Ron Perazza has been at the forefront of new digital comic projects for years, with his work at Zuda and ComiXology helping to pave the way for digital comics as we now know them. Thrillbent, Madefire, Aces Weekly, Double Feature, Monkeybrain – they all owe a debt to his work.
His most recent leap is into a project called Comic Book Think Tank, in which he and artist Daniel Govar take a different approach to the way pages are laid out digitally. Aware that the restrictions of print no longer apply when publishing online, Think Tank features a constantly evolving and changing central page, which makes for a new, more cinematic approach to reading comics. It’s a step between motion comic and print, but something entirely its own.
Think Tank currently have two projects online, Relaunch and The Road Goes Ever On, which you can read for free on their site. The two different comics both offer a fascinating and involving approach to storytelling and design — but are good stories too! I spoke to Ron about how he developed them, how Think Tank works, and the role digital comics are playing in laying out the future of the medium.
Steve: Comic Book Think Tank is a project about showcasing digital comics, and how they can offer a different experience to print. How did you come to develop the project?
Ron Perazza: Actually COMIC BOOK THINK TANK didn’t really start out as a site at all. The whole thing started with RELAUNCH – our science fiction comic. My creative partner Daniel Govar and I were making RELAUNCH as sort of a “test comic” to showcase some digital storytelling techniques. We didn’t even have a clear plan of what to do with it once we were finished. Along the way the “test” evolved, as creative things tend to do. By the time we were finished with the first chapter of RELAUNCH we thought it would be even more interesting to put everything online – the comic, the script, support art and so on. We liked the idea of showing the process in addition to the results of the process. We even went so far as to bring in a friend who helped us develop a shareware comic viewer to be a part of the site. So we needed a place to put everything. COMIC BOOK THINK TANK grew organically from there.
Steve: Was Daniel Govar involved from the start? What does he bring to a project like Think Tank?
Ron: Yeah, Dan has been involved from the very beginning. I knew when I first starting to put down the basic story ideas for the first comic that I’d need a partner that was not only like-minded but also a creative problem solver in their own right. Dan was the very first guy that came to mind. He’s got experiencing coding, traditional hand-drawn and digital illustration, 3D rendering, animation…he’s like a Swiss Army Knife of talent!
Steve: Zuda was one of the first big pushes into digital comics, alongside perhaps projects like Double Feature Comics or Marvel’s Dot Comics. How did your time with Zuda inform the decision to create Think Tank?
Ron: I think the big difference with our approach to ZUDA was that it was more informed by webcomics than traditional print comics. We weren’t interested in using the web merely as a distribution platform. We wanted to really create natively digital stories. So in that regard, yeah, you can draw a line directly connecting what we started with ZUDA to what we’re doing now with COMIC BOOK THINK TANK.
We’re really not focusing on the print reading experience or preparing the comic so that it can be collected for print down the line. We’re approaching the stories that we make with the base assumption that it’s being read digitally. Once you cut those connections to paper it fundamentally affects the way you create stories.
Steve: How important is it that we have digital as well as print comics?
Ron: It’s absolutely critical! I mean, digital comics are as critical to comic book publishing as eBooks are to prose publishing, as streaming video is to movies, as digital music is to the recording industry, and so on. There really is no other future except slow extinction – and nobody wants that.
Steve: Digital comics now seem to be moving on from the idea of offering a print experience online, and taking advantage of the medium to try different things with interactivity, panel progression, and storytelling. Do you think Comic Book Think Tank offers creators a greater freedom with their stories?
Ron: Well, there’s still a very big market for simply having the print product available in digital form. But you’re absolutely right – just offering the print experience online isn’t really taking full advantage of the platform. It’s very basic. Right now, in the digital version of a print comic you’re pretty much just looking at a big picture of the print page. Maybe there’s some effort in the application of the viewer to guide the reader and “translate” the reading experience but the comic itself is more or less identical to its print counterpart.
With COMIC BOOK THINK TANK we wanted to start fresh and not carry over anything from the print experience that wasn’t directly related to comic storytelling. So, for example, there’s no reason to have a vertical page. Ever. In fact there’s no reason to even have a conventional page at all!
Does it offer greater freedom? I don’t know if that’s a fair question. Do webcomics offer greater freedom? Does a graphic novel offer greater freedom? They’re each different creative paths with inherent challenges. We’re not out to advance the idea that one type of comic is better than another type.
Steve: One thing that particularly struck me is how Comic Book Think Tank’s panel progression essentially kills the idea of decompression or compression, as each page can evolve continually. How does it change the experience of writing a scene, or storyboarding?
Ron: This is an awesome question. I’m so glad you noticed that! That’s one of the things I was talking about when I said that there’s no reason to have a convention page. The “page” doesn’t even really exist. We just think of it that way because that’s how it exists in print and it’s easy to just carry over that same idea. But really, you can have multiple elements happening at different paces on the same “page” and still advance the story linearly.
Comics are the perfect medium for this type of digital storytelling since they already make use of panels to divide up the page. Every panel becomes an independently functioning piece of the story. I detailed more about the writing process on the COMIC BOOK THINK TANK blog shortly after RELAUNCH went live. If anyone is interested in getting into the weeds on the writing process they can find it right here.
Steve: Does this blur the line at all between comics and cartoon, for you? For quicker readers, you almost get a stop-motion style as the panels change.
Ron: Not at all. To me, one of the most fundamental aspects of a comic is that the user controls the advancement of the story. So even though there could be a stop-motion effect with some of the sequences it’s not necessarily a required part of the story. It’s sort of like an interesting side effect on some scenes. It’s a technique we can use in certain panels but isn’t something we’re beholden to in any way.
Steve: Are there any ideas you had which ultimately you decided against? For example, and I’m pulling this off the top of my head, something like adding sound effects to certain pages?
Ron: Oh yeah, definitely. Sound effects, animation, embedded extras and things like that are interesting and there’s a lot of room to explore that sort of transmedia storytelling. Comics are an incredibly flexible medium. Companies like Madefire are playing around with animation pretty heavily with their motion books and there are more than a few Comic Apps that have really complex “extras” built into their stories.
When I was still with DC Comics I used to oversee with Online and Creative Services groups in addition to ZUDA. For a while there was a big demand for that sort of customized, hybrid comic experience from business partners like Coca-Cola, Pontiac and so on. You can get some pretty creative results by combining those types of experience. You can get some disastrous results as well but that’s true of pretty much anything.
Never say never but…for the time being Dan and I want to focus purely on the reading experience with RELAUNCH. As a culture we’re changing the way we read and comics need to evolve as well. The really exciting thing is that there are potentially a limitless ways to get there.
Steve: So, looking at Relaunch, the first Think Tank story — what influenced your decision to start off with a comic set in space? Did you consciously pick a genre for the first story, or was this simply the story you most immediately wanted to tell?
Ron: That’s another good question. Yes, it was a conscious decision. I knew I wanted to steer clear of superheroes. Superheroes dominate the American comics landscape. Anything in a cape and tights is almost certainly going to resonate with readers in unintended ways.
I knew that I wanted to focus on a quiet, character driven story as opposed to, say, big action. I wanted to storytelling to be the center of attention. RELAUNCH is essentially a conversation. The way you tell that story is critical to it being interesting. You can’t just blow things up and “wow” the readers, you know?
I think that there are some genres that sort of prime the reader to pay closer attention simply because of the setting. So for example, you know going into reading a murder mystery that you need to read a little closer than you might with, say, a romance novel. For me, science fiction has that sort of effect. The setting is just different enough from our everyday life that the reader might give it that extra moment of consideration while they’re reading. Pick up on a subtle clue.
As for the story itself? I was inspired by David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
Steve: I have to ask this for Heidi – Think Tank also has The Road Goes Ever On, which is tied to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. What about that world made you want to tackle it for Think Tank?
Ron: Ha! Heidi is a Tolkien fan too?
Creating THE ROAD GOES EVER ON was really a labor of love. I had an idea for an “infinite canvas” style story that unfolded across one continuous image and looped back on itself so that it never ended. Dan was the one who suggested we set it in Middle Earth and make it an homage to The Hobbit.
Dan has done extensive fantasy illustration work and founded one of the major Tolkien fan sites – http://www.thereandbackagain.net - so he was very familiar with the subject matter. After he proposed we go with The Hobbit the pieces just started to fall into place. It’s a very experiential piece and The Shire turned out to be the perfect setting for what is essentially a leisurely tour through the changing seasons.
Steve: Do certain genres or settings work better for this project than others, or do you think can you see essentially any kind of story show up here?
Ron: Hmmm…I hadn’t thought about that. I suppose there are types of stories and genres that I prefer – I like science fiction and fantasy, obviously. I’d love to tackle some war stories – particularly World War One or the American Revolution. But I don’t think there’s anything especially limiting about digital comics that would make certain stories work better than others. In my experience I’ve found that if creators are passionate about the work their doing then that creativity shines through.
Steve: How do you think the overall market for digital content has grown over the past few years? How do you view other projects like Thrillbent, Madefire, or Marvel’s Infinite Comics?
Ron: The digital comics market is growing by leaps and bounds – and it’s not going to stop any time soon. There’s a lot of room for creative exploration but, that said, we shouldn’t think about digital comics as just an experiment waiting for some kind of final phase.
After decades the idea of a comic story has been uncoupled from the print format that we’ve come to associate with it. There will always be some people who can’t wrap their head around that. For them comics are inseparable from paper magazines. For everyone else, and more importantly for everyone in the future, that’s not the case. A comic isn’t a paper magazine any more than a sitcom is that box in your living room.
Thrillbent, Madefire, Infinite Comics, Monkeybrain… all good. The more the merrier.
Steve: What’s the next step for digital comics?
Ron: A long, happy life of leisurely reading.