- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

The comic book has taken on a virtual existence of sorts over the last few years. Traditionally confined to the printed page, sequential art has begun appearing on the World Wide Web as publishers try to capture a new generation of fans through elaborate sites offering repackaged books online.

One company, CrossGen Comics (www.crossgen.com) offers the best of both worlds. It has been creating a catalog of comic books in a variety of genres from sci-fi fantasy to murder mystery since 2000 with the goal of putting those books into cyberspace. CrossGen succeeded in February with the launch of Comics on the Web (www.comicsontheweb.com).

"We knew back in the day when we first started, that we would be doing some level of Web-based product down the road," says Tony Panaccio, vice president of product development.

"So when the comics where finished, colored and ready to be printed, we formatted the files in a method that was easy to port over to the digital format for use on the Web. The worst thing you could do was create a technology disconnect where it takes you more work to put it on the Internet than it took to put out the book."

CrossGen's overall publishing approach combines a passion for varied literature styles with the goal of making them accessible to a wide demographic of readers, including children and women both of whom have been ignored by many comic book publishers in the last decade.

"We cannot continue to market a product with a dwindling fan base, we need more fans to come to the medium; we need to have more people reading the comics and expanding the audience," Mr. Panaccio says. "We are not creating more Web eye candy. Eye candy is a dime a dozen in cyberspace. What we are creating are story-driven episodes that will engage the loyal reader or the surfer that happens to stumble on us."

Comics on the Web usually appear four to five months after the book a has been printed and distributed to comic book stores in the United States and more than 30 other countries.

Visitors to the site can read for free the first issues of 12 different titles and access character biographies, read credits and a story synopsis. The books appear on the screen as open, double-page spreads and are scans of the original hand-drawn and inked art used to print the comic books.

Comics on the Web presently features more than 100 individual full-issue comic books with plans for at least 200 issues by the end of the year that can be accessed only by subscribers. For a dollar a month, subscribers get unlimited access to all the online content.

"The subscription fee is necessary, even though it's relatively minimal, because it gives a value to the books, which is important," Mr. Panaccio says. "It also provides some revenue stream from which we pay our partners such as Lycos and Clear Channel Media."

All of this Web magic works seamlessly, and equally well for any speed connection with a little help from the Macromedia Flash development tool. Using Flash, the company was able to create an experience that would allow users to access the books without time lags for pages to load. Another important feature offers the option of expandable word balloons, which grow to a legible size as the reader passes the cursor over them.

"We needed a way to deliver the comics that would work for the 56K guy without boring the high-speed digital connect reader," says Cortland Whited, information technology director. "Our early goals included designing the page so both pages would be visible, the way a real comic book is read.

And it had to be easy to navigate the various options, to which

we hope to always be adding

more features."

For the company, the site also provides a great opportunity to reach out to the nonreader.

"We are raising a generation of kids weaned on technology and that can use technology from loading a DVD movie to playing computer games before they can read," says Mr. Panaccio.

"With Comics on the Web, we are trying to use comics as a natural bridge, from the flash and color of technology to the joy of reading. Comics works for this because it has the great costume, the action and adventure, the great ride that kids need to have to be entertained while it also introduces them to the joy of reading a good story."

In an effort to add more educational value to the site, CrossGen plans to add character voices to comic book pages and offer a teachers' guide enhancement that will help schools incorporate comic books into their curriculum.

"If it wasn't for veteran comic book writer Stan Lee, I would probably be illiterate," says Mr. Panaccio. "Lots of adults today learned to enjoy reading through comic books, and the next generation can as well. We just have to be willing to reach them in a new way."

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (Jszadkowskiwashingtontimes.com).


More info

Online

• Marvel Comics (www.marvel.com) provides free access to the colorful adventures of such heroes as Spider-Man, Daredevil and Captain America.

• Dark Horse Comics (www.dhcomics.com) and its e-comics section presents a wide variety of color titles ranging from Bettie Page for the older crowd to Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the teenager.

• Oni Press (www.onipress.com) offers a complete black-and-white comic book every month culled from the back issues of some of its more popular titles, such as The Adventures of Barry Ween Boy Genius and Whiteout.

Writer and artist

•Scott McCloud (www.scottmccloud.com), known for the books "Understanding Comics" and "Reinventing Comics," presents some of his witty sequential art online while exploring the potential of Web-based comics.

• Wow Comics (www.wowcomics.com) charges 45 cents per virtual issue and through a special, downloadable viewer features 53 titles (often in multiple languages) to read about the exploits of such characters as the nephew of Charlemagne or assassin Dana Valentine.

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