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Back to the Drawing Board? A Review of Zuda

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Zuda, DC's entry into web comics, promises comic creators a shot in the big leagues with their work and high quality titles for readers but the actual executions leaves much to be desired.

On the positive side, all 12 comics on Zuda are worth checking out. They show imagination, good art and writing. The potential is there. However, Zuda's terrible design works against the creator and the reader.

Zuda works by accepting comic submissions from anyone, although it has asked professional comic artists and writers for pitches. The editorial team sorts through the submissions and picks ten comics for the monthly competition. Decided on a reader vote, the winner and up to six instant winners are given year long contracts by Zuda to produce one new page every week for a year.

The contracts offered by Zuda have already received some critical attention from Christopher Butcher, Matt Brady and others, so I won’t focus on them. However, a message board post from Spike, creator of Templar Arizona, is common among already established web comic artists.

“My opinion? Not thrilled. Won't be submitting. I previously mentioned that I wouldn't mind giving Zuda my B game, but with all the contractual Cenobite chains about relinquishing rights and a less-than-swoon-worthy payout, I think I'll pass.

Still, I can see plenty of people grabbing for this brass ring, the sort who think "breaking into webcomics" requires more than a ComicGen account or think this'll start 'em out on the top of the heap. I wonder when we'll start hearing the first, inevitable Tales of Heartbreak associated with Zuda?”

The highlight of Zuda has to be the comics themselves and it holds several gems. All but one of the comics are serial adventures and they lean towards fantasy and superhero genres, with some horror thrown in. Only one entry, This American Strife, is a comedic strip. While the editors have publicly stated that they are looking for all high quality comics, this initial lineup reflects a distinct preference for continuity over stand alone strips. A troubling scenario, because it's impossible to accurately judge a serial title in only 8 pages. Furthermore, winning strips only update once a week with one page. It's hard to stay interested in a comic with such a slow update cycle, especially when the story is just starting out.

The first instant winner, Bayou by Jeremy Love and Patrick Morgan is a beautifully drawn fairy tale. Think Pan's Labyrinth in the Antebellum South. It only has 17 pages as of this writing, but it's caught my attention so far. Dead in the Now by Corey Lewis and High Moon by David Gallaher, Steve Ellis and Scott O’ Brown also hooked me in their eight page introductions. Dead is an anarchic rampage as a boy befriends a zombie and decides to get his new buddy to infect the entire world, while High Moon hints at supernatural horrors in the wild west.

All things considered, though, it isn't quite fair to dismiss the other entries. Eight pages aren't enough to judge a comic properly. After reading the submissions, rights, and service agreements, I'm still not clear if creators who fail a competition are allowed to develop their comic independently or if it is forever locked under Zuda's control. I would hate to see potentially great comics abandoned forever, because they lost one Internet popularity contest.

All Zuda comics are locked under a 4:3 aspect ratio flash interface. The interface itself is simple enough to use and full screen mode showcases each page beautifully. It takes up more memory and loads slower than a normal page with images, which is a minor nuisance personally, but if you can't use Flash on your computer, then you can't see any of Zuda.

Unfortunately, the flash interface shows that the Zuda team misses the point of putting comics on the Internet. There is no way to link to individual pages of the comic to share them with friends, bookmark them, or post them on a blog. Many web comics stumble with their first few strips and it's common to skip the early experimental comics. This can't happen with Zuda. Search engines can't catalogue or archive individual pages. There's no RSS feed for individual comics, which is an unforgivable mistake for a site that intends to build a steady fan base.

Now, it's not so bad, but that's only because the comics have only a few pages in their archives. Once the comics build up a sizable backlog, it will become a pain to navigate the old stories. Furthermore, each title is stuck with the same generic template that only gives a brief synopsis of the comic. Creators apparently have no way to individualize their entry or provide commentary on individual pages.

Zuda offers some worthwhile material, but it is not designed with the reader or creator fully in mind. Readers lack the tools to share and subscribe to any favorite comics while creators have to compete for a chance at a contract. Many of the most popular web comics took months to develop their voice and style. Idiosyncratic comics like Achewood or Order of the Stick would probably not last on or even get selected for Zuda.

Check the site out and read the comics. It's a good way to kill an hour. But it's clear that this is not a web comic revolution or even an evolution. It's a step back because Zuda doesn’t embrace the medium to the fullest.

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