Monday, December 1, 2008

Rob Berry Explains Why There's a Comic on Your Phone, Part I

Webcomics are potentially to the iPhone what MP3 music files are to the iPod. But it's not just phones that stand to become pay-per-download comic readers. Other handheld devices, at least in future generations (such as Amazon's Kindle eBook reader), stand to take an interest in this opportunity as well.

Painter Robert Berry was among the first to be swept up in the excitement, researching and developing an idea for an ambitious comics project while studying the opportunities of new technology as a distribution platform.

His experience as a painter, administrator, curator, writer and teacher has led him to ULYSSES: SEEN , an adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses that will serve as an online hyper-text for reading the novel and accessing its annotations directly. The project has just resumed a regular monthly schedule that will take ten years or more to complete.

Rob is also a founding member of AmalgamatedArtists Collective , of which Pug and I are members.

This is our first multi-media interview, in that Rob has prepared a visual program to accompany our discussion, presenting details on approaching the handheld device market with a comic. The multimedia portion is on our sister site, Psychedelic Treehouse. I think you can view it before or after reading the interview with similar results, but since the interview is spread over two days, you might want to factor that in. View Rob Berry's WebComics for Handheld Devices Show. 

Q: Let's start with a rundown of your involvement with comics.

A: I grew up reading comics and would probably say that it's still one of my favorite forms of literary entertainment. I'd rather read a good comic than see a good movie, so that says a lot about the entertainment part of the equation. But as far as the literary content goes in comics, well, that's a bit stifled by the perceptions of comics as a genre rather than a language or medium. I'm constantly on the hunt for comics that aren't about the tropism you get from too much genre.

There's quite a lot more uniqueness in the field then there was in American comics eight or ten years ago, of course, quite a lot of freedom and freshness. But I think that the best place to find that kind thing is outside of the conventions of the print world and in the pioneering attitude of webcomics.

Q: What are your current projects?

A: ULYSSES "SEEN" is my main focus at the moment. The idea behind it was to see what sort of unique qualities can be found in the web as opposed to print for long-form stories. Things you can't do in the physical form of a novel and that would be too crazy to try to do prior to launch, but might grow organically with the series. I want to see what'll happen when we can actually dive into each individual panel to pull up annotations, links to social networking functions built around reading groups and travel packages, easy explanations of the novels themes for first time readers, Q&A message boards that cover the novel in varying depth- basically a wiki model for experiencing a great work of literature, but one that uses the language of comics as its front door rather than large blocks of text.

Working this way means that editing the novel or cutting it anything from it for the different form of comics is out of the question. No one wants annotations of a watered-down adaptation. So I had to be pretty careful in the selection. I was looking for something big, operatic, really, to serve as a libretto and Joyce's novel certainly fits the bill. The density of the thing is amazing and will be, I'm sure, continually challenging. That's an important thing to look for in a project you plan on spending the next ten years of your life doing. Plus its fun to think of taking this long amount of time to record, as the novel does, the fairly common-place events of just one day.

The site doesn't do hardly any of those things yet, of course. That's what we've spent the past few months developing. Some of the annotations can be found right now on the blog. But when this first chapter ends, sometime around March, we'll be ready to place it into full wiki format.

"Dream," by Rob Berry

Q: Every time I talk to you, you're studying another volume about comics, or looking into emerging technologies. What are you excited about right now? 

A: Alright, get ready for a rant.

Distribution platforms and direct-to-the-user unit pricing.

Oh, and on-line education for comics, but that's kind of second tier.
I don't really believe that the distribution model of webcomics in the past has been a healthy one for inspiring unique directions or approaches to content. Most of the early success stories of webcomics, to my mind, have revolved around the content being free, easily reached once discovered, delivered daily and, ultimately, ephemeral. It's a lot like television in that way and not necessarily good television. Television before cable. One of the most vanilla forces in American culture in which content becomes homogenized for rapid and regular delivery and its value is appraised upon the number of eyeballs it can bring for outside advertisers.

Cable changed a lot of that of course, and I think that the larger companies coming into webcomics today, as well as the new hand-held technology is going to change things in a similar way. I love free content and believe its an important element of early web-based success. But I, like a lot of other people I know, aren't afraid to pay for things delivered to us on-line any more. Things of quality that we wouldn't be able to find in stores are reaching wide spread markets on-line and I think its high time that comics and comic artists using the web see themselves in that light rather than as the hook for selling a lot of ad space. If the web is a distribution platform then we should be looking for ways to make money of the content that is distributed here itself rather than the ad space it might sell to others.

How to charge and how much to charge are difficult questions. But, like with the cable TV analogy, I'm encouraged by the development comics for iTunes because it helps us develop an idea of appropriate unit pricing for downloads. Most of this material is all set up for hand-held viewers of course, but it's giving us some initial tests as to how much people are willing to pay to get the comics they want delivered in a form other than print. Should webcomickers that are producing large amounts of content start thinking about putting their archives for sale as downloads then I think we'll start having a sense of unit pricing for that established by the broader market of an arena like iTunes.

Some forms of content are delivered best this way. Downloads without the clutter of ads or the delay of page-loading time. It creates a better reading experience, one closer to the comfort of print, and certainly on-line comics made in a style like novels rather than dailies will benefit from this type of delivery.

Q: One thing I hear people say is, why should anyone pay for comics on their phone if they can dial them up on the internet for free?

A: Well, there's two important points to address here and the first one is money. Why anyone would want to pay for something they can get for free is one of the basic stumbling blocks (or hurdles) to overcome in turning webcomics into a business. As an artist I make work to be seen, but as a person who wants to make my living through art I need to think about how that work can be an object or a commodity. So when a system comes along that allows me to sell my work directly it seems likely that I and others might follow it. So, to that part of the point, webcomics are only free at the moment because no one has found a reasonable way to monetize their delivery. Personally, I think downloads changes that.

The other part of this question has to do with differences between the phone and the large monitor on-line presentation. The Professor Filbert slideshow covers some of this of course, but the reading experience itself is entirely different. What we have now in on-line comics that don't offer a "full-screen" mode is a very cluttered, messy page. It's filed with ads and blogrolls and headers and so much visual clutter that it really is hard to focus on just the work. Add to that clutter the interruption of slow page loads or poor navigation and you're creating a really difficult environment for the kind of reader immersion you get in graphic novels.

Downloaded to handhelds, comics are presented cleaner and the reading experience is infinitely better. The smaller size means that the pages have to be thought of a bit differently, the portability of it makes some of that worth it to me. I have a couple of copies of BONE on my bookshelves, but I'm still buying it for my iPhone where it takes up much less space and is always readily available.

Q: What happens to links on iPhones? For example, you download a comic with an ad, and leave the internet. Later, reading, the comic, you click on the link, by accident or intent. What happens?

A: This is the big app secret that no current software provides. It's coming. It's not that big a secret, but it's worth waiting to see who gets there first. Let me explain what I mean.

You see someone reading Jeff Smith's BONE (recently Apple's comic "Pick of the Week") on his iPhone. You search using your own phone, find it, purchase and download an issue or two to try it out. What doesn't exist yet is the feature that let's you go directly back to the site after reading the download and grab the next issue. This is because all the current software is for reading stored info on the phone rather than interacting with the web but, obviously, the change is coming. We're already seeing some of that with other iTunes items like TV shows; a chance to open up the store function from the reader.

When this happens you'll have a great boon for webcomics; you'll have a working model for a "webcomic sampler."This is what I'm looking to put together. Some kind of edited collection of comics delivered inexpensively that would allow readers to look further into the work of creators they might normally not have discovered on a bookshelf.

Q: So far I've seen print comics with a web presence and material prepared for Zuda dominating the handheld market. In fact, I can't think of one genuine webcomic that is available for download right now. What's the best way for someone with a webcomic to enter the handheld download market?

A: Webcomics are a lot of work to maintain and build on your own. I think it's natural that companies which handle print or support artists to make online comics would lead the development into this field. I hope Zuda makes more of a push in this direction. I'm a big fan of the things they're doing over there for nurturing talent, and I think that if SPIDER-MAN or BATMAN come to the iPhone before fresh new talent does then the whole thing will become homogenized way to quickly. But it's definitely something more individual artists should be looking toward on their own or in small groups. 

Right now a lot of the focus by software companies is to have a portfolio of content that will insure their application is the most commonly used system for delivering comics through iTunes. So they're obviously looking for popular titles to pin their product on. I think collectives will have some handle on that next. Frankly, I think this is a great area to build collective energy around. A few of us are already talking, but there's certainly room for more interested parties.

This interview will conclude tomorrow. If you didn't view the slide show yet, check it out.