If you're among the millions of people who've enjoyed Robert Kirkman's zombie-themed television show and precursory comic book series The Walking Dead, it might surprise you to know that when the longtime illustrator first pitched the idea for the comic to Image Comics back in 2003, the company turned it down. At that point, "there had never been a successful zombie comic book before," explained Image publisher Eric Stephenson, who said past attempts had flopped simply because they focused too much on the zombies. But Kirkman's concept — a character-driven story about survivors of a zombie apocalypse — went beyond the mindless, brain-eating muck that typically defines the zombie genre, and after a little pushing he ultimately sold the publisher on the idea.
Stephenson said the comic, and the television show it later spawned, have succeeded for the same reason as any widely acclaimed character-based series — namely, because readers and viewers can relate to the struggles of the main characters. "With Mad Men, it's an advertising agency in the Sixties," he said. "In The Walking Dead, the main character is very similar to Don Draper — except he's facing adversity in a zombie apocalypse." But the series' success reveals more than Kirkman's deftness at penning popular narratives. It also explains how Berkeley-based Image Comics, which took a gamble by backing what precedent had painted as a perilous project, has grown to be the third-largest publisher of comics and graphic novels in the country — right under DC and Marvel, the latter having provided Image's initial spark.
It was 1992 when a group of Marvel Comics' best-selling artists — fed up with the lack of creative license and financial returns afforded to them by their work for the corporate comic-book publisher — made the intrepid decision to start Image, a publishing company revolutionary for having a creator-owned model that allowed artists ownership of the works they created. It's that creator-owned credo that gave Kirkman the autonomy to adapt The Walking Dead to television.
"It was really kind of a grand experiment to create a company founded on the idea of creative ownership and creative freedom," said Kirkman, who today is one of five partners in the company. "All other entertainment companies take stabs in the dark until something catches on. And then they latch onto it and milk it for all it's worth." He speaks from experience. While concurrently creating for Image, he spent four years inking classic but tired comics for Marvel before throwing down his pen in favor of Image's unconventional catalog, which includes quirky publications like an illustrated anthology of Belle and Sebastian songs.
Kirkman and Stephenson are just two of a dream team of Image partners, founders, and affiliates appearing at the Image Expo, a three-day celebration of the company's twenty years, at the Oakland Convention Center (1001 Broadway) on Friday through Sunday, February 24-26. The exhaustive weekend-long event includes panel discussions on topics like women in comics, Image's conception, and adapting comic books to television; plus small artists' workshops led by established illustrators like Spawn creator Todd McFarlane; and the requisite Q&A and autograph sessions. Guests can also patronize comic-book vendors and pick up special products only available at the expo. "Those are hot items on eBay," Kirkman quipped. "So I recommend people come early and come every day." Fri. 3-8 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; $20-$150. 510-451-4000 or ImageComicExpo.com