"We're the Alternative”: Publisher and Writer Eric Stephenson Talks Image Behind the Scenes and on the Frontline

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A decade ago, Image Comics was a much different company than it is today. While it still housed blockbuster titles like The Walking Dead, the publisher was on the cusp of being a sprawling incubator of genre comics outside decades-old spandex fodder. But the company’s devotion to creator-owned comics and diverse content—now addressing a demographic cornucopia that falls beyond adult straight males—has solidified the publisher as a medium’s lab for future trends. Look no further than projects like Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staple’s sexual sci-fi war epic, or Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s hilarious exploration adult dating and time-stopping orgasms, to see what one imprint can do when it empowers the right voices with freedom.

At the center of this movement lies Eric Stephenson. Both Publisher of the company and writer of two books, Stephenson has continually pushed for major change in the industry. Between personally seeking and screening for new talents as well as consistently working to push comics forward as a medium, Stephenson stands as a major proponent for comics being all that they can be. With Image Expo set to debut Image’s latest line-up tomorrow, Paste chatted with Eric Stephenson about the industry, what Image has planned for the future and his writing on They’re Not Like Us and Nowhere Men.

Paste: It’s often said yet worth repeating: In the last half decade or so Image as a company leveled up and helped rally the creator-owned battle cry, in turn becoming a major player in the current iteration of the comics industry. What do you see currently as the main differences between the Image of 2010 against the modern day Image of 2015?
Eric Stephenson: Support. Whether we’re talking about retailers or readers, it’s pretty clear there’s a greater level of appreciation for what we’re doing now as opposed to then. Part of that is down to the material we’re publishing, but at the same time, we’ve always published great work. If you go back to 2006 or so, when we had a slate that included books like The Walking Dead, Fear Agent, Casanova, Phonogram and Fell, there was just a more subdued reaction to what we were doing.

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Paste: On that same thread, Image is certainly responsible for ushering in some major changes in the industry and how other companies behave and the content they produce. But the comics industry is always growing and changing; when you look at the industry as a whole today vs. 2009 or so, what do you see? What keeps you up at night?
Stephenson: Well, I think the industry as a whole is probably better off now than it’s been in a long time, at least in a general sense. There’s a lot of amazing work being published right now, and regardless of how back issues are categorized, I think this is very much the golden age of comics. The quality of storytelling, the level of craftsmanship in today’s comics is, for the most part, pretty awe-inspiring, and more than that, it just keeps getting better. It took comics a while to capture the general public’s attention in a significant way, but I think it happened at just the right time, because as a medium, we’ve just gone from strength to strength over the last decade or so. At the same time, though, I think there’s still a distressing amount of short-term thinking in this business, with too much emphasis on padding third and fourth quarter profits at the expense of real sustainability.

Paste: Sales has become a hot button topic these days, from creators openly discussing their sales and livelihood to comic pundits trying to make sense of what the data means. One thing we do consistently see across all publishers, though, is this constant of first issues debuting well and subsequent issues trending downwards, sometimes dramatically. Considering how the industry has grown, how do you currently analyze this trend and how to react/respond/combat it?
Stephenson: I think that’s fairly consistent across all media these days. Albums debut at No. 1 and then plummet during their second week of release. Films either hit on opening weekend or they’re viewed as failures. There are exceptions to that, obviously, but generally speaking, comics are part of that same trend. Part of that is down to the speculation market, because even after decades of evidence to the contrary, there are still collectors out there who think they’re going to strike it rich by stocking up on the first issue of a hot new title. The flaw in that thinking, though, is that if a series doesn’t build up a sizable audience over time, if it doesn’t succeed, there isn’t going to be much ongoing demand for the first issue. That’s why multiple covers and exclusive covers and all the other gimmicks employed to inflate first issue orders ultimately do nothing to benefit series in the long run. The only thing that really matters is whether the books are good or not. Readers show up for the story, and if the story isn’t there, no amount of covers will keep a series alive.

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Paste: Another Image Expo is happening tomorrow, and the Expo has certainly become a vaunted event boasting big announcements from popular creative teams. Given Image’s attitude towards always growing (past mantras being “What’s Next”, for example), what do you find is the main challenge in doing the show now? Do you find it’s difficult at all to follow previous years’ performances?
Stephenson: I don’t know about difficult in terms of announcements, because there’s a pretty constant influx of great talent interested in working with Image, but the keynote itself can be a bit of a challenge. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I’m just saying the same thing over and over again, so that requires a lot of forethought. There’s a big difference in having a forum to speak, and actually having something to say—that’s something I’m always acutely aware of. The announcements speak for themselves, really, but beyond that, I think it’s important to use the opportunity to speak directly to retailers, readers and the press as wisely as possible.

Paste: As the Image library grows and with it the talent base, how do you find the challenge of maintaining the balance in Image’s output? In terms of what new talent Image wants to help foster and showcase, how has the search or submission process changed?
Stephenson: That’s actually something we’re going to be discussing at this next Image Expo, because new talent is one of, not just Image’s, but our industry’s most important resources. We’ve launched a lot of new talent at Image, but there are new writers and artists entering the business all the time. The beauty of what we offer creators is that it doesn’t matter if you’re an established pro or someone working on project number one, the deal is exactly the same, so it benefits everyone involved to help grow new careers.

Paste: One thing that the comics Internet (fans, critics) has previously discussed, especially around Expo time, was how Image was supposedly presenting itself: lots of big names and not enough smaller names, not enough diversity in the creative teams, or that comics now have a “Big 3,” etc.—but this is also something you’ve always been open in responding to and dispelling. Image certainly has a name and reputation now (your recent cameo in Airboy certainly thumbs its nose at that), but how do you currently view the Image brand and Image’s place in the industry?
Stephenson: We’re the alternative. Whether it’s work-for-hire on corporate comics or creator-sharing deals from publishers looking to exploit comics in other media, Image is still exactly what it’s always been: the number one publisher of creator-owned comics. We’re not in the movie business—we don’t promise people a walk down the red carpet while we take 50 percent of their media rights. We make comics, and the reality of the situation is we’re one of the few actual comic book companies left at this point. So many other publishers are focused on finding a way onto TV or into movie theaters—which is fine—but really, that’s the individual creators’ business. They did the work—they should benefit from it.

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They’re Not Like Us Cover Art by Simon Gane

Paste: Let’s talk about your book, They’re Not Like Us. It debuted last year as an alternate take on the “kids with powers” story with a much darker and ostensibly personal slant, but where did the series originally come from for you? And with hindsight now a factor since the first arc is done, how did the series change or grow, or even surprise you along the way?
Stephenson: They’re Not Like Us is something I actually started developing several years ago, when it looked like another book I was working on, Nowhere Men, wasn’t going to happen. Nowhere Men dealt with super powers as well, but it was set against a very different backdrop—a world that evolved out of a much higher regard for scientific achievement—and the idea was to explore how different everything would be as a result. It was set in the present, but it was an idealized version of the present, where a lot of the challenges we face today had actually been confronted over the years: diseases cured, socio-economic problems fixed, you name it. But right around the point I got hung up with Nowhere Men, I got mugged by a group of kids in Downtown Oakland, and the thing that stuck with me afterwards was that they were less interested in robbing me than they were in just gleefully fucking with someone.

That got me thinking a little more about how the world actually is right now as opposed to some lofty idea of how it could be, and I started pulling ideas together on something based more on the frustrations and fears people carry with them today. So many people, younger people in particular, have a growing dissatisfaction with how things are going right now—they’re disappointed, they’re angry, they’re unsure what the future holds for them—and it’s easy to put up walls when you feel like that, to block people out in “us” and “them” terms. And going back to the mugging incident, anyone who’s ever been the victim of violent assault knows that’s scary enough on its own, but what if the people attacking you had an extreme advantage over you. What if they were stronger or faster? Or if they could read your mind? Everyone is born with their own set of talents as it is, and we all use those talents in our own ways to get ahead in life, but when getting ahead doesn’t seem like much of an option, what then? So that’s where They’re Not Like Us comes from.

As far as how it has changed since then—and I first started piecing ideas together for the book back in 2009—it’s probably become a little less horrific than I originally intended it to be. Early on, I wanted it to be much more violent and uncompromising, but once I actually got into writing the scripts, I found I was less interested in that aspect than how the various characters interacted with one another. The challenge of starting a series off with a group of kids who, at first glance, seemed pretty unsympathetic and then looking for a way in to understanding them just felt more… “real,” I guess? Angry kids with powers kicking the shit out of regular people every issue isn’t something I’d want to read.

Paste: The book itself is absolutely gorgeous. How has the collaborative process been with [artist] Simon Gane, [colorist] Jordie Bellaire and [letterer] Fonografiks so far, and how did it evolve through the first arc?
Stephenson: It’s been nothing short of amazing. I already knew Jordie and Fonografiks were a dream to work with, but Simon has been an incredible collaborator. Everything he does is so nuanced, and he never scrimps on detail—if anything, he adds more wherever possible. But he’s one of the most schedule-savvy artists I’ve ever worked with. Everyone was really excited to work with one another on this project, too, which I think makes a big difference.

Paste: The book itself features a diverse cast, all of whom feel like real people and all of whom are fairly young. I know everyone was young once, but in terms of finding the book’s voice, what is the process of finding these characters, relating to them and communicating through them?
Stephenson: Some of it comes from my own experience growing up, people I knew. But by virtue of my location, I’m in pretty close contact with people much younger than myself on a fairly regular basis. Berkeley is a college town; Oakland’s population skews on the younger side of things. I have a lot of friends in their 20s, and I’m constantly listening and observing. When people talk about their hopes and fears, their concerns, I listen. The Bay Area is a great place, but there’s plenty to be frustrated with here, regardless of how old you are. The cost of living here is pretty out of balance with what people are making. You meet people pulling down really decent salaries who can’t afford their own apartments, who have to live with two or three or four roommates, and it’s no wonder why there’s a sense that things are going a little bit wrong on an economic level.

Paste: A notable element of They’re Not Like Us is its use of pages for story. There is basically no space unused; the cover operates as the first panel and credits/legal, the IFC/IBC is always story-related, and the back is a relevant quote. How did the idea behind this use of space first come about, and how have you found this ultimately benefits the story (especially since readers have become fairly acclimated to the idea of 20-page books)?
Stephenson: It’s something that grew out of how we were approaching Nowhere Men, where we went with cover to cover with the content as well, but it was also a case of looking at record design—7” singles specifically—and how concisely information was communicated. Even at $2.99, comics are expensive, and I think it’s important to give readers as much value for the dollar as possible. No one’s buying a book for ad farm, they want to read the story, so eliminating as much of the fat as possible seemed like the way to go.

Paste: One thing that I’ve found noteworthy about the book is the strong essence of music pulsating in the background—references to Manic Street Preachers, The Jam, Public Image Ltd and more. Since the book itself isn’t about music in the way that certain other Image books are, what do you find is the process of including these nods to your influences, while keeping those nods relevant to the story you’re telling? How do you make sure these are authentic to not just your experiences, but the characters as well?
Stephenson: Well, in a lot of cases those references—the song quotes and the story titles, specifically—were part of what drove me on when I was first getting the book together. That line from Morrissey’s “Sister I’m a Poet” where he asks, “Is evil just something you are, or something you do?” was something I’d kind of fixated on for years, along with the Manics’ quote—“21 years of living and nothing means anything to me,” and so as I was building this whole thing up, those things just became part of the framework, you know? All of it dovetailed with the things I was thinking about in terms of the characters and the story, so it wasn’t a case of just tacking quotes on at the end of the issue after I’d written or whatever. The other thing is that I’ve always had a high regard for good lyrics. Some people don’t really pay much attention to song lyrics, but I’ve always kind of felt that if you’re not listening to a song’s lyrics, or if the lyrics are shit, then it’s like half the song is a waste of time. I think song lyrics can be just as valid a means of expression as any other form of writing, though, so I’m just as likely to reference a song as a novel or a film.

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Nowhere Men Cover by Nate Bellegarde

Paste: I’ve always liked that They’re Not Like Us never quite feels like “just another book” about people with powers, or even a comment on/response to the super-genre, but rather a character-driven drama closer to what we more often see these days on television on AMC, etc. With many people referring to this current era as the Golden Age of Television, and these shows obviously having a big cultural impact, what do you find are the challenges in working on this kind of character-heavy story, while still developing something that works best as a comic and not some other form of media?
Stephenson: You know, Simon and I were emailing one day after I’d sent him the script for issue eight, and he was telling me how much he loves drawing the simplest interaction between the characters, that he prefers that to the big bombastic stuff. I wrote back and told him I hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed when things started blowing up, but the truth of the matter is that the characters are what drive the book. TV always does a great job with character dramas, but comic books are a different medium and our audience traditionally wants to see something more than people standing around talking.

Paste: The Nowhere Men trade was also resolicited, signaling the return of the series to monthly comics. What can you tell us about the return of the series?
Stephenson: Not a lot, actually, apart from the fact we’ll be back in November with a new artist. Story-wise, issue seven picks up more or less where six left off. Oh, and that this time, it really will be a monthly comic.

Paste: It has certainly been a long road for the book since its debut in 2012. Looking at the books return, what would you say has changed about the series? What’s changed for you and the creative process, and how has the passing of time changed your influence, plans or outlook for the series?
Stephenson: Yeah, the first six issues took a long time to complete, which was obviously not how we’d planned things to go, but one of the upsides to that was I had more time to consider various things associated with the book. There were elements of the story I changed for the sake of expediency that wound up having an overall positive effect on the first arc, and some of that has carried over into preparations for the six issues.

The biggest difference in terms of outlook, though, is that I’m pretty aware of the uphill battle we’re facing in terms of reaching a readership that has likely grown impatient with us due to the long break. No one likes to wait forever, and that’s why we’re determined to get the next issues—and hopefully beyond—out on a regular basis.

Paste: Between your time as Publisher at Image and as a writer of two comics for the company, how do you feel you’ve changed as a writer?
Stephenson: More than anything, I think I just have a different perspective. I spent the early years of my career writing superhero comics, which was fun and exciting and all that, but ultimately, those weren’t the kind of comics I actually wanted to read. Nothing underscored that fact more than a conversation I had with David Lapham back when Stray Bullets was first coming out in the mid-‘90s. I was getting some books signed by him and just kind of gushing about how much I loved what he was doing, along with other things I liked at the time—Bone, Paul Grist’s Kane, things like that—and he asked me why I wasn’t doing comics like that myself. It was a surprisingly blunt question, but I didn’t really have much of an answer at the time, even though I instinctively knew that all the comics I really enjoyed were born of the creators’ passion for what they were doing. It took me a while to figure that out for myself, though, to just tell the kind of stories I was interested in reading. Whether it winds up being something everyone else wants to read is on the writer, but I think the first and most important step in creating anything is being honest with yourself about your own interests and what you want to say.

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