When Comic-Con International announced that WonderCon was temporarily relocating from San Francisco to Anaheim in 2012, it seemed the Bay Area would be without its annual springtime comic book convention. However, where most saw a void, retailer Jay Comics Company and publisher Image Comics saw an opportunity. The result is Image Expo, a three-day convention focusing on creator-owned comics, to be held on February 24, 25, and 26, 2012 in Oakland, California. The convention will commemorate the independent publisher’s twentieth anniversary.

After hearing about WonderCon’s temporary move to southern California, Jimmy Jay, whose Jay Comics Company organized last year’s Amazing Arizona Con, quickly moved to book the Oakland Convention Center, WonderCon’s venue until 2003. Jay approached one of Image’s partners, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), and publisher Eric Stephenson about partnering to create a convention.

“Both Kirkman and [Image co-founder] Rob Liefeld had brought up the notion to host a show celebrating Image’s twentieth anniversary at different points over the last year,”explained Stephenson. “Robert and Rob were both guests at Jimmy’s Arizona con and spoke very highly of their experience.”

Image Comics was founded by a group of high-profile freelance artists around the principle that creators should retain the ownership and legal rights to their work. In that spirit, Image Expo will focus on independent comics and feature programming offering advice to aspiring creators.

“Image Expo is a unique situation where people at all experience levels can hone their skills with top creators working in comics today,”Jay said of the creative workshops being planned. “The programming] will focus on all aspects of the business from story, to art, to even pitching your property.”

The convention is lining up a list of guests that Jay believes will inspire fans. “There’s nothing more powerful than meeting your favorite personalities and hearing them directly share their newest projects and perspectives,”he said.

The show’s special guests include Image partners Robert Kirkman, Todd McFarlane (Spawn) and Jim Valentino (ShadowHawk), as well as co-founders Whilce Portacio (Wetworks) and Rob Liefeld (Young Blood). Other guests are Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, who are parterning on a new Image series, Saga, which will debut in 2012; Joe Casey (Gødland), Jay Faerber (Near Death), Jonathan Hickman (The Nightly News), and Richard Starkings (Comicraft). Stephenson confirmed some new additions to the guest list -- Blair Butler (Attack of the Show!), John Layman (Chew), Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze), and Nick Spencer (Morning Glories).

In addition, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund executive director Charles Brownstein will be heading an outreach effort to library professionals, a group that Jay believes has growing clout in comics. “I think this is an area of growth for our industry,”said Jay, “and an excellent resource in bringing graphic novel culture to new audiences.”

The fans, professionals, and aspiring creators that the convention hopes to attract will find themselves in an Oakland that is much changed from what some may remember from the WonderCons of a decade or more ago. (And one that differs from the city that more recently has become synonymous with the police crackdown on the Occupy Oakland movement.) Though, as Jay pointed out, San Francisco is just two BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stops away, Stephenson stressed that Oakland has its own attractions for convention-goers, especially with the Oakland Convention Center in the center of downtown.

“Downtown Oakland kind of rocks now,”said Stephenson. “When I was going to Wondercon in Oakland back in the ‘90s, the area around the con was a little rough, especially after dark. Over the last several years, though, that area has undergone something of a renaissance. I mean, I’m going to see Morrissey at the Fox Theatre in a couple nights, just blocks away from the Convention Center.”

Stephenson also noted the thriving art, dining, and bar scene in downtown Oakland. “This is our home turf and it’s really gratifying to be able to kind of give back to the community in this way. We’re based in Berkeley, but Oakland is right next door, and as the saying goes, we hella love Oakland.”

As for plans for the future of Image Expo, Jay and Stephenson are hopeful but focused on creating a positive experience this year. “The main goal here is to create a really great experience for fans as we celebrate our twentieth,”said Stephenson. “Anything beyond that is gravy.”

[Jennifer de Guzman is a writer and comics industry professional based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written about comics and life in comics for Publishers Weekly, Newsarama, and Comic Book Resources.]