In 2000, Marvel was basically unrecognizable from the monolithic media phenomenon that it is today. The combination of poor business decisions and a drought of creativity had the House of Ideas clawing back from bankruptcy as it entered the new millennium. It was clear that new leadership was needed, and at the forefront of it was Bill Jemas, who was just hired as the company's president.
Along with Joe Quesada, Jemas began to steer the company in the right direction by helping to launch a number of new initiatives, including the Marvel Knights line, the Ultimate universe, Marvel MAX and countless other experimental titles, many of which are just now being adapted into TV shows and movies.
Now Jemas is the general manager of Double Take, the publishing arm of Take-Two Interactive, which also owns 2K Games and Rockstar Games. As the general manager of Double Take, Jemas is once again in charge of helping push comics into the future—this time through digital storytelling.
Double Take's first batch of books are based around George Romero's Night of the Living Dead universe, in a slate of comics titled Ultimate Night of the Living Dead.
These books all take different corners of the iconic undead world and add new wrinkles to the lore. But most important is the company's digital presentation, which looks to trump the standard print-to-digital model that has become the norm.
I caught up with Jemas via email and asked him about his time in the industry, the state of digital comics and why fans should take notice of what Double Take is doing.
How has the industry changed from a business perspective since your tenure as president of Marvel ended a decade ago?
I'm puzzled by much of what I see, but pleased with most.
Digital comics are obviously one of the big new avenues for publishers to get their product out, but how do you personally feel about the way companies have presented their books in digital form?
Digital comics seem, to me, to be an afterthought to them. Predominantly, publishers are taking stories written and drawn for print and trying to cram them into digital formats. None that I've seen optimize the digital reading experience.
I was fortunate to have played on the team that created the first 'guided view' dotcomic player/reader, at Marvel in 2001. We were pleased with how well the trick worked at the time—when Ultimate Spider-Man's print sales were 100,000-120,000 per month, USM dotcomics had 2-3 million monthly downloads. But, frankly, we all saw that the digital reading experience was not as good as the print reading experience. [And] 14 years later, the major comic players have settled for that same sub-par format.
Are they living up to the potential?
The mobile comic book market may turn out to be massive—the potential [is] vast.
How would you describe Double Take's take on digital books versus what other publishers are doing?
2T starts by telling stories stories one panel at a time, in storyboard format. Then we adapt those storyboards for digital and print distribution, optimizing the graphic presentation for each form of media. That means creating an animation feel for digital readers and a dynamic look for print readers.
Moreover, we prioritize mobile distribution. We've created the first native mobile comic player. It's browser based, so readers don't need to download an app to enjoy the reading.
The tech is still too buggy for prime time, but when it's working, it's the best comic reading experience you can have on your phone.
These Ultimate Night of the Living Dead books are perfectly timed as audiences can't get enough of zombies on the page. Is there something about this property in particular that you thought would work best with Double Take's digital style?
The digital storyboard style works best with visually-driven stories and zombies certainly make for lively stories.
How have the writers and artists adjusted to producing books specifically for the digital market?
2T has been lucky enough to find a team of layout artists with a knack for stop-action animation. There's invariably a learning curve—learning to keep either the 'camera' fixed and the characters moving or keeping the characters still as the camera moves. Conceptually, storyboards storytelling is a lot like film making and that can take some getting used to.
Any growing pains?
People tend to do much better on their second episode than on their first, but that's a pleasure, not a pain.
A lot of the comic book audience sees their collection as much as an investment as a hobby, especially with variant covers being more important than ever. Is the collectible market something that will always stand in the way of digital books, or do you think the advantages of digital will eventually outweigh that?
My sense is that digital and print comics are complementary, not competitive. A significant number of people who read digital comics purchase the same story in print—sometimes as single comics, sometimes as graphic novels. The evidence I've seen is limited, but it's pretty clear—digital distribution seems to enhance print purchases.
Variant cover publishing/purchasing is a fool's game with plenty of players. 2T will sit that one out. We will continue to create eye-catching covers and to focus on enhancing the long-term value of "one and only" printings.
Speaking of the advantages of digital, what is the next step? Is this first wave of books as far as Double Take will take digital, or are there more improvements and additions you are testing?
Speaking of foolish, I'm more than a bit embarrassed to say that our [2T's] tech is still not up to speed. Our images download too slowly, the player's not as 'responsive' as it should be, and the journey from story to story is not well curated. Lots more work to do.
Take a look at what Double Take has to offer by heading to its official website.