A hot-button debate in the comic book industry is the need to publish digitally. The topic always brings up questions for which there are no easy answers: should publishers release the digital edition to coincide with their printed book? Are they able to release digital editions before printed? How do you advertise for a digital-only comic book? What role does the publisher play in this new paradigm?
These inquiries will only be answered as creators and publishers jump in and try to swim these binary waters. One imprint that has decided to venture out into this new four-color frontier is Blackline Comics. With the May release of their first printed comic, "Misery City" by Vassilis Gogtzilas and Kostas Zachopoulos, they'll gain a better understanding of the digital vs. print question. "Misery City" has already been available to buy digitally for more than a month. CBR News spoke with Blackline Publisher Jay Savage to get the lowdown on the company's intentions and philosophy.
"One of the core tenets behind Blackline's philosophy is getting independent books out to readers, whether by traditional print media or by the burgeoning new digital format," Savage said. "Mike Delepine (the other founding member of Blackline Comics) and I are both professionals working in the comic book industry, and we have been for years. One thing we have seen time and time again is the difficulty an independent creator faces trying to make a living at comics.
"With the current distribution system and the astronomical costs of printing, it makes it very difficult to break even let alone make a profit. I thought -- and still think -- a creator can be fairly compensated for their life's passion and hard work. I knew [starting Blackline] would not be easy, but I like a challenge -- even if it means falling flat on my face in front of the world," Savage continued. "The main thing that we do -- and that we knew we would have to do -- is to make sacrifices on our end so that publishing with Blackline is beneficial for the creator. We look at our dealings with creators as a partnership and we try to be as passionate about a project as the creator is."
With the digital edition of "Misery City" already available digitally via places like iTunes, it may appear strange for the publisher to now print copies of the book. According to Savage, this is where the distinctions between being a publishing company versus a lone creator start to make themselves apparent.
"If you are a creator with a limited budget, digital is the way to go. No printing costs, minimal marketing costs, and you have eliminated that thirty day purchase window or shelf-life of a book," Savage explained. "The content can sit there forever and continue to sell as new readers find it. But Blackline's position on digital comics has had to change from what it was when we launched the company.
"In the beginning, we basically were jumping on the digital bandwagon, as we saw it as a much cheaper, more viable option to printed material. However, as time has passed, we realized the digital model best suits the independent creator and those companies with a large number of comics already distributed in print," Savage continued. "As Blackline was neither of these, we knew we had to take it back to basics and concentrate on printed and traditionally distributed material if we wanted to be taken seriously as a publisher."
This ended up being merely one of the many challenges Savage would face with this new form of distribution. The publisher even felt "the challenge of digital distribution presents a greater challenge than that of dealing with Diamond Comic Distributors."
As print comics have a catalog they can point to, they are viewed by some in the industry as more "legitimate" than a digital comic. So how can you create awareness for comic fans about your digital works? According to Savage, one simply has to make some noise.
"When promoting a digital comic, it is entirely up to the creators to generate buzz about the project. You can have the greatest book ever, but if no one knows it exists, then it's just a personal project. I would give this advice to anyone creating comics, whether they are digital-bound or destined to see print: open your mouth!" Savage said. "There is no shame in selling yourself and your project. Marketing is marketing, and you are your biggest fan! When it comes to marketing at Blackline, we have seven gentlemen that handle this for us. Having a marketing budget helps, but you can still make a ton of noise without one."
The creators of "Misery City" are two such individuals who have done all they can to get their work noticed, which is even more challenging when you consider the two both live in Greece. Fortunately for them (and Blackline), there is such a thing as the world-wide-web…
"Vassilis (the artist on the book) answered one of our calls for submissions that we posted on the internet. He and Kostas are amazing creators and their passion for the art form equals or surpasses ours," Savage said. "Diamond is a tough cookie to crack, and having such a great title like theirs makes it a whole lot easier. I will forever be grateful for 'Misery City.' And twenty years from now, it will be known as the title that put Blackline Comics on people's radar!"
While the book's artist admittedly has a distinctive moniker, Vassilis Gogtzilas is a name that may sound familiar to some (especially those in Europe) for other reasons. In Greece, his art has graced many newspapers, magazines and comics. For stateside readers, Image Comics has featured the artist's work in a variety of their publications.
"My first publication in America was in Image's 'PopGun' anthology (Vol. 2) with a story called 'Mister Universe.' Then came the third 'PopGun,' which contained one of my favorite works so far called 'Failure After Failure' -- a story about a couple of jobless young people. A 'Mister Universe' one-shot from Image then followed," said Gogtzilas.
Working with him on the prose of many of his works is co-writer Kostas Zachopoulos, a short story scribe as well as a published novelist ("Mon Alix") who also lives in Greece. The two said they enjoy discussing such heady topics as "the state of superhero comics, the results of their didactic nature over young readers, and the bipolar idea of good versus evil." When it comes to "Misery City," however, Gogtzilas explained the two creators are leaving the spandex behind to venture to a much darker place.
"Although noir is evident in the book, 'Misery City' is mainly a horror comic. It is actually a bizarre mixture of elements. I grew up reading all the horror classics -- Shelley, Stoker, Lovecraft and Poe -- and watching films made by directors like James Whales, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi. 'Misery City' is a result of keeping notes and sketches that eventually formed a story around Max Murray, a decadent and mostly jobless detective. He is a cocktail of both horror and noir elements. His sinful past and abilities are quite strange and will be issue introduced to the reader issue by issue," Gogtzilas said."Another important element of our story is the city itself. An expressionistic view on big cities, Misery City is a continuously reconstructed metropolis with crazy architectural forms that slowly consumes Max.
"Max Murray is the link to the different events that take place in the comic, but above all, he's what makes the story fun," the artist continued. "We'd like the reader to feel as if they're wandering into the picture and the words of this book, and for them to have fun reading every issue about this miserable city."
Lest you think the entire comic will leave you in a dark mood, Zachopoulos was quick to dismiss this. "I should add that 'Misery City' has a lot of comical elements as well," Zachopoulos said. "Max is imperfect (obviously), and when you focus on a person's bad attributes and exaggerate them, comedy is bound to occur."
As Greek is the primary language for both creators, crafting a noir-ish (yet comedic) "feel" to the dialogue proved to be a challenge; some hard-boiled phrases just don't translate smoothly. The solution to this problem was simple for Zachopoulos though -- don't even attempt to translate.
"I don't think it's a good idea to directly translate Greek text to English for the purpose of storytelling," Zachopoulus said. "Noir as a form can be also written in Greek, but 'Misery City' is far more complex as a creation; trying to translate it is like trying to rewrite it. All the attempts to write Greek and then translate were fruitless, so I just wrote straight to English."
It appears that both creators were trying to keep this work as "pure" as possible when it came to their intentions; Gogtzilas even utilizes a style which could almost be deemed impressionistic. "The matter of style is never connected to deep thinking. I just try to draw and visualize my thoughts as directly as possible," Gogtzilas said. "When it comes to the sequential art, I draw a lot of concept art and a lot of sketches. Thumbnails are prepared mainly in order to have a visual form to assure story continuity. After this, I start to draw my panels individually on A3 foam. The panels are scanned, and with the help of Photoshop, they form the comic page. This is a technique that allows more freedom and more refined drawing for the panels."
While Gogtzilas and Zachopoulos indicated they have six issues completed, their intention is to tell a story which is fifteen issues long. To that end, the creators and Blackline are hoping for enough reader support -- digitally and in print -- that they can finish the series the way it is intended. Or, as Zachopoulos puts it, "For now, only 'Misery' exists in our minds!"