Digital Interface: The Ron Perazza Interview
Later this month, Zuda Comics will celebrate its second anniversary as DC’s webcomics imprint. One of the people responsible for the success is Ron Perazza, Vice President of Creative Services.
For starters, take a moment to tell our readers who you are.
Sure. I’m the Vice President of Creative Services for DC Comics – which doesn’t really do much to describe what I do every day. In a nutshell, I’m responsible for what can very, very loosely be described as “other.” Ha! It includes everything from custom publishing (like posters for the American Library Association or LEGO’s Bionicle Comics), creative for promotions and tie-ins based on DC Comics characters (like the BATMAN BEGINS DVD menu, the SUPERMAN RETURNS/PEPSI webcomic or the SMALLVILLE animated “content wraps”) and creation of marketing materials such as convention graphics, house ads or PREVIEWS. I also oversee DC Online, which includes all of our websites, of course, but also things like the audio/video & podcasts and I’m very involved with DC Comics’ talent search, which we do at conventions. On top of all of that, I run Zuda Comics – DC Comics’ webcomics imprint. It’s kind of never the same day twice.
For those who haven’t heard about Zuda Comics, what it is all about?
Zuda Comics is DC Comics’ webcomic imprint. Basically we’re publishing comics online and then later, once there’s enough material available, collecting them as graphic novels for traditional print distribution. We take open submissions – anyone can send us their ideas and samples – but we select what we’re going to publish in kind of a unique way. On the one hand we have a traditional editorially driven selection process where the Zuda Editors (Kwanza, Nika and I) simply read, review and select what we think would be good for the site. However, in addition to that we have a competition where we put the submissions online and let the users decide. The resulting catalog is a pretty interesting mix of genre and style but I think it’s been very effective so far.
Tell us about the selection process for the Zuda competition. How are competitors selected?
Well, as I mentioned above, anyone can send us anything – and they do. Our first pass is to weed out things that simply don’t meet our editorial standards or contain material that disqualifies the submission in some way; for example, if it contains someone else’s trademarked characters or doesn’t follow the technical specs. After that it’s a lot of reading. We read and review every submission and do our best to judge it on it’s own merit, not in comparison to something else. We’ll try and mix and match the submissions as they go online in order to keep each month diverse. That way it’s not a competition about which robot story is best or which mystery but, ideally, which story. Period.
What are SOME of you favorite Zuda entries that didn’t go on to win?
A comic that I often reference as one of the ones that I thought was really great, that users didn’t select but, fortunately, continued on it’s own outside of ZUDA is Sam & Lilah. I think Jim Dougan and Hyeondo Park are really talented and it would have made a great addition to the ZUDA catalog. That month the users picked THE BLACK CHERRY BOMBSHELLS – also a great comic but very, very different in tone, style and just about everything else. You can’t say the users got it “wrong” they just went a different way. The BOMBSHELLS has be great for the site but it’s good to know that in some small way we were able to help Jim & Hyeondo out and that they’re continuing to tell their story. It’s over ACT-I-VATE now.
Currently, Zuda’s catalog contains more than a handful of horror and science-fiction based titles. Why do you feel like these genres have been more prevalent than other genres – like superheroes, romance, or comedy?
That’s a good question. Both horror and science fiction are classic comic book/fantasy genres so I’m sure their popularity on ZUDA corresponds in some way to their popularity in general. I think there might be a bit of a snowball effect as well. Meaning, if you’ve got a few great horror series you’ll begin to gather an audience of fans of horror. Those fans are then the ones selecting the next winners. And so it goes. That’s not a bad thing because you’re appealing to your audience and giving them quality stories they connect with and care about. Our job, as editors, is to make sure that all of the comics get equal attention. We can do that in small ways, by simply creating promotions or ads to get readers interested in other stories, or in large ways by bringing in high quality comics from different genres; for example THE NIGHT OWLS or STREET CODE. It’s really win-win. You expand your audience and you expand your catalog at the same time.
Is there any genre, in particular, you would like to see more of on Zuda?
I’m kind of a military history buff so for me personally I’d love to see a well told military comic. Something straightforward, well researched, fact based and compelling. I have no idea if that would be interesting to anyone else though! Generally speaking fantasy and action are great but I would love to something unexpected.
What is Zuda’s editorial policy? Are you guys really hands-on? Really hands-off? Or, somewhere in the middle?
It’s interesting because Kwanza, Nika and I each have very different interests and styles. Nika is our assistant editor and she’s very nuts-and-bolts. Very detail oriented. Where Kwanza, our editor, is much more big picture focused. The big idea. The essence. I tend to approach things very visually. I look at the character design, the camera angles, the storytelling and the rendering of the art itself. Kwanza comes at it from a writing and story point of view. I think the combination works out really well for us in that we’re able to cover a lot of bases by working as a team. It also lets us adjust to the particular working styles of the different creative teams. I think fostering that kind of flexibility at the editorial level is critical to adapting to the vast diversity of work we’re seeing come through the site.
Starting a new imprint isn’t always easy. As an editorial team, what have been your biggest successes? Was there a particular challenge that seemed difficult at first – but then turned out to be easier than you thought it would be?
I think our biggest success has been launching a successful imprint! I know there’s a lot of focus on the editorial and I think that’s natural but before we could put up a single page of a single story we needed the site itself. Our internal tech team, led by Dave McCullough, partnered with really talented people from IBM and some other contractors to put it all together. We spent months going through the most minute aspects of the site – what technology to use, what kind of hardware we’d need on the back end, navigation flow, information architecture, etc, etc. At the same time we’re working with Legal, with Publication Operations, Accounting, Budgeting, and so on. As a business it was all new. It needed to be flexible enough to grow but still capable of working within an existing structure in order to take advantage of those benefits. It’s was both vast and deep…and it’s ongoing. Making comics, well…that’s the fun part!
What have been some of the specific obstacles or challenges Zuda has faced? And, how have you overcome them?
There are always obstacles even if they’re just small, daily challenges. One of our recent challenges that I think we overcame successfully is making the jump from online to print. We didn’t want to just plop the pages in to a book. We wanted to really preserve the story and mirror the online reading experience as much as we could while still providing the reader with an enjoyable print experience. That’s why we went with the landscape format book, among other decisions. Having worked with us on the HIGH MOON collection you know first hand how much time and effort we collectively put into each and every screen in making sure the color was correct, the text was readable, and so on. It was challenging but in the end it was worth it.
In the recent site wide revision, Zuda added a mature content filter to the site. Does that mean that readers can expect to see adult content on the site soon?
From the beginning our goal with ZUDA was to work with new creators, new styles, new genres. To tell great stories. Because engineering a site like this is a long term process, we wanted to set up the potential for content that touches on potentially sensitive themes in the event we want to do so at some time in the future. At the same time we want to respect our users, giving them control over what they want to read – and what they don’t care to read. In that regard our recent upgrades are a next natural extension of what’s been planned from the beginning.
In the last several months, Zuda has received a fair bit of critical acclaim, first with BAYOU, which recently won five Glyph awards – and now several other strips are nominated for a handful of Harvey Awards – how does that feel?
Is that a real question? It feels great! It’s wonderful to receive recognition and critical acclaim! It’s also wonderful that the different creative teams have such an “all for one, one for all” attitude about the accolades as well. You should know this since you’re a part of that group, but it’s really great to see the support that the creators give each other. It sounds dopey but it really is kind of like a big family and when something good happens – like an award – it’s refreshing to see how all of the other creators rally around that moment.
Of course, with critical acclaim also comes criticism. Critics have often railed against Zuda on everything ranging from the contracts to the use of Flash as a comic app. How do you react to that?
In general my reaction has been to keep calm and try and convey that facts. I’m OK with having a difference of opinion; after all, this is comics – there’s no shortage of opinions. But I’ll admit it’s bothersome when criticism is based on false assumption and misinformation. The only sane way to counter that sort of criticism is by providing accurate, honest information and fact. To that end we try and be very open. We keep information about the competition and our contracts online, we maintain a feedback account on the site for questions and we actively encourage people to seek out others that can help them make decisions that are in their best interest. We try and remain approachable through things like our blog, Facebook, Twitter, at conventions, and so on. I think it’s also important to remember that people critique things because they care. That’s the common bond.
This month, HIGH MOON hits bookstores and comic shops – and in March, THE NIGHT OWLS is scheduled to drop. What is next on the publishing schedule?
Little plug for yourself there, huh? We work out our print publication schedule as the online series’ progress based on the individual artist or creative teams delivery schedules. It’s somewhat flexible, within the obvious limits around the time required to solicit, design, produce, print & ship the book. Given that giant caveat, BAYOU Vol. 2 would follow THE NIGHT OWLS. That should take us through the middle of 2010. We’re looking to do one book per “span.” In the book market a span is four months so there are three spans per year.
Besides the sales of print copies of BAYOU, HIGH MOON, [etc.], are there other plans to eventually monetize Zuda (subscription fees, advertising, merchandise, etc.)?
I look at ZUDA as a long game. It’s an investment in the future. Our primary goal is to work with talented people, tell the kinds of stories that we’re not telling with our other imprints and take advantage of the web as a storytelling medium and delivery method. Using our existing infrastructure to extend that into the print world and beyond, where possible, is a natural fit. We have absolutely no plans to turn ZUDA into a subscription site. I think it’s important that users can get to the comics quickly, jumping through as few hoops as possible. Once they’re there they should have as unobstructed an experience as possible. That’s why “full screen” mode even blocks out the advertisements. Focusing too much on the quick hit or quick sale is a bad idea, in my mind. We shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. It’s critical to remember that people come to the site because of the comics. If the comics are good and if the readers are invested in those stories…well, success will follow.
In addition to your work with DC and Zuda, you use your Twitter account to actively encourage readers to ‘make comics’ – by providing them with resources, tools, and insights to help them hone their craft. What was the genesis of that?
It was a confluence of things, really. Partly because I’m online pretty much all the time. Partly because I do the Talent Search presentations at conventions and the portfolio reviews that follow. Partly because I’ve led a pretty odd life in comics, being exposed to a number of diverse areas of the business. However, the actual moment that I started posting comments and advice was the direct result of a question about webcomics that someone tweeted to CB Cebulski, Marvel’s Talent Scout. CB and I are friends and so he knew what I was doing over at DC with ZUDA. He prompted me to respond to the question and it just took off from there. Generally speaking I think social media gives us a unique opportunity to connect with other creators and fans in ways that were impossible five or ten years ago. Since comics are collaborative by nature, connecting with people just makes sense. If in the course of my career I’ve learned something and I can pass that on to someone else, helping that person become better at whatever it is they’re trying to do…why wouldn’t I do that?
For what it’s worth…
…and the hashtag is #makecomics
Be forewarned, this is my personal Twitter account and not a company account! In addition to comics you’ll get talk about football, food, video games and all sorts of other random nonsense. If you’re interested in just following the company you should follow: Zuda, DC Nation, Vertigo, Wildstorm, and CMX
How did you learn to be an editor? Were there specific editors who mentored you? Or, was this just a result of being in the industry for a while and learning while on the job?
I was lucky enough to start my career in comics as an Assistant Art Director for Marvel Trading Cards and Game Cards. This was in the heyday of trading cards and because of a complete fluke of corporate licensing we had the rights to create both Marvel and DC Comics cards. As a result I got to work with some of the greatest creators in comics, from both of the major publishing companies, old and new. That kind of contact and experience is invaluable. I got to learn about their styles, creative processes, tools, methods, schedules – everything. Having just come out of art school (I have degree in Illustration/Art History) I was like a sponge, soaking up everything I could learn. Another side benefit of trading cards was that I very quickly became steeped in comic fact. Significant issue numbers, specific powers and abilities, character histories, storylines, relationships, etc. That top down, big picture view of things was fantastic for seeing what made sense and what didn’t from a story point of view.
On top of all of that there were two people in specific that had a lot of faith in me and my abilities when I was first entering comics. In retrospect it’s hard to believe they trusted me with as much responsibility as they did but I’m extremely grateful. The first is Bill Jemas. He was the guy that brought me into comics and gave me my first job. I know Bill gets bashed a lot but he’s an incredibly smart guy and was always really good to me. The other is Dan Buckley. Dan was my immediate boss at the time. The great thing about Dan was his sense of teamwork, relying on the strengths of the individual to do what they do best. He also has a tremendous respect for creators and characters and I think that’s extremely important. Since then I’ve worked with a lot of great folk and it would be impossible to list all of them and how they’ve influenced me over the years but I think it’s important to know that good information can come from everywhere, from anyone. You have to remain open enough to harvest it all but decisive enough to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Finally, what parting advice would you give an aspiring creator who was interested in submitting to Zuda?
Don’t be a jerk. Nobody likes that guy. Don’t be a kiss ass. Nobody respects that guy.
Don’t be two-faced. Nobody believes that guy.
Above all else – don’t be all hype and no substance.
Thank you, Ron.
To read, vote, or create with Zuda Comics, head to their website at www.zudacomics.com.