Image Comics kicked off Comic-Con International: San Diego 2014 early with a special presentation held over at the neighboring Hilton Bay Front hotel on Wednesday. With press, retailers, creators, and some select early-arrival fans on hand, Image held the first (unofficial) panel of the entire convention on the afternoon of what's traditionally just Preview Night.
With the promise of new series, new creators, and a boatload of announcements, Image filled a ballroom to start the show.
After filling the ballroom in the Hilton Bay Front to near capacity, the panel began, with a large selection of comic book creators sitting to the left of the stage and The Smiths playing.
Eric Stephenson, publisher of Image Comics took the stage, thanking attendees.
"It's always good to start a speech with a joke. A week ago I woke up to learn that the comic industry was storming San Diego with announcements of licensed series, gender-bending superheroes, and crossover events usually relegated to fanfiction; I texted a friend about it, and he said, 'It's only 10am, are you drunk?'"
"Sadly, this is what's become of the comic book industry. But that's the comic book industry of the past. We've invited you here today to talk about the future," Stephenson said.
"Hope is important to the future of comics. I know that because every time I approve a book at Image, I hope that it will break through the hundreds of comics that are still doing the exact same thing comics have done for decades. Back at what was more or less the midway point of the 20th Century, comics were basically doomed. Television made comics almost obsolete. But thanks to just a handful of men's work, they saw a future.
"We wouldn't be celebrating comics this week at what has become a huge cultural event without them. Without students who want to write and draw comics their own way, there won't be a tomorrow. You see, you have to fight for the future.
"One of the questions I get asked is how to provide more diversity in comics. They've been viewed as a boys' club, but thankfully that's changing. The industry was set up as a place for young white men, and thus the readers were young, white men. Now we need to appeal to as wide an audience as possible - people won't wake up and decide they want to work in this business if we're not appealing to them. We can't change the comics of the past, but we can make a better future now, by changing now.
"Change is integral to our future. Accepting things as they are isn't moving forward, that's standing still. Over the course of 2014, Diamond has reported that sales are down this year. Down is the direction you go if you stand still for too long. That's why at Image Comics, we have an ongoing policy that's based on two simple words: Move Forward."
While the Comics Industry is down this year, Image Comics is way up, and having "one of our best years ever." With considerably growth every year for the last several, Stephenson would like to see the industry change to follow their lead.
A video was shown with several Image Comics creators asked to describe it in one word, and many said, simply, "Freedom."
The video featured creators like Erik Larsen, Matt Fraction, Rick Remender, Brian K. Vaughan, and many more, talking about how they get to create at Image. "We just say, this is what we'd like," said writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, "and they say, 'Well it's your book, so okay!'"
The creators pointed out that while other companies say they have creator-owned deals, "no one beats the deal at Image Comics."
"In an ideal world, we would just suck in all the talent, and everyone would be doing their own books," Larsen finished the video with. "I think the world would be a better place, and really, that's what I'm after."
Stephenson retook the stage and said that at ComicsPro a while back, he "ruffled a lot of feathers. And I can't imagine I'm making a lot of friends with our competitors today.
"No matter what anyone else says, or how offended anyone gets, I'll never back down from the position that comic books are more than just marketing materials for movies, toys, and video games," he said to applause. "But those artists doing those are way too talented to say they're not putting out the best licensed comics possible. No matter how good, or how great those comics may be, though, they're not the future of comics.
"Many other companies have started to take a bigger look at creator-owned comics. But so often, many of the books they're publishing are so not creator-owned that they've created the new term creator-driven."
Going back to the ComicsPro meeting, he mentioned a panel with four other competitors, and one said that creator-owned comics don't matter to the comics buying public, with another saying it's most important that they're creator-driven.
"Creator-owned isn't a sexy term. Creator-driven though? That's the past speaking, as it hangs on by a thread. The mistakes my colleagues make is that creator-owned isn't a term coined for consumers: it does matter to the men and women writing and drawing comics. The difference is that one of those terms is double speak for an industry standard, while the other is something real and worth fighting for."
"Comic creators know the difference between getting a good deal and getting the shit end of the stick. That's why we'll continue publishing comics without asking creators for the lion's share of their profits or even 1% of their rights." Under Stephenson, their market share has grown from 3.67% to over 10%. "Creator owned comics are the future. Thanks," he concluded.
With that, Rick Remender was the first creator to take the stage. The pair talked about Black Science, which Remender said is "one of the best-looking comics in the world," praising his artists. Deadly Class drew lots of applause as well, and Low comes out this week.
"Instead of having a third kid, I told my wife I'd be doing more comics," Remender said. "The opportunities afforded to me now are too good to pass up. The next project is Tokyo Ghost with Shawn Murphy." 6 or 7 pages will be shown on USAToday.
The preview art shown (We'll have some later here as well) shows a mash-up of art types that are "playing with ideas like Judge Dredd, Lobo, and the action movies I grew up with in the 80s," Remender said. "A constable and his assistant in the New Islands of Los Angeles are the law - as described by the media companies who control the area. It deals with the digital lives and how they affect people. It's also a lot of incredible violence and gore, and things I haven't been able to dig into." Tokyo Ghost comes out in 2015.
Next is a project from Brandon Graham's 8House series of books, by Marian Churchland, Claire Gibson, and Sloane Leong. The book is called From Under Mountains. "All the stories within this universe will be linked, but we're not going to reveal how just yet." The fantasy story "takes place in a isolated country, both politically and geographically. Our main characters are Elena, a daughter of a lord, Fisher, a disgraced Knight, and Tova a runaway thief who's from the lower classes. They'll all become entangled in the struggle for power and political supremecy."
Co-writers Churchland and Gibson went to high school together and made comics then, "that weren't very good! But we had a lot of fun." They joked that their new project is "slightly less rebelious but much more satisfying." Leong was approached by Brandon Graham and was familiar with the writers' work. Also coming Spring 2015.
Joe Casey was next to the stage, sporting sunglasses indoors. He has a new series at Image next year with Paul Mayberry called Valhalla Mad. "Three lovable Gods just here to have a good time" is the tagline. "Gods come to Earth to have some fun and the world is a little different than they remember," Casey teased. "I wouldn't have a story if things didn't go awry! They do go awry. it's about the price of immortality. I love Kirby's Thor, and this was my opportunity to do my kind of Thor comic. There's a famous splashpage of Thor in a malt shop, and I looked at that and said 'That is f*cking excellent.' and based the whole pitch off of that.
"Writing the faux-Shakespearean is a nightmare, but I did it and commited to it. We're looking at early 2015. It's a good time, Paul is a fantastic artist, and beyond the inspiration we're telling a story using the language of those old Kirby Thors."
"Do you guys like Hellboy and BPRD?" Stephenson asked. John Arcudi and James Harren are doing a book called Rumble, described as "a scarecrow Conan fighting in a world like Louie as directed by David Fincher."
Ray Fawkes took a place on the stage, and he's doing his first Image book this fall, Intersect. "I think Image is the only company that exists that's not afraid to pring this book. It's a complicated nightmare mystery horror story. If you were to watch a story like Twin Peaks from inside the Black Lodge." Fawkes is painting and writing the book. One of the main characters is "growing backwards out of another person's body."
Tom Neely and Keenan Marshall Keller, as well as a colorist unidentified (Christina ?) took the stage next. They're doing a series called The Humans with Image. "We had planned on self publishing it. Luckily, Chris Brownstein mentioned it to you and we're doing it with Image now!" Neely said. The team collaborates on the book considerably, as they've both written and drawn comics on their own. A zero issue is available at the SDCC Image booth, that takes place a year before the series launches.
Next were Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, who have collaborated on Planet of the Apes and Star Wars for other publishers. The pair are working on a couple of things for Image, including a collection of Hardman's digital-first book Kinski, a "comedy drama about a guy who steals a puppy, and all of the terrible consequences that befall him after that."
Invisible Republic is co-written by the duo and drawn by Hardman. "It's a secret history of the rise to power of a revolutionary hero off on some little planet a long way away in the future. It's all told through the point of view of his female cousin who was expunged from history because she knew too much," he described. "This is her memoir that lays out her complicated history that no one ever knew." Bechko said that every stage is done together when they collaborate. Invisible Republic is planned as an ongoing series with five-issue arcs. "It's a passion project for us," said Hardman. "We've been spending years thinking about it and working on it. It's a huge opportunity to do something that's 100% ours." They said that the enormity of Science Fiction, with technology and futuristic worlds is just "dressing" to a "very human story." Spring 2015 for that series.
A pair of artists who are collaborating came out next, with Becky Cloonan and Andy Balanger taking the stage. The usually-artists are doing a scifi ongoing called Southern Cross, a "horror scifi. It's about a woman named Alex, who's on board a ship called the Southern Cross, on her way to Titan, a refinery moon of Saturn. Her sister has just died, and the journey is the catalyst for what happens on the ship. It starts as an Agatha Christie style mystery, but builds and builds into something really weird," Cloonan said.
She is writing for Belanger with colors by Chankhamma, and said that writing for another artist is "an extension of what I have done with my mini-comics." It's coming Winter 2014. "It's kind of Robotech meets Stephen King," Belanger added.
Jeff Lemire came to the dais to announce a new Image Comics project, with Dustin Nguyen on art. Descender is about a boy robot who is stranded in space and is basically the most-wanted being in space. "It's a story of survival and trying to find a home," Lemire said. "It's a big, sprawling, fun, scifi story that Dustin is watercolor painting the whole thing himself."
The pair met at a panel in Emerald City about four years ago with Nguyen was late for a panel and Lemire had to move over for him, falling off the stage. There will "probably be some jamming" with Lemire doing an issue's art inbetween larger arcs, they also revealed. "Image was just exploding, and we wanted to be a part of it."
"It's not so much that I'm breaking away from Batman. It's just that the schedule on a monthly book doesn't allow me to prove my skills as a painter. Getting to paint more; you get to a point when you want to progress as an artist. So this I get to do that and draw robots!" Nguyen said. What's so great about robots? "It's just the crap I grew up with, man. They're awesome." Launching Spring 2015.
A longtime Image Comics collaborator, Ivan Brandon, stepped up next. "It's been a couple years!" he said. "I think we ahve the best project to bring back to Image Comics. It's a very daunting group of folks that have been on this stage and are still coming out." Brandon's new book will see him once again team with artist Nic Klein, who worked with him on Viking. The new series is Drifter. "I'll give you the drift. Sorry, that one really hurt me," Brandon joked. "We live on a planet that's not as infinitely scalable as we thought it would be. Eventually we'll have to move to different parts of the galaxy. Space is often presented as this glossy starched reality, and that's not really how a society is built. It's about the dirty hands that build the future. The frontier aspect of 'the new frontier' that hasn't been established quite as much in fiction. You can't really move a city through the vaccuum of space."
"We're really playing with the dirtier side of Science Fiction," Brandon said.
The next guest was Kurt Busiek. "It's taken us forever to work together," Stephenson said, emphasizing that they've talked about it for a few years. "Sometimes the comic industry moves at glacial speeds. Sometimes things take longer to happen than we'd like." Busiek is doing a series idea that he "came up with ten or more years ago, and this artist was born to draw it. It's everything he's wanted to draw all put together in one series." His name is Ben Dewey, and he joined the pair on stage. The book is called Tooth and Claw. "It's a big, sprawling high fantasy adventure epic about animal people," Busiek said. The cover features a Warthog Wizard. They're joined by Jordie Bellaire on colors and Comicraft on letters, as indicated by the cover.
In the story, "magic is fading away, and their whole society is built on magic. One wizard, our warthog from the cover, is going to reach back into the past, to a time before magic, and bring the "Great Champion" to the present so he can unleash magic again and fix all their problems. Things don't go well," Busiek said. "It's a globe-trotting adventure where our hero and his sidekick end up having to save the world in a completely different way than they set out to. They have to challenge the gods themselves."
"It spirals out from being careful what you wish for," said Dewey. "It allows for a lot of freedom and exploration." They're animal-people for a reason, Busiek teased, with a theme of "what is animalistic and what is civilized, and how do you tell the difference between the two?" The series launches November 5, 2014. They both praised Bellaire's color art, as she actually "demanded to color the book," they said. "It got really intense - in a good way," said Dewey.
One last announcement hit, with Stephenson saying "one of the coolest books to come out from elsewhere" is Moon Knight. The artist of that series, Declan Shalvey, was out last. He'll be drawing a series with a writer who "couldn't be here today. I don't think we need him, quite frankly," Shalvey joked. "We'll talk about his terrible personal problems, his various addiction issues. He's probably the worst person I can collaborate with" - and with that, Warren Ellis skyped in on the big screen.
The team is continuing to work together, this time on a creator-owned book for Image Comics! Ellis, who said "you can see me but I can't see you, so I assume you're all naked." Injection, coming April 2015 from Ellis, Shalvey, and Bellaire. "Does everyone know she's your better half?" Shalvey responded, "Why is she my better half? Maybe I'm the better half!" He said that he needs her to color his art "every time, even if we broke up I'd ask her to."
Ellis teased the series as, "Imagine five people for whom the world was not getting crazy enough, and decided to cause a way to make the world more interesting for them. Now they have to deal with the consequences." Ellis said they were "barely halfway into Moon Knight #1 and I knew it was going very, very well. We started talking immediately about doing something else. I think we went into talking then that we wanted to go to Image and do something that we owned."
"There were books I liked at Marvel and Moon Knight was something I was excited about. Then when Warren Ellis asked me if he could write a book for me, and I said, eh, I guess," Shalvey joked on stage while Ellis threatened him over the Skype call.
Another of Warren's collaborators, Tula Lotay of Supreme: Blue Rose from Image Comics (see our review in yesterday's Best Shots Advance), came up unexpectedly on stage. "Just the other day we were getting blown drunk on the Sunset strip, Tula!" Warren said. "He made me drink 12 shots of 15 year-old Irish whiskey," said Lotay, "Oh, I made you," joked Ellis. Stephenson said that Ellis likes Whiskey like he likes Red Bull, which Ellis joked he's cut down in favor of "the adrenaline from children."
With that, the first panel of SDCC came to a close.