Guided View is Broken

As digital comics become more popular, it’s becoming more important to understand what ramifications they have on the evolution of the medium.  One of the first trends I want to address is the so-called Guided View, where the digital reader zooms in on each panel before moving to the next. This has a profound impact on the way we read and experience comics.

Last week, I talked a little bit about Montage and Collage in comics.  In short, we experience every moment of a comic book in two forms.  We read each moment as its own moment in a sequence of events, the Montage; and simultaneously as part of the whole construction of the page, or the Collage.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  When reading a comic with Guided View or a similar technology, we’re losing a number of elements.  We don’t see the construction of the whole page, which would peripherally influence our understanding of the current panel.  We also lose the sense of relative size of each panel, which is the most basic way that creators imply pacing.  Reading the same comic on and offline would leave markedly different impressions.

This leaves a very different impression...

...than this.

I’m not suggesting we dismiss online comics entirely.  Tablets provide a great replication of reading full page comics.  Turning a laptop sideways can do the trick too.  So what purpose does this Guided View technology have?

Creators need to look at it as an opportunity.  Guided View and similar technologies offer great, unique storytelling potential beyond what is possible on the printed page.  The future of digital comics will be digital only – creators attuned to the peculiar needs of digital comics will push the bounds of the medium. But so long as creators are designing for the physical page and then tearing it up for Guided View, digital comics will be a compromised experience.

Is 22 Pages Our Only Option?

22 pages.  Or 20.  Or 24.  You know what I’m talking about.  The traditional American monthly comic.  Is this the best format to tell every story?  How did we end up here and what can we learn from other comic cultures around the world?

I’m told that 22 pages came from the assumption that an artist could pencil a page per day, and there are 22 work days in most months.  In Steven Grant’s Permanent Damage column on comicbookresources, he mentions that Marvel Comics had shrunk down to as few as 17 pages in the 1970s, and were only raised to 22 after indie companies started springing up offering a far greater story-to-ad ratio.

Clearly folks had gotten by on fewer pages, and before that on far more.  But whatever the official page count, the single issue “floppy” format has been the standard American comic for far longer than I’ve been around.

While this format comes with a sense of familiarity, it’s not always the best way to showcase a company’s characters or creative talent. Nor is it the most effective way to attract new readers.  When you think about marketing comics to younger readers, something akin to the British anthology format might work better than the typical $3 floppy model.

Imagine a childrens’ anthology in the 2000AD format.  Each week, you get a handful of 7 page stories, some serialized, some one-off (with less exploding heads, of course).  This would provide a higher content to dollar ratio and alleviate the month-long gap in between stories.  Getting kids into the store on a weekly basis would be an invaluable tool in creating new lifelong readers.

So far I’ve enjoyed DC’s New 52 initiative immensely.  The problem lies in the format.  Few of us can afford to try out and continue to follow 52 distinct titles.  The fact is that a bunch will be killed off without the majority of the readership having seen them. They might be served better by a format popular in Japanese comic books: the anthology or “phone book” style publication.

Manga is traditionally produced in huge, inexpensive volumes on newsprint, with the most popular series getting reprinted into collections.  It varies from weekly to monthly, with stories ranging from 7 to 30 pages, but the idea is the same.  The reader gets the chance to sample every title regardless of its popularity.

Sure, you’re forcing readers to buy more than they normally would, but by combining them cover prices would go down.  Just imagine:  instead of having to choose between the new Swamp Thing or Animal Man, I get to lug this bad boy home:

Seriously, who wouldn't buy this?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling a story in 22 pages, it’s not a catch-all for every book.  Why not give something else a shot, publishers?  What other formats would you like to see?

Selecting An Artist

To a new writer who’s trying to break into the industry, finding the right artist is a daunting task: their work will be everyone’s first impression of your work.  Unless you’re Robert Kirkman who went to high school with Tony Moore (I know, not fair, right?) you’re going to have to hunt for the perfect collaborator.  How do you strike a balance between quality and price?  Do you make someone sign a contract or will that scare them off?  What happens when the whole thing goes belly up and you have to start all over again?  Hopefully I can use my small amount of experience to help the potential writer navigate this minefield.

Next to writing your script, choosing the artist is the most important step you’ll have to take.  This individual will be your actors, cinematographer, costume and set designer, and every other film analogy you’d like to throw in. Keep in mind: nobody knows who you are yet!  How many times have you passed over a potentially great book on the shelf with a no name creative team for the new book by your favorite writer or artist?  Before you ever get the chance to wow someone with your script, they need to not only pick the book off a rack filled with other shiny, colorful comics, but flip through it and decide if it’s worth their hard earned dough.  Only when you’ve cleared these hurdles does someone even get the chance to read your work.

This next point, I cannot stress enough: do not be afraid to break your piggy bank to pay the artist as much as you can afford.  You can make all the promises in the world of ownership and future profits; these things do not pay the bills.  A good artist will want a page rate and it builds good will for the future.  Save up your money and be able to pay on a schedule you can both agree to.  We will usually do half upfront, half upon completion of a set amount of pages. This makes the the payments a little less painful for us, and gives the artist incentive to finish as quickly as possible.

When discussing a project with a potential artist, make sure this is someone you can communicate with.  Mutual interests and influences go a long way to serve as a touchstone when discussing your ideas.  And while every artist on the internet is at your disposal (devaintART and Penciljack are great resources), don’t underestimate the advantage gained by hiring someone local.  Asking around at your comic shop or local art school can yield great results as well.  Being able to get together with an artist and see their progress over coffee is incredible, but just being in a nearby time zone is very useful too.  If you can talk on a regular schedule, even if it’s just sending IMs, you’ll build a rapport that can keep you both energized and invested in your project.

Once you’ve found the perfect collaborator, make sure you get a signed contract.  If it scares off your artist, you probably shouldn’t be working with them in the first place.  It’s the professional thing to do, and it guarantees protection for the artist as well.  Here’s a good template to start with: dyingcowproductions.com/DCPcontract.pdf

Even with a contract in place, you will lose an artist.  At some point in every writer’s career it’s just going to happen and there’s not much you can do about it.  The most important thing to remember when that happens is to not get frustrated.  We lost one artist already because he made the leap to the Big Leagues.  In our search to replace him, we found not one, but two future collaborators and have two pitches being prepared instead of one.  Neither of these dudes would have even entered our radar if we weren’t on the hunt for someone new.  Now we know a pro and two hungry up-and-comers.

Believe me, it’s an uphill battle, but if you fight through the adversity, the reward is incredible.  Seeing an artist bring your script to life is such a satisfying feeling.  The amazing thing about comics is that you can make them happen!  It doesn’t require a gigantic budget or a huge crew or the support of a studio.  Tell the story you want to tell and then get out there and make it a reality!