As announced earlier today, Image publisher Eric Stephenson was decisively voted The Beat’s Comics Industry Person of the Year by comics professionals. Stephenson graciously agreed to be interviewed on the big impact Image had on the industry in the past year and what’s next for the publisher.
Stephenson has been with Image more or less from the beginning, from his early days with Extreme Studios, to filling various roles at the company over the years, serving as executive director before being named publisher in 2008. Since then he’s negotiated the changing world of bookstores and digital and the explosive success of The Walking Dead, while bringing new and veteran creators into the fold and making Image the clear #3 publisher in 2012.
The Beat: First off, congrats on being the Comics Industry Person of the year as chosen by your fellow comics professionals. Do you feel like this was your biggest year at Image?
Stephenson: I don’t know if it felt like a big year, but it was definitely a busy one. There’s always a lot to do, but 2012 was Image’s 20th anniversary, and I thought it was important to mark that by kind of upping the ante on what we were already doing. So many anniversary celebrations are all about looking back, but I think our greatest strength is the fact we don’t really stand still for too long. The Image Comics of 2011 bore virtually no resemblance to the Image Comics of 1992, so why spend a year, or even a month, waxing nostalgic about the past when we could double down on the here and now? I wanted 2012 to be a celebration of what we do, not what we’ve done.
The Beat: Most of the looks back at 2012 I’ve read have mentioned Image are a big part of the story, and your own blog postings contrasting work for hire with creator owned comics really made a strong case for owning your own stuff. How much of Image’s success this year was zeitgeist—a certain level of creator becoming disgruntled with the realities of Big Two comics—and how much was something you’ve been actively working towards?
Stephenson: Honestly, I’m not sure there’s been a huge mass awakening to the benefits of creator-ownership or anything like that. I think maybe people are paying a bit more attention to what Image is doing right now, but I think that’s down to the talent involved more than anything else and yeah, getting all that talent together in one place took some doing. We were talking to people like Ed Brubaker and Brian K. Vaughan well before 2012, and you know, very few of the books we published over the course of last year were things that happened quickly. Grant and Darick’s book was probably one of the quicker ones, and we only started discussing that in the latter part of 2011. So if you’re looking at Ed and Brian and Grant, or somebody like Jonathan Hickman, I’m not sure it’s particularly accurate or fair to say they came to Image because they were “disgruntled” or because there was something in the air or whatever. Conversations had been going on with Ed and Brian for years, and at least in Brian’s case, he’d made it clear a few years back that he wasn’t all that interested in doing work for hire anymore, not because he was particularly unhappy, but because it just wasn’t something he wanted to do anymore.
But beyond all that, the way I look at it is… You read Sean Howe’s book, right? Marvel Comics: The Untold Story? Well, the big thing I took away from that is no matter who you are, how successful you are or how popular you are, Marvel will eventually run out of use for you. And the thing is, that’s not an untold story or even a Marvel Comics story, that’s the history of work for hire comics. What happened to Siegel and Schuster wasn’t a secret. What happened to Jack Kirby wasn’t a secret. I think the bits about guys like Sal Buscema and Doug Moench and Steve Gerber might not be as well-known, but those aren’t deep dark secrets. Chris Claremont’s exit from the book he developed into Marvel’s biggest money-maker during the ’80s and ’90s wasn’t some hush hush affair. I mean, we live in a world now where Wolverine is in over half a dozen comics every month, and with no disrespect to Len Wein, but without Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne turning Uncanny X-Men into the tremendous success it was during the ’80s and ’90s, I’m not sure that would be the case. Cockrum and Byrne left of their own accord, but Claremont stuck around and put his heart and soul into that book and those characters. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t heard this story or read the book, but Chris was ultimately kicked off Uncanny X-Men. That’s the nature of work for hire, and like Kirkman said a little while back — they don’t throw you a big retirement party and give you a gold watch.
So when you talk about the zeitgeist of it all, well, I think talking about creator-owned comics or creator’s rights or whatever may be part of that, but as far as Image goes, I think we worked hard to get a lot of good people to put a lot of good books and it worked out for us. People could have still been talking about Before Watchmen and boycotting Avengers and all the rest, but if we’d put out a bunch of crap books by writers and artists nobody gave a shit about, I’m pretty sure you and I wouldn’t be talking about all this right now.
The Beat: Certainly, it’s obvious that top creators want to give the Image model a try, but have you seen any changes in the readership? Looking at Image’s market share in John Jackson Miller’s graph here it’s clear that its risen over the last few years. Is there an Image “reader” now?
Stephenson: I do think there is an “Image reader,” but I don’t think he or she necessarily shares the same characteristics as, say, a “Marvel Zombie.” I don’t think there’s anyone out there just buying everything we put out to fill in holes in their collection or out of brand loyalty or whatever. I mean, I get what that’s all about — I grew up reading nothing but Marvel Comics — but I’d rather cultivate an audience that is loyal to his or her own interests and tastes.
That said, I also believe it’s probably easier than ever for someone to buy one of our comics simply because it has the Image logo in the corner. I think some of the moves we’ve made over the last few years has changed the perception of what we do and people looking for something new or different have responded. I think we’ve established a reputation for new creativity that will continue to serve us well, so long as it remains our primary focus.
The Beat: I thought that Saga was a bit of a tipping point for Image — and that’s reflected with Brian and Fiona coming in second in the poll. Did you think it would be as big a hit as its turned out to be?
Stephenson: You know, I’d wanted to Brian to do something at Image for years, and like I said earlier, it took a while to make that happen. Robert pestered him about it, I pestered him about it, Jay Faerber pestered him about it. When Brian finally decided he was ready to commit to doing a new series and sent his overview for Saga to me, I actually thought, “I wonder if this is how Heidi felt when she got the pitch for Y: The Last Man?” because I knew then he’d come up with something equally incredible. The fact that Fiona was involved just kind of sealed the deal for me, because I’d been watching her go from strength to strength on various projects — even if she was just doing covers for something, I could see she was just getting more and more confident in her style. The idea of the two of them working together just seemed perfect, and by the time pages started coming in — yeah, I had a pretty good sense people were going to love it just as much as I did.
The Beat: The Walking Dead remains one of the biggest pop culture franchises of the moment. I’m impressed at how Robert Kirkman and Image have managed to keep the comic nearly as visible as the TV show. Of course 2012 was a huge year with issue #100…do you see any evolution of the franchise in 2013?
Stephenson: If you mean “evolution” in the sense that we might spin it off into other titles, like a Walking Dead Europe or West Coast Walking Dead or All-New All-Different Walking Dead, no. There are some other collection formats I’d be interested in exploring, but one of the great things about there aren’t going to be any other Walking Dead series and Rick Grimes isn’t going to join the Guardians of the Globe or anything like that. There are going to be other projects outside of comics, but for anyone who just wants to read the comic or the trades, they’ll be able to continue doing that without the threat of other titles being added on left and right.
The Beat: While some of the big name books rightfully got a lot of attention, the reinvention of the Liefeld-verse by Brandon Graham and the rest was a real surprise hit. The idea of bringing back the loud, muscular Image heroes that the company launched with in a more “global” style is both daring and a no-brainer. Do you think there are more veterans of the Image catalog that could be reinvented in this way or was that one-time magic?
Stephenson: The thing about guys like Brandon Graham and Joe Keatinge is they looked looked past what was done with Prophet and Glory before and identified what would make them interesting now. There’s not much similarity because what Chuck Dixon was doing with Prophet or what Jo Duffy was doing with Glory. Neither Joe nor Brandon actively put the lie to anything Chuck or Jo did, but they made the books their own in kind of the same way Frank Miller made Daredevil his own back in the late ’70s/early ’80s, or Jim Starlin did with Captain Marvel and Warlock when he took those books over.
So yeah, for me, it would really depend on the talent involved, as well as the titles. There are certainly other old Image titles I’d like see revived, but before even considering that, the original creators would have to give their blessing. Unlike Marvel and DC, Image doesn’t own all those characters. There are a few characters we have access to, though, and really, it’s just a case of matching them up with the right people, with writers and artists capable of matching the level of enthusiasm and irreverence Brandon and Joe brought to the Prophet and Glory.
The Beat: In a post that I ran on the Beat you mentioned the importance of bringing along new talent. How do you see Image as a publisher helping nurture newer talent?
Stephenson: I think we’re one of the only major publishers doing it at this point, to be honest. I mean, Jonathan Hickman didn’t get started at Marvel or DC, he got started at Image. Robert Kirkman self-published, then came to Image. Nick Spencer got his start here. There are lots of guys who… If you look at everyone from Bendis to Fraction to Rick Remender, they’d all done work at smaller publishers, but it was Image where they took off. Bendis did it with Powers, Fraction did it with Casanova, Rick with Strange Girl, Sea of Red, XXXombies and Fear Agent. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie on Phonogram. Image has either introduced or thrown in strong support for a pretty large pool of talent, and I think that’s pretty well-established at this point. I also think it’s pretty obvious that Marvel, DC and Dark Horse to kind of wait for us to identify all the cool new talent. I mean, how many Marvel or DC books were Justin Jordan, Nathan Edmondson and Joe Keatinge writing before they did Luther Strode, Jake Ellis and Hell Yeah? As important as it is to have the big names, I think the only way creators reach that level is if someone recognizes they’ve got the talent to get there first, and I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but to a large degree, that’s been us.
The Beat: You announced a huge slate of books by established superstars — Grant Morrison, Bryan Hitch, Mark Millar— anyone we can we look for in 2013? Who would be your dream creators?
Stephenson: That’s a question that gets more and more difficult to answer. We’re working with so many great people already…
Going back to what I was just saying, though, I’d really like to see Rick Remender come back and do something of his own at Image now that people are aware of just how insanely awesome he is. When we did that Strange Girl Omnibus hardcover a while back, somebody asked me why invest in something like that when the series was long gone and Rick was off doing stuff at Marvel, and the thing is — I loved that book. Rick and I talked about collecting it in one big book and the hope was that a new audience would come to it and see how cool it was, see that Rick has always been an amazing writer. So yeah, I’d love to have Rick cutting loose on something brand-new.
Aside from him, anyone who has read my blog knows I’m a huge Warren Ellis fan, and I’m constantly trying to lure him back into doing regular comics work. I may seem overly persistent at this point, but I really think we’d all be better off with more work from Warren Ellis. I think he’s one of comics’ true visionaries.
So really, it just turns into a list of my favorite writers and artists, you know? Everyone from Bryan Lee O’Malley to Jason Aaron to Marjorie Liu to Kurt Busiek to Pia Guerra to Art Adams… Darwyn Cooke. Brian Azzarello. Chynna Clugston. Anthony Johnston. Declan Shalvey. David Lapham. Dave Sim. Sean Murphy. Ramon Perez. Alan Moore. See? I could on and on…
In terms of what to look out for in 2013, everything I’ve seen on Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus is amazing, and the first of the new J. Michael Straczynski books we’re doing this year, Ten Grand, is illustrated by Ben Templesmith and that’s really awesome, too. Oh, and Mark Millar and Frank Quitely are going to absolutely blow people away with their new book. That’s taken longer to come together than originally planned, but it’s going to be very well worth the wait…
The Beat: What’s the biggest challenge for Image in 2013?
Stephenson: Continuing to move forward. I think the biggest challenge for anyone who has any level of success in any business is to keep going. The same as there’s no point in celebrating an anniversary if there’s nothing of substance to go along with it, I don’t think it makes much sense to sit back and relax after you’ve done something good. It’s great that people are starting to say nice things about Image, but from my perspective, we still have a lot of work to do. For me, 2012 was successful for Image in that we were able to attract a lot of attention, so the goal now is to see where we can take that, to see how we can build on it. You asked earlier if I thought Saga was going to be a big hit, and yeah, I did, but in all seriousness, I want it to be an even bigger hit. There isn’t a single book we publish that I look at and think, “Yeah, that’s doing exactly what I want it to be doing,” because every title we put out could be doing better, always.
The Beat: And what has you most excited for this year?
Stephenson: What happens next.
But then, I think that’s the most exciting thing about every year.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.