"Fortune favors the bold"—Image Comics' Publisher Eric Stephenson's Image Expo keynote speech
February 21, 2018
Fortune favors the bold—Image Comics' Publisher Eric Stephenson's Image Expo keynote speech
The following is the transcript for the keynote speech given at Image Expo on Wednesday, February 21st.
The following is the transcript for the keynote speech given at Image Expo on Wednesday, February 21st.
If you’re visiting, welcome to one of the coolest cities in America.
If you’re a Portland native, thank you for being such a welcoming host to Image during our first year in this fantastic city.
A couple years ago, Image was in town for ComicsPRO – an event Portland is hosting again this week – and I was at dinner with some local writers and artists when Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson stopped by our table and welcomed us to “Comic Book CIty, USA.” MIke was very visibly proud of Portland’s emerging status as a comic hub. And he should be proud, because if not for his efforts, Portland’s comics community would be nowhere near as vibrant. Mike didn’t just found Dark Horse Comics, he built a home for comics here in Portland, and we should all be thankful for his efforts, because as a result he made a wonderful place even better.
I’m proud to work in comics.
I’ve been in this business for 26 years now – just over half my life – and while every job has its ups and downs, I’ve always been thankful for the opportunities that led me to my current position.
Telling people I work in comics is always fun. Even if I’m in conversation with someone who has never read a comic book in their life, they are always impressed, and they always want to know more about our industry.
It’s been a few years now, but just before President’s Day a while back, I was talking to some friends, and mentioned that I was going into the office that Monday instead of taking the day off. Someone I’d just met screwed up her face and said she felt sorry for me, but I quickly noted I didn’t feel bad about it at all, because I loved going to work every day. She said, “You must have a pretty awesome job, then,” and I said, “I do: I work in comics.”
So yeah, I’m proud of my job.
And of course, I’m especially proud to work for Image.
One of the more unexpected joys of living in Portland has been how aware everyone here is of Image and how excited they are that we moved here.
When Image was founded 26 years ago, the company was in California – first in Fullerton, then Anaheim, then in the City of Orange – but we moved up to the Berkeley in the Bay Area in 2004.
Image remained in the Bay Area for 12 years, and while it’s a wonderful place in its own right, I’d be hesitant to say it ever truly felt like home. In fact, after the initial announcement about our move to Portland, I did more interviews about Image with Portland’s local news over a few weeks than we’d done with Bay Area news outlets during our entire stay there.
But the people of Portland are proud of their city’s connection to the comics industry, and that’s made us proud to be here. It feels good to join Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in such a comics-centric city, and our first year here has been nothing short of fantastic.
I went through several different drafts of a keynote speech before today, because while last year may have been great for Image Comics, it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in the rest of industry.
By most accounts, 2017 was not a banner year for the comics industry as a whole. The market, overall, was down, and as a result, 2018 has started off on a less than positive note for many.
That’s understandable, to a certain degree – January and February are typically the slowest months for the comics business, and coming off a rough year is the surest way to sow the seeds for a winter of discontent.
All the same, I think it’s easy to forget how good we have it sometimes.
For decades, we had to hunt for our favorite comics at newsstands, pharmacies, and convenience stores, but thanks to comic book shops, we have an entire marketplace that caters to our tastes. If there isn’t a comic book store nearby, thanks to the Internet, we can order almost anything we want online, and thanks to mobile technology, we can read comics right on our phones.
And there are some great comics to read right now.
Once upon a time, comics were dismissed as disposable entertainment for children, and that short-sighted view of our medium meant that anything deemed potentially harmful to younger readers was prohibited from publication, so more sophisticated storytelling was shunned in favor of costumed heroics. Over time, comics became almost synonymous with superheroes. Thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of our industry’s writers and artists, though, as well as the stores willing to support a broader vision of what comics could be, we now have more choices than ever and the only limit to the kind of comics we produce is our imaginations.
As a result of that growth in ingenuity and imagination, the talent pool in comics is becoming richer and more diverse than ever before. If comics are created for everyone, then they should be created by everyone – and while there is still an urgent need for improvement, diversity is becoming the norm as opposed to the exception.
That growing diversity is nowhere more apparent than in comics’ audience. Comic book conventions started out as small gatherings of collectors that occasionally had writers and artists in attendance to sign autographs and talk to fans. Back then, both retailers and fans alike were mostly men, but anyone who has been to a comic book convention in the last several years knows that is very much not the case now. Whether large or small, today’s comics conventions are vibrant celebrations of popular culture with audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and those audiences are made up of everyone.
Comics look better than they ever have, thanks to improvements in technology that have allowed artists to improve the quality of their work and made it possible for publishers to raise the standards of their production values.
“Comics” once meant just a single format – 32-page monthly comic books – now we have trade paperbacks and graphic novels, and while single issues may not be available everywhere, comic book stores have been joined by nearly every bookstore in the country as sellers of trade paperback collections.
Best of all, the talent that drives this business have more options than ever before when it comes time to make a deal with publishers, and whereas comics started out as a purely work-for-hire business, writers and artists can today own, if not 100% of what they create, then at the very least a stake in their work.
We live in a world where, thanks to the speed and availability of information, we tend to grow impatient with anything that doesn’t happen as we quickly as we want, but those are all important changes. They didn’t happen all at once, though, and they didn’t happen overnight.
And what’s even more impressive about those changes is the fact they’ve all taken place in a business that at times seems poised on the brink of disaster.
Maybe it’s because comics is a relatively small industry, but time and time again, even the slightest setbacks are magnified into portents of doom.
Or perhaps it’s because, no matter how much things have changed or how good things may be in relation to the past, when times do get tough, the challenges ahead of us seem that much more daunting.
The thing about challenges, though, is that they often go hand-in-hand with opportunity.
And what I personally find so inspirational – and especially in the face of the market’s current woes, uplifting – about the progress comics have made over the years, is our industry’s ability to identify those opportunities when facing our challenges and become better and stronger as a result.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to grow fearful about the future during stressful times, and when we get scared, we start to second guess even our best instincts, and we start to play it safe – we opt for the familiar over the new.
Trouble is, playing it safe – being cautious, going with the flow, doing what has always worked before – only perpetuates the cycle of self-doubt that gets us into these situations in the first place.
So no matter how much progress we’ve made, no matter how many opportunities have accompanied the challenges we’ve faced, we always wind up wondering if those opportunities are worth the risks, and asking if we have what it takes to keep going.
Spoilers: They are, and we do.
Everything good that has ever been done was a risk. If you think of any important development in our history – not just in comics, but in the history of the world – nothing was ever accomplished by playing it safe.
There are a lot of retailers in the audience today, and I think you’ll agree with me, because every one of you took a risk at some point, when you first decided to open your store. And while I’m sure there have been plenty of bad times mixed with the good, I feel equally confident that if you’re still in this business today, that initial risk is one you’re glad you took.
“Fortune favors the bold.”
We’ve all heard that before, but when you think about it, our industry is living, breathing proof that saying is more wisdom than cliche.
And bringing this all back to my tremendous pride in Image Comics, I would offer our company up as an almost perfect example.
Like I said earlier, 2017 was a great year for Image Comics.
In fact, 2017 was Image Comics’ second most successful year, not just since I took over as publisher in 2008, but since the turn of the century.
2017 was our 25th anniversary, and since moving our business across state lines to a new city was an enormous challenge, we took a chance on not hosting Image Expo, instead opting to organize Image Comics Day as an in-store event held in nearly 50 comic book stores, not just throughout the country, but around the world. As any participating store will tell you, it was a tremendous success.
We dropped the price on select issues of some of our best-selling comics to 25¢, and while you won’t find this on any sales charts, because once comics drop below a certain price they don’t qualify for Diamond’s rankings, THE WALKING DEAD #163 was the highest ordered comic in over 20 years.
After years of trying to work against the variant cover game, we chose to celebrate our 25th anniversary with a series of themed variants, some of which raised money for two causes important to Image – Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. The proceeds from those sales made it possible for Image and our creators to donate more than $100,000 across the two charities.
And thanks to our ongoing partnership with Humble Bundle, we were also able to raise an additional $76,000 for a variety of charities over the course of 2017 – a total we are seeking to improve upon this year.
We launched a multitude of new titles last year, some by familiar names, some by new talent, and something I found incredibly heartening as sales data came in over the year was that great new talent still has the power to take all of us by surprise.
There’s no better example of that than Donny Cates’ and Geoff Shaw’s GOD COUNTRY.
If neither writer nor artist were on your radar when GOD COUNTRY was first announced, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. They’d both done comics work before, but they were hardly what any publisher would call a sure thing. GOD COUNTRY was an interesting concept, though, so when Donny pitched it, we agreed to take it on.
The first issue was ordered okay, but it was the issues that followed that really caught my attention – because the orders for those issues went up.
Attrition is generally an inevitable part of even the best comics’ lifespan, but GOD COUNTRY defied convention and sold better and better with each issue. As a result, both Donny and Geoff went from unknown to in-demand.
The surprising success of GOD COUNTRY reminded me of another comic we took a chance on, years ago.
Robert Kirkman pitched a black and white book – not once, but a few times – about humankind’s struggle for survival amidst a zombie apocalypse.
Robert wasn’t at all well-known back then, and neither zombie comics nor black and white comics were on anybody’s recipe for success in our industry at that point, but through Robert’s persistence, then-publisher Jim Valentino agreed to publish THE WALKING DEAD.
As with GOD COUNTRY last year, sales went up and up on THE WALKING DEAD, and within a matter of years, it was our best selling title, and then not long after that, a worldwide television phenomenon.
I’ve made this observation before, but THE WALKING DEAD didn’t become a hit just because of Robert, or just because of Image, but because of the fans who took a chance on a creator and a comic they’d never heard of before, and most of all, because of a retail community that supported a book that by all rights, could have and should have failed.
Again: It was a black and white zombie comic – by a mostly unknown talent.
Image took a chance on it, and because our industry is so awesome, comic book stores followed suit – to stunning effect.
THE WALKING DEAD, GOD COUNTRY, CHEW, SEX CRIMINALS, BITCH PLANET, MONSTRESS, SAGA…
Yes, even SAGA.
I think we can all agree Brian K. Vaughan is one of comics’ greatest talents and that he was quite well-known by the time SAGA launched in 2012, but if you remember, he’d been off the stands for a couple years at the point we announced he was coming to Image. What’s more, SAGA itself was pitched as a grand space opera – another type of story that has never been a guarantee for strong sales – and it was drawn by an artist who, while amazing, did not have a huge amount of comics work to her credit.
Not everyone knew what to make of SAGA at first, and initial orders reflected that confusion, but the work Fiona Staples did with Brian drew support so fast that we sold through multiple printings of each issue, desperately trying to meet demand as fans and retailers alike spread the word.
Fiona and Brian later gave me a personal reminder about how important it is to think outside the box when presented with a challenging situation.
See, even though SAGA was an immediate hit, neither Brian nor Fiona were particularly interested in being slaves to the non-stop grind of monthly comics. They argued that if they owned and controlled SAGA, there was no reason they had to release it on the same schedule as everyone else.
They wanted to take breaks of varying length between each story arc, to maintain their sanity and keep the material fresh – and though I was reluctant at first, Image went along with their decision… and SAGA became an even bigger hit as a result without even the slightest sacrifice in quality or artistic integrity.
Not every book Image puts out is a massive, SAGA-sized hit, but our appeal has always been through strength in numbers.
Last year, Image’s unit share was 10.12%—up over 1% from 2016.
Our 2017 dollar share was 9.80%—once again, that was an increase of over 1%.
Bear in mind—when I first became publisher in 2008, Image’s unit share was a measly 3.32% and our dollar share was only 3.73%. We were literally at our lowest ebb since the company launched in 1992, and we knew we had our work cut out for us, not just if we wanted to grow, but if we wanted to remain relevant.
Challenge, meet opportunity.
I apologize for being so long-winded this morning, but as I said, I think Image provides a near-perfect example of what everyone in this industry is capable of when we face our challenges, not by playing it safe, but by taking risks.
Image Comics has grown by two thirds over the past decade, and while there is always room for improvement and plenty more work to be done, I'm tremendously proud of what we’ve accomplished, and incredibly honored to work with all the amazing people we publish.
At its heart, Image’s business model is based on our belief in creators—in their vision and their content—but even more than that, on our belief in comics. We publish comics that no other publisher would dare take a risk on—everything from stories about surviving a zombie apocalypse to couples who stop time when they orgasm to naked secret agents who battle bears—and we publish them, because we believe every one of those weird and wonderful series represents a new opportunity to capture a new audience.
So if the last year has felt like a slog, if it seems like we’ve entered a period that feels daunting or even hopeless where comics are concerned—if it feels like everything is the same ol’, same ol’—maybe it’s time to follow our lead and take the opportunity to do things just a little differently.
For our part, we have a line-up of talented individuals here today with some exciting new stories to tell. Some of that talent you’ll recognize, some you might not. But I’d encourage you all to take a risk on what you don’t know, to give debut creators a shot, and to give unusual sounding titles a chance. If our history has taught us anything, it’s that we all stand to benefit by taking more risks with the comics we publish, the comics we order, and the comics we read. So let’s start believing in comics and all the wonderful opportunities for expression and imagination and creation this medium has to offer.