Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Infinity #7 Out Now!


INFINITY #7 | FREE!
Infinity #7 is out, with some great reviews, a feature on Jaime Hernandez and Locas by Paul Gravett, a nostalgic interview with Martin Lock, a feature-length review of Charley's War, loads of news and more. The SEQUENTIAL version is by far the superior reading experience and is out now. The PDF version is available to download here.



Saturday, 8 March 2014

The 2013 British Comics Explosion












The original illustrated version of this opinion piece by Russell Willis appeared in Infinity #5, released December 2013. You can get the whole magazine free on SEQUENTIAL for iPad. 

Did it have something to do with Blank Slate’s Nelson released at the end of 2011? It could have done… it was such a superb gathering of the best and brightest in comics in the UK, and the pride in its release must have unleashed amazing energies... Yes, I think Nelson was a catalyst for the explosion in the amount of quality comics-related activity now coming from the United Kingdom.

And it really has been a stunning year for comics in Britain, starting off with a major literary prize having two graphic novels shortlisted. Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes won the Costa Biography Prize, and Joff Winterhart’s Days of the Bagnold Summer was shortlisted for the main prize. Then Glyn Dillon won the Special Prize at Angoul√™me for The Nao of Brown. And John McNaught won the Newcomer Prize for Dockwood. The Phoenix Comic went from strength to strength, and got an acclaimed iPad app to go with the print version – it was later placed second in TIME Magazine’s Top Ten Graphic Novels and Comics. Paul Gravett had the Tate Gallery publish his Comics Art, as part of their prestigious Art series of books – a major storming of the cultural barricades. Neil Gaiman, whose path to fame started with comics, got more attention than ever before, and was pointedly proud of his comics endeavours. Madefire, the “motion book” app in the US, is raising millions in VC money, driven by Brits Liam Sharp and Ben Wolstenholme.

There were more and better comics events all around. The Edinburgh International Book Festival added a major comics strand to its programming with Stripped. The Lakes International Comic Art Festival, Britain’s version of Angoul√™me, was launched, to massive acclaim. Thought Bubble had more visitors than ever before; Comica brought together comics luminaries all over London. British comics journalists saw more prominence in US publications such as The Beat and The Comics Journal, whilst Rich Johnston continues to power Bleeding Cool.

New independent publishers such as Great Beast published amazing work whilst more established ones such as Blank Slate Books, SelfMadeHero, Myriad Editions, Knockabout and Jonathan Cape put out quality title after quality title. As I write, Cape is getting huge publicity for Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia of Early Earth which is in Top Tens everywhere, including TIME Magazine’s Top Ten for all fiction.

And perhaps I can dare to include Panel Nine’s efforts with SEQUENTIAL. Publishers Weekly noted “literary graphic novels now have their own app”. And a best-of-class one as well, if I might be so bold!

Yes, 2013 was a fantastic year for comics in Britain. Here’s to 2014!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Interview Part 2: PJ Holden on The State of Digital Comics













The original illustrated version of this interview appeared in Infinity #0, released July 2012. You can get the whole magazine free on SEQUENTIAL for iPad. 

Visit PJ Holden’s website Dial H for Holden.


PART TWO: THE STATE OF DIGITAL COMICS

As one of the pioneers of digital comics for the iPhone, as well as a software engineer and comics artist, PJ Holden is uniquely qualified to discuss digital comics. In the second part of our interview PJ discusses software engineering, user experience, and the market in general.

Russell Willis
I’m interested in how you feel about the various platforms that are available for reading digital comics today. It seems to me that many platforms are badly done. iBooks as a platform for comics, in its current version at least, is extremely irritating from a user experience point of view. I think this is a real step backwards because people can easily be put off reading comics on tablets. Comixology’s comics app is an exception – it does do a good job of presenting comics.

PJ Holden
Many comic readers aren’t great but I think for the vast majority of people, Comixology is it for reading comics. I think in the same way that if you want to buy a comic in the UK, you generally think of Forbidden Planet. That’s not meant to downgrade any others. That’s simply a statement of what I see as being true for the vast majority of people who don’t really know where to go and get these things. I think Comixology is just going to end up having the muscle in numbers.

Russell Willis
I think you are right when you are talking about traditional superhero comics. Comic shop customers who want to buy digital comics are going to move to Comixology. They have Marvel, DC – I don’t think they have Dark Horse right now – but they seem to be the 800 pound gorilla.

PJ Holden
Yeah, Dark Horse have their own app. It’s OK. It’s not amazing – for me as a buyer, Comixology is the preferred way of doing it because it keeps all the comics together. Really, I think we should watch what Apple are going to end up doing because I think Apple at some point will look at the reading experience on iBooks and go, this isn’t ideal for comics – let’s buy Comixology.

If I were Apple, that’s what I’d be doing. I would be thinking about buying up Comixology. But I think Comixology will always be limited in what it can do because it can’t really… because it’s such a big beast, it’s going to be harder for small publishers to get work in there. iVerse seems to be following a Kindle model. You don’t buy it from within the iVerse app. You buy it on a website, on the Diamond Comics website. Diamond, I presume, are hoping that they will have the clout to get people to go to their website rather than just going to Comixology to buy stuff.

Then there are the apps which actually do more. I think if you are going to release a comic, a standalone comic, it needs to do something more. I think Panel Nine has the right idea with the audio stuff on there. You have to bring something different to the table from what Comixology is going to be doing.

Russell Willis
If you are reading Marvel and DC and Image pamphlets, I think Comixology is great. For literary graphic novels, I don’t think that’s the case.

PJ Holden
Nine times out of ten users of Comixology don’t care about the creator. They care about whether Spider-Man’s getting his head punched in. I think it’s one of those things where – I think you can go to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac which will fill you up, or you can go to a really nice gourmet burger place and get something that’s going to taste really nice. 90% of people are going to go and buy McDonald’s; it’s always easier and more convenient to buy something that’s pre-packaged, and you know what you’re getting.

Russell Willis
And through this, Comixology is locking up the superhero comics market as it exists now. There is this transition from people who visit comic shops moving to Comixology. At least Comixology provides a good reading experience whereas some of the things out there – I just downloaded The Walking Dead from iBooks and it’s a really irritating user experience.

PJ Holden
iBooks is horrible. It’s absolutely impossible. When people talk about digital comics there are two strands to it. One is from the perspective of a reader, and one is from a perspective of a comic creator. For a comic creator, iBooks is brilliant because iBooks take a flat 30% because you are directly selling through the App Store. If you are selling through Comixology or iVerse or whoever, their fees are on top of Apple’s flat 30%. Which is why selling through Apple is obviously going to be more attractive to a comic creator.

Russell Willis
If they are prepared to do their own PR and promotion etc.

PJ Holden
Many comics people kind of feel that all you have to do is stick it up there and it’s on its way.

Russell Willis
Right, which is not the case at all.

PJ Holden
We are not long-sighted really, we are very short-sighted. It’s like, I’ve done my work. Now I want people to see it. I will put it on a website. There you go. 

Russell Willis
I think people will move to the better user experience. You designed a great UX for Murderdrome early on and I think Comixology has a  good user experience. Graphicly less so, iVerse not really. I consider iVerse, Graphicly, and Comixology the big three of digital comics platforms right now. But iVerse is just showing you one page. You can kind of zoom in but just in the way that you normally can on an iPad. There’s no real panel mode, as we call it. It has the fewest features, whereas Graphicly has a kind of panel mode but it’s not very well implemented. In fact Graphicly always seems to have lots of bugs in it. I always have problems with their software.

PJ Holden
I think Graphicly’s problem has been that they have secured lots and lots and lots of investor funding but haven’t really secured the software base.

Russell Willis
Absolutely. How do you feel about Graphicly’s new ‘pay to have your comic published digitally’ approach? It seems like a last ditch attempt by Graphicly to be relevant.

PJ Holden
I think there needs to be something like that though. I think there needs to be some way for anyone to just upload their own comics and put them on there, because I think there’s a market for that. The market may never buy that many of those comics but I do feel that there’s a lot of people who want to do it.

Russell Willis
I worry because my experience of their product makes me feel that they just don’t have it together from a software-engineering point of view. I think what could happen is a lot of bug-ridden, shoddy crap is going to come out. The content we can’t judge, but in terms of the actual software experience a lot of it is going to be broken, a lot of it is going to be buggy. You are going to have panel mode-type functions that don’t work. I can see it potentially being a bit of a disaster for Graphicly.

PJ Holden
I would say as well that the content is not going to be great. The sure thing is that a lot of people want to make comics but not a lot of people are really capable of doing it well.

Russell Willis
Sure. Absolutely. I worry that if people are exposed to too much rubbish they will tend to tar everything with the same brush. It’s problematic when you’ve got lots and lots of badly created, badly written comics with bad software engineering in the market. It’s not a nice prospect.

PJ Holden
The thing that puts me off of the idea of paying Graphicly right now is the fact that they don’t have an iPad app. It smells like their investors have invested bucketloads of money, so now what Graphicly has to do is create some sort of bubble to make investors keep their money in. And the quickest way to do that is to make it look like they’ve got a lot of people wanting to use their software. How do they do that? They get a lot of people signing up for free. That’s the way. Those things inevitably lead to a massive crash.

Russell Willis
Yeah, I find the whole situation very precarious. 

PJ Holden
Although one of the worst pieces of advice we received back in the Murderdrome days was not to get investment, just do it ourselves. I think had we got a couple of million pounds of investment for Murderdrome etc. – which was a possibility – we may have been even further on than the current players…

Russell Willis
I think you should have gone for that investment. A key issue with investment is who you get it from. I’ve raised millions of dollars of venture capital investment in my time from a variety of different types of investors. Really, it depends on the investor. You might want the money but you don’t want the money at any price.

PJ Holden
I have to say, I can’t really complain because I ended up drawing comics which is sort of what I wanted to do. There’s a certain pleasure in being able to say, ‘I could have been rich, but I decided against it!’

I do think the state of digital comics is interesting. It feels like there are very few people trying very hard any more though. Apart from you guys – and I say that not because I am talking to you now! – but a lot of them seem to think, let’s put the comic out there and now another comic, and now another comic. Nobody has really asked what we can do to make this medium slightly unique or different or whatever.

Russell Willis
For us we’re doing two lines: The first line is what you’ve seen with Eddie Campbell and David Lloyd, and that’s basically taking something that was perfectly designed for print, and making a sleek, responsive experience with additions such as audio commentaries, exclusive interviews etc. The other is to commission new work designed especially for the iPad.

PJ Holden
I think one of the things that’s really evident is that comics are not books. They are certainly not digital books. I think if you have a book reader, you can’t just go, I’ll slap some comics on to this.

Russell Willis
That’s what you would have thought… Many people are sceptical about the future of digital comics. I think they’ve ignored the point that the game changer is the iPad, is the touch screen tablet itself and the lean-back experience that allows you to immerse yourself in a comic on a tablet – sitting hunched up squinting at a computer monitor is a very, very different experience.

PJ Holden
It changes everything. Comics to me are an intimate reading experience. With the best in the world you can never get intimate with your computer. The ability to sit with an iPad on your lap or in a car or wherever and read it and not have any other thing in your way. There’s no keyboard on there. There’s nothing. It’s about what you’re looking at on the screen. 

Russell Willis
I’m glad to hear you feel the same way. It is the iPad, the touch screen mobile tablet that makes all the difference. The term ‘digital comics’ is very broad, so it could mean comics that have been digitised and stuck on a CD-ROM, it could mean web comics on a computer monitor, but I am really interested in comics on the iPad and similar devices. I think that’s where the future lies; and I know you do too. 

PJ Holden
I think there are two big factors. First is that the device is a great thing but the second is the ease of distribution. It’s so easy to get your own work out there compared to going through Diamond and Diamond’s crazy systems. Even if you’re going through Comixology, and taking into account that Apple take 30% plus Comixology take a percentage, you’re still probably giving up less than what Diamond take.

Russell Willis
Are you buying fewer physical comics these days?

PJ Holden
Weirdly I have bought more print comics since reading comics on my iPad, because what I would often do is I will buy a thing and I’ll go, that’s really lovely. I think I’ll buy that in hardback.

Russell Willis
Yeah. You want the physical souvenir for stuff you really love. The physical artefact. Especially if you have the collector instinct.

PJ Holden
I’ll go and buy a hardback. Digital comics can be pricey and I usually only buy during sales. I’ll wait until they’re on sale for 69p.

Russell Willis
It’s going to be interesting how the pricing model for those pamphlets turns out. We’re dealing with pricing models for our ‘deluxe digital graphic novels’ like Kickback. For example, it’s $9.99 which is cheaper than the hardback book, but it could still be considered quite a bit for a digital product. But if you work it out, it’s 150 pages. It comes to a price of about $1.20 for 20 pages. 

PJ Holden
One of the problems of creating stuff digitally is that it’s very hard to get a measure of its weight.

Russell Willis
Right! Its heft.

PJ Holden
Yeah, its heft. The digital comic with 150 pages looks the same as one with 20 pages. What Panel Nine has done with the audio stuff so clearly differentiates your product.

I think the market will fall into three areas (and I’m going into dodgy forecasting territory here). One will be for this sort of pamphlet stuff that comes out of Comixology and possibly people putting their work up through that. I think there will also be room for a kind of Lulu.com-type application or company that allows anyone to upload materials and sell it as a comic or magazine through their own app. Anyone will be able to put comics into that. I think there’s an open end in the digital comics market for that. I think there’s a third category which will be the big heavy hardback type, the sort of thing that you would go, that’s the kind of comic I want on the coffee table, which will require things like audio commentaries, video interviews, pencils. It will require all that stuff to make it feel like it’s worth spending £12 or £15 on it.

Russell Willis
And there’s the issue of the different audience. I often look at someone like Raymond Briggs, or more recently Alison Bechdel. I think with her new graphic novel Are You My Mother? they are doing 100,000 copies as an initial print run. We are set up to do digital versions of that kind of thing. We could make them look gorgeous, and then add audio commentaries and all of the extra stuff that you might want to include in print but can’t because it becomes prohibitively expensive. And I am imagining the audience that would read Alison Bechdel or Raymond Briggs is not going to be as price-sensitive as those reading She-Hulk

With deluxe versions of printed graphic novels it’s easy to say to the potential buyer ‘150 pages plus all these extras’ and customers get what you mean. It’s going to be more problematic when things are designed specially for initial publication on the iPad.

PJ Holden 
Right, DC have a couple of digital exclusive comics that are 22 pages. They look gorgeous on the iPad because they are exactly sized for the iPad. So you have around 22 screens but we are clearly talking about half the material that would be in a standard 22-page comic. It’s one of those things that needs to be figured out.

Russell Willis
I know you have to run now… thanks for your time today, Paul, it’s been great talking with you.

PJ Holden
It’s been a pleasure.

This interview took place by telephone on March 30th, 2012 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Visit PJ Holden’s website Dial H for Holden.