“We provide the best experience for reading comics on a tablet” Publisher Russell Willis on why his deluxe digital graphic novels are raising the bar for digital comics on the iPad

What would you do if you felt the quality of comics on the iPad wasn’t up to scratch? Most people would just grumble and moan and keep buying inferior books, but publisher Russell Willis took matters into his own hands, created his own comics platform inventing the ‘deluxe digital graphic novel’. Taking existing books from some of his favourite writer/artists, Russell developed his own publishing platform along with his Panel Nine app development team in Tokyo, approaching the artists in question to record an in-depth audio commentary to give the books that extra layer of interactivity.  After the success of his first release, From Hell artist Eddie Campbell’s Dapper John , he has followed it up with hard boiled crime drama Kickback from V For Vendetta artist David Lloyd. We got in touch with Russell to ask him how he came up with the idea for the deluxe graphic novel and what he think s makes this format so great for the iPad.

How did the iPad versions of David Lloyd’s Kickback and Eddie Campbell’s Dapper John come about?
RW: Back in the 80s I ran a comics fanzine called INFINITY which championed creators that weren’t all about superheroes: Eddie Campbell, Harvey Pekar, Posy Simmonds, Steve Bell, Hunt Emerson, the Hernandez brothers, Larry Gonick and the work of Alan Moore and David Lloyd on V for Vendetta. It became quite successful and by the end of its run people like David Lloyd, Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore were involved – either writing articles and letters, being interviewed or contributing artwork. In the last few issues there was a fascinating and intense debate on “Art vs Craft” between Eddie Campbell and David Lloyd, which was depicted in Eddie’s How to Be an Artist graphic novel… I dropped out of the comics world for over 20 years but managed to re-establish connections with Eddie and David (who remembered me, thankfully). The company I own in Tokyo creates apps and other software for mainstream publishers such as Oxford University Press and I knew that we could create a best-in-class comics reader app to showcase top-quality material. So Panel Nine was born. Eddie Campbell and David Lloyd had long been two of my favourite artists and so I asked them if they were interested, and I was delighted to find that they were. Kickback followed Dapper John simply because that’s the way things worked out, but I contacted both artists at the same time.

Both Eddie and David were amazing and provided loads of great extra material that really makes these versions the “absolute” versions of the material.

How did you go about getting David to produce the voice over track for Kickback?
RW: After giving the general idea of what I wanted, David just did it as he saw fit, although we did edit parts. It is more of a stream-of-consciousness type of thing and you get a real sense of the reality of the artist… especially when David has a restorative whisky to help him with his cold!

Do you have more books like this in the pipeline?
RW: We have some great stuff in the pipeline. There’s a huge amount of brilliant work that is either out of print or not easily available and I want to package that up in this deluxe digital graphic novel format. What Panel Nine provides with these apps is so much more that you might expect if you’re used to reading Comixology digital pamphlets. Panel Nine‘s deluxe digital graphic novels really are the “absolute” versions of the material.

Do you find having that name value attached helps to get the word out?
There’s no doubt that having a name artist helps, but for me, it’s the quality of the work that counts. I was in awe of Eddie Campbell in the 80s when perhaps less than a hundred people had seen his work, and was desperate to work with him then. If I see material of the same quality now, we’ll publish it, big name or not. Especially if it was designed first for the iPad.

What were Campbell and Lloyd’s takes on their work being updated for a new audience in this way?
RW: Well Eddie didn’t own an iPad when I was putting Dapper John together with him, but I think he’s coming around to the idea of digital comics on tablets… I know he was happy with the end result, as is everyone who’s seen it. David Lloyd had an iPad and is happy to get the material out there and available to anyone who wants it, wherever they are, which he sees as a key benefit. As is detailed in his interview in the Kickback app, he was rather upset with the way Dark Horse had promoted and distributed Kickback as a printed book. With the iPad, the distribution part is easy. The promotion is still very important though. So I should note that our digital editions are not only better than the printed versions (more material for a start) but are cheaper!

What’s the next step for Panel Nine? Will you be creating titles specially for the iPad as well as making older material available?
RW: It’s important to remember that not all digital is equal. Comics on iBooks are appalling. Some of the slapped-together standalone apps out there horrify me and no doubt put off readers. The user experience when reading a comic on your iPad is extremely important. It’s not good spending all that time creating a comic and graphic novel and then putting it out using a terrible app. We’ve got the best software out there and are continually improving – we just released the “retina perfect” version of Kickback, which allows you to zoom in at high resolution on your iPad 3, but still looks superb on previous iPads. The feedback that Panel Nine has had on the software engineering and the user experience has been brilliant. We’ve raised the bar and intend to keep raising it.

What titles would you most like to give this interactive treatment to?
RW: Panel Nine plan to publish 5 titles per year, so another 4 this year. I’m looking at stuff that I love. I’d LOVE to create deluxe digital graphic novels of The Cartoon History of the Universe, work by Posy Simmonds, a collection of Hunt Emerson, perhaps some of Alan Moore’s shorter pieces from the 80s. At the same time we are keen to work with existing independent publishers and provide them a world-class platform on which to publish. We have something that is much higher quality and special than Comixology, something that can be customized easily. We want to help quality publishers and creators get their work out there.

Comics are becoming big business on the iPad, what do you think makes it such an appealing medium for comics?
RW: I think the iPad, the tablet, is the game changer. We’ve been able to read comics on our computers for years, but it hasn’t really taken off, certainly not for long-form works. The touchscreen tablet is a “lean back” experience – you can lie on the couch and immerse yourself in the material. The computer is usually a “lean forward” experience, where your shoulders are tense and your either in work mode, or you’re surfing. So firstly, you’ve got the device. Secondly, you’ve got the way comics are presented – the software. Comixology does a good job, most others less so, and what we provide we think is the best experience for reading comics on a tablet. Thirdly, you have ominpresent distribution. Feel like reading something? Just go get it from the cloud. That’s amazingly convenient and should drive sales. I know that I’m buying a LOT more now than when I had to take a trip down to Tower Records here in Tokyo, or order from Amazon.

I think what Mark Waid is doing is really interesting and designing for the tablet is the way to go. We’ll see a lot more of this and I hope that Panel Nine will publish an iPad-first graphic novel this year.

I am concerned though that what Graphicly is doing could be problematic. To me,  despite they hype, it looked like they were going out of business, having lost big-time to Comixology in the mainstream storefront wars, and in order to have their VC funding continued they had to do a  desperate search for a new business model — which turned out to be basically an ePub-targeted Lulu.com for comics etc. This could mean a glut of very bad comics on a very poor platform (iBooks and Android ePub etc.) that drive down prices but where curious users can still get burnt. I hope it won’t pan out that way. I would warn creators against using the various flavours of ePub to publish their work though, unless there is no alternative. ePub doesn’t work for comics. And it was wrong of Apple to think that their standard iBooks ePub platform was suitable for comics.

What books do you rate and recommend as must-reads on the iPad?
Must-reads on the iPad? Outside of our own Dapper John and Kickback, I would look to Top Shelf’s Comixology powered storefront and get some James Kolchalka, Harvey Pekar and, of course, Alec by Eddie Campbell — that last one being the one you should buy without fail.

Kickback is available for all versions of the iPad and can be purchased from iTunes for £5.99. Follow Russell on Twitter @russell_willis for more on the next round of Panel Nine releases.