by Eric Stephenson
[Image publisher Eric Stephenson spoke at the luncheon session of the 2013 Diamond Retail Summit, Image kindly provided the text of the speech.]
Just a word of warning: This is going to seem like I’m all over the place at first, but trust me, it will all make sense in the end.
It was 1982. I was 14 years old. I was on a summer trip with a friend and his family. We were deep in the heart of South Carolina – a small town called Dovesville is where we were staying – and for some reason, we wound up at a mall in nearby Florence. It wasn’t a big mall, and I remember walking around listlessly, wishing I was almost anywhere else, but then I saw it.
I don’t remember the name of the store, but back then it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen: an entire store devoted to comic books. Not a used book store that sold comics, or a newsstand with some spinner racks – this was an honest to gosh store. It was as inviting and well appointed as any other store in the mall, but all it sold was comic books. And I was in heaven.
I’d been reading comics for about seven years at that point, and I’d bought them at convenient stores, card shops, supermarkets, bookstores and cornershops, but back then, in the early ‘80s, the Direct Market was still just coming to life. I’d read about comic book shops, so I knew they existed, but with the limited mobility of a 14-year-old, the closest one may as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
But here I was, finally standing in one, surveying dozens of new comics, not in spinner racks or shoved onto magazine shelves, but meticulously arranged so that they faced cover out, allowing shoppers to revel in the full impact of those little four-color masterpieces. I was in awe, and I didn’t know what to look at first. There were comics I’d heard about, but never actually seen, things that either sold out quickly or weren’t carried at the local 7-11.
And there were comics I hadn’t heard of, comics that weren’t published by Marvel or DC or Archie.
More to the point, there was Captain Victory by Jack Kirby.
I loved Jack Kirby. The Fantastic Four was my favorite comic, and very early on, I realized there was a huge difference between the stories that were coming out each month in the regular book, and the stories being published in another one, Marvel’s Greatest Comics. As much as I loved the FF, it was hard to deny that the stories drawn by Jack were just better.
Captain America. Black Panther. The Eternals. Avengers stories in Marvel Triple Action. Machine Man. If Jack drew it, I bought it, but it had been a while since I’d seen anything by him at Marvel.
Captain Victory was on issue 7, though, and it was published by a company I’d never heard of before: Pacific Comics. Despite the fact there were new issues of virtually every Marvel title I read, I chose to buy that issue and the one that preceded it. I read them on the car ride home. I read them again before I went to sleep. I read them first thing when I woke up the next morning. And more than read them, I studied them. They were the strangest comics I’d seen up to that point in my life. Written and drawn by Kirby, but somehow not at all like the comics I was used to. I was completely fascinated.
Now, I didn’t know this at the time, but the guys who published Captain Victory were only about 10 years older than me. Brothers Bill and Steve Schanes were in their early 20s, and they’d been selling comics and distributing comics, and Pacific Comics was their first foray into publishing comics. They weren’t just publishing comics, though, they were publishing creator-owned comics, one of the very first publishers to do so as their main stock-in-trade.
Bill, as you know, later went on to work for our hosts at this summit, Diamond Comics Distributors, and as I’m sure you also know, Bill is retiring this year. I’ve been fortunate to work with Bill over the last 10 years or so, but it wasn’t until he announced that he was stepping down that I really stopped to think about his legacy in this business. Once I did start thinking about it, though, I realized that the company Bill and his brother started back in 1981 was very much a forerunner for the company I work at now.
And thinking about it some more, I have come to consider that wonderful moment at that comic book store in Florence, South Carolina as one of the pivotal points in my life, because thanks to Bill and to Steve and absolutely thanks to Jack Kirby, I realized there was more to comic books than Marvel Comics. And since even at that young age, the dream of someday doing comics myself was already in my head, I now knew that doing comics at Marvel or DC wasn’t the only option. New comics were being created at new publishers.
Pacific. First. Eclipse. Comico. Fantagraphics.
American Flagg. Nexus. Mage. Love and Rockets. Cerebus. The Rocketeer. Mage. Elric.
I’d grown up reading nothing but Marvel comics, but discovering Captain Victory and Pacific Comics that summer completely turned that around. It seemed like almost anything was possible in comics, and as I started digging into the comics press of the time and learning about the ongoing battle for creators’ rights, these new independent comics seemed nothing short of revolutionary.
I went to college with the vague notion that I’d eventually become a teacher, but I still read comics, and I still had dreams of eventually writing them. More than anything, I wanted to write my own comics. I pitched stories to Marvel, sure, because looking at the example set, not just by Jack Kirby, but by the likes of Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin, you didn’t just start off on your own, you built a name for yourself at Marvel or DC. But I was burning to create my own characters, and write my own comics. I wanted to do something new.
Fortunately enough for me, around the time I was ready to get serious about working in comics, a group of artists were getting serious about creating exactly the kind of company that would allow writers and artists to create and own their own comics, to create something new.
Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino started Image Comics in 1992 – just 11 years after Bill and Steve Schanes founded Pacific Comics – and just as Pacific changed the landscape back in the ‘80s, Image remade and remodeled comics for the ‘90s. It was a whole new revolution, and by a tremendous stroke of luck, I got to be part of it.
But whereas Pacific, like First and Eclipse, and Comico and so many others from that time, only lasted a few years, Image Comics is still here today.
Last year was our 20th anniversary, and it was one of our best years ever.
We launched a lot of great new comics:
Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra.
Mara by Brian Wood and Ming Doyle.
Bedlam by Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo.
Thief of Thieves by Robert Kirkman and Shawn Martinbrough.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
Every month, there was something new, and as I talked to people over the course of our 20th anniversary, I reiterated time and again that the Image Comics of 2012 bore little resemblance to the Image Comics of 1992.
And I think that’s what separates Image from its forbearers like Pacific Comics. Whereas as Bill, Steve and others like them had the vision to start the revolution, only Image Comics has had the sheer determination to turn that revolution into an ongoing thing.
We have moved forward, month after month, year after year, through good times and bad, constantly guided by the understanding that it’s not just what you do that matters, it’s what you do next. We live in a “what have you done for me lately?” world, and there is no room for complacency. You can do the same thing over and over again, but at best you’re just playing the same old song; at worst, you become a broken record.
You know this, because just as Pacific Comics and Image Comics share a spiritual bond, so too does Image Comics and the Direct Market, right back to that little comic book shop in South Carolina.
Sure, our jobs are different, but we are in this business for the same reason: We love comic books. Some of us decided we wanted to write them or draw them or publish them, some of us decided we wanted to sell them or distribute them. We all wanted to be in this business, we all want it to succeed. We are each other.
And if you’re attending Diamond’s retail summits, or the annual Comics PRO meetings, you realize, like we do at Image, that accepting things as they’ve always been and just doing things as they’ve always been done is not the way forward.
If you’re one of the stores that has helped The Walking Dead become a worldwide phenomenon with trade paperback sales in the millions, give yourself a hand. The Walking Dead did not exist at this point in 2003. It is just shy of 10 years old, and the success of that title – a black white creator-owned comic about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse – owes as much to your support as it does to Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard’s talent as storytellers.
If you’re one of the stores that made Saga an instant success, that helped us sell 100,000 copies of the first trade paperback in six months, give yourself a hand. Saga didn’t exist until this time last year. It’s only a year old, and while it may have been Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples writing and drawing those comics, it was you and your shops that were turning readers on to one of the best comics this industry has seen in years. It was you who chose to recognize something brand-new as worthy of virtually unprecedented support.
Like I said, we are each other. We wouldn’t be here without you, you wouldn’t be here without us, and we all suffer when we’re not focused on making this business the absolute best it can be.
And whether you’re in Florence, South Carolina or San Diego, California or right here in Chicago, we are there for you, to provide the same kind of eye-opening experience for your customers that I had when I first walked into a comic book store back in 1982. Whether it’s new customers or old, you know – instinctively, you know – that the easiest way to blow someone’s mind is with something new. In that respect, we are your constant allies, collaborationists in the constant struggle to bring comics to as wide an audience as possible.
There’s a song that starts like this: “You say want a revolution.”
Well, we are the revolution.
Every year, every month, every week – Image Comics is new comics.
We weren’t the first, and I honestly hope we won’t be the last, but when it comes to creator-owned comics, to our passion for new creativity, we are absolutely the best.
And we wouldn’t be here without you.
Before I wrap up, I want to go back to Bill Schanes for a moment.
As I noted earlier, Bill’s retiring from Diamond this year, and while I look forward to working with his replacement, John Wurzer, I will be truly saddened to see Bill go. I’ve worked with Bill for over a decade, first when I was Director of Marketing at Image, then as Executive Director, and over the last five years, as Publisher, and while there have been some ups and downs, Bill has always been wonderful to work with and there are few people in this business I hold in higher esteem.
The more I’ve learned about Bill, the better I’ve gotten to know him, the more respect I have for what he has accomplished. Lots of people are shocked to learn that Frank Miller is only 56 years old, that he was barely into his 20s when he was writing and drawing Daredevil, that he was a young man when he created Ronin, when he wrote and drew the two best Bat Man stories ever told. But Bill Schanes is only 55, and we should all find it equally impressive that well before he was at Diamond, when we was barely into his 20s, he was a retailer, he was a distributor, and he was a publisher.
I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people I admire in this business – Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Walt Simonson, Howard Chaykin, just so many wonderful, legendary writers and artists – but it wasn’t until this year, really, that I came to understand how lucky I’ve been to know and work with Bill. His accomplishments in this industry are truly inspiring, and I’m really not exaggerating when I say that Image Comics would likely not exist today were it not for the example set by Pacific Comics over 30 years ago.
Bill: It has been a true honor. Thank you.
Because the revolution never ends, and because Image Comics refuses to be wallow in complacency, I have some news for you.
Independence Day is coming two days early this year.
On July 2, at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, Image Comics is hosting a one-day event at which we will be making a series of exciting announcements. Robert Kirkman will be there, along with Ed Brubaker, and a truly phenomenal group of surprise guests. We’re charging admission for fans, but the event will be free for retailers and the press.
San Francisco is a long way for most of you, but it’s going to be a fantastic day for everyone who comes out – and I would feel like a real chump if I didn’t personally extend the invitation to each and every one of you.
If you’re interested in attending, please get in touch with either myself, or Image Comics’ Director of Business Development, Ron Richards.
I hope we’ll be seeing you.