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July 16, 2012


CR Newsmaker Interview: Eric Stephenson, Part Two

imagePublisher Eric Stephenson has to be the first person I've ever talked to from Image Comics to bring up Nobrow in post-interview chit-chat, one of many surprises for me in the following conversation. I wanted to talk to Stephenson because of Image's recent successful run re-building their line from a mixture of homegrown, perceived-as-Image-talent creators and inviting established comics-makers to play in their potentially rewarding sandbox. Individual series such as Saga and Walking Dead seem able to compete with just about any corporate-owned individual series out there in terms of pulling their weight on the shelves. The line is as creatively strong as it's ever been, and outstrips several periods of Image's history by a wide, wide margin. They have the #1 comic book (for this century) on the stands, and they had the most interesting mainstream comics publishing announcements of the just-concluded Comic-Con.

Stephenson and I talked on a Friday afternoon in a crowded Omni Hotel lobby. A first part to this interview appeared yesterday.

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TOM SPURGEON: You're having a really good summer, but this isn't Image's first trip to the successful publishing ball. Your history isn't without its negative points. Do you have institutional memory available to you? Do you worry about repeating past mistakes?

ERIC STEPHENSON: Oh, I do. When people moan about print runs being too tight, about books selling out, that's exactly because of that. We could print with wild abandon and wind up being stuck with a lot of comics. I think being careful with print runs is in everybody's best interest, so that we don't get into the situation of 15-17 years back.

It's a constant worry. There's a lot of stuff going on with the books that are ordered very well. Sometimes it's like "Okay, I understand why that was ordered very well, and I understand why that was ordered very well. That one did a little bit better than I thought it would." I don't want there to be a backlash. I want people to order what they can sell and I want people to buy what they want to read.

SPURGEON: Your announcements... yesterday [laughs] were widely varied. You have books from people like Greg Rucka, Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin, established pros either establishing themselves at Image or returning after an absence. You also have a Jay Faerber announcement. Have you had any feedback from creators that have worked at Image the last several years, any feedback from those creators that indicates worries they may not always have a home there.

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STEPHENSON: It is something I think about. "Worry about it" isn't the right way to characterize it. Let's use Jay as an example; Jay is a good friend of mine.

SPURGEON: I think of Jay Faerber as an Image guy.

STEPHENSON: Jay's been doing comics with Image since 2001 with varying degrees of success. When Near Death came out last year, it's been reviewed very well, people have generally positive things to say about it. But it definitely hasn't sold at the level of a Fatale or a Saga. And I don't worry about that, but it's one of those things where I'm like, "What's the problem here?" I think Jay does good work; that particular book is one where Ed Brubaker and Brian K. Vaughan are saying, "Man, I wish I was doing this book." But somehow it doesn't translate over. So it's less of a worry and more of a curiosity. Is there a point where we can start to transition guys like that, so that there next project does the same as these others?

SPURGEON: The initial Image run came during a period where the market was very different. How committed can Image be to wider industry reform? For instance, there was much greater coverage 20 years ago. My town had a shop then; it doesn't now. How much can Image contribute to those kinds of issues, to general industry health?

STEPHENSON: Whether you're a publisher or a retailer, everybody is a part of the community and has a stake in this. When Diamond announced their retailer outreach for opening new stores and helping existing ones grow their businesses, and we signed on for all of that. They want to incentivize new business, and I think that's a very important thing. We believe in growing the direct market. Comic stores are really unique in terms of the service they provide. You can get a comic digitally, or at a Barnes and Noble, but to have someone speak to what exactly you're looking for -- there's nothing left like it. People that don't have a comic store in their town, I think that's sort of horrible. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm not saying that as a person that just like comics. You ask a question in a comic book store, you don't get a rote explanation. They can share the material with you, and refer you to other stuff. People that run comic book stores, for the most part they're doing it because they love it.

Part of what we do is make good comics, and we want to be the best version of Image Comics. But part of what we do is create a sustainable market. It has to be a part of what we do. Things like Saga and Walking Dead and Fatale, these are things that people want to return to. People can recommend these things to their friends, even people that don't read comics. As opposed to tailchasing events, these yearly spike makers, but who's going to be talking about AvX ten years from now.

SPURGEON: Question about bookstores. I know that at first when you add books by major talents to your bookstore offering, there's something to a few titles standing out because those books receive special attention relative to the overall offering. The Fatale book was competing with more volumes of good material than the first Chew trade was; the Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios book that's you have planned will go to trade with a lot of recent Image success stories on the stands near it. How hard is it to transition to a point where you have a lot of successful titles up and down the sales spectrum, and that you're not just getting a bounce because of the rarity of a specific prestige book project against a backdrop of less ambition, less successful series? Can your current strategy keep more and more creators happy?

STEPHENSON: On difference is that we're pushing our books a certain way; we're pushing Image Comics in terms of the different titles being awesome. DC and Marvel have things they need to push to bookstores, like Marvel with Avengers right now. When we put a catalog together, we're thinking, "Here it all is." People respond to what they respond to, but it's not for lack of pushing.

SPURGEON: Does a Walking Dead help? Are there specific ways the success of Walking Dead helps with the rest of your line?

STEPHENSON: I think it opens doors.

SPURGEON: Sure, but what does that mean when people say that something "opens doors"?

STEPHENSON: I'll give you a concrete example. In the UK there was a chain that didn't want to work with Diamond, but they wanted Walking Dead. They had to get an account with DBD. Now they're ordering some of our other works. They were completely cut off. Do we have a huge saturation of that chain? No. But we're in there. I think that that goes for just about everything.

I was telling someone this morning that Borders originally passed on Walking Dead. They weren't interested in a lot of what we did. But then they finally got on board with Walking Dead a little further down the line and then they started to think in terms of other things. Success always tends to create more success.

SPURGEON: What is the next major challenge in digital? Do you see anything specific that needs to happen in the next six months? How comfortable are you with that end of the publishing mission?

STEPHENSON: Some people think that digital and print are at odds, but I think they're highly complementary of each other. All I can go by is the data that I have. I see increases in digital books at the same time as I see increases in print books. People like to have options, a choice in how they consume entertainment. The great thing about digital is you don't have to lug a shortbox with you on vacation to read comics. I think a lot of people feel that way. I think there are a lot of people that are buying print and digital as opposed to one or the other. I know comics are being torrented. Walking Dead is our most torrented book, but it's not dropping sales.

SPURGEON: So if there are no immediate hurdles, if it's all about making the current model work, are we settled into the way things are going to be?

STEPHENSON: The app we've worked out with comiXology has worked out very well for us. But is that where we're going to end up with this stuff? Probably not. There was a Friendster, and then there was MySpace and nobody used Friendster. Within a couple of years MySpace was a graveyard and everyone was on Facebook. I think where we are right now is a fine place to be, but we're in the beginning of this.

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SPURGEON: Be honest. Do you have a market share number in mind for the end of the year?

STEPHENSON: Nope. It's funny, people are kind of obsessed with that number. I think for 2009-2010 we were the #5 company, but we did better each of those years than the year before. We're fortunate in that since I've taken over as Image publisher, we've grown. Does the market share reflect that? Not always. I'm not sure who that number matters to, because no matter the company -- IDW, DC, Dark Horse, Image -- it's more important that the company is moving in the right direction, that it's growing.

SPURGEON: I think people are interested in that specific number because of what that says about your moves and their effectiveness relative to other moves made by other companies. I also think it could be really good. It may be a sit up and notice moment.

STEPHENSON: Something that people should pay more attention to in terms of that number is where Marvel and DC's market share relative to the rest of the market. That says more about where we're going in terms of the kinds of comics people are reading.

imageSPURGEON: What was the last good comic you read that has nothing to do with Image?

STEPHENSON: I blogged about this recently: Baby's in Black.

SPURGEON: The Arne Bellstorf.

STEPHENSON: Yeah. It's a book about the Beatles in Hamburg. I'm a big music fan and big Beatles fan. It's funny because a couple of different people recommended that book to me and I resisted and I couldn't tell you why. I went to Ed Brubaker's signing at Meltdown when Fatale Vol. 1 came out, and they had it there, and I picked up and read a few pages and I realized it was a book made especially for me. The thing I loved about it, too, was that I've read tons of Beatles books and individual Beatles' books, but it's such a good snapshot of those times that you can read it if you're a Beatles fan or not. It doesn't pander to the Beatles fans. It's going to tell the story in the best way possible.

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* Eric Stephenson
* Image Comics

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* visual from Saga one of Image's new hits
* cover from Jay Faerber's most recent series
* a triptych of recent Image cover images
* from Baby's In Black
* from Fatale (below)

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