Pipeline: All Things Digital Comics

Tue, April 9th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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THEY'RE WATCHING YOUR EVERY MOVE

I finally read "The Private Eye" this weekend. That's the new digital comic from Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin that debuted with quite a splash a couple of weeks ago. Set a few decades from now, the internet no longer exists and the press is a part of the law. Paparazzi are outlawed, so it's not all together a bad future. . . There's a scene that sets the stage for making this book a science fiction parable for all the bad that could happen from a society that shares everything on-line, but that's sandwiched inside a futuristic noir story that dominates the issue. Getting into the world is easy for the reader, with some clever twists on the duties of a journalist and the uses of alternate identities and public costuming. The dialogue is snappy, even when it threatens to overwhelm the page in a couple of spots. That's worth it for the moments of action and setting that go mostly silent.

I'll leave it to others to better deconstruct Vaughan's story. I'm more interested by what I saw in Martin's art. The pages are laid out sideways, in the landscape format. (If you're a child of the 90s/early 2000s, you'll think of it as "MarvelScope.") It makes for a perfect read on an iPad held sideways. I wish it was a little bit larger -- particularly the lettering -- but the retina display on my third generation iPad makes reading easy enough.

The thing that jumped out at me the most, though, was Martin's sense of space, scale, and setting. He has an excellent sense of when to keep the "camera" pulled back a ways to show the whole scene versus when to intercut with tighter close-ups to emphasize moments in the story. In the opening scene, for example, our private detective is caught spying on someone. The page starts with a wider angle shot to show where the people doing the catching are standing in relation to the detective, but then we move to tight close-ups to show the press pass, the gun poking out of the jacket, the feet backpedaling, and a final dismissive toss of a lit cigarette.

All of that sets up the next page beautifully, where Martin pulls back to an ultra-wide show with the detective jumping off the roof in front of a fully detailed cityscape filling the background. The neon purple/pink sky is barely noticed for the way the detective is perfectly frozen at the apex of his jump closer to the reader while the buildings stretching up into the city sky behind him wrapping around the action. It's a nice relief to see an artist give his characters room to breathe in. Martin does it over and over again. In the detective's office, panels are intercut between talking heads and wider angle views of an office with a desk, a packed bookshelf of records and CDs, a small kitchen in the background, and a credenza holding up the spillover books.

Martin uses these wide shots as more than establishing shots cutting into the close-up back and forth rhythms that most artists today use them for. He uses those wide shots for storytelling purposes, and then does everything he can to keep them from being static, boring, straight-on angles. They have natural curves or triangular shapes to them that have to be seen to be best understood. I'm curious as to how much of this is done to take advantage of the book's landscape format. Are these tricks he can't get away with in traditional paper publishing? Is this using more of his European comics sensibility? Is it an effort to try something new?

Martin has never failed to show us some clever designs and layouts in his storytelling, and this book is no exception. He doesn't need to be flashy. Solid storytelling and a good eye sells the work by itself. It's something worth studying more closely for today's storytellers looking at different ways to stage their scenes. "The Private Eye" is an interesting story and I can't wait to see where it goes in its next nine issues, but Martin's art is enough to sell me on the book.

THE COMICS INDUSTRY: NOT THE BE ALL/END ALL, AFTER ALL

Our natural inclination when we hear of someone losing their job in comics is that they're a valuable member of the comics community and will be picked up by another company.

I'm not sure why that is. I grant you, it does feel like a revolving door in comics marketing/editorial/administration, but that's mostly from taking a very long view. More short term, I think we lose more people from comics than we realize. Whether they wind up in the book market or at some tech firm or somewhere else all together, they don't necessarily stick with comics. Their job skills are more important than their market. And this market is rather small.

I bring this up because I received a press release last week that Marvel's previous Sales and Marketing Guru, John Dokes, has started a new job in marketing for AccuWeather. That company, for its part, is using Dokes' history to market themselves, pointing out his popular YouTube dance video and previous experience with comics. They solicited for what his superhero name might be. Seems like a painful exercise to me, but I'm sure the non-comics folks had fun with things like "WeatherMan" and "Weather-Man" and "Storm." (ACK! Too late!)

Meanwhile, comics fans are debating whether the next SuperStorm will be the concoction of a marketing guy looking for a big "event" multiple times a year to bring all the weathermen together. . .

Slightly related, look at that Robert Kirkman interview expanded last week from an earlier issue of "Creator Owned Heroes", in which he says your employment with Marvel or DC ends with you getting fired. It's true. I'm just happy to see Dokes land on his feet.

DIGITAL COMICS SALES NUMBERS

The glory of writing about comics so much is that I don't need to look up the proper spellings for names like Jim Zubkavich or J. Michael Straczynski. I know them already. Sure, I have to think a little harder with Bill Sin-KEV-itch's name, but in a pinch I can still pull it off.

Zubkavich sticks with "Zub" for the most part, and he has another awesome post about "Skullkickers" and how it's selling in this bold new comic book world. The numbers are sobering and exciting all at once. It's amazing how poorly, by some metrics, "Skullkickers" is doing in simple short-term sales figures. But when read the right way, those bar charts and line graphs show a ridiculous amount of upside potential for a series with such a high on-line profile.

I'm as sick of hearing the phrase "The Long Tail" as the next guy, but it's a simple phrase to highlight a true theory. With easy accessibility for a growing base of comics, the slow trickle of sales from month to month can help sustain a series. "Skullkickers" is only on on-going series because its creators have day jobs, but also because they see a longer-term plan. It's not about being super profitable this week. It's about creating a corpus and watching those sales grow over time.

If Vertigo had canceled "Y The Last Man" after its first year, those first two trades would be out of print and forgotten. But with a larger and more complete story, those sales can add up better over time, particularly in the digital front where you can download and read a new comics at two o'clock in the morning, if you wished. The question is one of how far creators are willing to stick it out to see if their payday will come. Most of the long-term hits we think of today didn't start out as blockbusters, "The Walking Dead" included. It's through the creators' persistence and refusal to quit that success comes.

Do take a look at Zubkavich's post -- as well as his earlier posts in the series -- to see a snapshot of the reality of modern comics sales. You'll better understand why Hollywood is able to so easily spread money around to buy up media rights on comics; comic sales are a dismal way to make money.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING? OR NOT ENOUGH GREAT THINGS?

USA Today is publishing seven new digital comics. Once USA Today is in the game, the question has to come up again: Are there too many comics?

Of course not. There aren't enough great comics. I'm not even talking "good" here. There are enough good comics out there today to fill up all your time. But "great" ones? We could use more of those.

One of the issues that the rise of digital comics brings up is that the disposability of comics is gone. They're eternal now, living forever on a server on the internet. That access is a great thing, but it can be overwhelming. It's the "Long Tail" of comics. The "Great Comics" of times passed are current comics for new readers who've never had access to them before. There's no barrier to them anymore. They're up there on the digital sites right alongside this week's latest and greatest. Much the same way people like to binge on entire seasons of television shows, there's nothing stopping people from binging on comic books.

One other potential change in the comics landscape: I can imagine comics fandom dividing into era-specific comics more than just genres. There'll be 80s DC Comics fanboys and 90s Alt/Indy fanboys more than Marvel vs. DC fans, or Superhero vs. Indy readers. Because I doubt there are any Marvel or DC fans left who can honestly say they enjoyed their favorite company's output continuously for the last thirty years, let alone the last 60. The quality and material is too diverse. Focusing on one particular era is do-able now. The tools are out there, and only growing.

We live in interesting times.

PIPELINKS

  • Comics for diabetics? SCORE!

  • Dave Caolo expresses his happiness with the access he has to app developers in much the same way as we might express our joy at having easy internet access to our favorite comics creators. Fandom is universal, taking many colors.

  • This week, in "Invincible Universe" #1, Todd Nauck slings inks, and they're not digital. As much as I like some digital inking, I think this is an improvement for the series.

  • Kelly Thompson had the honor of writing the review of "Glory" #34 last week. I agree with it completely. If you didn't read this run on the series by Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell, do yourself a favor and pick up the two trades that will collect it when they're both available. Great fun.

  • Is this Disney using someone else's art, uncredited? I was almost ready to say no until I saw how similar the angle of the right arm was, and how the pointer finger is pointing up at the exact same angle and -- yeah, it's ripped off. Kind of. It's not a photocopy. It's a layout rip-off. The art is completely changed to fit the Disney style more than the original artist's more realistic style. But the roses aren't in the same spot, either. It's obviously the reference for the piece and the similarities are too strong to be ignored. Is this legally actionable? That's questionable, but I'm not a lawyer. And, hey, who wants to fight The Mouse?

  • Finally, that link is still below if you're in the market for original art. Most of it is for sale under $100. I have some "Artists Edition" books to buy and money doesn't grow on trees, you know. (Technically, it's made from ridiculously thin slices of the tree, but you know what I mean…)

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TAGS:  pipeline, brian k vaughan, marcos martin, the private eye

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