Berkeley-based Image Comics held its own mini comic-con on July 2, organizing Image Expo 2013, an unusual single publisher-focused comics media event, where they announced a slew of new Image titles as well as a new DRM-free digital content storefront that could change the digital publishing business for more than just comics. In a report on Image Comics' business profile, publisher Eric Stephenson said Image sales are split almost evenly between bookstores and comics shops, with overall sales up 38% over last year and digital sales growing to 15% of its revenue.

Held on a day when BART, the Bay Area public transportation system, was out-of-commission due to a transit workers’ strike, Image Expo drew about 500 fans to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (across the street from the Moscone Convention Center, the former home of Wondercon). The second not-quite-annual Image Expo 2013 was definitely not a huge fan convention like Wondercon or even like Image Expo 2012. Nope, this was a much more intimate affair with a tightly-focused agenda geared toward hardcore Image fans, retailers and press.

“This isn’t meant to be a ‘fan convention’—it is meant to be a press event,” focused on Image Comics and its books and authors said Jennifer de Guzman, Image’s public relations and marketing director. “Last year, we did a more traditional convention. This year, we decided to play to some of our strengths.”

In Image’s case, their strengths include their vast array of creator-owned titles, their roster of fan-favorite writers and artists, and their close ties to comics shop retailers—the people who can make or break a title with fans.

Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson provided an overview of Image’s origins, and shared some upbeat pie charts and graphs showing Image’s sales growth (Image reports that sales are trending up 38% percent from last year, with 43% of its sales from bookstores, 42% from the direct market, and 15% from digital). Stephenson then introduced their marquee new titles along with several creators who were there in person, and star comics writer Mark Millar, who chimed in via a prerecorded message from Scotland.

Image Digital: Download-To-Own, DRM-Free

Probably the most important news to come out of Image Expo came via Image’s business development honcho Ron Richards, when he unveiled Image’s revamped website and announced the publisher would be making many of their new titles (and many bestselling titles from their back catalog) available for sale as DRM-free, download-to-own files in four popular file formats: PDF, ePub, CBR, CBZ. Image’s new initiative kicked off with a digital-first exclusive edition of Jupiter’s Legacy #1 by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely and Scatterlands #1, the first installment of an online sci-fi series by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard.

Even for fans who don’t normally don’t buy comics in digital format, this announcement got industry-watchers talking almost immediately for a simple reason: Image is one of the biggest players to delve into this much-requested but much-feared area of the digital publishing divide.

Today, most US comics publishers sell digital comics that use digital rights management technology to prevent piracy--to the annoyance of many consumers DRM also prevents informal sharing of legally purchased content--and/or are only available to read via digital distributor’s server, ala Comixology, Apple’s iTunes store, or via a publisher’s proprietary digital storefront. If the server is not accessible, or god forbid the company goes out of business, those comics you “bought” might not be accessible anymore. (The recently shuttered digital comics site is an example of that exact scenario.)

Fans love, and have been asking for, DRM-free files because it allows readers to download, share, and store the digital books you buy on your own computer. But publishers have been reluctant to go DRM-free, because DRM-controlled files are meant to thwart online piracy. A few smaller publishers like Digital Manga and VIZ Media’s SuBLime Manga imprint have experimented with download-to-own comics, but Image is the first of the big guns in the US mainstream comics market to step into the wild world of DRM-free digital publishing.

Image Comics’ move to a DRM-free digital publishing model raises eyebrows in the publishing industry, but according to Richards, it’s an idea whose time has come.“Why DRM-free digital? Why not?” he told PW. “I think DRM ultimately hurts readers. It’s the same as what we saw happen in the music business… you can’t stop it.”

As Richards explained the rationale for this move, “I want everyone to be able to read our comics. We offer four different file formats—you can choose how you want to read it.”

While Image will be making many popular titles like Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples and The Walking Dead available in this DRM-free format, he also added that Image Comics series are creator-owned and controlled, and therefore, it’s ultimately up to each creator to decide if they want to make their works available this way. In the meantime, readers can expect to see new DRM-Free digital titles added to on an almost daily basis.

But how will this switch to digital affect the comic shop retailers? Retailer Brian Hibbs from SF-based comics shop Comics Experience had this to say: “How can you not be okay with this? It’s not directly taking away from stores [sales] at this point. I personally prefer physical copies, but there are people who don’t live near a comics shop, and there are people who prefer to read comics digitally. [Digital comics] is like what the newsstands used to do[comics] don’t have that kind of exposure anymore. “

New: Evil Scientists, Spies, Zombies, Sexy Bank Robbers

For the 500+ fans who paid $20 for general admission and $50 for premium tickets to this event, Image Expo gave them a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with top creators like Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Fatale), J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Ten Grand) and Matt Fraction (Casanova), get exclusive merch and variant editions of new and continuing Image series like Satellite Sam (a noir murder mystery about a 1950’s TV star with a dark secret by Fraction and Howard Chaykin), and The Sidekick a Stracynski-penned tale about a former junior hero who hits the skids when his super-powered mentor is assassinated.

Image Expo attendees also got to be the first to hear several major announcements regarding Image’s most popular series, The Walking Dead. For starters, the 10th anniversary of The Walking Dead will be commemorated with “All Out War,” a new 12-issue story arc that launches on October 9, 2013, starting with issue #115.

New issues of the “All Out War” arc will be released bi-weekly, and will delve into an epic conflict between four factions of survivors: Rick Grimes’ “Survivors,” Jesus’s “Hilltop,” Negan’s “Saviors,” or Ezekiel’s “Kingdom.” Hints were dropped about this plot development in the days leading up to Image Expo via Twitter, and website. Readers can get a taste of what’s to come in this much-anticipated event here.

Fans can also look forward to a color edition of The Walking Dead #1 in October, as colorist Dave Stewart gives new life to Tony Moore’s artwork.

While Kirkman got the lion’s share of the fan worship and the longest lines at the autograph sessions, there was more than enough love to go around for the other special guests, and a good deal of buzz for new, upcoming projects from top creators. Several new series announced at Image Expo are by creators that are new to Image’s all-star line-up of comics talent.

Some highlights from the titles spotlighted at Image Expo:

Alone by J.Michael Straczynski and Bill Sienkiewicz, with new interior art by Sienkiewicz – Due sometime in 2014

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction with stylish art by Chip Zdarsky. Described as a “sex comedy,” Sex Criminals is about a woman who “can stop time when she makes whoopie.” She meets a guy who has the same ability, so what do they do? They start robbing banks. Look for this in September 2013

Southern Bastards by Jason Allen and Jason LaTour (best known for their stint on Wolverine for Marvel) Allen draws upon his Alabama roots to create a story described as “The Dukes of Hazzard by the Coen Brothers.”

Deadly Class by Rick Remender and Wesley Craig – a 1980’s high school drama set in a school for assassins. Look for lots of references to punks, goths and MTV 120 Minutes amidst the murder and mayhem.

Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting – Velvet Templeton is the 40-something personal assistant to the head of a major intelligence agency, who ends up on the run from the spies she once worked with. “It’s an espionage comic that’s more grounded and twisted,” said Brubaker.

The Book of Lost Souls by J. Michael Straczynki and Colleen Doran, and Dream Police by title once published on Marvel’s ICON imprint

ODY-C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward – a psychedelic science fiction comic that has some mindblowing colors to match its hallucinogenic story

Black Science by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera – a classic sci-fi space story featuring “a member of the anarchist league of scientists who’s delving into dark, evil science,” inspired by the art of Frank Frazetta

Image Expo: Intimate, Fan-Friendly; No Comic-Con Craziness

San Diego retailer Joel Elad made the 8-hour drive from Southern California to attend Image Expo. With Comic-Con International, the biggest comics show in the U.S. happening in his city only a few weeks later, and his own SoCal Comic-Con coming to Oceanside in October, why did Elad decide to make this trip?

“Just for the access to this many creators in an intimate setting, without the intensity of Comic-Con,” he said. Elad also attended Image Expo 2012 in Oakland, which was, by all accounts, a very different affair.

“Last year was lightning in a bottle,” said Elad. “They had seven of the Image Comics founders/partners, plus an amazing array of artists and writing talent in one place with very low attendance.” This was great for a fan/retailer like Elad, because it meant he could meet and mingle with an array of fan-favorite comics creators without having to navigate crowds, or spend hours in line to get things signed. “But I knew after it was over, that they’d never do it again.”

When Image first announced their July 2 date for this year’s Image Expo in April, many were left asking, “Why have it on a Tuesday?” The initial explanation was simple: “It was the only day available,” replied de Guzman.

But as the announcements were made, and the new titles and promotions hit the interwebz, it became clear there was another reason for Image’s weekday scheduling of this event. Each announcement became that day’s big news. Each new series was previewed and reviewed in depth by almost every comics news outlet.

In short, Image got to be headline news this week instead of fighting for attention amidst the tidal wave of press releases, celebrity appearances, toy exclusives, and movie marketing that hits every pop culture writer’s inbox in the days before and during San Diego Comic-Con.

“Comic-Con is very noisy. There’s been less of a focus on comics lately,” observed Image’s business development manager Ron Richards. “These announcements are it for us, for now. We’ll have panels and news to share [at Comic-Con], but we won’t be announcing anything as big as what we’ve unveiled today,” he said, but added, “But I reserve the right to surprise you!”

For San Francisco comics retailer Brian Hibbs, Image Expo gives him exactly what he wants out of a show: comics-centric programming, and easy access to comics creators.

“I stopped going to Comic-Con almost eight years ago,” he said. “It’s not about comics anymore.”

Hibbs compared Image Expo to other publishers’ road shows for retailers, and preferred what he experienced at Image Expo 2013.

“I’ve been to DC’s roadshows, and they’re all about pushing product, like their figures and stuff,” Hibbs said. “With Image Expo, it’s all about content! They’re telling me about books that I’ll want to sell. I prefer this, because it’s a collaborative relationship (with Image) rather than being sold to.”

As the owner of Comics Experience in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood, Hibbs is a fan as well as a retailer.

“I think comics is a very special kind of retail—no other retailer is this passionate about the product they sell,” Hibbs said. “Comics creators, especially ones who own their own creations, have the same passion. There’s no limit to what we can do together.”

Think Small: Will Image Expo Return In 2014?

Even for the veteran convention goer, Image Expo 2013 was a little hard to define. It was an interesting mix of cocktail party, sales conference, comics convention, dog and pony show, and family reunion.

There was a friendly camaraderie on display between the featured creators, Image staff and the fans/retailers/press; a light-heartedness that’s hard to pull off in the manic atmosphere and crowds at mega shows like Comic-Con.

Fans and retailers got to scoop up exclusive merch/special editions and early previews of new and soon-to-be-released titles. Creators, pros and fans got to mix and mingle in a casual setting. And Image got to win that day’s comics news cycle with their bold digital initiatives and noteworthy new series without having to jockey for attention amidst the Comic-Con hype storm that’s on the horizon.

So is an Image Expo 2014 in the works? “We’ll see. It’s a lot of work,” said Richards. “Will we do it in July again? We’re not married to a date yet—but the next one might be sooner than you think!”