The makers of Stela, a subscription-based app that hits digital stores today, want to introduce you to a new way of reading comics and a new way of paying for them. For $5 a month, you'll get a subscription to a constantly growing library of original titles, written and drawn especially for smartphones.
Stela's formatting might be the most interesting thing about it. It's a weird experiment, and I was intrigued to get my hands on it.
Stela is a new publisher of digital comics. The app of the same name — available on iOS devices with an Android version planned to launch sometime this year — gives the user access to a library of internally- and creator-owned titles that can only be found on Stela. New comics will be pushed to the app daily, whether they're preview chapters of upcoming series or regular updates to the featured "ongoing" stories. (Stela reps tell me there will usually be five of those series in rotation at a single time.) The first chapter of every series and any sneak peeks at upcoming comics are offered free of charge, while everything else is available for $4.99 per month.
But what was most compelling to me was Stela's promise that every comic on the app would formatted specifically and uniquely for smartphones. Not to get all Comics Nerd on you, but the medium at large is still stretching its legs into the wide world of digital comics. And while there are plenty of proven paths in online comics and comics for screens, the landscape is by no means mapped out, particularly in the area of comics for tablet devices, where for the most part we're just trying to replicate the print reading experience in digital.
Stela is experimenting with a variation on a format known as (Comics Nerd alert) the Infinite Canvas, a term coined by that mad scientist of sequential art, Scott McCloud. For obvious reasons, comics on screens don't have to obey the physical limitations of print, and in his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, McCloud proposed that the screen could be treated as a window.
Instead of arranging panels into sequentially displayed pages of uniform size and resolution, as in a printed book, panels could be arranged as a single image. Then the the reader could be guided to use their screen-window to look over the panels of that image.
"I'm limited in a 6x9 page to really show passages of time or a huge expanse of a space"
On Stela, an entire comic appears as a single, tall image (made of many panels), which the viewer reads by scrolling down. It's both a neat way of presenting a story, and a respectable attempt to interact with digital comics in the same ways we do with touch screens. It changes the way artists lay out their stories, taking away some tried and true elements of comics language — like the wide spread — but inventing some new ones entirely — like what Stela's editor-in-chief Ryan Yount calls the "vertorama."
But if we're going to talk about how comics read in Stela, we should probably talk about what there is to read in the first place.
I was not struck by every comic in Stela — not that I have to be, there's a wide swath of genre, setting, tone and content here for a wide swath of readers. But among those that did catch my eye were Ronald Wimberly's GratNin, a sort of Naruto meets The Warriors set in the Brooklyn projects with a cast of young black characters and art as kinetic as it is clear — as well as Jen and Tyler Bartel's Crystal Fighters, a series that's more succinct to describe: Teen girl reluctantly starts playing a cutesy MMO only to discover an underground, virtual reality, magical girl-themed fight club.
I reached out to the creators of Afrina and the Glass Coffin — a subversive fairy tale with a queer, female romance at its heart — and the Stela-owned Inheritance — a Lone Wolf and Cub-type yarn about a retired battlemage defending his daughter from a world that would murder her for a chance at great magical power — to ask them about their comics, and what making them for Stela's screens was like.
Inspired in part by fairy tales (including Grims' "The Glass Coffin"), Afrina "follows the story of a princess who is willing to sacrifice a great deal to save her country that is on the brink of war," creator Irene Koh told me. "Her resolve falters when the talisman of power she needs to aid her quest is another (quite jaded) princess, and not an ensorceled sword or other such traditional tool."
That princess, Bahram, is also Afrina's love interest, as our eponymous hero struggles with doubts about the ultimate nobility of her goals. Afrina might be the hero on a quest, but she's also the one who'd most like to be rescued from her responsibilities. Bahram might be the maiden woken from a mystical sleep, but she's clearly tired of being used.
Koh, who both writes and draws Afrina, says she enjoys the options that Stela's endless scroll gives her for timing and drama.
"Where I'm limited in a 6x9 page to really show passages of time or a huge expanse of a space ... the infinite vertical format lets me play with when a moment is presented, or letting a single panel with a character's reaction stand alone for an extra punch, or letting an intense moment take up the entire screen for much longer."
Editor-in-chief Ryan Yount also had plenty of thoughts on Stela's layout:
"I think the endless scroll actually increases focus. The reader has a smaller field of view than when looking at a printed page (where your eyes can dart all over the page) but it focuses their view into the scroll. Now you've got this one flow bringing the reader one (or maybe two) panels at a time."
Yount said that the format allows comics creators to play with vertical space, panels and gutters (the space between panels) more freely — to guide the reader's rhythm and create emphatic scene transitions, for example.
Indeed, I first noticed the impact of what he calls a vertoramas, "long vertical storytelling sequences done in one panel that extend for several screens worth of height," in the second chapter of Inheritance.
Two moons hang above the tall tower at the center of a city. Below that, a path winds through dark hills, and as you scroll, it keeps winding — down your screen, and up new hills in a series of hundreds of steps. Finally, at the very bottom, scrolling reveals the comic's two leads, a father and his small daughter, with only a single magical light, faint and tiny in the scale of the rest of the panel's scenery, illuminating their way.
Inheritance, Afrina, GraNin and Crystal Fighters are some of the more promising series Stela's library has to offer. Others are... less promising.
Some comics embrace the infinite scroll beautifully, but I found a few that were are simply a series of entirely discrete panels the exact size of my phone screen. If that's how a comic is laid out, there's no reason why I shouldn't be swiping to turn the page like the majority of comics reader apps. In fact, it'd be a smoother reading experience.
Scrolling through takes some getting used to, and though the potential to do interesting things visually is certainly there, I found it to have some initial awkwardness to it. While reading in Stela I'm almost constantly scrolling my finger up the screen, in order to make the comic flow as fast as my reading speed. But while I'm scrolling, my finger necessarily has to block some of the art, resulting in a start-stop experience.
The app also does not allow for downloading comics to read offline: You must have a data connection to read. This will not be a problem for every user, but as a subway rider who spends most of her mobile app-interaction time underground, it would present an annoyance.
Stela also comes with somewhat ambitious social functions, such as the ability to comment on the chapters of a comic and the information pages of creators, as well as your typical "like" functionality. My time with the app was necessarily conducted before it was released to the public, so I can't say I got a good estimation of how these social functions will be used or interacted with. But Stela at least gives you the ability to block users at launch.
Let's just put it out there: Comics are an expensive habit. At $5 a month, how does Stela measure up? Well, it's a little hard to compare to heading down to your local comic shop to pick up your monthly floppies. For one, as the service grows older, it'll gain a longer and longer backlog of comics to read for that same price.
On the other hand, Stela's chapter installments are significantly shorter than what you'd get in a monthly print comic. The endless scroll, again, makes it hard to make a one-to-one comparison, but by my admittedly rudimentary estimation an update to Inheritance or Crystal Fighters might fit on five or six standard pages, compared to about two dozen in a monthly book from one of the Big Two. On the other hand, Stela plans to update every weekday, and there's pretty much nowhere in the wider American comics industry where you could get more than one full-size monthly comic for a mere $5. (As an aside, Stela says this is a "limited-time" price point, but would not say how long — or short — that time will be.)
Stela is doing interesting things with comics on smartphones, but not everybody out there is as constitutionally intrigued by exploring The Potential of Sequential Art to Express Narrative and Emotion as I. Nor should they be. Ultimately, Stela's appeal will come down to the kind of talent the service can attract and the content it can offer, just like other subscription-based content libraries like HBO or Netflix.
But $5 is not a bad bar to clear to get a month's worth of an interesting experiment. And if any of the comics I've described here appeal to you, Stela just might be the experiment for you.