Digital Comics Month simply wouldn’t be complete without hearing from some of the creators! Fortunately, we were able to talk with Mike Jasper and Niki Smith, the writer-artist team behind In Maps & Legends, a digital comic that began as a webcomic for DC Comics’ Zuda imprint. Here, they talk about the challenges and rewards of creating digital-only comics. Plus, we’re got an exclusive peek at the cover for issue #4 (see left), out February 2!
TFAW.com: Tell us about In Maps & Legends. Where did the idea come from, and how has it evolved?
Mike Jasper: The original idea came from my love of maps of all kinds, and that way in which every map seems to encapsulate its own world, giving enticing peeks at places we’ve never been, including secret places known only to a few. Then I had the image of a young woman in her spare apartment, carving a map into the wall. The story took off from there. Interestingly, In Maps & Legends started off as a prose novel, but I got mired about 100 pages in, and switching it to a graphic novel was the best thing that could’ve happened. The scope has gotten bigger, and Niki’s creating multiple worlds with her art that have been a blast to explore.
TFAW.com: How many issues do you currently have available? What do you project to have at the same time next year?
MJ: We published three issues in 2010, and we’ll finish our first story arc this year with seven more, giving us 10 issues total by the end of 2011. After that, the magic 8-ball is a bit hazy. We’ll see where the digital roadmap takes us . . .
Niki Smith: I’d love to be wrapping up the tenth and final issue this time next year, if not before then!
TFAW.com: Why did you decide to go digital-only with In Maps & Legends, instead of self-publishing it?
MJ: In Maps & Legends originally started its life as a webcomic, after winning the November 2009 Zuda contest hosted by DC Comics. But when DC closed the Zuda imprint this past summer, we decided we wanted to continue the story we’d just launched, so we did some research and leaped into the digital waters. We didn’t think we’d get any sort of audience if we continued on as a webcomic, and we saw lots of great stuff happening with digital downloads of individual issues. As luck would have it, I’d been breaking my script up into 20-page chapters, so my written structure worked perfectly for individual, downloadable comics.
NS: I would say we are self-publishing! We’re just not putting out a paper product. I was excited about all of the possibilities opening up with digital comics, and wanted to see how we would fare. E-readers and tablets are becoming more and more common, and it just seemed like the right time to go for it.
TFAW.com: Have you ever published a traditional comic before? What’s your personal history with comics?
MJ: Nope–I’ve been a comics reader off and on for most of my life, and for a while there, back in my early twenties, I was pretty hardcore about collecting and bagging-and-boarding. Then I took a break, got married, had kids, etc. I’ve been slowing picking up collections of my favorite stuff from the past two decades, mainly non-superhero stuff like what Vertigo puts out, and I’m always looking for more webcomic serials to follow nowadays.
NS: I’ve been in a number of comic anthologies here and in Europe, and am working on a few graphic novels I hope will find publishers. I started reading comics and manga in junior high, went off to art school, and in my second year I decided to make a mini-comic and try things out . . . I haven’t looked back.
TFAW.com: Can you describe some key differences between creating a digital-only comic and a traditional comic?
MJ: My guess is that since we’re self-publishing In Maps & Legends now, the big difference is all the publishing and PR work we have to do as creators, instead of just writing and illustrating it and submitting it to various publishers and letting them deal with all that (and having them take their cut of the money as well).
TFAW.com: What are the biggest challenges in creating digital comics?
MJ: Formatting! We do it all ourselves, and our comic comes out in PDF, MOBI, ePub, and some other proprietary formats from our distributors. The challenge of all the file prep work is followed quickly by the challenge of tracking all the various uploads and making sure we’ve got all the right metadata and issue synopses straight for each distributor. We’re adding a few more distributors for issue four that I’m really excited about, too–we’re always on the lookout for new technology and new distributors to get our comic in front of more eyeballs.
NS: Formatting is definitely a huge hurdle. There are so many devices and distributors right now because the format is still so young, and right now there’s no standard image size or type. Each e-reader wants things set up a different way, as does each comic site. It’s a lot to keep track of when you’re going at it alone.
TFAW.com: From a creator’s point of view, how do you think digital comics have changed the industry thus far? How do you see other creators responding?
MJ: I think the rise in popularity of cheap, high-quality, and easy-to-use e-readers like the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, and more–along with the hit almost everyone’s pocketbook has taken since the economic downturn that began in 2008–has led more and more people to try out digital comics. Why pay almost $4 for a comic on paper when you could get a comic for a buck (or free) and add it to your shiny new reader? In a way digital comics have leveled the playing field–we’ve got our little indie comic for sale right next to Batman comics and Spidey and Hellboy. I do believe that if you put out a quality comic on a regular schedule, people will come around. I hope other creators try their hands at digital and add their comics to the marketplace, so they can join the conversation. It’s an exciting time.
NS: More than anything, I think digital comics have brought back a sense of excitement. The huge amount of tablet/e-reader owners means the number of potential readers is constantly growing. People buy these devices to put content on them; they’re always looking for apps to install or something to read, and more than anything, they’re comfortable paying for digital content (something internet-based webcomics have always struggled with). And it’s also brought back a sense of excitement to creators–it’s incredibly hard to self-publish a monthly title and get it out through Diamond; with their minimum orders and limitations, it’s hard (and expensive) to print and get yourself out there. But digital comic marketplaces allow creators to make their comics available in apps right alongside DC and Marvel.
TFAW.com: How have your digital comics been selling for you, compared to traditional independent comics?
MJ: As this is my first foray into comics, I don’t have anything to compare it to other than my experience with my own novels (non-comic) and the e-books I’ve been selling of my own fiction. And the Maps sales have easily eclipsed all the non-comics work I’ve done before and am doing now, both in print and digital.
NS: Same. I’ve never attempted to publish a traditional independent comic myself (and I don’t think I ever would–I don’t see it as financially feasible, but cheers to anyone who tries!). But sales have been good so far, and steadily growing. And unlike a traditional, comic shop-released title–we never go out of print. Some of our best-selling periods have been in between new issues (issues come out every six weeks, with issue #4 out the first week of February).
TFAW.com: Who is buying your digital comics? Is it the typical comics audience, or do you think you’re reaching a more nontraditional demographic?
MJ: It’s hard to tell who’s buying our comic–in a way, that’s a drawback of digital instead of doing a webcomic, because you get to interact more with your audience with a webcomic, with comments and forums and such. One interesting story: I got a tweet from a band from the UK called The Indelicates a few months back that said how much they enjoyed our comic. I tweeted my thanks, started following them on Twitter, and of course, downloaded some of their music. Great stuff, and we’ve shared a few tweets since then. So great how the digital world makes the real world a tiny bit smaller.
NS: With digital comics, your target audience of readers isn’t limited anymore. Traditional monthly comics are sold to a select group of people–those who frequent comic shops (and few even have access to one in their area). Digital comics can be read by anyone with a computer, a smart phone, an e-reader . . . We’re reaching a great amount of readers with the Kindle and Nook, who, presumably, bought those devices to read novels on, and who may have no idea about comics. But they’re clearly interested in trying them out when the work is available and easy to find! And that’s great.
TFAW.com: How did you your partnership with Graphic.ly come about?
MJ: It was pretty straightforward–we emailed them after Zuda closed down and told them who we were and sent them some of issue #1. They knew who we were, which helped immensely, and chatting with Micah Baldwin (their CEO) gave us lots of ideas and got us started down the road of non-exclusivity. We got up and running with them at the same time we started working with comiXology, DriveThruComics, and MyDigitalComics. Micah encouraged us to not limit ourselves to just one distributor, and we’ve pretty much run with that idea.
TFAW.com: In Maps & Legends is now available through other digital comics distributors. Did you ever consider building your own app instead of going through a third party?
MJ: Nope–never even entered my mind! I don’t have the technical skills. As it is, I feel like we’re spending a lot of time on formatting and converting the comics, when I’d much rather be writing new issues!
NS: 1) We would have had to hire someone to build it, and 2) Going with our own app, rather than comiXology or Graphic.ly, means we would have lost all of those readers browsing through the app and stumbling upon us. Our own app would mean we would have to be specifically sought out–and in the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of apps out there, there’s not much chance of being found. I think readers are also more willing to take a risk on an unfamiliar title vetted by a respected app than on one just floating out there alone.
TFAW.com: Digital comics have broken a lot of the traditional barriers of the direct market–they’re easy to purchase and less expensive than the paper versions. Do you think this will help creators–especially new ones–develop a wider audience?
MJ: I hope so. My big hope is that digital comics will pull in a lot of new readers curious about comics, as well as lapsed comics readers who don’t want to clutter up their living spaces with tons of paper comics, especially the floppies. I think making them available on the same digital readers as “regular” books (non-comics), there’ll be a great deal of overlap with readers. There will always be a place for print comics as well as print books, but now we have a new medium, and that’ll bring in more poeple–more readers–in the end. I see it as a win-win situation.
NS: For sure. I think it will also open comics up to new audiences–I hear Archie is selling really well, and it would be great to see more youth-oriented titles (and girl-friendly ones!) out there. These can be tough to sell traditionally, but digitally . . . I think they’ve got a great chance.
TFAW.com: What do you think of the piracy issue that comes along with digital distribution?
MJ: I try not to think about piracy, actually. Mostly, I don’t worry about it. Right now, I’d be kind of honored to be pirated, just to get the added exposure. If piracy started to seriously cut into our sales, I might worry more. But hey, each of our issues only cost ninety-nine cents, so it’s not like we’re gouging our readers. I feel like many of the other digital comics folks you’ve talked to this month, in that if we make our comic available in a quality format, hi-res, and cheap, people won’t feel compelled to pirate it.
NS: From what I’ve seen, a good number of people defend their piracy by expressing their frustration with not being able to find the work for a good price in their format of choice. We’ve done everything we can to counteract that frustration–we’re in PDF, CBZ, on the Web, apps, x, y, z. All for a dollar an issue. Anyone pirating In Maps & Legends wouldn’t pay anyways.
TFAW.com: Are you planning to publish a physical copy of In Maps & Legends, like a graphic novel?
MJ: We’re looking into some print avenues, and we’ve been talking to some print publishers. That’s something I really would like to see–issues #1 through #10 in a nice trade version. Or hardcover, if they want to go there–I won’t get in their way. I really like the idea of digital first, then print.
NS: It’s a possibility, but we’re just wrapping up issue #4, so we’ve got a ways to go before we get there.
TFAW.com: Do you have any plans to involve traditional retailers? For example, creating prints or other merchandise?
MJ: Right now we’re pretty busy with creating the digital issues and doing promotion for each issue. No big plans for merchandise yet, but hey, I’m open to it! I’d love to see some quality maps for the settings to hang on my wall, as opposed to the scratchings I’ve come up with on my own. Or a Bartamus action figure . . . ?
TFAW.com: What do you think digital comics will mean for traditional retailers in the upcoming years?
MJ: I think digital comics will represent almost a form of advertising for retailers selling the paper versions. Because the digital versions are cheap, and should remain cheap (I personally don’t think a 22-page digital comic should sell for much more than a dollar. I’d have to seriously consider buying a digital issue that’s $2). Hook ’em with the digital issues, bring ’em to the retailers for the paper versions later.
NS: I think comiXology’s work with comic shops (their pull lists and links to shops in the buyer’s area) seems like a great concept. I was never much for visiting traditional comic shops, though, so I’m not really the one to ask. I think the buy-and-bag fans will continue to do so, and the casual readers will probably shift to digital as e-readers and tablets become more accessible.
TFAW.com: Is there anything else about this experience you’d like to share?
MS: I really hope people go check out the various comics distributors out there–don’t just limit yourself to just one, at least not at first–and see what’s out there. Buy some digital comics (ours are only 99 cents, hint hint!) and see what reading experience works best for you. You’re only out a few bucks, but you’re getting in early on a huge change in how people read, how creators share their stories, and how publishers get those stories to you. Go digital–I double-dog dare ya.
NS: Like Mike said, if you’re going digital, embrace a number of distributors rather than going exclusive. comiXology reaches a very different audience from Nook, and you have everything to gain from increasing the ways people can stumble onto you! And hey, check out In Maps & Legends while you’re at it.
Our thanks to Mike and Niki for answering our questions! Make sure to check out the rest of our Digital Comics Month interviews to read all about the publishers and distributors involved in this industry-shaking evolution!
Have you read In Maps & Legends? What do you think? Post your comments below!