Sequential - A New Graphic Novel App:
Interview with Russell Willis
In this digital age, the comics medium is transforming again and more rapidly than ever before. This week, Sequential, an innovative, game-changing app for iPad, is launched in the UK and Ireland. Its initial line-up of titles is really strong with outstanding graphic novels by the likes of Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, David Lloyd, Brian Bolland, Hunt Emerson, Gilbert Shelton, Nick Abadzis, Terry Wiley and Darryl Cunningham, with many new titles coming into the store every week. The initial range included Dapper John: In the Days of the Ace Rock and Roll Club by Campbell, the crime thriller Kickback by Lloyd, and the bumper compilation of The Certified Hunt Emerson.
Last month in London, Sequential’s energetic publisher-entrepreneur, Tokyo-based Russell Willis (above), joined me and several of the creators he is publishing to present an exclusive UK preview at Comica Festival at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design (you can watch Rich Johnston’s two short YouTube videos from that evening below). Today, I caught up again with Russell back in Japan, now that his much-anticipated Sequential App finally becomes available for free via the iTunes Store.
Hi Russell. Would you believe, you and I go back thirty years to the early 1980s, when I was starting the Fast Fiction table and mail order service for small press comics and then co-publishing Escape Magazine with Peter Stanbury, and you began your own zine Infinity? And here you are, back in comics again.
Yes, I have always been fascinated by graphic novels and sequential art since I first met you back then, Paul, when I was one of those advocating a move away from the superhero fixation that had prevailed. It seems that I am now in the right place and this is the right time to do something to help promote accessible, intelligent, entertaining and life-enhancing graphic novels and sequential art, with not a superhero in sight! With the launch of Sequential I have the chance to practice what I have been preaching since I was fifteen. Goodness me.
So what was your epiphany, your wake-up moment, when you first realised how digital could transform comics?
It was a combination of three things. First, the “lean back” touch-screen experience of the iPad meant that graphic novels, for the first time, could be read comfortably on a digital device. That comfort factor is a key difference – people didn’t generally read at length on a computer screen, but did on a tablet. Second, living in Tokyo, I was used to English publications being hard to find and I realised that this was similar for most people in respect to graphic novels. Even those who had bought and loved a graphic novel often didn’t know where to get another decent one, or were put off by life-size statues of Spider-Man and the general ambience of a typical comic shop. I realised that digital versions of graphic novels could be available easily to anyone, no matter where they lived, with an iPad or tablet. Third, I was running a software company that specialized in developing easy-to-use, heavily visual software and realised we could create something that produced a truly elegant and fluid reading experience that was better than anything else out there. Together, these things just seemed to steamroll me into creating digital graphic novels for the iPad.
Can you clarify what distinguishes Sequential from Panel Nine please?
Panel Nine is a software development and publishing house based in Tokyo but with an office in London and representation in New York. We publish and produce stand-alone apps of various sorts (our first digital graphic novel was Dapper John by Eddie Campbell) and we do the production work for the iPad Newsstand version of The Phoenix comic. Sequential is the name of the iPad storefront app for graphic novels that Panel Nine has developed. Sequential contains work published by Panel Nine, but also Blank Slate Books, Knockabout, and Myriad, with Self-Made Hero, Walker Books, Jonathan Cape and many others in the pipeline.
What were the stages and challenges of developing Sequential, and getting it right?
We’ve spent well over a year and half creating a truly delightful user experience, and from a software development and user experience point of view we’ve really sweated the details. Our team argues for hours over minor User Interface details… we go into cold sweats over items being a pixel off. It’s insane. Sequential’s features include: instant resolution of retina images (no nasty pixellated effect); super slick swiping from page to page (no exasperating stickiness or unresponsiveness); our Panel Mode which allows smooth pixel-per-second movement when viewing the comic panel-by-panel; the beautiful visual contents that allows easy navigation through the app, bookmarks and much more, including provision for audio commentaries by the artist, and even video introductions, as well as modal views that can contain HTML 5 content. On the reading engine side, this creates a truly fluid and responsive user experience that people have just raved about – for people who have compared these things, it really is the gold standard. My favourite quote, though, is from Woodrow Phoenix, who noted that we had produced “an app that doesn’t make you want to punch someone in the face.” For Sequential, we’ve added a storefront so you can buy great digital graphic novels and a library so you can marvel at them. It’s the app those of sophistication and tastes – like your good self – can’t be without!
What convinced you that there is an under-tapped adult audience out there for quality, non-corporate franchise comics and how do you reach this and persuade this?
I can’t say that Sequential is the result of a deeply professional and cold-blooded analysis of the market. The reality is that this is driven as much by evangelical fervour as business metrics. However, adults love great graphic novels and will buy them if they know about them and know how to get them. I had an interesting conversation with a marketing person the other month. I asked her if she had read a graphic novel and she said that she had – Persepolis – and that she had loved it so much she bought a copy for all her friends and family for Christmas. This was back in 2010. I asked her if she had bought one since. Her answer: no. There’s a pattern here, where graphic novels break out and sell hundreds of thousands of copies – think Ethel & Ernest, Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus... but the mainstream audience that buys these items doesn’t often join the dots and get another graphic novel. Why? We think it’s partly an issue of discoverability (what other things are there?), accessibility (how do I get these things?) and branding (what image do these things have and how does that affect my self image?). The brand image for graphic novels that a Persepolis or a Maus creates is damaged every time those titles are stood next to a man with his underpants over his trousers.
Digital is growing everywhere in publishing, and superhero comics have seen a leap from around $20 million per year in 2011 to around $70 million in 2012. We see an opportunity to create an app that brings together material designed for adult sensibilities and through that creates a sophisticated brand for graphic novels and sequential art that is separate from the geek market. We’re betting that this will expand the market substantially for these kind of graphic novels.
How have the negotiations with publishers gone? How open-minded are they? Is there fear of a paperless future or an embracing of this new potential form?
I think publishers clearly understand that digital is happening and are looking at how best to get their product out there in the right digital format. We are working with a certain type of publisher, a type that publishes work of a sophisticated, intelligent nature and are essentially book publishers, not geek-market Intellectual Property factories. These publishers appreciate that with Sequential we are setting up a space where a buyer of something like From Hell or Persepolis or Nelson would feel at home, and that a success from one publishing company will, via Sequential, benefit all of them. Now when a graphic novel “breaks out”, it will be available through Sequential, and the reader can buy that, and right next to that find, and immediately purchase and download another title that they are likely to also enjoy. As I say, this will greatly help to expand the whole market for graphic novels and sequential art.
Publishers also appreciate that we care deeply about the presentation of their material. Just as they care about dust jackets, bindings, end papers, paper quality etc., so we care about the equivalent in the digital space. In most cases they don’t want to shovel it out there in an ePub. So, publishers are with us on this, although sometimes the legal departments of bigger publishers can ensure that things don’t move as quickly as they should!
Is there any reason to still read graphic novels on paper at all? I guess Chris Ware’s Building Stories goes out of its way to defy being digitized?
Paper will always be with us, and paper is great. I think there will always be a market for printed books, but that market will look very different from how it looks now. Certainly the age of the mass market paperback novel is coming to a close… Printed graphic novels will need to be artifacts in themselves, perhaps signed in gold ink and printed with ink mixed with the blood of the creators…. And certainly there are printed graphic novels that can’t be replicated digitally, but there are also digital graphic novels that can’t be printed, and those using our new Sequential Mode will be in that category. Creators will often work with both digital and print versions in mind in the future but with digital as the primary publication medium.
What refinements and improvements to reading comics digitally does Sequential offer - and what else do you envision could still be done to make it even better?
Sequential features two ways to read comics. The first way is for comics that were originally intended for print and are presented with all the features I described earlier, including using our Panel Mode. I should say on that, lots of people who aren’t “comics fans” find reading panel-by-panel much easier than looking at a page. It seems that, not being used to reading a comics page, the multiple panels in their peripheral vision can disorient them, whereas looking at panels one at a time allows them to focus. I’ve also noticed that some very visually dense comics, such as Moore and O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman (which is available on Sequential) are great to read in that way, because of all the detail in the panel. You get to really take it in…
Anyway, the second way to read is through what we are calling Sequential Mode, and this is a new way of telling stories using sequential art, where one screen replaces another, a bit like a slideshow; where one screen can equate to a single panel or can have numerous panels, but the screen is designed from the get-go to be viewed on a tablet. Mark Waid’s Thrillbent approaches things similarly, although we have a smoother experience with a few additional tweaks. The great thing is that a sequential artist doesn’t need a multimedia studio or a cast of thousands to create this, they can prototype it in Powerpoint or Keynote. And Sequential Mode comics are still completely under the user’s control, they are not in any way like “motion comics” but do allow new and different storytelling techniques. So that people can understand Sequential Mode we’ve published a simple story by myself and Terry Wiley that can be downloaded for free from Sequential. Take a look!
You’ve said that if you were offered Watchmen for Sequential, you wouldn’t include it. Why are you excluding all of the superhero genre, even its masterpieces?
I talked about branding earlier. We are going after the “real mainstream” with Sequential, not the geek market, and the fact is that people who read Fun Home and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes don’t normally read She-Hulk, and to be brutally frank they would find it rather disturbing to understand that there are adults who do read She-Hulk, and go to comic shops with figurines and life-sized statues and what not… So from a marketing point of view, we don’t want to muddy the waters by including superheroes. Not even Watchmen, because when you look at it without knowing what it is, it’s about a man in an owl costume and this big blue guy, and in your mind it’s Bam! Pow! Biff! all over again. Talking about the graphic novel boomlet in the Eighites, Alan Moore said something along the lines that the world of comics had been caught on the main street of culture with its underpants outside its trousers. Now, over 25 years later, it’s about time we were properly dressed.
How will Sequential roll out internationally? Do you envisage working with non-English language material and with multi-lingual translated editions? In theory, one touch or swipe could switch from one language to another?
Well, we’re launching in the UK and Ireland on Wednesday May 29th, then the US and the rest of the world in June. For non-English versions we’d want to work closely with companies that understood their respective markets through a partnership or licensing arrangement for the software. Get in touch!
What are your plans for Sequential for other non-Apple platforms? Will it come out for Android?
Yes, at the end of the year.
Sequential is aimed at adults. What are your ideas for developing the equivalent for kids?
Aha! You’ve been reading my mind. We already work with The Phoenix and are talking with kids’ publishers about this very thing. Nick Abadzis is helping us with this too. Stay tuned.
Will Sequential originate new digital comics? If so, what sort?
Panel Nine expects to publish two or three graphic novels per year, and these will be available on Sequential, and we’ll be encouraging individual creators to work with us, especially for Sequential Mode stories, but we expect the vast majority of new work to come via our publishing partners.
Where will Sequential, and digital comics, be in five years’ time? Will animation, soundtracks, voice-acting, become so much quicker and cheaper to add to comics, that they replace the reading and reader-control experience?
Sequential will stay true to a crucial aspect of sequential art, which is that the reader always has control. We’ll leave the more melodramatic bells and whistles to others who will create something, but it will be different. At the end of the day, whilst Sequential is on the cutting edge in terms of software development, we’re conservative enough to realise that sequential art doesn’t need those features to tell beautiful, intelligent, affecting, crazed and comedic stories – and there are so many of those stories out there that deserve a much wider audience.
Be sure to get hold of the free Sequential App from the iTunes Store right away and discover the best in deluxe digital graphic novels.
Posted: May 28, 2013
Photographs from Sequential Preview at Comica courtsey of Etienne Gilfillan. YouTube videos courtesy of Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool.