Vertical Horizon: Stela Aims to Shake Up the Digital Comics Platform
There hasn't been much innovation in the digital comics market since the iPhone arrived in 2007. Even with the debut of the iPad and competitive operating systems like Android and Windows Mobile, the formula for what makes comics work in the digital format hasn't changed drastically over the past eight years. Where once there were numerous apps all vying for the attention of the consumer and publishers, the format for reading remained almost identical across the board. You open the book, you tap an edge or swipe to turn the page, and you can zoom in and out accordingly to get a better look at the action and art. That's pretty much been the default nearly every app has gone with simply because it makes sense and it works.
However, as great an experience as that kind of reading is on tablets, it doesn't hold up quite as well on mobile phones. Constantly pinching and zooming around isn't quite conducive to an enjoyable reading experience. As people have become more reliant on the phones for day-to-day content consumption, it only made sense that some developers would find a way to make comic reading more comfortable and compatible with smartphones. That's where Stela (pronounced Steel-ah) hopes to make its mark. Developed by BreakoutBit, and spearheaded by former Ubisoft manager Ryan Yount and former Dark Horse editor Jim Gibbons, Stela doesn't see the limitations of a phone as a problem, but as an answer to getting comics to hundreds of millions of people.
According to the latest research, 64% of Americans own and use a smartphone. With a population of over 350 million people in the United States alone, that's quite an audience to try and capture. It's no wonder the marketplace on whatever OS you have is crowded with apps all vying for your attention. Still, that's a lot of potential customers looking for something to read besides their social feeds. With apps like Instagram and Twitter in mind, Stela's approach to reading follows in line with the vertical scrolling that's become so commonplace elsewhere in the mobile space. The whole app has been specifically crafted to focus on the vertical reading experience, which offers readers an easier way to digest stories and creative teams new twists on the familiar storytelling form.
While Line's Webtoon app was one of the earliest to deliver a tailored, vertical reading experience for mobile, its model isn't quite as curated as the creator-focused space Stela is offering. The beta version included stories from creators like Man of Action, Brian Wood and Andrea Mutti, and (Eisner award-winning former ComicsAlliance editor) Caleb Goellner and Wook Jin Clark, all of which were incredibly varied in tone and style. Future content already set for the app's debut in 2016 also includes works from Stuart Moore and Greg Scott, along with Irene Koh and many more according to Yount and Gibbons. Since Stela will be adopting a subscription model (pricing details yet to be determined), the editorial team has been hard at work finding talented creators from all over the comic space to give Stela its identity, and make it service worth a subscription.
It's relatively smooth once you get going, as nearly everything you do in the app is accomplished by scrolling up or down. About the only thing that doesn't require scrolling is tapping on the "like" icons for creators/stories or the "more details" options offered. Constantly scrolling will get you through the menus as well as advancing the stories, and swiping left and right moves you between available comics. Stela's interface is immediately familiar, and with all the comics tuned to work within the portrait-style position, it makes navigation and reading incredibly simple and intuitive. Creators do get a little freedom to break up the story however they see fit, but you won't find any splash pages or complex panel arrangements here. That kind of simplicity makes Stela incredibly welcoming for newcomers, while also giving creators the challenge of working within an even more defined space.
In addition to getting an early look at Stela's working prototype, we talked with Ryan Yount and Jim Gibbons about convincing creators to be test subjects, why the vertical format was so important, and what the future of Stela holds once it launches in 2016.
ComicsAlliance: The biggest different in Stela versus every other comic app out there is the vertical reading. Why was that the focus for this app?
Ryan Yount: That's one of the big things for us and it comes down to being mobile native with the comics. What we're trying to do with this thing is be the premiere mobile comics app. In order to do that, we wanted to have an experience that was intuitive and made sense for people. It was also important to make sense to people who maybe aren't currently comic book readers. What we look at is the phone itself and the experience on mobile. Everyone has used Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr on their phones, and so that feed style, the vertical style of consuming content is really common. Everyone knows how to do it, and it's very easy to just use your thumb to scroll up and down. That was really key for us.
Jim Gibbons: Accessibility is huge and really, what we want to do is make comics that much more accessible and inclusive for an audience that might not be familiar with how you go to the direct market or comic shop, but have a phone in their pocket. The one thing I like to think about is people have done all sorts of new styles of comics, but as we look at it, sequential storytelling isn't broken. The next evolution isn't what we can add to comic, but how can we make comics easier to read and out there for more people to read. We're evolving the delivery method in the hopes we can go out to millions and millions of iPhone users that don't know how to get into comics, and show them how easy it is.
CA: With any of the creative teams you have worked with, has there been a lot of excitement about the opportunities with the format or concerns about the potential limitations?
RY: As always, it depends on the creator and how they see it. Some folks just really took to it really quickly. Ron Wimberly, it was like he was born to swim in this vertical format. I think a lot of artists who spend time in digital adjust to the format very quickly.
You mentioned limitations, and normally limitation can be a bad word. In terms of creativity though, you find this as a theme in other places like music, where having some limitations helps. For this, there are no vertical limitations per se. You could have an endless vertical panel, but having the limitations on displaying on a phone screen, so you have to ensure the art isn't too dense or tiny, is a good limitation to have. The fixed width allows the storytelling to be clear. There's not going to be any situation where someone is going to get confused about which branching path to take in terms of panel layout.
JG: It's a real easy way to read. I like to think of it in many ways as sequential storytelling at its most pure. You really are taking it one panel after another. From the editorial end, we've had to help some people make the adjustment. We're working with a lot of creators who spend time on Tumblr and social media like Jen Bartel and Victor Santos, who are very much into this being the next evolution. The idea they're excited about it getting more eyes on the story versus whether or not it's being told in a traditional format.
This isn't a limitation on making comics, it's just a different delivery method.
CA: You're using a subscription method for the service, so you pay a flat rate to get whatever content comes out in a given week or month. Working with so many different creators, how has the response been to how you're divvying things up since all the works are included in the base price?
RY: The creators have been supportive and excited about the model. Part of that is because what we're doing is exciting, but on the financial side, we have a profit model that allows us to do profit-sharing with the creative teams on their creator-owned books. It means the bigger we grow, the more subscribers we get, the more cash there is to be divvied up among the creators.
JG: One of the things I like to focus on is that we're very creator-fueled. We're going to creators to bring us content and we become partners. They're with us on this endeavor. Because of that, there's a lot of exciting aspects in that as we grow, their stuff is going to grow and get out to more people. Then we'll be in a financial position to do say, "Hey, let's do more of that stuff."
The interesting thing that you probably won't see in many other places, as we grow and have a better understanding of our subscriber base, we're going to be able to give future creators pretty accurate predictions of what their back-end might look like. It's not a matter of throwing a story out there and hoping to hit a bull's eye; we're going to be able to show exactly what creators will get by partnering with us on our app.
CA: Is there a set rollout for every story, or can creators throw out as much as they want in a month to get their stories out there?
RY: The way it works is we are commissioning a set amount of chapters. We're not, at this point, doing open-ended series with creators. Not to rule it out for the future, but at this point, we're signing them for set amounts.
JG: Because we're going to have a consistent rollout with new content every weekday, you're going to be looking at a price comparable to a streaming service like Hulu Plus or HBOGo. You're going to be getting around 160 traditional comic pages of material per month.
CA: Obviously one of the things you're doing to get the word out are these interviews, but what kind of marketing support are you envisioning for Stela beyond traditional social media?
RY: There's social media, there's community promotion once we launch, and all of that we can add into the word of mouth/organic category of marketing. The reality is you can't build a brand-new app, even with killer content, put it up in the app stores and just expect people to find it. The core of our team coming from mobile games has a background with building and promoting those apps, and we'll be following the same model. We'll be using marketing dollars to get people to put their eyeballs on our app. It's not just going to be putting something out there and talking about it on our Twitter feed. That's not enough for what we want to do.
CA: Even in just this beta version of the app, there's a good mix of established and indie creators. How receptive were they to testing the waters for you with regards to the future of the app?
RY: Everybody we're working with was very receptive. It's a little bit of a self-selective audience, obviously, but we've got over 30 projects in the works, with another dozen nearing the contract stage. For all of those creative teams, everybody's been very excited.
We did have some people we reached out who weren't that hot on digital, or needed more convincing. For us, most of those aren't people we've given up on, but they're probably going to need to see this app released and out there before they can understand the format and all it entails.
JG: While back-end and revenue-sharing is one of the key components of our financial models, and one of the benefits creators have from working with us, we're also making sure the money we're paying creators up front makes it worth their while. We don't want people having to bend over backwards to meet crazy deadlines for little pay. We want people to have time to do a damn good job on the projects they're creating and bringing to us, and then getting amply compensated for it. That's one of the main things we've made sure to stress.
There's also the flip side, in that there's no shortage of really talented creators with really interesting fresh and diverse characters and concepts they want to bring to comics. We're going to pay well, and we're going to help them bring something they're excited about to an audience. Creators are usually like great. They want people seeing this creative work out there.
CA: There's a diverse catalog of genres available in there right now, so is that a focus for Stela in offering that kind of genre diversity, or is more a case-by-case basis for the creators themselves?
RY: It's a combination for sure. When we're commissioning, we're taking a look at the pitches the creators are putting together, and starting with that. From the editorial side, we have diverse tastes. We're into different kinds of genres, stories and characters, and mood and tone and everything else. You'll see all that reflected.
One of the advantages we're going to have as an app is we'll know very clearly which titles readers are into the most. We'll have very good information on what people are reading, what they're finding the most engaging, and we'll hear from them in the comments about what they want and what they're looking for. In one sense, that could be the holy grail for a lot of content creators to have a built-in audience to tell us exactly what kind of content they want. As we all know on the creative side, you also want to make sure you keep trying out new things as well. We'll be able to hear from fans, and what they want to see, however, we'll keep throwing things out to try new things and flavors to see how they react.
JG: We all came up loving comic shops and reading books in comic shops, but being outside of the direct market offers us a degree of freedom and opportunity to say, "Okay, we don't need to fit into what has been the case within this industry with certain types of creators writing certain types of books for a certain type of audience for decades." We have an opportunity as a brand-new publisher launching in 2016, and we want to be a publisher that reflects the growing audiences of 2016 and the growing concerns about diversity and things of that nature in comics.
We want to potentially be the most inclusive comics publisher out there for both readers and creators.
Stela will launch on iOS in 2016, with an Android release to follow some time after that.