Eric Stephenson on Image Comics’ renaissance and Nowhere Men’s return

Eric Stephenson on Image Comics’ renaissance and Nowhere Men’s return

When Eric Stephenson was promoted to publisher of Image Comics in 2008, the company was struggling. Its market share was way down compared to Marvel and DC, and it wasn’t attracting the caliber of talent that could make it a legitimate competitor to these corporate-backed juggernauts. Stephenson helped dramatically change the direction of Image in his new role, and eight years later, Image has established itself as the best place to go for quality creator-owned monthly comics from some of the biggest names in the industry as well as promising new voices. Stephenson has also been active as a writer at Image in recent years with books like They’re Not Like Us and Nowhere Men, his ambitious tribute to science and rock ’n’ roll that returns with a new issue this month after a two-year break. Stephenson recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his goals for Image Comics, the development of his personal comics projects, and what readers can expect from the return of Nowhere Men.

The A.V. Club: What were your primary goals when you took on the publisher position at Image in 2008?

Eric Stephenson: The primary goal when I took over was mainly to make Image stronger and to attract better talent and to put out better books. All of those things happened to some degree but really those were and are still the main goals. We’re a comic book company, and we specialize in new material. New creativity. We don’t do licensed books, we don’t do movies, we don’t do toys—we’re a comics publisher first and foremost. And I think the thing that maybe we got a little away from at the tail-end of the ’90s and around the beginning of the early 2000s was not focusing on just doing what we’re best at, which is publishing comics by men and women who want to retain complete control over their work. But focusing on that and making that our primary focus is what’s made us successful, and that’s always going to be the case. So for me there’s not much difference between seven years ago and now, because back then it was get better, do better books, but the goal was to be the best, to be number one and that’s still what we want—because I don’t think there’s a whole lot of point in doing anything if you don’t want to be the best at it. If you’re setting out to be number five, then you’ve already failed.

AVC: What were the steps you took to get closer to that goal? What did you specifically do to make Image stronger?

ES: At the beginning it was just to take a look at what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong and narrowing the focus back to the original intent of the company. I’ve been in a unique position because I heard about Image before a lot of other people because I was friends with Jim Valentino and he had called me up and told me about it back at the end of 1991 before the company was actually announced, and when he explained to me what they were doing in terms of creating their own comics, that was very exciting to me. But there was a point when Image was doing licensed books or material that didn’t really fit with what I see as the main ethic of the company. Things went a little to the wayside. It was getting back to doing our own comics. So we need to do that, and we need to be doing stuff that is—it’s a fine line between doing stuff by new creators and then doing stuff by well-known creators, and there was definitely a period where we were focusing a little bit more on just finding new talent than we were on bringing in the biggest names, the best talent. Image was started by seven artists who were at the top of their game at the time, and I think there’s something to that. You attract strong talent by publishing strong talent.

A recent creator-centric Image ad campaign

AVC: When you’re pitched a new series, what’s the first thing you look for in a successful pitch? What characterizes a strong pitch for you?

ES: It’s funny; pitches tend to distinguish themselves as good or bad very quickly. I think probably anyone who receives submissions, whether it’s for novels or magazine articles or film, TV, comics, whatever—I don’t think it takes long to tell if something is good or bad. And the unfortunate reality, at least for comics, I don’t know how this applies to other stuff, is very few unsolicited pitches—by which I mean the stuff that I get in the mail—are very good.

In terms of established creators, though, I think the main thing that I look at is how different something is. And that’s not to say that just being different on its own is enough to put together a successful pitch, but when I get something like Bitch Planet, that’s obviously going to be a lot more interesting than if someone comes to me and says, okay, here’s my version of this character that’s already been done by another publisher. And there is some of that. There are always pitches that come to us that are like, “Okay, well I’ve been doing this book at X, Y, or Z publisher, and here’s a different take on that.” And that isn’t always so interesting.

Bitch Planet #1 cover by Valentine De Landro and Rian Hughes

What I want and what I think traditionally we’ve shown that people respond to is when people come to us with something like a Bitch Planet or a Chew or a Sex Criminals, and it’s markedly different from anything that’s in the marketplace. A lot of times creators will say, “What are you looking for? What kind of stuff do you want?” And it’s not what we want; it’s, “What do you want to do?” Because whatever you’re most excited about as a writer or as an artist, that’s going to translate into the work, and I think that’s what’s going to inspire the readership to follow along.

AVC: That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed with Image’s growth. You see new people and established creators getting freedom to do what they’re passionate about, and the results are really fresh and distinct. There’s a different energy to a lot of Image comics that I don’t get from most corporate comics.

ES: Yeah, there’s an awful lot of stuff that, regardless of the merits of work-for-hire versus creator-owned, there’s this stuff where people are being given assignments. Writers and artists take this book and [the publisher’s] vision for this book, whereas here, we’re not telling anybody to go in one direction or another with something. They bring their ideas to us, and again, it’s something that they’re passionate about and that they’re excited about, and not everything is successful. There are different levels of success for everything we publish, but I think the thing that distinguishes all of it is that the people who are putting the work together are very invested in it.

AVC: How has your work as a publisher impacted your work as a creator and vice-versa?

ES: It’s made me more realistic both creatively and in terms of the marketplace, and that’s something that I guess travels in both directions. If I’m writing something, I know that the market works this way, whereas before I was in this position where I would’ve probably been maybe a little bit more naïve about what can or can’t be done. And then there are things from the business side where it’s like, I know that if I do this, this would be a bad idea creatively. So having that knowledge now, maybe I should go another direction. And then sometimes it’s like you just fly in the face of convention too, where it’s like I know this isn’t something that’s going to go over well but I’m going to do it anyway because I want to quiet the demons and we’ll see where it goes. But at least I know when I’m doing it what the result is going to be.

Nowhere Men promo art by Nate Bellegarde and Jordie Bellaire

AVC: Nowhere Men was your return to the creative side of comics for the first time since becoming Image’s publisher. What sparked the idea behind the series?

ES: I first started pulling ideas for Nowhere Men together, geez, late ’90s, so at this point it’s been almost 20 years. But the final version of the idea was kind of born out of my fascination with not just The Beatles but these almost mythological figures in pop music, like Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd or Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers. And that was mixed with this deep respect I have for the mark people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have had on the world with what they’ve done in terms of technology. And around the time Apple was really coming into its own with the iPod and everything else, alongside that there was this rise of this fascination with these do-nothing celebrities like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians and these people that I look at as having an almost parasitic relationship with pop culture. And I guess I just got started wishing the world spent more time giving more regard to thinkers and doers instead of these people I look at as these vapid wastes of space. So it grew out of this strange mix of anger and fascination.

AVC: That makes a lot of sense that it was gestating for that long period of time because reading those first six issues, there’s so much backstory and there are so many characters but it’s a really rich world. Yet it’s not overstuffed at all. You can just feel that there’s so much planning that went into it.

ES: Well there’s a lot that got stripped away and there’s a lot that—it becomes a process of elimination at some point. Like you say—you don’t want to overstuff it. There are many different versions of the script for the first issue, but it became a process of elimination. What’s the most important stuff to have in here? And that’s nice in a way because as a writer it’s better to have too much material than not enough. Because you can kind of whittle it down to what’s absolutely essential.

Nowhere Men #1 art by Bellegarde and Bellaire

AVC: How did original Nowhere Men artist Nate Bellegarde shape what the book became when it finally reached the production stage?

ES: It’s funny because Nate—I want to say that Nate was maybe the third or fourth artist that I talked to about doing it. The great thing about Nate is he was awesome to collaborate with. Because he would draw things and even when he was just doing character design early on, he was like, “Okay, well I’m thinking this is going to look like this, and what if we add this digital element, how is that going to impact how you’re thinking?” He was constantly making suggestions in terms of what would make, visually, the characters more interesting, which would then set me off in a whole other direction in terms of how I view that character. And that was really cool.

That was one of the best things about working with Nate; we developed this great shorthand for communicating and this nice loop of he would draw something—there are characters in the book now that he put in the background and I thought they were interesting looking. I was like, “Oh, that’s someone I want to come back again and do something more with,” as opposed to just leaving them there as this incidental piece of filler. It was really nice, and I think that’s what you want out of a collaboration with somebody. You give them what you’ve written, but then they give you back something that makes you think in different ways or take the story in different directions than you originally planned.

Nowhere Men character designs by Bellegarde

AVC: I’ve actually heard that from a few other Image writers, where the artists put characters in the background that spark that writers’ imaginations, and then they make those auxiliary characters more important down the line. I think that’s very representative of the way that Image books can evolve over time, because they’re the creators’ pure vision and that’s not going to stay static. How did the conception and development of They’re Not Like Us differ from Nowhere Men?

ES: First of all it was a lot faster and it was weird because it took a long time to actually get Nowhere Men up and running, and then once Nate had started on the book, between when he started drawing and when the book actually came out, there was a pretty big lapse in time. He actually started drawing in about 2010 and the first issue didn’t come out until fall of 2012. So They’re Not Like Us was an idea that I had in the middle of that. I’ve talked about this a little bit before but there was a point where I was like, “Oh man, I don’t know if Nowhere Men is ever going to happen.” So much work had gone into it up until that point and there was, like you say, a lot of back story, a lot of world-building and a lot of detail that had been collated before it, and I was like, “I want to do something that’s a little more simple, that involves a little less world-building.” And because so much of Nowhere Men was taking place in this kind of parallel reality to our own world, I wanted to do something that’s more grounded in “reality.”

They’re Not Like Us Vol. 1 cover by Simon Gane and Bellaire

So it sprung out of two things, and one was just this parallel that I have always seen between Professor X from The X-Men and Fagin from Oliver Twist. They’re both these two figures that have rounded up this group of kids, one of them is training them to be heroes, the other one is training them to be thieves, so there was that, and then around the same time that I was thinking of all this, I got mugged in downtown Oakland. And from there it was really just what would happen if some nefarious figure gathered up a bunch of kids who had some kind of heightened ability? Not like eye beams or the ability to fly or anything like that, but just like kids who are super strong, or have telepathy, or things that aren’t that far out of the realm of possibility. And what if this guy was encouraging them to be as shitty as possible?

Like, “You know what? We’re going to steal from people, we’re going to take whatever we want, we’re going to build this life on the backs of other people.” Then what would happen if somebody new came into that world? A new recruit. What is their reaction going to be as they’re plopped down in the middle of this life? So in a way, Nowhere Men and They’re Not Like Us, they’re kind of two sides of the same thing, really. They’re both about characters with special abilities but neither of them are superhero comics. Nowhere Men, it’s more of just a basic science fiction story, where it’s more speculative, whereas They’re Not Like Us is more like a horror book. And readers are meant to be kind of repulsed and frightened by the kids.

AVC: I’ve been really impressed with how well these books integrate superpowers into stories that don’t belong to the superhero genre, and I feel like that’s a wise direction for superhero publishers to move in. What do you think superhero publishers could be doing to make their books more appealing to a wider audience?

ES: That’s a tough one because there’s just more to comics than superheroes, and I think that one of the things that’s benefited Image over the years is there’s such diversity in what we publish. We have thrived over the last several years because we don’t just do the same things over and over again, and I think that’s the mistake with a lot of the superhero stuff from those publishers. It’s this thing where they keep doing these big events to draw attention to these superhero universes, and they just happen year in year out. Wash, rinse, repeat. And I get that there are new readers coming in who still get excited about that sort of thing, but on the other hand, I think that anyone who’s been around long enough gets cynical about it. There are good superhero books. Marvel and DC do some good stuff, there’s good stuff that Valiant does, but at the same time there’s a sameness to it that I think is because they’re limiting themselves specifically to superheroes.

They’re Not Like Us #2 art by Gane and Bellaire

Look at what Matt [Fraction] did with Hawkeye. The thing that made Hawkeye so cool was that it seemed less like a superhero book than everything else Marvel was putting out at the time. And if that’s the case, you don’t have to dress everything up with the superhero aspect of it. Obviously not everything we do here is a phenomenal success, but I think the thing that’s been inspiring about what the writers and artists we work with have done is that they’re all kind of trying to put their own stamp on comics, not on superheroes. Robert Kirkman has this phrase he uses frequently, where he’s like, “They’re comics comics. They’re not superhero comics, they’re comics comics.” And I think there’s something to that. Let the stuff operate on its own without dressing it up as something else or putting a new coat of paint on stuff that’s at this point been around for decades.

AVC: Nowhere Men is back this month after two years, and there have been some changes: there’s Dave Taylor as the new regular artist and Emi Lenox is drawing sketch diary flashbacks. Are those flashbacks going to be a recurring thing? Are they replacing the text pieces from the first arc?

ES: It’s not replacing it but there’s going to be some stuff from Emi in addition to that. One of the things that I don’t want to do is just do the same thing over and over again. The piece Emi does is four pages of a sketch diary by a new character, and I thought that might be an interesting way to introduce her to the book and give us a little bit more background about who she is and how she fits into things. But yeah, we are not going to completely jettison doing interviews or articles or things like that.

AVC: That’s so perfect for Emi, too, because she came up doing sketch diary comics.

ES: Oh yeah. That was completely the appeal of having her. One: we’re friends and it’s like, how can we work together on something? And two: when I started thinking about doing this I was like why would I go to anybody other than Emi to do this? She aready has done great work like that with EmiTown, so let’s have it and make it fit for Nowhere Men.

AVC: Regarding the supplementary text pieces, how long do those take you to do? Where did that idea come from?

ES: It varies. Different text pieces take different amounts of time. Whether it’s obvious to people reading them or not, some of them are meant to be similar to existing books. In one of the early issues there’s a piece that’s patterned on this Hunter Davies book about The Beatles, and to do something like that I have to do some reading, and then there’s some mimicry that is being attempted, so that takes a bit of time. And there’s an ad in one of the first six issues that’s based on an old Volkswagen ad, and even though that’s just a tiny bit of copy—I think it’s probably about 75 words—it still took me forever to get that to sound like one of those old Volkswagen ads.

Nowhere Men fake ad by Stephenson and Fonografiks

The stuff that is easier is doing the character interviews because there’s the information I want to get across, so I put together my list of questions and then I just need to get into that voice and answer this stuff. But I originally chose to include that type of material for two reasons. For one, I wanted to give the reader a better idea of who the characters are, and how they fit into the world that we’re building, and just doing flashbacks or setting up scenes where the characters talk about things that happened in the past or are going on in the world around them, that didn’t seem like it would get the point across as effectively. But at the same time, I think it would be tough on any artist, whether it’s Nate or Dave or whoever, to draw a full 30 pages every issue and then have that come out on a regular basis. So it was kind of an exercise in figuring out how to fill the book with content and make it as immersive experience as possible without overloading the artist.

AVC: It really does enrich the reading experience. That world feels so real. I like the ads even more than the text pieces because they give you a feeling for the culture of this world through the design sensibility, and it’s just really different from other books I read. How closely do you work with Steven Finch [Fonografiks] in designing those parts of the book?

ES: It’s funny, I literally just got an email from him with some ads in it. Usually the way that works is, on both Nowhere Men and They’re Not Like Us—although They’re Not Like Us is more just with cover design—it’s a case of me giving Steven rough ideas for things. Sometimes I will write out an idea like this is what I’m thinking, other times I will send him some reference based on things that had caught my eye. But yeah, it’s basically just like pitching him rough ideas and letting him take it from there.

Fonografiks’ minimalist Fantastic Four mock paperback cover

And then there’s also plenty of stuff that he does, like one of the ads that he just sent me is something that I just told him what I wanted the ad to say and he just sent me something back without any direction at all and it’s phenomenal. If you look at anything he’s done, if you look at Nowhere Men, or he also does Saga, he works on Injection, he has a very strong sense of design and a very clear visual identity, and that’s what attracted me to his stuff originally. He had done all these mock covers for different comics. One was Watchmen, one was “The Dark Phoenix Saga” from X-Men, I think he did one for Fantastic Four, but he made them all look like paperbacks that had been published in the 1960s. And they were just really cool and I was like, “Okay, that guy, he and I are on the same wavelength.”

AVC: What is your personal design philosophy and how important do you think design is to the production process?

ES: Design defines the look of a book. If you look at something like Saga, which again that’s one of the books that Steven works on, it’s just immediately recognizable. I think that things like The Wicked + The Divine or Sex Criminals or Ed Brubaker’s books—especially the stuff that he does with Sean Phillips—the design sets them apart from everything else in a very positive way. It’s one of the things I’m really proud of here at Image. I think a lot of the creators look at the work other creators are doing and the high standard that is set by some of the design and they’re like, “Oh man, I want my book to be like that.” And it’s not a case of copying one another, it’s like everybody is trying to one-up each other, because it’s just such a great time for cover design and just overall packaging in comics. But in terms of my own thoughts on design, a lot of what we’re seeing, it’s a combination of me and Steven, but the stuff that I look at, that I use as touchstones when I’m pitching him ideas, very little of it is actual comics. A lot of it is album covers or advertising from the ’60s. I’m very into mid-century modern design, so that’s a big touchstone, and I think the main thing is just trying not to look like everything else. Comics don’t have to look like they’re just comics. They can look like these little unique pieces of art.

AVC: Did the time between issues #6 and #7 of Nowhere Men alter the story at all? Did you revisit what you’d written? I believe #7 was written by the time #6 had hit the stands.

Nowhere Men #7 cover art by Taylor and Bellaire

ES: Yeah, issue #7 was done when the first trade came out. Nate had started working on issue #7. Apart from tweaking some of the dialogue, there’s not really much that has changed in issue #7. And then beyond that it’s more or less the same story. It’s very much a continuation of where things ended with #6 and the final issue of this arc, when we get to issue #12, whether we decide to continue with the book and go on from there or just stop it there, #12 was always meant to be like, “Okay, this is the story.” It either works as a launch point for the book to continue as a series or it tells a complete story on its own. So there will be things that I will tweak from here on out, just because I’m working with Dave as opposed to Nate, but it’s still overall the same thing.

AVC: Before I get to Dave, I want to talk about the situation with Nate. He’s been very public about his own personal issues that affected the book coming out. What is your advice to creators who want to do a creator-owned book where they’re going to put in a lot of work and deal with a lot of pressure that’s inherent in the industry? What is the best way to balance that all and stay healthy and focused?

ES: Honestly, I don’t think comics, whether you’re talking creator-owned or work-for-hire or whatever, is necessarily that much more stressful or demanding than any other job. Especially any kind of job that deals with deadlines. Anybody working in a job that is at all time-sensitive, you’ve got to get your work done. You have to show up and you have to do your work. So I guess the big advice that I would give anyone is if you have problem you’ve got to communicate with the people you’re working with. And whether it’s comics or anything else, I think that we all have an opportunity in whatever our working environment is to build a good support system for ourselves. And part of that is having people you can talk to. Also, something that I think maybe not everybody does as well as others is, we have to be aware of our limitations. How much work can I get done in this amount of time? What can I realistically do? I think it’s important to first and foremost show up and do the work and after that be honest with yourself and the people you’re working with. I also think it’s important that, again, whether it’s comics or anything else, it’s the work that’s going to drive your career, that is either going to make or break you. It’s not your Facebook page or your Twitter feed or the time that you’ve put into, I don’t know, playing Minecraft or whatever. It’s focus on the work beyond anything else.

Nowhere Men #7 art by Taylor and Bellaire

AVC: You tried out a couple different artists before settling on Dave. Why did you ultimately choose Dave as Nate’s replacement?

ES: I’d met Dave at Thought Bubble in England when I thought that the book was going to be continuing with Nate, and Dave was very enthusiastic about the book. He was a big fan and I knew Dave from work he had done—he did a really great Batman book with Chip Kidd [Batman: Death By Design] and he had done some Moebius-inspired work at Dark Horse on this book called Tongue Lash back in the ’90s. I was familiar with his work and his style, and then after the book had stopped coming out, Dave wound up doing an issue of Prophet with Brandon Graham, and that was the point where I was like, “Oh wow, yeah, he would be a really good fit for this.” And by fit it’s not just he’s a great artist—because there are lots of artists who on a surface level, you’re like, “Oh yeah, you do very highly detailed stuff, you would work”—but it’s more there was just a sensibility to his work that drew me to it. He has a real eye for detail that isn’t the same as Nate’s eye for detail. Because they’re two very different artists and they focus on very different things in their approach to the page. But they both have that eye for detail. It’s not the case of them being similar in terms of style or the things they like to draw or anything like that, it’s like, “Okay you’re very different but I can tell that your mind works in a similar way.”

AVC: Along with Fonografiks, colorist Jordie Bellaire is a visual link between Nowhere Men and They’re Not Like Us. What do you think she brings to the art on both of them, and how do you think she helps establish each book’s specific visual identity?

Nowhere Men #7 art by Taylor and Bellaire

ES: Well, Jordie is one of the best colorists in comics. And she, no matter what she’s working on, she makes it better than it is on its own. The thing that she does that is so great, is she treats every project as its own separate thing. And she looks for the visual elements within the artwork that make each book unique, and she uses her palette to underscore that. She has the art, she has the script, she looks for moments in the story that are going to allow her to do something a little bit different from what she’s doing on whatever else she’s working on. And she works on a lot. She is one of the hardest working colorists in the business. But you look at her books and none of them look the same. You can tell it’s her work, but there’s nothing where you’re like, “Jordie’s just doing the same thing she does here on this book.”

She treats everything very differently and that is what makes her work so special. She’s very analytical about it. And I think, in They’re Not Like Us even more so than Nowhere Men, there are things where she uses red to make such a statement in that book, and then there are times when there’s like an absence of color. She knows how to manipulate the reader with color choice very very well. And it’s interesting, too, because one of the things about Nowhere Men versus They’re Not Like Us is that she has more limitations placed on her with Nowhere Men because there is a very specific aesthetic in the world in terms of what colors are used and how things are supposed to look, whereas with They’re Not Like Us, it’s just basically the world around us, so she has a lot more freedom to kind of color it as she sees fit.

AVC: Who are some of the most exciting comics creators for you personally, both inside and outside of Image Comics right now?

ES: Oh, man. Too many to list. At Image, Mark Millar is doing the work of his career with Huck right now. That is my favorite thing by Mark to date. I love that book. He did something in the first issue that I really liked where he hinted at where things were going midway through the book, and he did it in such a subtle way that even though he said, “This is what’s going to happen,” when you get to the end of the book it was still a surprise, which I think takes a lot of talent to pull that off. Marjorie Liu is pretty amazing and publishing Monstress is something that has made me incredibly proud, and watching the reaction to that was great.

Nowhere Men #7 art by Taylor and Bellaire

Sales aside, I don’t think Robert Kirkman gets enough credit for his writing. The quality of his writing. The conclusion of the most recent Invincible storyline had a really nice emotional gut-punch that I don’t think is the sort of thing people expect from Robert. I just love what he does. Brian K. Vaughan is a force of nature. Obviously everybody knows Saga, he and Marcos [Martín] did Private Eye, he’s done We Stand On Guard and Paper Girls and now he and Marcos are also doing Barrier. And it’s kind of unreal that he is able to maintain such a high level of quality with all of that.

Outside of Image, this year I really loved Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy, which at first I didn’t want to read because I thought this might be something that I don’t want to read while I’m working on They’re Not Like Us, but I thought that was a lot of fun and it was so different from This One Summer.

AVC: SuperMutant Magic Academy was so strange.

ES: Well it’s weird because that’s a book that everybody I’ve recommended it to has a very strong reaction one way or another. Especially if they’ve read This One Summer, because again they’re so different. But probably my favorite thing that came out this year was Adrian Tomine’s Killing And Dying, because I’m such a huge fan of his Optic Nerve work over the years. There is now a ton of it out there, but every time he puts something new out that’s very exciting for me.