Since 2003, when he first breathed life into "The Walking Dead" for Berkeley-based Image Comics, Robert Kirkman has gone on to become a rock star of sorts among the fanboy set.
He's an executive producer for the wildly successful TV show based on his zombie saga. He's got his hands in movie projects and other comic-book ventures, and is cultivating new talent through "Skybound," his own imprint at Image.
There's little doubt that Kirkman, who spent much of his early career cranking out superior work for Marvel Comics, would have thrived anywhere. But at Image, a feisty company founded 20 years ago by maverick artists seeking creative and financial freedom, he has come into his own.
"If I continued with Marvel, I'd still be doing nothing but superhero comics," he says, shuddering at the thought. "I'd still be a worker for hire struggling to find new ways for the Green Goblin to fight Spider-Man."
Instead, the 33-year-old Kentucky native will be one of the star attractions at the first-ever Image Expo this weekend in Oakland. The three-day fan fest is designed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Image Comics and celebrate independent, creator-owned comics.
"It's going to be a pretty cool, relatively intimate event that enables readers to meet the people behind the comics and for us to get some valuable feedback," says Kirkman, who became an Image partner in 2008. "It should be a blast."
Back in 1992, seven disgruntled
They envisioned a venue where creators could publish their material without giving up the copyrights to the characters they created. Moreover, it would be a place where no partner could interfere -- creatively or financially -- with another partner's work. (Image, for example, receives no money from "The Walking Dead" TV show.)
Under that offbeat structure, Image has become the third largest comics publisher in the country -- behind only behemoths Marvel and DC -- and is a hotbed for some of the best up-and-coming talent in the medium. Popular titles, in addition to "The Walking Dead," include "Spawn," "Savage Dragon," "Witchblade," "The Darkness," "Invincible" and, most recently, "Fatale" and "Glory."
"They have absolutely changed the entire comics industry. They were the front-runners in the drive for creative control," says Ron Richards, co-founder of the iFanboy website and podcast. "A lot of people have tried to emulate them over the years, but they haven't been able to capture the magic."
Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson says that the company succeeds "both because and in spite" of its radical setup.
"There are a lot of different kinds of personalities to juggle, and no one creator has influence over the other," he says. "And there's definitely a pro-con element to it. Somewhere else, you could count on a regular paycheck. Here, you sink or swim on the merits of your own material."
That material, for the most part, does not rely on old formulas and recycled characters, as the big companies so often do.
"Look at the line (of titles) over the years and it's obvious. It's not a company that's still selling you Spider-Man 60 years later and trying to convince you that it's a new idea," says Kirkman, who earlier this month published "Thief of Thieves," a new series about a master criminal trying to re-establish a relationship with his family. The first printing sold out almost instantly.
"It's not all that groundbreaking," Kirkman says of the series. "But it's a chance to show the potential of the comic-book medium. So many people associate comic books with superheroes. But that's kind of like associating movies with Transformers. That's something we should combat. There's so much more out there."
Upon its formation, Image Comics initially set up headquarters in Southern California, near Anaheim. But in 2004, Erik Larsen, who was then serving as publisher, lived in Oakland and wanted to be closer to the operation. So Image moved to Berkeley, where it now occupies a modest 3,500-square-foot building on Allston Way.
The Bay Area has been a great fit for Image, says Stephenson, pointing out that it's a region known for creative diversity and other maverick companies such as Apple and Pixar.
"A major drawback of our Anaheim location was the suburban sprawl. There was no sense of community," he recalls. "The Bay Area is home to lots of great writers and artists and some of the most prominent comics stores in the country."
The Allston building houses only 13 employees -- artists and writers are scattered all over the country -- and Stephenson spends much of his workweek sifting through a huge crate of submissions from hopeful creators looking to have their work published by Image.
"They'll take a chance on a young kid who shows some artistic chops or writing ability, whereas the corporations wouldn't even give the time of day," Richards says. "And it's no coincidence that the big companies continually raid Image for talent."
Stephenson, who would much rather look forward than celebrate achievements, insists that it's the new talent and new ideas that keep things buzzing at Image.
"If you look at our offerings in 1992 compared to now, you'd almost think it was an entirely different company," he says. "That makes for an exciting work environment, and the newcomers bring an enthusiasm that's infectious."
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Oakland Convention Center, 550 10th St., Oakland
Tickets: $20-$35; three-day VIP ticket, $125
For more information: www.imagecomicexpo.com
A few highlights of the three-day Image Expo, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Image Comics and celebrating creator-owned comics. (For a full schedule, log onto www.imagecomicexpo.com)
6 p.m. -- Keynote address and exclusive announcements from Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson.
11 a.m. -- Panel session on "Womanthology" and the role of women in comics.
1 p.m. -- "Twenty Years of Independence." Panel featuring partners and original founders of Image Comics.
3 p.m. -- "From Page to Screen: Comics on TV"
4 p.m. -- "The Walking Dead: Live." Panel featuring Robert Kirkman and actors from the show.
11 a.m. -- "Pro Tips With Todd McFarlane." Workshop panel with the creator of "Spawn."
1 p.m. -- Portfolio review with Erik Larsen
4 p.m. -- Q&A session with Robert Kirkman