“The design of the reading experience is just as important as the content itself” Cartoonists Kevin and Zander Cannon talk about their digital double header, Double Barrel

Double Barrel is a fantastic comic strip double header featuring the latest work from talented cartoonists Kevin and Zander Cannon (no relation). Not content with the lead time required to publish their books separately, the Cannons joined forces with the brilliant Top Shelf to produce this monthly digital title. Not only containing their new strips Heck and Crater XV, its also packed with fantastic articles on how to succeed in the comics business and how to motivate yourself to become a better writer and artist. It’s like reading a fanzine or an old style mini-magazine and is a brilliant way to keep your audience up to date with your latest work. Plus, at 69p for well over 100 pages is an absolute bargain. We got in touch with Kevin and Zander to ask them just where the idea came from and why we should get excited about this double barrelled double act.

You set out in issue 1 your mission statement for why you started Double Barrel (to avoid people using the phrase ‘I’m waiting for the trade’ at conventions) but what really was the inspiration for combining forces and releasing your work in this manner?
K: Double Barrel was born a year ago after some discussions with Top Shelf. At that time Zander and I both had completed graphic novels sitting in our laps which Top Shelf agreed to publish, but with the publishing schedule being what it is, our respective books (Zander’s “Heck” and my “Crater XV“) wouldn’t hit the shelves until summer 2013 at the earliest. So we chatted with the Top Shelf team about finding a way to serialize our books beforehand in a digital-only way. And at the time they were just launching the Top Shelf app, so the timing seemed perfect for a digital-only magazine serial. It’s low overhead for us and Top Shelf, and essentially serves as a marketing tool for the physical books when they come out this summer.

Z: We wanted to test out a couple theories on digital comics, and we’ve found our confirmation/rejection ratio so far is probably 60/40. That’s pretty good, I’m thinking!

How long have you guys known each other and what do you think you both bring to the partnership?
Z: Kevin and I have known each other since 2001, but we started collaborating in 2004 when we, along with Shad Petosky, formed Big Time Attic, a comics and animation studio. When the animation side split off to form Puny Entertainment in 2007, Kevin and I focused on comics exclusively. I couldn’t think of a better collaborator than Kevin, nor a better collaboration setup than the one we have. Our personalities are very different: Kevin is, to my eyes, very pragmatic and consistent, and has an incredible arsenal of skills, where I am prone to being more hyperbolic and story-focused. Kevin is far, far better at handling complex tasks that involve a lot of skill and polish, and I’d say I’m better at scaring up new work and writing. We’re both really good at cartooning and at imitating each others’ style, and at this point we actually have to make a little extra effort to differentiate ourselves in our Double Barrel intro comic.

How much of the content from Double Barrel was released before and how much is all new? And for those discovering your work for the first time,  tell us a bit about your backgrounds and which of your earlier work my readers should check out if they want to find out more?
Z: Virtually everything in Double Barrel is new, or at least unpublished. Certain bits have appeared online or in minicomic form here and there, but Heck and Crater XV, even though we’ve been working on them for quite some time, are both virtually unseen by the world at large. And we’re doing a great deal of work every month that is absolutely spanking new and specifically for Double Barrel, like Jin (age 4), Penny from the Front, and the intro cartoons.

If people enjoy my work in Double Barrel, I would recommend they look up The Replacement God, which was a mid-late 90s fantasy adventure I wrote and drew. After Heck, the conclusion to Replacement God will be my new serialized story in Double Barrel.

K: My day to day work mostly involves illustration and book production, but I’ve always loved making mini-comics on the side, and my first full length graphic novel is an arctic adventure/comedy called “Far Arden” which came out a few years ago, and is the prequel to the “Crater XV” story being serialized in Double Barrel.

How do you think the growth of digital comics has helped titles Double Barrel succeed? Is it just the discoverability and marketing or is it simply the cheaper cost of distributing vs. paper and print costs. And how do you think web and social media have helped develop markets for smaller comic publishers/artists/writers?
K: It seems like we’ve reached a tipping point in the last few years where two things have happened — first is that most people who read comics either own or have access to an e-reader, and second, everyone in their mid-twenties and younger have essentially grown up reading books on a screen, so the “weirdness” attached to downloading and reading a digital book experienced by old fogeys like me and Zander is essentially disappearing. I think in the near future that disposable media and short form work will all move to the screen, in the same way that Newsweek recently announced that they’ll be going e-only pretty soon.

Z: It’s also nice for us that no one has an excuse not to buy it! Every relative that I could never feasibly expect to wander into a comic book store and buy my work is now guilted into downloading at least a couple issues. Being on social networks like Facebook and Twitter also has allowed us to reach people in a much more direct and resonant way. I feel like the way that Kevin and I represent ourselves in Double Barrel is very personable and friendly, and so people who know us, or at least follow us, can feel like reading it is much more intimate experience than the usual “I produce and you consume” dynamic.

Your book has a very DIY fanzine feel to it (albeit with a digital sheen) so which titles inspired you when you were getting started and who are your current digital role models that you think are blazing the trails at the moment? Are you fans of web comics for example? And what about comics on the iPad?
Z: We are fans of numerous webcomics, but what tends to rise to the top in that publishing strategy is humor in the form of one-a-day gags. Those are great, but neither of us felt like that was our strong suit. With longer stories, we felt like the reader needed to have the time and the flexibility to absorb it. A large chunk of content, with a very low (but non-zero) price, and an easy reading experience on every kind of tablet, was just what we were looking for. Mark Waid’s Thrillbent.com is taking this in another direction; the work is dramatic and sizable, but still essentially works on a free webcomic model, encouraging distribution above all in advance of a the sales of a physical book. I’m interested to see how that works in the long run as well. It’s actually really great that people are trying so many different things right now; we haven’t seen this kind of innovation in quite some time.

K: The inspiration for designing Double Barrel really comes from old school MAD Magazines and adventure magazines like Saga — adding a letters section, a “how to” section and even an introductory cartoon in each issue was a must. For us, the design of the reading experience is just as important as the content itself, so we really spent a long time crafting a book that people would look forward to curling up with month after month.

One of the key factors in digital comics at the moment is price vs content. Did you have any input into the ¢99/$1.99 price point for Double Barrel and were you ever wary about giving away too much content for such a low-price. What do you think is the optimum price in your opinions?
K: For me, the price point issue was personal. I had fallen away from reading comic books as a teenager and only got back into them after finding a huge stack of 25-cent copies of Eightball and Hate and other indie floppies at my local Half Price Books. If I was forced to shell out 5 bucks for a 22 page book I never would have picked up a single issue. Kids — and adults — need at least some content that’s cheap, especially in this economy. And hey, if they want to spend more, I’ve got plenty of $20 graphic novels to sell them.

Z: The advantage for us was that we had a lot of pages that we had drawn beforehand, and so we could create the additional material for a hefty monthly download without working full-time, thus testing out what we thought was an optimal digital price. Not having any upfront costs other than time and operating expenses meant that our gamble could be a little more audacious; we didn’t have to earn anything back, so we could really take a guess on what people would spend on digital content.

There are a lot of out-of-date economic models that are still holding on in this new digital age, but with more tablets will come more distributors, and with more distributors will come more competition, so I suspect that our surprisingly low price point will become more common in the next several years.

What are your long term plans for Double Barrel? Will it continue once Heck and Crater XV have run their course and would you consider allowing other writer and artists to contribute?
K: Both Heck and Crater XV will wrap up in Issue #12, and then Double Barrel will go on hiatus as we produce more content. I like to think of it as the end of a season of a TV show. Right now we’re not 100% sure what “Double Barrel: Season Two” will look like or when it will come out, but we like to think that each issue will be bigger, come out less often (like maybe quarterly) and include stories that are more episodic so each issue feels more like a complete unit as opposed to a smaller chunk of a series. People should definitely like us on Facebook in order to get updates. I promise we don’t post much.

I’m also a big fan of the articles at the back of the book have you got any particular plans for what you would like to achieve with that part of the book?
K: We’ve been doing “how to” posts on our blog for the last seven years and they’re one of the most popular features. Initially they were aimed at our local cartooning community but we discovered that cartoonists and non-cartoonists alike really enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes perspective. Both Zander and I think a lot about craft since we are essentially self-taught cartoonists, and we like sharing how we do things, with the caveat that there is no one RIGHT way to do anything in comics.

Double Barrel is available monthly for 69p via ComiXology or the Top Shelf Comics app