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Image Month: Publisher Eric Stephenson Continues to Define Creator-Owned Comics

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Image Comics' acting Publisher for four years and counting, Eric Stephenson has never shied away from sharing his opinion on the comics industry and the road he's traveling with Image. The man has truly made it a career at the Big I, as he first started working for Image at the young and tender age of 24, when he had a big hand in scripting the earliest issues of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood.

Now that Image is enjoying one of its most eye-popping years since the early days when the founders still defined the face of the company, we asked Stephenson about his thoughts on the success of creator-owned comics and what makes the Image model unique in the business... and a whole lot of other things too. Turns out, this is a man who doesn't give a damn about market share.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Image is celebrating its 20th anniversary with what’s arguably going to be its most successful year since the early days, if you look at the sheer number of big names doing books through the company. Is that a fortunate coincidence, or have you been working towards this since you took over as Publisher in 2008?

ERIC STEPHENSON: You know, it’s a little bit of both, really. When I first took over as Publisher, I did have a list of people I was interested in bringing over, so that’s definitely been part of it, but it’s also the result of many years worth of conversations – some dating back to well before I became Publisher – with things only coming together now.

BF: What special things do you have planned throughout the year to celebrate past highlights and make sure this birthday bash doesn’t go unnoticed?
 
STEPHENSON: As far as I’m concerned, there really isn’t a better way to celebrate 20 years in this business than by continuing to move forward, so our main focus will continue to be new creativity. If someone wants to bake a cake or something, that might be nice, but you know, when it comes to publishing, I’m always more inclined to look forward than back.

BF: Speaking of Youngblood, that series no doubt takes you back to the company’s earliest days, as you were a strong part of the title, having worked on those first issues with Rob Liefeld. How do you look back on that period? Did you realize back then, this Image thing is something special, I’m gonna stick around for the rest of my professional life?

STEPHENSON: I definitely thought Image was something special, right from the moment Jim Valentino told me the company was being formed, but I was 24 when Image started, so the idea of working someplace for the rest of my professional life was kind of the last thing on my mind, you know? I knew I wanted to have a career in comics, but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead back then, about that or anything else.

BF: Because of your ties to the early Youngblood, how does it make you feel that the continuation/ relaunch of the old Extreme titles is going so well, especially with all of the new and unproven names involved? These books may very well be the launching pads for successful careers of their own…
 
STEPHENSON: Something people tend to overlook when they talk about Extreme is that virtually everyone working on those comics, at least in the beginning, was quite young. Rob and I were 24, 25 and there were artists much younger than that there. Rob had the most experience, and his whole plan was to create an environment where he could help new talent. A lot of great people started out there, and it’s kind of a testament to Rob’s original vision that people like Brandon Graham, Joe Keatinge and Tim Seeley can pick up that baton and run with it on books like Prophet and Glory and Bloodstrike.

I was just hanging out with all those guys at the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, and they’re all so happy to be working on these books – they’re having a lot of fun. I was talking to Brandon on the last day of the show, and he’s just bubbling over with ideas, not just for Prophet, but for other things we can do as well. It’s really nice to work with people like that, and just a great feeling all around where these books are concerned.

BF: Do you see yourself continuing as Publisher well into the future? Because if you look at the people who manned the company before you, from Larry Marder to Jim Valentino to Erik Larsen, well, most of them moved on after four or five years, and here you are, having filled the seat for an equal amount of time…
 
STEPHENSON: I don’t know. That’s not really something I think about.

I mean, I’ll be honest with you – I feel like I’m just getting started. Things have kind of been picking up, month by month, year by year, for a while now, but there’s still a lot I want to do, and it’s like… I met someone a couple weeks back, and she was asking about what I did and how I liked working in comics. I told her I literally wake up excited to get to work every single day. As long as I feel that way, and as long as things are moving forward and everyone’s pleased with the job I’m doing, I think I’m quite happy to keep going.

BF: If it’s at all possible, can you describe how each of your predecessors defined the face of Image during their tenure, and how you’ve built upon that legacy yourself?
 
STEPHENSON: I think Larry Marder helped establish the overall structure back in the ‘90s. Especially during the latter part of the ‘90s, I feel like Larry helped Image weather a lot of the storm associated with what was an increasingly troubled marketplace. He brought in some good books along the way: Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, Matt Wagner’s Mage, Jeff Smith did Bone at Image for a while.

Valentino kind of broadened the scope of what Image did, by bringing in more non-superhero titles and fostering new talent. Now that Brian Michael Bendis is BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS, I think it’s probably easy to forget, but Jim really championed Brian’s early work at Image, first as part of Shadowline, and then later with the initial launch of Powers. Jim also brought Warren Ellis to Image, and perhaps most importantly of all, he gave a young upstart named Robert Kirkman the platform to launch Invincible and The Walking Dead.

It’s kind of hard to separate my own tenure from that of Erik Larsen’s, because I was working alongside him as Executive Director. Together, though, we made some decisions regarding how we ran the actual business that benefited the company tremendously over the long haul, and Erik brought in some great talent – Mike Allred, Kyle Baker, Joe Casey, Rick Remender. In a lot of ways, working with him as Executive Director was like training for when I took over as Publisher myself, even though actually becoming Publisher wasn’t something I’d ever considered. I thought Erik was going to stick with the job for much longer.

As far as what I’ve accomplished myself, I honestly don’t know that I’ve done much more than simply keep things moving in the right direction.

BF: Back in the early to mid ‘90s, the comics industry was up against a brutal speculator market; 20 years later, people are fearing the monster of digital. Is one of the reasons why you’re such a big believer that digital won’t be the end the fact that you’ve weathered quite a few storms?

STEPHENSON: I’m not sure that has anything to do with it. I just think there’s more than one kind of reader out there. Some of them want to read digital comics, some of them want to read print comics. Some of them want to read both. I’ve got a brand-new iPad sitting atop a stack of comics and magazines and books on my nightstand, and I think all of those things are pretty much interchangeable. It’s good to have choices, and to me, the great thing about the digital revolution is that we all have so many choices now. There’s always someone eager to turn a positive into a negative, though, and this industry in particular seems particularly adept at always finding something to bitch about.

The thing is, though, people have been predicting the death of print for something like 20 years at this point, and they’ve been predicting the death of comics even longer than that. They’re both boring, glass half-empty conversations, if you ask me. Is the market changing? Absolutely. The whole world is changing, right before our eyes. That doesn’t mean it’s the end, though – of comics or anything else.
 
BF: As you said, there are many types of readers out there. One of the great advantages of digital is that it can take comics out of its niche and open up the medium to readers who’re keen on much more than superheroes. How are you looking to capitalize on that beyond trying to put out the best creator-owned books known to mankind?
 
STEPHENSON: Look, I think the greatest advantage of digital comics is that you can buy them whenever or wherever you want. The big challenge to the Direct Market is not how to get around the dominance of superheroes – that’s another conversation that bores the shit out of me – but how to best serve the people who come into comic book shops. I think there’s an over-reliance on things like pull lists and customer pre-orders that has been handicapping our industry for years now. If someone walks into a store looking for a new comic and it’s not there, they might not come back. At the very least, they might not buy that comic. Either way, it’s a lost sale.

With digital comics, though, that comic is there, 24/7, 365 days a year. If traditional retailers want to compete with that, they have to acknowledge that actually having a well-stocked store is part of a successful business strategy, and that one of the advantages they have over digital is that they’re not just selling comics, they’re selling an experience. The best shops are places that are easy to go back to, easy to hang out at, or make friends at – it’s an experience that isn’t easily replicated with digital comics, and it’s something the Direct Market needs to embrace.

As far as playing to Image’s particular strengths goes… I personally don’t buy into the notion that the general public has some kind of built-in disdain for superheroes. If that’s the case, who’s going to see these superhero movies that do so well, year in and year out? I like superheroes, and I think there’s always going to be an audience for them. Making them some kind of bogeyman for our industry isn’t the answer now, and it never has been.

That said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the classic comics created in the last 20 years or so are creator-owned, non-superhero titles.

BF: “Creator-owned” is experiencing a renaissance these days, as the term has – thankfully – again become a true selling point for people to give new comics a try. What do you think is the biggest reason for this? Is it the fact that people are becoming tired of Marvel and DC going to the same dried-up well over and over again? That must play directly into your cards.
 
STEPHENSON: Yeah, I think there’s a growing segment of the current readership that is kind of tired of being on that particular treadmill. At the same time, there’s another segment of the readership that keeps supporting these things, and there’s retailers who trip and fall over themselves to line their shelves with that stuff.  If it’s selling for them, then more power to them, because it’s good for their business, but I honestly don’t think anyone’s going to give a shit about that stuff in the long run.

The great thing about creator-owned books is they’re the product of pure imagination, and that’s what keeps people coming back – comics that aren’t created as marketing exercises. I think it’s easy to whip people up into a frenzy for anything, but it’s getting them to stick with it that is the challenge.

It’s kind of a tortoise and the hare type of situation,  I guess, but I think sustainable sales over many years is better for this business than a bunch of short-term spikes meant to placate stockholders or development executives.

BF: Do you think there will ever come a time when the above starts translating itself into drops from a combined 70-75% of market share to 60%, even 50%? Or will we be witness to the rapture before that ever happens?
 
STEPHENSON: I don’t really think about it in those terms, to be honest. I don’t wish ill on any of our competitors, so I’m not going to sit here and rub my hands together thinking, “Man, if only their market share went into free fall!” or whatever. I’m all for everyone enjoying as much success as they can.

Would I like more people to be reading Image comics? Well, sure, I’d be a bad choice for this job if that wasn’t one of my primary goals, but at the same time, I don’t think success by default is such a great thing, you know what I mean?  

At the end of the day, I’m in this business because I love comic books, and when I criticize these big events and some of these kinds of dubious creative decisions, it’s because I want comics to be better, no matter who’s publishing them.

BF: In terms of percentages and positioning behind the Big Two, you’re basically alternating spots with IDW and Dark Horse, maybe Dynamite. What aspects about Image versus its direct competition do you take most pride in? From my point of view, I would assume it’s the fact that you’re getting roughly the same kind of percentage with virtually no licensed properties…

STEPHENSON: I don’t know, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. Again, it’s stupid to chase market share, because it’s not an accurate reflection of… well, of anything, really. We’ve been doing better and better on a monthly basis for several years now, each month better than the last. The market share rankings don’t always reflect that, which is something that always puzzles me, because you get all these people whining about how everything is shit, and I’m here thinking, “Well, our numbers just went up again, and you beat us this month, so you must have had a pretty good month, too – what are you complaining about?”

Maybe part of it does come down to the licensing thing. That’s a rough business model, and I’m glad it’s not one we’re tied up in these days. I look at some of these guys chasing after the next nostalgia-based fad, and it just seems like tedious work. Those guys hand over a grip of cash for that stuff, and there’s a time limit on how long those things appeal to a large enough audience to justify that kind of outlay. Like I said, I’m glad we’re not in that business.

As far as what I take the most pride in regarding all that, though… I would have to say it’s the fact that our success is predicated on new creativity.

BF: What is unclear to a lot of people, I think, is how creator-owned really works from one publisher to the next. Can you clarify how creator-owned Image style differs from Icon’s, Dark Horse’s and what have you?

STEPHENSON: Well, any deal that allows a publisher to be involved with a creator’s media rights – either by taking a percentage of those rights, or being attached as a producer, or some kind of right of first refusal deal – is not true creator-ownership.

It’s like, say you go to a publisher and they offer to pay you a page rate or an advance, with the promise of a 50/50 split on the back end, and then a similar split on media rights. First off, there’s a good chance the page rate or the advance is all the money you’ll ever see from that, unless it takes off as a trade paperback, in which case you’ll get 50% of that. And don’t get me wrong – 50% is actually a good deal, because it’s not uncommon for publishers to take even more than that.  

The media rights thing is pretty much vaporware, though, right up until the point something actually happens with your book. If someone options it – and option money isn’t always life-changing money, it can be as little as a few thousand bucks, depending on any number of factors, and there are also options that involve virtually no upfront money – 50% of that immediately goes to the publisher.

Now, if that publisher is attached as a producer, that means the publisher is collecting a producer’s fee on top of that 50%. It also may complicate negotiations for any kind of TV or film project, because while being involved with that publisher can certainly be an asset, some studios or production companies may actually view it as an impediment to getting something made. Same with first look deals and the like – that stuff can scare interested parties off, just as easily as it can attract them.

There are projects that languish in development as a result, or worse, never even get optioned. Those are worst-case scenarios to be sure, but they’re real scenarios, based off things that have happened to numerous writers and artists I’ve talked to over the years. And even if something does get made, depending on the level of involvement the publisher has, there’s still the chance that the creator will lose control of the property.

And control is what makes Image unique.

Image has a single function: to publish comic books. We do not shop things around as movies or television shows or video games. We don’t take a producer’s fee or a piece of the profits from other media. We live and breathe on the success of the comics. And even there, we take a very modest share of the profits.

Obviously, the best example in all this is The Walking Dead.  Image has absolutely zero stake in that. Robert Kirkman owns that, and he is a producer on the show and a writer on the show, and when money comes in from AMC for that show, it goes to him, not to Image Comics. He has complete control over his dealings with AMC, just as John Layman has complete control over Chew in his dealings with Showtime.  We are completely invisible when it comes to all of that stuff.

Any deal that offers less than full control, or trades page rates for a stake in the media rights or a larger share of publishing profits, is not the Image deal.

BF: How do you look back on the first Image Expo held this past February? Was it everything you expected it would be?

STEPHENSON: Oh, it was a lot of fun, even better than we expected, I think.

We went into that venture with pretty modest goals. We chose a relatively small venue and our hope was that enough fans would come out to make it worthwhile for everyone, and things went really, really well.

###

Eric Stephenson is Image Comics' Publisher. He has held the position since 2008. Stephenso regulary provides insightful comments on comics and the industry at it-sparkles.blogspot.com.

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