People who read digital comics are used to dealing with unsavory interfaces for reading on phones: microscopic type, unfocused panels, pinching and zooming and panning around pages. An app showcased at Wizard World Portland aims to streamline the digital comics experience by getting rid of the need to pinch, zoom, and pan: debuting on the App Store: Stēla (pronounced “stee-lah“) offers new comics in a pure, continuous portrait format.
Much like reading a Facebook or Twitter feed, users read Stēla comics by scrolling vertically down the page. I attended the Stēla panel at Wizard World Portland this past weekend and got a chance to learn more about the platform, as well as get my hands on an iPhone with an early build of the digital comics-native app. Hosted by Public Relations Manager Steve Sunu, Senior Editor Jim Gibbons, Associate Editor Roxy Polk, and writers Taneka Stotts and Jason McNamara talked about the advantages of using Stēla both for the reader as well as the creator.
Two primary differences separate Stēla from many other comics apps: the vertical format and the pricing model. Each Stēla comic is designed natively for the iPhone (sorry, Android users; we have to hold out for a future version) and is meant to be read in portrait format. Reading through “pages” is akin to scrolling through posts on Tumblr, with varying panel sizes composing each page.
Comics veterans may be worried about a world with “splash pages:” large, full-size panels that typically immerse the reader in a specific part of the action or landscape. Stēla’s alternative is essentially a vertical splash: artists can create continuous, long-running vertical panels that would technically make up entire pages of a comic. I saw one of these panels in a mag they plan for later in their launch: though it didn’t have the same near-overwhelming feeling some traditional splash pages have, the process of scrolling the panel made me notice some of the details I might have missed when looking at a traditional splash page.
Perhaps what’s most exciting to me, however, is Stēla’s pricing model. As much as I love comics, paying $3.99 for digital comics every month has always been a serious barrier to entry for me, and physical comics could lead to me spending $30-$40/month to keep up on the titles I enjoy. Stēla’s approach is similar to Netflix or Hulu: for $4.99 a month, you get access to the entire Stēla catalog of comics, with new chapters of issues releasing every weekday (a chapter is roughly the equivalent of 8 traditional comic pages). Also, if you’re unsure that you want to pay the subscription fee, you can read the first issue of every Stēla comic for free on their app, no questions asked.
Though all their comics are brand new intellectual properties, they’re working with a combination of established professionals and new writers to bring the stories to the small screen. Their launch projects include noir-esque “Teach,” superhero story “Out with a Bang,” high fantasy “Inheritance,” and historical fiction “Rome West,” among others. Sunu likened this to receiving over 160 traditional pages worth of comics every month. With a variety of titles to choose from, and considering that one month of access to all the Stēla titles is cheaper than buying a couple of comic books, most people should be able to find something they like in the catalog.
Stēla’s not just aiming to do right by the readers, though: the contracts the company strikes with their creators allow the people who made the art to retain the rights to it after its been published. Titles that debut on Stēla are subject to a certain amount of exclusivity, but after that expires, artists and writers are free to do what they like with the works and characters, including getting them picked up by other publishers. In addition, the creators themselves are compensated well during the creation process: when asked by a member of the audience how creators were compensated if prices were so cheap, both Stotts and McNamara said they were being compensated well, particularly compared to going rates working with other companies.
From a content standpoint, utilizing the subscription model frees up Stēla to publish stories by recognizable creators and new ones alike, not forcing them to rely on stories based on popular franchises to prop up the business. Unlike Marvel or DC, which needs a certain number of Batman/Superman/Spider-Man/Iron Man books to stay afloat, Polk and Gibbons are able to curate their their decisions on what to publish on Stēla based on what feels innovative or quality instead of what’s likely to sell the most copies. Though they’re not currently accepting pitches at this time, they plan to hear out ideas for new comics to publish on the platform from those both currently inside the comics space and outside of the traditional realm. If the platform’s successful, they’ll certainly need them: with 160+ pages of content promised a month, there’ll be plenty of space for new material.
I really love comics, and I’ve been waiting for digital comics to give me the chance to get back into the medium in a cost-effective, exciting manner. The idea of an affordable platform promising lots of new content and fresh ideas excites me, and even though I don’t have an iPhone, I’m definitely planning on pulling out the iPad mini to see what Stēla has in store (the app will run on the iPad, though it’s specifically optimized for the iPhone). With plans to offer enhanced social features in the future, there’s no telling what Stēla could do next.