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Exclusive: Graphicly Redesigns to Bring a Sense of Community to Digital Comics

One thing that’s sorely missing in the coming digital comics landscape is a sense of community. A step in the right direction is Graphicly’s newly redesigned website, which includes embeddable comics, better integration with Facebook and Twitter, a social stream that displays user activity and more. Graphicly has always pushed the idea of community within its digital comics landscape, and the new site takes it a few more steps to enhance the community experience that is so fundamental to the traditional comic book store. We took it for a test drive and interviewed Micah Baldwin, CEO of Graphicly, too.

On most of the digital comics sites out there, you’re going to be buying and reading comics on your own. You’re free to talk about the comics on forums, blogs, and news sites, of course, but the actual acquisition and reading experience of digital comics is a lonely one.

This sits in stark contrast to the Direct Market, which can deliver an intensely personal experience. Going into a comic shop to buy a comic tends to involve speaking to the shop owner, who may have recommendations or warnings regarding the week’s releases, chatting with strangers who have picked up books you recognize or enjoy, and arguing with the regulars over every possible subject to do with comics, from the best version of the Bat-symbol to who’s better, Ditko or Kirby. Comic shops tend to grow communities around them, and those communities are friendly, combative, aggressive, hilarious, and everything in-between. Comic shops serve as social centers, and digital comics can’t quite match that aspect of the comic shop just yet.


THE COMMUNITY

The new Graphicly attempts to bridge that gap. Two of the most dominant social forces in the United States are Facebook and Twitter. Graphicly allows you to leave comments using your Facebook account (which has the interesting side effect of putting your real name next to your comments), Yahoo!, AOL, or Hotmail. You cannot leave comments by logging in with your Twitter account just yet, but sharing comics via Twitter links is heavily emphasized on the site. There’s a box below the window comics display in and another on the Share page.

On the right-hand column of the new site is a table that displays “Activity On Graphicly Now.” This social stream displays a selection of recent activity on Graphicly, generally recent purchases, and can be expanded to show other events, such as your friends making new social connections. Single purchases appear along with a brief summary and the cover of the comic, while multiple-comic purchases show the covers alone.

It’s easy to see how Graphicly’s community aspects are intended to mirror, or at least recall, how the comics community works in real life. Being able to see what other users are purchasing emulates the way that a stack of books in someone’s hand can catch your eye in a comic shop. It’s visual word-of-mouth, to turn a phrase. You can notice what someone else is buying and purchase it yourself if you so choose. This functionality is expanded by the user profiles, which allow you to hook up with other uses in a friends-like system that lets you prioritize seeing what they do over what strangers purchase or comment on.

The commenting system, which allows you to comment on every comic and interact with other users, serves a similar purpose. If you particularly enjoyed or hated an issue, you can leave your comment right there with minimal fuss. According to Ron Richards of Graphicly, every comment or like on Facebook “is seen on average 400 times by other fans and friends” and “[t]he Graphicly user base has doubled since January 2011.” There are a lot of opportunities to interact with other users. The trick will be in training users to do that as part of their normal comics consumption cycle.


THE READER

Graphicly’s reader is HTML5 based, and is pretty smooth. The animations as you progress from panel to panel or spread to spread are speedy. I couldn’t figure out a way to turn off the animations. It isn’t a huge deal, but it would be nice to have the option. You don’t have the option of manually zooming in on a page, but Graphicly Flow, a panel-by-panel method of reading comics, is a fine alternative.

Graphicly Flow isn’t strictly panel-by-panel. When there are several panels in a tier, or situations where viewing more than one panel is appropriate or required, it adjusts to that constraint. You can see the panels you aren’t currently reading through a thick black filter, which actually does an okay job of emulating how we read comics. You focus on one aspect of the comics page, but you can still see other parts of the page while reading.

The killer app for this relaunch is that users can embed comics on the web. A brief bit of Javascript is all it takes, and it’s very nice to see. This ties back into the idea of comics community and what the digital comics experience is like. Comics are disposable entertainment and are the perfect length and shape for sharing. With this new feature, you can embed comics all across the internet, and that includes an option to purchase the embedded comic.

I can see a number of possible uses for this function. Embedded a comic on your blog, for example, would put the subject of your post within reach of the reader. Publishers can easily deliver and maintain control of digital previews of their upcoming titles. This is a good step, and I think it will end up being an important aspect of the digital comics landscape. What’s the fun in enjoying something if you can’t share it? Following the YouTube model is a good idea here. Check out Atomic Robo:

Graphicly is currently available via web, iOS, and Android. An update for the Android app went live last night that includes support for the user profiles and social stream.


THE INTERVIEW

We reached out to Micah Baldwin, CEO of Graphicly, for further comment. Check out his comments below, and make sure to visit the new Graphicly when you’re done. Digital comics will only work if we show support for ideas that we think are worthwhile. If you like how Graphicly does the community aspect of comics… prove it!

ComicsAlliance: The new Graphicly has an increased focus on community. How does community feedback impact your plans? Do you seek out further stories from comics or featuring characters that prompted a lot of conversation?

Micah Baldwin: Community has always been an important part of Graphicly, and our community has been very vocal on what they would like Graphicly to do and become. I probably spend 1 – 2 hrs a day chatting directly with folks (via IM, email or phone) and I have learned a lot about what creators, publishers and fans really want. Its clear that discovering new talent, sharing interesting stories and discussing viewpoints is high on everyone’s list.

CA: A sense of community is something that most other digital comics distributors don’t currently have. Can you explain the importance of community to Graphicly?


MB: It was clear that at the center of all of our efforts was this love for telling, collaborating and sharing story that doesnt really exist in the current online marketplace. When we started Graphicly the idea always was to create an immersive, dynamic community where the story was the center piece rather than just trying to sell books. For us, community isnt just an add-on. We didnt just slap a Facebook like or tweet me button on to a comic book. We have worked very hard to create an environment where creators and fans can connect, and that everyone feels ownership in what we are doing. For the most part, it feels like that is more reality than dream at this point.

CA: iFanboy is featured in a box on the new Graphicly. Will you be syndicating news from iFanboy directly on the site in the future, or would you prefer to keep the two sites separate, but related? Does comics news play a role in your vision for Graphicly?

MB: iFanboy and comic news is an extremely important part of the future. We have put a lot of effort into iFanboy increasing the writing staff and providing resources and support. The community has responded, driving iFanboy to an 120% increase in visitors over the past year. The current version of iFanboy will be refreshed soon, and there will be greater hooks between the two sites. For example, soon, you will be able to view and create iFanboy reviews directly in Graphicly; you will see an integrated pull-list system; and other integration points that are intended to make the entire experience more awesome without losing any of the integrity that iFanboy brings to the table.

We believe that as members of the comic community, its important for us to support the entire blog, review and news community, so there are a couple of things we are working on that should help drive interest and traffic to everyone.

CA: I didn’t notice any forums while poking around the new site. Do forums have a place in Graphicly, or will the conversation be kept to comments on specific comics, rather than a more general type of community?

MB: We want something “forum like” in the future. What we dont want is a free-for-all where negativity reigns as you see on so many forums today. We want to integrate organic moderation (where the community is self-moderating and policing) and a welcoming atmosphere where all members of the community — fans and creators — can interact positively regardless of level of knowledge. We are striving to have community tools that have open arms, not closed fists.

CA: Will you be adding support for more ways of reading comics (such as viewing single pages instead of spreads or user-controlled zooming), or is the Graphicly experience more or less complete as-is?

MB: Between you and me, I really miss our single page view. Hopefully, I can convince our product and engineering teams to bring it back… Whats cool with the current reader is that its HTML5 (meaning no flash, and therefore can be read on any device), and our focus is on adding functionality that will extend the story telling and collaboration capabilities. The visual I keep in my mind is the idea of diving deep into a story and getting immersed in the entire ethos of the tale. That will never happen with a simple reader, regardless of the panel animations.

CA: How big is Graphicly’s library now?

MB: We currently have over 4,000 comics on Graphicly – new books get added everyday.

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