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Feature Fri Sep 03 2010

One-Shots: Joshua Emmons

Joshua Emmons' Twitter biography breaks down his work pretty succinctly. The "Writer of comics. And iPhone apps. And comics about iPhone apps." has recently added "Writer of iPad apps" to that description. Currently developing a comic reading platform for the iPad called Sequential (you can see it in action here), he's also working on a editing layout tool called Bamf!

The inspiration for this didn't come out of nowhere: he's also the author of (among other titles), the online comic VERVM CORPVS, a Young Adult adventure story full of princesses, monsters, and Katie Cook's simple, appealing illustrations. We talked about comics, technology, and how he's working to help them further intersect.

Name: Joshua Emmons
Job: scriptwriter and technological idealist
Age: 32
Education: BA in Liberal Arts from St. John's College in Annapolis
Awards: NONE!
Location: Ukrainian Village
Hometown: Coshocton, OH
Favorite place in Chicago: The Violet Hour

Portrait by Mike Norton

Your focus seems to be comics and technology, and combining the two. So I'll ask those questions together: how did you get into making comics? How did you get into working with technology?

I guess I got into both of them at about the same time, actually. I'm from a very small town in Ohio, called Coshocton, population maybe 12,000, and there was not a lot of -- the school system there was very adequate. Very to code, there weren't a lot of elective classes or anything like that.

No computer classes.

They had like a computer program, but it was all teaching typing, for people who were becoming secretaries. And I happened to get a job just as an intern at a company -- a smaller company that sold and fixed computers.

When did you get that job?

I think I started as an intern when I was 14 or something. Worked there for free after school for a few years, then when I turned 16 they actually hired me for real, and I got a paycheck and stuff like that. And that's when I taught myself - they had a lot of books lying around, they had a lot of extra hardware...I could sit and read and learn about programming, and teach myself that.

The comics thing happened -- actually, it was a video game, it was this four-player X-Men game. I had never heard of the X-Men except from like the old Spiderman cartoons. I spent all my quarters getting through this stupid game, and I still didn't know anything about them. And so I was like, I think these guys are comics, so I'm going to have to check them out. And I went to my local 7-11 or whatever it was, and sure enough they had just started not that long republishing the old X-Men stuff as classic X-Men. So then I started collecting those, and I was hooked on that.

Then I abandoned both of those for college. I went to St. John's in Annapolis, which is really a Luddite school.


When did computers and comics start to come together for you?

Penny Arcade was the first moment when I was wasn't computers, per se, but comics and the Internet. Like, holy crap, I don't have to get published, or rather I can publish for free on the Internet and it'll be a thing.

Now with the iPad, that's just kind of a no-brainer. It's a whole screen, it's portable, and the size of a comic book. If I hadn't had the idea for VERVM CORPVS before that, that would've been a hammer strike over the head to get that through.

What started you making software that helps the comic writing process?

That all started probably around 2000. There were no good comic book writing scripts. I used to do all my writing in Final Draft, the screenwriting software -- and actually the new version has comic book templates, which just shows you have far we've come. At the time, I was trying to get what an artist needs from the movie script slug lines were like my pages...every new slug was Page 1, Page 2. Scene descriptions didn't work particularly well, it was not a great system for that.

I did write a script editor that got me through a lot of my early stuff. Once people started writing things specifically for comics again, they were spending their full time doing that, so their stuff was better than mine

Now I write things to mostly to view comics, like on the iPad. VERVM's a webcomic thing now, releasing a page a week. I really want to do a lot upfront: the page scales dynamically when you resize the screen. On a small screen you can still read it, on a large screen you get more resolution, things like that. Mostly stuff to facilitate my comic now more than for general use.

Do you ever want to put it out there for general use?

I would love to do that, the thing that's in-between me and that right now is time. I would not want to put it out there unless it met a certain set of standards I had for myself and the stuff I produce. Finding time to polish it to that extent -- it's hard.

Reading VERVM CORPVS with Sequential (courtesy iTunes)

We've talked about some of the current comic book reader apps. How is yours (Sequential) unique?

It's just my aesthetic, I guess. In my career as a developer I've spent a lot of time updating UX, user interfaces design. I have a lot of theories about the way things ought to work and should not work. In my app, instead of having pages just slide from one to the other, it's got a little page curl -- the top page curls up and leaves the bottom page underneath it. And I think if you compare the two, in testing groups I've tried out with it, people do find that just more comfortable. It's a very, very little thing, but it's something I think is worth getting right if you're going to do it.

Other things are like jumping between pages -- having a table of contents or something like that on the other comic readers is a miserable affair -- you go into Marvel, and you jump through the pages, it's got little, little, little thumbnails that are like half an inch tall. My comic reader has big full-size thumbnails, where you can tell what the page is just by looking for it, and it's very fast to scroll through them, you click on them, and you're instantly there.

Finally, I think in moving comics to the iPad, I feel a lot of people (Marvel and DC especially) are just saying "Oh, this is a new way to view what we already have." I think that's a huge mistake -- it's missing a big opportunity. I don't see it as a way of moving comics to another medium, I view this as going from VHS to DVD. The DVD offers you a chance to have more features, and the iPad's just unlimited canvas. When you get my comic, you have commentary -- other commentary, artist commentary. Like, here's the first sketches of this character, here's an interesting story about how this part came to be. I love director commentary going through DVDs. The other thing is, you end up with so much extra content when you're developing a comic that people just normally never get to see, unless it's in the back of a trade or something like that.

When you're in the community, that's just all stuff that you take for granted. But when you're not, you think oh wow, isn't that interesting. I want to be able to put all that stuff in there. And I thought, I've been writing iPhone and iPad apps, I'm gonna do this myself. I feel like that's kind of in the comic ethos.

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