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“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.
Digital comics | The manga publisher Viz Media has signed on to iVerse’s digital comics app for libraries; this is big news, because manga, especially Viz’s teen-friendly line, is still very popular in libraries. [press release]
Publishing | In his address last weekend to the ComicsPRO annual meeting in Atlanta, Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson urged the audience to continue asking “What’s next?” [Comics Alliance]
Retailing | Journalist and retailer Matthew Price wraps up the ComicsPRO meeting, noting Diamond’s report of a healthy year for comics retailers, with comics sales up 16 percent, graphic novels up 13 percent, and merchandise up 9 percent from last year. [The Oklahoman]
When Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson came up with the idea for Nowhere Men, he knew not just any comic artist could handle the project. Luckily for him, Nate Bellegarde isn’t just any comic artist.
Based in Boston, Bellegarde clawed his way into comics at an early age, making his professional debut at age 16 with a back-up strip in Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s Battle Pope. He continued his association with Kirkman, providing back-ups for early issues of Invincible with Benito Cereno before segueing to their own standalone series with Hector Plasm. Bellegarde kept busy doing the first volume of Tim Seeley’s Loaded Bible before being enlisted by Kirkman for Invincible spinoff books like Brit and Invincible Presents: Atom Eve & Rex Splode. His art had the crisp, clear style of his colleagues Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, but his linework betrayed a more subversive subtext. Each of his previous projects seemed to capitalize on part of the skill set Bellegarde had been honing over the years, but never quite captured all of it at once — until Nowhere Men.
Mixing the interpersonal conflicts of science projects like The Right Stuff with more esoteric fiction constructs like the best of Franco-Belgian comics (and a side of British Invasion-era music), Nowhere Men is an uncommon, and uncompromising, piece of work. With three issues on stands and the fourth due March 6, I spoke with Bellegarde about Nowhere Men and its role in his pursuit of a life in comics.
“… the sentiment he’s complaining about is invariably the oldest one there is: ‘The first issue has to give me a reason to buy the second issue, and it didn’t.‘ Yeah: that’s not a ‘trend’ or a ‘meme’ or a ‘fad’— that’s the job. That’s always been the job. That ‘trend’ started at the dawn of the enterprise.”
Image Comics has further clarified its reprint policy, telling retailers that while it’s “pretty essential” to go back to press as long as there’s demand for certain titles, “The thing we can’t do, though, is just reprint everything indefinitely.”
“That was the problem with Saga: We’d reprinted the first six issues already, and it was beginning to look – to us, anyway, or at the very least, to me – like the reprints were becoming a kind of crutch,” Publisher Eric Stephenson writes in the company’s weekly newsletter. “Looking at the way that particular book was selling out every issue, despite both overprints and a proliferation of new printings, it just seemed like we weren’t building any momentum on something that, by all indications, should have been doing exactly that.”
Noting that, “barring extraordinary circumstances, reprinting later issues of a book just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Stephenson promises retailers “that when circumstances dictate that something needs to be reprinted to meet demand: We’ll do that, but we’re not going to just reprint everything as a matter of course. As ‘policy’ goes, I think that’s pretty straightforward.”
Image will continue retailer incentives for new series, and also offer discounts to encourage orders for first issues of new arcs of long-running series following the release of a collection — or, as he calls them, “bridge issues,” “so that you can convert some of your trade waiters to monthly customers, or have an easy sell to someone who is just discovering the series through the trade.” The full statement can be read below.
The newsletter follows a rather brusque announcement last week that Image would end second printings of “known over-performers,” and a subsequent open letter from Stephenson admitting to displeased retailers that it was “a rash decision made somewhat in haste and a little bit out of frustration.”
Following a brusque announcement earlier this week that Image Comic would no longer offer second printings of “known over-performers,” Publisher Eric Stephenson has issued an open letter to retailers admitting to “a rash decision made somewhat in haste and a little bit out of frustration.”
The initial statement, written by Image’s PR and marketing coordinator Jennifer de Guzman, expressed exasperation with store owners under-ordering Saga #7, which marked the return from hiatus of the hit series by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, and stated in no certain terms that neither that issue nor Issue 8 would be reprinted. “We have decided to cease second printings of single issues of titles that are known over-performers in hopes that it will help initial sales find their proper level,” de Guzman wrote. “That’s marketing-speak for ‘You know this sells, so you’d better make sure you order enough!’”
The tone of the newsletter, and the potential impact of the policy, raised eyebrows among store owners and readers alike, and sparked interesting, and spirited online discussion. But just two days later, Image has changed course. “Believe it or not, we listen to you,” Stephenson wrote. The company now will reprint Saga #7, and offer it at “a massive discount” to retailers.
“… Without going all old man on everyone, I grew up in a time when you could still go to the movies or sit down to watch something on TV without knowing everything there was to know about it beforehand. Trailers didn’t give everything way, you couldn’t download an album a month before it was out, and you weren’t reading solicitation copy for comics that wouldn’t be out for another three months. It’s like – I saw Star Wars in the theater based off a couple television commercials. I saw a lot of movies just because I liked the way the posters looked, or because they sounded cool. I picked up my first issue of X-Men the same day I bought a used copy of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars with money I’d earned mowing lawns and I didn’t have clue one what either were about prior to the moment I flopped onto my bed to read the one while listening to the other. They both had an immediate impact on me – it was like entering two completely different worlds at once. It’s harder to do that now, because both entertainment and information are transferred so quickly now and maybe withholding information will backfire on us, but I think trying to create something for people to discover is worth a try.”
– Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson, explaining his resistance to providing details
about his upcoming series Nowhere Men
“Part of what we do is make good comics, and we want to be the best version of Image Comics. But part of what we do is create a sustainable market. It has to be a part of what we do. Things like Saga and Walking Dead and Fatale, these are things that people want to return to. People can recommend these things to their friends, even people that don’t read comics. As opposed to tailchasing events, these yearly spike makers, but who’s going to be talking about AvX ten years from now?”
– Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson, on how the company contributes to the health of the industry
Ever since Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson launched his blog in 2010, it’s been home to some well thought-out essays on comics as the longtime pro sees it, and this week is no different. In a post titled “A Good Idea,” Stephenson addresses the perception some fans have that many comics created today are merely back-door pitches for movies or television series. And while he admits that’s sometimes the case, even at Image, he argues it’s not a bad thing.
“Let’s pretend for a moment that virtually everyone writing and drawing creator-owned comics is only doing so because they want to shop their ideas around to Hollywood, so they can be turned into television shows and movies. Or both,” Stephenson writes. “Let’s say these creative people are so driven by ambition that selling comic books simply isn’t enough. They don’t just want their stories to reach comic book readers – they want them to reach the world. They want as many people as possible to read their stories, to look at their artwork, to experience their creativity.”
Conventions | New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has mothballed plans for a giant convention center in Queens, leaving the unlovely, unloved, but well-situated Javits Center as the home of New York Comic-Con for the near future. [The New York Times, via The Beat]
Publishing | Alex Klein sees the “outing” of Green Lantern Alan Scott as a desperate move to boost sales by a publisher whose market share is dropping: “Switching up sexual orientation is a cunning way of compensating for flagging sales and aging characters. In the meantime, the industry is rebalancing: toward independent publishers, author ownership, and cross-platform digital tie-ins. As small studios sap talent from the giant conglomerates, comics are changing—and there’s a lot of money to be made in the process—just not in the comics themselves.” And he talks to The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and Image publisher Eric Stephenson about what they can do that the Big Two can’t. [The Daily Beast]
Conventions | ReedPOP has officially announced it will fold the New York Anime Festival into New York Comic Con, rather than continue them as separate events held at the same location. “This move has nothing to do with our loyalty or commitment to the anime community and everything to do with the growth and identity of New York Comic Con as a leading pop culture event,” ReedPOP’s Lance Fensterman said in a statement. “NYCC embraces all elements of the pop culture world, including anime, and we have evolved to a point where the existence of NYAF outside our universe is almost a contradiction. We will be better able to serve the anime community from within the NYCC infra-structure rather than have a show which is separate and which will always be dwarfed by everything that New York Comic Con represents and is.” [press release]
Passings | Cartoonist Jim Unger, whose one-panel comic Herman served as an inspiration for Gary Larson’s The Far Side, passed away Monday at his home in British Columbia. He was 75. The comic appeared in about 600 newspapers worldwide from 1974 until Unger’s retirement in 1992. [The Daily Cartoonist]
In a three-part interview with ICv2.com, Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson talks in his typical straightforward fashion about a number of topics, ranging from the state of the market and the phenomenon of The Walking Dead collections to the early success of Saga and competing with “the DC and Marvel superhero stuff.” The entire Q&A is worthwhile reading, but here are some of the highlights:
On creators’ rights: “People talk to me about what’s going on with the Watchmen stuff. If Image Comics had been around when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wanted to do Watchmen, they would have had someplace else they could have gone to do that type of work. The situation that developed out of what did or didn’t happen with those contracts would have been irrelevant because they would have had a deal that offered them 100 percent creator ownership.”
On competing with long-established properties from Marvel and DC Comics: “If you look at the success stories over the last 20 years (start with Sandman, which is a weird deal between DC and Neil [Gaiman]), and moving up until now, you can’t point to anything new that has been created by Marvel and DC that’s had any lasting impact, but there are all these things, whether it’s Bone, Hellboy, Sin City, The Walking Dead or Y: The Last Man, that are all tremendously successful properties that have done especially well as trade paperback sales both in and outside the comics market. Those things support the fact that there’s an audience for new material. Is there an audience for superhero stuff? Of course, all of the DC and Marvel superhero stuff that goes back 50, 60, 70 years, those people are going to be there, but I think there’s an audience that craves something new. Once you’ve read a story about Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin for the dozenth time, I think you get hungry for something else. I think there are publishers out there who provide that something else.”
“… we could use more books with talking tigers, am I right?”
– Joe Keatinge
If, like Joe, you think comics could use more talking tigers, then Ryan Ferrier has the comic for you. Tiger Lawyer, his self-published comic, is now available through his Big Cartel site as either a print or digital comic, and very soon, it’ll start appearing in Keatinge’s Hell Yeah comic.
Ferrier was kind enough to answer a few questions about Tiger Lawyer and his subpoena into the pages of Hell Yeah.
JK Parkin: I’m sure you’ve been asked about this a million times already, but the title, Tiger Lawyer, is the kind that elicits a chuckle and makes you wonder where the idea came from. So, where did the initial idea come from?
Ryan Ferrier: I really wish I had a cool story for this question, but alas it was one of those things that I’ve completely forgotten, though I’m fairly certain it stemmed from something I posted on Twitter last December, something silly. It was a tweet along the lines of Tiger Lawyer being my next comic, made entirely with sarcasm. I do remember gearing up to tackle a different script, and decided to actually write Tiger Lawyer–the script that would become the first short–one afternoon. I immediately posted the script online, and surprisingly, people dug it enough for me to actually make it.
“The numbers don’t lie: More people are reading Image comics every single week, and those numbers are going to increase, whether they get them from your stores or from someplace else, because no offense to everyone who made the last 20 years so vital and creative, but right now, we’re blasting headlong into the future and creating some of the best comics in history.
See – in the past, when everyone claimed the sky was falling, it was because we were losing readers in droves – and worse, we were losing stores – because our numbers had been inflated by speculation. But the reason the sky isn’t falling now – the reason we’re actually skyrocketing – is because there are readers – real readers, the kind of customers we all want – in abundance. It’s our job – yours, mine, and the creators we publish – to capture their attention and give them the kind of experience they’ll come back for again and again.”
– Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson, in his speech at the Diamond Retailer Summit at C2E2
Awards | Big Questions by Anders Nilsen has won the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize for 2012, the second such award given by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book. The organization also named four honorees: Freeway by Mark Kalesniko, Habibi by Craig Thompson, Life with Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier and Zahra’s Paradise by Amir and Khalil. The awards will be presented during a ceremony at Penn State later this year. [Pennsylvania Center for the Book]
Publishing | IDW Publishing has promoted Dirk Wood to vice president of marketing. Wood joined IDW in 2010 as director of retail marketing. [IDW Publishing]
Conventions | Misha Davenport previews this weekend’s Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo. [Chicago Sun-Times]