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July 15, 2012


CR Newsmaker Interview: Image Publisher Eric Stephenson, Part One

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imageI'm happy to make Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson the CR interview subject for Comic-Con Weekend 2012 -- both today and tomorrow.

I think Image Comics has had a fascinating year thus far. You could argue that the big news of this year's show is that publisher's resurgence in terms of individual comics' sales (Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard putting their Walking Dead at #1 for the month of the show), aggregate sales (a potential huge leap in market share by the end of 2012) and the supportive culture's imagination (creator-centric comics as a way to more sustainable, long-term profits and a bigger cut of individual efforts that hit with that audience).

Stephenson is the man on point for a lot of his company's recent success, and I appreciate how unafraid he's been to press issues in a way that could be seen as impolitic. We talked Friday afternoon a bit removed from the convention. I greatly appreciate his making the time for me. Due to poor time management on my part, this interview will appear in two parts and be archived as one. The second installment should appear tomorrow morning. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: When I look at what you're doing, I wonder how much you conceive of it in terms of a continuity and how much you conceive of it as a break with some of your predecessors. Because I see a lot of what's happening with Image now as a continuation of the policies Erik [Larsen] and even Jim [Valentino] were doing as far as focusing on creator-driven work and refocusing the line on those kinds of works as opposed to classic Image brands.

ERIC STEPHENSON: I see it both ways. I see it as a continuity in terms of what Jim and Erik were doing, and I see it as a continuation of the original purpose of Image was. That was to bring more people into the world of creator-owned comics. Those guys didn't just set out to make a company for themselves. They very much wanted it to be a lot of people joining them. I feel like... until a couple of years ago there was a major focus on finding new talent. What we're trying to do now is trying to get more well-known writers and artists to do work for us.

SPURGEON: What is something specific you bring to the table for that part of the mission, then? What is in your skill-set that makes you suited for this phase of what the company wants to do? Are you particularly suited for talent recruitment? Or maybe that package sells itself?

STEPHENSON: [laughs] I think it's a little bit of both. I think the package sells itself, and I think that having books like The Walking Dead and now Saga and things like that make it even easier for the package to sell itself. They're sterling examples of successful books. On the other hand, I'm not bashful of talking about what our strengths are and why I think it's important it's important to do new, creator-driven comics. And I'm also not sorry for talking about that.

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SPURGEON: There's an idea I've heard floated where the Image model is being pushed as a positive, as a positive way to go at the issues out there swirling around in terms of creative rights. That it's nice to have Image there -- Ed Brubaker and I talked about this a bit -- to point towards in terms of there being a model that works in a way that gets around some of these issues. It may not work for everybody, but it's a model that works. Do you feel like Image provides an answer to some of the questions out there, at least for the creators you're bringing in?

STEPHENSON: For some of the questions and some of the creators. I don't think it works for everybody. There are guys I've talked to that are very happy to do other people's characters. They're like, "I love these characters. It's been my lifelong dream to draw and/or write these characters. I'm happy doing this. I think it's great what you guys do, but it's not for me." Obviously for those guys, they might draw an Invincible someday or something, but we don't work for them. But for people that do have other aspirations than drawing or writing their favorite characters, I think we offer an important option.

SPURGEON: Given the nature of your writing on creator's rights topics, do you think you have an impact by virtue of existing? That the model is there as an alternative, is there a positive effect on how they're being treated because there is that option? Do you think about it in those terms.

STEPHENSON: I do -- well, yes and no. From the time Image was formed in 1992, a lot of changes were made at Marvel and DC as a result. Like Icon would not exist without Image Comics. That absolutely would not be there now. It is a reaction to what we do. Some of the deals in terms of page rates and what people are offered at Marvel and DC is I think very much in response to the fact of Image. In the '90s, different Image people were paying a lot of money to come and work on stuff. Marvel and DC responded. I think it changed the playing field. On the other hand, things have almost become worse in other respects.

Let's just go Before Watchmen. There was a detente between Alan and DC that seems to have chipped away over the last several years. That's obviously because there are different people in charge at Warner Brothers and DC. Look at something like that you can't say that creator's rights have advance to the point where that couldn't happen, because it did. If you look at what's going on with the Kirby Family and their ongoing battle with Marvel, we're almost outside of that. It's not like that somehow Marvel has been guilted into treating them any differently. So there are things that have improved because of Image, but at the same I think there's still a lot of stuff that needs improvement.

SPURGEON: Maybe you can speak to this directly, because you work at a company that has made firm decisions to treat their creators a certain way. And you're a company, a business, you're not set up in order to fail. I imagine you're making these decisions with a positive outcome in mind just like any other company. I wonder if you could speak to that defense that is made that companies have to do these things because all companies are by their nature perpetual exploitation machines.

STEPHENSON: This is one of my favorite things to talk about. If you go back to Before Watchmen, and people say, "Warner Brothers is a company and how do you expect them to act? They're in business to make money, they own this property, what do you expect them to do? Just not exploit it?" I think that's a ridiculous argument. One, Ed brought this up in his interview, but DC trumpeted Watchmen as an advance in creator's rights. The book was more successful than anyone ever imagined: Alan, Dave, the people at DC at that time. They decided, "Okay, we have this loophole here and we're going to keep this forever."

You would have to talk to Alan directly, but my perspective from what I know about him and what I know about Dave and what I know about the situation is I think if DC had gone to them at the time and said, "Here's where we are. We said we were going to give this back to you at a certain point. Now we're in a situation where that doesn't make any sense. Let's find a work-around for this." I tend to think those guys would have been more receptive to that than just, "Hey, we're going to make sure you never get this back."

That would have served both Alan and Dave's purposes, and the company's purposes. I think it's possible to be -- for want of a better word -- a moral company. You can make money without fucking everybody over at the same time.

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SPURGEON: I want to ask after Walking Dead #100 selling in astounding numbers. I wondered if you could talk about the cooperation from retailers on that. It's not like just putting product out there, just putting out what people want, automatically means the market is going to respond. There has to be some building of a relationship between Image and retailers. Have you done work that you think is paying off now that the numbers are as high as they are? The Saga numbers have been pretty incredible, too.

STEPHENSON: In terms of outreach... I think we have a good relationship with retailers, but like with Walking Dead: we've done a really good job of keeping the books in print. In terms of building a relationship with retailers, they've got something they can sell, and we're making sure we can get it to them. There are numerous incidents since trade paperbacks have become a driving force in the market where something big hits and then it's out of print almost immediately, for whatever reason there was not a large enough quantity. I think we've managed Walking Dead really well in terms of just making it sure if you want it in paperback, hardcover, whatever, you can get them. The retailers can order Walking Dead with confidence.

In terms of Saga, I got to the ComicsPro thing, we sit and retailers tell us... I always ask them, "How can we help you?" Everyone has a different opinion. With out books in particular, I think they don't want to be on the hook for stuff. There have been incidents in the past where they've been burned. In the very early days, things were ordered with wild abandon, and they came back and bit not just retailers but the whole industry on the ass. They wanted to know how we determine what the sure things are. Obviously, you put Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples on a book that's a textbook sure thing, but there are book we've done in the past with big names on them that didn't do well. They needed reassurance. Listening to the feedback from retailers, the thing we came up with was, "We're going to make the first three issues returnable if you order them at a certain level."

On paper, it's a really little thing. But I think it helped a lot of people say, "I'm going to take a greater interest in this, because I won't be on the hook for this."

[Part Two Will Appear Tomorrow; I Apologize For This, And Hope You'll Stick With Us]

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* Eric Stephenson's Blog
* Image Comics

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* image from Glory #25
* Image anniversary logo
* photo of Stephenson this weekend by me
* three of the books featuring high-profile mainstream comics writers: Fatale, The Manhattan Projects, Saga
* three more high-profile series for the company: Morning Glories, Chew, America's Got Powers
* three different formats for Walking Dead
* from the effective ad series
* from Prophet bottom
* cover image for Glory

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