On a sunny afternoon before preview night, the San Diego Comic-Con International’s annual kickoff event, while the crews outside the convention center hustled to put finishing touches on Godzilla, the Simpsons and Gotham City-themed promotions, Image Comics put on their own pre-show show with the latest incarnation of Image Expo. Once again, Image publisher Eric Stephenson made it a point to contrast conventional comics publishing—licensed adaptations and an emphasis on decades-old company-owned franchises—with Image’s lineup of new and original creator-owned works.
A kind of pop-up all-Image media event, Image Expo has been effective at showing off the publisher’s roster of creator-owned new works. Roughly 300 people (a lot of fans, but mostly retailers) filled the meeting room at the Hilton Bayfront Hotel for an Image Expo that had a smaller venue and tighter agenda than prior versions of this event, which felt more like a 2-hour convention panel than an "expo." Announcements included new titles for Fall/Winter 2014-15 from comics superstars like Warren Ellis, Kurt Busiek, Becky Cloonan and Jeff Lemire. While several new series were from creators who had previous work published by Image, there were several creators who unveiled their first projects with this Berkeley, California-based independent publisher.
The 2-hour event kicked off with a fiery keynote speech by Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson. Speaking from a lectern that was only a block away from the largest comics event of the year, Stephenson called out the mainstream "comics industry of the past" for " grave robbing the past in an attempt to pump new life into decades-old characters" and "treating gender equality and cultural issues as though they’re little more than gimmicks to increase sales."
Stephenson came armed with charts and graphs to compare sales drops in the U.S. comics industry (2014 sales so far are tracking to be -5.46% less than 2013), while Image Comics sales are enjoying steady year-over-year growth; almost +10% in dollars and units sold compared to last year.
He evoked the spirits of comics legends like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who "changed the rules and made the kind of comics they wanted to make by doing things their way." He also railed against the "industry status quo" that ensured that comics were read by and primarily created by "young, white men."
While the majority of the talent trotted out on stage were white men, this Image Expo featured even more projects than ever with major contributions by female comics creators.
From Under Mountains, a new fantasy-sci-fi series by Claire Gibson, Marian Churchland and Sloane Leong was notable for having a 100% female creative team featured on stage, a first for Image Expo. Set in a land where warring factions vie for power, "a lord's daughter, a disgraced knight, and a runaway thief" set off events that will change their world forever. Churchland and Gibson recalled their creating comics together since their high school days, and were visibly thrilled to show off this coming attraction for 2015 to the Image Expo crowd.
"Diversity is something we always strive for and talk about at the Image Comics offices," said Kat Salazar, Director of PR and Marketing. "From Under Mountains is something we wanted to announce at the last Image Expo in January, but Marian wasn't able to come out for that show, so we pushed out the announcement to this event."
Image Comics was founded over 20 years ago by a group of Marvel Comics creators who wanted to have complete creative control and ownership of their creations. At this Image Expo, even more fan-favorite creators from DC and Marvel joined the fold at Image, most notably Kurt Busiek (Marvels, Astro City), who flew in just for Image Expo to show off Tooth and Claw, a "big, epic fantasy series about animal people," that was described as "Conan meets Game of Thrones meets Kamandi," with Ben Dewey, a creator with an affinity for drawing animals, as evidenced in his work in I Was The Cat, from Oni Press.
A chain-smoking Warren Ellis was there in spirit (and via Skype) to tease attendees with hints about Injection, his new series with Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire that's due for an April 2015 debut.
Award-winning Indie creators Jeff Lemire (Chew) and Becky Cloonan (Demeter) also announced new series, but ones that would showcase their writing chops rather than their drawing skills. Lemire is teaming up with Batman artist Dustin Nguyen for Descender, a elegantly illustrated sci-fi story about robots, and Cloonan is working with Andy Belanger to create Southern Cross, a sci-fi/suspense tale teased out as "Robotech meets Stephen King."
Sci-fi, action, and horror-themed fare dominated the roster at Image Expo, as evidenced by the other previewed titles: Tokyo Ghost by Rick Remender (Deadly Class) and Sean Gordon Murphy, Intersect by Ray Fawkes (One Soul), The Humans by Tom Neely and Keenan Marshall Keller, Invisible Republic by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, and Rumble by John Arcudi and James Harren. On the lighter side, Joe Casey offered up Valhalla Mad, a tale illustrated by Paul Maybury about Norse gods on a drunken adventure on Earth and the mayhem they leave in their wake.
A few days after it was hastily announced, and two hours after it started, Image Expo was over – an affair that was much smaller and shorter than prior incarnations of the event, but consistent with the themes that Image has been emphasizing at the last two Image Expos: creator-owned comics are thriving, more creators are jumping into the fray, and Image wants to lead the way.