What the Future Holds: Exploring Stela’s First Wave of New Digital Comics
Stela is a new smartphone app that offers original, exclusive comics optimized for the phone-reading experience. Chapters release every week, and you can read them all for a flat subscription fee of $5 a month. Reading the comics in Stela is smooth and intuitive. Each chapter is read via a downward scroll, and it totally works. Stela moves beyond Comixology's Guided View technology to offer comics that were born to be read on phones, and the result is extremely effective and, at its best, beautiful. However, there are some things about the app that I don't love.
All I want is to look at a simple list or menu of the titles available, but Stela doesn't want to give me that, just a sliding visual menu along the bottom of the screen. Also when I was reading a comic, I wanted to be reminded of the title, and there seems to be no way to bring that up without exiting the reading experience. But let's take a look at opening wave of comics available so far to help give you a sense of what Stela has to offer.
Written by Ryan Yount from a concept by Sam Lu.
Art by Kinman Chan and Yumiki Hong.
Inheritance is a fantasy story in which a magic-wielding father protects his young daughter from a variety of attackers. There's an emotional core to the story that works really well, but the fantasy trappings aren't particularly original. I have to admit I was a bit turned off when the first adult female character appears in Chapter Two, and she's wearing a needlessly skimpy outfit and reclines on a bed for no reason while delivering exposition. In general the painted artwork is lovely, and the father/daughter narrative is sweet. All four chapters are out, completing the story.
Written by Brian Wood and Justin Giampaoli.
Art by Andrea Mutti, with colors by Vladimir Popov and covers by Wangjie Li.
Rome West presents an alternate history in which Third Century Romans land in North America and forge a new nation there. I like alternate history stories in general, but this one does nothing for me. The Romans in the first two chapters are an undistinguished mass of manliness, while the Native Americans are barely given dialogue and are presented as naive in comparison to the Romans. In the third chapter we jump centuries in time to meet Janus, the first character who feels like a protagonist, a Roman with a Seneca wife and a daughter curious about her heritage (these are the only two female characters in four chapters by the way). Then Chapter Four changes POV to a bunch of Vikings. Even divorced from the unfortunate reputation of one of its writers, there is nothing that makes me want to keep reading this comic.
Out With a Bang
Written by Stuart Moore.
Art by Tony Talbert, with inks by John Heebink, colors by Marissa Louise, and covers by Wangjie Li.
As the story of a teenager who gets a job at a nursing home for elderly superheroes, I found the tone in Out With a Bang weird. It seems to be trying to strike a balance between comedy and drama, but the comedy is never actually funny. There's a transgender character, which could be interesting, but she's mostly just disrespected by the other characters. I like the art, which embraces a superhero comics style without looking conventional. I just wish the story and characters did more for me.
Written by Stuart Moore.
Art by Greg Scott.
The first chapter of Teach opens with an older white man unleashing a string of uncensored racial slurs, before physically attacking a young man of color. Obviously, the attacker is not meant to be sympathetic. However, the comic is clearly meant to be edgy, and it succeeds. The main character turns out to be a younger man who's hired to replace the racist. He's a cipher for most of the the three chapters out so far, until he starts to show emotion (we don't yet know about what) at the end of Chapter Three.
Art and story by Irene Koh.
Afrina presents a fantasy about two women, each under a curse, journeying across a dangerous landscape. This is by far the best comic out so far, and I'm not just saying that because it's the only one created by a woman. Afrina and Bahram feel like real characters with different motivations and personalities, even in just the two chapters that are out so far. The nature of the magic at work leaves a lot of mysteries for the future (like exactly what Afrina is turning into), while giving the reader enough to not feel lost. This comic has me anxiously awaiting the next chapter.
Written by Joe Casey.
Art by Luke Parker, with colors by Brad Simpson, design by Sonia Harris, and covers by Wangjie Li.
A vintagey superhero romp in the style of something like Atomic Robo, Winternational is the story of Edgar Hagen, a man with ice powers who's on a mission from an eccentric drug-addled scientist. There's only one chapter of this out so far, which makes it feel a bit slight. But it's fun, and the art is great. I'm definitely ready to read the next chapter.
This is a section of the app with preview chapters of comics to come. Calla Cthulhu by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, and Erin Humiston is a promising comic about a green-haired girl who fights Lovecraftian monsters to whom she appears to have a family connection. GratNin (short for Gratuitous Ninjas) is about black ninjas in Brooklyn, created by Ronald Wimberly. Wimberly's art is gorgeous as always, and he pushes the format of these comics more than anyone else.
442 is a Japanese American perspective on World War II by Koji Stephen Sakai, Phinneas Kiyomura, and Rob Sato. IPP is a science fiction comic by Victor Santos with art so appealing that it overcomes the seemingly parodic premise. The Dark Divide is a horror comic by Haden Blackman and Michael Stribling. Crystal Fighters by Jen and Tyler Bartel is about a Magical Girl fight club within a VR world.
So that's everything we have from Stela so far, but there are new things coming out every day. While I didn't love all of these comics, I liked the upcoming "sneak peak" books a lot more than the current ones, which is definitely a good sign for the future. And I love the format. I really only use Comixology on my tablet, and I like the idea of having a steady stream of comics that are easily readable on my phone, always there when I'm in line at the bank or in a waiting room somewhere. This really does feel like the comics app of tomorrow, and I'm interested to see what the future holds.
Stela is currently available on iOS, and you can find it on the App Store now. You can read the first chapter of any story for free, but subscribing for $5/month is the only way to read everything.