The Eric Stephenson Thing

So… that address Eric Stephenson gave at ComicsPRO recently seems to be making lot of waves (in the still small pool of American comics) and while there were things to be applauded there were, also, problems with his speech.

I ought to agree with Eric Stephenson. After all – looking at my shelf I can see that most of the new books there come from Image; moreover they come from ‘his’ Image: it’s his direction for the company that gave me Chew, Zero, Sex, Sex Criminals, Skullkickers, Orc Stain, King City and many other books that I consider amongst the best in the market right now. When I was asked for my favorite comics’ publisher the last two years, I said Image without a pause. I ought to agree with Eric Stephenson, but I don’t, I can’t.

I’m not disagreeing with the whole of his rant/ speech/ statement; a lot of points in there are worth making: the comics companies’ use of variant covers as buying incentives is stupid, and is destructive; the constant re-sell of material in fancier and fancier presentation has long grown teeth-gnashing maddening[1]; and Marvel and DC’s refusal to develop new ideas (or Dark Horse and IDW’s use of ideas owned by others) is sort of dumb when these companies sell themselves as Intellectual Properly farms – you have to create IP to sell IP, and both of these companies mostly rely on work made for them decades ago.

But even if these points are reasonable they do not negate the problematic nature of the rest of it. Stephenson starts by saying “There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.” Fine. But then he goes on to confuse the subject by taking about good comics bringing more people into the market:  ”ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics should be our target audience. THAT is who we want coming into comic book stores, and it is new creativity that is going to pave their way to your door.” That’s absurd – does Stephenson truly believe that in comics, unlike every other medium, people only buy the good and the original? What brought more people into book shops in the last few years – a critically acclaimed realist novel or Fifty Shades of Grey? Which brought more people into the cinemas – the last Palme D’or winner or Transformers?

There are lot of ways to describe what makes a comic ‘good’, but ‘brings new readers into the stores’ is not one of them; Stephenson might mean ‘good for the industry’, or ‘good for Image comics’ but that’s completely different than ‘good’. But if that’s the only thing that counts it contericts his next point – because a lot people that I see go into my local comics for the first time searching for a comics version of something they love from another medium, like Adventure Time or My Little Pony or Transformers.

But that, according to Stephenson, doesn’t count – because Transformers is, apparently, not ‘real’: “TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.” Why? Because people who buy Transformers comics (or Star Wars or Adventure Time) won’t buy other types of comics – they only want more stuff from their particular fandom.

Except that I, and most of my comics reading friends, got into the medium through these ‘none real’ properties – we got into Comics because of Batman: The Animated Series, or because of X-Men: The Animated series; younger friends came in following in The Avengers movie; kids walk into the local comics shop all the time for Adventure Time stuff. Even the Watchmen movie, not very good as it was, brought up a huge sales spike for already high-selling comic. Franchising CAN work for bringing in new audiences.

But let’s say that it couldn’t. The Marvel Universe movies were watched by millions and millions of people who wouldn’t dream of picking up an issue of Marvel comics (or any other comics for that matter) – the franchising method is not a sure thing, and even when it does people would usually only buy more from that thing-they-already-like. Though, again, this is not unique for comics. From years of working in a book store I can tell you that people who like certain books, let us again use the example of Fifty Shades of Grey, usually want more of the same (more light-erotica) not something different. Most people are not fans of a medium – bibliophiles or cineaphiles or comicphiles – they are fans of genres, of creators, of the flavor of the week. They are not interested in expanding their horizons.

But let us say, for the sake of the argument, that they want the things Eric Stephenson offers them: good and original comics. Well… how do define original? If the word is merely used to indicate new titles which aren’t related to previously created properties…. Then yes: Image publishes mostly original comics. But if you mean original in the sense of ‘new ideas’ when you look at Image’s roster you see a lot of stuff you’ve seen before[2]: survival Zombie stories was alread a well-established genre long before The Walking Dead came into the market (I’d give Kirkman credit for making his into an open-ended, long term story)[3]. A lot of newly announced titles from Image are not only things I’ve seen before but things I’ve seen before from these very creators.

A Scott Snyder horror series (The Wake, American Vampire, Severed), an Ed Brubaker spy story (Winter Soldier, Sleeper), Rick Remender on Action-Science-Fiction (Black Science, Fear Agent) etc etc… these are not world shaking new ideas. These are genre works from established creators in the genres that made them established. Which, again, is fine – originality is over-rated: original does not always equal good. Critics love original ideas because it gives us something new to talk about, but the best works in a filed usually come after it had been partly established[4].  I’d probably buy most of these series, and I’ll probably like the ones I buy, but that does not make them original.  Original is not always good and original & good does not always (or often) guarantee high sales, or new readers.

You know what is one the most original and good Image series right now? Prophet – it’s a daring and imaginative science Fiction series which throws more new ideas at the reader per page than most series do over the course of their running time. It’s also a revival of an old property – and not even a good one at that. Prophet was just a forgotten Rob Leifeld character that was given new life. You could say that Brandon Graham and co. would probably produce an equally good work if they just produced an original SF comics; I would agree with that. But the fact that they produced something so GOOD and NEW based on old property (and did it for Image Comics) shows that a franchise is not always bad.

Another example: IDW’s current Transformers comics, the one Stephenson mocked (I assume without reading) are some of the best SF series on the market, and they are so good because they use the foundations of their franchise to create something interesting. They take basic concept, shape changing robots locked in an endless war, and re-examine it – what sort of society is created by beings that can change shape? What are the sociable results of war that lasts millions of years? In what sort of universe these beings exist. These comics could not be so good without all the history of the franchise behind it. I’ve never read Transformers comics before but I’m reading one now. Because it’s a good comics.

More than anything else Stephenson’s speech reminds of the manifestos Warren Ellis was throwing around in the mid-2000′s – and even if there was something admirable in their crazy optimism one couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at their basic notion: that the thing that stops people from coming into comics is all the bad stuff, all the superhero stuff which seems to rule the shelves. As if, when one steps outside the world of comics, people only crave original ideas – one short look at TV rating, book sales and movie ticket sales online would disprove that notion quickly.

The thing is, I don’t see a reason for Stephenson to make these part of his speech. He is already winning – in sales, in critical appreciation, in his place in the public’s eye. Image comics rides high now, and they ride eye for the bbest of reasons – for giving the their readers high quality work without all the bullshit that plagues the rest of the market.

The comics world owes a lot to the work of Eric Stephenson, but that does not mean he should tear down the hard work of others, not simply because it has a TM after the title[5]. I’d still agree with first thing he said- There are only two kinds of comics that matter: Good comics and Bad Comics. Everything else is bullshit.


[1] Though, much to my surprise, it is not Marvel or DC or even Avatar who broke the barrier for me. It was Humanoids with their recently announced Ultra Deluxe Final Incal – a 590$ hardcover. A sum to high to pay for a book even if it’s the size of a table, bound in a gold plated slipcase and comes with ghost of Moebius bound to the cover.

[2] Some people who defended Stephenson pointed out that’s his job to sell Image Comics not to sell the work of the completion… which is fine and good – but since he frames the argument in general terms, and make his work into the moral high ground, he can’t be defended on the base of ‘it’s just a sales pitch’. Stephenson certainly doesn’t play it like a salesperson, he plays it like a prophet at the gate.

[3] And, really, crying for original, non-superhero, content while praising the work of Kirkman – the guy who brought us the superhero nostalgia-fest that is Invincible – is not really proper.

[4] To quote Boy George: “It’s not who did it first, it’s who did it better”

[5] And with Kirkman letting other people write his Invincible characters, and with the relunch of Rob Leifeld characters like Prophet and Glory, I’d say Image has its own hands in the TM bucket right now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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2 Comments

  1. I started reading/collecting comics in the mid-1980s, when I was around eight years-old. I stopped in the early 1990s, but as an adult, I’ve picked up a few new titles and collected the odd back issue. I think one clear difference in the market from back then to now is price and availability. Comics used to be a relatively disposable pleasure. They were cheap and could be picked up at a lot of places. I eventually had my local comic book shop as a kid, but I think I had been reading for years before I found it. Before then, I bought them at grocery and convenience stores, sometimes a regular book store. It was purely random that I ever bought my first one, and it was not a major expense, costing me maybe $0.60. I don’t know why companies expect new readers to take a chance on 1) going to a new store and 2) buying something that costs at least $2.99. Do you know if anyone has ever looked at the economic factors that might keep out new readers.

  2. Brad Sawyer says:

    Damn right! Amen, brother!!

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