Eric Stephenson: Talking to the New Image Publisher

Eric Stephenson, Image Publisher

A little over a week ago, Image Comics saw a change.

Publisher Erik Larsen stepped down from the position, and Executive Director Eric Stephenson was tapped to fill the role.

Stephenson has been in and around Image since the company’s start. He began his tenure as founder Jim Valentino’s assistant, and then served as managing editor of Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios, created a few comics himself, and then moved back to Image Central, where he served as Director of Marketing and then Executive Director.

We spoke with the new Publisher for his insight on the company, its direction, and his plans for the future.

Newsarama: Eric, now that you've have a few days to settle into the new gig, you can probably give a little more insight to this than when it first happened - why now for the change? Was there a specific reason as to why Erik stepped down, or was it something more gradual?

Eric Stephenson: As far as Erik's actual decision goes, I do think it was fairly gradual. I know he's made mention of the feedback he received from fans in Charlotte and things like that, but I don't think it was a case of hearing people say they wanted more Dragon comics and then - bam – game-time decision. Fans have been complaining about how infrequently Savage Dragon ships for a while now. Erik's friends – myself among them – have been saying the same things. And I think getting his book back on track was definitely a consideration, but I also get the impression Erik felt he'd done what he wanted to do as Publisher.

NRAMA: So what does this mean for you and what you've been doing at the company? Will your day to day duties see a radical change, or will the biggest part of this be the word after your name on the masthead?

ES: Well, there's more to it than that. Erik and I had a pretty close working relationship, and he certainly delegated a fair amount of control over the day-to-day business to me, but it's not like he just sat around eating Homerun Pies. Erik tended to focus more on the big picture stuff and providing a recognizable face for the company. From time to time, Erik has referred to his role as Publisher as "being Image's Stan Lee," and I think that's a pretty accurate description of how he handled the job. He went to all the conventions, he wrote columns that ran on CBR and in our books, he was on all the panels at conventions, he did portfolio reviews and so on. We both had our separate roles here and this is really just a case of me assuming those other responsibilities.

NRAMA: In that regard, what does the Publisher at Image do, specifically? It seemed that, from his comments on messgaeboards and in articles, that Erik was very much on the front line of saying which books Image would and would not publish. Is that a large part of the Publisher's job as Image is structured?

ES: Determining which titles we publish is an integral part of the job, definitely. Maintaining communication with our creators, with the founders and our other business partners is important as well, and there's a staff here to manage, of course. I don't know what the job is like elsewhere, but it's very much a balancing act here. There are a lot of little things that need attending to on a daily basis.

NRAMA: You're the first Publisher that wasn't also a Founder. Does that change the dynamic of the company at all? After all, at one time or another, I think all the Founders have referred to their relationship as being brothers, given their shared history. You've been around nearly the whole time, but not as a founder/brother...you're kinda like the close family friend coming in to run the business.

ES: Actually, Image's first Publisher was Tony Lobitio, and he wasn't a founder. Likewise, Larry Marder more or less acted as Publisher, despite using the Executive Director title, and again, he wasn't a founder. Jim Valentino was the first founder to act as Publisher, and if anything, that changed the dynamic. Up to that point, there had been an intermediary of sorts, and for better or worse, when Valentino became Publisher, that was no longer the case. Image is a partnership between the founders, and he was – and is – very much part of that. I think that made the job a little different, both for Jim and after him, Erik.

As far as I'm concerned, yeah, I've been around Image in one capacity or another for a long time. I started out as Jim's assistant when Image was first coming together and then I worked for Rob Liefeld at Extreme Studios for many years. I've spent a good deal of time with these guys and I genuinely believe in what they've created here.

NRAMA: You know, I remembered Marder in there, but forgot about Tony way back then. Anyway - you obviously took the job for a reason - so what are you hoping to achieve as Publisher? What are your goals?

ES: I hate to over-simplify things, but there's really one main goal and that's to publish good comics. Everything else kind of spins out of that. Do we want to sell more comics? Yes. Do we want to broaden the readership for comics? Certainly. If we're not putting out good books, though, any other goal is going to be unrealistic.

NRAMA: Your entry into the company management is something that some observers note happened around the same time Image really began to diversify its output. Are you content with where it is now, or are you looking to further broaden the boundaries?

ES: I think we have a nice level of diversity at Image, but I don't know that I'd say I'm "content" with things as they are now. Complacency isn't exactly a cornerstone of success.

NRAMA: That said, what's Image's identity as a publisher? Does it even have one, apart from an umbrella house that publishers a number of books of a certain quality and admittedly wide subject matter? As many have said, there is no "Image book" anymore...

ES: I don't know that there ever was, frankly. I personally think that whole notion is a bit of a myth. None of the founder books were that similar and we had things like The Maxx and Shaman's Tears almost from the get-go. Bone was published by Image at one point, we had Groo... Image has always had a fairly diverse line, it just grew more so over time. Books have always come and gone and the focal point of the line has changed as a result.

We're the premiere publisher of creator-owned comics. In terms of identity, I don't think that's too difficult to understand. Image is modeled more on traditional book-publishing than other comic book companies. We do lots of different things. We don't rely on superhero comics or on licensed properties or whatever everybody else does. We're not like everybody else.

NRAMA: What about the Founders? What's your view of the role they need to play in the company, the movement they created?

ES: I think they should be more involved. I think they should do more comics. You're right: They started a movement with Image, and I think that movement is stronger with their participation. I think there's no better example of that than the public appearances they've made together over the last year – that panel in San Diego, then the signings at Mike Malve's store in Phoenix and at Wizard World Chicago.

When you talk about "no Image book" and so on, I think the thing Image actually did have early on was this group of maverick artists ready to take on the world. Getting back to that, recapturing some of that energy... I'd definitely like to see that. And I think we are, to a certain degree. Erik's returning his focus to Savage Dragon... I think it's pretty amazing that Todd and Whilce are working together on Spawn, and Whilce has a new book he's developing for us. Todd's teaming up with Robert Kirkman for Haunt. There are a number of positive things happening where these guys are concerned, and I think the more involved they get, the better it is for Image and ultimately, the better it is for comics.

As far as movements go, the Image founders were leading the charge up to a certain point and I think that served as a tremendous amount of inspiration for creators that came after them. Once they slowed down, once they turned their attention to other things... Well, I wouldn't say that inspiration dried up, but I think it's more difficult for others to follow when there's no leader.

NRAMA: What does Image need more of, in your view? Less or none of?

ES: I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but we always need more good comics. I'll trade those for fewer bad comics any day.

NRAMA: Looking at Image moving into the future, what are the challenges that you've figured you'll be wrestling with first?

ES: I'd like to put this "late books" thing behind us once and for all. There was a point when Image was more or less synonymous with late comics and it was justified, but we've made some pretty great strides where scheduling is concerned over the time I've been with the company in an administrative capacity. I don't want to be in the position of saying we're "better," though, or that there are other publishers shipping books late, too, or whatever. I'd just like to get away from that, to have the books out when they're supposed to be, the end.

NRAMA: As you've said in other interviews, your more "alt/indy" titles do well, such as Belle and Sebastian and the forthcoming Tori Amos book. The Walking Dead audience continues to grow when a new reader is exposed to the book. It's the simple yet frustrating question - how do you reach more readers, given the constraints of the industry today, Mr. Publisher?

ES: You publish books they want to read. The Walking Dead is a success because Robert Kirkman is telling a story people want to read. Sure, marketing is an element of that and it's important to get the word out about things and make people aware of what we're doing, but I'll say it again: If the book isn't any good, it doesn't matter. Looking outside comics, there are films that are marketed to the nth degree and they fail miserably. Same with records. Same with television. If people don't want it, they're not going to buy into it, and the trick is to give them something they're interested in.

And yes, if we all knew how to predict what people want, our jobs would be easier, regardless of whether we're making comics, music or movies.

NRAMA: Likewise, looking ahead, in the realm of other media, do you see a day when the company may start to ask creators for a percentage of the property as a price for the risk of printing? That is, if/when The Walking Dead is picked up by say, Showtime, will Image be anything more than a conduit that helped the property get out into the public and be noticed? After all, as it stands now, if Robert sold the rights to a Walking Dead series to a cabler for say, $10 million with a 60 episode commitment (just a figure/commitment pulled out of the air) as it stands now, Image would get nada, correct?

ES: Will that ever be Image's default deal? No. Is there room to negotiate different deals with different creators depending on their specific needs? Sure.

NRAMA: Sounds like a point to return to as time rolls on. But for now, when we talk with you a year from now - what's one thing you hope to point at, and say, "I made that happen"?

ES: Well, I've got a list of creators I'd like to see working at Image – a list I'm going to keep to myself for now – and I'd really like to be able to look at that list a year from now and see a check by every name.

I'm not big on boasting and bragging and making predictions, though. I know what I want to do, what I think we should be doing, but I think it's better to talk about all that in the past tense. It's so much nicer to discuss your successes than search for excuses for your failures. Maybe that's just me.

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