With sales of digital comics growing, do comic book artists see them as a challenge, a threat or an opportunity? Stephen Jewell finds out…
Is paper a thing of the past as far as comics are concerned? When the Independent published a story this March claiming that Marvel is considering ditching physical floppies in favour of a complete shift towards digital publishing, the allegation seemed slightly premature and sensationalist. Marvel declined to comment, of course. But whether or not days are numbered for the good old paper-based comics – or how many or few of those days there might be – nobody would deny that the digital grip on the industry is going to grow; very possibly exponentially.
So where does this leave the artists? They’ve pretty much grasped digital techniques as a way of creating comics – after all, Photoshop is their friend, meaning they can churn out pages faster and earn more money – but does drawing
we should be excited! how many times in a lifetime does the chance to tell stories in a new medium come along? Liam Sharp
for digital comics present more new challenges or problems? No comics publisher is satisfied with simply scanning in the pages and bunging them in an app; from Guided View to Madefire and beyond, the industry has big plans for the way we read – and indeed listen to – comics.
Take A Guided View
Designed as a means of transposing the traditional comic book experience for the download market, online comics provider Comi-Xology’s Guided View reading technology has not exactly met with universal approval since its introduction in 2009. Liam Sharp, founder of revolutionary motion comics company Madefire, reckons that it’s an unsatisfactory stopgap that neither does justice to the original comics, nor encourages digital comics to develop: “Guided View is all about repurposing print; work that was not intended for the digital space originally. If you create material for digital first, you should use the platform as the medium.”
Death’s Head II co-creator Sharp reckons that at a time when the industry’s leading lights should be striving to break down narrative boundaries Guided View’s faithful replication of traditional panel progression is actually holding the medium back. “You can tell a great story in any medium, so why not digital? We are, as comic creators,
using a screen as a surface for publishing comic art is easier, cheaper, quicker and better for the creator
the most visionary, creative and productive storytellers in the world. Why would we want to limit ourselves in any way? These platforms exist, and they’re not going anywhere. We need to boldly embrace them and try out new things, step away from our comfort zones and just see what we can do in this space. The truth is that if we don’t do it, others will. And there’s a whole generation coming that barely knows what paper is. We’d better get used to that and adapt because not doing so is basically cutting off our noses to spite our faces.” Known for his work on Fearless Defenders and
Celtic Warrior: The Legend Of Cu Chulainn, Will Sliney is part of that new wave of artists who are equally at home with a tracker mouse and software programmes such as MS Paint as they are with brush and board. “That paper texture has bizarrely started to feel a bit alien to me,” he admits. “It definitely makes the job quicker. Every time I have to fill in a black area with ink as opposed to clicking the Fill tool I am reminded of that.”
Adept as he is with the latest cutting edge devices, Sliney insists that it doesn’t come as naturally to him as it will to the next generation of illustrators. “I had to struggle through years and years of crappy processors and long loading times due to the technology of the period,” he says. “Young artists who are starting out drawing digitally right now will be the first to completely bypass paper. They will get, at a much younger age, that the computer, like the pen, is just a tool.”
For seasoned pros such as David Lloyd ( V For
Vendetta), though, the adjustment has not proved so easy. Even though he only bought his first computer around 2000 – “way after everyone else in the biz” – he has quickly made up for lost time, establishing online anthology Aces Weekly in 2012.
“At first, I just played around with the mouse and a graphics tablet to make pictures but I really wasn’t interested in developing that further,” he recalls. “That was until I did (2005 graphic novel)
Kickback when I wanted to use some special effects, as well as use my own hand-lettering font. Then much later, I started thinking about what you could do with strips in a computer context. One of those thoughts was, instead of paper, to simply use its screen as a surface for publishing comic art storytelling, which is much easier, cheaper, quicker and better for the creator – if we can make it work. And that’s what led to Aces Weekly.”
Contributors include John McCrea, Lew Stringer, Kev Hopgood and Lloyd himself, and Aces
Weekly’s eclectic list of stories is designed to fit all sizes of computer screen. “Our comic pages are landscape, not portrait so they sit comfortably on all devices,” says Lloyd. “Other than that they use the usual techniques of regular comic art in the main, depending on how much our creators want to play around with them. Our policy is to give them complete freedom as far as that’s concerned.”
Previously available only through the comic’s own website, Aces Weekly recently released its inaugural collected edition through Comi Xology. But while the team was offered the use of Guided View, not one of the various contributors has so far taken up the opportunity.
“comixology may still want to use it as an adjunct – because they like to offer the possibility of phone-reading to their customers – but nothing in Aces Weekly’s pages has been designed for that possibility of use,” explains Lloyd. “My personal view is that Guided View shouldn’t have a place in learning the art of good comic strip creation, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used to tell stories that are designed specifically for its use. But then that would be something different, just as motion comics are different.”
With its more cutting edge approach to sequential art, Madefire has quickly become a pioneer in the field of motion comics,
incorporating not just animation but also sound and other effects into more fluid, tactile stories. “What we do is very different to comics,” says Sharp. “We use time as the forward thrust; the gap between the image is no longer a gutter, unless you want it to be. Images and text can be revealed bottom to top and right to left without confusing the reader. Repurposing these books for print is going to be interesting, but we want to put digital innovation first and not try to mimic print. Tablets and mobile devices are smarter than paper, so why would you want them to behave like paper?”
Starting out with its own creator-owned work, the San Francisco-based firm has since forged crucial partnerships with other comic book publishers including IDW, Top Cow and Boom! Studios. After reconfiguring existing titles such as
Star Trek, My Little Pony and Transformers, Sharp and his colleagues last year teamed up with DC on
Batman: Arkham Origins, an online comic of the popular videogame which they neatly describe as “a multi-path reading experience”.
I think digital editions are great. it can only help to feed the habit of comics and lead to more print sales
“It’s very much a new medium and that’s why we call our episodes “motion books”, which is something even our parents can understand,” reasons Sharp. “Motion comics took comics and created rather limited animations that you have to watch, not read. But we want you to be able to control the story, and to read it. The words matter, the writing matters. To be able to stop the page and study the art is paramount. The sound was something we initially weren’t going to do at all, but when we tried it we found that it added so much that we ended up putting it on all our books. You can always turn it off if you find it distracting, although of course, none of it really matters if it’s a good read!”
Al ways evolv ing
The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, with its sequential panels depicting scenes leading up to the Norman Conquest, is often cited as an example of a very early comic strip and Sharp believes that motion comics are simply the latest natural progression for humanity’s instinctive art of storytelling. “We’ve written great stories on scrolls and in books, or drawn in the sand with sticks,” he says. “We’ve filmed them in 2D and 3D and put them on TV and the big screen. Of course, we should put them on tablets and explore what is possible there. And we should be excited about it! How many times in a lifetime does the chance to tell stories in a new medium come along?”
With 25 years experience in the IT industry and as one of the collaborators on 2009’s Murder drome, the very first comic designed specifically for the iPhone, PJ Holden knows the pitfalls of trying to be a trailblazer. “I think we’re still in the very, very early days of digital comics,” he says. “Even ignoring all the potentials of what you can do with the medium such as audio, animation, choose-your-own-style adventures, Twitter links to panels, highlights of panels and video linked to artwork in panels, we’re really still just on the ground floor of what a digital buying experience can offer.”
By clinging on to antiquated concepts of what constitutes a comic book, Holden maintains that the medium is holding itself back. “I haven’t found it in any way a challenge as either a reader or creator,” he says. “It’s a little sub-optimal as such because there’s always a bit of wasted space, and occasionally some lettering fonts – particularly handwriting-style fonts – can be too small to read. But in general, it’s neither a help nor a hindrance and we’ll probably slowly see comics morph a little to make better use of that space.”
He also doesn’t believe that Guided View is necessarily the answer. “It’s a help on an iPhone-sized device and an interesting novelty on an iPad-sized device but it doesn’t give an enormous advantage to readers on a larger device,” says Holden, who concedes that it could come in handy for the junior market. “But having said that, I can definitely see how it would be an attractive option to kids, or people who haven’t grown up with the grammar of comics. I know a few comic creators have expressed an interest in doing comics
specifically with Guided View in mind as it does offer some cool storytelling features. But comics are already pretty labour intensive, so I can’t see many people going that way.”
Making A Splash
But what about the splash page, that staple of physical comics? The widescreen effect of Bryan Hitch’s famously expansive layouts on titles such as America’s Got Powers are significantly reduced when shrunk down to fit a smartphone or tablet screen; could the traditional splash page conceivably become a thing of the past?
“There’s nothing like the impact of a doublepage spread in a print comic and yet,” says
Murder drome creator PJ Holden, “in the digital medium, not only is that impact reduced, it actually has less impact than a normal page. Instead of letting you sit back and look on in awe at what the artist has intended, you have to rotate, resize and enlarge to try and read it, which is a frustrating experience.”
But many artists refuse to change their practices to accommodate the iPhone generation – for the moment, at least. Even an early adopter like Will Sliney concedes that he never takes Guided View or any other aspect of online comics publication into consideration when bashing out the pages. “It’s never changed how I put my pages together all that much,” he says. “Maybe it can force an artist to pay more attention to the smaller details for when a reader reads a book in Guided View. That said, I always like to think of my work in print, rather than digitally. I do think digital editions are great, though, as it can only help to feed the habit of comics and lead to more print sales as well.”
“I haven’t really changed the way I work at all in response to the emerging digital aspect, whether that’s to my detriment or not,” adds Half
Past Danger’s Stephen Mooney. “I still think of comics as physical items made of paper, and that’s how I go about creating them. It’s very possible
the digital medium needs to be embraced – if comics don’t explore it, they’re going to get left behind
that the day will come when I’ll have to adjust my methods accordingly, but for now I’ll carry on regardless.”
Moon Knight’s Declan Shalvey agrees that there’s been no pressure from Marvel to “Think Guided View!”. “I generally work in US format and have no plans to change. While a lot of comics work on the iPad and other tablets, there’s no guarantee that that format will stay the same, as such things are always in a state of flux. It’s my approach to just make comics the way I do; they can be adapted afterwards. Aiming to compose a body of work to fit a certain format seems risky and potentially disastrous to me.”
With online comics growing closer to film in nature, Shalvey admits that the individual’s crucial control of pacing could be undermined as more people take to skimming stories. “With a page reveal in comics, there’s always the temptation to skip ahead and ruin the story for yourself so that tension in stopping yourself from doing so is a unique experience,” he explains. “With video streaming, you can easily do that and Netflix even has a little screenshot to accompany the timestamp. While it exists so that you can find your place in the video or play back specific moments, it also means that you can potentially peek at what’s going to happen.”
Shalvey was initially sceptical of apps such as Madefire that tamper with the panel progression. “I felt that it would take the control away from the reader but I haven’t actually found that to be the case as it all depends on how the reader wants to consume the story,” he admits. “But it does show up some artists’ terrible storytelling. I’ve seen some break panel borders and draw characters across other panels, which, apart from
being bad storytelling, is also a completely horrible experience when rendering panel-to-panel digitally as it’s all over the place and makes no sense. But saying that, the more obtrusive techniques used in some digital comics are not to my liking.”
Nevertheless, Shalvey welcomes how digital platforms have made comics more accessible. “I read many comics digitally but, saying that, there are choice titles – the titles that I enjoy the most – that I will wait to buy physical copies of,” he says. “So an excellent method might be to release single issues digitally and then make the collections available in print. I still love comics as a kind of object, and that will never change for me. The digital medium needs to be embraced though, as the next generation aren’t going to have the same sort of analogue hang-ups that we do, and if comics don’t explore the digital medium, they’re going to get left behind like a lot of other publishing.”
Serving Two Masters
While digital has had a seismic impact on the mainstream industry, Roger Langridge ( The
Muppet Show) suggests that the effect it has on the independent sector could be significantly different. “It’ll probably be more like the current division between superhero comics and alternative comics, still technically the same medium but serving different, almost entirely discrete audiences,” he says. “I can see all superhero comics eventually becoming quasi-animated, because these days most of them are trying to push the same buttons in your brain as movies do, but alternative comics aren’t trying to push the same buttons for the most part. So I suspect print won’t ever completely die and there will always be comics that remain purely comics. I suppose at the back of my mind, I still think of print as being the ultimate goal, which is why I hedge my bets with web comics by making them printable but not the other way around, which no doubt makes me a dinosaur!” Having debuted his creator-owned weekly strip
Fred The Clown online in 1999, Langridge has had plenty of time to get to grips with the demands of the various interfaces. “I nearly always drew those stories in landscape format so that they would fit on a screen without scrolling,” he says. “But that ended up being a problem when I eventually wanted to publish the work traditionally, as I had to redraw a great many pages in order to make them fit comfortably on a normal-sized comic book page. These days when I work for the web, I’m usually trying to serve two masters: I’ll draw pages as if for print, but in four tiers, so they easily split into two landscape-format half-pages; or I’ll design the panel layout so the panels can be rearranged easily.”
Langridge isn’t sure if innovations such as motion comics are truly advancing the medium and suggests that maybe we need a new name for things that are neither animation nor comics. “I prefer my comics without all the gewgaws,” he laughs. “That may be an artist/reader division, I don’t know. Maybe it’s only cartoonists who have any resistance to this stuff, and even then, I can enjoy something like that if it’s well done. I remember, way back in 1999, discovering Mark Martin’s Crazy Boss webcomic. He would add little animated GIF effects, like having two characters shake hands with actual moving hands instead of motion lines, or sometimes just having characters blink as they reacted to something. I thought that worked because it was not really moving the panel through time, like a movie, it was just replacing a drawn effect with an animated one. That, to me, was still 100% comics.”
Em brace th e Digital
But with the inevitable prospect of comic books and digital technology becoming even more closely integrated in the future, Liam Sharp believes that creators should embrace that brave new world. “Without change there would never have been comics in the first place,” he reasons. “But comics don’t have to go away; print sales – as well as digital sales – are on the increase. This isn’t a threat, it’s a new place for creators to tell their stories in new and innovative ways, and I’m incredibly excited to see what the future holds because we’re really only just touching on the possibilities here. What comes out of this will be a long way from what we currently understand as comics – but that’s all good!”
David Lloyd’s Kickback had lots of bonus features.
Aces Weekly menu.
The very first comic created specifically for the iPhone.
The menu for Madefire.
Shoot For The Moon
from Aces Weekly.
David Lloyd’s Valley Of The
Shadows from Aces Weekly, which is specificaly designed to take advantage of landscape screens.
by David Hitchcock from, you guessed it,
Dave Gibbons’s Treatment which you can find on Madefire.