Zuda launches with comics contest, strong reactions

Seth Rosenblatt takes a look at Zuda Comics, the new webcomics site from DC Comics, and finds out what other webcomics creators think of this new corporate venture.

Despite a few hiccups on the big launch day, DC Comics' webcomics initiative Zuda Comics went live before the end of business Tuesday on the Left Coast. The first webcomics push by a corporate comic book publisher, Zuda is attracting a lot of attention as the webcomic-o-sphere tries to figure out what it all means.

The Zuda Comics Web site has a clean layout, even though it's quite busy. At the top you can navigate to the main Competition page, where you can vote on the 10 best submissions of the month; Submit a Comic, where you can register and upload eight "screens" from your comic; and Explore comics, where you can read the 10 editorially-selected competitors and the contest winners. Winners are offered a one-year contract for creating 52 episodes.

Readers can participate in Zuda by voting for their favorite comics. The winner is offered a contract for 52 episodes. (Credit: Zuda Comics/DC Comics)

The Explore section is clearly built for expansion. You can search for comics alphabetically through a drop-down menu, or by genre via the left-hand nav bar. The Submissions page does a very good job of explaining how to submit your comic to the competition, with image sizes, file format, resolution, and other juicy necessities. The Competition page shows large thumbnails of the competing comics, alongside a story synopsis, creator information, average reader rating, and other data.

The center of the front page is taken up by the current contest winner. Although you might expect this space to be empty--how can they have a winner if the first competition has just begun?--Zuda has up to six "instant winners" per year. The first one, Jeremy Love's "Bayou," anchors the page, with the rest of the competitors represented by thumbnails below Bayou. On the right is the Zuda blog, although there's no direct link to the Zuda Comics forum that's hosted with the other DC Comics message boards.

Although the layout works well for presenting Zuda's mixed functions, the webcomic reader is Flash-based, and that raises a whole bunch of Flash-based questions. On the one hand, Flash players look nice. However, using a Flash player as a webcomic reader is nearly unique in the world of webcomics. Richard Stevens of Diesel Sweeties, one of the most popular webcomics that has also made the jump to newspapers, questions the use of Flash. "I really hope this doesn't catch on; it makes bookmarking into a nightmare--there are no plain URLs! It's too much technology for no real benefit."

The Flash interface may look slick, but it slows down load times and is impossible to bookmark. (Credit: Zuda Comics/DC Comics)

The viral nature of promotion on the Web runs counter to using Flash, notes David Willis, creator of the webcomic Shortpacked! "Which I imagine is the point," he adds, "but it hurts the ability to grow an audience."

The other problem with Flash-for-webcomics is that it runs slower than loading a simple JPG image. "I'm on a three megabit cable connection, I shouldn't have to sit through LOADING LOADING LOADING screens between comics pages. This isn't Commodore 64," complains Stevens. Kaja and Phil Foglio, having made their comic Girl Genius into a print-to-web success story, agree. "As most webcomic readers are very sensitive to load times, I can't help but think that they will have a fairly restricted readership."

The contracts issue has been a contentious one in the webcomics community, too. Zuda pays $1000 for 52 episodes, plus a small percentage of merchandising and reprint rights. Most people doing webcomics self-publish, retaining control of ancillary rights but making regular production of strips difficult until the audience grows large enough to sustain the creator through merchandise sales and ad clicks. "It may be a few years before you have the readership," says Willis. He notes that there are other webcomic collectives, like Keenspot that, so far, seem to have contracts far more rights-friendly than Zuda.

Willis and Stevens both feel quite strongly that Zuda's contract isn't good for creators. "Zuda is trying to put the cat back in the bag. Artists already wised up--we're used to owning our own stuff and making our own way," says Willis. Stevens pointed out that for the money Zuda offers, "you might as well make your own page and put up Project Wonderful or Google ads, unless there is some massive promotional push behind Zuda that I haven't seen."

At the time of writing, Zuda Comics had not yet responded to queries about their contracts and Flash player.

Although Willis didn't like a lot of what he saw in Zuda's first day, he did see some bright spots. "I think Zuda can find an audience, and perhaps diversify the webcomics field a little, but true success stories (for the artists) are found elsewhere." Other webcomic creators had a different take.

A Halloween-themed episode of Cat and Girl. (Credit: Cat and Girl (c) Dorothy Gambrell)

The creator of Cat and Girl, Dorothy Gambrell, just didn't care. "I don't have an opinion on Zuda. This creaking formation of an industry around webcomics--the corporate ventures, the self-promotion-clogged journalism--is absolutely my least favorite part of drawing comics on the Internet." She acknowledged the irony in that, though: "My own ability to make a living drawing comics on the Internet is in part due to the same forces that attract industry and its willing sycophants."

Kaja Foglio took a similar neutral stance. "Zuda is not likely to change the field of webcomics, since having another source for comics doesn't limit the ability of all the thousands of others to still reach their readers, but having an editorial screening may result in an overall higher quality of comics offered."

DC Comics and Zuda Comics are owned by Time Warner, so it's great to see a major publisher finally acknowledging that there's a new medium out there to be explored. But as I noted in Monday's Zuda preview story, it won't be clear for some time whether Zuda's impact will be positive, negative, or a zero-sum game.