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What quarantine innovations can tell us about the future of comics

Christian Holub

The coronavirus pandemic has inaugurated a time of chaos and change, for the comic book industry as much as anyone else. Comics culture is centered around specialty comic book stores, which acquire their products from the monopolistic Diamond Comics Distributors — so when Diamond announced back in March it would be shutting down operations as part of widespread government orders, the industry came to a screeching halt.

Two months later, things are starting to move again. As restrictions begin to ease across the country, many comic stores are open again for at least limited business. Yet it's hard to imagine that the comics industry will ever fully return to the way it was before the pandemic. The two biggest comics publishers, Marvel and DC, have shifted some of their planned upcoming comics to digital-only releases in a move that at least one comics retailer is taking as a sign that perhaps the single-issue format is not long for this world. Though surely the most recognized incarnation of comics, single issues have very slim profit margins and only limited usefulness; if customers don't pick up an issue within a week or two of its release, they likely never will.

The end of single issues would be a big change for comics, which begs the question of what other big changes might be on the way in the future. Though the past two months have been a trying time for everyone, they also highlighted the importance of alternative ideas for making comics and getting them into the hands of readers. EW interviewed multiple comics creators and publishers about their pandemic-era innovations.

QUARANTINE COMIX

Change with the times

With Diamond shut down, many ongoing comics lost a month or two of new issues. But one comic found an innovative solution. Ice Cream Man, written by W. Maxwell Prince and illustrated by Martin Morazzo and Chris O’Halloran, is an anthology-style series where each issue tells a different short story involving some kind of appearance from an enigmatic ice cream truck operator. Think High Maintenance if the weed guy was also maybe an extra-dimensional demon.

As the pandemic dawned and lockdown became a reality, Prince decided to tweak the format. He and the rest of the creative team started a series of "Quarantine Comix," four-page issues of Ice Cream Man that came out once a week for six weeks for $1.99 a pop.

"My natural strength as a writer, I believe, is in compression," Prince tells EW. "I’ve found over time that I don’t really tell a great long-form story, but I can address an idea or a feeling in a short amount of space. If I give myself a small canvas, these muscles of economy kick in and all the things that I need to do become clear. Shrinking down further from a regular issue to these four-page snippets has felt really natural. It's been really fast and liberating to spit out an idea, polish it up a little bit, and then just let it go."

"Quarantine" wasn't just a brand for these comics; Prince also used them to address pandemic-era anxieties. Remember back in March when certain loud voices on the internet started insisting we all use this time to be as productive as possible? After all, they said, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague, so what excuse do we have for not composing our own masterpiece? The first of these shorter Ice Cream Man comics poked sharp holes in that bluster with a poetic spoof on the Bard.

Martin Morazzo and Chris O’Halloran

“People in the creative fields put a lot of pressure on themselves at a time like this to be productive, but it’s just so hard,” Prince says. “It’s an unnerving time to be alive. Plus, Shakespeare certainly didn’t have a phone, and didn’t have a 3-year-old trapped in the house with him. This expectation that ‘oh, you don’t have to go out of the house so you should read War and Peace or write a novel or something,’ that’s just not the reality for most people.” 

And yet, even if that magnum opus is still out of reach, Ice Cream Man's Quarantine Comix prove that creativity is still possible in a crisis. Don't worry if you missed the initial run, either; Image has plans to collect these short stories in a print edition at some point.

Alex Diotto

Digital over print

So much of the experience of reading and enjoying comic books is tied up in going to a physical store, perusing massive shelves of material, and maybe asking for in-person recommendations from clerks. In recent years, however, there have been increased strides in making comics available for digital purchase. Two emblematic sites in particular, Comixology and The Panel Syndicate, both demonstrated their worth during the shutdown.  

Comixology is owned by Amazon and mostly functions as an iTunes equivalent for comics. Almost every comic put out by major and minor publishers is available there for a consistent price — typically $3-5 for individual issues and $10-15 for collections — along with periodic sales on select items. But Comixology isn't just a way to access material from DC, Marvel, Image, and the rest. The membership program Comixology Unlimited also grants access to their line of Comixology Originals, digital comics made exclusively for the site. Youth, the latest comic in the line, happened to make its debut earlier this month.

Written by Curt Pires and illustrated by Alex Diotto with colors by Dee Cunniffe, Youth is a new take on adolescent rebellion. It focuses on two queer teenagers in love, Frank and River, who decide to run away from their dead-end job and abusive stepdad. Their grand plans don't last long, however. When their stolen car runs out of gas, the boys find they don't have the money to refuel it, and things take a different direction. Frank and River team up with other rebellious youths and soon find themselves coming down with superpowers.

Youth isn't just radical in its content, however; the book is also innovating in its release format. Unlike most comics, but reminiscent of Ice Cream Man's Quarantine Comix, Youth has been releasing new issues on a weekly basis. The first arc is being described as "season 1," blurring the lines between comics and TV. Helping in that regard is the fact that Youth's TV adaptation is already being developed by Amazon Studios. In an era when TV is the dominant form of entertainment, perhaps the future of comics involves a similarly serialized model of storytelling.

“I pitched lots of places and everyone wanted to tell me how 'important' the book was, but no one wanted to put their money where their mouth was and invest in the book and our approach. No one except for Comixology,” Pires tells EW. “The accessibility of digital is a huge plus. Anyone with a Prime or Comixology Unlimited account can read this for free. That’s tearing down the walls between the readers and the story. It’s time comics moved into the future, and Comixology feels like they’re leading the pack in that regard.”

Alex Diotto

Alex Diotto

And yet, as one might expect from a company owned by one of the world's richest corporations, Comixology has caveats. The terms and conditions are full of what's known as "digital rights management." Just because you buy a comic from the service doesn't mean you own it forever; Amazon reserves the right to make certain content unavailable down the line, or restrict users' access to the site. It doesn't seem to have happened yet, but the fine print is there.

Not so for The Panel Syndicate, a site that provides original comics for pay-what-you-want prices with no digital rights management attached; once you download a comic, you can do what you want with it. Originally founded by artist Marcos Martín and writer Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) to distribute their futuristic noir comic The Private Eye, The Panel Syndicate's model proved successful enough to fund another book from that team (the sci-fi immigration story Barrierand also bring in additional creators over the years.

Recently, Martín teamed up with acclaimed writer Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Captain America) for a new Panel Syndicate series called Friday, the story of two childhood detectives reuniting a few years after their glory days. On a visit home from college, the titular girl Friday finds herself sucked back into a mystery with old friend Lancelot Jones, even though she'd much rather have a conversation about more mature topics (the mystery, too, might be more fit for adults than they assume at first glance). The first issue suddenly appeared last month to the surprise and delight of comic fans facing a dearth of new content. 

Marcos Martín

Marcos Martín

“One of the main reasons I wanted to write the story was for that nostalgia we all feel when we think back on our favorite books from childhood,” Brubaker tells EW. “This is the story of a teen detective growing up and encountering a harsh real world, but just touching on those young adult tropes seems to really bring back a lot of memories of those nights when you stayed up with a flashlight under the covers, secretly reading another chapter. I hope we can bring a bit of that to our readers, and make them think of better times, even while we tee up a horror story at the same time.”

Because of its very nature as a pay-what-you-want service, The Panel Syndicate isn’t likely to supplant the major publishers anytime soon. Still, its alternate model of comics creation — with readers contributing what they can to support creators directly — has become even more attractive in a time of crisis. 

"We've established what I feel is a new and more interesting dynamic between readers and creators," Martín says. "As creators, we are responsible for creating quality products to the best of our abilities and the reader is responsible for deciding the value he or she thinks that product has, according to each one’s perception, possibilities, and personal circumstances. Since we’re living in really strained circumstances, I’m happy we can deliver some sort of entertainment regardless of anyone’s financial situation.”

Marcos Martín

From readers to creators and back again

The digital service that most closely involves readers in the process of making comics, though, is Kickstarter. The collective funding site has proved a fertile place for creators to fund their own books with direct support from fans. Comics have been raising money on Kickstarter since 2010, and there have been several success stories. Kwanza Osajyefo's Black, the story of an alternate America where only black people have superpowers, started life on Kickstarter along with several other acclaimed books.

"What people find value in these days with Kickstarter is that they have creative autonomy," Camilla Zhang, Kickstarter's former head of outreach, told EW last month. "They are not necessarily restricted by distribution channels that only cater to shops. They can have a direct line with their community and their readership, and really galvanize them with project updates. That's something that I've been talking to a lot of creators about: People come to Kickstarter to be a part of something bigger than themselves."

David Rubín

Kickstarter's strengths have shone through even more in quarantine. More than $2.7 million was pledged to comics projects during the initial pandemic months of April and March, while some specific projects have had spectacular success. Cosmic Detective, a new sci-fi noir written by Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire and illustrated by David Rubín (EW's top comic artist of 2017), has already raised more than $146,000 despite an initial goal of only $35,000, and there are still a few days left on the 30-day Kickstarter timeline. Film director Duncan Jones teamed up with comic writer Alex de Campi and a group of renowned comic artists (including Y: The Last Man's Pia Guerra and Hellboy's Duncan Fegredo) for Madi: Once Upon A Time In The Futurea sci-fi road trip saga. As Jones explains in the announcement video, Madi's production has already been funded. The Kickstarter page is an outlet for people to purchase the book, which demonstrates the site's multiple uses.

"One thing that has proven itself quite clear is that to survive as an industry, you need multiple revenue streams, and Kickstarter is just one of those revenue streams," Zhang says. "It's not an either-or situation, it's and-this, and-that."

Unfortunately, coronavirus continues to shake the American economy. In the weeks since we spoke, Zhang was laid off by Kickstarter along with 24 others, as the unemployment rate in the United States reaches 25 percent. There's a shadow hanging over the present, but the future is still unwritten.

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