The question of what role digital content will play in the future of comics has become the subject of much discussion and experimentation in the world of sequential art. DC Comics—with the recent launch of its first motion comic, an animated adaptation of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s Watchmen available from iTunes, and the one-year anniversary of its Zuda Web comics site approaching —has taken some significant steps into the digital world. So what exactly is DC's philosophy toward digital content, and how will it shape its approach to online initiatives in the years to come? PW Comics Week talked with DC Comics president Paul Levitz to find out.
PW Comics Week: There are a lot of different Web initiatives going on right now at comics publishers. How do you see digital content functioning in the world of comics?
Paul Levitz: I think that we’re at the beginning of a journey. When you look at it in the long view, the set of creative skills that comic creators have should logically work well in a digital environment. What they will create in that environment will almost certainly not be anything that works in any other environment. The moment that I look down the road to with gleeful anticipation is when somebody begins to crack what native digital comic content should be. I don’t know if that's next week, or whether that’s next year. Web comics as they exist now are, for the most part, print comics logic transferred to the screen. You also have the literal cases of someone taking either pirated or authorized pages and putting them up [online] and saying, “Wouldn’t you like to look at this thing that was never intended to be looked at this way?” And then you move on [to] a series of evolutions from that, and you find out what place [digital] comics will have in this crazed world. The tools are there; the audience is potentially there, but it will come from some real evolution.
PWCW: So you definitely see print and digital comics as separate creative streams?
PL: I don’t think they’re separate streams in the sense that they don’t meet.... I think we’re at the point in the digital world that television was at in 1950, when they took radio shows and made them into television shows in a literal fashion. You got things like [radio and later TV show] Fibber McGee and Molly, where all of a sudden you could see what the sound effects had done, or the early Superman [TV] stuff, where the expectations were still low enough that if George Reeves was jumping out of a window on a glorified trampoline, that was a special effect and that was cool. But TV doesn’t really “work” by that argument until you get a few years later and somebody says, “Let’s mix burlesque in with radio.” And suddenly you have I Love Lucy, and you have physical comedy. And the situation comedy is born, which becomes one of the dominant forms of TV for the next four or five decades.
PWCW: So you don’t see digital distribution as something you’d want to use to distribute your mainstream superhero comics?
PL: I don’t think if you create a comic flat for print that it’s likely to be the perfect thing for a digital world. I enjoy having The Complete New Yorker on my bookshelf in digital form, but I don’t look at it very often. I think in the end the great success is when you’re creating for the dynamic of the medium you’re in. Will there be conversions that make sense? We have the motion comics project that we’re doing with Warner Premiere, our sister company, which takes comics created for print and adds some limited motion and an audio track of narration and description.
PWCW: In the case of the adaptation of Watchmen, what made the animated comic the right way of translating that content? [The motion comic uses limited animation to put Gibbons’s original Watchmen artwork into motion.]
PL: I think it was born of [Watchmen film director] Zack Snyder’s creative passion for [the comic]. Zack loved [it], which is obvious in the work he’s building in the film. And he started discussing this idea of bringing the comic to life in a different way with a couple of his friends who were digital mavens, for lack of a better description. And they said, “We could do that!” So they came back with a test set of footage.... [It’s] what they term parallel content, things that are fresh, creative elements running parallel to the marketing energy of a film. Most of this isn’t being born with a complete vision. It either comes from a creative impulse or reaction, or a distribution impulse: “Wow, the phone can now do this. What do you have that would look cool on an iPhone?” But the cool moment will come when those things are operating in more near-perfect harmony.
PWCW: Do you see resistance in the comics community or among retailers to digital distribution?
PL: I think anyone who loves print, and that certainly includes most comic shop and bookstore owners, look out at the future, look at our kids and say, “Is print going to be as glorious a thing for the next century as it was for the last century?” It’s a big question.
PWCW: What do you think?
PL: Damned if I know.... Hopefully, all of these things will coexist and the world will just get more interested in creativity and storytelling. I have some guarded optimism about the future of the word, because the younger generation that’s living on [its] computers is also writing more than the last generation of kids did. The whole blogging phenomenon, the kind of communication people are using through the social networks, has people much more actively communicating and creating. They don’t necessarily know that they’re writing, but they are, and that helps you discover the joy of writing and reading.
PWCW: Do you see digital content as a way to tap into a new audience base, and in particular, that younger demographic?
PL: I don’t think it’s particularly relevant [only] to a younger demographic. I think it’s another way to have creative expression. What’s great about our [DC] characters, in part, is that they’ve succeeded in an enormous range of media. I think we tallied up Superman being successful in 13 different media over the course of his career. I think we look at every possible media expression as, “Could this work for one of our guys? Could this work for our storytelling talent?” We’re storytellers; that’s what we do. We come in a room and lie in an entertaining fashion. That’s what writers are about... and I think it’s our responsibility and our opportunity to explore what we can use [digital content] for.
PWCW: Do you see it as trial and error right now in the digital arena, because it is still so new?
PL: It’s a medium in formation. It’s not merely a question of what we do; it’s a question of what is done. We may find one of the great answers in the same way that someone found situation comedy. More likely, that’ll happen from someplace else, because so many different people are trying so many different things. But I’d like us to learn the skills sets so that as that’s being found, we can be in the game the day after, if not the first day, and adding whatever value we can to the process. I don’t think it’s trial and error in the sense of: I’ve got 15 compounds here and I’m going to pour them into a test tube one after another and see which one turns blue. I think it’s experimentation in a very blank page kind of situation. There’s raw potential here.
PWCW: Do you have any concerns for the impact of digital content on print sales?
PL: New media don’t kill old media, generally speaking. Particularly if it’s consumer media. When it’s advertising-driven media, it’s more vulnerable.... But if you’ve got media [like periodical comics] that do unique jobs, and they’re still satisfying jobs, then they will be around as long as somebody has a good enough story to tell in them that an audience shows up.