DC Comics has been publishing comic books even before Superman debuted in the first issue of Action Comics nearly seven decades ago. On Tuesday, they launch Zuda Comics, their first foray into webcomics, throwing the full weight of a major publisher into a game that has been dominated by independent and self-published creators.
So what took so long?
The caution was justified, says Ron Perazza, DC's Director of Creative Services. ''DC looks for maturity in the marketplace. We're not out to jump into new businesses for the sake of jumping in. It needs to grow to the point where there's something interesting going on.'' But, he adds, DC was one of the first American publishers to explore the now wildly popular graphic novel format in the 1980s, and that the publisher is always looking to innovate.
Zuda takes the Web publishing aspect out of the creators' hands, freeing them up to focus on writing and drawing the story. But to get Zuda to publish your comic, you first have to win a competition. Once a month, Zuda's editors will pick 10 submissions and post them for members of the Zuda community to vote on. The top vote-getter will be offered a one-year contract for 52 episodes. In theory, these will be published once a week, but Perazza says that they're open to changing that depending on the needs of the creator and the comic. There are also options for printed graphic novel collections of the story, but these are left to the discretion of DC Comics.
Zuda, however, is not merely publishing any format of webcomic. They're strictly limiting the art to a 4:3 ratio, which not coincidentally is just about half of the printed page of a standard graphic novel. The downside of this is that it limits the creator's ability to change the layout of the strip. Perazza points out, though, that not only does this let readers see the entire strip on their monitors without having to scroll down, but that ''there's a lot of storytelling nuance when viewed as a whole.''
Letting readers vote on the next comic get a year-long publishing contract is unique in the world of webcomics. Perazza and Dave McCullough, Zuda Comics' tech guru, said that although they're aiming for a wide range of genres, they're not interested in presenting mismatched competitions. ''We'll have filters and registration to screen stuff for mature readers. We wouldn't match up a Sandmanesque series with a Scooby-Dooesque series,'' said McCullough, pointing out that the audiences for Neil Gaiman's hit graphic novel and the mystery-solving cartoon pooch shouldn't be mixed.
The Zuda editors have announced that in addition to the contest winners, there will be up to six ''instant winners'' a year. Their work has been judged by the editors to be so worthy of publication that they're not going to mess around with voting and instead offer them immediate contracts. This mix of editorial and fan judgment is also untilled territory in the webcomics world, but its not unheard of in other contests.
The first instant winner has already been announced. Jeremy Love's ''Bayou'' is a Depression-era fantasy story set in Mississippi, featuring the daughter of a poor black sharecropper who befriends a blues-singing swamp monster named Bayou while on a quest to save her father's life.
Love and the first batch of 10 contestants are a mix of known and unknown writers and artists in the comics world, covering a range of genres from David Gallaher and Steve Ellis' Western ''High Moon,'' to J. Longo's slice-of-life satire, ''This American Strife,'' to superheroes in Matthew Humphreys' ''Battlefield Babysitter.''
Zuda's contracts are available online, although if you don't want to go the way of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman's creators, whose families have had to fight for more just compensation, many people have recommended getting a lawyer to review the legalese if you win.