Conversing on Comics with Eric Stephenson
“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
It’s a telling quote, both for Wright and for Eric Stephenson, who used it on the masthead of the personal blog he wrote from 2010 to 2012. The word arrogance may have its negative connotations, but when practiced in a measured way it exudes confidence and pride in your work. Wright had it. Steve Jobs had it. And Stephenson, as a nearly 20-year veteran of comics publishing, and the public face of Image Comics, has it.
And in recent years, Stephenson has a lot to be prideful about. Image has been experiencing its best years since its initial debut with The Walking Dead, Chew and Saga. It hosted an well-received expo last year, and has successfully wooed some of Marvel and DC’s top talent for a return to creator-owned work. Stephenson, the company’s publisher, also has finally been able to return to his neglected passion for writing with Nowhere Men, a collaboration with artist Nate Bellegarde.
Although best known for his work behind the scenes — he’ll mark his fifth year as publisher of Image in July — Stephenson has written comics for Rob Liefeld’s Maximum Press, Marvel and DC, not to mention his creator-owned titles.
In February we spoke to Nowhere Men artist Nate Bellegarde, and now we turn to Stephenson to discuss the series, and his past work, but also to delve into his publishing duties — specifically, headhunting talent, finding a place for Image in digital comics, and separating the company from the crowd.
Chris Arrant: What are you working on today?
Eric Stephenson: A few things, but top of the list is finalizing print runs for the last batch of Image titles to hit stores in April.We’re also starting to get in our initial orders for May, so I’m going over that, too, but looking at sales figures is something I do on a daily basis. The last few years, I honestly can’t wait to get into the office every morning and look over the numbers. Whether it’s positive information or not – and lately, it’s mostly positive – I find it a great way to start my morning. It’s very motivational, and it gives me a pretty good overview of where everything is day by day, what the day has in store for me. In addition to that stuff, I’m going to be watching a rough cut of the The Image Revolution documentary, finalizing a couple deals for upcoming books, as well as getting another off the ground.
2012 was a busy year for you, as a publisher but also as a creator with your long-gestating Nowhere Men series launching. We’ve read you talk about how Image is doing as a whole, but what about your own personal ambitions with Nowhere Men and doing more creating?
It’s been a great experience. I love working with Nate Bellegarde, Steven Finch (aka Fonografiks) and Jordie Bellaire, and I’m immensely proud of the work we’re creating together. My own ambitions were pretty modest: put out a good book that reflects my own tastes and interests, that other people can enjoy, too. I wanted it to be different from other comics, and once I started working with Nate and we started talking about how to bring my initial ideas to life, I knew we had a chance of really making that happen. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’ve really been struck by how fluid the collaborative process has been in contrast with work I’ve done in years past. There’s a whole other layer to the work beyond just delivering a plot to Nate and then scripting over the finished artwork, thanks in a large part to things like texting and email. We’re able able to share random thoughts with each other on the fly in a way that couldn’t have happened in the past when writers and artists were limited to the phone, FedEx and the fax machine.
Nowhere Men is something you’ve had in your mind for a while – a nascent version of it even appeared in an early issue of Invincible. And you’ve been writing comics on and off since the early ’90s, when you worked for Rob Liefeld, going through to even write some books at Marvel like Wolverine and Fantastic Four. What’s it like to be able to come back to that and do more writing after so much time off?
Well, I didn’t really intend to take as long a break from writing as I did; it just worked out that way. Once I became executive director of Image in 2004, it was kind of a struggle just to finish the graphic novella I did with Jamie McKelvie, Long Hot Summer, because I would get home from the office and there just wouldn’t be anything in the tank. Nowhere Men was supposed to start after that, but the artist I was working with at the time ran into some health issues and then, when he came back from that, decided he couldn’t maintain a schedule that put drawing comics on top of his day job, and that was a little demoralizing. It was a while before I started to talking to Nate about the book, but the days and months pile up. In the long run, though, I think it was a good thing.
I don’t think I remembered the process being quite as time-consuming! There was a point back in the ’90s where I was doing something like five books a month, plus working on staff at Extreme every day, and I’m not sure how I managed that. I mean, I think there’s a very obvious difference in quality, I think, but even so, spending the time to do it all … I’m not sure where the energy came from. My absolute earliest contact with Warren Ellis was back during those days – he called up one day and asked how I managed to crank out all that work – and yeah, I totally get where he was coming from now.
Nowhere Men seems chockful of ideas. Do you think having a project gestate for so long in your head ultimately helped it?
Definitely. I think the version that came out is much, much better than what I’d originally had in mind. Also, in terms of picking away at it for so long, there were elements of the story that got moved around and refined. You can see some of that in the pages that ran in Invincible #19-20. That was the beginning of the story. We opened with a scene that eventually became the beginning of issue three, then immediately flashed back to the infected crew aboard the space station. The structure of World Corp. was very different at that point, too, and there was less context for what the company was all about.
It’s not just thinking about the project over a long period of time, though, it’s also a case of growing as a person. People move in and out of our lives and make their marks in different ways. We read, see and listen to things that affect us on different levels. We travel, we experience, we change … we grow. Going back to what I was saying about Extreme a minute ago – I was 24 when I started working for Rob, and completely new to comics. There’s a difference of 20 years there, and I think that time and that experience has been hugely influential on my thinking.
Do you have plans to do more writing, in addition to Nowhere Men, in the near future?
I was actually talking to Ron Richards, Image’s director of business development, about this yesterday afternoon. I’ve had another project in the back of my mind for a few years now, and yesterday, I had an interesting thought regarding who I’d like to do that with. We’ll see what happens, but theoretically, it’s something that could launch as early as 2014.
Do projects for you tend to start rolling faster once you have an artist in mind? Does cracking that code kind of instigate you to fast track it?
Not always, but yeah, it’s a big help. Before an artist is attached to something, you’re looking at it in kind of nebulous terms. Every artist has different strengths and styles vary so much – if you have your heart set on one particular vision and then you pair up with an artist with a wildly different style that doesn’t match that, it impacts the work. Also, unless you’re just looking at your artist as a kind of pencil robot who interprets your script without a lot of input, the overall shape of the whole thing is going to depend up on the creative rapport. With Nowhere Men, I knew I wanted to work with someone, very much kind of looking at the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby template, you know? Not in the negative association of that analogy, obviously, but rather the idealized version of that I think anyone who ever fell in love with the notion of the Marvel Bullpen has in his or her head on some level. I wanted to be able to bounce ideas around with my collaborator and make it our project, so that we were both expressing ourselves through the work. Once everything’s synced up, absolutely – it makes much more sense and everything gets easier from there.
Also I’ve seen you take on a more direct role in editing in the past year, from helping guide the return of the Extreme books with Liefeld to acting as a guide for Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga. I know Image is pretty hands-off when it comes to editing, but can you tell us about these situations and you taking a more active role besides publisher?
They’re two different situations entirely.
With Saga, Brian asked me to take on that responsibility, as minimal as it wound up being, simply because a lot of this stuff was new to him. I connected Brian and Fiona with Fonografiks, offered some input on the look of the book and things like that — some of which was wisely ignored — helped put the schedule together, things like that … Brian works in television as well, and I think he just wanted someone to run interference on some of the non-creative aspects of the book. For me, that meant getting to read a comic written by my favorite comic book writer before almost anyone else, as well as joining Brian in the experience of seeing Fiona’s pages before the rest of the world, and you know, what’s not to love about that?
With the Extreme relaunch, that was more a case of me going to Rob and saying, “What if we brought these books back?” Rob had ideas about how he wanted that to work, and I had my own ideas, and we worked that all out to both our liking. The impetus for that, though … well, it was less that Image or I wanted to be more directly involved, and more that I’d spent a number of years working with Rob and with these various characters, and I wanted to be involved in bringing them back.
One of the big successes for Image was the launching and ensuing success of Saga. I’ve noticed that Brian’s next comic, however, saw him go online and establish his own publishing outfit to do that. Could you foresee Image at some point making a concerted effort to do digital-first comics that would appeal to those looking for that?
Can you elaborate on that at all? Is it something you and the Image owners have discussed actively, and what do you think are the things Image would want to accomplish should they ever actively pursue digital publication?
I think it’s something everyone’s discussing everywhere, all the time, but I think the main concern is how to do it right. Any number of people have pitched the idea of doing work that is digital first, usually as a cost-saving measure, and honestly, you don’t want to just throw stuff out there as some kind of clearing house for … well, for work that may have terribly great odds of surviving in print. I think what Brian and Marcos Martin was smart – they created something excellent that would have succeeded no matter where or how it was done and it just happened to come out as a digital comic instead of print. So I think the main goal we’d have would be to do something that similarly stood on its own merits, as opposed to doing it just for then sake of doing it.
Earlier I kind of said being a publisher wasn’t creative, but I’ve seen how it can be with the way you’re cultivating creators and headhunting talent in recent years at Image. You pursued Brian K. Vaughn and Ed Brubaker for years I hear before they came over, and I’ve seen you publicly call out Rick Remender and Warren Ellis to return to the fold. What you’re doing seems to be a much more active approach than the way people used to think of Image – as resting on the popularity of their creator-owned deal and whatever submissions came through the door. Can you describe your thoughts on actively pursing talent to come to Image?
Well, you know, my main thing is not to be full of shit. I don’t think it’s to anyone’s benefit for me to lie to people or blow smoke up their asses. The people we actively pursue are people whose work I genuinely like — writers and artists I’m proud to be associated with.Life’s too short to be shackled to some wanker you can’t stand, just because you think you can make a buck off them, or whatever. I like the fact that the people we work with are a) some of the most creative people in comics, and b) people I genuinely like. One of the great things about comics is that most of the folks in this business share at least some of your interests, and maybe some of your quirks or your sense of humor, so it’s nice to be able to work with men and women you like, as oppose to … I don’t know, tolerate? I mean, I’ve worked jobs before where I had to kind of just endure my co-workers, and it’s no fun.
Another thing is that I have enough respect for our competition that I don’t walk around the show floor at whatever convention I’m at and ask creators to bring their book to Image from wherever it’s currently being published. You’d be fucking shocked how common a practice that is for other publishers, and whereas I think it’s one thing to say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing on fill-in-the-blank, let’s talk when you’re doing your next project,” actively pursuing books at other publishers is a pretty shitty, not to mention cowardly way to conduct your business. “Oh, I see someone else took the risk on this and now it’s successful – time to swoop in after the hard part’s done and dusted.”
I think there’s something to be said about just being straight with people and letting what you do speak for itself. We haven’t really changed our approach all that much over the years; it’s just a case of fine-tuning things here and there, I guess, and being a bit more vocal about what we do and more importantly, what we can all do together. You can look at it as “resting” on the creator-owned deal or whatever, but I prefer to look at it as emphasizing that creator-owned comics are not just what we do, but the only thing we do.
Another interviewer asked me recently why Image was a good home for something like The Walking Dead, and really you can insert just about any of our other titles into that question, but the answer is always going to be, because it had a chance to thrive here. Because it’s not going to be a distant priority to Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers, Star Wars, Star Trek, G.I. Joe or whatever the latest licensing trend is. Whether you’re a seasoned vet or new to the game, if you’re creative enough, you can stand on the same playing field as Robert Kirkman, Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman and all the rest. I mean, shit, East of West is proof positive of that. Jonathan started at Image as an unknown, did bigger and bigger projects, solidified his reputation by doing some high-profile work-for-hire gigs, and just launched a book that will ultimately rank as our second-best selling title for the month of March. That’s why Image was a good home for The Walking Dead. That’s why Image was a good home for East of West. And ultimately, that’s why Image is a good home for anyone with more ambition than just polishing the hood of someone else’s car.
Rick Remender … Rick’s someone I really like. We haven’t always seen eye to eye on things – we’ve had arguments, we’ve raised our voices at each other – but we’ve also had a lot of good times together, and I’ve always loved working with him. I think his past Image work is a treasure trove for anyone into his work, especially Strange Girl, and I was sad to see him take things like Fear Agent to another publisher. Likewise, I think Rick was sad to go, but like John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, and so here we are. I’d like to think Rick will be back at Image one day. That would make me personally very happy, and I think readers would be thrilled, too, because that guy has a hell of an imagination.
As a publisher, when you’re looking for inspiration or just trying to understand what’s possible, do you tend to look inside the comic industry or look broader at non-comic publishers, or even just general media publishers like movie companies, video game companies, and the like?
I pay as little attention to movie companies as possible, but I’m a pretty huge admirer of what Steve Jobs did at Apple and at Pixar. I think he left a bloody great gap in the world when he passed on. He used to talk about making in dent in the universe … I think he left a crater.
Beyond Steve Jobs, though … I love music, and one of my greatest interests is music history, whether it’s rock, pop and soul from the ’60s forward, or jazz from around the time of the late ’50s up through the ’70s. I find the story of jazz labels like Blue Note, Impulse and CTI profoundly inspirational – guys like Alfred Lion and Creed Taylor were fucking visionaries. And if you look at those labels beyond the business side, the records were just so impeccably designed – Reid Miles, Robert Flynn – and that’s something I’ve drawn a lot from, too. The way things look has always been important to me, I suppose. But yeah, there are all these great stories about record labels and the amazing people behind them – Motown, Stax, Island, Virgin, Factory, Rough Trade, even The Beatles with Apple Records – and I’ve found there’s a lot to take from the ups and downs of those business experiences.
And even in comics — I have always had a lot of respect for people who do their own thing. William Gaines is a big inspiration, Harvey Kurtzman. The EC and MAD legacy is something that always looms quite large in the back of my hand, and has done for years. Also, and it’s funny, because Bill Schanes is retiring now, and I’ve been thinking about this more and more as a result, but one of my earliest inspirations to get into comics was Captain Victory from Pacific Comics. I grew up reading nothing but Marvel comics and I was completely entranced by anything Jack Kirby did. I think the first DC comics I ever bought were the reprints of the New Gods they put out in the early ’80s, but before that happened, I was lured away from Marvel by Jack’s work on Captain Victory at Pacific Comics. Pacific was started by Bill and his brother Steve, and I remember being kind of blown away by the notion of someone starting a new, independent publisher that wasn’t Marvel or DC. As I’ve gotten to know Bill over the years, I’ve really come to admire what he accomplished back then, along with how he went about it, because he did most of that stuff when he was very, very young. Honestly, I think Bill’s story is one of the most interesting in modern comics, and it’s one I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from – he was a pioneer of independent comics, and as excited as I am to work with his successor, John Wurzer, I’m just really proud to have worked with someone like Bill, and I’m really going to miss him when he’s gone.
Do you feel comics in general is in a better place than it was 10 years ago?
Absolutely, and both creatively and in terms of the business end of things.
And what do you see as the potential avenues for comics to increase that growth in the next ten years?
Well, obviously, we’re going to continue to see growth in terms of digital, not only in terms of the current audience becoming more accepting of that format, but also in terms of new readers having more access to the product than ever before. Comic book stores, as much as I love them, ultimately have limited resources, and they can’t have every single comic book and trade paperback at all times, no matter how much you or I may want that to be the case. Some of them try, bless their souls, but you know ,it’s just not possible. With digital comics, that actually is possible, to the degree that you can be lying in bed at night and buy the latest issue of your new favorite comic when the impulse hits you.
That said, I also think there’s a very real opportunity of comic book stores to experience somewhat of a renaissance in the coming years. People look at bookstore closures, the big chains going out of business and things like that, and the reality of the situation is those places deserve to fail. They’re not too big to fail, they’re born to fail, because they’re these big soulless corporate palaces of bullshit that cater to the lowest common denominator. The strength and the weakness of the direct market is that it’s a marketplace built on passion, and I think over the last 10 years or so, retailers have become more adept at channeling that passion, so that while there may be fewer stores than in the ’80s or the ’90s, there are better stores than we’ve ever seen before. I remember reading Warren Ellis railing on about the comic book store as a dingy man cave that held about as much appeal for people as the corner porn shop, but things have come a long way since then. I was on the judging committee for the Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing award last year, and I saw some absolutely fantastic shops, from all over the country, and it gave me a great deal of hope for where comics retailing is going in the future.