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In January, Image Comics announced that it had reached an agreement with the largest studio under its umbrella, Top Cow, to assume the duties of marketing, production and sales. In this consolidation the central Image office took over the responsibilities of production, marketing and sales; editor Phil Smith, Sales/Marketing Director Atom! Freeman, and Publicity Manager Christine Dinh were all let go.
At the same time, the central Image office –- called aptly enough “Image Central” –- announced a change in its own marketing department, with 10-month hire Betsy Gomez heading out and Image Administrative Assistant Sarah deLaine taking the role of public relations and marketing coordinator. Although the initial reaction to this story has been minimal, further talk around the virtual water cooler among journalists, professionals and industry watchers see two things revealed in this – the downsizing of Top Cow’s office in order to maximize profits, but secondarily – and maybe more importantly – is the state of publicity and marketing for the third-largest comics publisher in America. As a journalist covering comics for Robot 6 and other outlets, I’m without a doubt more acutely aware of any changes in the publicity desk; they’re the point-of-contact for journalists big and small, from Comic Book Resources to USA Today. But I’m also aware from my own background working as a publicist and marketing professional outside the comics industry.
In an interview with Heidi MacDonald at the Beat, Top Cow President Matt Hawkins said these measures were taken to “focus on creative issues” and to free the company up to “do what we really want to do.” Speaking very bluntly, Hawkins said specifically that this move was also a “proactive move to ensure that [Top Cow] will be around in 5 years.” Hawkins went on to say he expects more consolidations like this one, and even the failure of some comics publishers in a few years.
Since its inception in 1992, Image Comics has always operated as an ad hoc assemblage of little fiefdoms, or studios, with independent creators working directly with Image’s central office. In terms of resources spent on marketing and publicity for Image’s books, the publisher had one person devoted to publicizing its entire line, with some of the studios hiring their own. Jim Lee’s Wildstorm and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios were some of the first to have their own marketing desks, and Jim Lee’s Shadowline employed a defacto editor/publicist Kris Simon until recently. In 2010, newly installed Image partner Robert Kirkman hired his own marketing firm to handle his titles, and established his own studio, Skybound, soon after.
But creators and studios without their own marketing person looked to Image Central’s PR/marketing desk to get the word out. Akin to the DIY nature of Image and creator-owned comics, many creators found that acting as their own publicist help supplement the limited resources available from Image Central. Although Image is the third-largest American comics publisher, it has a relatively small staff due to it being almost exclusively creator-owned comics managed by those independent creators. But just how small?
“Given that there are a grand total of ELEVEN people working here, I think we do an admirable job – Dark Horse has over 100 employees. IDW has something like 30,” said Stephenson in an online conversation with Dan Panosian when the latter brought up the limited marketing available to creators at Image. “Could we be better at certain things? Certainly, but we do a lot for a small staff.”
Although the publishers almost certainly make money in other areas besides selling comics through Diamond, the fact that Image has an office staff 1/10th the size of its nearest trailing competitor, Dark Horse, is eye-opening.
“This is actually something Matt Hawkins and I have been discussing for some time now,” said Stephenson, who worked in the late 1990s with Hawkins at Rob Liefeld’s company. “I think we’ve all felt for a while that there were ways to streamline operations and it was just a matter of figuring out how to coordinate our efforts. This could have happened at any point over the last couple years, really, but I think it’s happening when it is because Matt and Marc Silvestri were pleased with how things have been going at Image Central and thought acting on all our talks now would be a good way to reaffirm their support.”
Looking at the state of Image’s PR department, it’s been described by an anonymous colleague to be the “Siege Perilous;” no, not the artifact in Uncanny X-Men, but the vacant seat at King Arthur’s round table reserved for the person that successfully obtained the Holy Grail. According to legend, the Siege Perilous was so strictly reserved that to sit in it unjustly proved fatal. Going back to 2001, eight individuals have held the position in the past ten years, with each serving an average of 16 months. Since 2000, the position has been filled by Anthony Bozzi, Eric Stephenson, B. Clay Moore, Jim Demonakos, Mark Haven Britt, Joe Keatinge, Betzy Gomez and now Sarah deLaine.
“I think the changes maybe seem more frequent than they actually are,” said Stephenson in reply to these facts. “Two of the people you just listed –- Joe Keatinge and myself -– handled the position for a combined six out of the last 10 years. We had a couple people between us – a span of three years – and now there’s one between Joe and Sarah. How long someone stays in the position really depends on the individual. For all we know, Sarah could wind up handling Image’s marketing for longer than all of us combined. It’s up to her, really.”
As Stephenson said, the longest-serving person in the position was Joe Keatinge, who held the position for nearly four years and who worked at Image for over two years before that in other positions. Second-longest is Stephenson, who rose through the ranks after serving as marketing director to become the publisher in 2008.
In fact, the top positions at both Image and Top Cow are held by former marketing men; in addition to Stephenson, Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik held the role at his company for 15 months prior to his promotion and Top Cow President Matt Hawkins held that role before that.
“There isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between Filip and I working in marketing before moving up to our current positions,” Stephenson explains. “I don’t think it occurred to either of us this is where we’d wind up back when we were interviewing for our respective marketing jobs. For the most part, I think it just comes down to our mutual willingness to help out in whatever way possible.”
That “willingness,” as Stephenson puts it, may be more important than ever as these harsh economic times impact comics. With January 2011’s comic sales showing a steep decline from previous months, it seems the play-of-the-day is refocusing, retrenchment and finding ways to make a profit not only by selling more but spending less.