Friday, 11 June 2010

Interview: Ulli Lust, creator of Electrocomics.com


Launching in 2005, Electrocomics.com now hosts a wide variety of digital comics from creators across Europe. Built around a payment model that's almost unthinkable in the world of mainstream publishing, the site's content is open to all and funded exclusively via voluntary donations. With almost all of the comics available in English, it really is an  treasure trove for anyone interested in the alternative comics scenes outside of the North American comics market.

We invited Ulli Lust, the main brain behind the site, to talk to us a little about her enterprise and the inspiration behind it. Winning two awards in the last week alone (including a Best Independent Comic ICOM award for Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life), and having years of experience in the comics scene, her interview is definitely not to be missed. Read on for her thoughts on the nature of comics, her own work, the difference between print and the screen, the future of digital publishing and even ATF's favourite Viking, Kolbeinn Karlsson.

Please tell us about what led you to begin the Electrocomics project. Why digital?

A few years ago, I was very interested in the potential of the Internet for storytelling. There was a lot of talk about all these new ways of storytelling, new technical features, and, especially, about the concept of interactive narratives and hyperlinks. Firstly, interactive stories are a fascinating idea, because it seems near to our own experience of living, where we can make decisions at every corner, such as: "do I turn right or left?"

Today you can find a large amount of great comics and illustrated storytelling on the Internet. Surprisingly, we can say that the most successful webcomics are akin to classic comic-strips, which are basically not that different from print comics. This is a very interesting fact and confirms my suspicion that readers don't want to have a choice. Rather,  they want to fall into a story and follow the hypnotic voice of a narrator; to be thrown into a story's history with the impression of fate and inevitable successive incidents that create suspense and empathy.

The classic comic, with its combination of pictures and text structured in panels, is a simple but very effective and highly developed way of telling a story. It isn't necessary to add new technical features like sound or movement to take the reader into this magical, imaginary space.
An extract from Ulli Lust's "Airpussy", available at Electrocomics.com

What's your background as a creator and how does it influence the project?

My background is that of a typical independent comic artist. I've been drawing for years for different formats; I've printed books, notebooks, zines, posters, postcards. I like the distribution of images. To me, the appeal of a drawing doesn't lie in its sole creation, but rather in its duplicated form. The computer is an obvious instrument for artists, the screen being a stage on which to play. Seeing our work on the computer before publication, this stage ought to be clean and tidy, with an essential concentration on the images and the story. The PDF format feeds into this and guarantees a good graphical rendering. The idea to create a publishing site of images with PDFs came from a friend, Eric Wunder, and I had the experience and the contacts in the international comic scene in order for us to launch a catalog of e-books to pick from.

Electrocomics is a great platform for small press artists, as the internet makes it much easier (not to mention less expensive!) to make work available to a large audience. What else motivates you about the project? 

As an artist, I really spend a lot of time alone at my drawing table. So, I like the communicative aspect of Electrocomics because, as editor, it's my priority to communicate with the other artists. Because of the simple distribution channels I mentioned before, we can really concentrate on e-books and try to get the best out of the respective works.

You've published Kolbeinn Karlsson's "Sleeping and Dreaming of Food", which  has since been published by Top Shelf as part of The Troll King. Tell us more about Electrocomics' relationship with Karlsson.

Kolbeinn wrote an email to my boyfriend, Kai Pfeiffer (a comic artist himself, now teaching Comics at the Kunsthochschule in Kassel) and asked him to be his mentor. At that time he was drawing the first of The Troll King stories. I loved the comic from the first second and asked him to do an e-book of "In These Woods We Are Ewok Kings".
Kolbeinn is good example of every artist at Electrocomics; he has a headstrong, artistic personality and a powerful vision; someone who has something to say. 

Swedish bromance in "In These Woods We Are Ewok Kings" 

You publish a great number of international artists, making their work available online in English. Do you think it is necessary for mainland-European comic book writers to make their work available to English-speaking readers?

There are so many languages and different artists in obscure places. Without a universal language (with the exception of the visual one), we wouldn't be able to understand each other. 

You've published some of your own work, like Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life and Airpussy, which have been released in print in Germany and Belgium. How much does knowing the medium of your comics influence your creative process?

I had drawn Airpussy for the screen (that's why it has a square format) with the intention to print it later - (hence the strict two-colour palette). I found it appropriate that the first book I drew for Electrocomics was an erotic fertility ritual. Five years later, it's still the most downloaded comic on the site, according to the monthly statistics.

On the other hand, the long-form graphic novel [Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, published in 2009 by avant-verlag] was designed as a big book from the beginning. I didn't want to restrict myself to a number of pages and wanted to give the story the space it needed. A computer screen creates boundaries for a reader, whilst paper is better suited for a four-hundred page-long work. Also, I'm not free from economic constraints, so I have to earn money from my work. During the long and lonesome four or five years I worked on the graphic novel, it was fun to regularly publish the story chapter after chapter and receive  feedback.


Do you accept all submissions? Which criteria do you use when considering which comics to feature on the site?

No. For the selection of the e-books I decide following professional criteria and personal taste. I naturally roll out the red-carpet to fantastic drawings, but principally I have this approach: a good comic isn't one that is masterfully drawn, but rather one that tells a good story. The creators that are chosen aren't the good artists, but rather, the good storytellers. 

Electrocomics received a prize from the ICOM-Jury in 2006 in Germany, and has gone on to receive coverage from many comic websites. What do you see in the future of the project?

Electrocomics is a very particular, small comic library and will go on as it has so far, slowly and steadily. I don't plan on making the webpage more complicated with endless options. But, who knows what the future holds for us?

About the economic aspect: we hardly earn any money with Electrocomics, but the revenue we get via donations is split under our terms with the creators, which we believe should be the model for digitally published comics in the future. The value of an e-comic is evaluated more for its content, and not for the value of the material it is made of; therefore 60% of the profits go to the artists and 40% go to the publishers. For a better understanding: an author receives only 8 to 10% for a traditional book with an average of 65% of the retail price going towards printing, marketing and distribution, costs which don't apply when publishing digitally.

I look towards the future of digital publishing with some concern. I liked the Internet of the early years (which to this day, we still feel we belong), its openness, the free exchange of ideas and culture between autonomous individuals. To use a corny image: it's a little like a big garden, in which you can easily pick fruit from the trees. The artists at Electrocomics, as owners of their work, have no problem with handing out some of the fruits of their labour to readers, as long as their copyright is respected. It's probably a far too idealistic attitude, but we'll see what the future brings!

A gigantic danke schön to Ulli for taking the time to answer our questions, it was a real pleasure and we hope to have her back one day for more. Her work, along with many other weird and wonderful comics is available right now on Electrocomics. You really have no excuse not to check it out and maybe even donate a Dollar/ Pound/ Yen/ Euro/ Swiss Franc. Enjoy!


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