Image Expo: A Space Odyssey

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Image_i_logo_blackBy now you’ve likely scanned the tweets and seen the major news items that came from Image Expo last Thursday. It was certainly a day filled with big ideas and exciting new projects from a slate of established creators and promising new ones. The benefit to attending the expo, rather than just reading the sound bites is, of course, access to more detailed conversations during the initial presentation by Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson and afterwards with the various creators sharing their 2014 launches. The next best thing is a timely run down of the announcements and content shared throughout the event. Or alternatively, you can come with me on this long-winded journey through my own notes and musings from the day.

Eric Stephenson began the keynote with some convincing numbers about Image Comics’ position in the comics industry, citing 2013 as the fifth year of unprecedented growth for the company. It was their best year in over a decade, with the number one comic (The Walking Dead, of course) for the second year in a row and 7 of the ten top trades. Stephenson reiterated the company’s key principle: creators own 100% of their work, including media rights. This was a theme that would be repeated multiple times by the creators themselves during the afternoon. For better or worse, Image Comics offers a platform for incredible talent to tell the stories they want to tell.

I was intrigued by Stephenson’s point that there is still much to do within the comics industry to continue to publish the best possible comics, and to widen and diversify comics audiences. He spoke of Image’s goal to find new methods to embrace the rapidly growing fan culture and “meet the future head on” to build a better industry. Obviously, this wasn’t an event for brainstorming the specific strategies to do so, but it was heartening to know some of those needs have been heard and were acknowledged however briefly at such a high profile PR event.

Because let’s be honest, that’s what this was. And that’s totally fine. But for those of you outside of the San Francisco Bay Area lamenting that you couldn’t get here to attend in person, let me reassure you that Image Expo isn’t a con in the traditional sense. It’s a singularly-focused press conference with limited creator access for fans. Again, that’s fine, and ideal in many ways for presenting what is essentially a year’s worth of awesome comics content. I’m just making sure we’re all on the same page here in terms of the event itself.

invincible-111The first creator to join Eric Stephenson on stage was Robert Kirkman, creator and writer of The Walking Dead, although he said right off the bat that he wasn’t there to talk about the series or the show. Instead, he spoke about Invincible, another of his celebrated creator-owned series, and pitched the upcoming #111 as being like “three number ones in one comic.” It’s the start of a new arc with a scale and scope that will far outpace the earlier feel of the series. Kirkman also introduced his new project, Outcast, drawn by Paul Azaceta, a journey of self discovery and demonic possession. He promised it would be a creepy, slow burn, scarier than anything he’s ever done. It launches in June with 40 pages of story for $2.99. Before Kirkman left the stage, he also mentioned a series of his, Tech Jacket, that he’s always felt he canceled prematurely. It’s interesting to hear a creator speak like that, especially someone of Kirkman’s untouchable stature now. Again, this goes back to the role Image Comics plays as publisher, and the freedom and flexibility creators have to plan the ways – and whens – their stories are told. Tech Jacket relaunches with Tech Jacket Digital, available right now via imagecomics.com exclusively and after January 15 on Comixology. Written by Joe Keatinge and drawn by Khary Randolph, the three issue mini series serves as a catch up for the series, and apparently exposes more of Kirkman’s “daddy issues”. His words, not mine.

Joe Keatinge then invited his co-creator, artist Leila del Duca to the stage to talk about their series Shutter, debuting April 9, an adventure story set in the 21st century in a world where anything goes. We had the great fortune to talk more in depth with Joe and Leila about their work on Shutter in an interview that will be posted separately, but I can say without bias that this title is one of my most anticipated of the bunch. It is clear that the collaboration between the creators is a natural extension of their individual talents, and visually the pages they shared are just stunning. Kay Christopher, the young protagonist, is celebrating her birthday as the story opens, and it looks to be an exciting tale of a strong young woman from a long line of curious explorers set in a world of space aliens, minotaurs, and magic.

Ah, space. You knew that was going to be another theme of the day, didn’t you? I practically handed it to you above. More broadly, the science fiction bent of most of the new 2014 titles actually caught me off guard, but in a good way. Magic, mythology and meteors, if you like alliteration as much as I do. Or Space, Gods and Spells? Eh. No wonder Image went with the “I is for….” campaign. But it’s definitely worth noting that almost every single book presented at Image Expo could be placed in the wide arms of science fiction’s embrace. How exciting is that?

comics-8house-2Onward. Artist and writer Brandon Graham spoke of his new project 8House, a creator collaboration in a shared fantasy universe of magic wars and astral projection. The first arc will be written by Graham and drawn by Xurxo Penalta, the second written by Graham and drawn by Marion Churchland and the third written by Emma Rios, currently drawing Pretty Deadly, and drawn by Wei Lin.

Jim Valentino shared the upcoming Ted McKeever project coming out from Shadowline in June. The Superannuated Man, in Valentino’s words “[about] a guy going through DT who drops acid,” will be “equally weird” like McKeever’s other previous mini series which have found a home at Shadowline.

When Rick Remender came on stage, it wasn’t to talk about Deadly Class, his series with Wes Craig that debuts later this month on the heels of the wildly successful Black Science with Matteo Scalera introduced at the end of 2013. No, Remender isn’t finished yet – another theme of the day echoed by so many writers especially. He showed off some of his third new series Low, drawn by Greg Tocchini and coming in July. Set in the very far and distant future, humanity has sought solace from the expanding heat and radiation of the sun far below the surface of the ocean, while probes scour the universe for possible inhabitable worlds. After thousands of years, a probe finally returns, and Low follows the journey of some of Earth’s last human residents as they climb up through the ocean levels and set foot on the surface for the first time. Remender is clearly having the time of his life with these projects – he talked about the excitement of wearing his D&D dungeon master’s hat in regards to the extensive world building. So again we have a prolific creator choosing Image Comics for his creator-owned work , demonstrating the range of stories he has yet to start to tell this year alone. And we’re not even halfway finished with the announcements.

Nailbiter-Promo-with-logo_webJoshua Williamson’s new series, Nailbiter, drawn by Mike Henderson, will be out in May. We also talked with Josh after the morning session, and his interview will be posted separately. Nailbiter is set in a small town in Oregon where 16 of the world’s worst serial killers were born and raised. It tells the story of the outsiders sent to investigate and the townsfolk living with the knowledge that there is evil amongst them, and it could be anywhere. Williamson teased that the origin of the evil could be supernatural, could be magical, could be physical. The question of nature vs. nurture has never had such deadly consequences.

Another prolific creator juggling mainstream titles and creator-owned comics, Matt Fraction shared not one but two new projects with Image Comics in 2014. The first, ODY-C, beautifully drawn by Christian Ward, will be out mid-summer or fall. The story is, as you might have guessed, a genderswapped retelling of the Odyssey set in space. It was fascinating and telling to listen to Fraction describe the original Odyssey as being quite a bit like comics, with stories out of order requiring prior knowledge to fully grasp the characters and actions. He and Ward will be “straightening out the story” and adding in background, described as “psychedelic sci-fi by way of Greek mythology.” He was also exceedingly pleased with the ability to “and one more thing” the crowd with the announcement of Casanova IV: Acedia. Once again joined by artists Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, this new Casanova adventure will also feature back up stories by Michael Chabon. “Because when you need someone to do backup stories,” Fraction said, “you get a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who changed your life.” Of course you do.

bitch planetKelly Sue DeConnick announced her seccond creator-owned title from Image Comics. Bitch Planet, drawn by Valentine De Landro, comes from De Connick’s “deep and abiding love of 60’s exploitation” stories and films, the kind that are so bad they’re good. The team is hoping for a summer launch of this science fiction-off-planet-women’s-penal-colony,-jail-break movie. In a comic.

Yep, that’s two more space stories for the docket. Ready for more?

Writer Nick Spencer has decided to mark his fifth anniversary in the industry by debuting three new books in 2014: The Great Beyond, Paradigms, and Cerulean. The first, drawn by Morgan Jeske is set in a “post life community” where the size of one’s bank account determines one’s place in the afterlife. When one of the residents commits suicide, the remaining individuals must figure out how that is even possible after they are all ostensibly dead. Paradigms follows warring clans of magicians and paladins in the modern day. It’s drawn by Butch Guire, and Spencer equated the story to Game of Thrones in an exotic urban locale, with promises of magic and gods, and where belief is a weapon. And finally Cerulean, with Frasier Irving, is the tale of the last survivors of Earth waking up millions of years later, after they’ve travelled across space and time to a new planet to make their lives again. But like any government project, Spencer teased, the initial months can be a little rocky. We also spoke with Nick at length after the keynote, about how he juggles the demand of multiple titles with Image Comics and Marvel Comics, as well as his personal goals as a writer in 2014. Look for that interview soon.

airboyWhat do you get when you combine the self-aware meta storytelling device of Adaptation with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Writer James Robinson and artist Greg Hinkle will present that very intriguing combination in Airboy, the tale of two creators trying to adapt the public domain character Air Boy into a successful comic. In the morning session, Robinson offered that if you love rousing WWII comics and full-frontal male nudity, this is the book you were waiting for. We spoke with James in the afternoon to get a better sense of his process with Hinkle, and how they were balancing such unconventional storytelling. That interview will be posted separately, and will be a must for anyone intrigued at what Robinson and Hinkle are doing with the comics medium with this book.

Artist Nick Dragotta is busy on East of West, and that won’t be changing, but he was pleased to announce the introduction of HowToons through Image Comics. HowToons was previously published by Harper Collins and then available digitally. It’s an educational kids comic that integrates mostly science-based instructions into the storylines. Dragotta won’t be joining the creative team on this arm of the project that he’s been involved with for ten years, however. Fred Van Lente will be writing, Tom Fowler will be drawing and Jordie Bellaire will be coloring this new, large scale science fiction romp. Surely this book will be rated for all-ages. But still, science fiction again. Not a bad thing!

cowlKyle Higgins announced his first book with Image Comics,  C.O.W.L., drawn by Rod Reese. The Chicago Organized Workers League was founded under the notion that heroes can be better if they can do it full time, and this superhero labor union in 1960s Chicago has multiple divisions to serve its members to the fullest. When we spoke with Kyle, he talked about the transition period for superheroes in the post-WWII era, and in truth, for the nation as a whole. Suddenly things were a lot greyer than they’d been, so how does that affect the needs of the populous with the services the heroes can provide? Our full interview will be posted later, but this cool take on 1960s style superhero comics plays it totally straight, a refreshing contrast to the irreverent, post-ironic tone of so many other books. There’s room for both – and many others in between – but I’m particularly excited by the choice Higgins and Reese made in telling this story.

Chris Bunham  and Grant Morrison will be introducing “the ultimate horror comic book”, and Bunham promised “straight up, balls to the wall horror” in Nameless. He teased very few details and no images, but shared the goal that “hopefully 11 year old kids will steal [the book] and it’ll ruin their lives forever.” So that sounds pleasant.

resoration_promo_pencils_a_pFall brings a new book written by Bill Willingham and drawn by Barry Kitson, Restoration. In a world where magic and gods have been literally removed and locked away, the story opens on the “first bad day” when that facility fails to hold and all the gods and magic come back into the world. After one billion die, what follows? How does humanity react, and what are the limits of the gods themselves? Again, our conversation with Bill will be posted later, but Restoration brings together some of his favorite interests – mythology and the mundane – in new and exciting way.

Want more mythology? How about The Wicked & The Divine from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. What better team to carry the “God as Pop Star” motif forward? They’re both ready to get into what makes gods tick, and looking forward to pushing boundaries with no limits. Gillen and McKelvie are also working on Phonogram Vol. 3, and McKelvie will take a break from the second arc of The Wicked & The Devine to draw Phonogram. The former should debut in the summer.

We’re down to the final two announcements, and if your head is spinning now you can imagine what it was like hearing these presented one after another in rapid succession at the expo. Again, the critical mass effect of the event itself is something worth touting, since it dominated the news cycle in a way that announcements at a shared con could never achieve. And because so many of these projects are second, third or even fourth quarter debuts, the actual market isn’t going to be flooded with a pile of new Image books all at once. Still, it was exciting with a side of overwhelming, another theme I heard repeated by both creators and attendees alike. Almost always with a smile on their faces.

wytchesScott Snyder brought the house down with his chilling description of Wytches, drawn by Jock, which will look at witches as ancient creatures, primal and cannibalistic and far more terrifying than the women persecuted over the centuries who were merely their worshipers. “[My] whole goal is to scare the living shit out of you,” Snyder said. He tapped Jock for the art because he is capable of doing “real dread.” This continues Snyder’s personal interest in taking mythology and reinventing it in a frightening new way.

And finally, Ed Brubaker announced that he and Sean Phillips signed a five year deal with Image Comics to basically do whatever they want. Up first, The Fade Out, a crazy Hollywood tale set in the 1940s and drawing from family stories of Brubaker’s uncle who worked in the industry. He spoke fondly of the readership following he and Phillips from project to project, and how fitting a home Image will be for their comics. This unprecedented deal will likely be picked apart by more academic eyes than mine, but I will say that the anticipation on stage and in the audience when Brubaker was describing the freedom to be creative was tangible. There is no doubt at all that he and Phillips are encouraged by this contract and itching to get started, and that speaks tremendously highly of both their dedication to the medium (and its readers) as well as to their new exclusive publisher.

So that’s that. No big deal. Image Expo in a three thousand word nutshell. As I mentioned numerous times, the interviews with individual creators will be posted separately as we transcribe them, but hopefully this gives you a more complete sense of the volume of information shared on Thursday as well as some of the emotional response by the audience and the creators themselves. It’s a great time to be a comics reader, most especially if you are a science fiction fan, and every single writer and artist who presented their upcoming work at Image Expo did so with passion and humility. They may not all be set in space, but it definitely feels like 2014 will be an epic year for creator-owned work at Image Comics.

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