On a sunny Thursday morning last week, Image Comics presented Image Expo 2014, an innovative single-publisher media event organized by the hot indie publisher, held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco to show off its artists and forthcoming projects. Image Publisher Eric Stephenson reported sales were up 20% in 2013 and announced a five year deal with writer Ed Brubaker, new deals with creators Bill Willingham and Scott Snyder, and showed off a long slate of new titles and projects coming in 2014.

Last years’ Image Expo was so successful, Image held this year’s event only seven months after last year’s show. This year’s event was sold-out and drew over 600 fans, retailers, and members of the entertainment and comics press corps to see what’s new, cool, and coming soon from this Berkeley-based indie comics publisher.

This latest incarnation of Image Expo marked the second time that the indie comics publisher opted for the one-day conference format rather than the traditional multipublisher “comic-con” that marked the first Image Expo event in Oakland in 2012. Just like the July 2013 event, Image Expo 2014 felt like a mix between a sales conference, press junket, and family reunion.

While many attendees came from California, more than a few from other states made the trek to San Francisco to snatch up show exclusive variant issues, meet their favorite creators and get their books signed in a setting that was much less crowded and manic than New York or San Diego Comic-Con. Lines to the merch table wound around the building, with steady sales for Image graphic novels, t-shirts, and Walking Dead merch ringing up all day.

After Image publisher Eric Stephenson’s keynote, where he brought out all the guests and did a quick run-through of all of the new titles, there was a closed-door, retailers-only session which gave comic shop owners an opportunity to talk shop, vent, offer suggestions and get intimate access to the gathered talent. This, plus access to the show-exclusive variants can make the trip worthwhile for retailers, and offers an added bonus for Image: an opportunity to build buzz for Image’s new titles to the people who’ll be on the front lines at comic shops selling readers on the next big thing they should be adding to their pull list.

Sales Rise: Creator-Owned Comics Pay Off

Creator-owned comics has been the guiding principle of Image Comics since its inception in 1992 when seven Marvel Comics superstars decided to strike out on their own. After a few ups and downs over the years, Image Comics has found its groove with a mix of gritty action, sci-fi, and horror graphic novels for grown-ups, and by attracting an ever-growing list of A-list talent who are opting to leave the land of X-Men and Batman to write/create all-new stories with characters they create, own, and control.

Apparently, this strategy is paying off for Image. Publisher Eric Stephenson set the stage for his year’s Image Expo by describing 2013 as “our best year in over a decade,” both in terms of sales and critical acclaim. Image launched 15 new titles by 24 new creators, and enjoyed 20% year-over-year sales increase. “We had the #1 comic of the year, The Walking Dead, for the second year in a row, and seven out of ten titles on many best comics of 2013 lists,” he continued. “We’re not about making cash grabs or rebooting series in a desperate attempt to recapture past glories. Image Comics is continuing to grow. That this company continues to thrive is a testament to its founders.”

In recent years, Image has been placing bigger bets on digital publishing as a way to “widen and diversify the audience that comes into comics stores,” Stephenson said. Image now offers its titles in over 40 countries via Google Play, Apple iTunes/iBooks, and Digital Rights Managed-free (DRM) download via their Image Digital Comics Store. One new title, Tech Jacket (a series originally created by Robert Kirkman), is being revived as a digital-only release with a new creative team, Glory writer Joe Keatinge and artist Khary Randolph. The entire three issue mini-series is available now on Image’s Digital Comics store. Offering single issues as digital-only and as a compiled graphic novel later is one example of how Image is exploring different digital publishing strategies in a rapidly changing market. “This is what it takes to transform this into a more sustainable industry,” Stephenson said.

Ed Brubaker Inks 5 Year Deal

At Image Expo 2013, the big story was Image's venture into DRM-free digital publishing. At the January 2014 event, Image announced another new approach to doing business by signing a five year deal with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the team behind Fatale (which is wrapping up with issue #24). Brubaker announced their next series, The Fade Out, a suspense story set in 1940's Hollywood, and that Criminal and Sleeper, their two series published under Marvel's ICON imprint would be moving to Image.

So given that Brubaker has several creator-owned titles to his name, including Fatale and Velvet with Image, what makes this new deal with Image so notable? "With this deal, we don’t have to pitch Image for the projects we want to do. We can just do them," said Brubaker. "This allows us to explore other possibilities. We want to push the limits, to really do whatever we want to do."

So what kind of things are now possible over the course of this 5-year deal? Brubaker seemed almost giddy with the options available to him. "For example, there are projects like [Chris Ware’s] Building Stories – where the creators could present their stories in unusual formats and page sizes, or package them in different ways," he said. As a writer and screenwriter who has made a name for himself with gritty, action-packed stories, Brubaker is also eager to explore other genres.

Brubaker's partnership with Phillips is one that has endured for over 10 years, and one that has built up a sizeable readership. It's this track record that has allowed Image to place a long-term bet on this creative team's output, wherever their imaginations want to take them.

In the more immediate future, Brubaker and Phillips' next series will be making its debut in Fall 2014. "The Fade Out is a project I’ve been thinking about for a while. My uncle John Paxton was a screenwriter in Hollywood – he worked on The Wild One and he was friends with other screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus), so I grew up hearing his stories. So while The Fade Out isn’t about anything that actually happened, it’s inspired by him and that era."

Bill Willingham Tries Image .

Bill Willingham, creator of the Eisner Award-winning series Fables from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint made a splash by announcing that his next series would be published under the Image banner. Restoration will feature Willingham teaming up with British artist Barry Kitson (Fantastic Four and Iron Man) to tell a tale of a fateful day when gods return to Earth to rule over modern day humanity. The gods of various pantheons, from Greece, India and beyond, have had their powers and presence locked away for millennia. Now they’re back, and they’re divving up the modern world into dominions that they’ll control as they see fit, and humans? Well, they're just there to be servants or cattle.

Willingham’s decision to bring his next project to Image wasn’t made overnight – it was set in motion over two years ago, when he re-connected with Ed Brubaker, who raved about the work he’s been able to do with Image. “He told me, ‘They won’t interfere, they won’t mess with your story. You have to work together.’ But like so many things, it got back-burnered for a while,” he explained.

Willingham then met with Kitson at New York Comic-Con later that same year and, after writing a pitch, said “let’s do this!”’ Willingham explained, “because I was involved with Vertigo, I offered it to them first. They have creator-owned deals, but they don’t have creator-controlled deals. At that point, I remembered my conversation with Eric (Stephenson), and we started working on this.”

"Image has set up a situation where it's like self-publishing,” Willingham said, “but with a group of people who are doing the stuff you hate about self-publishing, but all the good stuff is still in your hands. And that's what I like about them."

Scott Synder and Grant Morrison

Another surprise guest for Image Expo also came from the land of Batman. Scott Synder, best known for his work on Batman, Superman Unchained for DC talked about Wytches, a new series he's working on with Jock (Batman, Wolverine) that veers far from the land of capes and cowls into much darker territory.

"One of my loves is to take mythological creatures and try to make them my own," said Synder. "I did that with American Vampire, and now I want to try one that I haven't explored before: witches." But forget what you know about the women with the bubbling cauldrons and flying brooms. In this series, Snyder says, "those aren't witches. They're just the people who worship the witches." Instead, the real witches are something more primal, much darker, and more unknowable.

Meanwhile, artist Charles Burnham is teaming with his Batman Incorporated collaborator, Grant Morrison on Nameless, a series they describe as "the ultimate horror comic." "Grant has never done a straight-up, ball-to-the-wall horror book,” Burnham says with glee, “I think it's going to be awesome and terrible.”

Brandon Graham’s 8House

8House, an ambitious new collaboration between artist/author Brandon Graham (King City, Prophet), Marian Churchland (Beast), Xurxo Penalta, Emma Rios (Pretty Deadly), and Hwei Lim. The series is set in a universe where monsters and humans co-exist and sometimes switch bodies, battles happen via astral projection, and royal intrigue and betrayal are the just one of many dramas unfolding in a world that's both familiar and fantastical.

Graham set out to create a universe where other creators could use it as an "open source" / public domain who will "work off each other's work." So far, there are three miniseries/arcs planned, with the first, 8House: Kiem penned by Graham and illustrated by Penalta. " After a certain point, this story won’t need me. It’ll have a life of its own."

8House is notable for involving several new talents, and offering an imaginative approach to sci-fi/fantasy. "I’m into getting new artists involved with this,”Graham said. “One thing I think comics are lacking right now is the diversity of voices. I’d like to see more different types of creators who come from different backgrounds out there. I want to get into people’s brains who aren’t like me."

Lots More Coming in 2014

Other notable titles announced at Image Expo ran the spectrum between superhero adventures, spy thrillers, horror, action and sci-fi, including. There’s a lot to look forward to 2014 from Image Comics.

The Wicked and the Divine, a new series about reincarnated gods who become human every 90 years and capture the imagination of humans like rock stars, by Young Avengers creators Kieron Gillen and James McKelvie.

Bitch Planet, a sci-fi/women in prison exploitation mash-up by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Pretty Deadly) and Valentine De Landro

C.O.W.L., by Kyle Higgins (Nightwing), Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis, a new series about a labor union of superheroes that try to keep the peace in 1960's Chicago

Casanova Volume 4: Acedia by Matt Fraction, Michael Chabon, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba – While not a new title per se, it is notable that Pulitzer Prize winning author Chabon(The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) is teaming up with the Eisner Award winning art team of Ba and Moon to explore new stories set in the world of Casanova.

Nailbiter by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson – just a simple story about a town that breeds serial killers, and what happens when someone you care about is a cold-blooded murderer.

Airboy by James Robinson (Starman) and Greg Hinkle, a not-quite autobiographical tale about two comics creators who want to revive a 1940's superhero character that has fallen into obscurity.

Shutter by Joe Keatinge and newcomer Leila del Duca – a 21st Century adventurer, a la Indiana Jones and Laura Croft

The Un-Comic-Con

Doing things differently is part of the Image Comics way of doing business, and Image Expo is just another way that they’re trying to forge a new way of doing business in a segment that’s still dominated by superhero fare from the Big Two, DC and Marvel. Given that the last Image Expo was held just a little over six months prior to this January show, does that mean that this will now be a twice a year affair? When pressed, Image Comics marketing honcho Ron Richard had this to say: “If we have something big to announce in the summer, maybe we will.”