EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier edit of this report stated that Antony Johnston's "The Fuse" is a miniseries. The title is actually an ongoing series.
Thought Bubble's "Image Comics: Independence in the U.K.!" panel, moderated by publisher Eric Stephenson, saw a group of creators take to the stage Saturday to talk about their current work at the company, and the overall importance of creator-owned comics. Joining Stephenson onstage were Antony Johnston, Fiona Staples, Richard Starkings, Brandon Graham, Ales Kot and Ming Doyle.
Johnston kicked things off with a discussion of his two new Image titles, "Umbral" and "The Fuse." He pitched "Umbral," which features art by Christopher Mitten, to the crowd as "'Dark Crystal' meets 'Saga.'" It's whimsical, but also "sweary and violent." Pointing out that there's a map in issue #1, he said Warren Ellis once told him that if he sees a map on the first page of a story, he puts the book down. With that in mind, Johnston jokes, he put his map on page 6.
Johnston's new ongoing title "The Fuse" was described as "what if 'Homicide' were set on 'Battlestar Galactica?'" It's a murder mystery set on a falling-apart space station orbiting Earth, and will be drawn by Justin Greenwood.
Fiona Staples spoke on her and writer Bryan K. Vaughan's "Saga," which just reached issue #16. She said that the creative freedom they'd been given by Image was astounding, which led to Johnston briefly mentioning the controversy surrounding the series' 12th issue involving comiXology and Apple.
Starkings has now been working on "Elephantmen" for seven years, recently reaching 50 issues of the series. He said that news on the movie would hopefully be coming soon, and that artist Shaky Kane will be penciling upcoming issues.
Brandon Graham currently writes and does layouts for the acclaimed "Prophet." The soon-to-end ongoing will be followed by a 6- or 7-issue miniseries titled "Prophet: Earthwar."
Ales Kot began by noting that his first work at Image, "Wild Children," came out a year and four months ago, prompting Stephenson to congratulate him on his year and four month anniversary. His new series, "Zero," is pitched as "what if James Bond realized he was working for the wrong side?" and features a different artist on each issue. He also has his graphic novels "Quiet" and "The Surface" in the works.
Ming Doyle just finished work on "Mara," with Brian Wood and Jordie Bellaire. The miniseries, about a professional volleyball player in a world where athletes are major stars, follows the title character as she develops super-powers, and becomes "the Superman of her world." This also allows the story to work in an allegory about the modern aspects of disposable popular culture.
Kot, hearing that she had finished work on "Mara," seized the moment and asked if she'd like to do an issue of "Zero," to which Doyle replied with a "Yes."
Stephenson asked the panel what they felt was the benefit of doing creator-owned work at Image. Johnston noted that, interestingly, most of the people on the panel were best known for their creator-owned work rather than their work-for-hire projects. Staples said "Saga" was the first big ongoing project she'd ever done -- prior to "Saga," she mostly worked on fill-ins and one-shots. She feels she is doing her best work now, on characters she owns.
Johnston added that British comics had always encouraged creator-owned work over work for hire. Starkings agreed, saying that 2000 AD encourages creators to create their own characters, rather than pitching Judge Dredd stories. "I think Image have stolen Vertigo's audience" over the last few years, as they have more freedom, Starkings noted, not just in terms of story, but in the way Image creators can choose colorists, pick the paper stock and so on.
Kot works for both Marvel and Image currently, and Stephenson asked about the differences he finds. Kot said that he has great editors at Marvel who gave him a relative creative freedom, but he always keeps in mind, "Will DC or Marvel care about me in five years time? Probably not."
Starkings said he feels Robert Kirkman was the first of the "Image generation" -- creators who grew up reading Image Comics and now make them.
Stephenson asked the panel what comics they read when they were younger. Doyle read a lot of fantasy, manga and adventure books, but didn't read mainstream comics. Her main understanding of superheroes came from watching the "X-Men" cartoons.
Staples also cited watching the popular '90s cartoon, saying she started reading comics she was given by her parents -- characters like Tintin and Archie. She ultimately moved towards Top Cow comics, picking up books filled with "bikinis and big guns." One of the books she read a lot of was "Aphrodite IX," about a robot assassin with bright green hair. This led the panel to question the wisdom of an assassin having such noticeable hair, with Staples defending the character. "She's a robot! She doesn't need to be stealthy!"
Graham said he was raised in a comic-friendly family, though his mother read Spider-Man while his brother read "Heavy Metal" and Robert Crumb and read a lot of Moebius. He liked the idea that comics were being made all round the world, with different cultures and perspectives referenced in them.
As a child, Kot had been seriously ill at one point, eventually finding himself hospitalized. As he lay in bed, he was given some Donald Duck comics -- a transformative moment for him, as he described being "transported away from my reality" as he read them. He also listed reading reprints of Roger Stern's "Amazing Spider-Man" and "2000 AD." Interestingly, he said that Lobo was also a very popular character in the Czech Republic as he was growing up.
Starkings' brother had a collection of 7,000 comics, though he stored the DC comics on a shelf too high for Starkings to reach. He read books like "The Perishers," "Countdown" and the work of John Bolton. Johnston added "Modesty Blaise" to that list, which Starkings nodded to, before saying, "Hey -- this is my turn!" Johnston later listed British influences like "The Beano," "The Dandy," "Battle," and "2000 AD" alongside Vertigo comics like "Preacher" and "Transmetropolitan."
Asked what they would like to see more of in current comics, Doyle said she'd like more genre exploration, referencing the style of Japanese manga which is slower and quieter in pace.
Kot said that he didn't like comics where you can sense the plotting and craft pushing readers forwards -- what he referred to as "screenplay structure" -- which he feels kills off the unpredictability.
Graham said he wanted to see more individual outlooks on the world, more diversity among creators who could then offer unique perspectives on life. Image now has the eyes of the world looking at them, and it's been great to see creators pick and choose from established genres and rearrange the pieces into new stories and concepts. Kot agreed, saying he liked how many of Image's books "transcend genre."
Staples followed on from this by saying she'd like to see more comics being made by people who don't have a background in comics -- people who have no knowledge of the established tropes or preexisting stories, and do completely new work which has no reference to the comics of the past. She described this as "people who don't have a Spider-Man story: they just have a story." Graham agreed, saying, "they'd be inventing their own comics language, reinventing the wheel, so to speak."
Starkings likes to see commitment from creators when creating characters. Hergé stuck to Tintin as a character very closely and for decades, for example. "[It's] easy to launch and new series and see it as a movie pitch," he said, but he prefers to see somebody commit to a character for a long-term.
Johnston said he would like to see more "normal" genres represented in comics. Police stories, romances, comic-of age books. He believes "superheroes shouldn't be the comics mainstream" and likes to see when creators take familiar genres and flip them on their heads, doing something unique in the comics medium. He feels it is important to move away from superheroes as the mainstream, and he liked when creators took that familiarity and flipped it.
A question was asked about the lack of sports comics available, which led Stephenson to say he wished there were a baseball series out there. Graham believes comics are still working on the "sports fans vs. indoor kids" idea, which pushes the concept of a separation between sports fans and comics fans.
Asked if Image had plans for any more all-ages comics, Johnston said that his very first work for Image was an all-ages series, but nobody bought it. The series lasted only a few issues before the lack of sales meant the book ended. Stephenson said that he'd spoken to Waterstones recently, asking why they don't stock all-ages comics alongside the children's fiction. He was told, "That's not what the parents want," an answer he found particularly unsatisfying.
Stephenson fielded the next question which asked why Image continued to hold on to the monthly single issue format. The reason is mainly due to retailers not readily supporting other formats. Image is open to these other formats, but he's found that when attempted, they're met with retailer apathy.
Kot closed the panel, pointing out that his first Image work was a 64-page graphic novel. Image didn't ask him to cut it into three 20-page issues, as it wouldn't have worked well as a story. Luckily, the decision to release the graphic novel proved to be a success, justifying that creative decision.