The Daily Read: 2/06

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As the horror series climbs the TopWebcomics rankings, Shadowgirls continues to impress. There’s not much of the trademark supernatural in the most recent update, but there is quite a bit of subtle detail, and that’s what I like best about it. As seen on the show Supernatural on the CW, details help root the plot pieces to the characters and their world, as well as our own. In particular, we have Lindsey reading up on the town of Innsmouth from Wikipedia. What I love most about this scene is there are real words found on the PDA screen, providing more information on Rodriguez and Reynold’s vision of the eponymous H.P. Lovecraft locale

I always hated when professional comic books overlooked this feature. I can’t count the number of times when I’d see a close-up of a newspaper in a comic to find only gibberish placed beneath the headlines. I know comics are hard work on deadlines, but if you’re Marvel or DC, can’t you have the writer or even an intern write a little article just to run beneath the bold headline? Well, the indie hit Shadowgirls shows you can – major comic publishers, take note!

Having “Sympathy for the Devil” playing in the background helps all the more. This time, the devil is literally in the details.

I recently asked Shadowgirls writer David Rodriguez and his artist side Dave Reynolds about the successes and supernatural themes surrounding this break-out webcomic hit.

Broken Frontier: Why webcomics? Especially with regards to Starkweather, why did you choose to get involved in this medium?

David Rodriguez: Hmmm…because it was cheapest. No, actually, when we first started working on Shadowgirls we had intended it to be a normal print comic. I had some contacts from working on Starkweather and shopped the first issue of Shadowgirls around. The responses ranged from uninterested to lukewarm. And we did get some offers.

I’m not going to go into the whole state of the Indie comics scene and how difficult it is for a fledgling comic to make any sort of return on these products. And what you give up for that possibility of a return seems extreme in almost every low level publisher that exists. (I hadn’t yet started working with Archaia who has one of the best indie contracts I’ve ever seen.)

I wasn’t especially interested in surrendering a big chunk of our ownership in exchange for printing costs and neither was Dave (Reynolds). So we talked over self-publishing and then webcomics. When we looked at the web, we considered abandoning the quest for print and testing the theory that we could do as well or better with our comic on the web than if we had what is considered a “successful” indie title through direct market. (I think somewhere around 4-5k issues for break-even on color comics through Diamond.) Starkweather was a lot of great things for me but it was not a moneymaker. I was determined to apply what I learned from that experience to give Shadowgirls the best chance possible.

So, looking at everything in front of us, webcomics seemed like our best bet. It had the low cost of entry, the chance to build our audience, and with the increased access to POD, a way to self-publish according to our personal demand. It really did feel like win-win.

BF: How, in your experience, are the media of print comics and webcomics different in terms of audience, execution and marketing?

David Rodriguez: When we first started out, we didn’t approach them as different. But by the second issue we had started using different techniques to tell our story and to reach people: the page turner at the bottom of every (we hope) page, the cliffhangers on Fridays to make sure people were scrambling to come back on Monday. That, combined with the near instant feedback on whatever we do is way different than the feedback you get in print form. It usually takes months, the people have to find your site, log-in to your forum and hopefully feel strongly enough to leave a comment. With Shadowgirls, we know that morning how our audience is feeling about our work. It’s sort of like the difference, (for me) between live theater and a film.

Our audience, at least the vocal majority, are not traditional comic book readers; and our audience is surprisingly around 25% female! They don’t go into comic shops and they don’t really read Spider-Man or X-Men but they are, however, long-time webcomic readers. There is a massive demographic that is used to getting their comic fix on their screen; and in a both good and bad way, used to getting that fix for free.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve sold print books through our store, but the ratio of readers to buyers is narrow. Part of me believes that is because we are applying old-fashioned principles to this very new medium. While a place like Wowio, sees what people are doing, sees a huge audience and says, we can turn this into revenue. And if you’ve got a strong enough following, it really does. It works just like television; free entertainment with targeted ads.

It really seems to me that the web has become the new comic book underground. The proving ground of the print comic has become brutal and the production value of “indies” has gone through the roof. So to be competitive you have to be as good or better than the big boys and there doesn’t seem to be that place to “grow” the young talent that used to be in place. We of course have some breakthrough successes, (Mouse Guard being a great example of that) but with self-distribution being the only game in town, the little guys (like me J ) have to go somewhere else to develop.

And the internet is very equal opportunity. Sure some people have more money to spend but if you’re determined you can get your stuff seen by a much wider audience than you would in print. (I think Shadowgirls has more than 25k regular readers) The low cost of entry allows a huge number of creators to participate and because of that, the choices are much more diverse than your average comic shop. Because of the low cost of commitment, readers are much more willing to experiment.

BF: Shadowgirls has been called H.P. Lovecraft meets Gilmore Girls. What other influences go into Shadowgirls, on both sides of spectrum, with regards to horror and drama (horrama? dramor?)

David Rodriguez: On the writing side I’m influenced by a lot of character driven fiction from different genres and mediums. Parke Godwin, Stephen R. Donaldson, George R.R. Martin and Stephen King are all authors I like for different reasons but primarily because the characters in the bad situation are more important than the situation itself. TV shows like Law and Order, Dirty Sexy Money, Firefly, and Heroes make their way into my work as well. Oddly enough, I don’t watch a lot of horror but I love stories that involve regular people faced with incredible situations and how they are able to deal with that challenge.

Dave Reynolds: Horror is all about mood, and drama is all about feeling for the characters. And speaking from the artist's point of view here, I think the two biggest masters of that are Mike Mignola and Jeff Smith. Hellboy and Bone have been major influences with me on the book as I have always loved both of their senses of mood and mastery of storytelling. (A few people have compared the fish monsters to Bone's Rat Creatures and I would be lying if I said that there wasn't a bit of inspiration put into that.) Mignola and Smith are able to pace the page just right, to establish the setting, the atmosphere and the ambience with a few lines and shades and pulls it off better than some artists can do spending weeks on a scene and failing miserably. The scene is upbeat when it needs to be, and it's depressing when it calls for it, and it's intense when it's got to be intense. It never pulls you out, it never distracts you and you feel pulled into the universe you're reading. That element of storytelling mastery is something I try to always strive for.

BF: In terms of art and in terms of story, Shadowgirls is extremely original. By genre though, webcomics are often dominated by manga and video game influences. Are your surprised by how well Shadowgirls has fared against these odds and these genres?

David Rodriguez: I don’t think we could have predicted that Shadowgirls would be generating any sort of revenue after only six months. I think Dave (Reynolds) and I both felt like we had a strong story and we hoped people would agree with us, but I have been continually overwhelmed by the support and buy-in of our community.

We didn’t know if the market was ready to embrace a long-form story like this one, but I really think our Monday-Friday schedule was the deciding factor. It allowed people to quickly get involved with our characters and their lives but yes, I’m still astounded at the response. For a fledgling title like us to be slugging it out on TWC for a Top 10 position is pretty satisfying.

BF: Finally in both web and print comics, horror seems to be increasingly popular. Do you look for this to continue in webcomics as well as print comics?

David Rodriguez: I think it’s great that horror is having its comeback. I mean, it was so huge for so long before the supers that it’s nice to see another genre try to reach new readers. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some spandex but I know that we need to continue to expand what we offer in order to attract new people.

And as long as it continues to be successful, we will see more people doing horror. Some of them will have a story to tell and some people might be coat-tailing, and I think the readers can always tell who has the honest passion for that they are working on versus an obvious cash in. What’s nice is that there are so many sub-genres within horror that is being explored right now. It’s not just zombies.

Thank you, Richard! It’s been great talking to you and we appreciate Broken Frontier supporting us.

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