dig­i­tal fu­ture?

With sales of dig­i­tal comics grow­ing, do comic book artists see them as a chal­lenge, a threat or an op­por­tu­nity? Stephen Jewell finds out…

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

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

David Lloyd

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.”

Chang­ing Land­scape

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

De­clan Shalvey

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.”

Spoil­ing Yourself

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.

Pro­gen­i­tor from

Aces Weekly.

The very first comic cre­ated specif­i­cally for the iPhone.

The menu for Made­fire.

Treat­ment from


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.

Par­adise Mech­a­nism

by David Hitch­cock from, you guessed it,

Aces Weekly.

Dave Gib­bons’s Treat­ment which you can find on Made­fire.


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