NYCC: ‘Webcomics: Threat or Menace’ Panel Report
I’m not certain whether anyone determined if webcomics were a threat, a menace or a combination of the two during Saturday’s "Webcomics: Threat or Menace" panel at New York Comic Con, but it was a lively discussion all the same.
Gary Tyrrell of Fleen moderated a panel that featured an intriguing spectrum of webcomics interests, consisting of Rich Stevens (Diesel Sweeties), Robert Khoo (Director of Business Development for Penny Arcade), Richard Brunning (Senior VP and Creative Director for DC) and Jeremy Ross (Director of New Product Development for Tokyopop).
The discussion kicked off with a hard look at the definition of webcomics found in the convention programming schedule, and its curious (one would hope, tongue-in-cheek) view on the potential effects of the webcomic evolution:
There’s a dizzying array of different models for delivering comics over the Web, from Webcomics, to PDFs for a fee, to ad-supported PDFs, to PDFs as promotional tool, and behind it all is the backdrop of illegal file sharing of comics. Are comics on the Web going to be a tool to increase the popularity of paper products, an alternate distribution channel that takes sales from retailers and circulation from libraries, or a threat to legitimate channels as illegal downloads grow?
While all of the panelists agreed that the definition and potential implications of webcomics in the booklet left quite a bit to be desired, that was pretty much the only point at which everyone was on the same page with regard to webcomics, where they’re headed and what the ripple effect might be for print publishing.
Tyrrell kicked off the conversation about unlicensed digital sharing of webcomics by announcing that "everything that can be copied will be copied" — to which Khoo responded, "Penny Arcade has 4.5 million readers, I don’t care where they see it."
Rich Stevens explained that he doesn’t worry about illegal sharing of Diesel Sweeties (the archive of which he’s currently offering in collections of free downloadable PDFs), since "they’re in such small bites that it doesn’t make much sense."
After Tyrrell asked Stevens what it was like to see content being pirated that he’s giving away for free on his site, Stevens said, "I think it’s hilarious," adding that he hasn’t seen any drop in readership due to digital distribution of his archives — legal or otherwise.
While discussing the options available to traditional print publishers for integrating an online component to their already established print products, Stevens asked Brunning about the possibility of bringing the publisher’s popular letter columns online. According to Brunning, the DC message boards fill that role somewhat, but other factors are in play that prevent this from happening.
The conversation then moved on to a discussion of the growing number of programs (including DC’s Zuda Comics and Tokyopop’s next "Rising Stars" project) created by traditional print publishers that allow webcomic creators to win a chance to have their work published in print — and receive a contract from the publisher in exchange for certain creative rights to the property.
"It’s going backwards to do webcomics in order to end up in print," argued Khoo, who added that sales of the print collections of Penny Arcade make up "less than 6-percent of the [PA] revenue."
"Print is just another way to bring more eyes to the webcomic," added Stevens.
"It’s another way to make use of the intellectual property," continued Khoo.
While neither Brunning nor Ross seemed to agree with the relationship between print and online publishing models put forth by Stevens and Khoo, both panelists did admit that traditional print publishers need to look beyond the print medium — and soon.
"Print could peter out in five years or so," said Brunning.
In a surprise to no one whatsoever, the conversation quickly turned to the contracts many print publishers are offering for webcomic properties — and the intellectual property rights creators are required to hand over when they become involved with many of the well-established print publishers.
When Stevens pressed Brunning for information about Zuda’s creator contracts, Tyrrell quickly pointed out that Zuda has made the contracts available online for anyone to read. Brunning acknowledged that this was indeed the case, and that the decision to post the contracts online was part of a greater effort to test certain policies that might not be easily implemented in other, more traditional areas of the company.
"We take more of the intellectual property rights so we can take advantage of our connections with Warner Bros. and other, larger outlets who will be able to exploit the property to greater success," said Brunning.
Noticeably wincing at the last portion of Brunning’s comment, Khoo suggested that DC and Tokyopop find a better term than "exploit" when describing their use of webcomic properties.
The final portion of the moderated panel involved discussion of the future of print and online comics.
"It’s so stupid to guess about the future," said Stevens, adding, "Biggy Smalls died before he could hear the word ‘blog.’"
"I’m willing to guess," said Ross.
"Then you’re willing to be wrong," responded Stevens.
Ross explained that he believed the future of comics lies in the integration of online multiplayer gaming communities. Eventually, gaming networks such as Xbox LIVE would facilitate the reading, sharing and distribution of comics, according to Ross. Comics will develop with greater numbers of tie-in elements to games, and vice versa.
Tyrrell then directed the conversation to Khoo, citing the upcoming release of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness — a videogame based on the Penny Arcade property planned for launch on Xbox LIVE.
Khoo’s extended silence prompted a nudge from Stevens, who laughed, "Come on, I thought you were cutting edge!"
After another long pause, Khoo finally responded, "We have the game coming out. … And I can’t talk about the microsales element."
Quickly changing the subject, Khoo added that one development he believed would have a significant impact on the future of comics would be the evolution of consumer-level creative technology.
"If the tablet PC took off, it would revolutionize the webcomics industry," predicted Khoo.
The panel concluded with a short Q&A session, during which the panelists were asked to name a few of their favorite webcomics. Four of the five responsed with a wide variety of comics, including Octopus Pie, Anders Loves Maria and Dinosaur Comics, among others.
"Zuda, Zuda, Zuda," answered Brunning.