I noticed during the recent Image Expo that there's a certain complaint that seems to come up every time Image announces its next slate of books. The complaint is that Image is not publishing new creators, or at least not publishing enough new talent.
While I can understand the sentiment, seeing as it usually comes from other aspiring professionals like myself, I've always found it problematic. Problematic because even though I would love to see Image publish more new creators, I don't think they're obliged to. By extension, I don't think it's fair to expect them to do so, or hold the fact that they're now publishing more established creators against them.
There are a few reasons why.
Image Expo is primarily meant to be a way for Image to avoid the standard press cycle in comics by hosting their own event. With Image Expo, Image avoids competing against other publishers for publicity at conventions or, in the case of shows like San Diego Comic Con, avoids competing against comic-affiliated franchises in general. Now, Image reserves their convention presence for signings, sales, and panels - which they use to further develop their brand and bring more attention to preexisting series.
They generate and build buzz from Image Expo onward, catering primarily to their target audience: retailers. Yes, retailers - not aspiring professionals. The coverage garnered at the day-long "press conference" only helps drive retailer demand, and the audience excitement doesn't hurt.
Image's retailer focus is only made more obvious by the Retailer Summit they launched this year. The returns on being able to present in-person to an audience of retailers is far greater than the returns on presenting to a small audience of readers. I believe that the reader-focused panels are just Image taking advantage of many of their "stable" of creators being in town to take part in the keynote - the real crux of the event. Image could improve the returns on the rest of their panels by setting up a livestream (it could even be paid at $5 for a day-pass), but they have yet to do so.
And while some of their audience may be excited by the promise of a series from an unknown creators you can bet they're going to be more excited by the next book from their favorite creator, or the promising collaboration of two of their favorite creators. Hence the Image Expo strategy.
So, that's the first consideration: Context. Image Expo is not the place to announce books from new creators. Image - both Image Central and its various "imprints" - publishes many more books than those they announce at the show. Saying that Image is not publishing enough new talent after a press-conference designed to drive sales, in which it's smarter (or at least safer) to bet on & allocate time to "sure hits" is unfair to Image and their catalogue. It's not indicative of what's really happening.
What's Really Happening
I counted a total of 85 #1s from Image's solicits in 2014. This includes cross-overs labeled as #1 and one-shots (some of which are original, others which are linked to existing franchises, and others that are anthologies).
From these I counted 35 titles in which one of the creators had never been published by The Big Two or Image beforehand. That's 41%.
Now this is, admittedly, still not a clear picture. Of the 35 titles about 9 were from creators with credits in other media or who were established at another Top 10 company. This leaves 26 unestablished creators. 31%.
But this is not a fair analysis because in 15 of these cases the creators were the artists on the book - working with writers who had either previously been published by The Big Two or Image. So these bets were still relatively safe, in the writer-focused comic market we exist in today.
This leaves 9 cases of comics from "new" creators from Image in all of 2014.
Publishing History of Image Creators
Of these 9 cases, 4 are from writer-artists. Only the remaining 5 are from wholly new creative teams and 2 of them are from Top Cow's roster (one being "Genius", from Top Cow's Discover Line and the other being "Magdalena Seventh Sacrament" by Tini Howard, one of the winning writers form Top Cow's Talent Hunt, and artist Aileen Oracion).
Now 9, out of 85 books is still ~11% and though that's a pretty decent percentage I know many are probably angry about these numbers. And I'd be lying if I didn't say that I do wish Image was publishing more newer creators. But, despite wishing so, I don't mind that Image is putting its weight behind surer bets. It doesn't bother me because I don't consider Image the be-all and end-all of creator-owned or independent comics, and I recognize that it's not the only opportunity for up-and-coming creators.
Image has always been about creator-owned comics, not new creators. And to expect them to fulfill an expectation they never desired is idealistic, at best. As a company, their recent success has been built around two key pillars.
The First Pillar: A high quantity of different titles that all break even and, ideally, bring in a profit. Image's model, whether intentionally or not, is specifically designed to support this pillar. To elaborate, Image take all of the revenue from the single issues of a title until they first break even, and then meet the $2,500 fee to cover their operating expenses. As a result, they're always almost able to make a small profit, even on the lower-selling titles, and keep on publishing.
The Second Pillar: Major "blockbuster" successes. The key example here is obviously The Walking Dead. But it has been successfully followed up by Saga, now.
Now you could argue that this second pillar is hard to build around. You can't plan for mega successes. And I would agree with you. But you can increase the likelihood that they'll occur - and that's exactly what Image is doing.
Image has been focusing on 'elevating' the First Pillar, raising the quality of their many titles across the board by betting on creators and creative teams to deliver. Where they once had a catalogue filled with books that were either major successes or flew under the radar, more of their titles are slowly filling up the Top 300. As this continues, Image's market share grows and their revenue increases.
They've hoped that releases like Robert Kirkman's Outcast and now Brian K. Vaughan's two new titles announced at Image Expo, would possibly engender more "blockbusters," and though Outcast did not it's still selling strong (36,000 copies for Issue #6 in December 14, 54th on the Top 300). They no longer need the blockbusters, though they're definitely huge steps forward. Instead Image can content themselves on filling up the charts with more steadily selling titles (they had over 30 titles on the Top 300 in December).
At least, that's what I think.
The Big Picture
And while I have a hard time believing Image won't pick up a book that looks good - especially since they're still available for open submissions (and you can't understate the importance of an open door) - the heavy-hitter is not going to be most people's avenue into the Direct Market, just like you wouldn't start by getting published by Marvel or DC. The opportunity is there, it's just unlikely.
If we really care about having avenues for new creators to create then we need to better support programs that are making this happen, like Comics Experience's publishing program. They've partnered with the IDW to give aspiring professional creators who are members of their workshop a chance to get their books out into the Direct Market with a front-of-previews publisher. Their debut title is coming out on January 28th, and I think we're in for a treat.
So there are other paths available. It makes sense to me that were we find Image lacking we should endeavor to support or build projects and enterprises that accomplish what we're looking for. Moreover it's exciting to me! Image, imprints aside, is really just a vessel for creator-owned comics, but despite this it's still not representative of everything comics is and can be. Though I am excited to see greater diversity in the comics Image's publishes with 'Island' Image still doesn't touch on the diversity of content that's out there - from the books published by First Second, Top Shelf, or Fantagraphics, to Boulet's online comics, to what's available in the artist alley of any small press show or local comic convention.
All of these and more - the webcomics online, those made possible only by Crowdfunding, the new publishing endeavors by organizations like Comics Experience - are all the positive byproduct of gaps in the marketplace. Everything Image doesn't do - everything the industry doesn't do yet - is an opportunity for innovation.
So I'm not frustrated that Image isn't providing more opportunities to 'new' talent. The fact that they aren't will encourage many creators to forge their own opportunities.
Comics is and always has been more than any one genre or publisher. The industry will not be revolutionized, nor the market made more open by the work of just one publisher. Instead it will be the individuals and the small groups of people who build the world that they're not seeing. They'll forge a set of new standards & expectations for how content is created, delivered, and consumed - they'll challenge pricing structures and redefine customer engagement and carve out small empires from the walls that nobody else gave a second look.
Maybe you can't take your book to Image. But perhaps, instead of looking at that as an obstacle, you can look at it as an opportunity, to do something different.