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Digital Comics: A New Breed Comes Into the Fold

The Eisner Awards have introduced a new category this yearDigital Comics. Janet Hetherington explores the exciting new breed of digital comics creators and publishers.

Eisner nominee Steve Bryant describes Athena Voltaire as a globetrotting 1930s aviatrix who fights Nazis and various bad guys in the style of Indiana Jones. All Athena Voltaire images ™ & © 2003 Steve Bryant, Paul Daly,

Every summer, comics creators and publishers from around the globe gather in San Diego for the pop culture celebration that is Comic-Con International. One of the highlights of the show is the gala ceremony announcing the winners of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards the Eisners being held this year on July 15.

This years Eisners include a new breed of comics creators nominees for Best Digital Comic. The addition of the category is a benchmark, spotlighting important recognition for these new media creators.

New categories are rarely added; they are more likely to be combined (Best Comics-Related Periodical/Book) or dropped (Best Editor), says Jackie Estrada, Eisner Awards administrator. For the last few years I have asked the judges ahead of time to consider adding this category, since there are a lot of webcomics folks who think their work is award worthy and who have gotten worked up on message boards when the nominations are announced only to see that such a category is not included.

This was the first year the judges decided to go with it, Estrada continues. Thats primarily because one of the judges, Steve Conley (who happens to be a webmaster and who has had his own online strip, Astounding Space Thrills), came up with parameters of what would qualify, including that the work had to be on a professional site, that it had to be in long-form comics, and that it couldnt include animation, etc. He also created a site for the other judges to access the list of submitted sites so they could view them.

This year’s judges for the Eisner Awards are (left to right) Tom Russo, Katharine Kan, Steve Conley, Tom McLean and Gib Bickel. This year the category of Best Digital Comic has been created. Courtesy of Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

Dreaming in Digital

Eisner Award judges Tom McLean (Hollywood Reporter, Bags n Boards blog), Tom Russo (Entertainment Weekly, Premiere), retailer Gib Bickel (The Laughing Ogre, Columbus, Ohio), graphic novel librarian and reviewer Kat Kan and cartoonist/webmaster Steve Conley (Astounding Space Thrills, gave the nomination nod to five digital artists and their creations Steve Bryant (Athena Voltaire), Kazu (Copper), Les McClaine (Jonny Crossbones), Brian Fies (Moms Cancer) and Matt Forsythe (Ojingogo).

Im more honored by the nomination than I can express, says Fies, creator, Moms Cancer. The new category certainly recognizes the web as a legitimate medium for good, interesting work that may not even be intended for print. In the long run, Im really interested to see if digital comics will become their own unique thing distinct from other types of comics, the way television became something different than movies or radio-with-pictures.

Awakened Desire is aiming directly at female readers. © 2005 Arrow Publications, Llc. All rights reserved.

Fies is not the only creator interested in the impact and evolution of digital comics. Filmmaker Sébastien Dumesnil has been working on a documentary called Adventures Into Digital Comics for the past three years.

The last documentary film focusing on the [comics] medium instead of the individual was Comic Book Confidential, released in 1988, right after works like Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus, says Dumesnil, producer and director, Top Two Three Films. It was an optimistic time, and an optimistic movie for all the right reasons. Basically, I thought it was time to tell what happened next, and what happened next was a big increase of sales, followed by a consequential decrease of sales. In 1995, in the middle of the decrease of sales, Argon Zark! appeared. Many consider it the first webcomic. I was interested in the fight to survive and to adapt to new markets and distribution channels. At first, I intended to shoot a 30-minute piece, but it grew to a feature-length documentary film.

Whats interesting about Adventures Into Digital Comics is that the filmmakers are making full use of the interactive nature of the web to support and promote the project. We currently have a little bit more than 700 pages of content on the website, focused primarily on this project. Our website should be taken as a companion piece for the film, Dumesnil says.

During the making of the film, I emailed something like 2,000 people, including print artists, web artists, filmmakers and interactive media experts, Dumesnil continues. Some people had an interest in the project, but I couldnt meet them. demian5, for example, lives in Switzerland. However, I really wanted to know what people outside of California thought about the topics of the film, so I sent them my questions. On the website, youll see the same questions all over again, but you will also see the richness and diversity of answers from the same questions. I tried to give each one of them the opportunity to be a part of the film without being in front of the camera.

Dumesnil and co-producer Robert Nichols are scheduled to present a panel on Adventures Into Digital Comics at Comic-Con International on July 14, along with comics creators Leonard M. Cachola (, Patrick Farley (, Shaenon K. Garrity (, Chris Gossett (The Red Star) and Scott Koblish (inker on The Incredible Hulk, Punisher, etc.). The discussion will include a screening of clips from the film, now in post-production.

In keeping with the interactive innovation, people who cannot attend Comic-Con International in San Diego are invited to submit questions via the films website, At the show, panelists will take questions from both the live and virtual audience, and Dumesnil plans to publish excerpts from the panel on the site.

Rejuvenating Genre

Dumesnil credits Scott McClouds 2000 book, Reinventing Comics, as a source of inspiration for his film. In Reinventing Comics, comics creator McCloud examines how the resources of the Internet can provide new opportunities to jump-start a declining genre. In the book, McCloud outlines how hype, speculation and artistic burnout led to the decline of comicbooks, and then proposes 12 paths toward a new revolution of comics, including creators rights, industry innovation, public perception, gender balance and diversity of genre.

Diversity is a key issue. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, romance comics and other comics girls and women like to read enjoyed healthy sales, but died off in the 1970s, leaving male-fantasy superhero comics to rule the roost. Today, girls and women are discovering some print comics in manga form, but publisher Pat White is hoping a new generation will discover contemporary romance comics on the web at

These romance stories are genuine, with a happy ending, although each one has an element of mystery or danger. Were approaching each story as a shorter version of an e-book, but more accessible and easy on the eyes, comments White, publisher of Arrow Publications, Llc. launched on June 21, offering two fully illustrated stories for visitors to read online. Weve been working on this for over a year, with professional writers and artists, White says. The goal is for visitors to subscribe to be able to read future stories. It will become like a book club, with four new stories a month, White says. While tame compared to a lot of content broadcast on television today, White says that the readership is for 18 years and over due to the steamy dating lifestyles of these digital comics heroines and heroes. is targeted to modern women with busy lives. The idea is that if youre working at your desk, you can go online and get a little romance whenever you feel the need, White says. White noted that readership spiked after an active advertising campaign on Clear Channel radio urging women to Take a Lunch Break.

The comics-formatted digital stories are supplemented by web features like love horoscopes, a Body Beautiful column tackling modern health issues as well as reader participation.

Brian Fies, creator of Mom’s Cancer is honored by the nomination in the new category. All Mom’s Cancer images © 2005 Brian Fies.

White advises that while there are no immediate plans for print versions of comics, Arrow is working toward adding Flash animation and music to enhance the online presentation. We want to score it like a movie, White says.

Another goal is to make the material more transportable, so that readers can download the stories to laptop, telephone or other handheld device and enjoy anywhere at home, at work or at the beach. We want to provide a half-hour escape for older women who remember romance comics and younger women who have never seen this before, White says.

Reality and Fantasy

Digital comics offer everything from a cartoon treatment of a mothers fight with metastatic lung cancer (Moms Cancer), to adventure comics (Athena Voltaire, Jonny Crossbones) to an affectionate story about girl and her octopus (Ojingogo).

The web became a natural outlet for comics creator Fies as his mother battled cancer. The story itself really defined the form it would take. Medical appointments leave you with a lot of empty time to fill, Fies says. I started drawing pictures and the pictures turned into narratives. It was therapeutic. A lot happened that we werent prepared for and I thought I could convey what this experience was like in a unique way. I realized the story had a beginning, middle and end, although at the time I didnt know what that end would be.

Ojingogo tells the affectionate story about girl and her octopus. All Ojingogo images © 2004-2005 Matthew Forsythe. All rights reserved.

At first I serialized Moms Cancer on the web, adding a chapter every few weeks. The Internet is perfect for that, Fies continues. It was also a natural outlet for a project so specific and personal that it was hard for me to imagine what else I could do with it. Paradoxically, I discovered that the more specific and personal my story was, the more universal and relatable it became.

Fies is happy to announce that Abrams Books will publish his Eisner Award-nominated digital comic in hardcover in spring of 2006. However, thats not the end of the online story.

After I finished Moms Cancer, both my mother ( and younger sister ( started their own blogs. Not my idea! Fies says. But I think its great because, even though I had to pick a stopping point for Moms Cancer, the story didnt really end there. Our lives go on.

Eisner nominee Bryant used the web to create a comic that echoes the adventure tales of earlier days. Bryant describes Athena Voltaire as a globetrotting 1930s aviatrix who fights Nazis, occult creatures, occultists and various bad guys. The Hollywood high concept of the comic is that its Indiana Jones starring a James Cameron-style female pilot, Bryant says.

The runway to getting Athena off the ground was a little bumpy. After a couple of years of standing in portfolio lines with little or no luck, I decided to take the advice of my friends and just work on my dream project. It had been something that had been banging around in my brain for a few years, and Id gone so far as to wrangle my friend and fellow illustrator, Paul Daly, to write it, Bryant says.

When the print proposal for Athena Voltaire was rejected by, well, everyone, we were looking for other publishing opportunities, Bryant recalls. Then Chris Mills, editor of the former, picked up the strip. After was discontinued, we moved to its sister site, where we spent almost two years, Bryant says. In April, we moved over to another site in the Modern Tales family of webcomics,

Athena Voltaire is headed from digital format to print. A b&w online preview of The Flight of the Falcon appears July 18 before it’s offered in full-color from Speakeasy Comics at the end of the year.

Athena Voltaire is also headed from digital format to print. On July 18 well start running a black-and-white online preview of Athena Voltaire: The Flight of the Falcon, our first print mini-series, set to debut in glorious full-color in December from Speakeasy Comics, Bryant says.

Eisner nominee McClaine also wanted to revisit adventure comics this time on the high seas with his Jonny Crossbones digital comic. Jonny Crossbones is my attempt to recreate the sort of long, rambling adventure comic I loved so much as a kid, like Hergés Tintin, Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge, and Floyd Gottfriedsens Mickey Mouse strips, McClaine says.

While McClaine describes himself as a traditionalist (I format my comics for the web in much the same way as I format comics for print), he observes that one of the most exciting things about the web is the complete freedom of format.

The advance of computer technology has lead to a huge boom in comics, since now its cheap and easy to distribute ones work via the web, McClaine says. Almost anyone can find an audience for his or her work, and theres been a great leveling of the playing field for those working with less traditional genres or techniques.

McClaine, too, is taking his digital creation to the printed page. So far the only money Ive made from webcomics has been through a book deal, and by selling self-published print versions of my strips, he says. McClaine is working toward a print version of Jonny Crossbones, which will be a 128-page graphic novel slated for release in summer 2006.

Eisner nominee Forsythe has also pursued personal artistic vision with Ojingogo, a comic about a girl and her octopus and the world they inhabit. I was teaching kindergarten in Korea when I started the strip, Forsythe says. I actually, physically, drew the first five or so strips in class while the kids were doing painting and math assignments. I wanted to do a comic that reflected the beautiful logic of the conversations I was having with them a world where everything makes sense because it doesnt.

Forsythe designs his comics specifically for the web. Some web comic artists are definitely guilty of creating comics in the same format and dimensions as print and sticking them up on a website, Forsythe observes. My stuff has the reverse problem. Its made for the web and its a pain in the ass to try to lay it out for print because it wasnt made with that in mind.

I think webcomics flow more naturally vertically, from top to bottom. Whats more, the scrolling action actually subtly animates the comic for you, like those old light-boxes, he says.

Forsythe (Ojingogo) designs his comics specifically for the web. He feels webcomics flow more naturally vertically, from top to bottom and the scrolling action subtly animates the comic, like old light boxes.

Forsythe says that fellow Eisner nominee Kibuishi colors his digital strip Copper with the awareness that all his comics will appear on a computer monitor. As opposed to the reflected light of a page, his colors actually radiate from the screen, Forsythe says. This approach is evident in his comics, and its become obvious that a lot of other web and digital colorists are now emulating his style because its so effective. Me Im a dunce, so I use grey!

Ojingogo is also making the transition to print. For better or worse, Im going to have a first volume collected in print later this year or early next year, Forsythe says. Ive already printed up a little preview, which despite my reservations, has been very well received. Im actually losing money on shipping the international orders, but its so cool that someone in Singapore wants to buy it, I have to do it.

Powerhouse Collections

While alternative comic genres are finding an audience by going digital, so are superheroes. Eagle One Media creates digital comic DVDs, and also acts as a distributor and retailer for DVDs featuring Marvel superhero characters like The Hulk, Ultimate X-Men, Wolverine, and Daredevil. Collectors have responded well to these DVDs, making superheroes Eagle One Medias top sellers.

Whats hot? Right now its the Fantastic Four DVD-ROM library that collects the first 550 issues of the comic series, says Eric Reichert, president, Eagle One Media, Inc. That was just released two weeks ago and sells for $39.99, which we distribute and sell directly through our website. Next it is the Marvel digital comic DVD titles like Wolverine and X-Men which retail for $9.99.

Eagle One Media will release the DVD Micronauts: Revolution based on the popular toy line this summer.

Reichert sees the DVD format as a way to reach new readers. It allows us to take the publishers comic book property/materials beyond just the comic book community and exposes it to a whole new audience that may not have picked up a comic in years, or may not have known there are other fascinating stories based on their favorite characters, shows, or movies, Reichert says. On the other hand, it exposes comics to a youth generation that has grown up on nothing but computers and video games and can become a reading/learning tool for them from the way the material is presented.

Eagle One Media is also releasing DVDs based on The Terminator: Hunters and Killers (July 2005) and Micronauts: Revolution, based on the popular toy line (August 2005). Were hoping to do well with our upcoming new Terminator and Micronauts digital comic DVDs, Reichert says. Plus were always looking for and being approached by companies that wish to have their comic properties developed into digital comic DVD, so well see how the market reacts to such a product in the coming months and year.

Our digital comic DVD takes the visual artwork, dialogue/narration, and storyline from several comics and by blending in professional voiceover for the dialogue/narration, music, sound, special effects and a touch of animation, creates a flowing visual product that sort of has the feel of an anime full length feature while not being an actual animation film since that involves a whole list of licensing issues with the various properties, Reichert explains. And by using digital imagery of the art itself and professional voiceactors, the quality of the finished product is on par with that of a motion picture. What the viewer doesnt get with our comic DVD are still static images to watch on the screen.

Brian Fies (Mom’s Cancer) hasn’t yet seen a financial model for turning a profit on digital comics. He finds the micropayment idea interesting but can’t foresee how to implement it.

Banking on Digital

We see definite potential in many areas for digital comic DVD, Reichert says. The product very affordable in the $10 to $13 retail price range. However, while Eagle One Media has a physical product that can be sold to consumers, many digital creators and publishers are still wrestling with how to make money from comics on the web.

I know a few web cartoonists and animators are making a living at it, largely through advertising, but I dont yet see a model thatll turn it into a real business, observes creator Fies (Moms Cancer). Too many people expect Internet content to be free and its more trouble than its worth to sort the wheat from the chaff. If I can view a thousand other comics or cartoons for nothing, why I should pay for yours?

Scott McClouds micropayment idea is interesting if a million people paid a penny a day to see your work, youd do very, very well, Fies continues. But whats the mechanism and wheres the momentum for that going to come from? Surely not the audience, and very few creators have the clout or following to demand it. I think itd be an even tougher proposition for animators, given the tremendous investment of time and labor required in their work.

Someday somebody will figure it out and become fabulously successful, rich and famous, says Fies. It just wont be me.

I dont think anyone really knows if theres a viable business model for comics on the web, says Ojingogo creator Forsythe. But I know that a lot of my favorite print artists have to find other ways to survive. Often, their comics gain them a little popularity amongst art directors so they can make money doing other illustration work. In some ways, this is happening with me.

Personally, Ive come to a place where Im actually glad theres no money attached to Ojingogo, Forsythe says. Im not sure Id have so much fun doing it if my rent depended on it.

Some digital publishers are taking their cue from printed books and magazines by offering subscriptions. currently offers readers a free peek at two romance comics, enticing them to become a member at $14.95 per month. Members receive four stories per month, as well as the ability to visit the romance library and purchase stories at a discount (as of Sept. 1, 2005). Members also have access to the online features like Ask Dr. Charmaine, The Body Beautiful, What A Man Wants; What A Woman Needs and love horoscopes.

Athena Voltaire is offered on a subscription basis as well. Were a part of the Modern Tales family of webcomics, creator Bryant says. Joey Manley publishes (among other things) the anthology sites, and Joey has said that its his goal to get his sites to function as fulltime employment for his creators and I think thats a noble goal.

The deal for the site Im on, Graphic Smash, is that you can subscribe one of two ways: pay monthly at $2.95/month or pay yearly for $29.95/year (two months free), Bryant says. Subscribers have unlimited access to the archives of all of the comics on the site (in addition to Athena Voltaire) thats a lot of content, believe me.

If youre not sure that you want to lay out the money, though, the latest page/installment is always free, Bryant adds. Athena Voltaire updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so if you check in on those days (or the days after), you can read the comic free-of-charge.

What digital creators do agree on is that the web has provided a fantastic venue for new and exciting comics, and that digital comics are coming of age. Theres a lot of wonderful, experimental work on the web that deserves recognition by a wider audience, says Jonny Crossbones creator McClaine. Theres also a bit of a general disconnect between print comics readers and webcomics readers, which I hope will narrow. Comics is comics, and Im glad the Eisner committee is recognizing that this year.

Janet Hetherington is an award-winning writer and cartoonist who contributes frequently to Animation World Network. She has formerly served as an Eisner Awards judge as well as a judge for the Canada Council for the Arts, Graphic Novel division. Janet shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.