Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson joined CBR's Jonah Weiland aboard the CBR Yacht at Comic-Con International 2012 following a jam-packed Image panel that featured announcement after announcement -- all of which involved top creators. Stephenson spoke about the allure of Image Comics and its current place in the industry, the incredible success of "The Walking Dead," the controversy surrounding "Before Watchmen" and how he measures success for the 20-year-old company.
At the panel that preceded this interview, Stephenson and Image Comics announced new projects from creators including Darick Robertson, Chris Roberson, James Robinson, Howard Chaykin, Matt Fraction, Joe Casey, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Greg Rucka, J. Michael Straczynski, and Stephenson himself, amongst others. While last year's biggest announcement was "Saga" by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Stephenson said "a lot of this stuff moves at a different pace," in terms of when the creators and Image first discuss projects and when they actually become a reality. He cited "Saga" as an example of a book that took nearly ten years from the time Stephenson started working with Image and talking with BKV to it becoming one of their titles.
"We have a lot of great men and women doing work for us right now," Stephenson said of Image's current and upcoming slate. "We have a very progressive business model that other publishers don't have, but bottom line -- it's the creators that sell the work, and their ideas and their hard work. I attribute almost 100% of [Image's] success to them."
As the conversation turned to Robert Kirkman's extremely successful comic book series turned hit television show, "The Walking Dead," Stephenson revealed that the book's 100th issue sold out of 382,000 print copies in addition to selling more than 10,000 digital editions via comiXology. But Stephenson doesn't see this as the end of the book's rise in pop culture.
"I think there are people who watch the show who still aren't entirely tuned into the fact that it's a comic book," Stephenson said. "For a lot of people it's, 'Oh, this is based on something else.' Not everybody rushes out immediately to grab that stuff -- A lot of those folks it's a slow build, and then when there's an event like #100, I think they're like, 'Okay, this is my opportunity to check this out.'"
Asked whether Image felt they needed to adjust their strategy now that "The Walking Dead" has become so big, Stephenson dismissed the idea, citing Image's creator-first mentality. "Based on the way that we deal with writers and artists we're not telling them what to do -- Having a TV show, I'm not going to lie, it's a huge advantage. It's a great way to reach more people."
One of the reasons for Image's tremendous success launching new properties the last couple years is due not only to the talent involved in the books, but also as a result of retailers taking chances on new material.
"They're taking a risk on a lot of independent comics, and a lot of creator-owned stuff, not just the stuff that we're doing. And I think that's because -- not to name names -- but there are other publishers out there who have gone back to the same well over and over and over again with the same type of events and the same stories," Stephenson said of Image's desire to innovate. "Some of us talk about the fact that it's like, 'Look, you're telling the same four stories over and over and over again.' If we want to just continue to eat our tail and do the same thing in repetition, ad infinitum, we can do that. Or we can keep pushing new stuff out there and that's how you get things like 'Walking Dead,' that's how you get things like 'Saga,' or 'Fatale,' or any of the new books we announced today.
Weiland then asked if Image has seen an appreciable bump due to the controversy surroundings DC Comics' "Before Watchmen" and other recent creator's rights issues and while Stephenson didn't draw any direct correlation, he did admit that it may have resulted in more attention paid to Image titles.
"I've been part of that debate [about 'Before Watchmen,'] and one of the sadnesses for me is that Image wasn't around back when Alan [Moore] and Dave [Gibbons] did 'Watchmen' because they wouldn't have been in the position they are today," Stephenson said. "I do think that participating in that debate and people talking about it does result in some readers who maybe weren't looking at creator-owned work before kind of taking a look at it."
While many independent publishers battle for market share as a point of pride, Stephenson takes a different approach. "Really the main thing I'm concerned with is how we do from year to year. Our biggest competitor is what we did the year before."
Growing up, Stephenson read nothing but Marvel Comics until the late '80s when he went to college, and when he returned to reading them it was again Marvel titles that brought him back in. Still, when he was named Image's Publisher four years ago, some creators and industry analysts worried his tastes were too "indie" to properly run Image. With plenty of successes under his belt, Stephenson feels he's dissuaded any doubters of that notion. "I have a huge enthusiasm for super heroes and for science fiction and all kinds of stuff, but the main thing is I love all kinds of comics. I am a comic book fan. I'm not a fan of a specific company, a specific genre -- I just like comics."