For those who may not know, Panel Syndicate is burgeoning digital, online-only comics publisher that was founded by Marcos Martin (The Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil) and Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Paper Girls) in 2013. The idea behind this new comics publisher was to run things differently in a number of ways, not only for creators but for comics readers as well. Marcos and Vaughan had a very clear idea of how they wanted to execute their online publishing from the beginning, and at the very least it seems to have worked for them in the last five years. They have been able to produce another four comic series and an Image Comics sponsored one shot on top of their initial release of Vaughan’s and Marcos’ collaboration work, Private Eye. Another interesting fact about this cowboy comics publisher is their tiny staff: there are only six creators working on all of these comic books. So, I decided to go on a Panel Syndicate adventure and find out what these folks are all about, and if they really could disrupt the comics industry in a positive way.
The initial look and feel of the website is simple. It almost reminds one of early basic HTML websites, and directly points to content. There is not a word wasted on Panel Syndicate dot com. Covers of comics with their lists of creators and rave reviews posted underneath sit in two neat rows, three comic covers to a row. The latest comic has a featured cover that is big, prominently seated atop the table of comic covers. The visual announcement overwhelms the frame of the website below the header which gently declares “digital comics directly from creators to readers.” And that is exactly what the website seems to be. Minimalistic FAQ, About, and Contact pages fulfill the bare requirements of useful data for consumers.
Yet somehow despite this initial tone, which lacks the polish of larger digital comics publishers, Panel Syndicate seems to draw in the audience regardless. Here it is clear that this is a website that gets you to comics. It is not there to tell you which ones to choose, or to take your name and email down, or to market to you. You cannot put the comics you have chosen into a convenient cart, where you then pay for all of them. There is no way to “track” what you have purchased and which Panel Syndicate comics you are reading. There is not a history of your orders or transactions. At first, this can be a tad disconcerting. But it is only because we as consumers, have been taught to live inside the guidelines that Amazon and ComiXology have chosen to create and enforce on us.
But Panel Syndicate plays by different rules. It is unlike any other digital comics experience, something new, something perhaps strange to us. Internet consumers are used to being explicitly directed through a series of over explained mechanisms that finally let them buy what they want. Marcos and Vaughan have had a very different idea of how comics publishing should work from the beginning, and they’ve made it clear with the experience on the site.
When a user purchases a comic on Panel Syndicate’s website, they have the option to choose the price they believe works for the comic. If a reader simply wants to go and download everything for free one issue at a time, they are also welcome to do that. Marcos and Vaughan, much like Radiohead in 2007, believe that their fans will pay for the comics because they value the work of Marcos, Vaughan, and their team of creators. They also believe that it’s okay to have their work available for free without expecting consumers to give up their privacy.
In an early interview with Marcos and Vaughan in 2013, Vaughan said specifically that consumer privacy was one of his concerns as they founded a new digital publisher. So they offer their comics in three different formats (PDF, CBZ, CBR) for whatever price the consumer chooses. As Vaughan says in an interview with the Verge from 2013, “…readers own their DRM-free digital comics completely after they download each issue from Panel Syndicate…” Marcos had similar things to say in the same interview about their intentions, “…it establishes a new, more direct relationship between readers and creators in which they both share equal responsibility for the success of the work.”
That “equal responsibility” part of Panel Syndicate includes the fact that the artists, writers, and colorists who work for the comics publisher are paid directly from customer to creator via PayPal. This is a direct, fair way to distribute the revenue to creators. Not only that, but their names are on the copyright for every comics page, which means that Panel Syndicate believes in creator-owned comics. Vaughan and Marcos trust their readers, as well as their creative partners.
And well they should. Their creative partners are definitely doing comics right. When I perused the six comics that Panel Syndicate currently has available, I found and purchased four comics that interested me. It turned out to be five issues total:
– Two issues of Blackhand Ironhead
– One issue of Barrier
– One issue of Universe
– One issue of Umami
All of these comics were good, and I would personally say that I particularly enjoyed Blackhand Ironhead and Universe. These were bold, honest comics that drew me in immediately, without question. The vivid way in which characters are written and developed felt plausible. The worlds were real enough to lock my attention on to and live there as I read the story. Blackhand Ironhead is a story told with visual and emotional skill. Dialogue, facial expressions, the way that action sequences occur, are all deftly handled. It is clear that Marcos and Vaughan are choosing to work with and encourage talented writers and illustrators while also developing their new business model.
Even though this seems like an ideal situation for comics creators, the other side of it is a dark question: how many people are downloading these comics for free? One blog discusses how much they love Panel Syndicate because they just want to pay whatever they want for a comic and ignore fair market prices. The writer goes on to say that they don’t like that a comic from a comic book store costs $4 for 25 pages. Panel Syndicate comics are often between 35-70 pages and are worth more than $4 at fair market price when they have higher page numbers. But here a member of the audience is saying they would pay less. This is exactly the kind of concerning attitude that makes this pay what you want, DRM-free model risky for creators.
All of this has worked as a business model for Panel Syndicate despite the fact that there are definitely some things the website experience could use. I know that Vaughan is concerned with his readers’ privacy, but I would personally have loved the option to create a user account and somehow keep track of what I had purchased and which issues of which comics I already had. I know how to manage comic files just fine and wrangle them into a useful application so I can read them, but other major digital comics publishers take a lot of that work out for me. There are many comics readers out there who are not as tech savvy, and do need some guidance. If you already bought a comic and can’t find it on your computer, the FAQ page suggests that you simply go download it again, for free.
The customer experience on the Panel Syndicate website requires a great deal of self-education on a level that I am not sure Marcos and Vaughan appreciate. Having former experience in technical support for seven years, I can say with confidence that if they truly wish to reach a larger audience as Marcos says in their early Verge interview, they will need to change the user experience on their website just a bit.
As Panel Syndicate becomes larger and continues to grow, they will need to determine how they can scale their business. Part of that will be the ability to change their website in some capacity, as it is currently the only venue through which their readers can get the comics they publish. The original principles that the comics publishing company was founded on are certainly noble, and ideal circumstances. But how will it work when there are twenty-five comics series under their header, or a lot more? Could they work long term, and change the way that other comics publishers interact with their creators and readers? There is truly no telling at this stage. Panel Syndicate is a comics publisher startup that has a great deal of artistic skill, meaning, and care behind it. I hope that it can stand the test of time, and introduce the comics world to a more open discussion about the interaction, rights, and responsibilities of consumers and creators everywhere.