PIPELINE CELEBRATES IMAGE: DAY ONE
Welcome to the first of five Pipeline Daily columns this week dedicated to Image Comics. It'll be a real hodge podge of column, all centered on Image Comics, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a special hardcover book from the remaining Founding Fathers of the company.
This special week of columns was originally scheduled to coincide with the release of that hardcover. However, it looks like the book is running late and won't be appearing this week, after all. I should have seen that one coming, eh?
AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIC STEPHENSON
On Friday December 21st, 2001 a press release officially announced Eric Stephenson as Image Comics' new "Director of Marketing." The changing of the guard from Anthony Bozzi was immediate and noticeable. As Image Publisher Jim Valentino noted in the press release, "Since coming on board unannounced two weeks ago, he has sent out more press releases than we've issued in the last six months..."
Stephenson was gracious enough to answer some questions to help clarify his role with the company and what he hopes to accomplish through it.
"I'm going to be doing a lot of the same stuff Bozzi was doing," Stephenson said, referring to his predecessor, Anthony Bozzi. "But there will be a substantially greater focus on the Internet. I'm going to be involved in the Image Website, and I'll be working to establish more of a presence for Image on the various message boards that are out there. Developing better relationships with both retailers and the fan press (both online and off) is a pretty big priority. The short answer would probably be that my job is to increase awareness of Image Comics both within the comics industry and beyond."
IMAGE AND THE INTERNET
The power of the Internet is a question that has been asked often in the past five years or so. In a day and age when an alarming number of comics sell below 10,000 copies an issue, it isn't that difficult to think that a popular enough web site or message board might be able to boost a struggling comics' sales to the point of profitability.
Stephenson defined what he saw as the Internet's role in the marketing of comics. "The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in terms of disseminating information, and it's really one of the quickest methods of building awareness not just for comics, but for any product. In terms of marketing, I think the Internet's greatest power lies in the fact that it's essentially a gateway into people's homes. We're able to create interest in a comic before it actually hits the stands, which is incredibly important given the sheer number of books on sale each month."
But is it enough on its own to be worthy of the time lavished on it?
"I don't know that I look at it specifically in those terms, but I do believe there are a significant number of comics readers online and that it's important to reach them," Stephenson said.
He raised an even more interesting distinction, though, when talking about the difference between fans and readers. "I think fans tend to be the more vocal participants in message boards, etc., while readers may simply be online seeking information about their favorite title or information on where to find a comic that isn't being carried at their local store. I tend to think there are more readers silently surfing the 'net than there are fans sounding off in the various comics forums, but regardless of that, we need to make sure that we help both of those groups find what they're looking for when they go online.
"We're going to continue to work closely with comics sites like CBR to provide readers with as much information about the various Image titles as possible. And, yeah, popping up on message boards plays a part in our online strategies as well. Answering questions and interacting with fans doesn't take a lot of effort, so that's really kind of a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned."
Take a look at the Image Comics message board here at CBR. Both Stephenson and Jim Valentino have been seen answering questions there recently.
The changes are hitting home, as well. Stephenson, whose no stranger to comic book web sites with his experiences at (the late) NextPlanetOver.com and SpinnerRack.com, is working on an overhaul of the Image Comics web site. And, he says, you can expect to see the results fairly soon. "I think we're currently on schedule for an early March launch. It's going to be a much cleaner site when all is said and done, much easier to navigate and with much better content. We're going to be featuring more preview material, interviews and news.
"I know Jim has always made himself available to the fans via the Image site, and as far as I know, he's one of the only publishers actually doing that. It's a pretty simple gesture, but I think it's important to stay in contact with the people reading the books."
Of course, there's more to marketing comics than talking on the Internet. For Image, that includes maintaining a strong position in the more "mainstream" venues in the hopes of creating new comics readers. "We've established relationships with magazines like Publisher's Weekly," Stephenson was quick to point out, "and we're going to be appearing at the BEA (Book Expo America) later this year. We're also going to be visiting the ALA (American Library Association) conference in June -- a number of Image graphic novels have been nominated for YALSA awards and Colleen Doran (creator of A DISTANT SOIL) has been invited as one of the speakers at the show. Getting coverage of Image titles into mainstream print mags is a priority, too, but I think it's something we need to approach from the proper perspective. It's important to pick the right material for the right magazines -- you don't just toss everything at everyone. Different publications cater to different interests and part of what we're looking to do over the months to come is identify the ones that work best for each individual project."
BEHIND THE SCENES AT IMAGE
There's more to working at Image Central than just putting out the word to everyone who will listen. There's also the matter of choosing books for publication from the home office. This is something that happens under Jim Valentino's watch, but not without the assistance of everyone else at the office.
"Jim uses EVERYONE at Image Central as a sounding board. We have a staff meeting once a week," said Stephenson, "and Jim actively seeks everyone's opinion when it comes to bringing in new titles. I think that's one of Jim's many strengths as publisher. I wouldn't say that I have any more or any less input than Anthony [Bozzi] did or than anyone else has, but I can say that Jim and I tend to think in pretty similar terms when it comes to comics. We don't have identical tastes, but we do like a lot of the same things and so far, we've had a lot of fun batting different ideas around."
The exact process for choosing which titles to publish varies from book to book. Blind submissions are handled at weekly staff meetings, where Valentino spreads the submissions across the table and the Image staff debates each book's merits. It doesn't stop there, of course. Stephenson explained, "Beyond that, there's a fair amount of discussion throughout the week about potential new projects and things we'd like to see happen in terms of the publishing schedule."
There's plenty of material to look over, too. Stephenson couldn't put an exact number on it, but could only say the number was great. "Many of them are from young artists and writers looking to break into the field -- those generally come through the mail. Proposals from established creators are another process altogether. That generally starts with a phone call or an email to Jim, or myself, in some cases, and then goes through a pitch, which is usually done via email or on the phone."
Stephenson has a history with Image. He served as editor in Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios, and has written or scripted a number of Image books, mostly through that studio. It's something, Stephenson said, that has helped in his transition to his new role in marketing. "It's been a pretty smooth couple of months, and I'd say I owe a lot of that to the fact that I've worked with most of the folks here at Image Central before. I've known Jim for over 10 years at this point, Brent Braun (Image's production manager) was my assistant at Extreme, and I worked with Doug Griffith (Image's art director) on an almost daily basis when I was at Extreme. I understand how Image works having been part of the company, albeit in a different way, before, and I think that's been incredibly helpful."
STEPHENSON THE SCRIPTER
The move to Image editorial meant that Stephenson had to clear his schedule, in part by relinquishing day-to-day operations at the web site of his creation, SpinnerRack.com. While he doesn't rule out the possibility of doing some writing for the web site in the future, he's turned over the "day-to-day supervision" to Allen Hui and Bronwyn Jones. Stephenson added, "It's always been kind of a joint effort, so it won't really be that big of a change." He has plans to continue writing editorial columns for the web site, but has no start date on it yet. He wants to pack away a few columns before starting, to ensure a proper schedule.
What of his comics writing? Stephenson didn't rule anything out, and he does have plans of his own moving forward now. While he's done much of his comics work scripting others' plots (most recently in THE DEFENDERS and FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD'S GREATEST COMICS MAGAZINE), he feels the itch to write his own material, as he did for NEW MEN.
"It's probably too soon to really announce anything," Stephenson announced, "but I'm in the early stages of developing a new project with a wonderful artist with whom I've done a lot of work in the past. And this would definitely be through Image, not just because I happen to work here right now, but because I really believe Image is a great place for ANY creator to be. I'm a pretty firm believer in the value of creator-owned work and that remains, to this day, one of the cornerstones of the Image deal. There are certainly other publishers doing creator-owned work -- and doing it well -- but none of them really approach it from the same standpoint as Image."
Pipeline Daily continues its celebration of Image's 10th anniversary tomorrow with a look at Chris Claremont's early contributions to the company, and how it was almost much larger.
Then on Wednesday (and probably Thursday, as well), I'll hit the time machine for a look at the earliest years of Image. I'll be flipping through the solicitations for the first three or four years of the company. Stop here and take a look at the connections, the projects that never were, the projects that changed mid-stream, and some of the wackiness that drove people up walls.
More than 350 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.