Founded twenty years ago by a group of artists following their creative passions, Image Comics has reclaimed its mantle in the last few years as the home of innovative creator-owned comics. Friday at New York Comic Con, "Three" and "Phonogram" writer Kieron Gillen, "Revival" writer Tim Seeley, "Umbral" writer Antony Johnston, "Ghosted" writer Joshua Williamson, "Deadly Class" artist Wes Craig, "Zero" and "Change" writer Ales Kot, "Glory" reboot writer Joe Keatinge (who joined near the end of the panel), "Pretty Deadly" writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (who also came in late), and "Reality Check" writer Glen Brunswick hosted a panel to let fans in on the secrets behind their most acclaimed work.
"I was sitting on the 405," Brunswick said of the origins of "Reality Check," "and I started thinking about what kind of trouble I'd be in if my creations came to life." The story focuses on a Batman-like character who comes to life, causing the popular comic book creator to forget the story, and he must "coax the character back into the comic."
Johnston spoke of re-teaming with "Wasteland" artist Chris Mitten. The inspiration for "Umbral" came from a practice sketch Mitten posted to Instagram, leading to "a dark fantasy series about these shadow creatures called the Umbral."
Seeley said "Revival" was "inspired by spite." "After 'Hack/Slash,' people said, 'you're that guy, the titty guy.,'" Seeley said. He, too, was inspired by his art partner, Mike Norton, who is a studiomate at Four Stars Studio. "He draws real people really well," Seeley said, leading to a more grounded "rural noir" tale.
Williamson said he loves haunted houses even though he's scared of them, so he set up "Ocean's Eleven in a haunted house." "What's exclusive to a haunted house? The ghost." So, the team have to sort out how to steal a ghost.
Kot said he's looking to start with a more grounded world in "Zero" and then build up the world, "experiment and have fun."
For Gillen, his inspiration began simply enough: "I was drinking." Coming home, he read Frank Miller's "300." "It's a very good comic, but I was drunk and unreasonable," he said. After reading the inspirational speech about "free men," "I thought, 'Fuck off--you hunted your own slaves!" "Three" tells the tales of Sparta that "tend to be washed out."
Kot asked Gillen if there was an Occupy Wall Street connection, but Gillen said "it was well before then." Kot said he saw Gillen's story as "a great sociological exploration, but Michael Bay could direct that."
Gillen continued by saying he wanted to tell the Spartan slaves' tale, as they are essentially forgotten from the contemporary histories--except, once, as a punchline.
Kot: "Also, what were you drinking?" Gillen: "I was drinking everything!" He added that he was "method drinking" during "Phonogram," since so much took place in a nightclub.
For "Deadly Class," Craig said he alternated styles for different types of scenes, and enjoyed "drawing a lot of mullets." He used a lot of reference for "the '80s" stuff, for the Victorian schools, and the different styles of characters.
Williamson said he gives his artists not so much direct reference as, "this should inspire you."
"Chris and I have worked together for almost ten years," Johnston said of Mitten. "I don't really give him reference--I know what he likes to draw." And for "Umbral," "there was no need for reference because so much of it takes place in--well, I don't want to give it away."
"I've seen every damn hack movie, I didn't have to do research," Seeley said of "Hack/Slash." "For 'Revival,' it's based on my home town, so whenever I go back there I write it off on taxes." But, when he does research, "if someone looks up your Google search history, they'll be horrified. The things you have to look up on a daily basis."
"There's a danger as a writer of going down the research rabbit hole," Johnston said, "and you feel like you can't start writing until you've done the research."
"Oh yeah," Seeley said, asked if that happens to artists. "And then you're no longer doing research, you've got a new hobby."
Gillen said there are few pictures of Helots, the Spartan slaves, "so you think, what the hell are these people going to wear?"
Asked what he uses for research other than Google images, Gillen joked, "I use these things called books." He added, though, that the nature of "Three" required him to search a lot of obscure academic journals.
"Research never stops," Kot said. "For my previous book 'Change,' I had more than 200 pages of notes, I used maybe twenty. For 'Zero,' it's the same thing--anything that might relate to my subject." But, he said, "I don't let it stop me writing." He added that he got an email from a secret service agent who enjoyed his work and recommended additional research books.
Brunswick said he sometimes got "bogged down" in research. "If I need to write a cop scene, I have to watch a whole movie," he said. Brunswick added that he had to go clubbing for research, and Gillen added he did the same thing for "Phonogram," which was based in real clubs.
"Quite of lot of scenes take place in the toilets, so I was spending a lot of time in the toilets looking for excuses to take pictures."
Craig said that Rick Remender did not recommend any music for "Deadly Class," but he found "modern music that sounds like '80s" most useful. "A lot of that stuff is more '80s than '80s music."
Williamson said he didn't do a lot of research for "Ghosted," but he used bits of conversation from his own life to bring some of the characters to life.
Kot asked Williamson if anything supernatural had happened to him. "Yes, but I have this thing, I'll tell you a ghost story but if you me one I'll roll my eyes--I won't believe you."
Working with artist Ryan Kelly for the first time, Gillen said "I had a crush on his artwork--I've loved it since 'Local.'"
Kot, who is working with a different artist for each issue of "Zero," said getting what he wants involves "getting the right artist and letting them do what they want."
Johnston said that, getting pages back from Mitten, "they're exactly what you asked for--but better." He said that ideally this will happen at some point with a frequent collaborator.
Whereas Williamson has only met "Ghosted" artist Goran Sudzuka, Seeley shares a studio with Mike Norton. Still, he doesn't look over Norton's shoulder and Norton doesn't ask before making changes--"I see it all at once."
After Keatinge joined the other panelists on stage, the floor was opened to questions.
Asked about breaking in advice, Keatinge said simply to make comics. "Everybody up here did that, and for a long time people didn't care," but eventually people noticed. Kot added not to self-censor, while Johnston recommended simply having characters "talk to each other like adults" to get through writer's block. Seeley encourage the fan, who was African American, to keep it up because "there are way too many white dudes up here."
Craig said that "commercially, it's better to have one recognizable style" rather than flipping between influences. But then "I have side projects for myself" that can be drawn however he likes.
Johnston added that changing colorists might help artists "to not get bogged down in a style," allowing them to "look completely different."
Continuing on the theme, Craig said there is good reason to adjust style for a certain genre, "but people want to know what they're going to get" when they see a certain artist's name in the credits.
Kot said that, though people see Image as experimental, "I don't think that's true anymore; I think we're mainstream, in a good way. In a way that allows us to be experimental."
Kelly Sue Deconnick also joined the panel at this point.
Asked whether his "Three" research would be published, Gillen said his historical advisor may in fact publish something about the creation of the series in an academic journal. Keatinge suggested a volume similar to the "From Hell Companion" would be interesting for "Three."
DeConnick said that asking Emma Rios to work on "Pretty Deadly" with her "was a bit like asking someone to the prom." Rios suggested a Western. "I'd heard somewhere that artists don't like drawing horses and Westerns don't sell," DeConnick said, but Rios "gave me a look that was like, 'oh, you got punked, and you believed it.'"
She added that she uses "mind maps" to sort out storyideas, a device which consists of "vomiting all of your ideas onto paper," and which she now does digitally.
Asked about experiences with other publishers, Kot laughed, leaning back and loosening his tie. Johnston added that "the joy and the challenge of Image that you stand or fall on your own two feet." Keatinge said he really enjoys his Marvel work, but his creator owned works allow him to follow any path he likes. "I can't permanently turn the Hulk into a T-Rex," he said.
"There's nothing in the rest of the entertainment industry like Image Comics," Seeley said, referring to the broad creative control. Johnston added, "Somebody approves it [to publish], and once that's done it's all up to you."