By Richard Nieva
David Gallaher and Steve Ellis create comic books in Ellis’s home studio in Brooklyn. But more important than where they are made is where they will end up—not in a neighborhood comic book store, but directly onto the iPhone or iPad.
They are the creators of one of the very first comics crafted specifically to be viewed on the Apple devices. The comic, “Box 13,” is described by Gallaher as a “neo-noir espionage thriller.” He writes the storylines while Ellis draws the artwork.
Ellis sits in a bright yellow room in his quaint Kensington home. There are prints of his work on the wall and cans filled with paintbrushes, remnants from his earlier days as a painter. Next to his desk hangs a sign that reads, “Shut Up and Draw!”
“It’s exciting to be showcasing technology. We’re kind of forging a way,” says Ellis.
Neither is originally from New York—Ellis is from Sparta, NJ, while Gallaher is from Honolulu. They said they settled in Brooklyn for the lower rent, but have since found a solid comic scene. They are a part of the Comic Social Club, a collective of ten comic book artists, half of which are based in Brooklyn.
ComiXology, a Manhattan-based company that produces an app for viewing comics on Apple devices, commissioned Gallaher and Ellis to create “Box 13”—which is a reinterpretation of the popular 1948 radio serial of the same name. When the app launched in 2009, Apple would not allow ComiXology to release it for free, said production manager John Paterno. So in order to entice customers to buy the app, they gave away “Box 13” for free, included with the purchase.
“Box 13” wasn’t Gallaher and Ellis’s first venture into Web comics. The two were a part of Zuda, an online division of DC Comics, where they first collaborated on “High Moon,” a fusion western/horror centering around a werewolf hunter. It won a Harvey Award—the industry’s mark of achievement—for “Best Online Comics Work” in 2009. Based on that work, ComiXology CEO David Steinberger deemed the two artists the best to help launch the app.
Because they were creating it specifically for the Web—as opposed to printed comics that are converted into digital versions for the Internet—Gallaher and Ellis said they were able to create more playfully, experimenting with the new medium.
Instead of seeing a spread of about four to five panels at once like on a traditional comic book page, the app presents one panel at a time. The viewer reads the dialogue, then proceeds to the next panel by tapping on the screen.
This control allowed Ellis to draw the artwork with different ideas of presentation in mind. The faster a viewer taps the screen, the faster the pictures changes, creating a flipbook effect. So Ellis would draw some scenes very meticulously, as if they were single frames of a filmstrip.
This viewing process also introduced new editorial decisions in the creation process, said Ellis, who said this technique works especially well for battle sequences. “But at other times, it’s not so much about the movement and flow of characters bouncing around,” he said. “We can pull it back and make it about angling the ‘camera,’ and where we put the characters.”
Ellis demonstrates by drawing on his Cintiq—a large screen with matted gray borders. It is a tablet device that allows the user to digitally draw directly onto the screen. The gadget itself looks like it belongs on the Starship Enterprise. He holds the specialized pen in his left hand and his one-year-old daughter, Audrey, in the other. Both are entirely new to the world.
Gallaher sheds light on the technology. “I just use a Word document,” he says, laughing. “It’s not as exciting.”
The duo recently showcased their work at the New York Comic Con, held at the Jacob K. Javits Center in early October. At one autograph session, they even signed a fan’s iPad—a first for both of them.
Lance Fensterman, show manager for the convention, said he sees the promise in the Web, but said the comic book industry is not being affected by the internet as intensely as other industries. “There is still that strong collector’s mindset and desire for that tactile experience,” he said.
The industry is making strides, but it is still in its early stages. The Comic Con still looks like it did four years ago, in all its cape-and-tights, paperbound glory—though there was an entire station of about fifty computers dedicated to competitive Internet gaming.
Fensterman said that though there were not many web exhibiters—ComiXology was one of the few—the Internet was a prominent topic in panel discussions.
“It’s beginning to shift,” he said. “We’re entering an age of experimentation.”
One of the challenges, he said, is finding a way to make money on the Web. Dark Horse Comics, a major player in the industry, has started simultaneous publication of print and online comics.
A report from New Media Age—a U.K. publication on business and interactive media—said that in 2007, combined sales of comic books and graphic novels were $705 million in the United States and Canada, according to ICv2, a pop culture research company.
In a report released last week, ICv2 estimates North American sales from digital comics this year will range from $6 to $8 million, ten times more than their 2009 estimate. The estimate includes revenue from comics sold through different digital platforms, such as iTunes, Playstation, Kindle, Android and Web sales.
Steinberger declined to comment on ComiXology’s yearly revenues, but he maintains that the company is profitable.
Fensterman mentioned a few other Web sites like Penny Arcade—which he regarded as the giant right now—and Graphic.ly. These sites are working on creating sustainable business models for the Web, he said. Graphic.ly has done what he calls “appropriate product placement.” For example, they’ll place a link on a character in an actual web comic, which will take the viewer to a page selling t-shirts of that character.
Fensterman and Paterno regard the Web as expanding the audience for comics.
Paterno said, “We’re putting comics into the hands of different people. There are the people who come here,” he said, referring to the convention. “And everyone else.”
Chris Sellery, an 18-year-old comic fan from Danbury, Conn., is one fan who has embraces both media. He said he buys traditional comics, but also reads Web comics like “The Adventures of Dr. McNinja” online.
For Gallaher and Ellis, they are treading the line. A print version of “Box 13” was just released to supplement the online one, which they sold at Comic Con. But they are also working on the sequel, again for exclusive Web publication—“Box 13: The Pandora Process.”
Still, Fensterman said he looks forward to the unknown opportunity for creativity in the industry. “We’re still feeling it out,” he said.