Digital comics

If you’re a fan of comics and you watch the industry news, you probably already know that Mark Waid, who is responsible for the best Flash comics ever written, has started a new comics publishing effort called Thrillbent focusing on digital comics. If you don’t follow the industry… now you know :)

Why should you care? Well, for me this is a big deal, not because a big name comics creator is entering the realm of online comics, but because of the way he’s choosing to do it. He’s focusing on a ‘digital first’ approach which is inspired by Yves Bigerel’s amazing About Digital Comics. I first encountered About Digital Comics a few years ago when it made the twitter rounds. I realized then how awesome it was, but my thought was “wow, that’s so cool… but what can you really do with it?” I wasn’t interested in making comics in flash that would be really difficult to actually sell or distribute. I loved the concept, though, and apparently so did Mark Waid… check out Thrillbent to see what I’m talking about.

There are still kinks to work out with the format and business model of doing this sort of thing, but why am I excited? Well, if you follow this blog or my twitter feed, you know I just launched my new comic, Sector Four, on May 1st. It’s what people call a ‘long form webcomic’ meaning it’s an ongoing story that will be told like a graphic novel as opposed to ‘gag-a-day’ style comic strips, which make up the majority of online comics it seems. Don’t get me wrong… I love gag strips and even did one for a long time (and hope to get back to it at some point). But for Sector Four, I have a larger story I want to tell. I’ve really been struggling with the idea of doing a long form comic and how it’ll be read in weekly updates. It’s been done before and done really well by creators who are far better than me, but it still doesn’t seem like the optimal reading experience. Seeing what Mark is doing has opened my mind to a ton of possibilities that I can’t wait to try out.

As this is so new, I have a few thoughts on the concept and the first comics that Mark put out there. I’m not talking about the content of the stories, which are great… I’m more concerned here with the format that those guys are using.

In my mind, a digital first approach should go a little further than what the Thrillbent comics do. They’re obviously still intended to be printed, so the a lot of the interactivity used is sort of building the page. In reading some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, they’ve divided a comic page in half and are treating each half as a ‘screen’ for the digital comic. It still has the intent of using space and timing as storytelling tools, so it achieves the primary goal of the format, but personally, I found that the “page building” sort of takes me out of the story a little. I found myself thinking, “why don’t they have this panel take up the whole screen or show me all the panels at once?” I mean, I know why… and controlling what the user sees and when they see it definitely enhances the story, but for me, putting multiple panels on the screen at the same time should be done rarely and only for a specific reason in this format. Focusing a little less on having a story that converts easily to print, I think, would enhance the experience. When looking at “About Digital Comics”, I don’t think about how it would translate to print while I’m reading the story… it pulls you in a little more, I think. Not to say you shouldn’t consider how it would be printed if you ultimately want to make a print version, and it would definitely take a lot more work, but to me, it’s worth it.

Maybe the best way to approach it isn’t completely digital first, but a sort of parallel track to create the printed version along side the digital version. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, since I’ve been talking about how great the digital first approach is, but it’s really two products, and two reading experiences we’re creating here and somewhat combining the two to make production easier seems to be hurting both products.

The second thing, and this has been keeping me up at night, is the format. PDFs are great and are universally supported across platforms, operating systems, and mobile devices, but the limitation in this instance is that they’re best viewed on a computer in slideshow/full screen mode… otherwise you get the “page turning” or “swiping” effect that would be cool with a normal book, but not so much for a digital graphic novel. This is where the “page building” effect really hurts, because if you’re not reading it right, you lose some of the timing that is so great about this format. If you are scrolling through pages, rather than clicking/tapping to have the next screen appear, you lose the effect and it takes you out of the story a bit. There are definitely other options but none offer the flexibility and ease of PDFs, so the best bet for now might be a compromise on user experience in favor of this universal format. At least until other technologies present themselves.

Another advantage of the PDF is that it’s a file that readers can buy and own. They can put it on any of their devices and not feel like they’re only paying for access to stories, but actually owning them. In my mind, this is a must for this format to work, so more and more I’m leaning toward PDFs being the way to go here. At least for now.

So what have we learned? Well, I’m really excited for the potential of digital comics, and my hat goes off in a huge way to Mark Waid for the inspiration and pioneering of this. I’ve been a big fan of his work since the 90s but this has lit a fire under me that I’ve never had before. I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about making my own comics so for that I’m super grateful.

And I couldn’t help but throw my hat in the ring. I originally created a practice story for Sector Four… just to work the kinks out of the characters and environment, but it seemed like the perfect place to put my thoughts on digital comics into practice. Everything was done, originally, with the thought of a ten page story in mind (which you can also download below for comparison) but it was transformed after the fact into this new ‘digital-first’ format. Click the buttons below to download both formats and please let me know your thoughts in the comments if you would.

Digital first page layout:
Sector Four Prologue digital

Original page layout:
Sector Four Prologue original

Thanks for reading.


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