Kanalz on "Beware the Batman" and DC's Digital Comics Future

Superheroes are quick to embrace new technology, and DC Comics, one of the preeminent publishers of superhero comics, is similarly welcoming of modern technological advances. DC has been publishing comics online for years, and was the first major publisher to go same-day digital with all of its print releases. It has further embraced the rise of digital media with an ever-growing line of digital-first titles like "Injustice," "Adventures of Superman" and the recently launched "Beware The Batman."

Based on the animated series of the same name, "Beware The Batman" takes the animated version of DC's Dark Knight back home to comics in a series of stories set in the world of the animated show. And although the cartoon has been removed from Cartoon Network's DC Nation scheduling for now, a DC Entertainment spokesperson told CBR that the comic's schedule remains unchanged.

Just prior to the announcement of the cartoon's current hiatus, ROBOT 6 spoke with one of the big players in the realm of digital comics, Hank Kanalz, DC Comics' Senior Vice President of Integrated Publishing. Kanalz is, in many ways, DC's point man into the world of digital comics, with a history in comics which runs deep -- he cut his teeth in the industry in the late 1980s, writing for Megaton where he worked closely with Rob Liefeld on what would eventually become Image Comics' launch title, "Youngblood."

We spoke about bringing DC Nation cartoons to the world of digital and print comics, how closely "Beware" will hew to the show's remit of using lesser known Batman villains, the challenges faced in creating digital comics destined for print and more. Plus, DC shares an exclusive preview of the next digital-first chapter of "Batman Beyond 2.0!"

CBR News: First off, can you tell us how the "Beware The Batman" comic series came about? The television series was just launched, so how long have you been working on this?

Hank Kanalz: We've been working on it for a while. Obviously, the animated series has been in the works for a very long time; as you can see from the amazing results from the show's premiere, you can imagine that takes a lot of time to put together. We're trying different "windowing" of our projects so that they go as wide as possible. Does it make sense to launch it exactly at same time, or beforehand, or afterwards? With this particular instance, we made the conscious decision to launch afterwards because we wanted the show to find its audience, and then when we launch our comic, we would have an audience to launch it to. If you compare it with "Injustice," we launched the comic first -- there was some explaining we wanted to do, so we launched it ahead of the video game. And then with something like "Arrow," we launched the comic at the same time as the television series.

We're experimenting with different launch windows to see what works best for the fans and for the series.

It's a given that you watch the sales numbers of the DC Digital titles, but given this windowing, I take it you're watching for trends even more.

Every property and every series is different. This is a new frontier, so we want to try as many different things and see what works. In this case, "Injustice" worked very well, and while we may not be able to duplicate that, we sure would love to.

And with "Beware The Batman," we're launching the comic both in print and digitally.

What kind of marketing is DC doing to appeal to those people watching the "Beware The Batman" animated series? Are there commercials, online marketing or some other ways to draw them in, or are you relying on them to find the DC Digital comics naturally through searching online?

They'll definitely be able to find it naturally, but there will be some digital marketing efforts behind it as well. We also have our DCU Fan Family; there will be a lot of direct information sent to our Fan Family and to our Cartoon Network customer bases. Also, we'll be marketing towards the direct market.

In the "Beware The Batman" animated series, it's been openly stated that it is going to be highlighting lesser-known villains in Batman's rogues gallery. Will that be the case in the "Beware The Batman" comic as well?

Absolutely. We're also excited to be exploring the supporting cast as well, such as Alfred and Katana. If you like the "Beware The Batman" animated series, you're going to like the choices we've made for the comic.

DC has been doing the digital-first titles for some time now. What would you say you've learned about this still-new medium, and how are you applying it to "Beware The Batman" and the line in general?

We've learned so much, I don't know if the time we have will allow us to go through everything! [Laughs]

There are a couple of things that have been very interesting to us. We've found that we're able to get the new reader into our app and website to try this stuff out. And the nice thing is, once people get the comic they came for, they generally expand out and find other series to read as well. Where we've succeeded is getting new comics readers to read comics like "Injustice" and "Smallville" because they're interested in them, but they wouldn't necessary seek out a comic shop. With our digital comics, it's very convenient for them to pick it up digitally for 99 cents, then seek out more -- via bookstores, comic shops and, of course, digitally.

The sales statistics for "Smallville" show that people have downloaded our app just to read "Smallville." The same goes for "Injustice." Then we have evidence [that] once they bought these, they went out and bought other things. "Injustice" is a great example. Readers of that often sought out "Superman: Red Son." For "Smallville," the same thing happened with readers going out to Superman and Superman Family titles. It's been a terrific experience for us so far.

For something like "Adventures Of Superman" and "Legends of the Dark Knight," I think we've been able to get lapsed readers back -- people who haven't bought comics in a while. For 99 cents, it's a great impulse buy to come in, try it out and follow a creator they like. Once they're in, they browse around and shop more. It's really hard to turn down 99 cents; you're standing in line, stuck in an airport or looking for something to read, and it's there and only going to cost you a buck.

What have you learned people's habits on page-viewing? Any surprises on what pages people hover on, or in shepherding comic creators to create comics in this new format?

We're all trying to figure out this new vernacular of digital comics, and a lot of people are saying things like, "if you're creating digital comics with an eye for print, you're not truly creating digital comics." I actually disagree with that, because I do think what we do with DC's digital-first is try to optimize the experience digitally but to continue to make it topical for print readers who have not made the switch.

For digital specifically, I think people have gotten used to viewing comics in a horizontal (or landscape) orientation, as opposed to the portrait-style presentation of a regular print comic. I think for pacing, it really does change the beats in a story. In print comics, when a page is turned, it's called a page reveal, but digitally we call it a screen reveal. When you look at a digital comic full-screen, you want to make sure the page visually draws your eyes from the left to the right. You want drama to escalate so that the screen reveal gets you to the next screen.

Something that surprised me is mobile; digital comics work great on tablets because you don't have to use guided view, but on mobile devices, the "authored book" comes into play and the panel-to-panel beats are so much different. When you do it right, however, you have a complete story -- even though it might be part of a larger story. You can call them smaller bites if you will, but the installments of the DC digital comics are still very satisfying bites. For price-to-value, I think 99 cents is a better value than what people get in print comics, generally.

In some ways, the transition to digital reminds me of the jump people made in the 1930s and 1940s, when cartoonists began segueing from comic strips to adapting to the comic form -- first with comic strips repurposed into comic pages, and then forming a kind of synthesis between the two.

Yes, I think that's exactly it. If you talk to some of our writers, the biggest challenge they have is, they're so used to basing their stories around the 20-page format of print books. In that format, they can meander, but with digital-first chapters for us, they have to compact some things a little bit but also pace the story so that the last screen leaves you wanting more -- in a positive way, where you can't wait for the next installment. Because the DC digital-first titles are released weekly, readers don't have to wait a full month for the next installment; it's not quite instant gratification, but it's more in the pace of a television show with weekly episodes than the monthly comics format. I think the story stays fresher, delivered weekly.

Comparing it to daily comic strips is similar. With those, people get a daily dose, but the cartoonists doing that know how to deliver on a daily basis in four to five panels -- sometimes even three. They really know how to condense what they need to get out there but have the advantage of it being daily.

You bring up the weekly format and television, and it brings to mind the recent talk about binge-watching -- watching multiple episodes of a television show using Netflix or Hulu. Have you seen any of that with DC Digital?

Binge-watching is interesting. I'd be lying if we didn't do it in my household. The weird thing is, you get your loyal reader who pre-orders, subscribes or just buys it on a weekly basis, but then you have someone who comes to the series mid-stream, buys the newest issue then decides to buy everything that came before. With Digital First, we do see some of that. We also have seen the digital form of "trade waiting," where people wait for the full arc to be released and then buy it all at once to read from beginning to end in one sitting.

We have different kinds of customers, with different mentalities. You look at something like Netflix and "Orange Is The New Black" or "Arrested Development" that release their entire season at once, and people watch that in two or three nights as opposed to weekly in a traditional television season format. I wonder what would happen if we were to put a Digital First series -- all it's chapters -- up at once. It's a curious thing, and would be a different strategy. I don't know what would happen -- you could look at is as a collected edition in the way we've been trained to buy things. It'd be an interesting thing to try.

Here at DC Digital, though, we say, "Every day is New Comic Book Day!" because we have new content every day of the week. But nothing beats Wednesday, as its still "New Comic Day" for most people.

So, is Wednesday the biggest sales day in digital comics for DC?

Yes, Wednesday is our biggest day, but that's because that's the day our same-day digital material and backlist material comes out. I will tell you this: For a better part of the year, "Injustice" sure did pull a lot of people over to Tuesday. We'd see a spike on Tuesdays, with a tremendous backlist purchase following the release of a new chapter of "Injustice."

I'm going to put you on the spot here: I remember this time last year, you said digital sales were up nearly 200% percent in 2012 -- that outpaces print's 12% gain in the same time period. Can you estimate what it's been like for you in 2013 so far?

Well, I can tell you we're up, but I'm not allowed to get into specifics. We've had great numbers this year, and September was a phenomenal month for DC's print books.

Understood -- but can you say if the digital editions of DC titles have ever outsold it's print edition?

It's often not a fair comparison -- digital has a long tail and every issue is always available for download.

Also, the digital first titles perform really well with many ranking in the top 20 for monthly sales (and "Injustice" was regularly #1!)

You were one of the primary dealmakers in getting DC's comics on various platforms, like the Kindle, the Nook and Apple's iBookstore. Do you see more platforms/mediums for DC's comics to extend to in the future? Can you see DC Comics on televisions someday?

I sure can. [Laughs] Yes, yes I can. It's one of those things where you look back on what you've accomplished, take a breath and say we did really well, but the reality of business is, we're always asking what's next. We do have a roadmap to what's next, and I'm not trying to be coy or cagey, but I definitely think DC2 would look great on your HD television.

Technology changes at such a rapid pace; we don't know what's going to be available tomorrow, the next month or next year. Our attitude here at DC is to have our product available where people want to have our products. That's one of the reasons we're on a variety of platforms; if they want to build their comics library with comiXology, that's fine. If they want to use Kindle, great. It's the same with Nook or the iBookstore. It's an interesting time for entertainment and media companies. There's all these different options available, and if you want your material out there, you have to be ready to go out there and do it.

Since you're on point leading DC's digital initiatives Hank, can you tell me how many digital devices you own?

Me, personally? Let me count.

Seven devices. [Laughs] I'm not sure I want to admit that, but I have seven.

Coming up next for DC Digital is a "Teen Titans Go!" series. What can you tell us about that?

It's based on the current Cartoon Network series, which as you know, is awesome. The Teen Titans have a solid and wide fan base, and this new version of the animated series has added to that group. We have a rotating team of writers, much like the show, and we're telling stories in a shorter "done in one" form. In the first few issues, we have Sholly Fisch, Merrill Hagan, Amy Wolfram, Jorge Corona, Ben Bates -- plus covers by the show's very own Dan Hipp!

How do you go about picking what'd be right for DC Digital-first series in terms of properties?

We've always said that we want just the right IP for DC², and I think "Teen Titans Go!" lends itself to the format perfectly. We want to produce material that appeals to a wide consumer base, but the style of the show itself is perfect for our dynamic canvas format. You've seen with "Batman '66" a terrific use of color and graphic sound effects. "Teen Titans Go!" will take that and build upon it, with more of the show's sensibility. We aren't looking to do animation, but the style in which this show is drawn and built works great for DC².

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