2011's Hot Button Topics: The Future of Webcomics?

David Gallaher on High Moon

The term "webcomic" doesn't have the buzz it once had. The digital domination of Marvel and DC has garnered attention, leaving the idea of original digital comics in its wake.

But some smaller publishers and independent creators are pointing out that the recent growth of e-reader markets should be opening the door for a new era in webcomic production.

"It's a very interesting time," said David Gallaher, co-creator of the successful webcomic High Moon and the ComiXology digital series Box 13. "Right now, it's really the Wild West. It's this huge frontier of unexplored readership and unexplored markets. It's similar to how, years ago, some creators had laid their claim to webcomics, you know? Now there are even more opportunities, in untapped markets that are just growing and growing."

Of course, the largest growth in digital comics has been in existing mega-properties. Licensed characters like Spider-Man, Veronica and Batman have enthusiastically been marketed digitally by Marvel, DC and Archie Comics, with downloads numbering into the millions.

But so far, original content on e-readers has been sparse, Gallaher said. "There's absolutely a dearth of original content created for digital devices," he said.  "Marvel and DC have a lot of strengths, but they're corporations, so they move at a corporation pace. I think there's really an opportunity here that other creators haven't taken advantage of yet."

ComiXology, one of the leading distributors of digital comics for e-readers, is taking steps toward encouraging smaller publishers and independent creators to submit original content to its network. In November 2010, the company announced the "alpha" release of the digital tools necessary to create content for ComiXology, including self-publisher Scott Admunson in the test.

But a few other small publishers have already started to enter the e-reader market with straight-to-digital products. Probably leading the pack is Archaia, who became one of the earliest publishers to release original content for digital readers when it put the highly touted book Tumor on Amazon Kindle back in 2009. The success of that project -- with the comic taking eight of the top 10 best-seller spots for Amazon -- led to its print publication, and the release of other straight-to-digital projects from Archaia. Currently, the publisher is releasing Grave Doug Freshley, by Josh Hechinger and artist Marvin Mann, as a digital-only comic on Graphic.ly, starting with a free first issue. 

"For certain properties that might have a harder time initially finding a print audience, we consider [releasing it digital-first]," said P.J. Bickett, president and CEO at Archaia Entertainment. "The good thing about going digital first is it allows time to build up buzz and a larger audience. Once we feel it has baked long enough in the digital 'oven,' that's when we take it out and release for print. In the case of The Grave Doug Freshley, we are seeing a pretty quick and increasing audience base in less than a month's time."

Bickett said the digital marketplace offers a much larger playing field than the so-called "direct market" of comic stores, where superhero titles often get most of the shelf space and attention.

"It is a pretty big disparity when you compare a 10,000,000 digital fan base to a 350,000 direct-market fan base," Bickett said. "And, with the barriers of entry having been all but eliminated because of digital, the decision-making power is now back in the hands of the consumer, not the store buyer who cannot take a chance on another new title."

Hechinger, the writer of The Grave Doug Freshly, agreed that the current direct market is a much more limited audience for original content than the digital realm.

"It massively loosens distribution," Hechinger said of digital release. "It eliminates the pre-order barrier between a book being finished and a book being released, it eliminates the concept of a shelf life for a serialized piece of a story, and it strikes an even keel between the anything-goes free space of webcomics and the you'd-better-be-Batman constrictions of the direct market.

"It's also a lot more likely that a prospective reader has a computer than has a local comic shop, sadly," he added.

Mann, the artist on Grave Doug Freshly, said digital also offers a more financially viable way to reach new readers than printing it. With the digital-first system, a comic is "advertised" through its digital version at little overhead cost, then when it generates enough interest, there is justification to spend money on a printed version.

"For many years, producing a pamphlet was affordable, and in the early days of the direct market, it was quite possible to get a book onto the shelves," Mann said. "For all sorts of reasons, that is much harder to do today. Web and digital publication can supplement or even replace the pamphlet as an economical way to reach and build an audience."

Hechinger said that economic benefit is why he's done more digital work than he has print, including another project with Mann, Okita and the Cat, which is available on iTunes.

"Trying to sell something that only exists if you sell it before it exists was way too Joseph Helleriffic for me, and was giving me ulcers," Hechinger laughed.

The next step, Hechinger said, is to build more of an audience for original content on digital devices, which should happen once the distribution becomes more streamlined. "Oh, and the comics themselves have to be good," he said. "As ever, as always."

Yet because most digital content is intended for eventual printing, digital comics are drawn with print in mind, Mann said. He hopes that, as the market grows,   artists can be a little more imaginative.

"In time, creators need to embrace the concept of digital first, and design stories with that in mind," he said. "These stories would have to be readable on phone-sized screens, e-reader screens and larger tablet/computer screens. Even better is if they can then make the transition to print afterwards. To my mind, this involves thinking in shorter chunks of story than a traditional print page, making them clear and readable when very small, and having enough detail to be engaging when larger, and then combined to take them to print.

"It's a real creative design challenge that I hope creators will undertake and readers will embrace," he said.

But handheld devices aren't the only digital arena where the potential for new creation is growing. Gallaher is quick to point out that, even though DC's high-profile webcomics site "Zuda" is gone, plenty of smaller publishers — and even self-publishers — are still successfully marketing webcomics to internet users.

"Webcomics are here to stay," Gallaher said. "They're different from digital comics, though. Webcomics are often done in strips, while digital comics are produced for a different reader-user interface. It's a different experience.

"But do I think webcomics are dying? No!" Gallaher said. "There are still people loyally reading webcomics like Girls with Slingshots or Penny Arcade, which have a huge presence in the market. And I think that, if anything, webcomics and digital comics will become less marginalized as time goes on. They'll even feed off each other; one should help people get used to the other."

Paul Tobin, who's co-creating the original graphic novel Gingerbread Girl as a webcomic through the Top Shelf 2.0 site, said he approached the project with print in mind, but he agrees with Mann that the possibilities for digital and web-based comics are endless.

"Other projects can work as weekly sequentials, or even dailies," Tobin said. "Additionally, a back catalog can remain online, buttressing new material. Really, the two main bonuses are availability, and a far wider selection of possible formats.

"A comic creator can now do a 9,000-page graphic novel, and a reader won't need to worry if all installments will be available when she's at the store, or a creator can do a one-panel story, and that's available as well," he said.

Gallaher predicts that, in the next year, more creators will be taking advantage of the benefits that come from original digital content. Hechinger agrees, enthusiastically adding, "This comic I wrote is now readily available to be read by people who didn't work on it. That's a tremendous change from when we were trying to put it out as a print book. Viva digital comics!"

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