It's been enormous fun and a really interesting project (you can read a little interview with me over at the beframeus Facebook page). I've learned a lot from doing it, but overall it's been a success, I think. And there's been some really nice feedback - a big thank you to everyone who tweeted, shared or commented, and especially to all those who took photos of the screens - it's been great seeing them out there.
Here's a few of the screens, as photographed by a variety of Tweeters and Facebookers (as credited). Arni's Epic Adventures runs until the end of November - let me know if you spot him!
Follow Arni's adventure on Twitter with the hashtag #ArniStory.
Arni is a little red bird (a Pine Grosbeak, actually) who was having a lovely snooze in his favourite tree when he was rudely awoken by the sound of a chainsaw and his tree was carted off on the back of a lorry. Arni loves that tree, so he's decided to follow it, but that turns out not to be as easy as he'd hoped, and a series of exciting little adventures ensue.
The strip was commissioned by JCDecaux - "the number one outdoor advertising company in the world" and provider of those digital screens you see everywhere at railway stations, shopping malls and airports. The basic concept and the character idea is theirs, while the realisation of the idea (script, design and artwork) comes from me. He's appearing on JCDecaux screens across the UK, one strip per working day (with catch-ups at the weekend) throughout all of November - twenty strips in all.
As I write, I've still got the last few pages to draw - a little nerve-wracking as the story began its run on Monday November 2nd - but I'm really enjoying it. Even as I wrote the script I knew I was setting myself a challenge with a fair number of testing environments to draw, including depictions of lorries, ships, cranes, and city scenes, many of them from unusual angles - and all with a rather tight deadline. But nothing gets you to do your best like a story that pushes your abilities - and a tight deadline!
A further challenge has been that JCDecaux have two different screen formats ... the Digital-6 is a portrait screen and the Transvision is landscape. As D6 screens vastly outnumber the TVs, I've drawn primarily for that mode, but have then had to re-compose the artwork for the longer, narrower format, often having to cut away some of my artwork (wince!). For me, the definitive versions are the D6 pages, but it's the more screen-friendly TVs that are being published online.
JCDeacux host thousands of screens across the country, many at major railway stations, roadside locations and big shopping complexes, reaching half of the UK population (they reckon 30-40 million). The strip is wordless and appears on screens for 5, 6 or 20 seconds and is being billed as "the first graphic arts story to be commissioned for digital screens" (the big ones, anyway!).
A big thank you to Russell Gower and his colleagues at JCDecaux for giving me the opportunity to work on such an exciting project. I hope you'll come across Arni on your travels throughout the following month - you can follow the strip's progress on Twitter through beframeus and ArniBird - and if you see a screen, do let me know, and tweet a photo if you can!
This idea first entered my brain back in 2011 when I saw some beautiful photos of an Asterix exhibition and noticed, not necessarily the extra detail, but the amount of space available to draw in each panel. I always felt a bit crammed-in working at A3, especially when putting down 10 or 12 panels per page. And when drawing smaller full-length figures, and buildings, detail and accuracy does start to get a bit smudgy.
I've also been moving away from the ever-reliable Hunt-107 nib and have become quite attached to the Tachikawa Maru, a finer stylus, a little more flexible, but also allowing for a much more comfortable holder.
With the increase in paper size (actually I'll still be drawing on A3, just landscape in two parts) I have had to update my little set of home-made tools.
The first of these (above left) is what I call a marginator. It's a bit of card cut exactly to the width of my page borders, allowing me to quickly mark up the drawing area of the page without having to count the millimetres from a ruler. I know that's not exactly an arduous task in itself but, when you're doing lots of pages, anything to speed up the repetitive bits is a help.
My first version (for A3) was straight - this new improved model has a 90-degree angle on it, so I can place it in the corner of the page and mark two measurements at once.
Next to that (above right) is my balloon space guide. When I letter the completed page it is at A4, but I need to know how much room to leave for balloons when drawing my bigger original art. This allows me to measure the depth of balloons at A2-scale according to how many lines of text there are. I know how many lines to allow for because I do A4 roughs and letter them first.
I have a little print-out of all the measurements I'll need for working at A2 (above), just so I don't have to keep working out how big half or quarter of a page is, and also so I can quickly reference my basic panel sizes (third, quarter, fifth of a tier, etc). I rarely use those exact measurements, but it's a starting point from which I can go bigger or smaller, depending on what I need. My old A3 measurements are on the left.
The first scene of the new story is three pages long, and though I won't be doing this with the entire book (you'll be relieved to hear!) I am going to be blogging the process of this scene quite closely - just to get things going. Here are the thumbnails ...
One - MULP: Sceptre of the Sun. This is an adventure comic crossing the territory of Indiana Jones, The Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain ... all that lovely stuff, but with an extra unique feature - all the characters are mice! The story is intriguing and exciting, and the artwork is detailed and gorgeous. It's written by Matt Gibbs, with art by Sara Dunkerton and lettering by Jim Campbell. There's lots to love in it - 1920s cars and motorbikes, archaeological mysteries and clues from the ancient past, mice riding lizards, beetles as beasts of burden, wooden aeroplanes, a classy villainess, and lots more (including a background appearance by a certain Julius and Lily in mouse form). It's right up my street. The first issue (of five) will be released on 7th May 2014 and you can find out more at the Mulp website.
Two - Kurt Dunder. Perhaps you recall that I wrote a review of the only Kurt Dunder book to be published in English - Kurt Dunder in Tirol - back in 2009? Well, now Danish author Frank Madsen has made the very first volume available in English too, Kurt Dunder in Africa, in digital format from Comixology. This is terrific news, and as soon as I get my mitts on the family iPad I'm going to download it for myself!
Three - Unfinished City. This is a detective thriller set in the criminal underworld of Former Yugoslavia and it looks very nice. You can read the first 20 pages here. The art, by Robert Solanović, is wonderful and gave me a hint of Simon Gane, and a pinch of Paul Harrison-Davies - both favourites of mine, but it's all its own thing. And the story is enthralling and very readable, by a UK writer who I have long-admired as an excellent story maker, Ben Dickson, this time in collaboration with Sylvija Martinović. Please support the project's Kickstarter campaign - I want that book in my hands!
This year, as well as their 'regular' bingo card, they produced a 'YA' (young adult) card as an extra challenge, with one of the squares suggesting 'a graphic novel'. Here are the cards (see them bigger here) ...
It's great to see that anyone doing the YA card will be including a graphic novel in their reading, many, possibly, for the first time. It also made me think how many people consider graphic novels a genre rather than a medium (and I'm not saying Random House are doing this here - they're not) and will immediately think 'Batman' when they see the term graphic novel.
So I wondered if the diversity of comics was enough to wipe out both bingo cards? I then wondered if I could wipe out both bingo cards with graphic novels from my own collection only (and without repeating any)? That would make it harder with my fairly specific tastes.
Well, actually it wasn't that hard after all, and many of the squares could have been filled with various titles. I tried to be as diverse as possible, from within my own shelves, and chose titles largely as if recommending books for readers new to comics. I also avoided adaptations, wanting the books to have been made to be comics. Why not have a go from your own collection? Here's mine ...
Regular Reading Bingo
A book with more than 500 pages - Bone, single volume edition by Jeff Smith (1332 pages)
A forgotten classic - Camelot 3000 by Mike Barr and Brian Bolland (well, I think so!)
A book that became a movie - Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn by Hergé
A book published this year - Nemo: The Roses of Berlin by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Niell (I haven't bought any 2014 comics yet, but this one is on my wishlist)
A book with a number in the title - Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa (had rich pickings here!)
A book written by someone under thirty - Spider Moon by Kate Brown (took longer to confirm a choice here)
A book with non-human characters - Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley by Floyd Gottfredson
A funny book - The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs by Gary Northfield
A book by a female author - Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (a bit obvious, but a well-known name and a great title for a newbie recommendation)
A book with mystery - The Black Feather Falls by Ellen Lindner
A book with a one-word title - Dororo by Osama Tezuka
A book of short stories - Nelson by various
Free square - thank you, I'll have Oor Wullie by Dudley D Watkins, please (Ken Harrison is fine too)
A book set on a different continent - Palestine by Joe Sacco
A book of non-fiction - Science Tales by Darryl Cunningham
The first book by a favourite author - Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson (a collection, admittedly)
A book you heard about online - Widdershins by Kate Ashwin (wanted to choose a web comic here, something comics do so well)
A best-selling book - Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
A book based on a true story - Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
A book at the bottom of your 'to be read' pile - Largo Winch: The Heir by Jean Van Hamme and Phillipe Francq (sorry Largo Winch, I must read you one day)
A book your friend loves - Mortensen's Escapades: The Secret Mummy by Lars Jakobsen (recommended to me by Colin Mathieson, though I also plan on getting a book he recommends even more - The Nieuport Gathering by Ivan Petrus)
A book that scares you - Uzumaki by Junji Ito (thanks for the nightmare)
A book that is more than 10 years old - Charley's War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun
The second book in a series - Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot
A book with a blue cover - Scarlet Traces: The Great Game by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli
YA Reading Bingo
A book with a female heroine - Yoko Tsuno: On the Edge of Life by Roger Leloup
A book set in high school - Mo-Bot High by Neill Cameron
The last book of a trilogy - The Incal vol. 3 by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius
A book with a colour in the title - The Yellow M by Edgar P. Jacobs
The first book in a series - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 1 by Hayao Miyazaki
A book set in the future - Give Me Liberty by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons (almost went for Alan Moore's Halo Jones, but in order not to repeat an author too much I decided on the Ballad of Martha Washington instead)
A book with a break-up - Blankets by Craig Thompson
A book without a love triangle - Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix
A book that became a movie - From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
A book set in Paris - Paris by Andi Watson and Simon Gane (I was torn between this, Tardi's Adele Blanc-Sec books, and Hubert and Kerascoet's Miss Don't Touch Me ... decided the title had it!)
A book set in the past - Asterix and Cleopatra by Goscinny and Uderzo
A book with magic - Ralph Azham 1: Why Would You Lie to Someone You Love? by Lewis Trondheim
Free square - The Complete Rainbow Orchid by Garen Ewing (it could fit a number of categories, but as it's a free choice, I thought I'd indulge)
A book set in the summer - Black Hole by Charles Burns
A book with a dragon - Dungeon Parade vol 1: A Dungeon Too Many by Sfar, Trondheim and Larcenet
A book that made you cry - Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot (films make me cry all too easily, but comics ... not so often. The first I remembered was the scene in Alice with the girl carrying her dead sister home ... yup, that got me)
A graphic novel - Maus by Art Spiegelman (one of the books most often associated with the rise of the 'graphic novel')
A book based on a myth - The Book of Genesis by Robert Crumb (this one had to be an adaptation)
A 'classic' YA book - Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
A book with a lion, a witch, or a wardrobe - I Shall Destroy All The Civilised Planets by Fletcher Hanks (the witch is Fantomah, it even has a lion in - not so sure about a wardrobe)
A book with an incredible fight scene - Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davies (a difficult one this, but I always remember, as a kid, reading Captain Britain's fight with the Fury and feeling genuinely terrified that he couldn't defeat it)
A book you heard about online - The New Teen Titans: Games by Marv Wolfman and George Perez (aged about 11 to 14 I really loved The New Teen Titans - I saw online that Wolfman and Perez were teaming up again for a new book featuring the Titans and it was published in 2013; I haven't actually read it yet)
A book set in another world - Baggage by the Etherington Brothers (I considered Neverwhere by Richard Corben but that's way too far over the YA remit!)
A book with an epic love story - Saga vol 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
A book with music - Punk Rock and Trailer Parks by Derf
Can you give an overview of who Panel Nine are, and what Sequential is?
Panel Nine is a digital publishing company specializing in digital comics and graphic novels. It's actually an imprint of iEnglish.com, a software development company based in Tokyo which does a lot of educational apps for companies like Oxford University Press.
Sequential is a digital graphic novel storefront app, which we launched in May this year . We offer a range of graphic novels and comics, tending towards the more literary stuff rather than going down the superhero route. It has a Storefront where you can see new releases and browse books to buy, and a Library where you can read the books you've downloaded.
How did you end up at Panel Nine - did you work in publishing beforehand?
After a degree in Philosophy and Theology, which unsurprisingly proved useless in the real world, I worked in children's publishing for several years, writing and editing magazines and activity books. Then my boyfriend and I moved to Tokyo in March 2011 (that's right - just before the big earthquake) and when I was there I got the job at iEnglish. I worked over there for a couple of years, and then when we decided to come home earlier this year, the company asked if I'd stay on and work from London.
And what is your role within the company?
I'm the Editorial Director, so I work with publishers and artists to decide what we put on the app and when, and then oversee the process of getting the books digitized and releasing them. Basically keeping everything ticking over. We're a small company, so I also pitch in with a lot of the production stuff, getting the layouts and extra features just right. I do a fair bit of business development as well - Sequential isn't the only thing we do and we always have other projects to work on.
What's involved in turning a book, such as The Rainbow Orchid, into a Sequential title?
After we get files from the publisher, we redo the pages to fit the iPad screen, take out blank pages, maybe put in some extra bits if necessary. Any double-page spreads are put together as proper spreads, so you can pan across them rather than just seeing the left and right pages separately. We create the panel links so readers can zoom in to Panel Mode, then other resources such as thumbnail images, contents, the main menus and 'about' screens etc. Some books, such as The Complete Rainbow Orchid, have extra features only available on Sequential, so we'll put all those together too.
Then when all the resources are ready they're bundled together and tested very thoroughly. When we know everything's perfect, the book is ready for release on the app, along with information on our Storefront about the book itself, and the creator and publisher.
Can you explain some of the features that are available with books on the Sequential platform?
Each book has Page Mode and Panel Mode, so you can zoom in and see panels in more detail, or read panel by panel. We worked really hard to make everything intuitive, easy to read, and pleasant, too - super-fast swiping, no horrid pixellated images, or waiting for pages to load. We can also add a whole range of things - extra content such as interviews, sketches and artwork, audio commentaries, videos, webviews, and HTML 5 content - almost anything, really.
We also have a new way of reading comics, which we're calling Sequential Mode. This is where, instead of swiping to the next page, you tap or swipe and one image is replaced with another, using any kind of transition you like. It makes for an interesting new way to present sequential images and tell a story. There's a freebie called Fictions which you can download in the app if anyone would like to have a look.
What are some of the other titles available through Sequential?
We're working with a whole load of brilliant publishers, so we have books from Jonathan Cape, Knockabout, Myriad, Blank Slate, plus a range of stuff from smaller and indie publishers like Great Beast, Tabella, Soaring Penguin, and Metaphrog. So you'll find a whole range of things from the greats like Alan Moore and Gilbert Shelton to more small press titles from people like Dan Berry, Terry Wiley and Isabel Greenberg.
We aim to provide a fairly carefully curated selection, and we're quite picky about what we put on the app, so you won't find any superheroes and you won't have to wade through loads of substandard stuff trying to find something decent to read. (At least, that's the idea!) And we add new books every week, so there's lots of good stuff coming soon. We're always interested to hear what readers would like to see, too.
Is Sequential available on any other platforms, besides iPad? Any plans?
It's currently only available for the iPad, but we're working on an Android version which should be released next year. Watch this space...
Is there much resistance to digital comics, from either readers or publishers? Do you think it's something people are embracing, or is there still work to do?
I think there's definitely still work to do. Digital's still fairly new, really, and a lot of publishers are understandably cautious about how and when to make the leap to digital. Having said that, people are reading digitally more than ever so there's definitely a need for it.
Often I hear people talk as though there's some kind of war between print and digital - as though if they read a digital comic they'll be betraying print, or aiding its decline. I don't think that's the case, and at Panel Nine we're certainly not trying to lure people away from print - I wouldn't work here if we were, I love my huge piles of old books too much. We're trying to provide an alternative, so you can find books you might not come across in your local comics shop (if you even have a local comics shop), or you can give your groaning bookshelves a bit of a rest, or if you fancy reading a gigantic tome like From Hell on the bus but you don't want to lug it round with you all day. And of course, digital comics can often include things print versions can't - audio, video, other bells and whistles. So I think print and digital can complement each other and there's a time and a place for both.
Another assumption people make is that all digital is the same, which frustrates me every time you see a bad comics app which is unresponsive, or difficult to navigate, or where you're not sure where to tap or what will happen. Just as print books can be designed well or badly, or be high-spec or low quality, so digital comics can be smooth and intuitive, or clunky and annoying to use. But all digital tends to get tarred with the same brush and I think a lot of people have tried a low-standard app or reader and thought 'that's it then, digital's not for me'.
Were you a comics reader before your involvement with Panel Nine?
To be honest I wasn't much of a comics reader. I'd read some random bits and pieces - Posy Simmonds, Scott Pilgrim, Ghost World, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I mostly stuck to my 19th century novels and I wouldn't have said I was a comics fan. I've read a lot more over the past couple of years though!
Do you have some favourites (digital or not)?
It's an obvious choice but From Hell is one of my favourites - it's just breathtaking in its scope and scale. I just got round to reading Alice in Sunderland and it kind of blew me away. Favourite newer ones include The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon and Eustace by SJ Harris... and I'm looking forward to reading The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg - I haven't found time yet but it looks amazing. I also try and read stuff in Japanese; comics can be a really good language learning tool because of the visual element, so I'm working my way very slowly through some Tintin at the moment. Oh, and I do love The Phoenix... I'm biased because we do the iPad app, which is great because it means I get to see Bunny vs Monkey before everyone else.
A huge thanks to Chloë for taking the time to answer my questions, and for providing such interesting answers! You can download the Sequential app for free here, and you can see my video tour of The Rainbow Orchid on Sequential here.
I've only played a tiny part in the history of The Phoenix, but I'm very proud to have had my work within its pages: The Legend of the Golden Feather in no. 1, The Bald Boy and the Dervish in nos. 23-26 (both written by Ben Haggarty), and Julius Chancer: The Secret of the Samurai in nos. 75-78.
The Phoenix has been consistently excellent, every week, regularly featuring the work of many of the best British creators ... Neill Cameron, Daniel Hartwell, Adam Murphy, Gary Northfield, the Etherington brothers, Robert Deas, Zak Simmonds-Hurn, Dave Shelton, Jamie Smart, Kate Brown, Paul Duffield, Wilbur Dawbarn, Jamie Littler, Matt Baxter, Dan Boultwood ... and that's not even half of them.
Special tribute should be made to the editors, firstly Ben Sharpe, and then his successor, Will Fickling - and not forgetting the man whose vision brought The Phoenix into existence, the man with the red bow tie, David Fickling.
I really hope The Phoenix continues well into, and beyond, its next 100 issues - it is part of the lifeblood of the British comics scene and is responsible for growing a massive crop of new comics readers and creators in this country. If you love good comics then you really should treat yourself!
René Goscinny, the original writer, died in 1977, his last book being Asterix in Belgium (posthumously published), after which the series artist, Albert Uderzo, took up the writing as well - often to mixed reaction.
While Hergé explicitly forbid Tintin to be continued by other hands after his death, there has been success with the continuation of Edgar P. Jacobs' Blake and Mortimer series with new creators, so the situation with Asterix is not new territory - though certainly Asterix is a bigger deal on the world stage than Blake and Mortimer.
Asterix and the Picts sees Asterix and Obelix (strangely, leaving Dogmatix at home) travel to Scotland after a Pict is washed up on the Gaulish beach, frozen in a giant pebble of ice. After thawing him out, they decide to return the Pict to his native land, and end up involving themselves in the task of rescuing his kidnapped fiancé, while also attempting to stop the local rotten clan chief from claiming himself as king.
The artwork can't be faulted, and reading the book I couldn't help but marvel at Conrad's imitation skills. There's some very nice stuff with Nessie, and I liked the fact that the fiancé in the story - even though she did need rescuing - was not the usual film-star blonde, but a slightly more down to earth depiction.
The story is fun and breezy but, apart from the setting, not much leaps out to make it particularly memorable. Perhaps, with Uderzo peering over their shoulders, the new creators decided to play things safe, or maybe it suffered slightly from no one wanting to make any radical suggestions or take any risks with this new venture (even though it could be 'anything goes' after the bizarre Falling Sky).
The plot felt a little stilted, but I wonder how much of that is my acute awareness of the new authors. I certainly didn't laugh as much as I usually do with Asterix, though there was humour enough, and the book didn't feel as sharply clever or witty as during the Golden age of Goscinny. I re-read Asterix in Britain afterwards, the Gauls' other visit to our shores, and it really sparkled, with a story that romped at a pace with plot twists and turns, and many good chuckles.
But overall I'm happy with Picts. It's better than some of the more recent books, and I think - I hope - that the creators will grow more confident, become less intimidated (as admitted), and loosen up a little with their new charges. And I hope Uderzo lets them. There's just enough here to feel optimistic about the future of Asterix.