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Archie’s ‘New Crusaders’ App Brings the Red Circle Heroes to Digital Comics

We’ve talked a lot here on ComicsAlliance about the progressive approach to storytelling that Archie Comics has been geared towards over the past few years, but the way that they’ve embraced digital comics has been every bit as forward-thinking. They’ve become a major publisher in terms of making their comics available on devices like the iPad, with a pretty massive catalog that’s only growing through same-day digital releases. But their latest foray into the world of digital comics is a complete departure from what they’ve already done.

It’s a relaunch for Archie’s super-hero imprint starring the Crusaders, and rather than selling individual issues, it’s offing up an entire library of comics for a 99-cent per week subscription, and the end result is a pretty fantastic buy.In a lot of ways, the whole thing feels like an experiment, and the Red Circle heroes are a pretty interesting choice to build it around. Despite having a history that dates back to the ’40s and Pep Comics #1 — the first issue of a series that eventually produced the red-headed teenager that would be the company’s greatest success — they’ve never really caught on. They’ve been rebooted and reintroduced a handful of times over the years, both by Archie itself and twice by DC, back in the early ’90s with the Impact line and most recently in 2009.

This time, they’re back at Archie, and the New Crusaders series by Ian Flynn and Ben Bates is the centerpiece of the new app. The core idea is that the 99-cent weekly subscription fee gets you six brand new pages of comics every week. Those of you with an aptitude for math will have already worked out that this essentially means that you’re paying $3.97 a month for a 24-page comic, which is about what an independent super-hero book will run you at your local comic shop. Of course, starting in August, you’ll also be able to pick up New Crusaders there as a series of mini-series, but the app gives it to you first.

It’s a really interesting idea, and it’s especially appealing because of that low price point. If you’re already a super-hero fan who heads to the shop every week to pick up your books, then adding an extra buck to your comics budget doesn’t seem like that much of a hardship. The problem is that, at least from the first two installments available in the app now, New Crusaders just doesn’t seem to be built for the format.

Thanks to his work on Archie’s Mega Man comic, Ian Flynn has become one of my favorite new writers, and his work here with Ben Bates isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s obviously not meant to be chopped up into six-page segments. The story thus far has been devoted to introducing both the original Crusaders and the kids that’ll make up the new team, and while that’s a fine place to start, it doesn’t really throw in any action. Admittedly, the very first panel of the book is an explosion…

…but after that, there’s just a lot of chit-chat and touch football. The worst and most telling aspect, though, is that the first six-page “act” ends in the middle of a scene. And worse yet, it’s a scene where two kids are talking around a picnic table, so there’s not even any tension or drama to get you interested in picking up the second act, a pretty crucial flaw since it’s given away free as an enticement to pay for the subscription.

I’ve thought a lot about the 24-page format over the years. It’s my preferred format for a single-issue unit of storytelling, for the simple reason that it lends itself so well to the Three-Act Structure, with eight-page acts providing the framework for your story. I’m going to guess Flynn agrees with me on at least that point, since if you read the first two installments of New Crusaders together, there actually is a scene change and the start of a new act after the first eight pages. But dividing it up into six when it’s not made for it just breaks that structure in a way that’s really noticeable. The only thing that makes it work is that Flynn and Bates create a shift that makes a really good cliffhanger on page 12, right where the mid-point of the full 24-page comic would be.

I’m a big enough fan of Flynn’s at this point that there’s no doubt in my mind that in two weeks, there’ll be one really entertaining comic book story, and if you read the whole thing at one go in print, you wouldn’t even notice. I’m just as convinced that if he can restructure the next few stories to work in those six-page installments that the app’s going to deliver, future issues’ll be great too. It’s only going to get better as the weeks go by, but right now, it’s a bit of a problem.

Fortunately, that’s not all the New Crusaders app has to offer.

I mentioned above that the Red Circle heroes never really caught on, but those years of “not catching on” and their revivals over the decades ended up producing an awful lot of comics by an awful lot of great creators like Carmine Infantino and Dick Ayers that serve as a background to what Flynn and Bates are doing. The 99 cents you pay to subscribe to the app doesn’t just get you the new stuff, it also gives you full access to a “Vault” with those comics:

That’s what’s really great about the New Crusaders app. For less than one dollar, you can go into it right now and read 29 complete comics plus the 12 pages of New Crusaders. If you’re the type of person who loves obscure old comics — and I believe the record will show that I am — it’s a pretty amazing deal, and considering that they’re adding to the Vault every week, it’s another thing that’s only going to get better as time goes on.

When the conversation about digital distribution first started, one of the things that was brought up pretty often was the idea of a Netflix type model or a flat subscription fee, something that Marvel had already experimented with through their Digital Comics Unlimited program. That’s essentially what Archie’s doing here, but what makes it so interesting is how much they’ve narrowed it to just the Red Circle characters.

I imagine that keeping things so focused is what allows them to offer it at such a low price, and if nothing else, getting the old stories into the hands of new readers. But at the same time, as much as I love reading through both new all-ages stories as well as crazy old comics where talking gorillas threaten super-heroes by science-murdering bunnyrabbits…

…I really wonder whether it’ll hold the same appeal for Archie’s target audience. Flynn’s two great successes are, after all, Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog, and if the plan is to get the young fans who love those books interested in the Crusaders, I can see it going either way.

On the one hand, when I was a kid, I just loved reading comics, period. When I was nine, it didn’t really matter if it was Batman or Garfield or the surprisingly bloody reprints of Dick Tracy strips from the ’40s, I just liked ‘em, and if my parents would’ve been able to give me the equivalent of a foot-high stack of ‘em for a dollar, I’m sure the peace and quiet it would’ve bought them would’ve been well worth it.

On the other hand, if I’d hit this wall of text from Pep #1 at the start of a story…

…I might’ve just gone back to Super Mario Bros. Either way, the sheer volume of stuff that you’re getting makes it worth the price, even without the promise of more to come in the future.

As for the interface, it’s built off from Iverse — which also powers Archie’s stand-alone app — which I’ve always thought was slightly clunkier than Comixology. There’s no “Guided View” mode to read panel-by-panel, and while I don’t particularly miss that on the iPad, it also removes the ability to zoom in all that much. There’s also an interesting feature where it loops around to the start of a story if you keep scrolling past the last page, but you can’t go back from page one if you do it by accident (say, when you’re flipping too fast through a six-page story). The app also connects to the Red Circle Comics website, but since you’re not in an actual browser, there’s no Back button, and it gets a little awkward.

But reading the comics themselves is perfectly functional, and being able to get so much at once more than makes up for the occasional awkward control. It’s a great deal that’s only going to get better as time goes by, and as much as I’m used to paying for comics that are mine forever, the idea of getting access to a whole array of stuff for a weekly fee isn’t all that far from paying for Netflix every month. It’s worth it, and I’d love to see it succeed, especially if it leads to other corners of comics getting a spotlight in the same way.

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