“Digital comics is like the Wild West” Box 13 creators Steve Ellis and David Gallaher talk iPad comics

While investigating the world of iPad comics apps I came across this little gem in the ComiXology Comics app. As well as distributing the adventures of the world’s top super heroes, ComiXology have also published their own titles, in particular the Box 13 series by writer David Gallaher and artist Steve Ellis. Both David and Steve were really helpful in my research and below is the full transcript of my interview with them which never quite made it into the article as planned.

How did you get involved in the Box 13 project with Comixology, did they approach you about producing it or did you approach them with the idea?

David Gallaher: After the success of HIGH MOON, comiXology approached us. It was the first of a series an ongoing series of discussions that began in February of 2009, I believe. We had a couple of meetings throughout the course of that year — and finally announced the project at San Diego Comic Con that summer.

Steve Ellis: Comixology really wanted to have a project that showcased the medium of iPhone comics as they were establishing it, and our success with High Moon made it an easy connection. We brought them Box13 which was a very different concept from High Moon, our web comics blockbuster, but that we felt took advantage of the iPhone comics medium, and David Steinberger agreed.

Did you find the process of producing the comic for a digital audience any different to traditional methods and did you change any of the ways you worked when producing the comic? If so, what changes did you make?

DH: The reading rhythm on an iPhone is different than on a print comic, so you have to adjust the delivery of your story to accommodate the reader. The goal was to deliver the story in a way that wouldn’t require the reader to turn and flip the iPhone. The last thing we wanted to do was destroy the flow of the story. Steve and I developed a mathematical ratio for the panels of Box 13 that fit perfectly for the printed page and for the iPhone. Our letterer Scott O. Brown made adjustments to the size of the lettering too. While the iPhone has ‘pinch and zoom’ functionality, we felt it would be a disservice to force out readers to do that every panel. We wanted this to be a comic story that was easy to read and easy to pick up. So … yes we did make tiny adjustments from the way we might work on a print comic.

SE: One of the things we learned about working with the iPhone and with Comixology’s COMICS app, is that the flow of the storytelling is different.  Since one panel replaces the next, interesting switches of scenes and correlations between different visual elements add a cinematic feel to the storytelling allowing us to create a feel of limited animation controlled by the user. This also allows us to really create a sense of action. As I stated above I really think of iPhone comics as a different medium, in the way that television and film are different media, and the rules are different. We really tried to explore how those rules work.

Did you find that the process of creating a digital comic was quicker and easier than creating a print version? Could you streamline some of the more time-consuming elements of producing the book or was it more difficult because it was something new?

That’s a tough question. We came into BOX 13 having just produced HIGH MOON, another digital comic, so I’m not sure I could properly answer that question. BOX 13 was different than HIGH MOON though — so there was a learning curve in terms of what we were developing and how we were developing it. I will say that as we progressed through BOX 13 and its sequel (BOX 13: THE PANDORA PROCESS), we were able to streamline the process and the development of the chapters. Pacing, movement, action for the series all feel a little more fluid to me.

Do you think publishing comics digitally is the future for the comics industry and do you think it will have a positive or negative effect as a whole?

DH: I love print comics and I’m pretty sure they won’t be going away in the near future. But the model of print distribution is a little broken. It does little to cultivate the casual comics fan. I see digital as a huge step in the right direction. Right now, I see digital co-existing with the comic shops. I think that together, publishers, creators, and retailers can help bring about a positive effect for digital. I know there are more things that I would like to see in a digital marketspace and in the marketplace … things that could really cultivate more long-term, casual, and mobile comic readers.

SE: Right now, with Box 13 and a few others being the exception, most comics are created with a print experience in mind and the work is then converted to digital. In the future I believe that iPhone/iPad/tablet/web comics will live side by side with print especially if creators decide to take advantage of the storytelling possibilities of digital. Eventually there will be comics that will be a different experience altogether from print in digital. Its going to take creative minds to explore those possibilities both artistic and technological. Scott McCloud, in his book Reinventing Comics, tried to explore some of the different ways that comics can be created for digital media and I think we’ll have a lot more options as time goes along and creators get to explore. Print will not only be one of several different ways to enjoy content, but it will be a different media altogether. Maybe we’ll eventually have the reverse trouble of trying to convert a digital experience to print.
So to address the idea that it could be negative, it would be the same as whenever any new medium that enters the field of entertainment. Each one takes up another spot in the public’s mind so while I think digital comics won’t  compete directly with print in the future, there will always be the competition for the readers time and pocket change. Maybe the two mediums will be able to work together to bring in a new readership that exists outside the current direct market and new readers brought up on digital and print will flock to stores.s.

Can you see a time when you produce an entire issue digitally and will you look to publish your future projects digitally?

DH: Oh certainly. HIGH MOON and BOX 13 were both published digitally. Digital is strong component of our work together. I think it is only a matter of time before we produce an entire comic digitally.

SE: I think we’re headed in that direction. The only thing traditional about what I do right now is the pencilling/inking and sometimes not even that. As the feel of drawing technology on the computer gets better, paper will probably be replaced for me except for the pieces that I really want to hang on my wall. If I can work very closely with a programmer to design the reading process from the ground up, I see digital as the place to publish. The potentials are awesome from both a creative and an audience standpoint.

Do you think the possibility of publishing digitally is going to help or hinder the next generation of comic writers and artists? And would it have helped you if you had been able to publish digitally at the start of your career?

DH: I see publishing comics digitally as an evolution in distribution. I only see it helping more and more creators get their work out there. Personally, I began my career in comics working for Marvel’s Interactive and Digital Comics department — so I more or less began in digital. Though … in retrospect, I thing probably doing more work in digital wouldn’t have hurt.

How has Box 13 been received by the fans and do you think you’ve reached a wider audience by publishing through Comixology than you would if you’d had it published and distributed traditionally.

DH: Our readership for Box 13 was far greater than the readership for 99.99% of the books released in the print market. The numbers are staggering. I don’t think we would have had the same level of attention or distribution as a print comic. The fan reaction for both BOX 13 and the sequel BOX 13: THE PANDORA PROCESS has really been overwhelmingly positive.

SE: Box 13 did incredibly well. The number of people who read Box 13 dwarfs what most print books sell. For the most part that has to do with distribution to stores and the economics of the current print system.  Especially if you factor in that Box 13 isn’t a  superhero title from one of the major publishers. It could have been one of the many indy books that languish in the distribution catalogues. The realities of the small publishing route are incredibly harsh, but with the right project and the right marketing, a digital comic can do blockbuster for an independent creative team.

Do you find your contemporaries are embracing the world of digital comics or are there some who prefer to do thing the old-fashioned way?

DH:I see a lot more creators taking a plunge into digital and it’s very encouraging. There are so many great digital titles available right now – Eldritch!, In Maps and Legends, Moon Girl, Bonnie Lass, Valentine, and more. The more the merrier, I think. I’ve likened the digital comics landscape to the Wild West … and it will be interesting to see how the industry, retailers, creators, and readers adapt to the changes and evolution over the course of the next several years.

Author: Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas is the Editor and founder of PIpedream Comics. He grew up reading comics in the 90s, so even though he loves all things indie and small press, he is easily distracted by a hologram cover.