Conversing on Comics with Ron Perazza

For the past 18 years, Ron Perazza has worked in and around the comics industry in virtually every facet of the medium. He's best known for spearheading DC Comics' first major foray into original webcomics content with the celebrated but sadly defunct Zuda initiative, but now he's in a different place -- but still doing what he's always done: pushing to get comics in front of as many people as possible.

After working for 12 years at DC and briefly at digital-comics platform comiXology, Perazza is  pushing innovation in comics formats and delivery systems as a consultant for others and with his own initiatives. One of those is Comic Book Think Tank, an idea incubator of sorts for Perazza and collaborator Daniel Govar to examine and execute comics in a digital world. Their first release was the comic Relaunch, with more planned. I talked with Perazza about the future, and what led him down the path to where he is today.

Chris Arrant: Easing into this one, what are you working on today?

Ron Perazza: Today, as in right-now today? I'm working on a site update for Comic Book Think Tank. In fact, by the time this interview is live the update will also be live! Beyond that, since I left comiXology, I've been spending my time doing digital publishing consulting work in and out of working on Think Tank, Relaunch and the next comic experiment ... but Daniel Govar and I aren't quite ready to talk about that one yet.

But you can talk about Relaunch. Can you tell us about that?

I've been friends with Dan for a number of years now and been a fan of his work since back in the early days of Zuda when he was doing a series called Azure. We have very similar outlooks when it comes to digital publishing. So when I was first thinking about Relaunch -- before it even had a name -- I knew I wanted to work with Dan on it. I knew that not only would he be able to understand what I wanted to achieve but he'd also be able to build on it as well. Push it even further.

Relaunch started as an experiment. I was thinking about reading a comic in print and how it differed from reading a comic digitally. Or rather, how it could be different. Simply put, a print comic is completely static -- unchangeable -- whereas a digital comic is infinitely flexible. A moment in one panel has the ability to change the entire "page."

For decades comic book storytelling has evolved with one reading experience in mind: the printed page. Digital publishing allows us to do so much more and yet still preserve the essential reading experience and storytelling techniques of a comic book. We don't need to be as limited as simply distributing print comics digitally; however, we also don't need to completely throw out everything that is amazing about comics and morph into animation or motion graphics. There's a whole world within those extremes.

So that was my initial approach -- creating a comic that is a reading experience, that uses comic book storytelling techniques but that is created specifically for online and tablet reading.

What are your goals for Comic Book Think Tank?

Comic Book Think Tank is an umbrella site where Dan and I (and maybe others) can focus on comics and comic storytelling. Its not really a publishing imprint so much as its a research and advocacy effort. So don't expect a regular publishing schedule or an online store or anything like that any time soon!

The response to Relaunch has been great so we are definitely planning on continuing it as a serialized, digital comic. We're also working on some other comic ideas and toying with different storytelling techniques as well.

Dan and I have been kicking around ideas and having discussions about digital comics and storytelling for a while so we figured why not just move it all online and share what we're doing? There's literally no downside for us and we might actually help some others along the way. That's what led to decisions like building a shareware comic viewer (with all due credit to brilliant developer Oscar Gagliardi for his work there) and launching the process blog.

We're both fans of digital comics so I guess the goal is just to practice what we preach.

Where do you see online comics, and comics in general, 10 years from now in 2022? What will the big headlines be about on CBR?

Wow, that's tough! The publishing industry is in a period of change right now. The magazine business as a whole continues to shrink and, at this point, doesn't seem to be weathering the transition to digital distribution as effectively as the book business. Generally speaking, I think the comic industry faces similar challenges; however, comics are able to stave off the effects a bit by relying on the collectible aspect of the business and using stunts like crossovers or variant covers to goose sales.

If I had to guess I'd say we'll see a gradual but steady contraction on the periodical side of the business. As time goes on the number of readers that own smart phones and tablets of one kind or another is only going to increase and the convenience of online shopping compared to physical, location-based shopping can't be underestimated. For example, I grew up in a fairly small town and there were exactly zero comic shops in my area. Going to "my local comic shop" wasn't even an option even though I was fully aware of comics and wanted to buy them. I had no access. Digital distribution completely eliminates the "access" part of that problem.

Interestingly, I think the direct market has helped insulate the comic industry from a lot of the problems magazines are facing at newsstand; however, its also kept them at arms length from the larger, mainstream publishing business. Its easy to think that comics are somehow different. That they're some kind of special exception. To a certain degree, that's true but its not exceptionally true. Comics are unique. But the challenge of the next decade is going to have to figure out how the comic industry can celebrate that uniqueness without segregating itself to the point of obsolescence.

With that in mind, I think we'll see steady growth on the book side of the business as interest in comic content continues to increase, the popularity of tablets continue to rise, and new readers shop in ways that mimic their current eBook buying patterns. After all, eBook sales are seeing double and even triple digit growth.! The readers are there...and they're buying books.

The project people know you best for is your work on DC’s Zuda Comics line, which you spearheaded. What did you learn from that experience?

I have to say that for the most part the whole experience with Zuda was really great and I consider myself very lucky for having had that opportunity. It'd probably take far more time than I have here to discuss everything I learned!

Thinking back on it, one of the driving principles behind nearly every decision I made -- and everything we, as a team, tried to achieve - was to stop doing things just because that's the way it was always done. We love comics and nostalgia can be fun but its not a very good path toward innovation. There's already too much nostalgia based decision making in the comic industry.

With that in mind, Zuda itself was as much an experiment as any of the content we developed. That approach led to things like "seasons" instead of issues, horizontal aspect ratios for page specs, updates based on artist schedules instead of shipping schedules, getting rid of skill-based page rates, and so on.

If I had to try and sum it all up I'd say have a vision but don't be blinded by it. Rely on the expertise of those you trust. And maybe most importantly - don't be afraid to fail. Even though Zuda no longer exists I think it had a lasting, if subtle, impact. Some of the things we were doing five years ago are still being discussed and implemented by digital comics creators even now. That feels good.

How do you see the Zuda experience reflecting back on the current practices at DC, Marvel and elsewhere? What did the companies learn from that experiment?

This is a tricky question. You have to bear in mind that I left DC Comics when they moved to Los Angeles, well over a year ago. I haven't been at Marvel in over a decade. It's easy to armchair quarterback and say they should be doing this or should have done that. The reality is that , right or wrong, its almost impossible to understand everything that factors into their decision making process when you're not in the building. So, with that huge caveat in pace, it's hard to say what the companies learned.

To be honest, there isn't a whole lot that DC kept in place when they shut down Zuda. Not just editorially but across the board -- formats, methods, contracts, technology and so on. Shortly after Zuda shut down, DC was gearing up for the "New 52" relaunch and there was a lot of restructuring going on to set the stage for their new direction. I mean, maybe you could make an argument that they got rid of the good with the bad but you could just as easily make a counter-argument that it was necessary for where they wanted to take the company.

I do wish DC finished some of the series that Zuda acquired though. High Moon won the Harvey Award for Best Online Work. Bayou was nominated for the Eisner, a record number of Glyph Awards and was recognized by the American Library Association. Clearly those stories were resonating with readers but, for the most part, the Zuda library was politely shelved as DC focused on its new editorial direction. Understandable but unfortunate.

Talking to some former co-workers of yours, I had more than one say one of your key attributes is how you take ownership and responsibility of projects – becoming personally invested in the development and implementation of a project. What would you say to that statement by your co-workers, in relation to the projects and initiatives you’ve been a part of?

That is extremely flattering -- and great to hear! It's also very true that I get personally invested. I think if you believe in something you should be willing to stand up for it. Have a sense of ownership and not only take responsibility for the work you do but also for the work everyone does on your behalf. Otherwise why bother? It's pretty cowardly to try and be there for the accolades but make excuses and blame others for the failures. That's just an unrewarding way to live.

You’ve worked on both sides of the online sales of comics, from over at DC to being at comiXology. What do you think are the big issues being worked through that need to be overcome to achieve even better sales online of comics?

That's a tricky question. I feel like I should point out that I don't have access to any internal sales figures so I can't speak to that directly. That said, I think the big issue is discoverability.

Digital distribution has effectively solved the problem of availability. We've got that covered. As an industry we know how to take existing material and make it available to everyone, everywhere through an app, the web or a device based service. So in that regard publishing companies are only limited by logistics -- essentially their production capacity.

However, simply making more and more comics available digitally doesn't do much if the only people that know about it are the same ones that we're buying in print or if the material is essentially unnavigable to anyone that isn't already steeped in decades of comic lore so that they sort of already know where to begin or what to seek out. After all, comics are essentially magazines. Can you imagine giving someone instant access to 50 years of Sports Illustrated and then expecting them to find out about -- and become a fan of -- the Detroit Tigers? Now can you imagine someone not into baseball spontaneously deciding to do this on their own?

Making it easy for new readers to casually discover digital comics and, similarly, making it easy for them to get into and follow the material is going to be the next big challenge. The solution isn't likely to be a copy/paste of what works in print.

It seems publishers are walking a fine line in pushing online comic sales while trying not to disenfranchise brick-and-mortar retailers. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so how do you think it impacts readers – online and in print?

It does seem that way, doesn't it? It's not a big secret that I don't believe that publishers should intentionally hobble the growth of their digital business out of fear that it'll impact their print business. I think that's a really short sighted strategy. At best its a minor frustration for readers. Readers aren't stupid. They know when they're being unfairly and arbitrarily inconvenienced. Comic fans are loyal but if you do that often enough, long enough, they'll lose faith and go away. And why shouldn't they?

The real problem is thinking that its an either/or scenario and that the digital customer and the print customer are the same person. That each digital sale is one less print sale. There are obviously certain business realities that need to be considered - budgets, schedules, shipping dates -- but that's a very myopic view of things not to mention completely inaccurate.

While there's certainly overlap between print and digital comic buyers there are literally thousands upon thousands of digital readers who have never bought a print comic and never will. They don't know comics are released on Wednesday or who Jack Kirby is, they've never been to a comic-con and they can't tell you if Marvel publishes Spider-Man or Superman. But maybe they're into science fiction or they watch The Walking Dead and they have a Kindle or an iPad. They buy and read digital books. We shouldn't require these people to understand print comics -- or to even care about print comics -- so that they can be digital comic readers.

There's no reason that the digital readership shouldn't be given every bit of attention and consideration that publishers give the print readership.

This interview is one I’ve been bugging you about for over a year now. Since then you had a stint at comiXology, but you left there in June. In your 14 years in the comic industry, you’ve become one of the key people in taking the comics medium into the digital world. From working in the creative services departments at Marvel and DC do being the vice president of online at DC Entertainment and getting DC’s first official app and organize its digital publishing. Would you say you were a technical/computer oriented person growing up?

It's funny, as a kid I never really set out to to focus on digital comics but, yeah, it turns out its been a through-line for most of my career. Growing up I was absolutely a comics+computers kid. I used to spend hours in front of my old Commodore programming sprites to look like superheroes and I distinctly remember saving my allowance to buy a 1,200-bit modem. Meanwhile, in the things I was reading and watching, technology was everywhere. Not just in obvious places like Batman's gadgets or Iron Man's suit. You've got characters like Warlock and Forge are popping up in Uncanny X-Men, the Six-Million Dollar Man is on television, Blade Runner and the Terminator are in theaters. All of that really made an impression on me. I think I was part of a generation where, for maybe the first time, technology wasn't just a tool you used and put away. It was just part of your life.

Digging back, I was surprised to learn that your college degree is in art, focusing on illustration and art history. I know Karen Berger at Vertigo has a degree in art history, but how did your particular college degree translate into comics work?

I'm sure I was like a lot of kids that got into comics at a young age, spending hours drawing superheroes and copying my favorite artists. I took art classes throughout my childhood but by the time I got to college I was veering away from traditional "house style" superhero comic art. I was really into things like the editorial illustrations of Marshall Arisman or even completely abstract expressionist, painterly stuff like Mark Rothko. There's kind of a subtle beauty to faded color on top of color or top of color ... Anyway, without getting too "art school" here, I think the important thing is that comic art is unique in that its really about storytelling. It's not just a picture. Yet there are so many well-known, obvious visual elements - the heavy blacks, panels, word balloons - that its easy to miss the subtleties. When that happens there's a real danger of disconnecting from the art as a storytelling device and devolving into a kind of cliche-driven visual idioglossia.

What are the goals for you with Relaunch? Is it hard to be “just” a writer and do the book when you know all the other mechanics involved with getting a comic out there?

Well, I don't know that I'd say I'm "just" the writer on Relaunch or that Dan is "just" the artist. I don't think you can isolate the roles that simply. In fact, early on in the process Dan and I agreed that we were going to ditch roles entirely and just work together to make the comic. I had the initial idea for how to tell the story and wrote the script while Dan created all the art and lettering but, for lack of a better term, the "storytelling" part was very mutual and cooperative.

By that I mean, how the user navigate the comic, the transitions, what elements would change within each scene and how that added to the story -- or detracted from it. Actually, I think that's really an important thing we learned about telling this kind of story. The traditional workflow -- those mechanics -- are really geared toward producing the traditional product. Since Relaunch changes within each page as the story progresses the creative process needed to be a lot less linear. In that sense, the experiences I've had with the other mechanics you mentioned were really helpful and let both Dan and I have a more holistic view of things.

When you introduced me to Relaunch you described this as you pushing what you’ve been trying to do for years – “clean comic storytelling that acknowledges where comics have come from while recognizing how they're read today (on tablets, online, etc).” Why do you think this is so important?

Consider this: eBooks are a multibillion-dollar business yet never really felt the need to "plus up" prose. The eBook is essentially the same storytelling experience as its print counterpart. Advancements, and advantages, for eBooks came in things like embedded dictionaries, variable font sizes or highlighting tools. In other words, taking advantage of the technology to help the reader and not redefine what it means to be a book.

With that in mind, I really believe that comics don't need to be not comics in order to be successful. A comic book isn't the same thing as a cartoon or a video game. They have fundamentally different storytelling techniques from the timing, to the narrative structure, to the visual language and so on. That's not to say that there aren't stories to be told using animation and sound effects, voice-over, embedded games or some other combination of techniques. There are - and in my career I've actually helped tell some of those stories.

However, with Relaunch and with the rest of the comics were developing for Comic Book Think Tank, I'm interested in making comics. Comics are great and comic stories and storytelling has been resonating with readers for decades. But like eBooks, I think we can use the technology to help the reader and make comics more approachable without redefining what it means to be a comic.

And do you feel sometimes as if online comics are too overly indebted to the print publishing format or vice versa too focused on being modern?

Absolutely. That's sort of what I was talking about in answering the previous question. For example, there is no reason whatsoever that publishers should create a comic intended to be read digitally that is locked to a traditional, vertical page design. That's an easy conversation to have, an easy problem to address and there are plenty of creative solutions.

Generally speaking, there doesn't seem to be a lot of decisions being made that don't either originate with print or, similarly, need to resolve themselves back to print. Original webcomics being the major exception there, of course. I think with your question you're referring more to traditional print publishers, though.

Unfortunately it seems like many "digital originals" aren't much more than a print comics created specifically to be collected in print down the line. There's nothing wrong with that, by the way. Experimenting with alternate delivery schedules is a good idea - but lets not confuse it with digital innovation, you know? If your goal is to ultimately create a print book that looks and feels essentially the same as your other print books then you're really just backing into a predetermined end point. You're not really considering any options that don't get you to that goal - even if they're great, innovative ideas!

Similarly, if you're goal is to introduce new elements simply because you can then you're probably on the wrong track. Meaning, just because you can embed a video doesn't mean you should.

I think you have to approach things story first. Tell a good story. Nothing trumps quality.

This isn’t the first time you’ve written comics – you wrote a comic about LeBron James for DC and Powerade a few years back. How does writing feel for you, after being involved in comics in more editorial and production roles for so many years?

Oh, man. LeBron. That was a heck of a project and to be fair a fantastic writer named Gary Phillips (Angeltown, The Rinse, Cowboys, The Spider) originated the LeBron stories. I picked up midway and continued the series as an in-house writer. It was part of a custom publishing program we did with Pepsi.

To you point, though, I've been involved on the creative side here and there. My background is in art as we discussed. I wrote a Batman series called Batman: Cyber Revolution that DC solicited but never published. It was connected to a toy line that never ended up coming out so the whole series was shelved. I've ghost-written some other custom publishing projects for DC. I wrote and illustrated some Marvel trading cards early on in my career.

I have huge respect for freelancers that make their living writing or drawing full time. It takes an amazing amount of discipline. I enjoy it immensely but I'm not sure if I could ever dedicate myself to it full time. I enjoy the creative process but I also really enjoy "getting under the hood" so to speak - focusing on the technology, the production or whatever. I'm probably too much of a generalist by nature to be that type of specialist all the time. There's just so much to do!

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