Internet-based comics (Web comics, if you prefer) continue to be a hot topic for comics publishers and two more have entered the fray: Jim Valentino’s Shadowline imprint from Image and Liquid Comics, which flowed from the remnants of Virgin Comics.
Shadowline’s online comic section has an eclectic selection that’s culled from a variety of online sources. The best known is probably Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder series, one of the earliest comics to abandon monthly print serialization for online serialization followed by printing the graphic novels as they’re completed. Finder’s a critical favorite and immediately gives the site some street cred.
|Finder by Carla Speed McNeil|
Two former Zuda contest entrants have come over,: Action, Ohio (written by former Xeric Award winner Neil Kleid) and Hannibal Goes to Rome. Two comics from the ComicSpace empire also made the move: Brat-Halla from the Graphic Smash website and Chicago: 1968 which also appears on WebComicsNation. Platinum Grit is an Australian web comic with a sporadic print history. Yenny is currently appearing on GoComics.com, had an 8 issue mini-series from Alias and is being developed as a cartoon. Finally, Li’l Depressed Boy has been on its own website since just prior to 2006.
While it's undoubtedly a collection of established, proven material with a following, the big question mark with the Shadowline’s webcomics offering is its inability to follow Deep Throat’s advice and “follow the money.” There are no ads in the Flash-based Web comics player. There is no merchandise to buy. There are no links to other sites. This is odd, especially when you consider the non-Zuda alumni all have online revenue streams. Using the web to drive sales for Finder graphic novels is how McNeil makes a living, to point out one example, and without so much as a link back to her site and list of available titles, it isn’t clear the extent of benefit that’s being received for making the material available on a secondary site.
The browser, whose zoom bar reminds the Web surfer of Zuda has a few fairly serious flaws. At first glance, there appears to be no navigation for the pages of the individual comics, save for manually advancing (and loading) one page at a time, starting from the first page. Which is to say, if you got 15 pages into Finder (which has over 40 pages at Shadowline), the next time you’d have to manually click through those 15 pages before you get to page 16. If you click the thumbnails button at the top, a long row of very small thumbnail pages appears at the bottom of the page and you can jump in where you like. That the individual page navigation is turned off to start a session is definitely not a good thing and that the control for this is in the upper left hand corner (the place on the screen where the Western eye rests the least) is worse; that it isn’t explicitly labeled as page navigation is the worst fault of all.
The second overall problem is the lack of an “About” page for the strips. Who are these people and where is the rest of their material available? Branding without links just isn’t how the web rolls and for creators making money off their own sites, if there isn’t any income here, they need a way for the readers to easily find their way to where they can buy something. Only Yenny has a url embedded in the artwork to facilitate that audience transfer without the aid of a search engine.
It’s hard to find fault with the content on this site (except maybe Lil’ Depressed Boy—it’s OK to hate emo), but the browser needs some tweaking and there’s no discernable business model unless Shadowline is planning on issuing some collected editions sometime in the future.
Liquid Comics is essentially the digital home of what’s left of Virgin Comics. With the bulk of the assets bought out by the founders, Gotham Chopra and crew have apparently left print for the digital space and are continuing to pursue their business model of using comics to develop intellectual property and then license said properties to the Sony’s and Sci Fi Channels of the world, if we’re to believe the press release.
While they don’t have their Dan Dare comic online, they have plenty of names on the site: Guy Ritche, Nicolas Cage, Jenna Jameson, John Woo and so forth, names that should be more easily promoted online in a free format than trying to get movie fans to venture into a comic shop.
Revenue streams for the actual website? None to be seen. Not even links to the existing graphic novel reprints. Granted, it isn’t readily apparent who’d collect the royalties from the old Virgin print editions, but right now this site is purely a point to start rebranding under the Liquid name.
The format of their comics is a little unusual, in terms of what print publishers normally do when going online. Good old fashioned HTML (well, technically ASP.net) with one .jpg graphic file per screen. The .jpg is roughly 1/3 to 1/4 of a printed page, depending on the slice in question. It gives the material something closer to a comic strip reading experience, which is the more common format for Web comics. It is a bit unusual in terms of print-to-web conversion and the readers will ultimately decide its appropriateness.
What the site is most lacking in is details. No creator credits or explanations of what the various titles are. The Gamekeeper link is actually Gamekeeper 2. Clearly, they’re going for a mainstream audience, not a direct market audience, if they’re omitting the names of the solid creative roster they assembled, but lack of knowing exactly what you’re reading also cuts into the ability to go out and get an existing print copy.
Perhaps Liquid will eventually venture back into the book world and add a little more supporting material, or perhaps it will function as a public portfolio to point studio executives to. If the licensing doesn’t go well, they’ll probably try to make some money off the site.
Switching over to the topic of Web comics with revenue streams, Marvel Comics is continuing their expansion into original Web comics. They’ve recently announced their next set of new features for initial distribution as part of the subscription-based Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. An eclectic selection includes adventures of The American Eagle (a Native American superhero being written by Jason Aaron who spins Native American Noir with Scalped at Vertigo), Two-Gun Kid (written by ex-Marvel EIC Tom DeFalco), a Halloween special with Frankenstein and Werewolf-By-Night (by indie cartoonist and Zuda contract awardee, Dean Haspiel), Fin Fang Foom (apparently the post-Warren Ellis version with art by Roger Langridge—yes, the Fred the Clown Roger Lanridge, who has a strip at the Act-i-vate website, much like Dean Haspiel), Galactus (by ex-X-scribe, Frank Tieri , who was also writing the Digital version of Hulk in the last announced batch) and Spider-Man (by Bob Gale, who wrote Back to the Future and the criminally under-rated Ant-Man’s Big Christmas).
More genre exploration is the name of the game. Horror, western, science fiction (Galactus is a documentary take that sounds similar in spirit to the “Cops” episode of X-Files), humor (Fin Fang Foom sounds like a send-up) and just a touch of super heroics. This genre spread, much more typical of Marvel’s 70’s output might be reflective of readership patterns of their digital subscribers or it might just be Marvel feeling out interest. Nobody knows how closely Marvel’s DCU readership mirrors the direct market or if “how closely” is a grossly wrong starting point.
Also, don't get the mistaken idea that these digital comics are completely divorced from print. The first batch of online originals will be printed in December as "Iron Man/Hulk/Fury #1." Expect these new comics to show up in print before long. If you look at the January 2009 previews, you'll read about the Super Hero Squad One-Shot: "Collecting the super-popular comics seen exclusively on Marvelkids.com , this issue also includes bios on all of your favorite Super Heroes and Super-Villains!" Didn't know there were comics on Marvelkids.com? Right now, there's practically a full run of the various Marvel Adventures titles and some Spider-Girl. The Super Hero Squad looks to be based on the Hasbro toys of the same name, and while those strips aren't currently up, we can probably look for them to debut shortly.
Of the print publishers currently experimenting in Web comics, Marvel is clearly the leader right now, putting new material with licensed character online prior to print solicitation. How will this pan out? Entirely too early to tell. If there’s any traction on this, the logical next step is to start an online-first series (which would theoretically be 3-4 months behind as a monthly or just come out in graphic novel format like Girl Genius or Finder).
And with two participants from the Act-i-vate webcomics collective on the current creator docket, I have to wonder: does this mean we’re finally going to see a Warren Ellis/Molly Crabapple collaboration?
[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]