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“What’s Next?” – Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson’s Address to the ComicsPro Retailers Annual Meeting

For those of you unfamiliar with the deep inner workings of direct market distribution — also known as “the business of comic book stores” — ComicsPro is an influential trade organization of comic book retailers whose focus is to advocate for its members in matters of business, promotion and other concerns unique to those from whom most of us buy comics. At the beginning of every year the organization hosts a meeting — a convention, really — where ComicsPro members attend symposia and meet with comics publishers and other business partners to exchange ideas and discuss the major topics of the year ahead.

Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson addressed the ComicsPro membership at this year’s meeting in Atlanta, Georgia last weekend. Also nominated for the organization’s Industry Appreciation Award (the winner was Diamond Distributors’ VP of Operations Cindy Fournier), Stephenson’s speech was dedicated to the theme of “What’s Next?” Stephenson used Image’s commercial and critical successes with both new and continuing original series such as Saga and The Walking Dead as examples of how the company distinguishes itself from competitors. “The biggest selling book of 2012 was not a first issue, but the 100th issue of a book that constantly moves forward,” said Stephenson, referring explicitly to The Walking Dead #100 and obliquely to Marvel and DC Comics’ line-wide relaunches. “[A book] that issue after issue, leaves readers asking the same question asked by anyone focused on the future.

“‘What’s next?’”Courtesy of Image, the following is the complete and unaltered text of Eric Stphenson’s address at the 2013 ComicsPro Annual Meeting.

Image Comics moved into new office space at the beginning of the year.

It was our third move since 2004. We moved up to Berkeley from Orange, CA in October of that year and then four years later moved to a larger space, just a few blocks away. We stayed there for four years — four years in which each was better than the last in terms of growth, and by the middle of last year, it was apparent we needed more room. So we moved.

I moved a couple of weeks ago myself. I’ve actually moved five times since settling in the Bay Area: My new apartment is the sixth place I’ve lived. Someone told me recently that I must love moving, as often as I do it, and in all honesty, it’s practically in my blood. My Dad was in the Air Force and we moved around pretty regularly, so I guess I kind of grew accustomed to some approaching constant movement. No matter how settled I am, there’s part of me that’s always wondering, “What’s next?”

Not surprisingly, that same question guides much of what we do at Image Comics.

2012 was a banner year for Image Comics: It was our 20th anniversary.

Everyone marks occasions like that in their own way, but we did so by simply continuing to do what we do best.

We kept moving.

And we moved forward.

Over the course of 2012, we launched over 50 new books.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale.

Robert Kirkman’s Thief of Thieves.

Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects.

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga.

Jim McCann and Rodin Esquejo’s Mind the Gap.

Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch’s America’s Got Powers.

Tim Seeley and Mike Norton’s Revival.

Kurtis Weibe and Tyler Jenkins’ Peter Panzerfaust.

Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s Happy!

Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo’s Bedlam.

Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo’s Great Pacific.

Brian Wood and Ming Doyle’s Mara.

There were others, but you get the picture.

Some of our new books were by today’s biggest stars, others were by artists and writers with the talent to become the stars of tomorrow.

Because as proud as we are to be associated with the Ed Brubakers, the Grant Morrisons, the Robert Kirkmans, and the Brian K. Vaughans of the world, and as happy as we are to publish titles like Saga, Happy!, Fatale and The Walking Dead, we are always on the lookout for what’s next.

The Walking Dead is actually something I want to talk about for a moment, because at this point, 10 years ago, The Walking Dead did not exist and Robert Kirkman, as a writer, was nowhere near as well known as he is today.

In February 2003, we had just published the second issue of Invincible, to less-than-world beating orders, and Robert Kirkman and I were talking almost daily about what we could do to salvage the lagging sales on a series he’d launched just a few months earlier called Tech Jacket.

The Image Comics of 2003 was defined, for all intents and purposes, by books like Powers, Rising Stars, GI Joe, Battle of the Planets, Masters of the Universe, and Tomb Raider. Only two of those books were creator-owned, only one of those books still carries the Image “i.”

We were a different company then, but then as now, we had our eye on the future.

We were asking, “what’s next,” and it turns out the answer then was “The Walking Dead.”

Released in October 2003, he first issue of The Walking Dead sold a little over 7,000 copies.

In October 2009, the first episode of The Walking Dead television series on AMC became the highest rated debut in cable history. In its third season now, the series is still breaking records, the mid-season premiere from a couple weeks ago setting a new benchmark for how many viewers cable television can reach.

And last July, The Walking Dead #100 sold out of nearly 400,000 copies within three days.

I just signed off on the print run for The Walking Dead #108, and it’s over 70,000. Not 400, 000, but this isn’t a special occasion, this isn’t a first issue, and there aren’t over a dozen covers. It’s simply the next issue of an amazing series that started off selling one tenth of its current numbers, proving along the way that there’s profit in a progressive attitude towards comics publishing.

What’s next.

The biggest selling book of 2012 was not a first issue, but the 100th issue of a book that constantly moves forward, that issue after issue, leaves readers asking the same question asked by anyone focused on the future.

“What’s next?”

A little while ago, I was reading an article Heidi MacDonald wrote about Diamond’s 2012 sales charts. She remarked that what comics really needs right now is more Brian K. Vaughan.

I love Brian and the work he’s doing with Fiona Staples on Saga, along with the work he did with Pia Guerra on what is probably my favorite comic book of all-time, Y: The Last Man, but he’s not the answer.

I mean, sure, we all want more Brian K. Vaughan comics, but what comics really needs is not more Brian K. Vaughan, it’s the next Brian K. Vaughan.

And the next Robert Kirkman.

And the next Walking Dead.

And the next Saga.

When I first started reading comics, Jack Kirby had just come back to Marvel. My very first issue of Captain America, in fact, was Jack’s first issue back.

Captain America #193.

Along with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby built Marvel Comics into what it is today.

Fantastic Four.

The Hulk.

The X-Men.

Iron Man.

The Avengers.

It could well be argued this industry couldn’t have survived without his efforts.

But what comics really needed in 1976 wasn’t more Jack Kirby, it was Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

It was Frank Miller.

It was Walt Simonson.

It was Howard Chaykin.

It was Dave Sim.

It was Alan Moore.

Within a few years, everything changed again, and those names were replaced with Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld and it goes on and on — people move on, they keep looking for what’s next.

And that’s not a bad thing.

It’s the nature of life.

It’s the nature of our business.

And in all honesty, it’s one of our greatest strengths.

And I don’t mean “our” as in Image, but “our” as in our industry.

While Hollywood is busy with remakes and sequels, and the music industry is busy remixing and remastering, we’re doing what’s next.

And if I can narrow the focus of that all-encompassing “our” just a little bit, so that it’s pointing a bit more directly at Image Comics, I have to say, I think we do “what’s next” better than anyone else.

In 2012, our units were up 38% over the previous year.

Dollars were up 40%.

For the second year running, we were the number two supplier of trade paperbacks and graphic novels to the direct market. We had seven of the top 10 trades in 2012, 14 of the top 20, and 22 of the top 50.

In fact, one statistic I’m especially proud of from that year-end trade paperback list is Saga at #12.

Saga, vol. 1 was the 12th best selling trade paperback of 2012 — based on a little over two months’ sales.

Like I said: 2012 was a banner year for Image Comics.

That was the case for two reasons:

#1 – Because of our ongoing investment in new creativity. Instead of looking for ways to make everything old look new again, we really are the next big thing — and now more than ever, we believe that the best comics are new comics.

#2 – Because of your support. We would not be here today, or as successful as we have been the last few years, without your support. And not just your support, but your feedback, which for me personally, has been instrumental in helping us correct the multitude of mistakes we have made over the years.

We’re nowhere near perfect, so I’m sure there will be more, but knowing that we can count on you to help us get the word out to a growing readership that is as hungry for what’s next as we are is more reassuring than you could ever know.

But that’s not all.

2012 was a great year for Image and for the comics marketplace as a whole, and we experienced an unprecedented amount of growth during that time, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to relax.

Instead, it’s time to find new ways to push forward.

It’s time to invest in the new talent and the new ideas that will shape our company and our marketplace as we move into tomorrow.

It’s time to look at the work we’ve done and assess what went right, what went wrong and what we can do better.

Most importantly, though, it’s time, once again, for us to ask, “what’s next?”

I could recite a laundry list of announcements in an effort to share the answer to that question with you, but I’m going to save that for later this year.

Based on our success over the last few years, though, I’m confident that what’s next for Image Comics will continue to drive readers to your stores as they seek a creative experience unlike any other, as they come to you looking, time and again, for what’s next.

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