Over the last ten or so years, one thing has been guaranteed: where there are new ways of developing and progressing digital comics, there you will find David Gallaher. Writer for a variety of comics including High Moon, Box 13, Darkstar & The Winter Guard and Deadlands, Gallaher has been at the forefront of digital comics for years. Amongst others he was involved with the DC digital project Zuda, had the first original content published by ComiXology, and has recently successfully brought his new graphic novel Only Living Boy to Kickstarter.
Alongside his frequent collaborator Steve Ellis, Gallaher has had probably more experience with digital comics than most anybody else. Which meant that there was no way The Beat could let another day go by without interviewing him about his experiences, in order to find out everything possible about making digital content. Read on! Steve Morris: Some of your first experiences in the comic book industry were as an intern for Marvel, and you’ve always been a strong supporter of the initiative. What was it like with Marvel back then?
David Gallaher: Awesome, but scary. I worked for Marvel Interactive – and much of what we did there was pioneering work in the field of motion comics, webcomics and user interface. It’s interesting how the techniques we used at the ‘turn of the century’ are being used today. The scary part, of course, was that Marvel was still in the process of recovering from bankruptcy, so there was a lot of instability and uncertainly in the air. I’ve been reading MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY by Sean Howe and it touches a little on how tumultuous things were at the time. And yes, I am a huge supporter of Marvel’s Internship program. I’ve directly or indirectly hired over a dozen from Marvel interns over the last several years. I think their internship program stand heads and shoulders above anything else the industry has to offer. If you have the opportunity to intern with them, take it. It will make a world of difference in your career. You’ll have to bust your ass, of course, but it will pay off in the end. After my internship, I continued to freelance for Marvel for over three years in various capacities.
Steve: What early lessons did you learn about the business? Was this where you first started thinking about digital comics?
David:I learned that the comic business was tough and unrelenting, and in order to survive it you need to be equally tough and unrelenting. I made more than my share of missteps and mistakes along the way. I wrote tons and tons of pitches, advertising, computer manuals, training manuals, and marketing textbooks. I just kept writing, writing and writing. I was hired to work for Moonstone shortly after my time at Marvel. My thoughts about digital comics were specifically limited to thinking about taking gag and humor strips and converting them into trade paperbacks. And that’s something I started doing in the summer of 2001, very briefly. But there didn’t seem to be much of a market for serialized action adventure strips at the time, which is why the idea of Zuda appealed to me.
Steve: What prompted you to take your comic with Steve Ellis, High Moon, and enter it in competition for Zuda, as a webcomic?
David: My biggest works at that time were YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR, which was based on the old time radio serial, followed by VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE, which was based on a horror role-playing game. Those experiences led me to meeting Steve Ellis several times over the years. HIGH MOON was something I started working on in 2003 as a Civil War-style Vampire/Werewolf story, and it evolved into a Western in 2004. But in 2007, once I talked to Steve about it during New York Comic Con, it finally became the work it is today. To answer the question, it was the right opportunity, the right project, and the right time. Mind you, when we were first approached to be part of Zuda, the competition aspect wasn’t even in play. It was just Steve, Scott, and I working on a creator-owned and creator-driven project – I had worked with Kwanza Johnson on various projects before and this was the chance to do something new. Kwanza is part-ninja, part Tony Stark in terms of how he thinks about digital comics. It seemed right at the time. Still does.
Steve: What are the challenges in creating something for digital reading? How do you have to alter the creative process to allow for things like format, or size? High Moon was published in a landscape format, for example – not something you see too often in comics
David: Landscape isn’t something you see often in the American comics market with the “Wednesday Crowd”, but is a format you see in the bookstores and in the European Comics Market. It’s not that unusual or that uncommon, when you think about it. I have CALVIN & HOBBES, PEANUTS and FOXTROT collections that use landscape format on my bookshelf. It’s the right format for the content. And that’s really how I think creating something for digital. You have to think ‘is it the right content for the format?’ HIGH MOON is a western. Westerns look great widescreen. BOX 13 is a thriller – it works great as a printed page, but feels even creepier as a panel-to-panel reading experience. Steve and I don’t put a lot of double page spreads in our stories, for example, because they don’t look great digitally. Box 13 is formatted the way it is for optimum viewing, in a way that doesn’t tear readers out of their reading experience. The User Experience is something we put a lot of thought into and each project requires some forethought.
Steve: What are the benefits of going to digital first?
David: Awareness? Metrics? Readership participation? Community? All of those things are pretty awesome! I have found that it is easier to rally around a digital comic that a print comic. A print comic these days seems to have a very limited shelf life. A digital comic has the potential to continually gain new readers.
Steve: What did the experience with Zuda teach you?
David: What didn’t it teach me? There was a lot to learn, both good and bad, about how the comics industry works now. I think the biggest takeaway though was – the importance of owning as much of the process and the work as you can.
Steve: After three years in operation, Zuda closed down in 2010. Do you think we need more initiatives like Zuda, to encourage and support emerging talent?
David: Sure. Image and Marvel sort of do that now. Marvel has been absolutely great about bringing some of the best of the best from Image and bringing them to their core titles. And really Marvel’s freelance resources for talent are pretty great. And Comics Experience – the online program developed by Andy Schmidt– is stellar for encouraging and supporting new talent.
Steve: Do you find that digital comics have a higher readership than physical comics? Can you even establish the readership for works like High Moon or Box 13?
David: After three years, we had accumulated a digital readership in the seven figures – 2.5 million, or thereabouts. With digital comics, you can track metrics in a way that you can’t really do as well with print comics. After the digital success of HIGH MOON and BOX 13, we are working on bridging the divide between our print and digital audiences. Projects like IMMORTALS, DARKSTAR & THE WINTER GUARD, and DEADLANDS help with stuff like that. And, of course, ONLY LIVING BOY, which directly taps into our online audience.
Steve: Box 13 was, if my superlative research skills haven’t failed me, the first original work published by Comixology. How did you get involved with the company?
David: Yeah, we were the first published by ComiXology. It was a lot of fun. It great seeing companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu now creating exclusive digital content, doing what ComiXology did over three years ago. Lots of fun to be a part of. I’m not sure how we got involved with them, specifically, but I’ve known John Roberts professionally since my time at Marvel. ComiXology is great though and I’ve been a supporter of their company since Day One.
Steve: Readers followed this story panel-by-panel – do you find that creating a comic like this alters the way you look at creating comics, as a process?
David: Reader didn’t just follow the story panel-by-panel, they could also read it page by page, and that was the point. Designed for digital, but with an eye towards the print collection. I believe in the importance of letting the reader control how they want to enjoy their story.
Steve: Box 13 was very very fast, in terms of pacing. Do you think digital has to catch the attention more quickly? Readers pick up a comic and tend to stick to it for 20-odd pages without distraction; but read a web-comic online, where it competes with other distractions like Twitter, Facebook or, y’know, The Beat.
David: Box 13 was serialized, weekly content. It was designed to be read quickly. Microbursts of story delivered on a regular basis with a low commitment from the reader. I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of how readers these days pick up and digest their comic stories. I know when I’m reading something like Girls with Slingshots, I’m actively engaged with the story, and not likely to take a break to tweet, facebook, or what have you. Why ruin a potentially great reading experience? Steve: Can you settle down when working on a digital series, at all, or do you feel that you always have to keep pushing readers with new ideas, and content? Is there room to decompress?
David:Can I settle down? Sure. I like pushing boundaries and pushing formats, but only when the project is right. High Moon and Box 13 are different than the stuff we did on Deadlands, Only Living Boy, or whatever. My biggest struggle isn’t decompression, it’s mostly trying to keep the stories from becoming too long. I think in broad epic strokes — with stories that could span hundreds of pages and several years to write. Is there room to decompress? Sure … but why not just get to the point?
Steve: Your most recent project was funded by Kickstarter: The Only Living Boy. What was the advantage of setting up the project via Kickstarter and self-publishing?
David: The biggest advantage is that from top-to-bottom, the project is ours. We have nobody to blame but ourselves if the project wasn’t the right size, right paper, right whatever.
Steve: Kickstarter can be very unpredictable, with a lot of faith being placed in sight-unseen projects and creators — as well as vice versa, with creators relying on their fans to support them. How was the process, for you? David: Order fulfilment is a beast. That’s been our biggest issue, living next to the worst post office in the United States – no kidding, there are Youtube videos about how messed up our post office is – and we had lost orders and undelivered items. So, it requires some clever costumer service skills when things go wrong. But outside of those occasional hiccups, the process was great. We got our funding in about 11 days, so that felt nice. Overall the process has been great.
Steve: How much preparation do you have to do before you take something like this live? Were you already started before you announced?
David: The prep took about two weeks. The biggest issue was really making the video. We had already started the book, but we were looking to push it forward, faster than bankrolling it all ourselves.
Steve: You’ve come from competition winner on Zuda to working on mobile comics, digital comics, a successful Kickstarter and a Harvey Award: What advice would you give to aspiring creators looking to follow in your steps?
David: Keep working. Surround yourself with great people. Make things. Make lotsof new things.
Steve: And finally, we need to briefly mention The Winter Guard, who are Marvel’s finest superheroes. So, I put it to you: Ursa Major – great superhero or GREATEST superhero?
David: Clearly the greatest. Better still, he was created by Bill Mantlo, who also created Rocket Raccoon, who will be appearing in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. So… you know… maybe Ursa Major is next?
YES, DAVID GALLAHER. YES HE SHOULD BE. David Gallaher always speaks the truth, people. We should listen to his wise words about Ursa Major. Many thanks to David for his time and answers. If you’d like to see more of his work, then go check his page on ComiXology – it’s packed with interesting stuff.