Image Expo 2013: The Good Stuff

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Daniel Elkin, Jason Sacks

On Tuesday, July 2nd, Comics Bulletin's Publisher, Jason Sacks, and Comics Bulletin's sandwich aficionado, Daniel Elkin, wandered into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco to experience Image Expo 2013, “a single day event that invites fans of Image Comics to join influential members of the press and comics retailer community for the first look at WHAT'S NEXT from Image Comics.” The following is a recap of that experience.

Elkin: Image Expo 2013 has come and gone and I'm still trying to wrap my head around what the whole experience amounted to. This odd press conference/marketing ploy/mini-con/rumpus stands out for seemingly not really knowing what it wanted to be, yet pulling it off almost flawlessly.

All sorts of things occurred during the day which added to the dichotomous nature of the experience. From the very start, Eric Stephenson's keynote address struck the right balance between a stockholder's meeting and pre-Comicon hype session – lauding the unique role and successes of Image as a publisher, while gushing over creators and their upcoming books.

A haphazard merch table was set up for eager consumers to pay for and drool over a plethora of Image offerings and exclusives. It seemed to be doing a brisk business throughout the entire day's programing with little to no fanfare, while all the time enshrouded in an attitude of “Hey, check out some cool shit while you wait around for something to happen somewhere...

And then there were the panels where Image employees talked to individual creators about their work for Image (ESPECIALLY how it differed from their work at DC or Marvel), followed by a short Q and A session from the crowd. These panels were relaxed, chummy, a downright loveable. They were kind of like a family event, where proud dad gets to talk to their kid about what they've been doing lately while simultaneously looking for investors. These panels were sales pitches as much as group hugs.

While the panels were going on, upstairs other creators were doing handshakes and book signings for long lines of fans. While I didn't stand in line or get anything signed, this part of the Expo seemed calculated, obligatory, and antithetical to the whole feel of the thing.

And then there was the fact that the whole program consisted exclusively of a bunch of white men.....

I don't know....

It was a weird experience all around. Entertaining, informative, engaging, but weird all the same. Before we get into the specifics of the event, though, I was wondering what your overall sense of Image Expo 2013 was, Sacks?

Image Expo 2013

Sacks: As you know, Elkin, I flew down to San Francisco for the day this year just to experience Image Expo in all its glory. I remembered how much I'd enjoyed the previous Image Expo in Oakland a year or two ago and was anxious to relive that experience. The first Image Expo is still one of my favorite conventions I've ever attended. There was tremendous access to creators at that Con, the very large hall was friendly and filled with a good Artist's Alley and a wide range of retailers, and the afterparty was fantastic. For all intents and purposes, Image Expo 2012 was just a smaller and slightly more specific version of a standard comics con.

Of course, this year's Image Expo was a very different animal. It was intended and planned as much more of a PR and marketing event in which exactly what was promised actually did happen – a group of prominent Image creators were walked onto the stage, where they did nice presentations and informal Q&As about their books and their approach to doing a book at Image.

And while that was very nice and interesting since the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was a very lovely theatre and had good acoustics and comfortable seating, it also left a major of void at the center of the event. I kept wanting there to be more there there, to quote Gertrude Stein. As you mentioned, this was a weird experience.

The panels were like one individual panel room at a convention, but I kept wanting to be able to wander into another panel room to learn about, I don't know, Hanna-Barbera cartoons or Matt Fraction's new comics at Marvel. The one table that sold stuff was nice enough if you were willing to brave the line to pick up special Image Expo versions of some of the books for sale (and I have to admit that I picked up a few of those books in order to sell on eBay and make back a little bit of the expense of my trip), but that was all, and the line was extremely long most of the time. Then there were the signings, which, as you said, were rather antithetical to the whole event.

The best parts of the day for me, aside from hanging out with friends and enjoying free drinks at Jillians, were away from the convention: lunch with cool friends, a fascinating trip to the amazing Comic Art Museum, a short moment to enjoy beautiful San Francisco.

But yeah, Elkin, I have to agree with you that this ultimately felt like a kind of empty experience, a day that I could just as happily spent riding the cable cars and wandering Fisherman's Wharf as sitting in a nice theatre listening to hours of hype.

Image Expo 2013

Elkin: You quoted Gertrude Stein – I'm almost tempted to quote Johnny Rotten, “Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?” But we weren't really, were we? I felt a bit used by the end of the day, like I had been cleverly manipulated by a much larger PR machine than I had expected, although I did have a really good time and I in no way want to come across as having any negative feelings towards to fine folks at Image. They put on one hell of a show, whatever it was, AND they gave me a free t-shirt as well.

But anyway – let's talk hype. Looking at the notes I took during Stephenson's keynote a couple of things stand out first. He did a fine job of communicating what makes Image different from other publishers, where they allow creators to “own and control” their work and help their “creative vision blossom and survive”. Image opperates as a “facillitator” which gives creators “the platform to create” by giving them “resources and support and opportunities.”

He then went about breaking down how Image has been steadily growing as a major comics publisher, citing some pretty heafty statistics, especially in terms of their gains on Marvel and DC (or, as he framed it, Disney and Warner Brothers). He also talked a bit about how digital sales have been growing as well, projecting about 15% of total sales in 2013. My notes also show that he said something to the effect of “Kafka meets American Idol”, but I have no idea what that was in reference to.

Then came the shilling.

First up was one of the major reasons Image can tout the success numbers they can - Robert Kirkman. Kirkman has been writing The Walking Dead for 10 years now, which is a pretty fucking amazing feat in and of itself. Kirkman announced that beginning with issue 115 there will be a new story line, a 12 issue arc called All Out War that is going to be shipping bi-weekly. In the world of The Walking Dead, civilization has begun rebuilding and the survivors have begun developing factions.

Any thoughts on this, Sacks?

Image Expo 2013

Sacks: It's exciting to see Walking Dead move ahead as a series, and judging by the response that Kirkman and Stephenson got from the crowd with that announcement, it's clear that Deadheads could not be more excited by that news. I honestly haven't been a big Walking Dead fan for a while – nothing really against the series, I just grew tired of its unrelenting darkness and the feeling that it was beginning to repeat itself – but I think it's important for the series to have a feeling of forward movement and begin to explore what happens after the zombie apocalypse.

I was more intrigued by the announcement and discussions of Matt Fraction's two new Image series. Satellite Sam just premiered and is the subject of a really interesting review on CB, September brings Fraction's Sex Criminals, which sounds really freaking amazing. It seems that Fraction, who wears the most amazing shoes of any comics creator I know, is really enjoying the freedom that Image offers him to explore the types of material he could never get away with at Marvel. And I think that's fucking awesome, with that word appropriately chosen.

Image Expo 2013

Elkin: The fact that Fraction matched his tie to his shoes elevates him to a new kind of cool.

Being all kinds of a Fraction fan, I too was very excited about his announcements, especially Sex Criminals with Chip Zdarsky coming out in September. When Fraction promises that a new series is going to be one of the weirdest things he's ever created, I feel my testicles pull up into my pelvic cavity just a little bit in excitement (is that too much information?). I know I'm going to have to push a few CB reviewers into the mud to get my hands on this one first (I'm looking at you, Keith Silva). The concept of being able to stop time by fucking sounds like something Fraction cooked up one night... if you know what I mean … and his wife, I think, should be both honored and embarrassed at the same time.

I'm also looking forward to ODY-C, his take on the story of Odysseus that he's doing with Christian Ward. As Fraction explained it, it's going to be this science fiction thing in which all the male roles of the epic are recast as women, and vice-versa. He said he's doing this series for his daughter. I think that's sweet.

I guess another bit of exciting news we were treated to is the return of Rick Remender to Image with Black Science, which he's doing with Matteo Scalera, and Deadly Class with Wesley Craig. From Remender's description of it, Deadly Class seems to be a book written for a couple of '80s outcasts like us, huh Sacks.

Image Expo 2013

Sacks: I'm running images (ha!) from these Image Comics right next to this article, so we can see the bizarre awesomeness of the new Fraction/Zdarsky series as we discuss it. From the first five-page preview in the Image Comics What's Next comic, it looks like Sex Criminals could be an awful lot of fun. Unfortunately there's no preview of ODY-C included in that comic, but I'm sure that with Christian Ward at the artistic helm of that series, it will be a tremendously trippy and fun journey across the stars.

Deadly Class does seem like all sorts of fun – kind of Jimmie Robinson's Five Weapons crossed with Morrissey's "Viva Hate". I'm curious how this comic will be received because honestly the excerpt I read seems a bit odd in terms of its timeframe – there are a lot more tattoos in Remender's 1987 than I remember from that time, for one thing. This series has real promise as a silly humor/action adventure/slice of life comic, but I'm less excited by it now that I'm reading part of the first issue. Maybe they'll work out the quirks before January.

Black Science looks incredible, a kind of sideways sequel to Fear Agent, which I loved (ever read it, Elkin?) I think I enjoy Remender best when he's placing thoroughly fucked-up guys onto bizarre alien landscapes, and it appears that's just what this comic book is going to be.

What's your take on Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's Velvet, Elkin? To me, this comic could be either an awesomely fun inversion of gender roles in the spy game or a by-the-numbers sort of spy thriller that happens to have a woman as its lead. I suppose we can count on some thoroughly professional writing and art on the book, but will that make Velvet strong enough to transcend its influences?

Image Expo 2013

Elkin: I like Brubaker best when he's not writing about super heroes, so I'm game for Velvet. I gonk me a good espionage tale, and I'm glad to see Brubaker taking on a female protagonist. I'd give it a go on the strength of Brubaker alone. At Image Expo 2013, he was by far the most relaxed person on stage at any time, and he kept seeming to invite himself onto almost every panel there was. How can you not like the guy?

I was also glad to hear him say that he and Sean Phillips still have a bit more Fatale in them. That series has been one good read.

I do want to mention old J. Michael Straczynski, since he showed up on stage a couple of times at Expo. Not only is he currently working at Image with Ben Templesmith on Ten Grand, but he's bringing back some of his failed Icon titles, Dream Police with newcomer Sid Kotian and The Book of Lost Souls with Colleen Doran, as well. But most importantly, if I am not mistaken, he also mentioned that he's got another title coming out called Alone that will feature both interior and cover art by Bill Seinkiewicz (gird your loins, Keith Silva)!?!

I have to ask, how the hell does JMS keep ending up working with artists of this caliber. Are his books any good? I liked Rising Stars way back when, but I can't shake a stick at anything else that would make me say, “Ohhhh, a new Straczynski book is hitting soon!” What am I missing? Help me out here, Sacks.

Or ignore me completely and talk about Jason Aaron and Jason Latour's Southern Bastards. Your call.

Image Expo 2013

Sacks: Yeah, JMS is one of those guys I really don't understand, to be honest, Elkin. His books are almost pretty much universally panned by fans – look at the reaction to "One More Day", his "Superman: Grounded" arc and that terrible Superman: Earth One monstrosity he created – but he still keeps getting major work with important artists. You mentioned him and Ben Templesmith on Ten Grand which now has a handful of issues out, and which is also receiving rave reviews for the art and massive pans for the writing.

And yet the dude keeps getting the best artists. I dunno. Maybe he still has some pull in LA for film projects and that brings the good illustrators on board? I know talented, experienced people such as Colleen Doran and Bill Sienkiewicz won't hook up with just anybody, and man doesn't Alone sound like bait for you and Silva to chew on for hours? But isn't your excitement for that series tempered somewhat by JMS being involved with it? I kind of wish I had his secret. I want to fail repeatedly and still be offered more work. I did think his joke about the chairs was pretty funny, though.

The new Jason Aaron/Jason Latour book sounds amazing. I love how Aaron described it – as Scalped set in the Deep South, with an asshole sheriff who knows precisely where all the bodies are buried. I think we can guess at the awesomely violent potential of that story, and I think we can guess what a smash hit that will be.

So it's clear that Image is doing a great job at stripping away some of the best-known writers from the Big Two to do work for them; what projects from other creators have you excited? Kurtis Wiebe is a hot name right now (to his obvious surprise); are you geeked for his Rat Queens, drawn by Roc Upchurch, which looks like it might be just a little bit similar to Skullkickers? How about Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios's interesting-sounding off-kilter Western Pretty Deadly? What else struck your fancy, my fancy friend?

Image Expo 2013

Elkin: Fancy is as fancy does and I too am interested in Aaron/Latour's Southern Bastards, if, for no other reason, than to witness some rednecks getting stomped. Apparently there is also barbeque, and who doesn't like barbeque?

I'm also looking forward to whatever Wiebe is up to. Oh, and hey, remember when Mark Millar showed up via video? He's talking about launching an integrated universe of his own at Image. That could either be interesting or a colossal failure. I assume that his cache is starting to wear a bit thin though?

There's also a new Darren Aronofsky book coming out from Image setting the Biblical story of Noah in a science fiction landscape. That could be as bad as The Fountain? Then there's the news that Image will be offering DRM-free digital downloads for some of their books. I'm not a digital comics reader, but that sounds like a pretty good deal for those of you who are.

Image sure does have a lot of exciting things headed down the pike. As they only have a staff of 16 folks running the joint, it's pretty amazing they have been able to position themselves as the publisher of note for those with something interesting to say.

The shift towards creator-owned properties continues in comics, and Image is leading the way with great books, smart marketing, word of mouth, and weird events like Image Expo 2013. 

Hmmmm..... I wonder if they would be interested in my creator-owned sandwich idea....

Image Expo 2013


Daniel Elkin tends to layer his cynicism thick between two slices of bread and then slather it in condiments and sweetmeats. He can be found on Twitter -- @DanielElkin -- doing just that. He is also Your Chicken Enemy.

Jason Sacks is the Publisher of Comics Bulletin, which means he really likes comic books. No foolin'! He occassionally tweets @jasonsacks and would sure appreciate a follow. Or a beer.

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