There's no denying that technology has changed the way we consume content. From streaming TV series on Netflix to reading books on our Kindles, technology and media continue to go hand in hand.
But when it comes to reading digital comics on our phones, flipping through the pages is not really the ideal for a seamless experience. Now this is all about to change thanks to a new digital comics app called Stēla (pronounced Steel-ah) that features original content optimized for the smartphone.
While there already are digital comics apps such as comiXology, which features PDF versions of print comics, Stēla is separating itself from the pack by taking away the inconvenience of reading titles on a smartphone.
"There are a number of existing platforms, but a lot of them are constrained to a certain flavor, which is they are really built for the iPad," Stēla's Chief Product Officer Sam Lu told Tech Times. "We realized that there is a lack of content, especially served in the U.S., that's really tailor-made for the phone and really built in a way that is more intuitive for people that use apps."
The team at Stēla (whose members have previous experience in video games, mobile apps and include some members who previously worked at Dark Horse Comics) designed the platform to allow users to read comics vertically by scrolling, something we're already used to doing on social media feeds.
"Our format of stacking panels is a vertical column really makes it feel like you are looking through your Facebook feed, Instagram, or Twitter — something that's a lot more native to what we think this next generation like to do in terms of consuming their media," Lu said.
This means that users don't have to worry about pressing a button, zooming in and out, or figuring out a command to move through a story. This format can also help encourage those who are new to reading comics get more comfortable with how the stories are told. Since everything is top down, users will automatically know to read the bubble on top and continue on instead figuring out what they should read first.
"This can be a gateway to open up comics to a new generation," Lu said.
But this format isn't without constraints. The downside is that creators lose double-page panels for big reveals with landscape illustrations, although the vertical format means that stories can also go beyond one screen in length, giving "a different kind of visual reveal."
Stēla is a subscription-based service, where titles can be read on demand for a limited-time price of just $4.99. A good analogy would be to compare a platform like comiXology with the streaming service Netflix. Searching for content can be overwhelming, so Lu suggests users should think of Stēla as more of a premium service.
"We're more like HBO," Lu said. "We're trying to build something that just has really compelling and interesting high-quality stories," adding that the premium cable network is "more aligned with our model of curating and finding the best stories and putting them out there."
The platform features only original works, which is part of the "magic" of what it is providing: original, never-before-seen content on a daily basis. New chapters of these series will be released Monday-Friday, with more titles expected to be added.
Ryan Yount, Stēla's editor in chief, revealed that the content includes fast-paced and fun titles, as well as more serious and thoughtful pieces, along with content that would be classified as more indie in style.
"This is a huge opportunity to reach a larger audience with comics that are more diverse in POV, diverse in creators we are working with, and we can have a little more fun and stretch our wings in the kinds of stories that we put out," Yount told Tech Times.
The app features a lineup of five series at its launch: Rome West, written by Brian Wood and Justin Giampaoli and illustrated by Andrea Mutti; Teach by Stuart Moore and Greg Scott; Inheritance by Ryan Yount, Kidman Chan and Yumiki Hong; Out with a Bang by Stuart Moore, Tony Talbert, John Heebink, Chris Marrinan and Marissa Louise; and Afrina and the Glass Coffin by Irene Koh.
"I'm superexcited about the diversity of our lineup," Lu said. "We have a lot of up-and-comers, a lot of exciting storytellers that have built up a really big following independently, and we also have comic book legends."
This includes Louise Simonson, known for her work at Marvel both as a writer and an editor, who will release a new title on the platform with an all-female team.
The team at Stēla has been very active about reaching out to creators to join the platform. And it wasn't that easy to sell the idea back before creators had heard of what the platform was. This, Yount said, is an indication of where the industry is.
"It's pretty hard, the economics of comics and being a creator; it's pretty difficult and we saw this firsthand when we were reaching out to creators," Yount said. "A lot of them have been burned by comic book startups in the past, and it's difficult to find that trust."
But leading up to its launch, the company has built up its reputation by proving it can pay competitively, as well as supporting creator-owned content. Along with providing creators with access to the team of editors and pay advances, Stēla also doesn't take any rights (including copyrights, merchandising or other media rights like movies or games) besides digital rights during the period the title is published on the platform. That means when the run is over, the creator can package their story and publish it through a print publisher.
"There is some technical innovations that we're bringing that are really interesting. In the print world, a lot of folks have to fit into the business model that exists, and that includes selling a book to a publisher and then finishing the book and waiting 6 to 9 months to actually see it placed through diamond distributors and the network," Lu said. "And for us, we really have an agility that is unseen. It comes from the web comic world where as soon as we have final pages, we can publish them the very next day. As soon as we receive it, we can have it up. We can move at a pace that is kind of unprecedented, and that's really exciting for the creators."
Stēla also includes features that are similar to social media networks, such as allowing for users to like a comic, comment on it, connect with other comic readers and even with the creators themselves.
"The advantage of being a mobile app is that we will have such a massive amount of data about how people are reading, what they they reading, how long it's taking them, the kinds of stuff that they like, rather than just sales numbers, so it gives us more opportunity to find out with the audience is interested in," Yount said.
That said, editorially the team won't just release titles it knows audiences will like, and instead aims to take risks.
Stēla launched this week in the App Store, and is now available to download for iOS for free, which includes the first chapters of all the series. To continue reading more chapters, users can subscribe for $4.99.