HeroesCon: Longbox Digital Comics

Rantz Hoseley, the editor behind Image's "Comic Book Tattoo" anthology of comics inspired by Tori Amos, introduced his latest endeavor at Heroes Con this weekend. Longbox, a digital comics platform similar to iTunes, is expected to launch later this year as a free download for Mac, PC, and Linux. Developed by Quicksilver Software, Longbox comics can be download for a suggested price point of $.99 per issue, with the potential for block and subscription pricing. The first two publishers confirmed for Longbox are Top Cow and BOOM! Studios. CBR News caught up with Hoseley to discuss the details of Longbox and its potential impact.

"Everyone's been talking now for half a decade about the holy grail of digital comics, and how do you solve that problem: How do you make something that everyone gets on board with?" Hoseley told CBR. "And rather than just kind of jump into it willy-nilly, we've done a lot of research and actual development on the platform prior to even discussing it with any publishers."

In an effort to make the Longbox platform appealing to publishers, the software toolset used for creating the secure digital files integrates with publishers' existing production process, plugging in to Adobe InDesign and Quark to add an "Export as Longbox"-type menu option. "The problem with a lot of digital comic solutions is that they require per-comic either adaptation or alteration in converting print comics to digital, in order to customize it to the platform. That immediately incurs an overhead cost that the publisher has to recoup they're even at a break-even point," Hoseley explained. "Depending on what that cost is, immediately that's a negative for the publisher, especially when monthly sales are dropping, cover prices are going up and distribution costs are going up. The last thing they want is another expense on something that isn't proven. One of our keys is having a toolset that works as a natural extension of their existing production path so that it doesn't take additional production time or effort to simply create a secure digital version of the print comic that they're already producing as part of their ongoing publishing line."

"One of the other problems with the digital comics solutions that have been offered prior, is that they have been kind of walled-off fiefdoms solutions where you've got either a publisher-specific solution that only works for this publisher, or that is a 'independent' solution that only has one or two publishers and out of those maybe one is a top-five publisher, maybe," Hoseley continued. "It comes to, what drives the user to want to use it? If there's not the ability to have a very similar experience to what they would have going into a comic shop, then immediately it's an inferior experience, not only in terms just purchasing comics whether print or digital, but also an inferior experience to other forms of digital retail like iTunes and downloadable content on WiiWare or X-Box Live. The idea of a secure, controlled distribution system that allows mass amount of content to come through in ways that modern consumers expect in terms of digital content, I think that's a huge, huge part of it.

"And that goes not only into making a 'killer app' from that initial adopter user point of view, but also going outward and reaching a wider audience. Because a wider audience is not going to be reached by Spider-Man or Batman or 'Irredeemable' or any other superhero book no matter how well done it is. They're going to be reached by things like Bryan Lee O'Malley's work, or the large numbers of independent books by people like the Hernandez Brothers. They're more into what people look for in other forms of entertainment, and really positing it instead as, rather than it being 'comics' (with the big Pow! balloon around it) and the weight of preconceptions related to superhero comics, it really becomes a matter of [being] portable, affordable entertainment. People can find stories that they really engage with and that they find entertaining and that they go back to time and time again."

Continuing with the iTunes analogy, Hoseley explained that Apple's software rose to the level of industry standard because, in addition to having a store and playing its proprietary file format, iTunes also played all existing digital audio files. "It was a better mp3 player than any other form that was out there. While you could skin things like Winamp, there were notorious bugs in it. The system-oriented mp3 players had various compatibility issues, and there really wasn't one that looked nice and was enjoyable to use, in terms of having a library that was easy to sort through and allowed you to have an equal if not superior experience to actually playing your CD. While Longbox has a proprietary secure format, it also reads .cbr and .cbz files. Now, we're not advocating (and I'll be kind here) 'grey market' digital comic files, but it is ignorant to assume that there isn't a degree of crossover between people who currently read comics in a .cbr, .cbz file format and people who would want to read comics in a legitimate fashion -- especially since so many of those individuals posit that they download .cbr and .cbz because there aren't 'legitimate' versions of these files in digital format. So if Longbox becomes the one stop for people to have their digital comics experience, it's a very short hop, skip, and jump for people to purchase files there, especially at the price point given."

Attracting publishers will be a key component of Longbox's success, since the participation of as many content providers as possible adds to the amount of comics available, which would lead to more users and in turn attract more publishers. A concern for Longbox is how it might fit into the current digital comics landscape, particularly as Rantz Hoseley tries to woo publishers who have already invested resources in their own proprietary formats. "I don't think it's a direct competition so much, especially in the case of Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited or, for instance, 'MySpace Dark Horse Presents,'" he said. "The way that Longbox is set up is that there can be lateral promotion between the two [formats], and that's really at the publisher's discretion. Longbox is set up so that we do not demand or ask for exclusive distribution contracts with our publishing partners, because we believe very much that the strength of the platform will speak for itself."

Hoseley believes the very existence of digital comics from major publishers represents a sea change from the perception of online content that existed when Longbox was in its planning stage. "Three years ago, when we started doing development, publishers were very, very resistant to it. The majority of publishers wouldn't even discuss the possibility of it: digital comics are the devil come to steal the milk from our children's mouths," he recalled. "The difference is that now, every publisher realizes, especially with the increasing cost of monthlies and the declining sales of monthlies, that there has to be a way to expand the market. With every other form of entertainment embracing digital distribution and sales medium, it is very foolhardy to not do likewise."

Many decisions about series' implementation on Longbox will be at the discretion of the publisher, including the choice of whether digital editions would be released simultaneously with print. "Part of the business model of Longbox is that we're giving publishers the tools to reach a mass digital market. We have recommended guidelines in terms of things like release dates, price points, and so on, but ultimately it's the publisher's decision on what the final price points are, whether they're going to release prior to street [date], whether they're going to release day and date with print versions, or whether they're going to hold back for a month," Hoseley said. "There are advantages and disadvantages to all of those, and it is really going to come down to what they feels is strongest for their business model and not only supporting their current audience but also expanding things outward."

One interesting incentive that Longbox will allow (again, at the publisher's discretion) is a voucher for the trade paperback or hardcover collection of a series to which the user has subscribed in the digital format. "There are books that I, as a fan, would want to read just to see what's going on and keep up with the ongoing storyline, especially when you get into situations like 'Final Crisis' or 'Secret Invasion' or a large interdependent storyline. You want to know what's going on in all those different side stories because, in a lot of cases, even if it's not critical to the core story, it can make the story so much richer and so much more involving. But at the same time, that isn't necessarily a book you want to drop $3.99 on and try to figure out 'where am I going to put this on my shelving system?'" Hoseley said. "But there are definitely books that I want to have as a bound, printed comic that I can go back and read time and time again. Whether you're talking about Matt Fraction's stuff, or whether you're talking about Bryan Lee O'Malley's or Jeff Smith's stuff, those are books I want to go back to time and time again.

"The ability to read a monthly book at a more reasonable price point without feeling like you're double-dipping or you're paying twice for the same thing [when you buy the trade], to be able to have those ones that have the resonance and meaning for you, not only removes the issue of are you a monthly person or are you a trade-waiter, but it also removes from the equation do you buy digital or do you buy print. I don't think either of those is a binary equation, and we really see this as an opportunity to kind of not only remove that divisiveness but also open up comics in a lot of ways because of it."

Other potential features and exclusive Longbox content may include DVD-style commentary by writers, artists, or editors; a page-by-page look at the creators' process from script to final art; and integrating backmatter, such as that found in Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith's "Fell" or Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's "Phonogram" into the narrative pages. "It really comes down to the publisher and the creator," Hoseley stated. "You're taking material you would find in an Absolute Edition integrated in with the comics in a way that you can either turn off and simply read the comic or you can dynamically see as you're going through the book the making-of stages, you can hear audio files of the writers or artists or editors about the process the book went through. We've got some incredibly creative and incredibly talented and driven creators out in the industry right now who really pride themselves on pushing the boundary of what is a comic. Scott McCloud was talking about something years ago, what he called the infinite canvas -- the ability for a story to narrative itself based on the user's control and the user's direction in the way they want to see things go."

Purchasing a comic through Longbox will allow a user to read it in three "iterations," meaning on three different machines or devices. In addition to offering Mac, PC, and Linux versions of Longbox, Hoseley hopes to release versions of the software for Kindle, iPhone, WiiWare, and X-Box Live. "I have used my X-Box 360 controller and my big screen TV to read digital comics, and I will say that, when it's done right, there's nothing quite as enjoyable as laying on your bed and using your shoulder buttons to page flip and read through comics," he said. "And if you've got enhanced material in the form of audio files, then it's a pretty cool experience and definitely one that I think, especially with the kind of community that X-Box Live has, it's a natural fit."

As to other platforms, such as the Nintendo DSi and Sony PSP portable gaming systems, Hoseley said the developers at Quicksilver Software are looking into it but that each device offers its own set of challenges. The DSi, for example, bumps up against memory limitations, while the PSP's lack of a touch screen limits it navigation options. The concern, Hoseley told CBR, was not rather the software can technically run on a specific device, but whether the experience will be consistent across platforms. "You don't want to have a person say, 'well, they support this platform, but it's a pretty lousy experience, and you really want to prefer to read it on this platform instead.' That's the last thing that you want. You want the experience to be equally satisfying and robust regardless of what someone's preferred platform is. There are people that are total Blackberry-heads, there are people that are total iPhone-heads. There are distinct followings for Macs, there are distinct followings for PCs; there are people who love the Kindle, there are people who hate the Kindle. You don't want to dictate to them, 'ok, we'll support this but you really want to read it on this instead.' That automatically truncates out the number of users who will happily accept and embrace your platform."

Another concern, Hoseley said, was that X-Box Live and the Apple Store take a percentage of each sale to be listed in their marketplaces, which affects the business model. "We don't want to be in a position where users get charged just for the 'privilege' of being able to read comics on their iPhone. Is there a solution to that? Yes. Are we looking into solving that? Yes. But that looks into resolving not just the iPhone issue but also the PSP and other emergent platforms on whether or not we'll support those platforms going forward."

Longbox users will be greeted with news feed from Comic Book Resources and be able to access the Community forums from the software, and there may be further connectivity down the road. "When we first started doing the development and design, we knew that we wanted to have an established news partner, someone who was already in the business of comic- and genre-oriented news and reporting and that had an established reputation, not just for producing on a timely basis but also a quality issue," Hoseley said. "It was very critical to us, because I come from a journalism background, that whatever group we partnered with had to have a high degree of journalistic standards and quality of presentation, in terms of writing, and everything across the board. There wasn't much doubt that CBR would be the perfect partner for that. After the launch of 'Comic Book Tattoo' and the work I had done with Jonah at CBR, setting up things like the Comics Blog Tattoo where we had various creators talk about the creation of 'Comic Book Tattoo,' it seemed very clear that not only were the journalistic standards there, but also that this group would be good to work with on a daily basis."

Attendees of Comic-Con International in San Diego, where Longbox is sponsoring the Eisner Award presentation, will receive instructions on how to participate in a closed beta testing phase of the software. Registered CBR users will also have access to the closed beta, which Hoseley said would be "sizable." The full version is expected to launch in September or October 2009.

"I'm pretty stoked about it. It's one of those things that came together amazingly well," Hoseley said of Longbox's pending release. "I had one publisher say when we went through the demo, 'there are so many places where this could just go off into the weeds, and this is so on track.' I'm a little shocked myself about that."

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