Alex de Campi is a digital comics pioneer, being the first author to create an original comic work for almost every popular online platform simultaneously. Valentine, illustrated by Christine Larsen, is a serialized graphic novel, a fantasy thriller that begins with a French cavalry officer during the War of 1812 but soon involves magic, cheating death, an enchanted sword, and various mystical beasties.
The series has just completed the first third of its planned 24 chapters. Each episode, from 60-85 screens complete with cliffhanger, is available on:
· iPhone/iPad (through Comixology and Robot Comics)
· Android phones (through Robot Comics, English only)
· Kindle format for Amazon.com’s electronic reader
· ePub, for other readers
The Comixology format is also available for any computer with a web browser. In addition, de Campi is considering another important element of instant worldwide distribution. Many of her releases are available in 14 languages, soon to be 16. She’s the first author or even publisher to attempt such digital reach. Even her working relationship is handled online. She and Larsen, whose art de Campi praises as possessing “great visual flair, endless inventiveness, and a wicked sense of humor,” have yet to meet in real life.
It’s not easy blazing such trails. De Campi—who is also a filmmaker with several music videos to her credit—does her own lettering, and that plus the processing takes 7-10 days per chapter, on top of her other work. Others have entered into her spirit of experimentation. Comicraft (the leading comics font foundry) added, just for her, a full Central and Eastern European character set to the dialogue font she uses (“Brian Bolland”, designed by the legendary British artist) which means she now only has to change fonts for Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese. The translations themselves were organized via social networking, in return for 50% of net sales in the translator’s language.
The first chapter is free to readers with additional installments costing $0.99. The first collection, chapters 1-8, will also be available in full-color print from Image Comics next spring. The digest format, 235 pages, was chosen because de Campi “loves the little fat format that feels like a real novel (and fits in handbags!).”
When asked why she’s tackling so many versions, given all the work involved, de Campi responded, “You have to be everywhere the readers are. That’s a lot tougher in digital than in the material world, because it’s still the Wild West in terms of formats.” She finds Android (via Robot Comics) and Comixology “super easy”, but e-Reader and Kindle formats are huge challenges because they’re not designed for images. Due to some initial bad advice, she’s planning to recode those formats for better image resizing. She’s also found that no one’s interested in buying ePubs from independent publishers, so she’s changing strategy for the troublesome platforms.
“I’m looking forwards to yanking all my Valentine episodes from the Kindle store and from ePub and replacing them with the 235-page book edition that collects, in nice portrait format, the first eight episodes. So much tidier. So much less to manage. And so much more bang for the buck for the reader.”
The English edition for Kindle is live now. “Then the other 13 language editions will roll out about one every two weeks,” she continues, “except for about the eight languages that Amazon has decided that today they do not support (note: likely to be different from ones they didn’t support yesterday). Spanish is coming soon, then French and Japanese.”
As for ePub, “By midNovember the ePub version of the graphic novel will be for sale on Apple iBooks (through Comixology) and by Nov 1 from Kobobooks.com. Kobo is the little Canadian eReader that could... more importantly, it’s the pre-loaded reading software on the upcoming Samsung and Blackberry tablets. They’re very keen on making a big push into comics, as they see a gap there.”
The Kindle store has had additional glitches. “We’ve sold really well,” said de Campi. “Most months we are the #1 or #2 bestselling graphic novel via Kindle. But their policies are desperately inconsistent and seem to be made up whimsically—they’ll suddenly refuse to carry books in a certain language, or pull a book and demand I prove I wrote it and include a certificate of copyright.” She’s committed to reaching the audience, though. “I must get to the people that read books and like technology and might just love reading a comic book as long as they didn’t have to go find a comic book shop and negotiate its scary and confusing shelves to do so. I have this thing about getting my graphic novel in places where books are sold. Though I love the dedicated comic audience, there could be so much more.”
De Campi’s activities are driven by a unique understanding of the speed of digital. She knows her audience is asking, “Why wait?” As she sees it, “This isn’t that world any more. We want everything now, thank you, and in convenient digital form and not for some rip-off price, so give it to us, or we’ll steal it.
“I have no bricks and mortar retailing network I must be careful not to piss off (so the epub versions can be cheaper than the print version, and released day and date), nor any convoluted and delicate relationships with foreign publishers,” says de Campi. “So I am going to do things the way I and everyone I know wants them: simultaneously, cheaply, and conveniently.”
Right now, the series is on a brief break for production of the book version, which de Campi is hoping will bring more visibility, since “most journalists won’t cover digital formats. When we have a paper version in stores, I believe it will have a big effect on driving up digital sales.” Episode 9 launches in January 2011 and further installments run monthly through episode 16, at which point another pause will result in Book Two. During that time, de Campi is also writing a sequel to her graphic novel Smoke and working on her next project, Margaret the Damned, a women-focused, suburban existential horror/thriller.
Ultimately, Alex de Campi knows that Valentine was the perfect choice for a serialized digital comic. “The story had so many exciting twists and turns in it, that it would function really well in small chunks. And it suits comics in that there are some really wonderful visual moments in the story. If you don’t surprise and delight your reader with the visual elements of a comic, you’re not doing your job.”