Digital Comics, Webcomics, Zuda and Baltimore

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Rob McClellan
You know digital comics are maturing when you hold a panel and publishers show up -- not to mention major Comics news websites. The Digital Comics panel on the first day of the Baltimore Comic Con had two publishers, a start-up CEO, a comics legend, and a Harvey nominee (and, later, a winner -- but more on that in a bit).

For this panel, I sat in the audience -- center of the second row, right behind Lucas Siegel -- close enough to see every strand of Filip Sablik's immaculate hair (seriously, dude, how do you do it?) and hear Richard Starking's (not so) subtle iPhone keypunching. Dave Steinberger, CEO of Comixology, gave a good presentation, and Filip and Michael Devito (Top Cow and Th3rd World Studios, for those not in the know) were positive about digital's outlook and integration into their business model. David Gallaher was obviously bullish on digital as his Zuda success is opening a lot of doors for him.

An interesting thing I noted…no one wanted to replace print for digital. There was very little talk -- passing at most -- on digital as a primary market. Secondary market, yes. But primary market? No. Why hunt for back issues when you can get them at your fingertips? The closest it came was the announcement of “Box 13”, a serialized iPhone comic by Gallaher and Steve Ellis for Comixology. I found this lack of discussion to be interesting, especially as a digital publisher who makes product specifically for mobile devices. Do they not see profit in it? Do they not want to upset the print fans? Is it too disturbing to the existing business model? Is the audience just not ready for it?

Now don't worry print comic readers -- no one is in a hurry to go full-on digital. Except for me, of course...

Webcomics

Another discussion point lacking in the panel: Webcomics. Nary a whisper.

For many, “webcomics” is still a dirty word. It conjures up newspaper strips and failed amateur cartoonists. Zuda is a special case -- since they come from DC, they get a grudging pass from the print crowd. But, for a webcomic done well, there is an undeniable power and devoted readership that is totally overlooked by the print aficionados.

Ever hear of Phoenix Requiem? Sarah Ellerton's (ever hear of her, since we're asking?) exceptional webcomic gets tens of thousands of views a day and consistently garners over 30,000 votes each month for Top Web Comics (it's the 17th and she has 31,079 votes!). Anyone who's ever competed on Zuda knows how incredibly hard that is to do. When she prints out a book, it sells out. Warren Ellis' Freakangels -- 17,000 plus readers a day. No one knows exactly what his print book sales are, but Avatar's William Christiansen has said in interviews it's “enough to keep doing it”. And there are a lot more cases like this than you think -- from people you've most likely never heard of: Crystal Yate's Earthsong, Kelly Hamilton's Roza, Sarah Davis' The Awakened, Rose Laughran's Red Moon Rising -- and a heck of a lot more.

Yet, despite their success, you never see these webcomic creators. They are outside of the mainstream comic scene. Like Indy creators were back in the early 80's. There, but not there. Their sales and following numbers blow away Image, Vertigo, Oni Press, Ape, IDW, Arcana, Red 5, Radical, Archaia, BOOM!, and even Dark Horse (except for Buffy and Star Wars, of course). But no one ever talks about them. Ever. Maybe at some Alternative Press deal, or at the Small Press Expo. Maybe. No Harvey nods, no Eisner nomination, no panel at Comic Con. Nada.

My point? Simple. There is a much, much larger world of comics out there than the direct market realizes. The webcomics scene is tremendous. Erik Larsen recently commented, on Twitter, about 500 print comics a month or some such -- webcomics number in the tens of thousands, and they update every week. It’s HUGE!

From a business perspective, the webcomics scene is to comics what China is to the world. A giant, inscrutable, powerful market waiting to be tapped. Right now, I think the only ones benefiting from this gigantic digital beast are Cafe Press, Zazzle, and Ka-Blam. When will Comixology or iVerse go after this market? Who will be the first to put Phoenix Requiem on an iPhone? When will DC offer them a contract like IDW did for Laura Innes? When will Dark Horse go knocking on their doors?

Or, taking digital empowerment to the next level, when will these individual creators decide to put their stuff on the iPhone through a company of their choosing -- Infurious Republic, Pixelseed, someone else? -- turning these small operators into instant successes.

Think about it...

ZUDA

Crazy happenings in Baltimore -- The Big Four in webcomics said Zuda was “all right”. That's right, Scott Kurtz said some good things about those Zuda guys.

Also, David Gallaher and Steve Ellis won the Harvey! Great job, men! For those who don't know, they make High Moon, an ongoing supernatural western, for Zuda. And it's not bad -- you should check it out, along with other digital Nominees:

The Dreamer
Night Owls
Supertron
Black Cherry Bombshells


I love that digital is getting this kind of attention. It's great, great stuff and every one of these comics is excellent. However, I am very unhappy with Zuda right now. Why? Because their print edition sucked.

I've looked at both Bayou and High Moon -- and I bought High Moon. But I bought it because I liked David and Steve. If I hadn't met them, I wouldn't have bought the book. The physical production quality of the book is terrible. I'm sorry, guys, I love you and all, but it is. And I'm not the only one who's noticed. At my LCS, I went straight to High Moon when it came out -- I quickly put it down. Three others, in the span of a few minutes, did exactly the same. Seeing this, I asked each one why -- “looks like crap” was the response. The paper is very close to newsprint and it really does not show the art well. I'm serious -- go to High Moon at Zuda and then look at the print version. The print version absolutely pales in comparison. Same for Bayou, the only other web-to-print Zuda has put out. Bayou is a beautiful story, and on the screen the southern fairy tale is a delight. On paper...eh. Muted, faded. I expected a lot more for $15.

Bayou and High Moon are the initial offerings from the digital powerhouse that is Zuda -- with all of the power of DC behind them -- and yet they fall a little flat on the bookshelf. With this in mind, I dare you to order a copy of The Uniques from UniquesComic.com. Comfort and Andrew make a kick-ass comic and print it out via Ka-Blam, a print on demand service. It has production quality through the roof and it looks phenomenal -- great story, great art, great book. What in the world is happening when two artists, on their own, make a book that blows away DC? Not only in terms of content, but in production quality.

Zuda is a breath of creative fresh air in comics right now. ‘Lot of great stuff is coming out of the site -- Absolute Magnitude, Goldilocks, and a bunch of Harvey Nods. But if Zuda is going to monetize through print, they need to make sure the book delivers on the promise of digital. Solid paper, vibrant color, quality production.

UPDATE: *DavidGallaher:* "The paper for Bayou & High Moon are both from the sustainable forestry initiative. Bayou is now in its 2nd printing. And HM sales are strong."

Zuda, if you're going to play in this realm, you better bring your A game. Your creators are bringing some awesome story -- David and Steve earned that Harvey -- you need to hold up your end of this. Pick up your production quality something fierce, ‘cause two kids on their own in the Mid-West just schooled you.

Baltimore

Baltimore is an awesome Con! Great time, great venue, great town. But, most of all, Baltimore is a great Con because it is about COMICS! Not movies, not merchandise, not Jessica Alba -- comics.

If you have a chance to go, the Baltimore Comic Con is well worth your time.

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Rob McClellan
Publisher, Underwater Samurai Studios
Writer, Soldiers
www.underwatersamurai.com
uwspub@uwspublishing.com
Twitter: @h20samurai

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