In case you hadn't heard, Mark Waid is thinking of doing some digital comics.
In a small way I've been aiding Mark as he's developed these ideas for the last three years. Any long-time reader of my blog knows I'm a systems geek. I coined the phrase 4GM, comparing new media models to asymmetrical warfare. Wrote about Netflix taking over TV back in 2007 or so. I'm fascinated by the way older content distributors and providers continually confuse the distribution system with the content -- hell, the WGA has chalked up some truly epic bungles with that mindset.
The only thing that's kept me from larger experimentation with alternate medium delivery is that, ironically, I'm running a TV show. Granted, it's one of the only independently produced TV shows in the US, but it's still distributed straight into your cable-box old-school style.
So, instead, I've been kibitzing Mark during three years of shared lunches. Mark had his own reasons for getting into digital. My interest in a new comics model came out of my work on trying to figure out new TV distribution models. Looking at other mediums, I kept hearing about how digitally distributed, serialized comics on the web wouldn't work ...
... and I kept looking at Penny Arcade and PvP and my personal favorite, Something Positive, and seeing independent humans making a living. Better than a living, in some cases.
"But John," I'd hear, "those are three, maybe four panel gag comics made for niche audiences, which only support individual creators, not companies."*
Yes, they are. They are serialized narratives combining writing and pictures which allow their creators to make a living telling stories. Which just happen to be digitally delivered.
If one man can kill a bear, any man can kill a bear, so to speak. I have to admit, Mark's got a multi-pronged business and artistic approach to this new model. I'm still humping the same idea I've been obsessed with for years -- the democratization of the creative industry.**
Now, of course, indie comics take years to build up an audience. And it's grueling work, with a high risk of failure. Sure. That's called capitalism, and it's awesome, and please show me the document guaranteeing your mass-market comic won't also flame-out no matter how much promotion it gets.
But although the webcomics gave us the first plausible premise (and now you should be reading John Robb's work on open-source warfare), Mark wanted to go even further. What were the artistic merits of moving to digital as a delivery system?
Gutting the cost of entry allowed for more artistic experimentation and variety, of course. But he's been doing this for 25+ years, and he's a shitload more ambitious than I am. That's when he found Balak, and we began to trade this graphic back and forth obsessively:
about DIGITAL COMICS by ~Balak01 on deviantART
This work began to nail down some of the rules of digital comics. Mark was the one who actually quantified most of these over the course of endless emails -- I'm just good at pithy summaries.
1.) Like paper comics, the reader should control the pace of the information in digital comics.
2.) Using layers, the creator can pull focus and create additional dimensions of storytelling, including time and subjective perception.
Motion Comics, those filthy bastards, fell into the trap of mistaking medium for content. The digital screen is made for TV and movies. Therefore, comics on a digital screen should look like TV and movies. Add animation and voices!
Hence, monstrous hybrid.
If, instead, you just treat the screen as an odd-shaped page which can be instantly updated and is conveniently in almost every home and office on earth, you get a much more accurate idea of how to proceed.
Of course, none of this is revolutionary -- I'm just tracking how we hacked away at it, amateurishly and arduously, over three years. Along the way, the Kindle started hitting critical mass, and we tore that model apart. Despite there being some comic successes on the Kindle -- manga in particular transferred well -- formatting issues prevented comic artists from taking full potential of that distribution channel. Of course, now that the new Kindle Fire is moving them over to an HTML-based publishing model, things should get much easier. Pablo Defindini has done outstanding work demonstrating how comics might use responsive design on the new readers.
But the Kindle lesson, in the rise of the Kindle-only million-seller author, was a valuable one: you don't have to be famous to make a living telling stories. You just have to be famous enough, with a devoted enough following.
Then the iPad hit. Comixology did a great job of getting out front on the tablet comics market. But they were forced to figure out a way to convert pages laid out for a larger space down to that seven-odd inch screen. That led to "guided panel view" which was pretty spiffy. However, in TV and movies, we call that "pan and scan", and no one's fond of it. Because it's not how the writer and artist meant for you to experience the story.
This tied in to another discussion we were having, summarized by Mark in an email:
3.) "We live in a wide-screen world. Use it."
Most long-form story-telling comics on the web were essentially back-door physical world comics. The Blind Ferret guys (very smart humans), Warren Ellis' Freak Angels, all of them were laid out for easy reproduction in a classically formatted portrait alignment hard-copy publication. They used the screen to distribute, but they did not use the canvas of the screen. (This is all a pretentious way of complaining about scrolling down when reading each page of Freak Angels).
And sure, you want to be able to publish that hard-copy some day. But again, that weird-sized widescreen potential comics page is in almost every house and office in the Western World. There's no inherent advantage to portrait view. Shouldn't the more widely distributed canvas have the artistic advantage?
So we experimented with resolutions and orientations. Friends of mine, Geoff Thorne and Todd Harris, developed some sample art, 8 pages of a comic with chuffah dialogue, to lock down landscape presentation, art resolution, a bunch of the artist-y numbers. Web designer Gary Henderson developed our first story software models, trying to incorporate additional materials such as scripts and layouts into the primary presentation. At the same time Mark chatted with artist Jeremy Rock, who was experimenting with how to create image flow on landscape pages which then seamlessly joined into readable portrait pages for the hard-copy phase of the comic's life. While I screwed around with e-readers and grind-it-out bullshit, Mark had Jeremy re-draw one of his BOOM! stories, "Luther", experimenting with the ideas of information flow (the staggered captions, etc.) We then plugged it into the reader, and bob's your uncle, a creatively satisfying longform story made for the screen. Not the first, not the best, but a reproducible model, done as a layered pdf. (None of this was rocket science, but it was ... fiddly.)
About this time, Joe Quesada at Marvel decided to drive the company much more aggressively into digital comics, and Mark began working with those lads. Mark changed the way he developed and wrote comics to take advantage of the new style. Momentum shifted, and now you have the the great -- and I mean goddam GREAT -- Infinite Comics experiment at Marvel.
Meanwhile, I was screwing with distribution, trying to live up to one of my pet theories about media:
4.) Information should be dumb.
By dumb I mean "as platform independent as possible." Your comic should work well in a pdf reader on a tablet or laptop or desktop computer, on a website, in an app. Your workflow should allow you to easily slot your comic into as many different platforms as seamlessly as possible. As cool as that Infinite Comic Nova comic is, there's nothing in there you can't do with a bone-dumb pdf- reader. It's all about execution. A reconception of how you can tell stories graphically now that you can experiment with layers and time.
Also, there should be different ways to make a living at this -- you shouldn't have to be waiting around, gambling on prestige print collection, before you can make a living telling your story. That's the stuff we're still working at now, and will be the subject of future posts and some of Mark's future announcements.
So that's the rough version of how we got here. Mark's the one driving this, with the able Lori Matsumoto handling the technical stuff, while I'll continue to fiddle over here in the corner. We'll be referencing a lot of very smart humans who've been working on (and succeeding at) this for much longer than we've been playing at it. Some of this is going to work, some of it is going to fail miserably, but we'll show you all the spinning gears as we go.
Mark's been gracious enough to include one of my new webcomics on his site when it launches. Mine will be nowhere near as artistically mature as his work. It'll be a comic, written and formatted for widescreen, serialized for online delivery, but not as aggressive in playing with narrative flow. Frankly, I don't have the chops for what Mark's doing. But it'll be fun as hell. I hope we manage to work out enough of the kinks to help you make your comic someday, tell your story.
*New rule -- if your own model is based on selling books to an audience which numbers less than one-tench of Wil Wheaton's Twitter followers, you do not get to call anybody else "niche."
** I was a stand-up comic, the ultimate freelancer, hopping from club to club, booking my own gigs. That experience burned freelancer instinct into my DNA: how many gigs in how many weeks to make my nut? To pay the mortgage, to put a little away? I love metrics. What can be measured can be managed, etc. etc.