IMAGE EXPO: Publisher Eric Stephenson's July 2015 keynote address

July 2, 2015

Good morning, and welcome to Image Expo.

It's customary at these events to save the thank yous until the end, but I'd like to begin by acknowledging everyone who has worked so hard to make today everything it should be.

We've been incredibly fortunate to have the support of the staff here at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – a crew whose professionalism is only exceeded by their patience – but every Image Expo begins life in our offices in Berkeley.

It's the Image staff – the same women and men responsible for the production and promotion of all the titles we publish -- who truly bring this event to life, and none of this would be happening today without their tireless enthusiasm and unwavering dedication.

Numbering under 20, their ability to do all this while continuing to perform their daily tasks serves as a constant reminder of just how lucky I am to be surrounded by such amazing people.

In case you've never read the small print on the inside front covers of our comics, they are:

Jessica Ambriz

Emilio Bautista

Branwyn Bigglestone

David Brothers

Jonathan Chan

Addison Duke

Drew Gill

Sasha Head

Vincent Kukua

Sarah Mello

Emily Miller

Corey Murphy

Randy Okamura

Ally Power

Tricia Ramos

Kat Salazar

Jeremy Sullivan

Meredith Wallace

Thank you, each and every one of you, not just for today, but for everything you do.

Working with good people, with people you can rely on, people you can trust, is of utmost importance in any business, but for comics, I'd venture that it's even more so. Comics is a business built on relationships, and it's the bonds we develop – with our creators, our retail partners, our readers – that give us the ability to do what we do.

And what we do at Image is pretty special: We publish creator-owned comics.

Creator-owned comics is not a new concept.

Starting in the late 1960s – right here in San Francisco – Zap and all the other great underground comics were, for all intents and purposes, creator-owned.

The spirit of their work kickstarted a tradition that immediately inspired writers and artists, giving way to a previously unprecedented period of artistic growth during the 1970s.

Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre was creator-owned.

Richard and Wendy Pini owned Elfquest.

Dave Sim owned Cerebus.

Even the legendary Will Eisner, who created the first truly creator-owned comic in The Spirit, quickly realized the tremendous impact creator-ownership could have on comics publishing, that what the undergrounds were doing could work just as well in mainstream comics.

By the end of the ‘70s, the genie was out of the bottle.

Neal Adams. Jack Kirby. Gil Kane. Frank Miller. Alan Moore. Howard Chaykin.

In the battle for creators’ rights, they were the vanguard, and of course, there was Eclipse, there was First, there was Fantagraphics, and there was Pacific Comics.

The founders of this company didn’t discover fire, but they did stoke the flames, and in becoming a part of a growing tradition, they found a way to make that fire burn brighter than it ever had.

I know, that sounds like old news, but consider this: Comics existed for over 40 years before there was a real movement for mainstream writers and artists to own the work they created, and it has taken almost as long for creator-owned comics to become commonplace.

Even when Image started in 1992, after various attempts at giving creators a greater stake in their work, the notion of a mainstream comic book company founded on the principle that creators should own and control 100% of their work was summarily dismissed as an enterprise destined to fail.

Image didn’t fail, but in 2008 when Robert Kirkman recorded what is now referred to as his “manifesto,” critics again sought to marginalize creator-owned comics, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the growing potential of a true alternative to a marketplace dominated for decades by two companies focusing on a single genre and an economic model based almost solely on work-made-for-hire.

Those critics were wrong, though, both in 1992 and again in 2008, because as the past 23 years have illustrated, when the creative minds of this industry put everything on the line, the results are nothing short of astronomical.

The last seven years have been particularly illuminating, because as Robert predicted, “the more people who do creator-owned work, the easier it will be to sell creator-owned work.”

Looking at the growth Image has enjoyed, specifically since 2012, that is exactly what has happened.

Beginning with the release of Fatale in January of that year, and continuing with Saga, East of West, Lazarus, Sex Criminals, Black Science, Southern Bastards, Rat Queens, and Bitch Planet – Image has gone from strength to strength over the last three years and we are still only beginning to see the benefits of a potentially huge shift in how creator-owned comics are received.

As a result, we’ve wound up in the position to actively work toward refining an already successful business model, by curating an increasingly diverse line that doesn’t rely on gimmicks while reaching out to actual readers so we can not only sustain our current level of success, but continue to grow.

When I say “we,” I am, of course, talking not only about Image as a company, but the creators we work for and with.

As I noted earlier, the comics we publish belong to the writers and artists who create them. They own the trademark, they own the copyright, they retain full control over their media rights – everything associated with their work.

And by “everything,” I mean “everything.” Not part of it, not 50%. All of it. 100%.

So when you read an announcement about an Image title being developed for film or television, 100% of that success belongs to the creators involved.

Image Comics does not make a dime from anything associated with the adaptation of our creators’ titles into other media. We do not negotiate those creators’ deals, and we do not share in the resulting profits.

Southern Bastards, The Wicked + The Divine, Descender, Wytches, Chrononauts, Starlight, Rat Queens, Outcast, Chew, The Walking Dead – as of this month, there will be two Walking Dead shows on AMC, but the only way that benefits Image is through increased exposure for our comics.

Like I said, we publish creator-owned comics. That means we handle the publishing, and we let the creators do the rest.

It’s an arrangement that has worked out remarkably well over the years, because it keeps things simple for everyone involved.

The focus of the relationship we’ve built with our creators is based on one thing and one thing only: publishing their work.

Every creator working with Image Comics enjoys an unparalleled level of self-determination, but with a level of support that can only be achieved by working together.

When we fail, we fail together. When we succeed, we succeed together.

The bond we’ve developed with the writers and artists responsible for the comics we publish allows all of them to produce the kind of work they want, exactly how they want, and as a result, we’ve developed one of the most unique dynamics in the history of comics.

As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to what we do.

We offer creators as much or as little support as they need, through direct contact with our accounting, marketing, production, and sales staff – all those amazing people I mentioned earlier – and for those who want the maximum amount of assistance, we offer support tailored to their specific needs.

We trust the writers and artists we work with to provide the creative vision behind the best work in comics -- they trust us to provide the commitment necessary to share that vision with the world.

None of this would matter, of course, without you.

The bonds we share with our creators are ultimately meaningless without an audience, and as important as trust is on the publishing level, your trust is even more so.

That sounds heavy, but it’s true.

Every month – every week -- you give us the opportunity to entertain you – to excite you, to frighten you, to make you laugh – to take you places you’ve never imagined or show you things you’ve never seen.

You pay good money to invite us into your lives, and you do it with the expectation that we are giving you our all.

You trust that these comics that mean so much to us are born out of a genuine desire to create something vital and new – to champion a pure and undiluted vision of comics – not as they are and not as they’ve always been – but as they can be.