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Rob McClellan: Writing the Code to the Perfect Digital Comics

A comics interview article by: Alex Rodrik
With the ever rising popularity of webcomics, there is no better time than now to learn more! I recently got the opportunity to catch up with Rob McClellan, owner of Underwater Samurai Publishing, and learn about webcomics and UWS’s Soldiers.

Enjoy!




Alex Rodrik: How did you get involved with the comics business?

Rob McClellan: I've always loved comics and still keep a weekly pull at my LCS. I've wanted to write comics since I was a kid and a little while ago I decided to get serious about it. I've had a full career, achieved a great many things, and felt that it was time to revisit that childhood dream to be a writer. So I worked at it, write, critiques, refined, then wrote more. Finally, I felt good enough to take my work to a publisher. I shopped a script around and was quickly accepted by a small publisher that has since gone under. However, I didn't like the deal that was offered. I felt, at the time, that it was the best I would get -- and it may have been. But I only saw a ton of work for myself and my team and pretty much zero chance of a return on that time investment. A few months later the iPhone app store and the Kindle came out and those were game changers, in my opinion. It wasn't long after that when Tom, Tim and I got together and decided to go the digital route.

AR: What drew you to comics as a digital medium?

RM: In a word: economics.

Digital comic delivery through an established and ubiquitous storefront is by far the best way to publish comics for a small publisher. Printing is very expensive and it's reach severely limited. I did a lot of analysis, as did several others including a great piece by Publishers Weekly, and financial success from print is extremely difficult. Most small comics don't cross the 5,000 issue sales mark and that is, for many, the “break even” point. That means a lot of comic creators are working very hard for months and not seeing a dime in return. Their only hope is trade paperback reprints, and often even that doesn't pay much. I felt that situation was total crap, and I wasn't going to go down that road. Digital was my "better option."

For large companies like Marvel and DC, and even Dark Horse or Image, print is great and a monthly book generates enough sales to be worth the effort. They're very well connected and they are carried in every comic shop. It's a business model that works well for them. But new publishers don't have that market penetration and it's very hard to get a good creator owned, non-super hero, non-Big Two backed story to sell well in the direct market. It's hard to even get in the direct market, now that Diamond has upped its limit.

But digital is another thing altogether. Suddenly, the barriers for print go away -- as do the entry costs. This means that great, creator owned books can come to life and the creators can expect a return on their effort. Long Tail economics, worldwide distribution, and unlimited shelf life change the playing field for independent comics.

People have talked about digital comics replacing print comics. They won't -- at least not for a very, very long time. Marvel is making crazy profits off of their books, I'm sure DC is as well. The audience likes it -- going to your comic shop each week is as much a cultural event as it is an entertainment one. And, people like print. What digital DOES do is provide a market for stories the direct market can no longer support. And that allows creators to get paid and publishers to generate capital to print a trade edition. With the success of the trade paperback, the twice a year print model is now acceptable -- even preferred by some. It really gives a lot of opportunity to create books and tell stories that previously wouldn't have survived long in this business.

I'm very excited about this. I really feel digital will breathe a whole new life into comics, and in turn bring a whole new audience to comic shops.

Getting away from the publishing financials, from a reader perspective it's a great deal! For $.99 you get $3-4 worth of story and art in a much more dynamic format. Hopefully, that will encourage people to experiment more and read stories outside of those produced by the Big Two. The talent behind Soldiers's art -- Martin Montiel, Chris Summers, and Charles Pritchett -- are the same guys who do work for the big companies. Our quality is just as good as the top level publishers.

And for those still not convinced, you can check out our first book, Soldiers, for free every week on it's website, www.soldiersthecomic.com. It's a win-win for everyone, in my opinion.

AR: Tell us a bit about Underwater Samurai.

RM: Underwater Samurai Studios is the digital comic arm of UWS Publishing, LLC, which is the company Tom, Tim and I started. USS (as we call it), is the publisher I wish had been available when I was shopping my script around.

Unlike many publishers in the comics arena, USS is a traditional style publisher that happens to publish comics in the digital media. That means creators propose a project, we work with them to develop it, then they produce it, we publish it, publicize it, and pay a (well above industry average) royalty on every sale. We don't charge fees to publish someone’s book, we don't hold on-line popularity contests, we don't withhold payments, and don't take ownership of the IP. We publish.



Our core philosophy is simple: as a publisher, we are partnered with our creators. Each party has some skin in the game and contributes to the final product. Creators produce content, USS develops, publishes and promotes it. We take this partnership pretty seriously and that Core Value resonates through the company. We give our creators full access to sales figures, so they know how their books are doing and what their earnings are. No secrets here. Creators get a share of the advertising and merchandising revenue as well -- their content created the audience, they should get a piece of the action.

To be clear, we aren't operating this way because we're naïve do-gooders. Tom, Tim and I have all run some pretty big businesses, we're well aware of the bottom line. The issue becomes one of mutual benefit. If creators know they can get a great deal from USS, then they will want to bring their projects here. Also, they will carry their positive attitude to their fans. No one wants to promote things -- sites, merchandise, whatever -- if there's nothing in it for them. But if they are a part of the process, get to be involved, and reap some rewards from it -- then their positive energy goes out to their fans. It's in the books, in the sites, in the t-shirts -- and it's in the bottom line.

Speaking of Partnerships, through our strategic alliances with Space Goat Productions, Infurious Republic, WP by Design, and Kingdom Interactive we are able to bring a lot of talent to bear when making, distributing, presenting and promoting our books. These partnerships give USS access to some of the best artists, colorists, letterers, and inkers in the comics industry; a digital distribution arrangement that enables us to pay creators substantial royalties; and a powerful capability to produce excellent websites and advertising to promote and distribute our content. We consider these other companies as part of our team and they allow us to offer a great deal of support to our creators and high quality products to our readers.

Like I said earlier, honest, respectful partnering is good for creators, it's good for fans, and it's good for business.

AR: How is the digital format different from the traditional format?

RM: It's different in a lot more ways than I thought when we first started!

The first few are obvious -- the size (3x2 ratio instead of 6x10), the colors are brighter, the physicality is changed. Also, the reading experience is different, and so the creating experience is unlike that for paper. Things that work on the printed page, don't necessarily work with digital. Conversely, digital allows you to do things you could never conceive of doing in print. Conversations can unfold in ways different than print. Action sequences are different. Transitions are different. It's a much more cinematic experience. As creators, we are able to control the appearance of time and space in a much more powerful way in digital.

Most of what people see regarding digital comics now are reprints. Print books that get shopped up for digital resale. In the beginning, those efforts were pretty terrible, but they're getting better. Still, it's a print book that got chopped up -- regardless of the skill taken in doing so. We are making books for digital first, and that lets us do things a reprint could never do.

It really comes down to the difference between the digital screen and the printed page. When you open a comic, you instantly see the entire page -- nothing is hidden. And your eye will follow the action in its own way. With digital, you see what the creators want you to see when they want you to see it. They can break up the panels, slow down the action, zoom in, pull back, pan around -- it's a lot more control on the part of the artist and writer. It allows us to do things that print just isn't able to do.

We were going to go pretty radical in this first outing, but decided to tone it down some. For Soldiers: Zero we used the digital medium to help show conversations unfolding and that was about it. The next issue will take on another "digital only" capability and the next another -- we felt we needed to let the audience get used to it a little at a time. In a few issues, though, once we feel the audience is fully adjusted, we're going to just go wild with it. It won't be a motion comic, we won't have narrators or a voice cast or anything like that -- we're making comics, not cartoons. But we are able to use the actual mechanics of the digital medium to pull off some pretty awesome effects. Fight scenes will be much more dynamic, character interactions will have more drama -- comedic timing will have better effect.

I think our readers will be really impressed, and I think more than a few hard line paper readers will be swayed over.

AR: Tell us about Soldiers.

RM: Beautifully drawn by Martin Montiel (The Darkness, The Victorian), colored by Chris Summers (G.I. Joe, Nightwing), and lettered by Charles Pritchett (Dynamo 5, Noble Causes), Soldiers is pure comic goodness!

Soldiers is an ongoing, monthly title. This first issue, “Zero,” follows four super soldier prototypes during their field trials in Afghanistan. Not satisfied with their assigned duties, they stretch their mandate and go off on their own -- and that's where things get interesting.



On the surface, Soldiers is a kick-ass military sci-fi story. We've got post-human prototype soldiers, action, adventure, intrigue -- it's all there. Even if that's as far as the reader takes it, the book is fantastic.

But you don't have to scratch the surface much before you get to the real depth of the story. After 15 years in the Navy, including a tour in Iraq, I've seen a lot of the service -- the good and the bad -- and I'm using Soldiers to talk about these issues that my friends, colleagues, troops and I experienced and are continuing to struggle with. Post traumatic stress, injuries, family separation, loneliness, survivor's guilt -- hell, just plain guilt in some cases. But also the pride of service, the loyalty of teammates, the rewards of success. And then there's the clash between Boomers, Gen-X, and Gen-Y that is a big deal in the service these days. There's a lot going on here and we've got some fantastic stories coming up.

Martin, Chris, and Charles did an awesome job on the book and I really think it's going to blow people away. Web and digital comics still have a stigma as being amateurish and a lot of print comic fans don't give them that much attention. High quality, eye popping books like Soldiers or Avatar's Freakangels are raising the bar for the genre and even the hard line traditional print fans should take notice. The digital arena is the cutting edge of comics right now and a lot of great stories are coming this way.

Soldiers will be available for download from iTunes and Amazon Kindle very shortly (in the approval queue right now) and it's also available a chapter at a time for free on its website, www.soldiersthecomic.com. Everyone should swing by the site and check it out -- even if you don't download the book, just come to see some real comic goodness. The team put a lot of effort into it; I assure you it's worth the visit.

AR: How’d you, Tom, and Tim get together?

RM: Heh, that's a wacky one.

Tim is my Father-in-Law and happens to be a retired publisher. He made his fortune on a lot of educational stuff, including a groundbreaking software program for teaching math in schools. But one of his earlier projects was the Illustrated Classics. Remember them, from way back? He has the rights to those. Later, he made a very early version of a motion comic to use those same Illustrated Classics to teach foreigners how to speak English.

When I was going through my script shopping phase, he was interested and supportive. And when I kept running into the poor financials at the time, he recommended going solo and he became the Angel Investor for the project.

With any start-up, we needed work done cheap and we needed a good website. Tom had just done a site for a friend of Tim's and he worked very cheap. So we asked him if he was interested in joining up. Turns out, Tom was an incredibly experienced, and successful, web marketer who had sold his shares to his partners, cashed out, and was living the quiet life and doing websites on the side as a hobby. He thought this project had legs and decided to go in with us.

Over the next couple of months we charted out the company, refined our business plan, and started building UWS Publishing.

Pretty serendipitous when you think about it.

AR: How did you get involved with Space Goat Productions?

RM: I met Shon through ComicsBulletin. No lie! I read his “In the Trenches” column.

When it came time to get serious, I wanted a team of professionals on our side. I still went out and bid the project to other similar companies, but Space Goat had the best package. Shon worked with us on the budget and was an enthusiastic supporter of the effort. They put together a fantastic book and we are looking forward to working with each other much more in the future. I recommend Space Goat for anything -- they can fill any gap in your team and do it like the professionals they are.

Turns out Shon and I had a lot in common and had a very similar approach towards the comic business. As we worked on the first issue of Soldiers together, we started to gel pretty good an now he's our "go-to" guy for all of our work.

AR: Would you ever want to work with either of the Big Two? What titles would you love to take a crack at?

RM: Sure, I'd write a book or two for them, why not?

For Marvel, I'm not sure... I'd do something with Hawkeye, for sure. I've been an archer for years and I always liked him as a character. Plus, being one of the few married characters, that adds a lot to him. Not to mention he's also one of the few that have stood toe-to-toe with some heavy hitters and held his own with just his skill and his bow. That appeals to me. Lot of stories there.

For DC, it would be Aquaman -- the original, not that stand-in they made a couple years ago. Ever hear the song “Aquaman's Lament?” I've got it on my iPod, and whenever I hear it I think of how awesome a character Aquaman is and how poorly he's been used over the years. I would definitely do an Aquaman story. He and Marvel's Namor are practically the same -- why is it that Namor is cool and Aquaman is a sideshow? Aquaman is due for some major character investment, in my opinion. Plus, considering my background as an officer and a Navy diver -- I think I would look at the character in a different way than many of the previous writers. It would be hard to get out from under all of that continuity, but I'm sure if DC wanted to we could find a way.

You've talked me into it, Alex! It's decided, I would take time from UWS to write an Aquaman story. Dan, give me a call when you're ready to relaunch Aquaman!

AR: Now that is a reboot I would love to see! So what can we look forward to coming out of Underwater Samurai?

RM: Some great digital comics, for one thing!

Part of the plan is to produce a couple more "in house" books like Soldiers, but the larger plan is to put out a number of creator owned books. I've already had some discussions with a few mainstream creators and I hope we can make those announcements soon. They are very excited about digital comics and have some really great ideas. I look forward to when we can go into that a lot more.

In addition to the established comic professionals, I'd like woo a lot more of the new breed of comic creators out there. Some of the contestants on ZUDA have been fantastic -- really innovative and very talented. Also, more than a few terrific webcomics out there as well. I'd really love to see these new creative voices get a huge leap into the comic business and we are poised to do that for them.

Digital presents a bright new future for innovation in comics and we plan on being front and center of this movement.

If readers want to learn more about us, our publishing services, and our submission requirements I invite them to go to our website at www.underwatersamurai.com.

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