Image Comics is, and always has been a peculiar comic book publisher in terms of structure. Its model sees the publication of accepted comic book projects by accepted creators with little editorial oversight. However, despite what some have been saying in a week dominated by a cover of a comic by Howard Chaykin, Divided States Of Hysteria #4, and the contents of its published #1 so far, Image Comics does have some editorial oversight regarding content. Specifically, I have been informed that scenes depicting underage sex have been restricted by the publisher. So those who say that it is a printer/distributor more than a publisher are not wholly correct. There is precedent. But, yes, compared to every other publisher out there, they are hands off and laissez-faire.
But something else that distinguishes them concerns how creators are paid. Rather than a page rate (aside from special cases), or royalties, in general creators get everything after printing/distribution/marketing costs and a set fee per issue. If the money earned is less than that set fee, Image eats the difference. But unless the money after costs is higher than that set fee, the creators don’t get a bean.
As a result of the recent controversy of Divided States Of Hysteria, comic book commentator Emma Houxbois wrote a much-shared piece talking about her decision to boycott Image Comics until the currently appointed publisher, Eric Stephenson, be dismissed from his post. It follows previous criticism over the publisher including allegations of transphobia in the comic book Airboy. It is a personal decision of Emma’s, about her own personal distaste regarding the entertainment she consumes rather than a rallying cry or an attempt to enact change. But some have taken it as a call to action, not wanting Image Comics to profit from an extra sale.
With any other publisher, any other product or service, that would work. But that’s not how Image Comics works. Because Image is, frankly, weird and counter-intuitive as a successful publisher. If a boycott was successful and people stopped ordering Image Comics, there were fewer digital copies bought and retailers reduced their orders as a result, it wouldn’t be Image Comics that lost out. They don’t make any extra money from each extra comic book sale, after the Image fee is cleared (around about 3000 copies last time I checked). From every additional sale made, after costs, the creators get it all, Image Central gets none of it. The only people who would suffer any successful boycott would be the comic creators themselves.
Which could make Image Comics a less attractive place to be published. But few publishers can provide the combination of a) full creator ownership b) placed in the Premiere publishers at Diamond c) have the kind of prominence to such launches that Image Comics can give them. Even if they get a knock on sales – or reputation from a segment of the population, Image Comics might well still be the best option from a rapidly reducing pool of creator-owned options.
But what if it worked? And creators stopped choosing Image Comics? Those creators who choose other options as a result would likely get worse deals, especially as other publishers could pull back on the creator options they offer, if the aberration of Image Comics is no longer such a competitor for creators.
Also, in enacting change from the Image Comics publishers, the founders are particularly stubborn buggers willing to cut off their own nose to spite their face. Any boycott demanding Eric Stephenson’s head is more likely to make them dig in, make him a partner, and if it ever came down to it, go down with the ship.
Are there better options for the boycott then? Well, here’s one. Diamond Comics Distributors, after all, were the company that first published the image that caused such fuss on their website – indeed, it’s still there. They distributed the comic book and knew its contents in advance of such.
Once upon a time, Diamond President and owner Steve Geppi was minded not to publish Miracleman #9 due to its graphic portrayal of a childbirth scene, saying “Diamond values its retailers too much to take chances on such a dangerous situation… We are not censors. We no more want someone deciding for us than you do. We cannot, however, stand by and watch the marketplace become a dumping ground for every sort of graphic fantasy that someone wants to live out. We have an industry to protect; we have leases to abide by; we have a community image to maintain.”
However, in a day when retailers had other options, Diamond lost customers to rival firms happy to distribute the comic. He backed down, saying retailers “as a distributor, I owed the retailers the product they wanted.”
That, of course, was over a comic book depicting one possible outcome of love, Divided States Of Hysteria portrays many graphic scenes of hate. But it’s worth noting that Diamond has no such rivals for retailers to turn to. As a company they are also risk-averse and have often refused to distribute a comic book if there is even the whiff of a legal challenge to its publication. The situation could be different with Image as a premiere publisher, Diamond being a client of Image rather than Image simply being a vendor, but there are always ways and means. Especially if Diamond felt vulnerable to such criticism or a boycott.
So rather than boycott a publisher who chooses to publish such a Howard Chaykin comic, in an attempt to enact change, why not boycott a distributor who chooses to distribute it?
Might even work.