Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 13, 2014

Festivals Extra: Notes On Last Week's Image Expo 2014

* I would assume that overall that was a successful event. There are a dozen reasons you do a show like this one, and not all of them are obvious. But across the board it seems like Image can check off positive results in general media attention, local attendance/interest, branding, local event status, and publisher/creator relations.

* I'm also all for Image Expo as an example of a non-traditional convention -- I want comics events of all types, and this includes conventions or convention-type events that are based around interest in a specific company. I don't see any reason why the top 10 publishers couldn't have an event of some sort. Comics doesn't have a ton of institutions, and I think this is a fine way where one set of institutions it does have -- publishers out the wazoo -- can't contribute to the establishment of another group of institutions, in this case local/regional events with national/international publishing news elements.

image* remember that Image isn't a long-time resident of the Bay Area in which its settled, and one other benefit of the show bubbles to the surface: the Expo as a signature Bay Area comics event, and a way for that publisher to build local ties and become more of a local cultural player. I think a lot of companies and communities have benefited by publishers developing their local identity, and I think there is a ton of potential there for other companies to step up in this way. With WonderCon having moved south due to an odd reluctance on the part of local facility coordinators to change their strategy regarding an established comics show, Image Expo could be one of the two or three reasons to hit that great land of comics in a calendar year, or, perhaps more importantly, could become one of two or three peak weekends for local comics fans. In a way, Image Expo has a lot in common with things like the Fantagraphics and D+Q stores, another strategy I think a lot more publishers should consider.

* I thought they did a pretty good job with coordinating press coverage. It seems like they had a good crew of people on hand covering the show -- it was not hard to find article or live-tweeting -- and the Image folks were generally available for support and follow-up pieces. I was encouraged to attend, and was contacted about follow-up coverage on a couple of stories -- not by Image in the latter case but by the pros involved, but that's still a good sign. If they lacked in one area from what I hear talking to my peers and to a few Image fans I kn ow it was in coordinated coverage to hit at the moment something was announced.

* the reason I didn't attend Image Expo is that traveling for business in the single-digit dates of the New Year is out of my skill set the way my life is organized right now. I wonder how necessary and/or advantageous this was. While Image dominated the news cycle the day of the show, I'm not detecting that there's going to be a big Image hangover for the next few weeks -- Marvel cut right into their cycle dominance with a major publishing news story the day after the Expo. Comics coverage is capricious and weird right now, and I do appreciate any attempt by a publisher to present their news to the world in a way that best benefits their people, but I'm not sure anyone has figured things out yet -- not in wider media, not in comics.

* I would say the big story publishing-news wise coming out of the Image Expo, given a few days of reflection, is the fact that Ed Brubaker/Sean Philips signed a new "anything you want" deal. A few reasons I'd vote for this one. For one thing, that's a solid team, with options elsewhere, so we'll get solidly-crafted comics from the company that of all that creative duo's potential suitors is the one they prefer. Image simply coming up with a new way to get people to work with them is worth noting, too. While I'm not sure how a deal like this really works any differently than any relationship they have with a favored creator, if there are ways to get people on board and excited that's a benefit for that publisher and for the creators. Third is I think this underlines that Image can fully compete with mainstream publishers as the primary comics outlet for top creators. It's good PR, if nothing else, the equivalent of the writer and the artist wearing Image's letterman's jacket to the homecoming dance. That's an important step for Image, even if an incremental one -- to become seen as the place for creators with options to set up their primary home.

* series announcements were dominant. A significant element to the Image resurgence story is that they've done a good job of getting retailers on board with what they're doing. Part of this has been by exploiting a weakness of DC and Marvel's decision to publish so many comics within certain titles and brands per year. I know I bail on specific issues of superhero titles I might follow because of a switch in creative teams; this isn't a problem with the Image books, which are creator driven and thus almost rigidly adherent to using the same creators in every circumstance. A bigger part of it is putting out material that sells, of course, but variances in a series when they sell can almost be more troublesome than with one that doesn't because you might not be able to gauge demand. That's not a problem with Nowhere Men or Saga. That's going to be what it is every issue out, or very close to it.

* I don't have much to say about the diversity issue. For those of you that missed it, the Expo ended -- or come to an ending of a specific public-announcements phase, I'm not sure -- by putting everyone on stage and, well, it looked the US Congress in terms of its race, gender and orientation breakdown. I don't know if people talk about twitter opportunities the same way they talk about photo opportunities, but if they do that was a bad twitter opportunity. I'm sure the issue would have come up without the photo op, because white dude white dude white dude kelly sue white dude white dude, but putting it right out there and on its feet gave it a little more juice than usual. I'm glad for that. There's no escaping that it is unfortunate that the creative line-up at the Expo was overwhelmingly not-diverse. Sure. I say that even though I'm of a mind to forgive certain institutions for time periods of exclusion -- whether that's a function of my righteous brain or an assertion of white-hetero-male privilege, I'll leave that for others to consider.

I think all of the comics institutions with a public outreach aspect could be far more aggressive in facilitating maximum opportunities at those stages of the process. I think the history of comics is so unfortunate, and the potential benefits so awesome, that every single company should be rigorously examining that part of what they do to see if they can do a better job. In the case of this site, I could do a better job ensuring I read and consider certain comics and cartoonists for coverage and review. In the case of companies that depend upon pitches for established creations, I think every one of them should have a specific program in place to ensure the broadest range of participation at that stage of things. Image could do more but it's a bit more problematic for them than I think it is for a lot of companies because they depend more than many of their most direct peers size- and genre-wise upon individuals taking initiative to set their publishing slate. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the nature of what they hope to publish and the way they approach institutional development given their basic set-up. That's not an excuse, but I think it should inform how we approach our criticism here. Image does a better job than most companies at diverse hires on the publishing end of things, and they've been a good partner for a multifaceted community of creators. Let's see if we can figure out ways for them to more aggressively participate in a culture-, community- and industry-wide problem.

* I thought the Scott Snyder book, Wytches, worth noting. He has a history with the company yet also seems perfectly happy with his burgeoning star treatment at DC Comics, something he's earned the old-fashioned way: by coming through on projects of increasing visibility in a way that not only pleased fans but made them notice him. With the increased wattage of Snyder's name comes greater attention on each and every individual choice of where to take what project. And it should be this way for him. Ditto that attention at least to some extent for the announcement of a Bill Willingham project, although I'm not sure I know what books he's done the big "I" or if he has, really. It should be interesting to see how the publisher balances established creators, Image-affiliated creators wanting to do more projects and finding new voices. That kind of second stage development did not go super-great at the publisher the first time they gained serious traction; it's a very different world and a very different set of circumstances now, though.

* I'm not sure that I saw a ton of material announced that I'm thinking about days later. Planet Bitch is a great title. One thing that Image can do now that they maybe couldn't do before is build enough of a line that retailers might be able to recommend another Image title to fans of a first. You can't force this, but I have to imagine that a reader enjoying Sex Criminals from their local comics shop might be a sales target for the relaunched Minimum Wage. The one book they've announced that I've liked a lot in a previous iteration is the newest volume of Matt Fraction's Casanova cycle that he does with the artists and cartoonists Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, along with Michael Chabon doing some writing there. I think that's Fraction's best work, and I think he's been doing work with the mainstream companies that may give him different skills to see to this latest series. It's also worth noting that this is another book that had opportunities to publish elsewhere. Whatever the hell Brandon Graham wants to do right now is perfectly all right with me. Let that guy get his Jan Strnad on if he wants, that's what I say. In fact, I know those kind of independent creators with some potential mainstream audience crossover don't grow on trees, but they might look to more actively develop anyone who can work in that same rough area -- one thing I heard from a lot of friends and peers about Image was variations of "everything they do is terrible except for Brandon Graham" which leaving the critical analysis part of that aide means they don't see a lot for themselves at that publisher. It seemed like Graham had more same-type peers 24 months ago.

* you can read a full account of new projects announced here.

* maybe the most important story overall for Image is the kind of thing that doesn't reported because of lack of novel news hook. But it seems to me that Image -- even working with only a half-year of ramp-up PR wise this time around -- has enough stuff of interest in the basic areas they pursue that they can continue to be an effective publishing force independent of the penetration of individual titles. As much as retailers and fans have bought into Image, there seem to be enough books that they can have that relationship with the publisher for the next several months moving forward. The fans that said in November "I collect a lot of Image books these days" shouldn't be left hanging in terms of being able to say that in March. I know how dumb that sounds from a certain perspective, but I'm a big believer that thresholds are important to comics.

* so God bless you Image Expo for putting comics and their creators front and center and making a bid deal of some publishing news and giving the comics readers of the Bay Area another event to attend and through which to interact with this great art form. I think given its half-year ramp up and nascent state it was executed fairly well. I'm not a fan of early January, but I can deal with regretting not being able to go and I'm not the primary audience here, anyway.
posted 1:55 am PST | Permalink

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