10 Questions With Russell Willis of Panel Nine

1Who are you and what are you working on right now? (2 questions in 1, I know!)

I’m Russell Willis, the publisher at Panel Nine. I’ve had two decades of experience in creating digital media, and just over the last few years have produced the #1 podcast, audio book and iPhone and iPad apps in Japan, where I’m based.
Panel Nine specialises in graphic novels and comics for the iPad and have released “deluxe digital graphic novels” with Eddie Campbell, David Lloyd, and Hunt Emerson. Our software has been designed to be the easiest-to-use, most responsive comics-reading software platform around, and most people who use it agree. In fact many reviewers have described it, essentially or in those words, as the “gold standard” of digital comics for the iPad.
In addition to the graphic novels we’ve released, we’re also publishing a bi-monthly iPad magazine about digital graphic novels and comics, called INFINITY (the name being from the fanzine I published back in the 80s). The latest issue has a round up of digital comics news plus reviews, interviews and a great article on Crumb, Griffith and Spiegelman by Alan Moore. Reading it on the iPad is optimal
but we also have a PC version:
We’re currently preparing for the launch in January of the iPad version of Britain’s weekly kids comic, The Phoenix, which is absolutely great…
and whilst I can’t talk details just yet we’ll be releasing well over 50 graphic novels on our platform next year.

2. What drew you to digital comics?

I’d been involved in digital publishing in Japan for 20 years, from CD-ROMs through to iOS apps and a client wanted to have their content as a comic — I knew that we could develop an iOS comics reader that was superior to stuff that’s already out there… and realised that graphic novels could reach a much large mainstream audience through digital, and wanted to be part of getting great material into the hands of a real mainstream audience. What the “comics world” currently calls mainstream – the superhero nonsense – should be relegated to the fringes and stuff like that of Art Spiegelman, Eddie Campbell, Raymond Briggs, Alison Bechdel should be the mainstream. We hope to play a big part in that in the coming year.

3.  Webcomics or digital comics?

Tablet-based comics. We’ve had webcomics for the PC for nearly 20 years and it hasn’t led to a significant improvement in either the industry or in comics going mainstream, although webcomics are fine for short daily instalments.
The iPad-like tablet is the real game-changer. If the software is done right (and often it isn’t — see a comparison of platforms at https://vimeo.com/43772561) then you have the ideal immersive user experience and you have the availability and commerce issues solved. You still need to deal with discoverability, though.
I’d give it two years for the vast majority of homes to have at least one tablet. That’s where graphic novels and comics are going to be read.

4. What do you think works with digital comics?

Like everyone, “motion comics” with cheesy animation is not relevant.  What Madefire and Tall Chair are doing is intriguing and as long as they ensure the reading experience isn’t a passive one (which they seem to be doing).  Their platforms work for comics created with them in mind. For us though, we are presenting comics that are made for print and our software platform is able to handle ones which use the unique storytelling devices that digital can provide. The work by Mark Waid and Balak at the Thrillbent site is a good current example, even though Thrillbent is optimised for web rather than tablet viewing.

5.Can digital comics replace print comics?

In most cases it is inevitable. The blip we are seeing where digital appears to be helping print is a short-term thing due to factors I discuss in the next issue of INFINITY, but it’s a dead certainty that the “local comics shop” is going to be hit very hard by digital in the next few years. I’m not that interested in the fate of the superhero market, but I do hope that local comic shops see this coming and morph into something that can sustain steadily decreasing sales of print material.

6. How can print comics work with digital comics?

There will always be things that print can do that digital can’t and vice versa. Chris Ware’s Building Stories is an example. Generally I think people will read digitally and buy expensive souvenir, gold-tipped, signed copies of graphic novels as totems they can put on their shelf to show their good taste to their cat and other visiting dignitaries — like I do!

7. What don’t you like about digital comics?

I don’t like it that a publisher who wouldn’t dream of releasing their books on crappy paper with the equivalent of mimeograph printing do the equivalent of that with digital. iBooks and a number of “anyone can do that” custom made apps are example. All digital is not equal and savvy publishers (and creators) will start caring about the user experience they are offering to their readers. Most comics-reading platforms are frustrating in one way or another, and I hope what Panel Nine is doing helps raise the bar about what is acceptable.
8. What digital comics/webcomics do you read?

Lots. Most recently lots of stuff by David Hine (Bulletproof Coffin, Storm Dogs) but also The Boys, Jeff Lemire’s Essex County and Underwater Welder.

Apart from the odd short strip, I find reading webcomics that aren’t formatted for the tablet a pain, so I only sometimes take a look.

9. Where do you see digital comics going from here?

HTML 5 may or may not work for digital comics on the tablet. Issues of availability, commerce (mostly solved) and discoverability (a constant headache) will be addressed.  People will realise that comics need to be read on platforms created for comics reading. Digital will expand the market for grown-up graphic novels, and Panel Nine will be there as that happens.

10.Who do you think we should look out for in digital comics?

From a technical platform and publishing perspective, well… us! From a creative perspective… well every talented comics creator out there will be looking to be involved in digital.

Links to Panel Nine’s apps:
INFINITY – Digital Graphic Novels and More (FREE!)
The Certified Hunt Emerson
Dapper John by Eddie Campbell
Kickback by David Lloyd

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