Pipeline: The Digital Comics Revolution Leaps Forward

Tue, July 9th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT | Updated: July 10th, 2013 at 5:21am

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DIGITAL COMICS REVOLUTION IN THE HOME STRETCH NOW

Or, "How Image Comics Won San Diego Before It Started."

The digital comics revolution is here, now. The strides the comics industry has made in the past few years have been mighty, but also very tentative. The revolution has really been an evolution, things happening with giant steps between periods of calm. Whether it was Marvel setting up its first digital subscription service, or DC announcing day and date releases across the board, the big changes don't happen gradually but with large decisions that push the whole industry ahead. Yes, other companies did those things first (CrossGen had subscriptions, Slave Labor had DRM-free, for two examples), but it's not until the Big Two adopt them that the numbers become overwhelming enough for the new standards to be established.

Last week, Image made the next big step. A stride. A leapfrog, really. It's the one that I've complained about in this column for years now. The basic underlying problem with the digital comics world is that you don't own anything. You're paying full cover price to rent a comic locked up in Digital Rights Management that could disappear overnight if the providing company goes away. This being the internet, that kind of thing happens with not-so-shocking frequency. (Hello, Google Reader, Microsoft PlaysForSure.)

Now, Image is selling DRM-free comics. Interestingly, they're doing it themselves. They're not going through a third party like comiXology to get it done. With an attitude towards piracy that could only be classified as "enlightened," Eric Stephenson and Ron Richards launched the initiative at the second Image Expo on July 2nd.

In doing that, as well as announcing a new slate of titles scheduled to come out in the next year, they effectively won the news war that is Comic-Con International two weeks before the San Diego-based show begins. While other companies drop press releases with their announcements a few days ahead of the show in the hopes of standing out (AiT/PlanetLar pioneered that more than a decade ago), Image went all out. They put on a special show aimed at retailers and journalists. They brought in the big guns. They made big announcements to comics both current and future. And then they changed the delivery mechanism in the way that was inevitable, leaving all the other players standing at high noon on a western street, afraid to draw their guns.

How long will it take for Marvel and DC to follow suit? Might Dark Horse be next, as they already have their own storefront set up and under their control? The ball is now in Marvel and DC's courts. Their decision making process for this level is much more complicated, obviously. They can't act in the best interests of the comics market on their own; they'll need to sell the idea to their corporate masters. We'll see if they respond to it by the end of the year. The good news is, we may have finally reached the last roadblock to digital comics nirvana for many of us.

The ImageComics.com website has been revamped to highlight the new digital store it now contains. Ordering is easy enough. There's one little nit to pick in the ordering process that bugs me in a minor way. When putting in your address during checkout, there's a line without a label which I'm guessing is meant to be "City/State"? Or is the "Zip Code" line good enough to indicate where the purchaser is from for the sake of credit card validation? I don't know.

On launch day (a Tuesday), a couple of comics due on sale the next day were already available to buy. The labeling and organization was a little out of sorts, and there are still some bugs to work out of the system to this day. That's to be expected for an initial launch like this, though, and we'll get used to the overall layout with time, as Image will work out the kinks that it didn't see in the development process. More books are coming on-line all the time, and the catalog will grow out. Right now, it's interesting to see that you can pre-order books. As I write this on Sunday, the releases of July 10th are highlighted with a buy button that says you're paying for a book now that you'll be able to come back and download in a couple of days.

You can also re-download your comics at any time. Image keeps track of all your purchases and maintains a "library" for you of all the titles you've bought. As people's inventories grow -- as does Image's -- the look of that page will have to change. It's going to get unwieldy and scroll down too many pages quickly for many. Tightening it up will be easy enough, but they have time to get there.

The thing about websites is that you never know how people will see them. Usability tests can help, if there's time and budget for them, but The Great Unwashed will often give you far different results than a small selection of beta testers. It'll be fun to watch the site evolve in the coming weeks and months. What it represents is so great that I'm willing to overcome the little issues at the start.

One thing I'm confident in thinking, though: No "Free Marvel Comics #1s" sale will send this site off-line.

DOESN'T THIS ALL SOUND FAMILIAR?

An expo meant for the company's faithful and the journalists that cover them? Check!

At the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California? Check!

A keynote presentation generating massive press in the early afternoon? Check!

Headed up by the company's leader, who began his address by pointing out sales figures on fancy charts and poking fun at the competition? Check!

A series of announcements about future releases, often with "demos" by the creators on the stage? Check!

And "One More Thing" with an industry-changing announcement? Check!

Was this Apple's World Wide Developers Conference or the Image Expo? Eric Stephenson does have a healthy affection for The Beatles that would rival Steve Jobs. . .

THE STRENGTH OF DIGITAL COMICS: THE "MAINSTREAM"

We need to get to a comics world where we aren't just rehashing decades old characters and being thrilled by it.

Oh, hey, a "Punky Brewster" comic? Where do I sign up?!?

There was one other digital comics story last week that proves the importance of the digital delivery mechanism. It's the way to make it easy for everyone to buy a comic, even in a sort of incidental fashion. Some comics are made for more general audiences. They wouldn't sell well in the Direct Market's limited demographic. The cost of print, also, would make it a risk not worth taking.

When a relatively unknown small publisher announced that they picked up the licenses for a series of NBC properties from the 80s (including "Punky Brewster," "Saved By The Bell," and "Knight Rider"), it only made sense that they were planning on digital comics, not print. Why bother with print? Why limit your distribution like that to an expensive and small market with high overhead and low profit margins?

When you're licensing properties like these that are guaranteed to get you headlines in the "mainstream" press, sell your wares to the broadest possible audience. That's digital, not the Direct Market. The Direct Market is run by DC and Marvel, let's face it. The digital world is much broader. While Marvel and DC still lead it and can often set the policies, they can't completely control it. They can't squash it. They can't overrun it. The digital comics landscape is closer to the Wild West, where everyone is welcome and the rules aren't so strongly enforced by the usual two authorities.

I'm half surprised Blue Water hasn't gone this route yet. I wouldn't be surprised if they were next. Their comics don't sell terribly well in the Direct Market, when they've even carried by the not-legally-a-monopoly Diamond. Their comics and their marketing are both aimed at the larger more general audience outside the Direct Market.

Comics reading is only growing, but it's not through the print medium. It's through digital comics and the iPad. In enough time, we'll have what we always wanted with mainstream acceptance of reading comics as a normal activity and not strictly a geek thing. But we'll be left behind as print aficionados.

Crazy world, eh?

SCATTERLANDS REDUX

I reviewed "Scatterlands" #1 for CBR Reviews last week, but there's more to unpack.

The PDF file I downloaded with my purchase at ImageComics.com imported easily into GoodReader on my iPad. I had kept up with the webcomic as it was published online, but reading everything in one sitting together like this better sold the story. It's similar to the way your brain loses fewer details in reading a six-issue story arc as a single trade than as six monthly issues.

The format is perfect for the webcomic. As the panels are all landscape format just a touch longer than the iPad's screen, each panel filled up more than two-thirds of the screen, and flipping from panel to panel was very easy. The lettering didn't look gargantuan, as it sometimes might when blown up like that. The art didn't suffer from being at a larger size than a lower resolution computer screen. It's not exactly built for a tablet reading experience -- or it would have had the same ratio of width to height as a tablet -- but it works best on one. I think it would likely work well on a regular iPhone, too. Guided View is not an issue at all when every panel is the same size and fills up one screen already.

What I did notice in reading the panels en masse like that is that the sequential nature of the storytelling isn't as tight as it is when you have multiple panels on a single page. This is all a bit meta, and not meant to be a negative criticism. It's a function of the format. With a daily panel, you're telling a story one image at a time, not with multiple images in sequence. It's something Warren Ellis had to account for in his script. There's never a time where a single panel gets split into more, or an inset image is used to cheat. It's one panel per day that stands alone and tells a segment of the story.

A braver man than I would likely superimpose The Golden Spiral on this image to see if that smoke fits the shape. I just think it looks cool.

It's Jason Howard's art that steals the show in all the most fundamental ways. His use of angles and the way he draws a reader's eye into each panel is fun to watch. While there are a couple of close-ups, he mostly works in wider angles that help maximize the feeling of depth in each drawing. He layers his compositions and gives focus to each important element on the page. He knows when to leave the background blank to make sure the middle ground element he's focusing on pops out just a little bit more.

His art looks "sketchy." It's not the neatly cleaned up finished style you're used to from his other works. He doesn't fill in too many solid black areas, instead adding texture with his pen by adding lots of lines in confined areas. He maintains the art's energy and charm with inks without overdoing the pages and tightening them up too much. This shows up even better on a device like an iPad than it does with the smaller JPG representation on the website.

On top of all that, his spare use of a single color -- orange -- helps give the pages another area of interest to focus on. It's not consistently used, but it works in each individual panel and is quickly missed when it drops out. In the last three panels, as our protagonist, Amira, enters a new world, the color changes to blue, a less shockingly contrasting color. I can't wait to see how Howard uses that for the next batch of strips.

Take a look at this sample panel. It's page 34 in the PDF. The perspective isn't as forced as it is in other panels, but you still get the cave wall on the far left coming out towards the reader as the foreground. The exploding anti-body creature and Amira are in the middle ground area, and some silhouetted bits make for the background. That cave on the far left also functions to draw a circle around the exploding monster, while the black background helps the monster stand forward a bit. Notice how most of the lines in the panel are emanating from where the action is over in the left half. Amira gets colored in orange to help her stand out in an otherwise stationary panel. The background behind her drops out to be a brighter light gray background from which she can be silhouetted. I love the look of the little puffs of smoke coming up behind her and just behind the antibody. The horizon line is very low in the panel, which helps to draw your eye upwards to the action, as well.

There are other little touches you might not list, but that you'll notice. The panel border is not drawn in with a clean straight ruler edge. It's a rectangle, but its stroke varies in thickness and the corners don't perfectly meet. The caption box isn't surrounded by a perfect rectangle, either. I think the right half of the bottom edge is drawn in and maybe most of the right edge, which is already up against a solid black background area. The rest is defined by the white background and how it borders with the gray areas and black lines around the box.

To be fair, the lettering does show a crossbar "I" or two over the course of the 50 strips, but they're rare and not present in this panel.

"Scatterlands" is worth the price of admission easily. I could do this kind of analysis for most of the panels. Don't tempt me.

For a mere 99 cent download, you don't have much to lose. Give it a try.

PIPELINKS, NEWS, AND NOTES

  • In the wake of Image's slew of announcements from the big names in comics, DC looked very weak in announcing their San Diego events the same day. They're still rehashing Neil Gaiman's return to "Sandman," but this time supplementing it with news of their plans to celebrate Superman's 75th anniversary and their villains month, which feels like old news by now. DC couldn't look any older or more stale in comparison.

  • It's a bit of a shame, too, because the day before that they released their publishing plans for Vertigo, which held some shred of hope for the imprint and DC, as a whole. It was a glimmer, at least.

  • One last note about the Image Expo last week: The first Expo was a celebration of the company's origins and its founders. The big headline was a reunion of so many of its Founding Fathers. This year's Expo was all about the new creators coming to Image or returning to Image from Marvel, combined with the future of digital comics.

  • comiXology earned points last week for announcing a new "Subscriptions and Bundles" feature. Both are excellent fine tuning changes on the way to digital comics normalcy. Those bundles can save you a bunch of money, too, on bunches of great comics.

  • Time to overthink "DuckTales" once again. This time, we have an analysis of Capcom's classic DuckTales video game and its anti-capitalist nature.

  • Todd McFarlane is back drawing Spider-Man for charity. So long as they don't try to print it in a book, I'm sure it's all cool...

  • I don't think this works that well, to be honest, but I'd be remiss in not linking to it: Superhero Selfies. Needs more Duck Face.
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TAGS:  pipeline, imageexpo2013, image comics, digital comics, scatterlands

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