This is a interview I conducted with Graphic.Ly CEO Micah Baldwin to tie in with our digital release. The interview also appears on Geekweek, and later in the week will appear at Comic Related– but only here do you get a whole extra section!

Micah is a really awesome and super nice guy– and enthusiastic about Digital Comics and the potential they hold. Honestly, if after reading this interview, you AREN’T stoked for the future of comics– you might want to check your pulse.

Here’s the Interview:

If you’ve been following the Digital Comics beat over the last year or so, you’ve definitely heard of Graphic.Ly, the comic reader application/hub that partnered with Ifanboy, and recently announced over 3 million dollars in funding.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been prepping my comic, Spy6teen, for a digital release on Graphic.Ly’s platform. At some point during the many-levels-deep email chains, I noticed Graphic.Ly’s CEO, Micah Baldwin CC’ed.
I knew Micah’s name from the Graphic.ly email newsletter; given the fact that he hands out  his Email, Twitter, IM name, and Phone number in said newsletter, I figured he’d be a pretty approachable guy for an interview on Digital Comics to coincide with our release.

I sat down with Micah a week or two back for an in-depth, 60 Minutes style conversation on Graphic.ly, digital comics vs. stores, and how to make the world a better place.

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Tim Simmons: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Graphic.Ly and how you came to be involved?

Micah Baldwin: Graphic.Ly started as a company that went through a program here in Boulder called Techstarts. I’ve been a mentor as Techstarts for years and I got to meet the company when it came through the summer before last. We enjoyed working together enough that I joined as their CEO, I’ve been working with them ever since.

We took it from the very simple idea of reading your comics online with a little bit of social, to expanding it to something we consider to be focused more on the idea of community and engagement around digital comics and associated entertainment.

TS: Graphic.Ly started as an On-Line reader, not a Digital reader?

MB: No, no, it was always an App. The original idea was that is was going to be an AIR (Adobe Air) application that you would download much like Itunes.  You would buy comic books through it, much like you buy music through Itunes.

TS: How would you say Graphic.Ly differs from other digital comic platforms?

MB: We’re nicer. (Laughs) Well, I think our focus is more on the social aspect. For us, what’s important is– think about walking into a comic book store and seeing thousands of comics floating around and not knowing where to start. You’d probably get lost and walk out.

Whereas my experience growing up was, you walk into a comic book store– and you talk to the owner, and you talk to the other people there– maybe there was a couch you sat down on and you had a great conversation. And by the time you left, you bought more comics than you’d expected to- and you’d learned more than you’d imagined. Our focus is on that.
We want to be the couch in the middle of the comic store.

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TS: So you’re looking from the social media aspect? Like the Facebook meets Itunes of Comics?

MB: I think to a certain degree, yeah– but it always gets dicey when you start comparing companies. Facebook is very much about identity– owning your entire online identity in one place.
For us, it’s about your entertainment choices.
And yes, we want the social interaction you’ll find in a Facebook or other types of social networks, but we’re not focused on the idea of getting as many friends as you can.
What’s interesting is, in Facebook you have one relationship, everyone is your friend. Your Mom is your friend, your girlfriend is your friend– everyone is a friend.
And then it’s about putting in as much information as possible so that the two of you have as much information about each other as possible.

For us, it’s less about the number of friends and more about having relationships that may vary among users, but are focused on understanding comics. So, I may be very new to the Marvel Universe, but Ron Richards (Graphic.Ly VP) knows the Marvel U very well, so with him, my interactions are all around Marvel– whereas someone else is completely about Archaia and is happy to talk about MOUSE GUARD.
So, I’ve learned about two totally different things from two different people.

TS: Talking about the social aspect of comic books– one of the inherent parts of being a comic book reader is sharing– or lending books back and forth amongst your friends with physical copies.
Obviously, piracy is a huge issue in comics– it may not have hit as loudly as other industries, but it is hitting hard. Do you have anything in place to try to promote the sharing amongst your friends, but still protect against copyright infringement?

MB: I think at the end of the day, there’s a few things that matter– One is that the comics today are all tied to some kind of machine, either it lives on your Ipad or your desktop. It’s all sort of tied to its location rather than the person.
I think there’s some interesting ways to extend that to where you can start to think of it as people connecting to comics, rather than machines. To say that the industry is rather myopic in the sense that all they’ve been trying to do is recreate print comics digitally. No one has really thought about the platform and how much more it can do– such as sharing, or designing the story in a completely different way than currently exists. I think leveraging online for what it can be– To be frank, the Scott McCloud stuff that he wrote ten years ago is very antiquated at this point. It’s not really taking advantage of how the internet works– it’s taking advantage of what a computer screen provides.
I think we’re way-way early, I think publisher are afraid of what the internet can bring them– not technology in the scene of a computer screen, but really connectivity of people. And I hope, actually I know, over the course of 2011 you’ll start to see a shifting of unique models that will allow people to do what they’re supposed to be doing with comics, which is not just enjoying the art and the story, but getting other people– evangelizing the stories, right?
You’ll start to see some interesting things in 2011, certainly some interesting things from us as we enter into this world.

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TS: Touching on that, you’d mentioned a phrase in a previous interview, talking about the Ipad as a form factor– can you explain what you were saying there?

MB: You know what’s funny? Humans by nature are pattern followers. They say is takes 21 days to make a habit. So if you do something 21 days in a row, after awhile you forget about it and it just becomes muscle memory. I remember as a kid, I would try to do things that would get me moving in a certain direction or do certain things– silly things, like put my left shoe on before I put on my right shoe– sort of seeing what kind of behavior activity I could create.

It’s the same thing with art. In everyone’s mind, a comic book is a book– meaning pages and pictures that have a certain length and are laid out with a panel type format. The truth is that technologically, that really doesn’t matter. It could be anything.
Creators are, by that preconceived notion, held back by the technology that is in front of them. So when they think about story, they think about it in the context of the twelve panels that always work. “How do I do this page, how do I do that page?” Instead of, how do I best tell this story?

So what if I wanted a world where I had interactive panels? Or I was able to add audio? Or what if I wanted to add a 3-D element? Or what if it lived in seven different formats across fourteen different websites? Or maybe I have to play a game before the next panel shows up.
I think the Ipad, right now at least in terms of comics, is just an electronic book. It doesn’t drive the creativity the way it should be, it’s just another form factor. It really doesn’t matter.

What I’m excited for is that first creator, and I’m guessing that’s going to be a really smart guy from somewhere that really loves comics, not necessarily some guy from Marvel, who is going to come to us and say, I have this idea, would you support it?
My answer of course, will be yes.
I think what will happen is, five years from now, the book part of comics will be unrecognizable. The engagement part will be huge.
This is my soapbox, I apologize for–

TS: No, no– I’m 100% with you.

MB: I think there will be stories that will be different if we read them with friends then if we read them alone. A great example is,  y’know, LEGO STAR WARS– if you play with friends it’s a completely different game than if you play it by yourself.  There’s things you can’t accomplish by yourself.

Now imagine that if it’s a comic book, if it’s two people sharing the story — and it’s not like, side by side, next to the fireplace, “let’s go read some books”– but that you’re actually doing stuff– the story will adjust to the readers at a very rapid pace– and everyone will walk out of it with the story intact, but the experience will be different.

TS: It almost sounds like you’re talking about a totally different storyform than traditional comics, as they exist now. Do you think it becomes a different thing? That you’ve got your Marvel and DC fans who are reading static SUPERMAN– and you’ve also got Future Creator X, who has a totally different audience after creating the INCEPTION of comics– or will there be a bridge between the two of them?

MB: Well, the contrite way of answering that is  there will always be traditional comic books until the older comic book people die. You’ve got up and coming kids who are enjoying the new formats and engaged situations, as they start to buy more and more, that’s when the shift will come.

It is still a business and that’s driven by the bottom dollar. This is what will happen, some book will explode– it’ll be a completely different file format and it’ll be a completely different “something.” File format is the wrong word, it’ll be a completely different experience. And that book will sell a million copies, all online- no print– it’ll have 50,000 facebook fans, and it’ll turn into a movie that does 500 million dollars, and then everyone will copy it.
My entire goal in life right now is to facilitate that to happen, sooner rather than later.

TS: I think to some degree we’re already starting to see it, last time I was back east, I saw my wife’s niece playing with her DSi– she’s five, and she’s swiping around on the screen and interacting and creating a narrative.

MB: For me, what’s really cool is, we have this ability within our application where we can wipe away the color and see the inks beneath it on certain books and apps. When I brought that up with a creator, he was like, “Wow, that’s super cool– I’m going to create a panel where the main character is in the dark — and when you wipe away the dark, you get more of the story.” Super simple, right– and in a year from now we’ll look at it and say “That was really pretty”– but to me, that’s the harbinger of things to come.

By the way, that book is ARACHNID KID, which is a creator owned property written by a guy out of Maine– and that’s where it’s gonna come from, he’s not beholden to Marvel– and he’s not going to be dancing to get a job at DC.
Which we all know, it’s really hard to be successful as a creator, unless you’ve got a job with Marvel or DC, because otherwise you’re writing seventeen different books, hoping that one hits.

It’s disappointing because the creative part of comic books have been replaced with the financial part. Once again, to stand on my soapbox, my goal is to change that. To allow the creativity to match the financial benefit in a way that no one has ever seen before.

TS: That seems to be a problem with the majors, who have to look at the bottom line of printing, distribution, advertising, etc– It seems like they have a hard time taking chances, because they’re looking at the rate of return– and that stifles creativity. Obviously, that’s not all comics, but, y’know–

MB: Well, that’s true. I mean, you have Diamond, who manages the majority of the industry in terms of distribution– and they’ve set up rules where you’ll either be distributed by them or not– So my goal as a publisher is not to create the best book I can, but rather to create a book that I think Diamond will distribute, so I can sell the most. Because it’s really freakin’ expensive to get a book built.

We eliminate the cost factor– like, it’s basically free to get a book distributed– and we can support that by having really solid marketing efforts that allows for a large number of users and a large distribution path– And the book quality should shoot through the roof, because now I’m not worried about writing a book I think Diamond will distribute–
My little by-line that I always say is that right now creativity is being held back by technology, and I want technology to be driven by creativity.

TS: Just circling back, I didn’t want to imply that there is no cost for you– I mean, I’ve got a comic that’s going through your production circle right now– getting sliced and diced, and I’m sure those production artists aren’t doing it for free.

MB: (Laughs) We pay them in cookies.

TS: Just to hit on the “doomsday prophecies” of last year, a number of pundits were claiming this was the end of traditional brick and mortar comic book shops– As a digital publisher, how do you respond to that?
(And by the way, I don’t believe that to be the case at all)

MB: So, Ron Richards, one of the co-founders of Ifanboy (at Graphic.ly as well,) he and I talk about this a lot. He’s a long-term, die-hard comic book fan and deeply believes in the industry. I much more new to the industry and am more of a business type kinda guy–
So when we talk about our effect on comic book stores, he’ll get angry because I’ll say things like “I really hope that comic book stores that are not ready for digital, or not willing to work in a way that makes some sense, I do hope they die.” Because they’re not good for the industry.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fair number of stores shift from selling comics to selling toys or other collectibles. At the same time, you see stores like Isotope in San Francisco, or Meltdown in LA, who are really focused on creating an experience– and those guys will do phenomenal.

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(Owner, James Sime in Isotope Comics, SF)

What I find really interesting is that the old school comic book store that just has racks and racks of comics in longboxes all over the place– and you go hunting–

TS: The Comic Dungeon?

MB: The Comic Dungeon, right. Ron calls it– how’s he say it? He goes “Back Issue diving.” That, to me, is like traditional publishing. Whereas, you look at these guys like Isotope, that are really set up in a way for you to go and engage– like, sit down, talk to James (Sime, owner), talk to other people that come in– that absolutely mirrors the experience we’re creating. It’s about the engagement that comes along with the story and the art– not just selling books.

If you’re in the job of just selling books, I hope you die. But if you’re in the world of wanting to build a real community around your store and around the comics you sell, then I hope you thrive– and I will do everything in my power to help you thrive, because that’s good for the industry.

But just going and buying some spinners– what’s the difference between that and putting comics up at Walgreens? Be somebody that truly wants to grow the industry out of the love of story and art. Don’t be a guy with four walls and 150 longboxes.

TS: You know, the record industry mirrors a lot of that– you’re from San Francisco, right?

MB: I grew up in San Francisco, right.

TS: So you’re familiar with Amoeba Records, which is where I shop– and with record stores, pretty much dead and everything digital, that’s a place I’ll still go to because of the experience of going.

MB: Well, my favorite was Rasputin, but that’s kind of sold out and become kind of chain-like, but the same story, right?

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You’d walk into Rasputin and they’d have a section on unknown indie artists– it was very HIGH FIDELITY– you’d go in and talk to people and they’d know what’s hot.
What’s really cool, y’know, I went into Isotope on a Wednesday– The last time I went into a comic store on a Wednesday has been months and months, because of all the work we’ve been doing– and James is there, and I’m a digital guy– and he’s a store, and we spent an hour and half in the store– I spent $90, not expecting to spend any when I walked in the door. He sat down and talked to me about old-school comics, he talked to me about Darwyn Cooke’s NEW FRONTIER– and how I should read that– by the time I walked out, I felt like I’d been talking to a friend.

The last time I’d talked to James, we were on a panel together in San Diego, but I’ve never hung out with him. But he took the time because he loves comics and he loves people that love comics. That dynamic, where you can create a conversation that’s fun- That’s what’s going to keep it moving forward.

And actually, I know I’m being a little long winded on this, but I was on a panel in Chicago at C2E2 with Jimmy Palmiotti, and Jimmy said “Comic stores should start selling coffee”– and I’m like, what the hell are you talking about? Coffee? Are you crazy?
He went on to say, think about what you do when you read comics, you read them in a place where you’re comfortable and feel good– and then you talk about them with your friends. Why shouldn’t that all exist in one place? And he’s right.

So what do I think will happen with comic book stores? I think a fair number of them will continue to die, because I think a fair number of them don’t get it– and I will not shed a tear, because I think they’re hurting the industry in the long term.

TS: I know you guys teamed up with Foursquare awhile back, are you guys doing anything with comic stores in that regard– or is it still more location based?

MB: You know, we want to expand that relationship– We did it around New York Comic Con, and the Foursquare guys, Dennis and Alex and the other guys have been friends for years, so that was something that I pushed, like, hey– we can do some really cool things by laying the comic world on top of the real world.

We’re now a top 50 brand on Foursquare. People really dig it, every day people are getting our badge. We want to expand it to other cities– San Francisco, obviously makes a lot of sense since the X-men moved out there– So the idea has been to expand that by city. You’ll note by the tips we left in New York, we list Bergen Street and other comic book stores. What I’d love to do is when you check into certain comic book stores enough, that we help the comic book stores leverage digital platforms like Foursqaure to drive more business to them. I’m more than happy to be helpful in that regard. Bergen Street is a great example, and Mile High, as stores that can really take advantage of it. I know we drove people to Bergen Street through our Foursqaure relationship.

TS: Changing gears– Where do you see the current Graphic.Ly UI (user interface), is it still a work in progress, and do you go through or adapt to reader feedback?

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MB: It’s definitely a work in progress. I think that we’re 40% of what we want to do. I think there’s a lot of things we can do to make it good–We’ve accepted feedback from very early on. In fact, before we launched I wrote a blog post called “Giving the company the community” where we said, look, we really want community involvement.
We leveraged a company called Get Satisfaction to help us build a small community around bugs and feature requests– and according to them, our community grew faster than most of their other startups.
We’re still the same way; I give out, in every email and newsletter, my phone number, my IM, my Gtalk, my Twitter–

TS: Ha, yeah, I’m on the newsletter– I’m actually still surprised you haven’t given out your home address yet.

MB: (laughs) You know what’s funny, is I used to give presentations where I’d give out my Mom’s phone number– until my mom got a bunch of phone calls and got mad. So, I had to stop that.

We sent out the first newsletter, and I put my phone number on it– everyone was like, “you’re an idiot– you’re gonna get pounded.” So, I sent the newsletter and almost five minutes later my phone rings– I pick it up, and say “Hi, this is Micah from Graphicly–“ and the person on the other end, nervously– because I don’t think he actually expected to get someone– said to me, “I just want to let you know that you have a grammatical error in your newsletter.”
So that was great, because we fixed it!

But yeah, I spend about an hour a day talking to community members through IM. Some of them really push us hard in certain directions. I will tell you that three of our key employees have come specifically because of our community.
We have Audrey, who works in our development and engineering– when we put Graphic.ly out there, she gave us 15 pages of QA (Quality Assurance) our first week of beta. So we hired her, because she clearly spent some time with the app.

We sent out a beta request around our Ipad app– and one of the guys who responded I’d known for awhile, but I didn’t know they were out looking– we started talking and now he’s on board. Our business development guy, who’s out there bringing in publishers, was referred to us by a member of our community.
Our community is a huge part of what we’re doing. We believe that we don’t own the community, or the company, or the product– we just caretake it. It’s the community that owns it.

TS: Where do you see Graphic.Ly in five years?

MB: I really hope, that no matter where we are in five years, that we’ve made a positive effect on the comic community, specifically on the digital side.
The comic industry, by definition, has always been extremely closed and very secretive. Over the past year, I think you’ve started to see people open up a little bit more– release betas a little earlier, provide a bit more information in interviews– even publishers have been more open about things. Y’know, Archie announcing that they’re going to go day and date in April. I think a lot of that comes from our influence– sort of saying, hey- don’t forget it’s about the people and the community– it’s not so much about the selling of the books. I hope to see that accelerate. And I hope to see that our effect is that creators can be as creative as they want to be, and they aren’t held back by technology.

In five years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us grow in terms of catalog size and user base, but I really hope it’s less about us and more about the community and the industry being a better place for us being in it.

TS: The recent reports of Comixology sales seemed to indicate that creator owned titles were doing better than Marvel or DC’s titles. Do you find that to be true on your side?

MB: Well, obviously, I don’t know anything about Comixology’s sales. You also have to remember that for Comixology. DC didn’t come on until pretty late, Image didn’t come on until pretty late. Marvel was relatively early in the year– so those numbers, by definition, will be skewed.

We have a book called In Maps and Legends,Mike Jasper is the writer along with Niki Smith. Mike has written some really good posts saying, if you’re going to be a creator owned person and you’re really excited about attacking the digital market, here’s some suggestions and here’s what we’ve learned.

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I think the take-aways from what he’s written are A) be a hustler– and if you’re a hustler, your stuff will grow. Its not just about putting your stuff in a system and letting it sit there– it’s about hustling it. Promoting it.

And secondly, find interesting ways for it to float to the top– and I think what we’re thinking about is, how can we help an independent creator be someone who is easily found next to a Spider-Man, or whatever book that’s out there.

TS: Yeah, I’ve said that a lot about Mike and Niki– who I’m friendly with from being Ex-Zuda-ites. Mike and I have interacted online– While Niki and I have talked via a board a few times– but looking at their model, they really seem to be setting the standard for the new breed of creator.

MB: I agree. They’re fantastic. And y’know I really like the story, I really like the art. I spend a lot of time, when we’re out in LA, trying to pimp them and hope it gets turned into a movie or something. I have a lot of respect for them.

And I have a lot of respect for our other creators that are doing the same thing– who understand that it’s a two way street. It’s like going to a swap meet– you can’t just set up a table, put your old lamp on it, and expect it to sell.

That’s the other thing for us– we have no interest in being a large store. Just like the comic book stores with longboxes all over the place– at some point, it’s just not interesting. What we want to do is expand the comic book into a full experience, where people feel like they’re really connected to the stories and to the creators. Maybe they can talk to the creators directly, or other things that are much more based around the community– more than just buying the book.

But if people want to just buy the book, then buy it from wherever you like the reading experience the best. If that’s from me, great– if it’s from David at Comixology, that’s great too. I mean, the purchase of books is fantastic.

If at the end of the day, all we’re thinking is “Great, we have the Barnes and Noble of digital comics” and the Borders is Comixology– I don’t understand how that helps. And I have no interest in playing that game– and I hope that David has no interest in playing that game, because I don’t think it helps the community.

That’s our focus: How do we make the world a better place?

That wraps up my interview with Micah Baldwin. My thanks to Micah for taking the time to sit down and chat with us!

You can download Graphic.ly’s desktop application at: www.graphic.ly –in addition, their recently launched In-Browser reader (no download) is available there as well.
Graphic.ly is also available for your Iphone/Ipad via Itunes, and they have recently announced a beta signup for the Droid.

Spy6teen #1 is available on Graphic.ly now for 99 cents, with a number of exclusive bonus features.

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