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July 5, 2013


A Few Not Exactly Compelling, Slightly Later Than One Might Want Thoughts On This Week's Image Expo

imageBy Tom Spurgeon

I don't have access to their numbers, but from the outside looking in, the Image Expo this past Tuesday seems like it was a successful branding exercise and publishing news platform. I think that comics conventions and festivals have been successful in a number of ways recently, so it makes perfect sense that someone would corral the energy into one into a company-wide promotional opportunity. I could see other companies doing something similar. It's an interesting model. I've been thinking about it since that day, and I came up with a few thoughts, which I'll now share.
* one thing I like about the Image Expo is that it celebrates certain comics orthodoxies I hold dear. One is that comics itself is worth discussing on its own terms. Image Comics has a relationship with what and with whom they publish solely in terms of their comics -- or at least mostly in terms of those comics, things might have changed for all I know -- so any festival they're going to throw is by its very nature a comics-focused event. There's no specific pressure to have a movie star or two on hand to announce a film project; there are few competing, cross-media agendas that emerge in major ways.

* the Expo is also a vote of support for the effectiveness and quality of existing industry media. While there may be some outside journalists on hand -- and the coverage of comics is pretty broad these days, actually, so what "outside" means might be debatable -- the bulk of what's presented at something like this is going to be covered with multiple posts an entry points on the industry-focused sites like Comic Book Resources. A multi-faceted, deep-inventory presentation and follow-up series of discussions is built for web site coverage, and a corresponding social media splash. Some of the best comics shows are also the ones that have the smartest media policies, and facilitate the dissemination of publishing news as part of their fabric. This one did that.

* I thought Kiel Phegley's basic framework for coverage at CBR was thorough, succinct and on point, and recommend everyone read it or at least visit the page for as much as I'll pull from it in writing this piece. You can check out their coverage more fully here. You can read various articles at The Beat here.

* I love publishing news as only a member of Generation Amazing Heroes Preview Special can love publishing news, but the biggest single announcement from the Image Expo has to be the company's digital comics initiative. There are a several aspects worth noting. One is that Image has a digital comics plan worth introducing. What a company that size pursues in terms of a digital comics strategy is automatically news. Another -- and the sexiest part of the announcement -- is that they're going DRM-free with the options they make available. If you're not familiar with the back and forth regarding those issues I'm probably not the person to get you up to speed. Let's just say that how one puts material out into the digital market, and whether or not that some sort of protective element is necessary, doomed or foolish, has triggered more virtual column inches and shoe-to-podium certainty than any issue not involving a major plot progression in a fictional universe. The way I see the Image choice in broad terms is that it's a strategy that counts on the strength of the commercial impulse surrounding these comics relative to the avenues of exploitation risked by offering them up in this manner -- an extension of the trust involved simply having digital copies out there in the first place. It's also a way of distinguishing the company in the marketplace, and it could potentially-- although this runs counter to what we've come to accept as that company's basic culture -- be a way to involve the home company with a decisive revenue stream.

I'm kind of in a weird place to discuss such plans because I think of this stuff as a creator rights issue first and choose not to surrender that ground to arguments of greater utility or advantage. If someone either by making that choice themselves or ceding that choice through lawful contract wants to charge $10,000 for a print comic book, I think that that's their right; ditto whatever digital approach they want to choose. I vote with my dollars (or their equivalent), not by circumventing those wishes and finding a more amenable outcome that maximizes my personal satisfaction or what I project onto this person their goals should be. I still struggle with any other way of approaching those matters.

I also think there are industry-wide ramifications you have to look at when a company makes a choice like this one, how things shake out in the end when different practices become normative. There are constructions by which you can argue that comics' essential conservatism on a number of business issues has been harmful; there are constructions by which you can argue they've actually been helpful. I would imagine that this basic uncertainty applies to major digital policy initiatives, too. I'm suspicious of anyone that thinks they know the ultimate outcome when it comes situations like this one. For one thing, I don't think their record of certainty over the last decade scores out very well; I don't think we're in the comics industry that I was told with absolute, loud-voice declarative power we'd be experiencing right now. I think these things have to develop organically. And since Image's past was a call-out point during a bit of the weekend, I think it's fair to note that part of that publisher's past has been doing things that benefit Image short-term while not necessarily benefiting the company long-term, let alone the industry in which they're placed. I don't necessarily have a scenario that gets us to a darker place, either, but I think the possibilities make it worth backing off any sort of triumphant language.

* I think that sounds like a solid publishing slate they just announced, and that it reflects a strong general strategy familiar to the company. In an era where Marvel and DC are strongly promoting their writers, this year's Image Expo featured a string of announcements about writers and cartoonists mostly known as writers presenting their new projects and/or the latest about their ongoings. I don't mean to imply Image is being ungenerous to its artists. There are a lot of artists extremely happy to be working there, the impact of a Fiona Staples or a Sean Phillips is undeniable, and in fact Image is a bit ahead of the curve in terms of routinely roping in all of the artists involved in the making of comics when they present and discuss their various works. But even at the slight remove of writing this piece in a word document after lightning fried my modem, I can't remember who, for instance, Jason Aaron is working with on Southern Bastards and I can't imagine forgetting for a second that Aaron is involved.

Image has a lot to celebrate right now, particularly in concrete gains when it comes to its numbers. Some of those numbers might become intriguing in a slightly different way if one or two outlier performers were removed, but I think the general news is such no one is going to blame Image for their optimism, or even being aggressive in making their general case.

There are some limits to how far I'll go with them. It seemed to me -- and this could be my crankiness, or something in how the material was reported -- that there was an assertion of how Image represents a sort of unfettered creative expression in contrast to those tired, old corporate comics. I don't all the way buy that line, mostly because it really only works if your non-Image world begins with Marvel and ends with DC. The Image offerings are almost solely high-concept genre comics with some sort of adventure element, less startling a deviation from what Marvel and DC do than the tonal shifts that take place about 12-14 times between works in an average Nobrow anthology.

imageDon't get me wrong. I like the sound of a lot of these projects and think highly of a number of these comics-makers. I want to read that Matt Fraction/Howard Chaykin comic book. I look forward to Ed Brubaker working with Steve Epting. I am either entertained by several Image Comics currently publishing or can wrap my mind around how someone would find those comics fun, distracting and/or edifying. I'm still always a little bit wary of treating Image as some sort of creative paradise. There are a lot of different ways to get to this kind of creative freedom in comics, and, if you're talking about what the companies will likely publish and by whom, you can argue that there are places of greater creative freedom. It's good press, I think. A good tagline for readers. It flatters them.

What I think gets underplayed a bit as a result is the fine work that Image has done in presenting an appealing model to comics-makers: 1) self-direction and corresponding greater reward for outside-media opportunities; 2) the imprimatur of proximity to projects that have enjoyed a desirable kind of success in comics and without; 3) a path to developing name-above-the-title-and-or-property success that doesn't involve negotiating a sometimes-cluttered landscape of desirable characters and editorially-directed nonsense; 4) the underrated ability to profit to a much greater extent than mainstream base rates and royalties allow if your comic book sells well. This isn't as sexy or as encouraging to fans as promoting a sense of exclusivity regarding the content, but I suspect that those elements together make for a bigger unique component in terms of the surge of success that Image has enjoyed the last 36-48 months.
I love the North American comics industry a little bit more when there's a healthy and aggressive Image Comics. I prefer when comics-makers with a skill for genre work have another place to publish with much to offer in the basic set-up and deal. I love for creators and readers to have as many options as possible. And I do think there's a general tiredness to even the best comic books featuring editorially controlled characters with branding responsibilities and several hundred previous stories on their CV. Mostly, though, I'm happy when a company like Image devotes a whole day to its comics and puts creators first in doing so. So good for them. I hope as many people paid attention to the Expo as seemed to. I can see it becoming a thing.
 
posted 8:10 am PST | Permalink
 

 
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