David Gallaher and Steve Ellis first put together a pamphlet comic called The Only Living Boy with some help from a Kickstarter project in early 2013. It was an idea they’d been toying with for a while; you can see Ellis put a 2011 date on the cover art. Their Kickstarter wasn’t one of those record-breaking, jaw-dropping success stories you periodically hear about, but it was still pretty successful and they put out their first issue around the middle of last year. A digital version followed shortly afterwards on comiXology. A second issue debuted digitally soon after that, which then saw print later in the year.
Now, they could have just gone on to work on issue three and deliver that in the same two formats, but in the last weeks of the year, they launched the comic again as a serialized webcomic, available for free. The second issue just started coming online in that format a couple weeks ago and should finish in early August. Issue three hasn’t been released in any format yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it debut as a webcomic in the August-September timeframe.
When I talked with Gallaher and Ellis at the New York Comic Fest this past weekend, they were both very clear that this was all part of their plan more-or-less from Day One. That they would produce this story, and release in several different formats/venues. A print version, a digital version, and a web-specific version. (And I’m pretty sure they’d love to collect the whole thing in a trade paperback format when they have enough material together.)
Interestingly, this particular approach is pretty common with webcomics, but Gallaher and Ellis are coming at it from the opposite direction, starting with print, rather than making it the end goal. This shouldn’t be surprising as both creators come from print backgrounds, but it’s not an approach many print people take. Most people create the work as a webcomic, and use that as free promotion to drum up interest until they have enough to warrant collecting in print. With The Only Living Boy, the print version is done and ready to go (with additional and special printings at least partially funded with advertising) and the webcomic acts as an ongoing form of promotion to keep fans’ interest active while they put together future issues.
It’s unusual for independent creators to work like this, in part, because of costs. Printing comics ain’t cheap, especially if you don’t know how many you might sell. But what strikes me as curious is why larger publishers aren’t doing this as well? Particularly with long-running properties like Batman, the X-Men and Archie. Their early stories have paid for themselves thousands of times over by now, and even the reprints have paid for themselves repeatedly. But by serializing them freely online, you can capture the interest of new readers who might be unfamiliar with those characters. The people who see the characters in a movie and are interested enough to explore a bit more, but might be a bit gunshy when it comes to buying a $20 trade or $4 pamphlet issue.
Even if they posted a new page every single day, it would take decades to catch up to current continuity. (There are over 700 issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Assuming an average of 21-story pages per issue, it would take over 40 years to get to the current issue. And that’s if they didn’t keep publishing new issues every month!) So there shouldn’t be any concern of undermining the current direct market. But what it would do is repurpose the existing work to act as real and functional marketing to bring in new readers who might otherwise not care to seek out a bookstore carrying something featuring the same character they saw in a movie or TV show.
Comics are comics, regardless if they first appear in print or on the web. I find it surprising that more people making comics—especially print comics—don’t take advantage of other venues to help spread word about their work.