IMAGE COMICS' Eric Stephenson on the State of Comics in 2020

I Like Comics
Image Comics' partners signing at I Like Comics
Credit: Image Comics
Eric Stephenson
Eric Stephenson
Credit: Emi Lenox

There's a lot of good news out of the comic industry lately, but that doesn't mean there's not room for improvement. Image Comics' Publisher/co-owner Eric Stephenson has been a part of the industry for almost 30 years and is a student of what came before, and he's at a pivotal place to see what's happening in the big picture.

Newsarama talked to Stephenson at-length about the big picture of the comics medium and comics industry. This isn't promoting a specific book (although those will be discussed), or some massive relaunch (no, Image isn't doing that). And this isn't solely about Image and Stephenson's work there - this goes into successes others like Marvel, DC, and Scholastic have had - but also the friction points he sees where things could be better.

Stephenson talks abouts about his own experiences not just as a fan and a reader but also as a publisher, offering his insight into what's changing, what could be changed, and what perennial facets of comics are timeless.

Newsarama: Eric, what gets you excited about comics right now? This can be comics themselves, the industry, distribution, anything.

Eric Stephenson: More than anything, I would have to say our potential, and I mean that both as a medium and as an industry.

Credit: Book Expo America

I look at things like Marjorie Liu sharing a stage with authors like Malcom Galdwell, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Karin Slaughter on a Book Expo America panel moderated by a major media figure like Rachel Maddow, and not only is it exciting to see comics taken seriously, but becoming a bigger part of our culture.

I look at the massive success of books like Guts and I see the effect Raina Telgemeier’s work is having on younger readers, or the popularity of Dave Pilkey’s Dog Man series, and I think it’s great to see that what we do still has the power to connect with people outside of the die-hard fans.

Credit: Dav Pilkey (Scholastic/Graphix)

Nrama: Those are all booktrade success stories. How much of that market is a focus for Image Comics now compared to years past, as opposed to the direct market?

Stephenson: It’s about the same, honestly, but that’s largely because Image has been focused on the book market since back when Jim Valentino was running the company in the early 2000s. One of Jim’s priorities as publisher was to expand Image’s reach into bookstores and libraries. When the company first started in 1992, it obviously wasn’t much of a focus because comics hadn’t really caught on with the booktrade, but from around 2001-on, it’s been an important part of our business.

Over the past few years, we’ve been fortunate to have Jeff Boison heading up our efforts in the book market. Before working at Image, he was on staff at DC, and before that he was at Random House, so he has a wealth of experience with this particular sales channel, and that’s been a huge benefit in terms of building relationships with book buyers and educating the creators we work with about that market.

Similarly, Chloe Ramos-Peterson has been doing a wonderful job managing our library business. Like Jeff, she has extensive experience with the market she’s interacting with, and that’s made a huge difference in our library outreach.

Nrama: So then, back to your base - what gets you excited about the Direct Market?

Stephenson: How about the fact that it actually exists, and I get to go to stores that specialize in something I’ve loved almost my entire life?

Every marketplace is important, but I love comic book stores. I think they’re magical places, and I worry sometimes that we take them for granted. I know I did for a while. There was a long period after I’d first moved to Portland when I wasn’t going to comics shops very often at all - I mainly just picked up the trades and graphic novels I wanted to read at places like Powell’s - and during that period, I started to feel… I dunno, disconnected?

Powell's Books
Powell's Books
Credit: Powell's Books

It took visiting some places I’d lived when I was younger and remembering how hard it was to get comics back then to remind me how lucky we are to have an entire marketplace devoted to comics. I mean, I started reading comics regularly when I was around seven - and this is back in the mid-’70s before there even was a Direct Market - and I was kind of at the mercy of the newsstand distributors. Sometimes things were available, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes a place that sold comics suddenly stopped selling comics.

I remember visiting my grandparents one summer and there was a drugstore I always got comics from whenever we were in town. That summer, they didn’t have them anymore, and that happened a lot back then. Comics were sold in convenience stores like 7-11 or drugstores or supermarkets - greeting card shops, even - and following a series regularly, even some of the extremely popular series, was tricky. I don’t think I even saw an actual comic book store until 1982.

So anyway, in 2018 I made it a point to start going back into comic book stores on a regular basis, and you know, we’re spoiled for options here in Portland. There are so many great stores. Cosmic Monkey. Floating World. Excalibur. Bridge City Comics. Cloud 9. There’s I Like Comics across the river in Vancouver. Things From Another World. Future Dreams.

Image Comics' partners signing at I Like Comics
Image Comics' partners signing at I Like Comics
Credit: Image Comics

I’m not going to rattle off every single store, but Portland really is a great city for comics, and visiting these stores, as well as others around the Pacific Northwest, has been a great reminder of how lucky we are to have the Direct Market. I go to a store pretty much every week, sometimes more often than that, and it’s a lot of fun.

I think the Direct Market is still a vital part of our business and more than that, I think it still has a tremendous amount of potential. Getting comics into other marketplaces is important, and I think doing that is actually to the benefit of the comics specialty market, long-term, but there’s really no substitute for having an entire marketplace to ourselves.

Nrama: We're here talking just as the new year begins. Big picture, what are Image's plans for 2020 as a whole?

Stephenson: Big picture, I would say looking for ways to help further the reach of the comics medium by continuing to try new things and publish exciting new comics.

Credit: Image Comics

Flipping through the January Previews, I think Matt Fraction and Elsa Charretier’s November is a great example of that. Just stunning work from a pair of creators at the absolute top of their game, in a different format to anything they’ve done in the past.

That same month, Matt and Chip Zdarsky are back with the final chapter of Sex Criminals, and highlighting series like that - Monstress returns in January, as well - is just as important as banging the drum for the new books. As excited as I might be about upcoming projects, nothing is more satisfying than seeing a series wrap up as the creators intended or for a masterpiece to continue in its development.

Beyond that, we’re constantly working to bolster our existing relationships within the Direct Market through the various sales initiatives we develop, but we’re also eager to get into new sales channels. That’s a big challenge, not just for Image, but for the industry as a whole, and I think it’s going to take a bit of re-thinking how we do certain things.

Nrama: "New sales channels." I can't leave that hanging - what are you thinking of when you say that?

Stephenson: Places that aren’t currently selling comics, or places that aren’t selling comics in significant numbers.

Credit: Eddy Barrows/Eber Ferreira (DC)

I know there was some hue and cry over DC’s 100-Page Giant comics recently, but I admire the goal behind that program, which was to get comics into stores that weren’t carrying comics and hopefully create some new readers in the process. I think there’s a way to do that without excluding the Direct Market, but I think it has to be done.

Like I was just saying, I think comic book stores are amazing. I’m a big supporter of the Direct Market, and I think anyone deeply invested in the comics experience is going to get a lot out of visiting their local comic shop, but generally speaking, someone has to already be invested in that experience for that shop to be a destination. Someone has to want to read comics to visit a comic book store, and to my mind, it’s difficult to get people interested in something without exposing it to them.

The more we can expose people to comics outside comics book stores, the better chance we have of getting them into comic book stores. Is that going to happen 100% of the time? Well, no, it’s not. Sometimes people are going to do what I was doing for a while - they’re going to go their bookstore and buy trades and OGNs there. That may not directly benefit comic book stores, the same as kids getting their books directly from Scholastic may not directly benefit comic book stores, but going back to what we were talking about at the start of this interview, comics becoming more commonplace within our culture overall is a good thing.

Nrama: Before we get too far into 2020, let's talk about recent successes - November 6th's Undiscovered Country seemed to be very successful at launch. Image was handing out advance copies of the first issue back in July, so you would probably know what you hand on your hands. How did you, and Image as a company, prepare for potential success?

Credit: Jock (Image Comics)

Stephenson: We knew the minute we started talking about the project that this was going to be the sort of launch that would blow people away, and we put our full support behind this with an early ashcan for retailers at the San Diego Comic-Con, an exclusive variant for the New York Comic-Con, a number of retailer-specific variant covers to get the shops and their customer bases invested in the series’ success, publicity with top entertainment sites, online advertisements, a great promo poster, a teaser trailer…

Scott and Charles really brought it home with retailers, though, first when they jumped on stage at the retailer breakfast in San Diego to share the excitement for the book, and then as they and Giuseppe Camuncoli took that enthusiasm to their fans with a series of videos and social media posts in the run-up to the Final Order Cutoff. With books like this, the main thing is to make sure that everyone knows about it, because once they read it, they’re going to be sold on this series.

Nrama: This is Scott Snyder's first new creator-owned book in a while, and what Scott tells me is the first of many. He hasn't announced who his other projects are with, but I wanted to ask about Image's fostering of creators and relationships. You have some like Mark Millar who have their own line, and others like Kieron Gillen who do creator-owned books through Image, but also other publishers. What are you and Image doing to better your relationship with creators?

Credit: Image Comics

Stephenson: Image’s entire business model is based on supporting creators and allowing them to manage their careers in whatever way suits them best as individuals. That’s why Mark Millar has his deal with Netflix, or why Brian K. Vaughan has his deal with Legendary, as opposed to Image setting up some kind of overall deal that puts the company first ahead of the talent.

I’ve said in the past that Image isn’t a one-size-fits-all publisher, and that’s how the company’s founders set things up. If you look at all of them - none of them do things the same way, and they recognized early on that every creator has a different outlook and different needs. Would we like every creator we work with to do every project here? Sure, that would be great - for us - but it’s not necessarily what every creator wants. The goal is to work together in a manner that’s mutually beneficial.

Nrama: Could you foresee any more exclusives being offered like Image did for Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips?

Credit: Image Comics

Stephenson: If that’s something other creators are interested in, absolutely, but the thing is, that wasn’t a one-sided offer - Ed and Sean made the suggestion. Ed wrote about this in his newsletter recently, but his main point was that he and Sean like Image and what the company stands for and they trust us, so why work anywhere else? And if they’re not working anywhere else, why make them pitch every time they want to do something new? So it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement as opposed to something designed to just hold them in place.

Ed and Sean are a dream to work with, and it would have been foolish to say no when they asked about putting together an exclusive. Same goes for anyone else of that caliber.

Nrama: What about more creators getting their own imprint/grouping/branding like Millar, or from a few years ago, Man of Action's?

Stephenson: The two examples you cite are kind of interesting because both Millarworld and Man of Action existed prior to their involvement with Image. Mark set Millarworld up in the early 2000s and did Kick-Ass at Marvel through Icon, a book called The Unfunnies at Avatar, and then Wanted through Top Cow. I feel like there’s another one I’m forgetting, but anyway, the original aim as Mark explained it at the time, was to do multiple creator-owned books across a variety of publishers. Eventually that just became doing books at Icon, then he moved everything to Image, and now obviously, he has his deal with Netflix, and we all work together in regards to publishing Mark’s comics. So that’s a somewhat unique situation.

Credit: Man of Action Entertainment

Man of Action is Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau, and Steve Seagle’s production company, and they’re probably best known for creating Ben 10 and Big Hero 6, but they kind of approached us as a group and said they wanted to do all their creator-owned comics work at Image. Just like with Ed and Sean, we would have to be pretty dumb to turn an opportunity like that down, so we were immediately enthusiastic about that idea, but during our earliest discussions with them, they suggested that it might be a good idea to carry over the Man of Action name to Image as well, and we - I think Erik Larsen was still publisher at that point - agreed.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that when it makes sense to develop an arrangement like that with creators we value and who trust us to do right by them, then yeah, we’re totally game. I wouldn’t want to do an imprint solely for the sake of doing an imprint - I think there are numerous examples of that not working out, sometimes on a spectacular level - but if it makes sense for everyone involved, of course that’s something we’d discuss.

Nrama: You recently took part in a signing with all the current Image partners. How has the overall dynamic at Image changed, in what the original seven founders set out to do compared to what the company is now?

Stephenson: The content has changed over time, the type of comics Image publishes, but their original intent regarding how the company should function on behalf of both themselves and other creators is very much the same as it ever was.

Something that impressed me about Image from the moment I first heard about it, when Jim Valentino called me up in late 1991 and told me what he Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Le, Erik, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio were doing, is that instead of setting the company up as a way to exploit other creators, they created something that allows everyone involved to enjoy the maximum benefits of their individual success.

Credit: Jim Lee (Image Comics)

Rob had Extreme, Jim Lee Homage Studios, which later became WildStorm, Marc was building Top Cow, and Valentino eventually started Shadowline while Todd built his toy company - Image easily could have existed solely as a clearinghouse for their individual creations, but instead they opened it up to other creators. Whereas other creator-owned ventures had offered better royalties than Marvel or DC, the founders agreed on a deal where Image took a low flat fee per issue on comic books - and by “low” I mean “low four figures” - and zero percent on top of that.

Years later, when trade paperbacks became a bigger part of the business, they adjusted the deal so that Image earned a small percentage on trade sales - with the creator retaining more than four fifths of their books’ profits.

These were guys who were selling comics in the millions and based on the royalties they were getting from Marvel, could calculate out how much the company was earning off things like Spider-Man #1 or X-Force #1 or X-Men #1, so really, it would have been entirely feasible for them to say, “If Marvel and DC are keeping 95%, all we have to offer creators is another 5 or 10% and we’ll be heroes,” but they treated the creators they invited to join Image the way they wanted to be treated themselves.

And I think that is something that doesn’t get emphasized enough, because going all the way back to the beginning, the Image founders were criticized for starting the company to as an act of ego, when really, they just wanted to be treated more fairly and have a bigger say in what was happening with their work.

It’s almost 20 years now, so the significance of this is probably lost on a lot of people today, but Marvel was producing merchandise using their artwork and forget compensation or approval, they weren’t even giving them so much as a single piece of the merch. Not a t-shirt, not a toy – nothing. The creator’s work - not just Rob or Todd or Jim or whoever - but every creator’s work was exploited for the benefit of the company without so much as a “thanks, here are a couple of these t-shirts.” The royalties on the books- and the three books I just listed all sold in excess of a million copies - were doled out in single digit percentages.

Image was set up to be the exact opposite of that, and to this day, that is how Image operates.

Credit: Charlie Adlard (Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment)

When something like The Walking Dead or Saga or Monstress or Deadly Class becomes a huge hit, it is the creator that benefits. Image benefits from creators’ success, but I’ll tell you what, Image has not seen one cent from from a single television or film project. Not Spawn back in the ‘90s, not The Walking Dead, not Happy!, not Deadly Class – all of that goes to the creators. Whatever movie or TV projects based off comics or graphic novels Image publishes may happen in the future – that’s always going to be the case, and that’s something we are all very proud of, so in terms of what the founders set out to do and what the company is now, that’s an incredible achievement.

Someone described the founders to me recently as “advocates for creator’s rights,” and I don’t think that goes far enough. They’re champions. They’re champions for creator’s rights.

Nrama: The ‘big idea’ of creator-ownership and fair contracts has come up again with the success of HBO’s Watchmen, inspired by the comic book series by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Do you have thoughts on this here now in 2020?

Stephenson: Back when DC was doing Before Watchmen I wrote about this extensively on my (now defunct) blog. That was, what? Seven years ago? It’s frustrating that people still don’t seem to get it. When Alan Moore created Watchmen for DC, it was with the understanding that the rights would be returned to him and Dave once it went out of print. That’s not something Alan assumed or my own personal take on the situation - it was public knowledge. DC actually made a big deal out of this. Watchmen was supposed to be a bold step for creator’s rights, and DC was applauded for taking that stance. Then they collected the series and it sold so well they decided to keep it in print forever.

Credit: HBO

So Alan has every right to be upset, and I’m not sure why everyone has such a hard time understanding that. HBO’s Watchmen is a hit and people seem to like it, so I guess it’s a case of the audience just not wanting it on their conscience while they’re consuming their entertainment. The truth of the matter is, though, is that poor treatment of creators has been part and parcel of the comics industry since the beginning. On one hand, someone today can argue that things were done differently in the past, or that creators knew what they were getting into, but that’s not a viable excuse when in this particular instance the creators were told this deal was going to be different and this would be an improvement on how creators were treated in the past.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Do you want to be treated like that?

If not, then maybe give some consideration to the perspective of someone - and really, not just someone, but one of the greatest and most influential talents to ever work in this business  who was treated that way.

Nrama: A big topic of conversation this year was how Image dominated several of the categories in regards to the Eisner Awards nominations. I was one of the judges, but I can't speak too much on it—what do you have to say for Image's part?

Stephenson: I thought it was an impressive statement about what Image does and the kind of talent we work with here. New creativity is vitally important to our industry, and it was great to see that kind of support for that from the Eisner judges this year. Publishing fresh new stories or discovering new talent involves taking risks, so it’s incredibly gratifying for that to be acknowledged, even if only one of those titles ultimately wins the award.

Nrama: As Image's defacto talent scout, how do you go about finding new talent as opposed to 'name' talent being found on the shelves?

Credit: Image Comics

Stephenson: We’re one of the only publishers still accepting blind submissions, to start with. We just published a graphic novel recently, Ophiuchus by Alexis Leriger De La Pante and Natasha Petrovic, and that came in as a blind submission. Curt Pires submitted Olympia to us that way.

Beyond that, we’re lucky that creators we’re already working with are eager to point out new talent, and we also make it a point to visit artist’s alley at conventions, as well keep an eye on various social media platforms, especially when it comes to looking for artists.

Nrama: I wanted to ask you about the price of comics—$3.99 has become the new standard, with the march to $4.99 going on now. Most of Image's regular-sized titles are $3.99, but then you have Spawn still holding at $2.99 - and Saga at $2.99. I imagine in some respects price point is set by owners of the book, but what are your thoughts on the price of comics?

Stephenson: Overall, I think the majority of comics being published today cost too much, especially if you stop to consider what we’re selling.

And I don’t say that to denigrate the format at all - I think monthly comics can be a great way to experience comics - but I also think readers need to be given something more than a piece of a story or one link in a chain of events when they buy a comic book, and that’s kind of the way things have been going for a while now.

By and large, monthly comics are written with eventual collection in mind, and I think that underserves the format while also shortchanging the reader. Why buy a book every month if you know it’s going to be collected in a few months’ time, especially if you’re going to be paying four or five bucks an issue? We’re forcing people to make a choice, and I think they’re always going to go for the more economical option.

To put it another way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sales on monthly comics drop as prices go up. I’ve heard comments from various people within the industry that dedicated fans will pay whatever the price is, but in addition to being a fairly privileged point of view, I think it fails to consider the fact that only selling to those dedicated fans is ultimately a losing proposition.

Credit: Steph Desiato (Flat Squirrel Productions)

Nrama: You say comics cost too much - you've been in the room, and been the decider, as the average price of comics has risen since the 1990s. Why do you think comics cost what they do now, and why do you think they're going up?

Stephenson: There’s a great book that I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone interested in how the industry got where it is right now, called Comic Book Wars. It’s about Marvel in the mid-1990s, how they got into financial trouble, how they got out of it, and how corporate greed almost destroyed not just the company, but the comics industry. That’s not the whole story in terms of why comics cost what they cost, but it provides some valuable context, because in many ways, the problems started with the preparations for Marvel’s sale to New World in 1986.

Over the course of a relatively short period, Marvel’s title count increased and the cover prices on those titles increased, all with an eye toward fattening the company up for sale. By the time New World in turn sold Marvel to Ron Perelman in 1989, the price of their comics had gone from 60¢ to $1, and then Perelman pressured Marvel to add more titles and further increase prices. By the time Image started in 1992, comics were $1.25. That doesn’t sound like a lot now, but again – comics were only 60¢ just six years earlier.

Which is really just a long way of saying that much of what we’re dealing with now is the result of decisions made in the past. I’m not saying comics would still be 60¢ today, or even $1, but it’s likely comics would be less expensive now had things gone differently back then. It’s unfortunate to be looking at all this through the prism of hindsight.

Credit: Fiona Staples/Fonografiks (Image Comics)

Nrama: On the flipside, as a writer/editor/probably a sounding board for creators, what do you see as the opportunity for genuinely creative storytelling that takes advantage of serialization versus simply rolling with it?

Stephenson: Serialized stories offer readers a chance to immerse themselves in another world, to live with characters they want to get to know over an extended period of time. When I was just watching His Dark Materials on HBO the other night, I was reminded of how sad I was at the end of the books, not just because of how events unfolded in the story, but because I loved spending time in that world and knew I was going to miss the characters.

Novels, films, graphic novels - I could rattle off numerous instances where I get to the end of the story and want more, not just because the story is so thrilling, but because the worlds are so rich and the characters are so compelling. That’s what made me fall in love with reading in the first place, and monthly comics were a big part of that!

There’s a comment that gets thrown around a lot in comics these days, that every story has to have an ending, and that’s often used as a justification for not doing monthly comics. On one level, it’s true, the end is a necessary component of a story, regardless of quality, but on another - Spider-Man’s origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 is a story.

You meet Peter Parker, you learn what his life is like, that he’s a science nerd who isn’t terribly well-liked within his peer group, but his teachers love him and his family dotes on him. You see how Peter’s life is changed when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider - suddenly he has these amazing powers and he decides to use them to make some money for himself. When the power and the money goes to Peter’s head, he makes a bad decision, and his life changes again, only this time it’s for the worse - his uncle is murdered by a criminal he had the opportunity to stop. When he finally does catch up with his uncle’s murdered, he realizes he has learned an important lesson about his new powers, and it changes the course of his life. That’s a complete story, told in only 11 short pages.

You don’t have to ever read another Spider-Man story if you don’t want to - you get a great story, you get what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko wanted to say, but you also get the beginning of a bigger story, as well as the opportunity to get to know Peter better, and to further investigate his world.

Watch the first episode of Barry on HBO and you’ll see it does exactly the same thing. Barry is perfect, actually, and I bring it up in conversation a lot, because it does everything a great first episode or first issue should do. It tells a story so well that even if that’s your only exposure to the series, you still get it, you still walk away with something more than you came in with – but at the same time, it compels you to come back for more.

The Walking Dead #1 does this.

Credit: Image Comics

Sex Criminals #1 does the same thing.

It’s how serialization works, and when anyone complains that they’ve read the first issue of a new series and they don’t know where it’s going… Well, something isn’t working.

Nrama: From that, let's talk about sales. What have been the big financial hits for Image in the past 6 to 12 months? The Walking Dead finale I'd assume, but what else?

Stephenson: The Walking Dead #193 did really well, yeah, but Spawn #300 and #301 are by far the highest selling books of the year for us. The publicly-reported sales estimates on Spawn #300 were, what? 260,000 or something like that? Actual orders were more like 300,000, higher when you consider the multiple reprints. Spawn #301 did just shy of 200,000 and that’s gone back to press for a reprint, too.

Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s last issue did something around 100,000 on the first printing, then another 40,000 on the second printing - and we’re still seeing reorders on that. I’d have to look, but I think across both printings, that is the highest selling series finale of at least the last 20, maybe 25 years, better I think than the last issue of Sandman.

And Undiscovered Country #1 has orders of 85,000 right now, which is higher than Wytches #1 in 2014 and is now our second biggest launch overall in the last 10 years. The only book we’ve done that launched bigger during that period was Jupiter's Legacy #1 in 2013, and that did 125,000. Mark and Scott each have two of our top five launches now, and I think Scott is looking to chip away at Mark’s number!

Credit: Image Comics

Aside from all that, we’ve been pleased with how things have been launching this past year. Little Bird was a highlight for me personally - I loved that book from the minute I got the pitch, and I was really happy it was so well-received and then continued to sell through multiple printings. I’m excited to see what Darcy and Ian do next.

Nrama: Format is also a question - from oversized issues, but also to OGNs. Over the past two years, a number of Image titles have announced plans to segue from single issue releases to OGNs. What are your thoughts on that - and what can you tell creators who are thinking about that decision?

Stephenson: Off the top of my head, I can only think of two books we’ve published that switched from monthly comics to OGNs: Motor Crush and Moonstruck. In both those instances, I think everyone involved agreed the monthly comics weren’t reaching the audience we wanted to reach, but the trades were doing well - and in the case of Moonstruck, markedly better in bookstores - so it seemed like the most logical step forward.

I don’t think that’s going to be the case for every title, but it worked for those books. If it makes sense for other books in the future, then great, but generally speaking, I don’t think comics and graphic novels should be treated as interchangeable. Comics should be written as comics, and graphic novels should be written as graphic novels.

Comics and graphic novels are as separate as television and film. Same medium, different kinds of storytelling. One doesn’t cancel the other out - they both have their pros and cons. Serialized stories can be really engaging entertainment, but not every story benefits from that approach, and vice versa. It all depends on the story and what the talent involved is trying to do with it, what they want to say and how they want to say it. Imposing limitations on the medium and saying, “Well, because we do this, we shouldn’t do that,” seems pretty arbitrary to me.

For a long time, actors valued film work over television work. Going from movies to TV was regarded as a step down, despite the fact the fact that both film and television can yield equal measures of quality and crap. Right now, I feel like that’s something we’re grappling with in comics - that the monthly comic book is somehow inherently inferior to the graphic novel - and I’m not sure limiting our format options or storytelling approaches is in the creative community’s or the industry’s best interests.

Nrama: From your perspective, are OGNs received better by the booktrade, libraries, and digitally than a collection of serialized comic books?

Credit: Dave Gibbons (DC)

Stephenson: It all depends on the book, really. Saga does very well for us in bookstores and libraries, and that’s a collection of serialized comic books. Watchmen remains one of the best selling books of all time. Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix story seems to be printed over and over again, and is readily available outside comic book stores.

There are plenty of examples of comic books being collected into books that have a pretty far reach outside the Direct Market. Does that mean all trade paperback collections are big sellers outside the comics market? Not at all. Stores pick and choose what they’ll sell, and readers pick and choose what they like. Same goes for OGNs. It’s less about the format and more about the story.

Nrama: Eric, let's talk digital comics - both digital sales of comics, and comics originating digitally. You have access to the numbers - are there differences in you see with digital sales compared to print sales?

Stephenson: It depends on the series, but there have been instances where things that do well in print don’t have the same impact digitally. There are also instances when a series does unusually well in digital but print sales don’t match - this happens with some of our older backlist where it might be harder for readers to find print copies - but more commonly, it seems like there are times something will generate a lot of interest in print sales, but the same kind of buzz doesn't translate to the digital edition.

Nrama: Do you think digital comics as an avenue have matured, or do you think there’s still some work to be done in that regard?

Stephenson: We’re still in the infancy of digital comics as a sales channel. It’s been what? A little over 10 years since comiXology launched? A little less than that since the debut of the iPad and the Kindle Fire? Everyone’s still figuring this out, I think.

Credit: Top Cow

Nrama: Image as a company doesn't do digital-first comics, but sometimes some of the comics you publish debut early digitally - like Top Cow's Cyber Force, for instance. Readers see Marvel, DC, Oni, BOOM! and others doing digital-first comics - do you see a model for Image pursuing something along those lines?

Stephenson: Yes, but I think we’d want to do it as something more than just a marketing gimmick. I truly believe comics have the potential to be as popular and successful as any other form of entertainment, and digital is going to play a part in that, for sure. I don’t think we’re there yet, and I think that’s because digital is often treated as… I don’t know if I’d say an afterthought, but it’s definitely treated as though it’s in some way secondary to print comics. Obviously there are exceptions to that, but generally speaking, print publishers aren’t putting the same emphasis on digital comics as print.

But to answer your question, yes, I think that’s something we’ll pursue in the future.

Nrama: And hand-in-hand with digital is comics piracy. It was thought for awhile that once buying comics digitally became more accessible, piracy would diminish - but from what I see, it hasn't. What do you see?

Stephenson: Well, I’ll say it again: Comics are too expensive. Print comics are too expensive, and digital comics are too expensive. Looking at what the people who admit to stealing comics content are saying online, it seems pretty obvious that there are more comics coming out than the average person can afford to buy. Are there some people out there who just hoard digital comics, downloading full runs of things just for the satisfaction of having them? Sure, but there are also people who just want to read the comics they like without going broke. Comics used to be cheap entertainment. That’s no longer the case. I’ve literally talked to people who say they’ve always been interested in reading comics, but that it’s too expensive. With digital comics priced the same as print comics, it just becomes part of the same overall problem.

Nrama: From looking inward to looking outward, how do you feel about the health of the comic industry?

Stephenson: Well, like I said when we first started talking, I think we have a lot of potential, but you know, the marketplace has been in decline since the ‘90s. We could talk for hours about exactly why that is, but the bottom line is that the comics industry is in roughly the same state of flux it has been since Diamond became the primary distributor for our marketplace back in 1997. There have been ups and downs since then - but the industry is doing more or less the same things, for better or for worse.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Back in 1997, the top selling comic almost every month was Uncanny X-Men, and around that time, it would have been selling around 160,000 copies or so. Today, House of X #1 was a big launch for Marvel with 185,000 copies sold in the first month – but the difference is that whatever issue of Uncanny X-Men came out in 1997 had one cover. House of X #1 had how many? 30 something? I don’t think we know the actual number there in terms of “real” sales to individual readers, and I worry that if we did, the truth would be shock all of us.

According to the estimates published online, only 25 comic books sold over 50,000 copies this September. A little over 100 topped 20,000 copies - meaning three fifths of the top 500 is under 20,000. The somewhat good news is that those figures haven’t really changed all that much in nearly 30 years years, but yeah, I think our industry has some very serious challenges ahead of us.

I think that becomes even more apparent when you look at the top selling trades and graphic novels for September and see that Guts – a book that is selling like wildfire – clocks in at only #25 for estimated Direct Market sales with something like 2,000 orders. Sure – there are stores getting trades and graphic novels from book wholesalers or other book distributors and those numbers don’t show up on Diamond’s charts, and I would imagine some stores are dealing directly with Scholastic, but even so, I doubt that’s going to get that number up to a level where it’s challenging bookmarket sales in any significant way, which means that comic book stores are not the first stop for many of the readers that we want to reach. I think that says something, and I’m not sure we’re all getting the message.

Nrama: You seem to be speaking to the idea that there's more mid-level comic books than ever. Books being sold at sustainable levels, but there's more than ever - which might be hard for retailers to stock. What would you say to retailers who are unsure about stocking when there's such a fat 'middle' so to speak, especially when there's not much option for returnability?

Stephenson: Even when returnability is offered on something, that doesn’t guarantee support. Image has been utilizing returnability in different ways for close to 10 years now, as have other publishers, and it doesn’t always make a difference. Some of it comes down to a store’s cash flow situation, some of it comes down to being burned one too many times in the past.

Credit: Pepe Larraz (Marvel Comics)

I think that’s a little bit of what caught stores off guard with Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men books was that retailers saw it as kind of a boy who cried wolf situation after so many other X-Men relaunches. When series are constantly being started and stopped, it gets difficult to tell which relaunch is going to stick. Everyone focuses on the adage that new first issues provide great jumping on points, but they somehow forget that the last issues are also convenient jumping off points.

We try to give stores as much information as possible so that they can make an educated judgment about how to order our comics and books. Sometimes we’re pleased with the results, sometimes the result tell us we need to recalibrate our approach - especially if something doesn’t connect the way we were hoping. Ultimately, though, we don’t want to be part of what you describe as the “fat middle” - we want every publisher wants, which is to be up at the top. Right now, that’s a smaller space than the middle, but I think what we’d like to communicate to retailers is that if we all work together, there’s room for expansion.

Nrama: What do you see as the big friction points in the industry?

Stephenson: Well, I think the big one is that there’s an ongoing misunderstanding of what everyone’s role is in this business is that has resulted in various parties criticizing each other about how they do their jobs, and I don’t think that’s helpful.

Everybody should be focused on doing their own jobs, to the best of their abilities. Is feedback helpful? Yes. There should absolutely be an open exchange of information between all the parties invested in the marketplace, but at the same time, publishers are not retailers are not distributors. The demands are different for each of those industry roles. The risks are different, the goals are different.

Using distribution as an example - I hear a lot of people saying that Diamond should do this, that, or the other thing for retailers or for publishers. In the simplest terms, Diamond’s job is to move things from one place to multiple other places. Not to market comics to retailers on behalf of publishers. Not to help retailers stay in business. Their job is to receive comic books from the printers that print those comics and then ship them out to the comic book stores that sell them. Depending on who you talk to, though, they’re both the problem and the solution to all our industry’s woes, and really, neither of those things are true. They’re a distributor, and at the end of the day, we would all benefit from letting them focus on that role. The same could be said for retailers or for publishers. We should all be taking care of our own business.

Credit: Image Comics

So turning that back to us, we need to focus on problems we can fix, things we can do on the publisher level, and one of the big problems is that there are way too many books. Comic book stores can’t keep up with ordering them, there’s just too much to keep track of, and if a specialty market catering to this specific type of content is overwhelmed by the amount of books being published, that’s definitely going to be an issue for other sales channels. Worse, it’s going to trickle down to readers – because at $4 and $5 an issue, that limits the number of comics someone can reasonably afford within a single month. Or every month.

Every publisher - and I want to be clear that I absolutely include Image in this - could do a better job of curating their content instead of constantly flooding the market with books that may not have an actual audience.

Nrama: What could - or are - you doing to curate Image's line better?

Stephenson: Over the course of 2019, we’ve launched fewer books. Like a third less. We’re planning to continue that going into next year, because we saw positive results from thinning the line over the course of this year.

By that same token, we’re using different criteria to judge what we do and don’t do.

A few years back, at ComicsPRO, I spoke about the fact we were doing too much science fiction, but I think it’s more than just singling out a specific genre, it’s isolating the audience for whatever is being proposed.

For instance, I was recently sent a pitch by a creator whose work I really like, and while I personally found the idea to be interesting, we ultimately passed on it because it didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would have a very wide audience.

Because we publish creator-owned comics, we are in a position where we could publish anything, but I think it’s in creators’ best interest and the industry’s best interest that we instead exercise some prudence.

Nrama: Do you think the industry could come together as a whole and fix some of these overall problems?

Stephenson: I hope so.

There’s been talk recently of putting together some kind of advisory board for the industry, and I think that’s greatly needed at this point. I think coming together as a group and talking about the challenges we all face would be helpful.

Back when Joe Quesada was Editor-In-Chief at Marvel, he frequently said “a rising tide lifts all ships” in reference to how he saw Marvel’s role as an industry leader. Another way he put it, I think, was that a strong industry was dependent on a strong Marvel. Some may criticize those statements as self-serving, but the truth of the matter is that we’re all in this together. It’s a competitive marketplace, so there are going to be winners and losers, but we all lose if the marketplace itself fades away.

Nrama: So theoretically, a great idea. Do you think it’s possible? Would you throw the gauntlet down now to start one?

Stephenson: I would, and I might yet have to reach out to someone about exactly this, but right now, one of my friends in the retail community is working toward this end and he has my support.

Nrama: I haven't had a chance to speak to you much since it happened, so I'll ask here - how has it been for you segueing to from being an employee of Image to also being one of the Members of the Board of Directors? I remember you started out as an assistant to Jim Valentino in the 1990s, then bouncing around Liefeld's offices, and even working with you when you were Image's marketing person.

Stephenson: You know, it’s a pretty great honor. Only two people have been asked to join Image’s Board of Directors since the company started and considering that the other one is Robert Kirkman, I feel very fortunate.

When I first started reading comics again in my early 20s, back in 1990, I was buying books by all of those guys. I’d stood in line outside a comic book shop in Redlands, California to get the first issue of Spider-Man, and I remember driving to half a dozen stores one Friday night to track down New Mutants #98, because there was so much excitement around what Rob was doing with that series that it had sold out everywhere. Every single one of Image’s founders were full-on superstars, so when the opportunity came along to work with Valentino and then Rob, it was pretty amazing.

I had a front row seat for Image’s ups and downs, and I think that gave me a unique perspective on both the company and the industry, that wound up serving me well when I started working directly for Image, first as Director of Sales & Marketing, then as Executive Director, and eventually as Publisher. I am very proud of everything Image has accomplished over the years and like I say, it’s an honor to be asked to be a shareholder and participate in the stewardship of one of the most ground-breaking companies, not just in the history of comics, but all entertainment.

Nrama:Does being a Member of the Board of Directors make your job as Publisher easier, harder, or just different? How?

Stephenson: I’m going to say, “all of the above,” and leave it at that.

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