Warren Ellis's latest project will be released this week, but it will not appear in comic shops. Instead, readers will be treated to the debut of "FreakAngels" this Friday, when Avatar Press will launch its first original web comic. The series, illustrated by Paul Duffield, will appear in five-page weekly installments, telling the story of an enigmatic group of young people who might just save the future. Avatar is offering "FreakAngels" completely free, with eventual collected editions for sale in print. CBR News chatted with Avatar founder William Christensen about the new online publishing venture, and why the Avatar model is unlike what we've seen before.
The decision for Avatar to initiate an online publishing scheme was borne out of Ellis's continuing desire to experiment with the comics medium. "Warren Ellis was the catalyst," William Christensen told CBR News. "He's constantly exploring ways to use the internet to distribute content, and I'm always looking for ways to get our creators to a wider audience. Once we started talking about melting down the internet with the best web comic anyone's ever put up there, I was sold. I'm always thrilled to do new projects with Warren and this was something he'd been wanting to do, he just hadn't found anyone who saw the potential there -- and was willing to pay for it."
Though other publishers have offered content online, sometimes even new material, "FreakAngels" is perhaps unique in that its creators will be paid as they would if it were a standard, print comic. "After I spent a little time looking around, I realized there hasn't been much in the way of a focused effort at providing streamlined, quality material," Christensen said. "We're not interested in setting up a huge site with a grab-bag of daily strips-Warren and Paul are going to make an amazing serial comic, and we're going to make sure it's being produced and displayed as well as anything you'd pick up on a shelf."
"FreakAngels" takes place in an imaginative future world in which something has gone horribly wrong. In this case, the "something" is the fault of the FreakAngels themselves, a group Ellis described in a "Bad Signal" email blast as "a clan of unrelated young people with purple hair and purple eyes." The trouble, Ellis goes on to say, comes when "a girl called Alice from Manchester turns up with a shotgun and a grievance, having met the lost, prodigal last Freakangel, who had very different ideas about what they should do with themselves and this flooded future England."
For readers, the benefits of a free web comic from a top-name creator are obvious. But from a publishing standpoint, there are still many questions surrounding web content-particularly free, open access content-that still do not have straight, easy answers. What is the best way to present material online? How will free access affect sales of a printed edition? How does one measure whether the endeavor has been successful?
"I think everybody is still learning about what putting comics online can do for both reader and creator, but we do have some things we'regoing to try with this project," said Christensen. "There are some obvious benefits, like reaching a wider audience, and getting instant feedback. It also gives Warren a chance to play with a weekly format-which is a pace he's said he'd like to explore. And the opportunity for a community to form around the work is one of the key things that is happening here. There are important additional benefits to that in itself, because it gives this group of folks the chance to see other projects along the way and express their views on them.
"Really, we already consider it a success, because we've already got a thriving community at Whitechapel, who are enjoying the preview material and are as excited about the launch as we are. Long term, it's going to be great to watch that community grow as more people find the comic, and to hear what they think about it. It's important to have retailers involved in this process also, and we already have a number of retailers participating on Whitechapel. We'll also be sharing our success with retailers when we begin to offer up the 'FreakAngels' collections, and as other projects are discussed at Whitechapel. I think they will begin to see the effects of that in their stores also."
That said, there are always some questions and concerns when attempting something new, and Christensen spoke about some of the issues Avatar faced in producing its first web comic. "Like most endeavors, you have to put effort into it to get something worthwhile out. So the budget for the project-paying the creators, setting up the site and so on, is not a concern, it's just something we factored in when we planned the project. But since we hadn't done a web comic before, one of our big early concerns was accessibility," he said. "We knew we had this great story and art, next we had to make sure that people were going to get a great experience reading it from start to finish. A lot of our effort in the development stage was spent focusing on that, and I think readers are going to find this easy to read and navigate. There are some additional usability touches there as well, such as a text transcript for each page and the ability to translate that into other languages."
Christiensen also indicated the page transcript function would allow a full search of the series' dialogue, which he said will have "some pretty interesting consequences for community discussion."
"The biggest risk, frankly, is that we hope our new server can handle the load," Christensen said. "We've planned the hardware and bandwidth issues out as best we can, but I mean, free Warren Ellis webc omic, right? But that's the kind of problem we want to have, and if a need arises there we'll address it immediately. That sort of issue aside, the concerns are very similar to any other publishing endeavor. We work with creators to put together a great comic, find ways to show it to as many people as possible, and see what the readers think of it."
The artist on the series is Paul Duffield, whose previous credits include "Manga Shakespeare: The Tempest" and a strip in "Mammoth Book of Best New Manga 2." Duffield also won TOKYOPOP's first UK Rising Stars of Manga competition. Christensen credits Avatar artist Jacen Burrows with bringing Duffield onto the project "Jacen sent me some art samples from him and I was blown away. Paul's work is just the perfect style for a project like this," Christensen said. "It's gorgeous work and incredibly detailed, but what's amazing is his ability to create clean, open compositions -- perfect for viewing on a screen, and equally as striking when we eventually collect the pages in print. That's a unique skill that is important to us on this project. His color is just fantastic also. We had Paul whip up some 'FreakAngels' samples for Warren and the rest is history. Paul is that rare artist that editors and writers are always thrilled about finding-the art is beautiful, the storytelling adept, and he just brings a unique vision to his work."
"FreakAngels" premieres its first five-page weekly episode on Friday, February 15, at freakangels.com. From there, Christensen said, "the plan is for it to run as long as Warren is interested in writing it. The format and the nature of web comics allows him the level of freedom to tell the story at the length and pace that he requires."
Avatar will be maintaining an archive of each issue, which will also be free to access at the site. "I know he has general ideas for the first few years worth of stories already. No one should be surprised when we celebrate our first, second, or fifth year anniversaries."
Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.