Oni Press has long been a home for a variety of formats for comics: indie series, hardcover graphic novels, manga-formatted comics and full color titles. Now starting in 2013, the publisher will fully commit to another popular format: webcomics.
At their "RevolutiONIzing Comics" panel at New York Comic Con, an overhaul of OniPress.com was announced. Starting in January, the site will feature daily webcomic updates Monday through Friday with one serialized story getting a new multi-pages chapter posted in its own weekday slot. The launch titles will be a mix of totally new material including sci-fi romance "A Boy & A Girl" and spelling bee comedy "Buzz" and Oni classics like the early issues of "Wasteland." The first season will run 13 weeks before new series like the fight comics "Megagog" and "Down! Set! Fight!" launch their own runs in April. While these comics may serialize online, that doesn't mean they won't make it as Oni print graphic novels down the road.
"In terms of publication strategy, this is a third prong in our attack," Oni Editor-in-Chief James Lucas Jones told CBR News of the initiative. "We're not going to stop doing the more traditional digital publication route that are paywalled, and we're not going to stop traditional print publishing by any means. What we're doing is adding a web component to our stuff.
"We looked at both the comics market and some of the other entertainment markets that we're fans of but not involved in. And just seeing how the music marketplace has changed over the past several years, it seems like it's gotten to the point where bands are giving away more and more music MP3s for free and recouping that cost through touring and merchandise sales and high-end special editions. So we looked at what was working there as well as what had been successful in the webcomics model -- and what hadn't as well -- and we saw a lot of what the independent web cartoonists were doing was working well for them; creating a business model they're able to make a living from."
Jones explained that in trying to find the best way for a publisher to support the webcomics model was to support cartoonists in advance so they could deliver more than intermittent comic strips at odd times. "The biggest problem for cartoonists on the web was that constant struggle between daily or weekly updates and the length of those updates. I think you have to keep regular content flowing to your site on a regular basis, but eeking out a non-comic strip narrative at a page or so at a time is kind of a terrible way to read a narrative. So we looked at what we could do to bring the resources of a publisher into that model and augment it to make it work for even more people including our creators.
"We're basically running things in 13-week 'seasons' with there being four seasons a year. So a serial will run on the site on a given weekday for 13 weeks straight, and then it will rotate out for other series to step in, but things will come back eventually with some natural ebb and flow as creators prepare a new season's worth of material. So there will definitely be some returning series and some stuff that are one-offs."
For the comics themselves, Oni went to a mix of creators they've worked with in the past and writers and artists already well known to the webcomics community. "For our opening salvo, we looked at people who were established on the web and also established in print," Jones said. "The two new titles launching on OniPress.com are 'A Boy & A Girl' which is written by Jamie S. Rich -- who is no stranger to Oni Press as he's worked here in the past and has gone on to write several graphic novels for us. He's someone who really gets our content sensibility as much as anyone. He's partnering with Natalie Nourigat who has already been published as a collection of her 'Between Gears' webcomic came out from Image earlier this year. They're doing a kind of science fiction romance story.
"The other new property launching is a title called 'Buzz' which is written by Ananth Panagariya who writes the popular webcomic 'Johnny Wander' and drawn by an exceptional cartoonist named Tessa Stone who did an exceptional webcomic a few years back called 'Hannah Is Not A Boy's Name.' Their project is this kind of over the top teen action comedy revolving around spelling bees. To put it in Japanese terms, we have something that's a little more shonen and something that's a little more shoujo, but both, I think have elements and stories that will appeal to readers of diverse backgrounds and taste. Both projects have a fair amount of humor to them, and they're comics that we'd publish regardless of format because we think they're quality comics we can get behind."
In terms of represented Oni material, series weren't chosen at random. "We looked at a variety of factors for the classic material -- things we think could be serialized this way and still give a satisfying chunk every week. For us, it was also looking at stories that were popular and we knew had an audience but felt like we could grow that audience more. So one of the launch titles is 'Wasteland' from Antony Johnston and Chris Mitten. We'll be reserializing something that was originally serialized as floppies for 13 weeks to kick this off."
Jones teased Season 2's launch in the spring, saying, "At the beginning of April, we'll be launching two new original series: an action-oriented mecha comic called 'Megagogo' by Wook-Jin Clark who previously drew 'The Return of King Doug' for us. This is his first big work as a cartoonist writing and drawing his own story. We're also launching a series called 'Down! Set! Fight!' which is a big sports-inspired action epic from Chris Sims and his writing partner Chad Bowers, drawn by the incredible Scott Kowalchuk who did 'The Intrepids' at Image Comics last year. Those books are already well intro production.
"Part of the nature of this is we're banking content," Jones explained of Oni's commitment to regular updates. "This isn't going to be two or three pages a week. In the first season, 'Buzz' has some chapters that are shorter, like seven or nine pages, but in other instances where we needed to let the action breathe, you'll see a 22-page chapter. We knew we needed to be as reliable with our web schedule as we've been with our print schedule the last two years, where we haven't missed ship dates in all that time. It was really important to continue that dedication to timeliness on the web. When we launch in January, the bulk of the first three seasons will be in the can."
The benefits of serialization on the long term life of a comic are many, as the Editor-in-Chief sees it. "I think one of the struggles with creators working in a traditional graphic novel format -- traditionally with the more book market way we've looked at doing things over the last few years -- is it can be an exhausting experience when you pour all of this time and energy into these books. Then with the release schedule and the amount of material coming out of the comics industry, it can be just a blip. This thing you spent years on, even if it gets a good push at release, is at the whim of this market that has an attention span that's sometimes only a month long or six weeks long. So the ability to do the serialization and have a pronounced web presence for 13 weeks leading up to any print collection is appealing to us and the creators; it allows them to get some audience feedback and support from a wider group of people than just us cheering them on in the office. It helps build interest and fans of their work before the collection comes out.
"More than anything, our deal has always been that we would rather have more readers than make more money per copy. We've always had fairly aggressive price points on our graphic novels, and just getting out to a wider audience and getting to share these amazing stories with more people is something that's really exciting for us."
The origins of the move lie with a realization in the Oni staff that format mattered less to their readers and to their creators than content in general. "As we got more and more into the development of the site, talks between our Publisher Joe Noezmack and our newly minted Business Development Director George Rohac led us to realize that what made an Oni project an Oni project wasn't the format it was delivered in," Jones said. "We'd done graphic novels. We'd done comics. We'd done some digital offerings. We'd even done webcomics super early on when I first came on here. Back then we had the Oni Sunday Comics where we'd release a new strip every Sunday, and we did that for a number of years. At the end of the day, all of these things were still comics. The delivery method wasn't what made them special. The stories and the characters did."
Jones promoted a wide scope for all Oni books moving forward. "This doesn't replace our previous digital comics offerings. We love the guys over at comiXology, and they've been amazing to us. They really created this digital marketplace for comics and for traditional comics consumers that I think has been really good. I don't think they steal momentum or anything from print. I think they're just an additional marketplace for comics, and the people who have been reading that stuff on their platform are different. We've also been getting into ePub both on Amazon's Kindle Fire platform and through the iBooks store at Apple.
"We're not eliminating print from the equation at all," Jones assured. "Even with things that are new material, we'll still be presenting them in a multitude of formats. The web will be first but we still plan on offering that material through outlets like comiXology, iBooks, Kindle and nook as well as doing eventual print graphic novel collections. For us, it's not an either/or proposition. It's just a matter of how we can reach the largest audience with our material, and we really have the faith in the material that we'll get super fans who will support comics in a variety of ways -- whether that be buying merch or just rolling up the hit counts that can generate ad revenue before buying the eventual print editions as well."