Eric Stephenson (Part 1): Image’s 2011 and the Future of Comics

A comics interview article by: Morgan Davis


After Eric Stephenson contacted me to say thanks for an article I wrote about Image’s success with some of their newest titles, I jumped at the chance to ask for an interview. As the Publisher of Image Comics, Stephenson is an important figure in the comics industry no matter how you cut it, but he’s also well-respected for his frank, intelligent interviews and passion for creator-owned work. He also has ridiculously great taste in music.

Taking time off from his busy schedule to speak with me about the great 2011 Image is having, his beef with the Village Voice, and the occasional bad manners of the Big Two, Stephenson more than lived up to his reputation. I hope you find this interview as entertaining and enlightening as I did.

Morgan Davis: Even though we're not quite at the halfway point yet, this has already been quite the year for Image, with several of your new series selling out their debut issues. Do you think anything has changed within Image to bring about such success or do you think this is a case of consumer and Image interests harmonizing?

Eric Stephenson: I think it's the latter. Someone was commenting to me a few weeks back that it seemed like Image was publishing the best books we've done in a long time, and I actually kind of took issue with that viewpoint, because I think we've been putting out fantastic comics for several years at this point. 

Things like FellCasanovaFear AgentStrange GirlHawaiian DickThe Nightly NewsPhonogramGødland,Dynamo 5, Elephantmen and Girls were all coming out together, right alongside things like The Walking Dead and Invincible, but as good as those books were, they definitely weren't getting the same amount of attention we're seeing now. I think the big difference these days is that there's a growing unrest amongst readers who've become increasingly tired of this treadmill where it's just one shameless cash grab event after another, wash, rinse, repeat.

Davis: At the same time, you just took part in a fairly controversial Village Voice piece that seemingly took a shot at the impracticality of comics as a profession. Do you think more traditional areas of publishing still view comics as financially irrelevant?

Stephenson: You know, that article was bullshit, and the writer who cobbled that together pretty much cherry-picked my responses to his questions in such a way that what I was saying seemed to support the Village Voice's position. 

They asked me what an average income was for people doing books through Image, and I said an average wouldn't give them the full story, because on one hand, you've got people like Robert Kirkman and Todd McFarlane doing very, very well, but on the other, there are books that flat out don't sell. In-between those two extremes, there are people making various amounts of money from their work, and really, no two books are the same in that regard. 
But they wanted to focus on the part where I said there are instances where the books don't make money, no matter how good they are.

Do more traditional areas of publishing think comics are financially irrelevant? Well, the Village Voice does, obviously, but who cares what the editors of the Village Voice think? How relevant is the Village Voice these days? I don't sit around worrying about impressing the Village Voice, and I can't imagine that's a concern of anyone else working in comics, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Davis: You published your unedited quotes from that article alongside the published segments and it was interesting to me to see how different your point became in the editing. It was clear to me from your blog post that you were trying to indicate that there are different levels of success at Image. Given that, in what ways do you define success at Image?

Stephenson: There are different degrees of success, for sure. Some books make a lot of money, some make a decent amount of money, some make nothing. Some make what amounts to beer money. 

At the same time, the expectations are different, depending on the individual creator. There are creators hoping to make a living at comics, certainly, but then there are also writers or artists working in other fields who have more or less said, "I don't care if this ever sees a dime, I just need to get this story out there." So in those cases, I think success is defined by how well the finished project turns out, as opposed to just the sales figures, whatever they may be. And some of those projects wind up being financially successful in a cumulative sense -- we have done books that have quietly ticked over and brought in very nice returns for the creators involved over an extended period of time. 

Would it be preferable if everything was selling like gangbusters and everybody who published through Image was making a load of money right out of the gate? Well, sure, I don't think anybody would have a problem with that, but looking at things pragmatically, that's just not the way it happens to be on an across-the-board basis.

Davis: Do you think the increasing interest in digital sales of comics will change what makes a book successful?

Stephenson: Eventually. That's not really happening on a wide scale right now, but it's early days yet. I think there will eventually be books that find a greater audience through digital sales than print sales, though. It's only a matter of time at this point. In the short term, everything counts. Whether it's print or digital, it's a sale.

Davis: Specifically, do you think the decreased costs associated with digital sales will make it easier for some books to continue at Image where they wouldn't have been necessarily sustainable in print?

Stephenson: That's certainly possible. It's not cheap to print anything, let alone comics, so yeah, print distribution instantly cuts out a very large expense. At the same time, though, if something's not successful in print, it doesn't suddenly take on some whole new life via digital distribution. 

I've talked to a few people who seem to think there are books that will do better digitally, because the cost is lower or whatever, and that's just not the case. You can pretty much go down the list of what our most successful books are in print, and that's mirrored almost exactly on the digital side.

Davis: When we hear that a book from Image has sold out, how much of an impact does that really have for the company as a whole? For its creators?

Stephenson: Image makes the same amount of money off every single comic book, whether it's our most successful title or our least successful. We take a flat fee. With trade paperbacks and graphic novels, the model is somewhat different, but for single issue comics, there really is no monetary difference between a huge hit, a steady seller or a book that doesn't quite make the grade. 

The impact is much greater for the individual creators, and that impact varies by degree, based entirely on orders. I mean, in the most basic terms, when a book sells out, that's nice in terms of publicity, but it means we are no longer selling that book, and really, we would prefer to sell more copies. 

But the real benefit comes from the kind of buzz we've been getting off the last several months' worth of releases and the overall growth of the line as a whole. I hate to pull an old and overused phrase out of dry dock, but a rising tide really does raise all boats. We've gone from strength to strength over the last year or so, and looking at the first quarter of 2011, we're doing better than we did during the first quarter of 2010. And 2010 wasn't shabby -- we had a much better 2010 than 2009. But it's only now that people are starting to pay attention to the fact that Image is thriving and growing, and I think that's down to how well-received these latest books have been.

Now read part two of the interview with Eric!


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