Comics, animation and video games, all on the same platform, all offered for free: That's the vision Alex Simmons has for his new digital service, the Arthawk Entertainment Online Network (AEON). He's running a Kickstarter campaign to get the service off the ground, and he already has plans to go beyond that.
Simmons is a veteran comics writer whose credits include Archie Comics (he won a Glyph Award for his story "The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton"), Scooby-Doo and his own creator-owned series, Blackjack. He writes in a variety of other formats as well, including creating interactive mystery stories for the Tiger Toys video game, and he runs the annual Kids' Comic Con in the Bronx. A few years ago he put together an art exhibit, "The Color of Comics," that traveled as far away as Senegal.
The AEON is an ambitious project. Artist Derrick A. Richardson, who has done work for DC and Marvel, is the CEO, and Simmons and Richardson have put together a team of animation, creative and technical consultants to build the platform. All this costs money, and they set the goal of the Kickstarter at $100,000. I talked with Simmons about the thinking behind the platform and what the next steps will be.
Robot 6: First of all, what exactly is The AEON? Is it an app? A website?
Alex Simmons: For all intents and purposes it’s a responsive design website, which can be viewed on any Internet device. But to us, it’s a portal through which we can take creative arts and entertainment anywhere on the globe. Starting with my most well-known creation, Blackjack.
You describe it in the campaign video as "transmedia," with a comic, an animated series and a game all on the same platform. How will that enhance the storytelling and the user experience?
First, financially, because once we launch, all that entertainment is free.
Second, variety, because we’re developing four series to start, but we’re already talking to other indie creators about their projects.
Third, interactive participation, which is the cherry on top. The mini-video game themes and play will tie into the series. So sometimes you’ll play games that connect to a specific story. Other times you’ll explore and discover secrets and aspects of the series’ universe and characters.
And just like we’re offering in our Kickstarter fundraising campaign, people can obtain an opportunity to help create a universe, or simply be part of it.
It looks like a number of people are involved. What part do you play?
I like to think I have the best and most precarious job in the company, editor-in-chief. I get to work on all the creative material, applying my 30-plus years of experience in the arts and entertainment field. That’s the fun stuff. I’m also the person who has to keep people on track and make certain uncomfortable artistic and pragmatic decisions. So, I do a lot of deep breathing.
You plan to launch with Blackjack, which is a series you started some time ago. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Blackjack is the story of Arron Day, an African-American solider of fortune in the 1930s. It has that globetrotting, high adventure, Indiana Jones vibe. But it’s also the story of a black man in that era. His experiences, and those of other people of color and cultures tell a different side of life at that time. And that’s what makes the danger and discoveries fresh and exciting.
Arron’s father was a mercenary, brought into that world during the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and World War I. Like many black men of that era, once away from their oppressive servitude status in the U.S., they chose to make their way as soldiers … because it made them feel more like men.
Arron’s mother was determined their children would know their father, so they stayed in places near his various assignments. Because of this, Arron and his sister were exposed to different cultures and beliefs early in life. And though Arron grew up to be like his father in certain ways — he knew there were consequences to his actions and some did not sit well with him. So, now he has to choose where his father ends and where he begins, and what he will and won’t do for the money.
As the logline says, “He faces powerful enemies, the ghosts of his past, and the bigotry of his time.”
Will the other series that will be part of The AEON cross over with Blackjack and each other?
Not any of the ones we’re developing now. No. We have an exciting intergalactic action-drama series, as well as angst and sibling stress with the first super-powered teens on Earth, and a bevy of international beauties endowed with cosmic powers and the responsibilities of saving the world from mythic monsters.
One of the points of what we're doing with The AEON is to make our content as accessible as possible, on a global scale.
All great stories end. All of our launch series have very definite arcs to the stories they tell.
Then there’s the younger audience we want to serve. We have three tween and children’s programs we want in development by summer of 2015. One of them will involve children from four different countries. ‘Nuff said.
Part of the concept is that the comics will be free. How do you plan to monetize it? Is the Kickstarter an essential part of that?
Not just the comics. The animated episodes and games will also be free.
We've borrowed the free to play model that has taken the gaming world by storm, with games like World of Tanks, League of Legends, and of course, Candy Crush Saga, and modified it to our needs and, in turn, our users' needs.
Monetizing the site will involve three tiers. One of them will be based on in-app purchases, much like Candy Crush or Temple Run. Another is series merchandise such as apparel, mugs, prints and so on. The third is under wraps for now.
The success of the Kickstarter is key. We’ve put together a lot on a wing, a prayer, and a buck ninety-five. But we need this initial seed money to further develop some of the initial content (Blackjack comics, a three-minute episode, and designing the first mini-game). These elements will keep the project moving forward in a timely manner.
You set a very high goal: $100,000. Why so much?
A very good reason. This stuff is expensive! After numerous meetings with experts here, as well as our web consultant, and the animation studio, we worked out a very concise budget. The CGI animation we're doing for Blackjack can run up to $40,000 a minute, just to give an indication. And this doesn't include post-production, voice acting and editing. The first part of the game is going to run around $20,000. And 11 pages of professionally done comics can cost $10,000.
And then we have to deliver it all, utilizing a content-delivery network. Additional cost. So $100,000 is actually the lowest goal we could give, and still be able to show people the full experience in action.
Do you have a plan B if the Kickstarter doesn't succeed? Will we see The AEON in some different form?
You mean aside from crying profusely?
Seriously, yes there is a plan B and C. There’s even a Plan D. We know we have a sound project here—one that will not only serve our creative needs and goals but also those of other pros and newcomers.
The beta site is up. The global site will grow from that. People will see and be a part of the unfolding process.
We have a five-year plan. We have the 162-page business plan, business model canvas, PowerPoint deck, proof-of-concept prototype, and an international A-team of creative pros to show that we are beyond serious about doing this.
My work with the Kids’ Comic Con (in the U.S. and two other countries) has helped demonstrated the value of arts and education programs, and we plan to continue that work through The AEON.
We also want to develop training programs that will help artists and writers better understand how to use their skills on a business level.
So, The AEON can morph in order to grow and blossom, but this is a golden time for us to succeed. We have the tools and the talent in place. The territory is still new and ripe with possibilities.
And Oscar award-winner Morgan Freeman has endorsed the Blackjack series! All we really need right now is the funds to make it so.
Therefore, we're asking fans of comics, animation, film, and games to join us. We're asking professional animators, comics’ pros, filmmakers and game developers to join us. It's going to be an amazing adventure; you absolutely don't want to miss!