

FIELD: Absolutely. A few things that come to mind, actually. The industry reacted to the lateness of Image comics – first with retailers loud and long complaints and then with distributors instituting policies of returnability for comics that failed to meet their lateness deadlines.

Image has also opened the doors to so many new creative talents over the years, changed the perceptions that only Marvel and DC could have legitimate best-sellers, and completely broke the thought that Marvel Zombies still exist. And, for the youngsters out there, I’m not referring to the to the series that Robert Kirkman originally wrote, but the older thought that many comic buyers were so brand-conscious that they would only buy Marvel Comics.

Overall, Image helps to keep other publishers “honest”: it’s a place where creative talent can take their work and still own it.

BF: Do you have any special stories or anecdotes to share from those early days, either from meeting some of the founders or from the buzz in your store?

FIELD: Jim Lee has been a friend of mine since before the founding of Image. When I look back at his co-founding of Image, his success with WildStorm, then it’s really not a surprise to see him now as co-publisher of DC Entertainment. He’s definitely come a long way since I first meet him at WonderCon way back when.

In 1987, I remember meeting a shy artist named Todd McFarlane who had been doing Infinity Inc for DC and Marvel hired him away to do Amazing Spider-Man. Since his first Spider-Man had not yet hit the stores, Todd had a rather quiet and uneventful convention. No big crowds to see him, but that changed soon enough!

As a retailer, I remember thinking to myself “Can I really be ordering this many copies (of many of the early Image issues)?” There were a few months where Image out-sold DC Comics in my store and one or two when Image out-sold Marvel. Those were crazy numbers!

BF: Do you remember the number of copies you ordered from those classic debut issues?

FIELD: We sold in excess of 1000 copies of Spawn #1 and Wildcats #1, while the other Image #1s by the founder all sold many hundreds each.

BF: From an outsider’s perspective, and in dealing with most of them throughout the years at the ComicsPRO meetings, how would you describe the differences between the various Image publishers?

FIELD: I like to think I’ve had a good relationship with all of them. I worked with Larry Marder a bit when I was the director of the Direct Line Group (a private retailer association in the ‘90s). I always try to make sure that Jim Valentino gets credit for coming up with the right date for the first Free Comic Book Day (Imagine that – an Image publisher suggesting it would be a good idea to put the event next to a Marvel movie. That kind of cross-publisher cooperation would be more difficult these days.)

I’ve known Erik Larsen for a long time. I first had him as a guest at Flying Colors in 1990. And it was Erik’s suggestion to use Flying Colors’ own super-hero, Captain Four-Color, in an issue of Savage Dragon, with battle scenes set right here in the store (Savage Dragon #165, shown here - ed.)

As for Eric Stephenson, I met him years ago when he was working for Rob Liefeld’s studio. We stay in touch pretty regularly and I can only hope that some of my advice has been helpful for Eric at Image.

Each of Image’s publishers has brought something unique to the position and I believe it is due to the work from all of them that Image is still something we’re talking about 20 years later – and something that is a cause for celebration.

BF: Fans keep on craving The Walking Dead, as it continues to be the #1 success story for the company overall. Do the singles and collections fly off your shelves too?

FIELD: The Walking Dead is easily our best-selling graphic novel series here currently. The monthly comics are solid sellers, but placed in the context of other comics, TWD didn’t crack the top 50 titles here this past month (March 2012 – ed.). Saga #1 is at #7, Fatale #3 comes in at #26 and Walking Dead #94 is in the #53 slot. Still, it’s a very solid seller!

Still, to a degree, I’m pretty sure some of the quick sell-outs on recent Image #1 issues are due to collectors wanting to find that next Walking Dead #1. The previews in TWD have also helped Witch Doctor and I do hope they give more readers the nudge to buy Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising, which was previewed in issue #95.

BF: You’ve already touched on Fatale and Saga, but can you share some more info on how the recent wave of new titles has performed for you, such as the Extreme relaunch, and Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects?

FIELD: There have been varying degrees of success here. As I mentioned, Saga and Fatale are selling very well. Manhattan Projects is doing well, but another tier below Saga, Fatale and Walking Dead. The Extreme relaunch has been met with some enthusiasm, but is yet another tier below Manhattan Projects.  

I must say though that there are more readers and more fans looking at Image Comics these days than at any time in the past ten years. Everything can’t be a “best seller,” but the energy and creativity at Image is at an all-time high.

BF: Looking at the other side, was there a time where selling Image titles was really a struggle? If so, what do you think the reason was?

FIELD: The late ‘90s were the low point for comics in my 24 years as a retailer, so it wasn’t that Image Comics were more difficult to sell, it was that ALL comics were more difficult to sell.

BF: Do you make any specific efforts to spotlight creator-owned books?

FIELD: On occasion we do. We currently have a Terry Moore Spotlight display, hoping that more readers will latch onto Echo, Rachel Rising and, of course, Strangers in Paradise.

BF: Overall, there’s no harm done in saying that Image was first run as a hobby before it was run as a business. You mentioned the frustrations of the retailer community over the lateness issues that plagued a lot of titles in the beginning, but how do you feel about the strides the company has made to put the books out more on time?

FIELD: Those frustrations are long gone, so there are no hard feelings about them. As a matter of fact, the extreme (no pun intended) lateness of many Image Comics in the ‘90s served to flush many of the speculating dealers and collectors out of the market which led to the comics market becoming primarily a reader’s market. In the long run, that might be seen as a good thing, although I can say that because I am thankfully not sitting on top of cases of unopened comics from the ‘90s.

This is a market that runs on time, creativity and inertia. We need to maintain all three to keep the market going and growing. It’s not like the movie business’ famous expression “Do you want it good? Or do you want it Tuesday?” The comics market needs it to be good AND on time, just to maintain the inertia.

Image Comics is really making some bold moves lately. With the announcements of key creative talent bringing new work to Image, the pressure will be there to maintain timeliness, to continue to build on the confidence that more readers and retailers have been giving Image recently. This is looking to be a banner year for Image, and my hope is that the strong sales we’re seeing now will continue well past 2012!  

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