Marvel and Graphic.ly part 2: Graphic.ly's digital difference

Does the world need another digital comics platform? Micah Baldwin, CEO of Graphic.ly, thinks it does. ComiXology was there first, with its own Comics reader and branded apps for Marvel and Archie comics, and Longbox claims to be forging the "iTunes for comics," but Graphic.ly offers something more: The ability for readers to comment and chat with one another right on the comics page. Last week, Marvel Comics became the latest publisher to sign on to Graphic.ly, and since I had just talked to Ira Rubenstein of Marvel about the deal, it seemed an opportune time to check in with Baldwin and see how the rollout of Graphic.ly (currently available on Windows PD, Adobe Air, and iPad) is going.

Both Longbox and ComiXology offer the ability to read a comic across multiple platforms. How would you differentiate Graphic.ly from them?

There are plenty of platforms out there that are trying to be the largest comic book store online, the Diamond of digital. We are really focused on community building and creating what we believe is currently missing online, which is the replication of the old school comic book experience, where you go and hang out and talk about comics. It wasn't just reading the book but also about sharing and discussing the story. That's what our platform is built for.

Marvel has 8,000 comics in their Digital Comics Unlimited service, but I'm not seeing that many on your app. Are you planning to extend the line and if so, when?

There is a process. ComiXology and even Marvel, once they get the digital file, there is a process to make it work within our interface. ComiXology had the mobile deal with Marvel before we did, so they have more Marvel books. We're working as fast as we can to get them out there, but I think we will be a little bit behind Marvel and the competitors.

Everybody will have the same catalog in the end. What decides who wins is what do they do with their community. If I go to Isotope in San Francisco or Meltdown in Los Angeles or even Time Warp here [in Boulder, CO], every one is different. There is a reason why people are not excited about going to superstores. At the end of the day it's going to be the community. We want to work with publishers, big and small, who work on how they interact with that community.

The Marvel DCU offers some comics for a limited time. Will you do that too?

Right now it's single issue sales, so once it's there it should be there. Over time we'll have to figure out with Marvel what works. Some publishers are more free with how things are, but we have no intent of rotating things out. We hope that we are successful enough that we get to do cool stuff, like we get to do exclusives. It just becomes fun. The one thing in all this digital comics hubbub that has occurred that people have forgotten is that comic books are fun.

Graphic.ly seems like a bit of a closed system. Someone commented on Warren Ellis's site the other day that you can't see what comics are available until you get the application and create an account. That seems to be true. Why did you choose to do that?

The way it was originally designed was you need to set up an account, it's sort of like Facebook, you need to have an account to go in and see what's happening. We wanted people to not have to own books to interact and engage and communicate, but you can't do that until you have an account.

ComiXology's primary focus is selling books. That's all they want to do right now. We want you to talk about it, engage, interact, and it's not possible to do that if you don't have at least an account. If you look at our iPad app, you'll see you can peruse everything, you can peruse the books and then decide if you want to buy. We haven't put social into the iPad app, but it's coming, and I think when the web app comes along we will have more of that. In all honesty, I think that was a mistake that we made, to make people decide before they jump in.

The comments on the comics stay on the comics. Is there any ability to extend the social networking outside the Graphic.ly interface, say to use Twitter or Facebook to invite someone to read your comment on a comic?

Yes. That is a little difficult when you have an app, but definitely the web [version of Graphic.ly] will make it easier. We don't want to replace Facebook, that's not really our intent, but we do want to be able to integrate with Facebook and Twitter, anywhere where people are talking and other social things. We look at entertainment—comics is entertainment—as being a unique social graph. My friends that I deal with around entertainment are very, very different than my friends I deal with on Twitter and Facebook, I want that opportunity for people to be able to be with their entertainment friends. It's not just that somebody says, "Hey, Brigid commented on this book," but I should see the panel it was commented in. We have a lot of things in mind, but the conversations should also be real time—while you are commenting your friends are there, maybe there is an opportunity to have four or five people talking about the book in real time.

Is there a way to make that happen?

Technically, there are tons of ways to do it. For us, it's just a question of time. I think eventually there will be even more things that are kind of interesting and cool to do that are around the conversational side of comic books. Imagine reading the latest Jimmy Palmiotti book with Jimmy there, and you're like, "How come the story went this way in Jonah Hex?" and he can comment back. We want to create a world where publishers and creators can interact directly with their fans and do it with a community mindset.

How is iFanboy.com integrated with Graphic.ly?

When we originally decided to work together, it was highly important. Ron Richards and Josh [Flanagan] and Conor [Kilpatrick] are highly versed in the comic industry, and their cachet was important to the company. Then we went into this middle part where things were very separate while we built the app for the iPad, but you will see the Graphic.ly/iFanboy line blur. They have a community that's very strong that we want to emulate sitewide. They have a video show we could emulate. I would love to have a way that any fan could submit a video review and have it selected by the community, have five minute Fridays where people talk about a comic that is important to the community.

Do you moderate comments at all on Graphic.ly?

There's two things we don't do right now. One is we don't moderate and the second thing is we open comments up to everybody. Rather than seeing just comments from friends, you see them from everyone, which I'm going to suggest we turn off. One of our investors is Jake Nichols from Threadless. I'm a huge fan of Threadless. Part of my belief is if we present it in the right way, we won't need to moderate because the community will moderate. We are playing around with levels and points, and we will start to find people who are natural moderators and we will lean on them to moderate the community. We really want people to moderate themselves over the long run. We do keep an eye out, and we try to pull any that are too horrible, but honestly, we have pulled three that we thought are out of control. We have thousand of thousands. Are there ones with swear words? Yes. Are there ones that are slightly inappropriate? Yes, but we have had three that I have asked to pull dow.

Take the book Wanted #1 which is very bloody, has lots of boobs, opportunities to do really inapproprate commenting. His boss in the book is a black woman, and in the movie she is a white woman. There are discussions about "Is it too early to have women of color in power in movies?" Where are you ever going to get that discussion? One of the characters is jumping out the window, and he has boots that are very much like Spidey boots—Is Millar talking about this as a world where all heroes have died? This is what a community does when it's free, and that's for us what is important. Are there comments about the lead female character's boobs? Yes, but that's what you get in the real world. We want it to be free, but we are keeing an eye on it and making sure it's relatively family friendly—certainly we will be more diligient in comments on Fraggle Rock than on Wanted #1.

I just think that to your original question about what makes things different for us, nobody has ever looked at the comics community and said this community is built on trust, that's what's awesome about us, we love our art and storytelling. We are built on the idea that the community is trustworthy and doing really interesting things, and hopefully we can build a product that will allow people to do that.

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