Uncanny Valleygirl by Alex De Campi #2: What Père Ubu Character Are You?


(Warning: this is a really fucking long column. But, seeing as it contains an overview of all current digital comic distributors and platforms, it kind of has to be this long.)

This week has not gone as intended. Here is what was meant to have happened: begin cutting the robot video; letter episode 1 of Valentine into English. Here is what actually happened: part-time job payroll underpays me $450 due to clerical error; bank systems merger means $300 of emergency cash deposits from freelance payments are not posted to account, and instead bank charges me $175 in fees.

These seem like piddling amounts, don't they? But for me (and I'd dare say with most freelancers), $100 can mean the difference between groceries and no groceries for the week. It's tiring: these random twitches in the skin of the great corporate beast, and how they send folks like me skittering through the air dropping everything else in a mad scramble to ensure basic food and shelter. And don't even get me started on healthcare. You know what most freelancers want? Not fame or glory; not really. Most of us just want a big room that smells of sunshine and fresh paint, and the ability to work without fear of the ATM machine spitting our card back amid gales of 16-bit laughter, of what will happen if we get sick, of how we'll afford food.

I've also been thinking a lot, of late, about Alfred Jarry's Père Ubu. Jarry is a French absurdist playwright beloved of willful obscurantists such as myself; at certain cocktail parties the merest whisper of "pataphysics" serves as a mating call to LRB-reading, artfully dishevelled totty, who buy lousy red wine in magnums to save money and are going to give up smoking next year for definite. In Père Ubu, one lonely cast member gets to play the part of The Entire Polish Army. I feel like that a lot. Although Valentine is in some ways a continual exercise in community/crowdsourced production, and Christine is knocking the art out of the park (holy shit, Episode 2 is amazing), I'm still writer/letterer/editor/publisher/marketer, on top of a four day a week job for media company [REDACTED], freelance video editing for theatre website [ALSO REDACTED] and the music video directing career.

So, in short, I got nothing worthwhile done this week aside from feeding my family. I couldn't even afford to download the font I plan to use for the European-language versions: Comicraft's Brian Bolland. Bless you, Comicraft, for doing a full range of European characters and Cyrillic! Fonts are extremely important to me; I can nerd out about fonts the way some people nerd out about Adidas shelltoes or limited-edition Japanese robots. I don't yet have a good font for the Hebrew, Japanese, or Mandarin Chinese editions of Valentine, and I'd rather use a proper comic font (with its hint of hand-work) so if any of you have suggestions/links, please let me know in the comments.

But perhaps this is a good thing, in that it gives me a chance to introduce to you the dramatis personae in the world of English-language online and wireless comic distribution. As always, I do not profess to be any sort of expert – I am just one girl, trying to get one comic out into the aether – so please feel free to add in your own experiences, any distributors/platforms I've missed, any corrections on ones I've mentioned – and any non-English platforms that appear promising. Together we can create a gestalt view of the digital comics landscape. Bear in mind that most of these companies are extremely small, often run by 1-5 very dedicated people, so the personalities of those involved influences the companies' behaviour significantly, in some cases for better, in some cases for ill.

Comixology (platforms: iPhone; soon web/laptop via flash) – I've played around with both the iVerse and Comixology iPhone apps, and Comixology's is far superior. Plus, David and his crew are exceptionally nice, responsive people. I put Smoke on Comixology a few months ago and it will be interesting to see what sort of numbers it's done once I get my first report next month. (Hey folks! Have an iPhone? Want to read Smoke for 99 cents an issue? Go to Comixology's iPhone app. Help me pay my rent.) I'll also be putting all my French comics on Comixology, once I re-letter them in English.

Clickwheel (platforms: iPod photo gallery/iTunes "movie comics", laptop via CBZ, PDF) – More very nice, responsive people. Tim at ClickWheel got back to me within 24 hours and was happy to work with me – they even offered to do some of my re-formatting for me, which was exceptionally kind. And having my book available as CBZ files is very important to me as it is how most early adopters of comics-on-screens read their content. They also do a simple iPod photo gallery version and an iTunes version where the comic is basically turned into a movie/video and you pause at each page and press play when you want to go to the next page. Hey, it may be ugly, but like the PDF versions it works – and with so many people using iTunes / iPods, it really is a viable solution for a lot of potential readers. And yes, some people might "steal" my comic, but frankly people are going to find ways to do that anyway and, well, that's life. Smoke and my French stuff will also go up on ClickWheel to be "officially" available as CBZs soon.

Comic Works (platforms: unknown) – A friend contacted me on Facebook and suggested I get in touch with Comic Works, who were launching some sort of digital comics platform. I emailed them, they were very nice and said someone would get in touch with me, which hasn't happened. Their rather basic website, well, it doesn't play nicely with Firefox, and I can't see any signs of their digital comics distribution plan. Opinion: vapourware.

Amazon Kindle (platforms: Amazon Kindle)Self-publishing on the Kindle? Surprisingly easy, especially if you can chop your comic up into 620×550 pixel chunks or are single-panelling it like me. But it has to work in greyscale. Amazon appear to be going the right way with the Kindle, treating it the way mobile phone companies do with handsets – subsidising the hardware cost to the point it is a no-brainer to buy one, then making up the cost via a share of download fees. At $249, it's not yet subsidised enough, but give them six months and the thing will halve in price. When I shot my Amazon commercial in July, the Kindle 2 cost $399.

Longbox (platforms: laptop and "mystery platform") – This is a weird one. Rantz twitters like a hundred times a day about his Exciting Deals and Big Meetings in LA and Wonderful Seekrit Things He Can't Tell Us Yet, and while I can't help but admire his bravado, I'm used to a different way of working – I never talk about my projects before they're out there. Wait, okay, so I'm writing an entire column about this project, fair cop, but the point of this is to create an ongoing discussion on digital distribution wrapped around my own warts-and-all experiences; not to be a pimp-o-matic. If you come out of this feeling I am FABULOUS! or SO TOGETHER! then I fear for your reading-comprehension skills, I truly do.

When it eventually debuts, Longbox better be the most awesome thing since double-ended lightsabres or else Rantz will have raised everyone's expectations to such a great height that the thing will go down faster than the Hindenburg. From what I've heard, I'm not sure LongBox is taking the approach I would – as with the original Babelgum, the struggling Italian streaming video site that launched with much hoopla, I am told that Longbox requires an application to be downloaded to the desktop, that it will only support one other platform, and that you can't save comics for later offline reading such as on the subway or during one's lunch hour at work.

I say "I am told" because Rantz is terrible at responding to creator emails (don't contact him over Facebook, he doesn't read it) – and the "content@" email on the website appears unmonitored. I had to bug a Hollywood type I know who is on Longbox's board to get Rantz to even acknowledge my query email, and he still has done no more than that. Dude, I've been trying to get in touch with this guy for four months. This, plus the relentless boosterism, just makes me nervous.

iVerse (platforms: iPhone, "soon to launch" Android) – Speaking of trying to get in touch with for four months, Michael at iVerse ties with Rantz in our flak-o-matic register. Man does not respond to emails. A prominent literary agent I know who writes Flash Gordon for iVerse stepped in on my behalf and tried several times last week to contact Michael with no response. The agent says he is still getting cheques from iVerse, but has heard nothing from them for some time. Are they dead / not functioning anymore? Anybody know? Anyone? Bueller?

Robot Comics (platforms: Android, iPhone, Nintendo DSi, Kindle) – Launched around the time of iVerse. Seem fairly sparse on content. I have emailed them but gotten no response. Their last blog update was September 29. Are they another walking dead? A shame, as getting stuff on Android and Nintendo DSi would be great – few other services support this – and I can imagine a service to adapt existing comics to Kindle would make a lot of creators happy. Please still be alive, Robot Comics!

There's also one more digital distributor that I'm extremely excited about, but they've asked me to respect their development period – they don't like bragging about things they are still working on, but if they manage to do what they're planning, it will be the most seamless and impressive distribution service out there.

There are also the publisher-specific platforms, which remind me of the early years of mp3s – ah, remember when Universal tried to have its own music store? I have little interest in any of these, other than being quietly jealous that IDW (good people) are getting all their work on PSP, and quietly annoyed that Tokyopop won't let me put Kat & Mouse on Comixology.

The common platforms that are not yet covered by digital distributors accessible to independents are the Sony PSP, the Sony e-reader and various phones such as Rich Johnston's Samsung. You know, the cheap touch-screen phones. Plus future launches such as the Apple Tablet and the Barnes & Noble e-reader. Technology never stays still; when they launch, we'll make ways to get on them, and change our game when necessary (the Apple Tablet and colour e-readers would make my single-panel comic a less favoured format; instead, small manga-size pages would probably work best. Who knows. You can only make the best solution for what you have to work with today.)

The reality is that we're not going to get digital comics on every platform for at least the next five years. We just have to get them on enough platforms that the average person with two or three digital devices (phone, laptop, mp3 player, e-reader, possibly more) can have their comics on at least one of them. Hopefully the PSP will open up to independent distributors, and languages beyond English, once it launches in November. As for the Sony e-reader, I have the feeling that can be retro-engineered in the same way I'm cramming Valentine onto Kindle – a day of googling, then arsing around with formats. Anyone gotten their comic on the Sony e-reader yet? Please share your experiences, if you have. I'm sure we can backdoor-engineer stuff for the PSP around Sony too, but that would require a bear with many more technical brains than me.<

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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