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Interview: Jim Valentino on Image Comics, December 2006

This is part of a short series of interviews I did as preparation for DWWP textbook sections that never were. The subject: working in the comics industry, breaking in, and how various publishers, editors, and artists approach their work. See the first of the series, with Diana Schutz.

Image Comics is sui generis. On the one hand, it’s still thought of as publisher of some of the most mainstream of superhero comics (although they in fact publish fewer and fewer). And although all books are creator-owned, the production model in some member studios is completely aligned with franchise superhero books from Marvel or DC. On the other hand, Image also publishes a curated selection of completely idiosyncratic creator-owned comics. And for its services, it uses a revenue model unknown in any other comics company: it charges a simple flat fee.

Image was founded in 1992 by Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Lee, six cartoonist who had been working for Marvel Comics and wanted to have the ability to own their own creations, something Marvel was not willing to allow. It is still owned by Larsen, Valentino, McFarlane, and Silvestri, along with new member Robert Kirkman.

In December of 2006, I had a very interesting email exchange with Jim Valentino, one of the original partners, who served as the company’s publisher from 1999 to 2004, (when he was replaced by Erik Larsen, the author of The Savage Dragon, referenced below, who was publisher when this interview was conducted). Larsen stepped down in 2008 and Eric Stephenson currently serves as publisher.

Jim Valentino is the owner of Shadowline, one of the primary Image studios, the author of ShadowHawk, and one of the original Image partners. He has deep roots in self-publishing and independent comics that have clearly influenced his attitude towards publishing at Image.

Getting to work with Image as a creator

How do you find projects you want to work on? What would be your ideal proposal form?

Valentino 2010 by Luigi Novi

For Shadowline it’s been that creators submit a proposal to us. The proposal (for both Shadowline and Image Central) is the same. We want to see a one-page synopsis, maximum. This should tell us what the story is without hype. Any professional writer should be able to do it in a few sentences. We want to see at least five finished pages (that is fully inked and lettered, and colored if you’re proposing a color book) and a cover with logo (your book’s logo, not ours, we know what our logo looks like!).

At Image Central, Larsen has the final say on proposals (although he consults with Eric Stephenson) [as of Dec. 2006—it’s now Eric Stephenson in the driver’s seat]. At Shadowline, I do (Shadowline will publish no more than five titles a month). There is a FLAT FEE, a tax, if you will, that is collected from each book on the back end (creators do NOT pay anything up front [that is, before the book is printed and distributed]).

The thought behind this is that a creator is not penalized for success. The fee/tax remains the same irrespective of how many units a book sells, so a creator with a great selling book can make a lot of money. The inverse is also true, a creator may not make ANY money. If sales on a book are so low that the book starts out in the red, it usually gets canceled prior to going to press.

Image is not now nor has it ever been a “vanity press” a creator cannot pay to have his book published, it has to be approved by the publisher.

[Official Image Comics submission guidelines can be found here.]

The other route to working with Image is to get a work-for-hire job at one of the member studios (including for you on your fully-owned books) doing penciling, inking, coloring, or whatever. In this case, artists are paid for the work. They will not, in general, own their work, i.e. this kind of work is for-hire.

Right. The simplest definition of creator rights is, “he who creates owns,” therefore if you’re hired to draw Witchblade (or Spider-Man or whatever) it does not mean YOU own it, the creator does. Different studios (Top Cow, TMP and Shadowline) have different deals for different creators. Some pay a page rate, some a percentage of sales (usually net profits), some both. As with any work-for-pay situation, all things are negotiable depending on what the creator is bringing to the table.

What happens if an artist you hire to work on one of your creator-owned titles makes up a new character? Do they have the right to take the character and do other books with it? Refuse to let you use it again? Do they have to give you permission to use it? Do they have a say over what happens to it in future storylines?

If they own the character, then, yes they can spin the character off. It really all depends on the agreement. For me, a part of an agreement would be first refusal on a potential spin-off series. I would make it clear that the character in question could not play a significant role in my character’s continuity. If that were the case, I would need to use the character again. Were I to use the character again I would request to do so as a courtesy. As with any borrowed character, however, team-up/cross-over rules apply. The rules are that you are to return the character to its owner undamaged and unaffected. That is, if you were borrowing Superman you couldn’t cut off his right arm, that would not be cool.

Also, I do not allow anyone to create derivative characters. So, you can’t create ShadowHunk or whatever. It’s a very slippery slope and it’s not one I recommend. In fact, when it has come up I’ve requested authors DON’T do it.

The copyright and Trademark offices are very funny and very unimaginative little beasties. You want to keep ownership as clean as possible (I’ve had them question whether or not a letterer was a creator/owner as they failed to understand the distinction between their duties and a writer’s).

 

How often do you need to find artists or writers for a project that’s already going with Image, or is that simply not part of your model? If it is, how do you go about finding them?

They usually come to us. Since Image relies on creator-owned properties exclusively, we cannot “assign” books. Now the distinction has to be made between Image Central and the partner studios (TMP and Top Cow). TMP and Top Cow are very similar to Marvel or DC—they own the properties and hire out the work. Image Central (Image) owns nothing save the Image “i”. Shadowline (my part of the Image umbrella) does both: creator-owned properties and properties that I create and own. Image Central is the part of Image for non-partner books (anyone who is not Marc Silvestri, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen or Jim Valentino). All of these entities fall under the Image umbrella—however, all are independent entities one from the other. None share in the finances, ownership or business practices of the partner entities. So I don’t make a dime off of Spawn, Marc cannot control ShadowHawk, etc. Look at it like owning two cars—you own one outright, you own the other in partnership with three other people.

Occasionally I have the need to find creative personnel for my own creator-owned properties. They’ve come from many different sources; friends, internet posting, etc… There is no one way “in.”

How do you hire creative staff—as in colorists, letterers? Is this a good way to break in?

We do have letterers and colorists that we prefer working with. However, some creators prefer to do it themselves, so we remain flexible.  I’m not sure that it’s necessarily a good way to break in. As in all things you can get typecast. However, the more skills a creator has, the better their chances of securing work and the better they understand everyone else’s job in the process. Also, if you’re in the door in any capacity you have the opportunity to network, and that’s always helpful in knowing what jobs are out there and tossing your hat into the ring. Being on the inside is always better than being on the outside looking in.

People come to our attention in every way conceivable—portfolios, internet, friends. But resumes are useless unless you’re applying for an office position…and even then.

We don’t hire interns. I found that non-paid interns got more in the way than not. Novices tend to have this rose colored view of what the comics industry is all about. They seem to think it’s pretty much a party where you get to read and wash yourself in comics. It’s not. It’s hard work. A publication office is just that—an office. It has all of the same rules and traumas of any other office. Anyone working in comics has to have a very strong work ethic and be a self-starter. It’s not a profession for the weak or lazy.

How do Image and Shadowline fit into the genre picture of American comics?

American comics are fueled by super-heroes. More, they’re fueled by Marvel and DC heroes, and more by only a few major Marks (Batman, the X-Men, etc). That said, there are always break-out non-genre success stories; Bone and Sandman spring readily to mind although there have been many others of lesser or greater success.  Contrary to popular belief, Image has always been diversified in its offerings. Image has published, among many other off-genre books, Bone, Groo, Leave It To Chance, Age of Bronze, A Distant Soil, the Walking Dead, Strangers In Paradise, my own A Touch of Silver and literally hundreds more over the years.  We’re seen primarily as a super-hero company, but I think that’s a misperception of our publishing history based on the fact that the super-hero books have sold better and garnered more attention than these other worthy publications.

How much do you think the fact that Image also has some very high-profile costumed heroes (or anti-heroes) affects its power and ability to do what it does with non-genre or non-superhero work? And does it choose to publish more creator-owned superhero work (broadly defined) than it might in a world where Marvel and DC didn’t dominate? Are there any other genres that work well in mainstream (i.e. distributed by Diamond) comics? In other words, is it the mix of genres that makes Image what it is?

Lots of complex questions there. Let me try and distill a bit.

  1. Image’s “clout” mostly comes from the fact that it is in the front of Previews. There is no guarantee of success for any book simply because it has the image “i” on the cover, just as there is no guarantee for success for a book published by either Marvel or DC—every publisher has their fair share of failures.
  2. The irrefutable fact is that the Direct Sales market is, was and probably always will be fueled by super-heroes. It was created by and for super-hero fans. The question we often face is whether or not doing non-Marvel/DC super-heroes is profitable. So, it’s sort of the opposite of what you ask.
  3. I prefer to look at Image as a publisher. Simon and Schuster does not publish only mystery novels. They also publish cookbooks, calendars, children’s books, etc. I believe that it’s myopic and dangerous not to think a comic book publisher couldn’t do the same. I believe this view is shared by DC and Dark Horse. This makes Image a little harder to define than “shoulder pads and vacuum cleaner guns” but I think make it a far more interesting company and I would suggest far more interesting than some “Alternative” publishers who pretty much stick to the same type of stuff and never really branch out beyond their niche.

All this said, however, I believe a publisher has to ask himself some very fundamental questions prior to giving a book a green light. For me those questions are;

  1. Is this book up to professional standards in terms of its execution?
  2. Is the story/concept interesting or merely a rehash of what we’ve seen before?
  3. Is there a perceived audience for this book? And
  4. If there isn’t, is the book of such artistic merit as to warrant its publication regardless?

Those were always my criteria. Genre was never much of an issue for me (although, I admit to avoiding westerns).

How does a book make its way through production?

Once you have a project signed up, how does it work procedurally? Is the full script in place when you sign? Do you see thumbs, pencils, inks? At what stages do you edit? How much oversight do you exercise?

It depends upon the skill set and needs of the creator (and please bear in mind that I’m speaking of Shadowline here, not Image Central). With some books, like Bomb Queen and Sam Noir, we simply get out of the creator’s way. They tell us where they’re going, we may give a suggestion or two (hopefully helpful) and then we let them go. Other books need a lot more because the creators may lack the experience to know what works and what doesn’t.  We see and approve every single stage of a book’s production from plot to finished page. A good editor or publisher should know when a script or a page can be improved upon and make the changes necessary, and they should also know when a creator is firing on all cylinders and to get the hell out of their way.

The basic job description for each is the ability to change hats at a moment’s notice so that the creator and the creation are the best they can be.

When I was publisher at Image Central it was strictly hands off (save for logos, on which I would give input as well as on cover design on occasion). I don’t know what their current policy is, but would suggest that due to their volume and lack of manpower it probably is still pretty hands off.

How fast do Image artists work?

We ask for five pages a week from everyone. If they can do more, great. If they can’t, there’s a problem. This is based on the fact that there are 22 pages plus a cover in every book and 30 days on average in every month. One page a day leaves the creator’s weekends free…in theory.

What happens when deadlines are blown?

When deadlines are blown we usually call out the bloodhounds, hunt the offender down and shoot ‘em! No, I’m kidding…mostly. We have an open line of communication with our creators. We ask that they let us know if they can’t make the deadline and we try to work with them. There are some “real life” things that are going to play havoc with deadlines—a death in the family, a wedding, the birth of a child. These are all legitimate. Playing PS3 all day, however, is not. That’s when we call out the hounds.

Contracts

Contracts are tricky business in that no two are alike. As in any business venture you get what you negotiate. Also as in any business venture what you’re able to negotiate depends on what you bring to the table. Obviously, the novice is in a weaker negotiating position than the bestseller, that’s just a matter of economics.  Starting out, most creators have to depend on either a day job or a very understanding spouse or parent to support them. Anyone who enters comics thinking that they’re going to get rich needs a reality check. If you want to be rich, become a lawyer.

The best advice I could possibly give anyone about contracts is to never, ever sign one until your attorney has had a chance to read and approve it. If you don’t have an attorney, get one.

If you think you can’t afford one, think about all of the creators over time who has given billion dollar creations away for a pittance. Get an attorney to look out for your best interests…but have a realistic appraisal of what you’re worth.

What kinds of rights do you ask for from authors?

The right to publish their book and first refusal on foreign representation to publish. That’s all. It is morally repugnant to me to claim ownership of something I did not create.

Do contracts differ a lot between artists and writers, auteurs, or just one contract to another?

We have a work-for-hire contract. This is for those artists who are working on one of my creations. And we have a publishing contract, which is for creator owned properties. The former states (along with payment, etc.) that the property being produced is solely owned by me as the creator. It also allows that if, in the execution of the book the artist or writer creates a new character, that character will be solely owned by them. This accedes creators’ rights to everyone.

Creator’s rights are not, as some have misinterpreted, anti-work-for-hire—you can have both. Creator’s rights are simply: he who creates, owns.

You can do whatever you please with your property up to and including hiring others to work on it. It’s yours, you call the shots. The latter (publishing) contract specifies that at no time will Shadowline, Image or myself ever claim ownership or any rights thereto. It’s a publishing agreement, period.

When you decide to publish a creator-owned book that’s team-created (a writer and an artist, for example), do you ask, require, or recommend that creators have a contract among themselves?

We make it very clear that we deal with ONE person only (the point man)—this is either the person who has approached us (usually the writer) or the person assigned by the team. We make it clear that we do this just in case there’s acrimonious divorce we’re not caught in the middle. But the terms of their pre-nup are none of our business.

We, by the way, would recommend this strongly: have a contract among yourselves if working with a team.

 

I agree wholeheartedly. Transparency and communication are crucial in every relationship, including a business relationship.

What are the main issues a creator should expect to negotiate?

It depends on whom he’s working for and what he’s bringing to a table. Any job interview should go two ways. Not only is the employer assessing your potential worth to the company, but you must also assess whether or not you want to work under the terms of employment. You cannot expect to walk into Marvel off the streets, make top dollar and own Spider-Man after penciling the book for six months. You CAN expect to retain full rights to your own creation and negotiate ancillary representation. The key is to find out what the publisher offers. Then decide whether you can work under those conditions and, as previously stated, show a contract to an attorney prior to signing it.

Do you pay page rates? How do you break down page rates (writing/layout/pencils/inks/color…)?

We do not pay page rates. We pay a percentage of the net. Image and Shadowline both work off a flat office fee which is deducted from the gross. Whatever is left over (the net) is paid to the creators, more specifically, it’s paid to the point man. Whatever deal (percentage agreement) creators have between them is their business, not mine. The point man is paid because he is the one under contract.

Image has always been a gamble. If your book does well, you can make a decent amount of money, if it doesn’t—you could wind up working for six months with no pay. It is purely based on sales.

On the plus side, we don’t penalize success. We make the same amount of money regardless of sales; it’s the creator who makes more money based on his sales…as it should be. Once you have the job, these are good questions to ask and not at all inappropriate. Your first order of business should be honing your craft enough to get in the door.

We get paid [by distributors] around 60 days after publication and that’s when we cut checks.

What are the responsibilities of an artist who is published by Image, as they differ from ordinary publishing?

With a work-for-hire company you’re assigned the company’s property. They retain all ancillary rights to the character (or Mark). When you’re working for Image or most any other creator-owned company, you own the Mark. Therefore it is up to you to act in the Mark’s best interest, and to promote your Mark to the best of your ability through any and every means possible.

We encourage creators to have an online presence, to make personal appearances, to basically take an evangelical approach. It isn’t just enough to print to your book, you must have a bit of the salesman in you as well.

You need to call attention to it, tell people why they should be reading it.  I always recommend column inches over paid ads. Most people skip over ads, but they read articles. There are thousands of websites out there hungry for daily content. Feed them. Send out sample pages and whatnot. Just as it is with your finances, don’t expect anyone else to have your best interest at heart, take the entrepreneurial path.  At Shadowline and Image we send out press releases on new books, we include the covers and a few pages. We like our creators to be interviewed online or in print, we’ll sometimes put an entire issue online if it’s sold out or if we feel it’s been under-ordered.  Take an aggressive approach. It doesn’t always work, but it can’t hurt.

What are the qualities that make you think: this person is ready to make comics? What are tipoffs that he or she is not ready?

For both writers and artists it’s a matter of construction. Can a writer plot out a book? Do they understand pacing? Does their dialogue ring true? Are they able to construct a cohesive sentence? Do they understand the fundamentals of structure? Grammar?  For an artist, do they grasp the basic fundamentals of art? Perspective, composition, drawing the human figure, etc? Can they draw convincing backgrounds? Do they know how to tell a story? In both cases it’s fairly self-evident with but a cursory glance if they’ve learned their craft and are up to professional caliber.

A few red flags would be bad storytelling, failure to move the camera (the tripod approach to comics), and over-rendering, especially when it’s there to disguise structural weakness. In writers, forcing the character into a plot contrivance that doesn’t make sense for the character. Plot contrivances in general.

What is the one (or the three, or whatever) piece of advice you’d like to give a young cartoonist before he/she starts sending out portfolios and proposals?

First and foremost, and this cannot be stressed strongly enough…learn your craft. If you’re a writer, learn how to write, if you’re an artist learn how to draw. Study.

Second, target your clients. What type of work do you do and to whom are you marketing? If your goal is to draw or write Spider-Man, you probably don’t want to be knocking on Top Shelf’s door. If your goal is to write auto-bio, then DC is probably not the place for you.

Do your homework, look at a publisher’s output. Go to their website see if they have submission guidelines posted, follow those directions to the letter.

[Once again: official Image Comics submission guidelines can be found here.]

Third, and this could be the best advice anyone could give, to quote Neil Gaiman: “Write the story that only you can write.” Be true to yourself and to your vision regardless what anyone else thinks. Comics is a very tough business to break into, it’s a tougher business to stay in. You have to grow a thick skin and you have to be tenacious. If anyone can talk you out of it, you should go now because you’ll never make it.

And finally, remember that conventions are great places to network, to meet people who may be able to help you in your career. If not today then somewhere down the road. When you’re at a convention be professional, be courteous and treat it like an on-going job interview. Dress and act appropriately, you’re making an impression on someone, make sure it’s a good one.


 

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