LONGBOX Part 2: The Digital Revolution is Ready To Go

LONGBOX: The Digital Future of Comics?

Our in-depth look at the forthcoming online comics platform LongBox with creator Rantz Hoseley concludes today.  Click here for Part One.

Newsarama: Rantz, given the variety of formats -- PCs, Mac, Kindle, mobile devices -- have there been challenges regarding making LongBox compatible across different media?  Are you still working on compatibility issues with certain technology?

Rantz Hoseley: The multi-device/hardware approach was planned from day one, and it’s one of the primary reasons we’re using patented, proprietary technology and APIs developed internally.  

Certainly some devices have their own unique challenges in terms of memory limitations, graphics cards, and so forth, but since we’ve planned on being on things like handhelds from day one, there’s been a lot of planning in terms of making sure that the app and associated tools run very “lean”, so that we didn’t find ourselves in a situation where devices x, y, and Z are out of the questions because the comic files are too big, or because you need a gig of memory just to run the app.  

LongBox being on any given device or hardware is much more driven by the questions of “Does this make business sense?  Do users want/need it on this device? Does it benefit the users and publishers?” than “Jeeze, can this run on this piece of hardware?”

NRAMA: Sticking to the different devices, why the video game consoles? Do you think fans want to read comics on their TVs?

Hoseley: Yes, especially with the broadening of the user base for consoles like the Xbox360 and the Wii.  Look at the success of 1 vs 100 on Xbox Live, and the fact that they are bringing Twitter and Last.FM to the console... this is a very different climate than the game industry 5 years ago.  From a personal POV, it’s incredibly enjoyable reading a comic on a 52” HiDef TV using the shoulder buttons of the Xbox controller to turn pages.  I warned my wife that I may never get out of bed again in the name of ‘research…”

NRAMA: When working off the iTunes model, what are some of the features you've included with regard to common creators, ongoing series, etc.?

Hoseley: Well, aside from the iTunes comparisons, eCommerce has some fairly common standards that have evolved out of internet and web usage.  Being able to browse, sort, and purchase, or “wishlist” items in a logically associated or tangential manner...

So in a comic sense, that goes into things like publishers, creators, genres, artistic styles, ongoing series, associated “spin offs”, associated “cross-overs” whether referring to a big “event” or talking about a guest appearance in an unrelated  book, being able to pre-pay for those items, as well as individual ala’ carte purchases (subscription of an ongoing series, or cross-over, as opposed to single issue purchases, for example).

There are some other aspects that haven’t been announced yet, but the general rule of thumb has been, cater to what the user intuitively expects to be able to do, in terms of sorting, shopping, recommendations, etc.

NRAMA: One flaw of the original iTunes model was limiting how many devices songs could be played on, x number of computers, y number of iPods. LongBox limits the number of devices a comic can be viewed on; why do you think this won't present the same problem?

Hoseley: Well part of the problem with the iTunes model is that it’s method for ‘registering’ one of those machine instances was a bit... wonky.  We’re allowing 3 instances during the Mac/PC release... one for your Desktop system at home, the office, as well as your laptop.  You want to get rid of one machine, upgrade to a new one?  Lose your job and can’t access the old one?

 You can de-auth a machine both from the machine as well as from your primary machine.  You have 3 ‘active instances’ rather than what you have with things like iTunes or, say, MS Office where, once you’ve installed or registered X times, that’s it.  

The number of instances allowed will be increased with each device or hardware platform supported, under the same kind of structure, so for a legitimate user, there’s no reason they should ever run up against the wall of “I can’t see the comics I purchased on this system without bitching to customer support”.  That’s no fun for anyone involved.  We want to keep the user away from customer support as much as possible, which is why we have things like the ‘library restore’ option, if you get a BSOD, and your system craps out and you have to re-install everything, maybe even replace your HD.  

You should still be able to log on, no problem, once you get everything re-installed, and then receive an auto prompt asking if you want to download the files you had on your HD the last time you logged on.  Everything is geared towards making it as easy, and helpful, as possible.

NRAMA: What do you feel digital material can provide that printed comics can't?

Hoseley: I think that they are two different experiences... neither one superior... each with benefits and drawbacks.  With digital, there’s a lower price, instant access to any book, 24/7/365, regardless of location.  There’s the ability to discover comics you would never have been aware of, or had access to otherwise, and there’s the fact that it’s a huge physical space saver.  

If you are not buying monthlies as a collector, but as a reader, and you WANT to trade wait, but would really like to keep up on events or stories as they unfold, it’s no longer an either or.  You can buy the digital monthlies, a low price, with an incentive to actually purchase the trade or collection when it comes out.

In terms of format, there is so much creatively you can do with digital... associated audio, DVD-style commentary in either audio or text, video overlays (such as interviews or reference from where a writer got a specific idea), page stages... allowing the reader to toggle from script to layouts to pencils to inks, storefront editorial links... so that if a comic refers back to a story 10 issues ago, you can click that caption and it drops it in to your wishlist to look at after you’re done... I think we’re going to see some amazing developments come out of the unique attributes and capabilities.  Stories that could only be told with digital, but are still comics... not animated storyboards, or animatics, but comics.  That unique narrative experience that is collaborative between the reader and the creator.

NRAMA: Conversely, what can you get from a printed comic that a digital copy will never be able to provide?  Without dismissing the print medium out of hand, with printing costs on the rise, do you see the digital format overtaking print in the foreseeable future?

Hoseley: Well, I don’t think print will ever die, or that digital will replace print, or anything of that nature.  I have a massive library, both at home and at the office, because I love books.  I love the physical object.  

Now... Me personally?  I don’t buy paperbacks.  I (mostly) only read books in HC editions. I feel like, if I’m buying a book, I am buying the object... I am not buying it to read and toss away or be disposable.  I want to have it to go back to again and again.  

I think, in some ways, as the digital market grows and stabilizes, you’ll see more of that in comics.  A greater increase on the sense of physical design, rather than the cheap “floppy” nature... emphasizing the strengths and unique qualities that you can only do in print.  

Whether you’re talking about something like Wednesday Comics, or Kramer’s Ergot, or Viking, or Maakies, or Comic Book Tattoo... those are the types of books that are designed to be an experience that can only  be had in print in that specific way.  With the rising cost of printing and distribution, I think more than ever, that kind of approach needs to be embraced.

NRAMA: Scott McCloud, among others, has written of the storytelling possibilities inherent with the digital format.  Do you feel digital comics (particularly webcomics) are on their way to realizing these possibilities, and how do you see LongBox adapting to these potential innovations?

Hoseley: I think honestly they are just getting started.  So much of the first generation of webcomics was influenced by the restrictions of print, and trying to establish a digital vocabulary unique to the format... ways to play with the strengths of it, that we’re just now seeing creators really start to move with some confidence in their experimentation.  

It’s like, everyone’s figure out where the “footholds” are in climbing the mountain.  Now, everyone’s setting about doing the actual climbing, and figuring out what path is best.  Some with try and find their own, and others will follow... human nature.  But man, it’s an exciting time as both a fan and as a creator.

I think LongBox’s role in all of it is giving creators and publishers tools that they can easily bring their vision, no matter how left-field or different it is, to an audience in a way that doesn’t require all their time be spent developing the infrastructure and capabilities, and instead can concentrate on letting their imaginations loose.  

There is a lot of functionality in terms of LongBox far beyond simple reproduction of a print comic in digital form and far beyond what’s been announced so far... Personally I cannot wait to see certain creators cut loose with those tools because I know it’ll set my head spinning.

NRAMA: On a broader scale, do you feel that the monetization of digital media will be able to stabilize/revive the publishing industry over the next decade, and if so, how?

Hoseley: Yeah, very much so.  Right now, we have one avenue of income, in terms of monthly comics, as creators and publishers.  That’s a scary place to be.  Not only does it leave you vulnerable to fluctuations at any point in the chain, but it also limits the types of stories you can tell.  Well, if you want to make a living at making comics, that is.  

Opening up distribution to a new, wider market, at a very affordable level, without restrictions of device, region, or time of operation automatically increases the number of potential sales, but it’s the ability to have comics that appeal to a wider audience, books that put their first emphasis on character rather than a 30-40 year continuity and spandex, that Aunt June in Peoria can relate to, or get into... those are going to be the comics that change mainstream America’s perception of “comic books” to being another form of entertainment, rather than being seen by many as a “genre.”

NRAMA:  For that matter, do you feel resistance to creating a multi-platform digital archive has hurt comics publishing, or at least slowed its potential growth?

Hoseley: Honestly, relative to the music, film and TV industries, comics has been pretty proactive.  I mean, it hasn’t taken comics completely bottoming out before publishers embraced the idea of digital distribution...

They’ve certainly waited until it was proven that, yes, there is a consumer base for digital entertainment in other forms, but after it was proven with music, TV, film, etc... there wasn’t a lot of burying their heads in the sand, thinking this “nutty digital thing will go away.”  

I think honestly, had the industry as a whole moved sooner, that it would have ended up not being as successful as I think it will  be.  Technology wasn’t mature, eCommerce wasn’t solid enough, high-speed internet didn’t have sufficient market saturation, etc.  I think we’re very much at the right time for this.

NRAMA:  Tell us about your upcoming comics work as editor/artist/writer/etc.

Hoseley: This is it.  LongBox, that is.  I’m still wrapping up Displaced Persons, the book I’m drawing with Derek McCulloch, which has become idiotically late because I’ve been hammered on my schedule between Comic Book Tattoo and LongBox, but I’m in the final stretch now, and eager to get it done.

 Getting to draw at the end of the day, after dealing with legal meetings, and spreadsheets, and business all day is a much-needed respite... it keeps me focused on why we’re doing LongBox in the first place.  I had to turn down a couple of projects that came up because a.) Displaced Persons has got to get done already and b.) My focus has to be on LongBox business.  

With 12- hour days, 7 days a week, it’s not like I can afford to be splitting my focus at this point.  I do have a notebook of projects that I’ll be getting back to in a year or so, when things are “less hectic”... so, actually, maybe 10 years or so...(laughs)

NRAMA: What do you feel have been the biggest advantages from wearing so many hats as a comics creator?

Hoseley: I think it’s given me a unique perspective.  I know I could not have done LongBox if I hadn’t worked in management, as an editor, as a creator, as an art director, or software designer.  

I think that’s a critical advantage LongBox has, is that we’ve addressed the different camps and angles that all need to be addressed in really doing a comprehensive platform.  You can’t just address the users, and ignore the business aspects, or the publisher needs.  Likewise, you can’t just deal with the publishers and ignore the users and customers.  

I was told by an entertainment manager back in ’91 that I “needed to stop fucking around with all of these different fields (art, music, comics, software) and pick one, because that  is how you are successful.”  I didn’t listen obviously, and I’m glad I didn’t... that approach, and being able to see from all of those perspectives... that’s what has made LongBox possible.

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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