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The DoubleFeature App in Action, featuring Mike Norton's The Answer

Four Star Studios (Josh Emmons, Mike Norton, and Tim Seeley)

Chicago-based Comics Pros Talk About DoubleFeature Project: New Book, New iPad App

Apr 26, 2011 Josh Emmons Photography by Courtesy Four Star Studios Bookmark and Share

Sean Dove, Josh Emmons, Mike Norton, and Tim Seeley comprise Four Star Studios. The Chicago-based comic book creators initially sought merely to work somewhere besides their homes, but quickly grew to appreciate the talent they’d collected in one spot—and decided to capitalize. The project that has comics fans buzzing, as well as those interested in the business of self-publishing, is DoubleFeature, the first issue of which just came out. Each issue features two eight-page stories from a variety of creators. Available as a 99-cent PDF file, or via a dedicated iPad app with all sorts of bells and whistles for readers, the quality of the content, low price point, and innovation are perhaps providing an inkling of where digital comics are headed. Issue one features “Jack Kraken” by Seeley and Ross Campbell, as well as Norton and Dennis Hopeless on “The Answer.”

(If Seeley’s name rings a bell to our readers, it may have to do with the high marks Under the Radar has given in reviewing several of his books, such as Hack/Slash).

Under the Radar caught up with Emmons, writer of City of Sands and designer of the new iPad app, who talked about the studio’s creation, collaboration, new ventures, and more. His studio mates Norton and Seeley chimed in as well.

Jeremy: Do you think the collaborative stuff you guys have ended up doing is a direct result of being in close quarters, or might some of it happened regardless?

Josh Emmons: Personally, I kind of doubt it would have happened without sharing a space. We all knew each other socially before starting the studio. And, I mean, we would meet up and talk about our latest projects over beer and stuff. But we’re all really driven guys. We’re super busy and usually on really tight deadlines. All of our plans for future collaborations happened in the spaces “in between”—in the aggregate of all those little 5- and 10-minute breaks one takes throughout the day just to stretch or shake out your hands or whatever. If we hadn’t all been there to take advantage of that, I don’t know when we would have found the time to plan all this!

Tim Seeley: Right. We’ve worked together in pairs before. Mike has drawn comics with me, and I’ve had Sean designs things, etc., but it took a conversation we were all a part of to really push into a group project like DoubleFeature.

Mike Norton: Yeah, you kinda need this sort of “incubator” to get things going.

What kind of influence does working in a group have on your non-collaborative projects? Is it a matter of “hey dude, look at this,” or are you critiquing & sparking mutual creativity?

Tim: The shared influences we all come from allow us to do something as a group that works, while still being very much about our individual styles.

Josh: Yeah, I almost feel like the group influence is either “profound” or “non-existent.” As a group, we have very similar tastes, and we tend to riff on each other a lot. But at the same time, I’ve never seen something come from Mike that looked like anything other than Mike’s work. And [Sean] Dove’s stuff is still pure Dove. It’s a very chatty space and there are always ideas flying back and forth, so that clearly must affect us, right? But at the same time, the ideas never feel foreign, so it’s hard to pin something down and say, “I never would have gotten here on my own.”

Mike: I think we’re all very aware of each others’ particular strengths and styles. I think the studio has only enforced that rather than homogenize us into one. We are much more influential on each other in that we spur each other on in creative ways.

So, speaking specifically of the digital ventures: I read DoubleFeature in PDF form, so didn’t get the cool art features where you see the different versions, nor the DVD commentary-style stuff (Android user!). What can you tell me about developing the app? Do you have a background in app development? How difficult was it?

Josh: I have a good deal of development experience for the iPad, which is something not many people can say. I kind of lucked into it. iPads are based on iPhones, which are based on OS X, which is based on NeXTSTEP, which was a small, unpopular computer platform I fell completely in love with 17 years ago or so. I just happened to bet on the right horse where that’s concerned, so now I have 17 years experience writing code for a device that’s only existed for a little over one. Given that, development wasn’t difficult, per se. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t outside of my realm of experience, either.

Why were those added features (available through the app) important to you?

Josh: Well, I feel as if there’s a price war going on right now in comics —and all media, really. And at the heart of that war is a simple equation: the almighty entertainment/dollar ratio. We’re obsessed with giving our readers the most bang for their buck. But if you give to them said bang in the form of more story or better art or multiple covers or any sort of new content… well you have to pay for that content to be created. And that, in turn, is going to drive down your entertainment/dollar ratio again.

What we wanted to do was add bang that didn’t require new content. Bang that was free for us and valuable to the reader. We looked to DVDs and saw commentary as an obvious first step. It’s a simple thing to do, is (comparatively) cheap, and can keep the reader entertained for, essentially, another entire read-through of the book. That doubles our entertainment/dollar right there!

Then we saw that a lot of art created in the production of a book (layouts, penciled pages, inked pages, etc.) was being thrown away by traditional publishing. Readers might be interested in that production material, but not enough to pay the extra money printing those pages would cost. Being digital, we didn’t have those concerns. And being digital, we thought we could make it a little more fun if, instead of getting a bunch of penciled sketches in the back of a book, readers could watch any page transform from its beginnings as a sketch to its final, rendered form and back again. Me? I could watch that all day. But even the most jaded reader would find a handful of pages where the evolution of the design caught their eye. That adds another half-point to our entertainment/dollar score. And so far we’ve gotten it all for free.

Why is 99 cents such a magical number?

Josh: Why is 99¢ magical? Because that’s the price-threshold of decision making. If something I’m interested in costs 99¢, I buy it. If something I’m interested in costs $1.02, I stop and think about it first. Is it worth it? Do I really need it? Would that money be better spent somewhere else? For whatever reason, 99¢ cuts through all this moral philosophizing. You just click “buy”.

But this is not just a cynical money grab. People talk about streamlining the interfaces and experiences of their customers. Some of that means streamlining the psychology of their interactions as well. Humans are weird. We hate having to make decisions. We’re often paralyzed by the tyranny of choice. If we can offer our readers something that’s such a good deal they don’t even have to think about it, we’ve made the experience that much more pleasant for them. They can get right to the business of reading awesome comics!

Any non-Apple app plans so we poor Android users can join in the fun?

Josh: Right now the blocker is a technical one. Android hasn’t figured out its tablet strategy yet, and we don’t think comics look good on phones. So right now, we’re looking forward to Android tablets that will do comics justice. We think they will come. They’re just not here yet. Until then, our PDFs work on all sorts of devices, including Androids!

Self-publishing can be quite expensive, of course but I am wondering how it compares to developing an app and making the content digital-ready? Is the cost of entry to market significantly less (plus I imagine now that you’ve done it once, you have the infrastructure in place; not as if you’d be paying to publish #2 on newsprint all over again, for instance)?

Josh: First off, as you’ve hinted, it’s really very important in creative markets to keep the cost of entry as low as possible. The less you have to invest upfront, the less worried you’ll be about making it back so you can eat or pay rent or whatever. The less you’re worried about making it back, the less compelled you feel to create for the lowest-common-denominator; the more free you are, creatively, to really swing for the bleachers.

Tim: I’ve done a fair amount of self-publishing and small-publisher work in my years and comics, and I can say first hand how daunting it can be to put something out which such a HUGE front-end investment. Digital, though a vast space with a lot of competition, is allowing creative people to generate what they want to make, rather than be focused entirely on needing to hit a certain middle-of-the-road audience just to pay for the print run.

Josh: Right. In the print world, your entry costs consist of ink, paper, putting ink on paper, distribution, storage… not “cheep.” Lots of upfront investment there. There’s also the implicit cost of getting space on a store’s shelves to consider, but it’s a comparatively minor expense.

Over in the digital space, you can write off ink and paper entirely, of course, and that’s some big savings. You still have to pay for distribution (bandwidth) and storage (hosting), but these costs are much less than their print cousins—especially with the cost of gas driving print up. So digital is, in a way, almost the opposite of print; the majority of your startup costs are focused on your digital storefront.

On the plus side, this storefront can be as elaborate (a full-blown iPad app with lots of extra features) or as simple ( as you like. The downside is that your storefront is, by necessity, an up-front investment. To keep the costs of entry low, it really helps to have the talent for this in house.

It’s kind of crazy all the new stuff coming out of Four Star off the top of my head, I can think of Battlepug and of course the app/DoubleFeature digital stuff. Any other new launches or innovations in the works? Anything you’ve pondered but aren’t quite ready to make real yet?

Mike: We come up with two or three ideas a day here. That’s the great thing about this place. I think there’s a few things we come up with a week that we could turn around into something. Battlepug just came from me thinking of something silly to put on a t-shirt. We’ve had conversations where I’d just ask “Do you think this could be a comic?”, and they’d give me encouragement. Poof —we have a comic. There’s definitely more stuff coming.

Josh: Yeah, it’s really more about time and triage than anything else. “What story do we want to do MOST?” That’s one of the reasons we started with DoubleFeature, I think. Sure it was the project we all believed in the most, but also, if it takes off and consumes a greater percentage of our lives, we’ll be able to use it as an occasional platform for some of these great ideas floating around.

It’s really interesting that you guys are in a position to play with the format/delivery system, since each of you already have a fanbase, not to mention talent and, obviously, tech know how. You seem to be in a position to see which way the wind is blowing, so to speak. Is Four Star shaping up to be a “comics think tank” of sorts?

Mike: That’d be cool, I guess? I won’t speak for the rest of the guys, but I know personally I’m much more comfortable thinking smaller picture. I just like to get my hands on the project and make it work. We’re very much a problem-solving sort of outfit, though. I don’t think it’s outside our realm of expertise. I just don’t think of us as such.

Josh: I 100% agree. To the extent that business and finances allow, we really enjoy working with our own properties and developing them from soup to nuts.

Is anyone comfortable commenting on the advent of digital and how it may or may not affect retail shops and how you feel about that?

Josh: I hope it doesn’t affect them at all. Most retail shops —and we have more than our fair share of great ones here in Chicago —are wonderful places to go and celebrate everything about geek culture. Each Wednesday they’re like their own mini-Comic-Cons and their closure would be an incalculable loss to the community.

At the same time, we’ve been here before with music. I guess the real question is, is your comic shop a Tower Records that operates like a warehouse, carries and promotes the major labels, and hires minimum-wage high-school staffers? Or is it a corner vinyl shop with friendly and super-knowlegable owners who support the community, host events, and cater more to indie tastes? Because there aren’t any Tower Records anymore.

Speaking of format and delivery—let’s talk about City of Sand. Where should a new reader start? Do you have a kind of “elevator pitch” for it?

Josh: Where to start? I suggest at the beginning! Here’s the link to page 1 issue 1:

As to an elevator pitch, I suppose it depends on how tall the building is. Let’s say there exists a mysterious city that stands all alone in the middle of a giant desert, surrounded by thick walls that hold back the sand. This city has a princess, a little spoiled and haughty, but dearly loved by her people all the same. All her life she has known these things, that demons live in the deserts beyond the wall and that she must never, ever venture there.

But when exiled by her jealous uncle, the princess has no choice but to brave the wastes beyond the wall. And there she learns to ask the most dangerous question a princess can ask: “Why?”

That’s City of Sand in a nut. It’s the story of a princess’ coming of age, of her learning to set aside childish pride and discovering the truth behind the mysteries that preside over her world.

Mike: And there’s a cool sword in it!

What are you discovering about comics creating for a scheduled web comic versus print? Do you think success with your app/99-cent PDF issues would prompt you to change how you’re doing City of Sand?

Josh: For my part, the biggest difference between web and print is that for print I really need to pitch someone to make a story happen. If no one believes in my idea, it doesn’t get made. With the web, the only person who has to believe in my story is me. I can convince people it’s awesome by actually doing it. They’re very different things, “Listen to me describe this…” and “Look at this!”

Do 99¢ PDFs change that? Not the content, I don’t think. It does change the endgame. If our digital sales are really through the roof, I’m going to start saying “I need to collect this into an iPad app” instead of “I need to find a publisher.” But I’m not holding my breath. We’re looking at a market in transition. I think I’ll be making iPad apps and looking for publishers for quite some time.

Mike: Yeah, whenever you have an heavy initial investment as you do with print, you create an environment in which you’re much more considering of the bottom line. But I don’t concern myself too much with that stuff. I’ve never kept up with the numbers on any of the books I’ve done as it usually depresses me.

The real attraction for me of the web vs. print is the immediacy and ease of it. Also I answer to myself (and whatever tech problems my web host is having that week).

Speaking of which what web comics do you read?

Josh: I’m really enthralled by the demented persistence of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics. And speaking of demented Ryans, everyone has to read Ryan Browne’s God Hates Astronauts! I also regularly enjoy: Gronk, Rat Fist, XKCD, Penny Arcade, Cleopatra in Space, and Dresden Codak. Anders Loves Maria is sadly over now, but the entire story is still available for new readers ( Elfquest was a huge influence on me as a kid, and I’ve just learned that entire series (and all its spinoffs) is now online as well (!

Mike: I read Penny Arcade and God Hates Astronauts pretty regularly. I also keep up with a lot of others like Oceanverse, Gronk, Ants, Ratfist. There are others but I’m probably forgetting them on the spot now.


( Four Star Studios)


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