The World Of Digital Comics

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again while expecting a different result”

Some guy that probably didn’t say that thing I opened this article with.

That line has been called the stupidest thing ever said by a smart person. It’s even stupider when you realize that no one actually knows for sure who the smart man who actually said it was.  But when it comes to how the comic book industry has been treating their digital strategy, it’s pretty much the only line that makes sense.

Why? Because we’ve seen this before. Remember when there used to be a music industry?

But all is not lost. We’re in the middle of a very exciting time for digital comic books, and for the comic book industry in general. If you’re willing to work hard, and be creative, there are lots of opportunities to be successful, AND to open up the potential of an almost new business model.

Let’s look at what’s happening in digital comics today, shall we?

The “Why Buy The Cow, When You Can Get The Milk For Free” model

A webcomic that actually made money.

This model is what people usually think of when they think of online comics, and it’s often referred to as the “Freak Angels” model, though web comics were around for almost 20 years before Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield took a stab at them.  The way it works is that you give away your content online for free, gradually.  Sometimes it might be a whole issue at a time (Old City Bllues by Giannis Milonogiannis is a great example of this), but usually it’s more gradual.  A page or two a week is the usual method for this sort of thing. You can try to generate revenue through ad sales while posting your content, though obviously this can vary wildly based on how many people are visiting your site. You can also not worry about the money part of it, and just use your free comic to drum up interest in you as a creator.

When you have a certain amount of content, you can do up a collection physically, sell it, and make your fortune. OR, you can sell toys, T-Shirts, or other crap that’s related to your content. The danger to this is the inadvertent “Give Away The Cow AND The Milk For Free” model, which is where you give away your content for free, but there isn’t enough real interest for you to sell your product in collected form.

Kill All Monsters by Michael May & Jason Copland.

Until a few years ago, most web comics were being done in a format that emulated a computer screen, which meant that collecting in a trade format was often problematic. With tablets, we’re seeing a lot of web comics going back to emulating the physical comics experience.

The Pros: It’s freakin’ cheap. No printing costs or physical distribution means very little up front costs. And by keeping the creative team relatively small (this is a model that can work well if you’re the only person making the strip), you can maximize profits in the long run, when ad money and collection money starts coming in. There are plenty of examples of this model working, in various degrees.

Girls With Slingshots

The Cons: While the potential for a strong back-end profit exists , it’s still pretty rare. At the end of the day, you have the same issue you have with print comics: Getting people to pay attention to them. You may be giving away your content for free, but you are still competing for an even more valuable commodity than money: time.  And although web comics are “cheap” to make in terms of money, they can take the exact same amount of time to make as physical comics. And every minute you spend making web comics that might not pay off for months, if ever, is a minute you could be spending on paying work, either inside or outside the comics field.

Cura Te Ipsum by Neal Bailey & Dexter Wee

While this model is the model that’s the easiest to use for up and coming creators, veterans and pros have been capitalizing on it in recent years. Warren Ellis, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid are only a handful of the already-established creators that have experimented with this format. And while it’s a free-ish internet, having big name creators compete in a sandbox previously owned by indie folks means those indie folks have to work even harder to get noticed.

Not to say it’s easy for established pros either. While writers can juggle a web comic on the side while getting more immediately lucrative work from physical publishers, it’s not that easy for artists. So far, no A list mainstream artist has dabbled in this format in anything more than a passing manner. Rick Burchett’s Lady Sabre is a rare exception, and it’s no coincidence that it’s one of the best looking comics on the web. Artists like Cameron Stewart can juggle their web comics while working in mainstream comics, but the mainstream paying work usually has to come first.

Examples of this model: Cow BoyThe Gutters, Penny ArcadeFreak AngelsThrillbent, Cura Te IpsumKill All MonstersGirls With Slingshots….thousands of others.

The “I Am Buying Milk. You Can Keep The Cow” model

DC figured out a way to charge for something everyone else was giving away for free? Shocking.

This one isn’t new either, but it’s been springing up a LOT this year. It’s recreating the old newstand comics model, but in digital form. In this model you charge for ALL of your content, whether or not you sell by the issue, or by the collection. You can do this on your own, or through a middle man, and sell it through a site like Comixology.  Or you can use two middle men, and go through a publisher & then go through a digital distributor.  This model doesn’t bring in much (or any) ad money, but it doesn’t exclusively rely on trade sales either. Although this one has been around for a while, I would argue that it wasn’t really workable until the advent of tablet technology. Now that we have a digital interface that almost recreates the physical print experience, this is becoming more and more viable.

The Pros: Like the last model, this one is pretty cheap to produce. But unlike the last model you have some real potential for immediate revenue. No need to wait for trade, as you can charge a buck or two per issue. And because there are no printing costs, you get to keep the lion’s share of that buck or two. You pay the middle man their cut, and the rest goes to you. With the advent of tablet technology, selling a digital copy of the physical product on the same day is becoming more and more common.

Bandette, by Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover. Published by Monkeybrain Comics.

The Cons: Similar to the cons in the first model. Digital still doesn’t have the in-your-face presence that a physical comic in a comic shop does. And so while you can recoup some capital quite quickly, the size of that pie is still very small. By going into a comic shop, you are pretty much assuming an intent to buy. That kind of dollar loyalty doesn’t exist online yet.For someone to really takeadvantage of this model, a customer has to a) own a tablet  b) know about Comixology, or a similar digital distributor, and then c) have enough time to really figure out which comics are for them. Also, because much of the content being produced in this model (and in the last) comes from a more indie culture, getting consumers that only read superhero comics to expand their horizons is as difficult in digital comics as it is in physical ones.

This is one that’s really blown up in the last few years, and I think we’re going to see a lot of publishers and creators really try to make this model work. It’s the one that’s closest to the old physical model, and it’s one that in theory, means the least amount of change to the traditional way of doing things. DC and Marvel have both taken a few stabs at this. They are putting out digital versions of some (though not all) of the physical comics that they produce, but they’re also producing new comics for digital use initially (with a physical copy often coming out months later).

The quality of these have been pretty shoddy, though DC has made some real attempts this year at producing quality work for a digital audience. One of the biggest stories in digital comics this year has been Monkeybrain Comics. They’re using this model, and doing it with name creators, and with interesting properties. And the quality so far has been pretty high.

Examples of this model:  Monkeybrain ComicsDouble Barrel Comics

The “You Can’t Actually Buy This Cow, But It’s Milk Is Gamma-Irradiated And Will Give You Superpowers” model

This ones pretty new, and only a handful of creators are really using it. This is where creators actually use digital or tablet technology to create a product that is impossible to reproduce in physical print. There may be a version of the product that comes out eventually, but it’s not going to have the same level of interactivity that its digital counter part does.

Marvel has been experimenting with this model with their “Infinite” line. At this point it’s not much more than a pretty gimmick, but I could see this growing like crazy over the next few years. Especially with companies that have some money for an initial investment.

The Pros: By having a format that can’t be reproduced in physical comics, you have complete control over how your audience consumes your product. You are eliminating the physical costs entirely, and essentially creating a new audience to go along with your new content.

The Cons: Although your physical costs are nill, this is still going to cost some coin. Especially if you’re producing NEW content, and not just riffing on existing content the way that Marvel does with their Infinite line.

This is the one that’s going to see the most change in the next few years. As tablet tech evolves, expect to see the content created for that tech to evolve as well.

Examples Of This Model: The Thrill ElectricMarvel Infinite

So what does this all mean? Not much, other than there has never been a better time to get into self-published comics. Two of the main problems (distribution, and paper costs) that always hampered self-publishing are essentially eliminated in a digital-driven marketplace. Obviously digital has it’s own set of obstacles, but those seem to be problems with solutions.

The best part of this new digital revolution is that it’s the creators that seem best positioned to take advantage of it.

Best Comics Of 2011: Best Web/Digital Comics Of The Year

This is the first time I’ve done this category, which says more about me being an ignoramus than it does the format itself. However, due to my wife being the greatest wife in wife history and getting me an iPad for my birthday last year, and due to the fact that I’m actually writing one of these now, I now  can finally give this sub-medium the attention it deserves. A webcomic is a comic that is a) designed primarily for the internet, and is b) that’s about it. They can be one-shots, cartoons, or serial in nature. Most of the popular webcomics seem to essentially ape the old newsprint funnies format, which is 2-3 panels of set-up, and then punchline. They’re usually comedy based, with loose or non-existent continuity. In my experience, most of the popular examples of that style are pretty weak, and overly rely on a familiarity with the requisite subject matter. The one thing I’ve learned this year is that this truly is the future of comics, and that some of the work being done on the web is equal to (or sometimes better) than what’s happening in print. And best of all? Most of them are completely free.

20. BattlePugs by Mike Norton

Yes, it’s a barbarian riding a gigantic Pug. This REALLY shouldn’t work, and at first glance I thought this was another example of the overly cutesy one-note joke BS that can be found in most webcomics these days. But in truth this is a well-plotted, comedy fantasy series. The gigantic Pug is just an added bonus.

19. Bahrain: Lines In Ink Lines In The Sand by Josh Neufeld

Although relatively new to the limelight, Josh Neufeld has officially joined the ranks of professional cartoonist-journalists like Joe Sacco and Guy DeLisle. Bahrain is the story of two Bahrainian cartoonists caught on opposite sides of the ideological fence, and their  differing interpretations of the protests that happened in that country this year. Like Neufeld’s A.D. After The Deluge showed, he focuses more of the effects of large events rather than the causation of said events. In short, he focuses on smaller, more personal stories. This would have been higher in the ranks if not for it only being a one-shot 18 page piece, but it’s an extremely moving piece.

18. Touch Sensitive by Chris Ware

One of the few strips I can’t actually paste a link to, as it was created by Ware exclusively for the McSweeney’s app for the iPad. Look at me being all literary and stuff. This was a 14 page one-shot story, but I included it because a) it’s Chris Ware, and therefore: amazing, and b) it’s the only comic I’ve read so far that has fully utilized tablet technology to its fullest potential, in that each page has swipeable features that add to the context of the story. Although I wouldn’t recommend anybody purchasing this story unless they’re already a fan of Ware’s work, it’s a great example of what’s possible with new digital technology.

17. Freak Angels by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield

Years from now, Freak Angels is going to be heralded as a giant in its medium, not only for it’s relatively high quality, but also for it being the frontrunner of a new business model for comics: Give away good product for free, and people will want to pay for a deluxe version of it. It’s simple, and in the case of Freak Angels, it worked. Although I can’t say I would rank it among my favourite Ellis comics, I think the sheer ballsiness of the concept more than make up for any other issues I may have with the strip. Freak Angels ended this year, but Avatar was happy enough with the success of it that they’ve got several other webcomics planned.

16. The Oatmeal by Matthew Inman

Although other comics might be higher on my list, none make me laugh out loud as much as The Oatmeal. There’s no serial story here, just random charts, graphs, and musings about grammar, air travel, and food. Inman’s sense of comedic timing is stronger than most of his comedic comic competitors, and that, combined with his simple and clear art-style, make The Oatmeal one of the sites I go to the most.

15. Gingerbread Girl by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover

Tobin and Coover have been getting a lot of attention in the superhero world in recent years, but they’re still setting time aside to tell the type of small, quirky stories that they each do so well. Gingerbread Girl is a character study of Annah Billips, a cute bisexual hipster who can’t decide whether or not she likes boys or girls, and in fact can’t even decide whether or not she’s crazy or sane. It’s a cute story, and Coover’s clean, classic art style is a breath of fresh air for those of us sick of overly dense comic storytelling.

14. Godsend by Jesse Bausch and Meg Gaundy

One of the most ambitious strips on the list, Godsend is about what happens when a prophecy fails, even though it’s absolutely essential that the prophecy comes true. That’s the dilemma posed to Jaime and Simon, the heroes of this strange and charming little comic. As with many of these strips, seeing if the creators can capitalize on a brilliant premise is half the fun of going back to it every week. So far so good.

13. Hard Graft by Peter Vine, German Erramouspe, and Jule Rivera

A look at present day Afghanistan, as seen through the eyes of two mercenaries and a photojournalist. This isn’t perhaps as polished as some of the other strips on this list, but it is getting better with every panel, and the commitment to accuracy and quality is obvious with every page. Fans of Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country would be well served by this ambitious strip.

12.  The Loneliest Astronauts by Kevin Church & Ming Doyle

This is the story of Dan and Steve. They are astronauts. All of the rest of their crew is dead. They are coping. Barely. And hilariously. This strip ended in November, in a depressing and funny way, which pretty much sums up the way I feel about the whole thing. The strip managed to be humorous, poignant, and nihilistic all at the same time.

11. Old City Blues by Giannis Milonogiannis

As a futuristic big city cyberpunk police-thriller, Old City Blues is hardly original in concept (see I Robot, Judge Dredd, Blade Runner). But in execution, its first rate. While the writing and plotting are fairly generic, it’s Milongiannis’ beautiful black and white action art which is the real star of this show. You may find more original webcomics out there right now, but you won’t find many that look this good.

10. Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill

This one is cheating a bit as it’s not available online anymore. However, the web was its first home, and you can now buy it as a paperback from First Second books. It’s the story of Neal Barton, a young boy who wants nothing more than to read the latest installment of his favourite fantasy series: The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde.Unfortunately, Christian fundamentalists, having heard that kids are actually reading for pleasure (GASP!) want the book banned from the library in Americus due to its immoral content and heresy, and so it’s up to Neal to fight back against the forces of censorship and intolerance. Although a little sanctimonious at times, Americus is a story that more than anything glorifies the simple act of reading for pleasure. Highly recommended for kids.

9. Axe Cop by Malachai Nicolle & Ethan Nicolle

Axe Cop is the story of well….Axe Cop. He’s a cop that has an axe. He is joined by his partner Flute Cop (spilled dinosaur blood turns him into Dinosaur Soldier, but then an avocado and Uni-Baby’s misplaced horn turn him into Uni-Avocado Soldier. He returns to being Flute Cop, only to become Ghost Cop, Drag-Tri-Ghostacops Rex, and Viking Cop), Uni-Baby (a baby with a unicorn horn), Sockarang (he has socks for arms. They can be thrown like boomerangs), and Wexter (a Tyrannosauraus Rex with Gatling guns for arms) on their mission to fight evil. That’s it. Now, if that sentence didn’t convince you to go out and buy a thousand copies, then I think you’re a communist. On the surface, Axe Cop is the gimmickiest of gimmicks: a comic written by a six-year-old boy. When you dig deeper though, you realize that it’s really the ultimate tribute to pure imagination, unfettered by logic, by rationality, or by the rules of storytelling. Ethan Nicolle should be commended for taking the random musings of his younger brother and turning them into a true work of art.

8. World Of Hurt by Jay Potts

It’s tempting to dismiss World Of Hurt as a simple parody, but it’s anything but. What it really is, is an homage to a genre that gets paid tribute to often, but rarely as lovingly and painstakingly as it is here: Blaxploitation. The strip deals with the continuing adventures of Isaiah “Pastor” Hurt, street-savy hero-for-hire who regularly battles drug-dealers, revolutionaries, and corrupt cops in an effort to keep his streets clean, while trying to make a living by doing so. The dichotomy of Potts using 4 panel techniques used by the likes of Milt Canniff and  Alex Raymond in the 1930s and 1940s, while telling stories based on a genre made popular in the 1970’s should be unsettling, but it really works. Potts sense of timing, and his talent at storytelling is improving with every story arc.

7. Cura Te Ipsum by Neal Bailey And Dexter Wee

Imagine that you’re not alone in the universe. Imagine that you discover that there are numerous versions of you, in numerous permutations of what you consider to be reality. Then imagine that one of those versions is the worst villain in the history of the world, and that he wants nothing more than to destroy the very fabric of the universe as we know it, and it’s up to you to stop him. That is the premise of Cura Te Ipsum, and it’s a great one. Intrigued? Of course you are. Ambition is the watchword for this strip. Bailey and Wee have created a large, epic canvas on which to tell their alternate reality-hopping adventure, and it’s one that seems to be only growing in scope with every panel and page. And although I keep expecting the strip to collapse under its own weight one of these days, it only seems to be getting better and bigger. It’s an action-packed sci-fi thriller, in the truest sense.

6. Nathan Sorry by Rich Barrett

On 9-11, Nathan Sorry was supposed to die. He didn’t. This is the story of what he did after, and why he made the choices he did. Ostensibly a 9-11 story, what Nathan Sorry is really about is consequences. It’s a political thriller of sorts, but the thrills come more from the well-developed characters and their small-town dramas than they do any over-arching political message. It’s more Robert Ludlum than Tom Clancy in its approach to highs and lows, but fans of well-crafted comic books would be well-served by this smart, engaging ne0-noir.

5. Lady Sabre And The Pirates Of The Ineffable Aether by Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett

Pirates. Steampunk. Pretty girls. I doubt you need more than those three things to create a great comic, but to Lady Sabre Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett also add great characters, smart tension, and some of the best art you’ll see in comics at all this year. We’re starting to see more comic veterans follow Warren Ellis’ Freak Angels business model (give away the webcomic for free, then charge for the collections and merchandise), and Lady Sabre is proving to be an excellent example of what A list talent can do with the burgeoning sub-medium of webcomics.  I can honestly say that there isn’t a better looking webcomic out there right now. Burchett seems to be relishing the opportunity to show what can he do to a new audience, and every new page of this strip is a revelation in how to build an evocative fantasy adventure.

4. The Abaddon by Koren Shadmi

The Abaddon starts with a man named Ter. He knocks at the door of an apartment, looking for a new home. He’s welcomed graciously by the residents, but we find out quickly that mystery abounds. Not only do the residents not seem to know anything about the place they are living in, or how they got there, but even Ter himself doesn’t have any recollection of how he arrived, or even what his real name is.  To create real mystery, you must create real tension, and Shadmi weaves tension like a spider. Every panel strengthens the characters, and every line of dialogue enhances the mystery. The art is bold and unconventional, and it’s absolutely perfect for setting the tone that Shadmi is going for here. If you love a great mystery, this needs to be a regular stop of yours.

3. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

 Rather than a continual serial story, Hark! is a series of unrelated strips, ranging from one panel to several pages. The subject matter ranges from pop culture, to politics, to literary fiction, but the main focus here is on history. Or if you’d like, making fun of history. Kate Beaton’s got a knack for finding the humour in pretty much everything, or to put it more accurately, creating humour out of pretty much everything. Although a lot of the work is slightly absurdist in nature, there’s an intelligent grasp of the inherent silliness in how seriously we take our selves, and how seriously we take our history. What I love most about Beaton’s work is how much it demands of the reader. If you don’t know the historical events she’s lampooning, you won’t get the joke. Same deal if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. There were a lot of great Hark! strips this year, but my personal favourite might be Beaton’s take of what famous books might be about going only by their Edward Gorey covers.

2. The Abonimable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl

Kerschl is Stewart’s studio partner, though the only real similarity between the two of them is a constant commitment to quality. While Sin Titulo is a tight thriller, Charles Christopher is a meandering fantasy, and a beautiful one at that. Charles Christopher is, in fact, a sasquatch. Or a yeti. Kerschl never actually says, and that’s ok. He lives in a forest with a multitude of talking animals, who all have their own dramas and subplots. The strip jumps between the adventures of Charles himself, the denizens of the forest, and flashbacks involving Vivol, a bear that serves as an elder statesman of sorts for the strip. Although Kerschl is taking his time at unraveling some of the comics secrets, the journey he takes you on while getting there is the real reason I love this strip as much as I do.

1. Sin Titulo by Cameron Stewart

Stewart is getting a well-deserved reputation in the big leagues for his work on books like Batman & Robin, but Sin Titulo is where his heart is, despite the inconsistent updates. Here’s the plot: When going through his estranged dead grandfather’s personal belongings, a man discovers a picture of his grandfather with a beautiful young woman that he’s never seen before. Intrigued, he goes to his grandfather’s grave, only to see the same woman there. And the mystery begins. What ensues is one of the most compelling, complex, and sometimes convoluted mysteries I’ve read in comics this year. Stewart has said that his prime inspiration here was the TV series Lost. He wanted to create a narrative that had numerous seemingly unsolvable mysteries attached to it. He’s accomplished that, in spades. The only question now is whether or not he can deliver on the promise to actually shed some light on the previous 150 pages of weirdness and strangeness. If he does, he’ll have accomplished no mean feat: The best long form web comic to date.