The flip side to liking something that was created and produced is to find out more about who created this comic book, this game, this action figure or this film for us. That's what interviews are for
A Q&A with Hervé St-Louis, editor and publisher of The Comic Book Bin
What led you to develop an iPhone app, especially considering you aren't a big fan of the iPhone™ itself?
I’m not the world’s leading iPhone cheerleader. I’m a Palm Pre guy and a big supporter of the webOS mobile operating system. I seriously considered making the app for webOS first. Developing a ComicBookBin app for webOS would have been easier, faster and cheaper. But to be honest, as much as I love webOS and Palm, it would not have had the same impact--neither would developing this app for mobile platforms like BlackBerry or Android first. The iPhone, despite the advancement of other smart phones since the launch of the original version from Apple, is a symbol for the new way people consume information on mobile devices. It’s the most mature mobile environment. If you can make a good app for the iPhone, chances are you can make a good one for other platforms too.
The iPhone is a much more difficult platform for development or and providing an app for this mobile OS means The Comic Book Bin is serious about this endeavour. We wanted to send a clear message to the comic book industry: this is not a vanity project. The Comic Book Bin understands mobile computing and how it affects comic books. We will be right here to continue to fulfill our mandate. Having said that, since I began working on the ComicBookBin app, I’ve grown to respect Apple’s accomplishments with the iPhone. The iPhone has the same elegance of interface as Palm’s webOS and the same focus on usability. These are values that are important to me.
Do you see iPhone apps as a key component of the future of the comic book industry? Why or why not?
The iPhone is already a key component of the comic book industry. There are many other comic book apps released for the iPhone. In fact, it seems that there was a glut of them last summer. I would say that The Comic Book Bin has the advantage in two ways:
First, what we saw before the ComicBookBin app were but the first generation of comic book-related apps. Like all first-generation products, they tended to fall short of expectations and they forced users into changing their behaviour. The ComicBookBin app is a second-generation app. While working with Apple, one of the app reviewers told me that he thought it was just an upgrade to an existing app. I told him that this app was the first release. He mentioned that it really did not look like a beginner’s first app. The ComicBookBin app could have been solely focused on itself and delivering our articles to our readers, but we went beyond that. It could have been just a news reader plug-in into our articles without any style and elegance. We avoided that and made the app a product that would feel as native as possible to the Mac and iPhone enthusiast. We paused and reflected on what would make a good app for our users and then executed on the findings. It’s an app that has adapted to the lifestyle of the comic book reader, unlike first-generation apps that force users to learn new interfaces. You can use this app easily without any real training. It’s as intuitive as it gets and it does what it says it does. Other comic book apps force readers to read complex contents and instructions on tiny screens while changing the way they interact with a comic book. This is something I have criticized a lot in the past and why I wrote an article called "iPhone Apps for Comics Are Stupid." Well, there’s nothing stupid about the ComicBookBin app. It works the way any iPhone user would expect it to work.
Second, beyond the iPhone there is a new future for comic books. It’s the mobile world in general. The iPhone is part of that mobile revolution. We recognized the importance of the mobile world more than six months ago when we created the first mobile-friendly comic book site in the comic book industry. The industry still has not caught on. While the ComicBookBin app is intended for iPhone and iPod Touch users, anyone who uses a Blackberry, an Android, a Nokia, a webOS or even an older feature phone can access The Comic Book Bin Website easily and quickly. The iPhone is a visual device and comic books are visual artifacts. They can mix, but one has to understand how to make them work well together.
What were the essential features for this app to have? Why?
We have the essential features for an app called ComicBookBin. It has our articles and a powerful search engine that can find articles published back to 2002. We made sure that users who preferred to browse and search our articles could do so either by using a gallery view with thumbnails of all the images when they are in landscape mode, or a simple news-reader type of listing. Then, there is a comic book convention listing. We update it continually. It’s probably one of the most comprehensive comic book convention schedules available anywhere. The last feature, the multi-lingual comic book store locator, is extremely popular with users. It finds comic book stores in your area without forcing the user to do any work such as entering zip codes or personal addresses. It also list comic book stores freely, unlike other apps. It’s funny because at the time when I was designing this app, I didn’t even know that a competitor had done a store locator app. Our store locator is easier and more intuitive. It’s also more comprehensive and will not list stores based in Boston if you live in Los Angeles. In fact, our store locator works anywhere in the world – provided there’s a comic book store in the area, of course! It’s not limited only to the United States. It will find comic book stores in France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and even the Philippines. As you probably know, I’m a Canadian and in many parts of Canada, people use other words to refer to comic book stores and comics. If the user’s iPhone language is set to French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch or Portuguese, it will find comic book stores in those languages. There is also limited support for Japanese and Korean.
How were you able to make your app so comprehensive, creative, inclusive and robust?
I credit that to Coolstreak Cartoons. This is certainly the first iPhone app I made, but this is not the first product I designed. Coolstreak Cartoons, which owns The Comic Book Bin, also owns Toon Doctor, the Flash animation cartoon studio I created in 2001. At Toon Doctor, I created several Flash training products and delivered and directed several animation projects for banks, pharmaceutical companies and advertising agencies. I had worked on my share of animated television pilots and series before that and also created several multimedia products as part of a team when I was just a junior multimedia guy freshly out of college and animation school. I’m also a lover of storyboards. I’m an expert storyboard artist. I’ve even designed multimedia storyboards templates specifically for interactive projects. The last few years, I’ve gone back to school and taken classes on project management. It’s helped me a lot.
I’m also a comic book guy. I live and breathe comics. If I did not read them all the time and interact with people who make them at The Comic Book Bin, our app would have been different. I love comic books. It’s the first reason this app exists and is so well-built. I want comics to succeed and I want to do my share and do it well. I’ve done that already since 2002 with the help of a magnificent team of writers and editors. But there is more that I can do for comic books and continue to preach my love for them with this app. I’m encouraging iPhone users to try a comic book, read it and have fun. The ComicBookBin app exists to facilitate that. One thing I will say is that I was obsessed with this app and played with it non-stop. That’s all I would do. I also asked as many people as I knew to test it out to get all the bugs out. It helps to be obsessed sometimes.
How long did it take to develop? Tell us a bit about the process. What were the biggest challenges?
Making an app is not easy at all. It’s a whole lot of work and I made sacrifices to complete this project. I’ve been bugging all my friends with the ComicBookBin app for months. I would wake up in the middle of the night figuring out solutions to problems with the app. By the way, I’m also a grad student and I’m supposed to focus ONLY on writing my thesis. I’ve written a few chapters and have a lot of research completed, but I’m far from being done. I should not be making iPhone apps right now. I’ve got a great thesis topic that advances knowledge and it needs to be out soon. If I had not learned way back how to execute on a project I would be in trouble. I’m lucky my grad work is rock solid.
Anyone who’s thinking about making an iPhone app should really think twice before going ahead. It’s like a baby. Once the baby is born, you’re a parent for life. During the process I’ve gained much respect for Apple. They are sharp and smart people. Every day I hear about people making cookie cutter apps and offering the public the opportunity to make their own iPhone app. Unless you have a real vision and skills for making products and then selling them, don’t do it. Well, don’t do it unless it’s a vanity project. I’m used to delivering projects and pulling all nighters to finish research papers and rewriting whole essays multiple times until I’ve got it right. Grad school is about that. Making an iPhone app is not as tough as grad school, but it’s close enough in a more compact amount of time. You need to be obsessed to pull through. If you don’t have the kind of drive that allows you to complete a project, don’t start something like this.
Do you think that your new app will revolutionize the comic book industry? If so, how?
ComicBookBin is a second generation iPhone app. What we are doing with our iPhone app is what we have always done as a Website: covering the comic book industry and helping comic book readers. We push the limits of accepted discussions on comic books. We don’t accept the status quo. Over the years, The Comic Book Bin has discussed many topics that some people in the comic book industry prefer to ignore. Some people don’t like us because “we don’t know our place,” but many more like the freedom of thought and independence we have. We can ask questions and report on issues most “traditional” comic book news sites cannot touch because they are not independent. We have our biases, and they are readers and people who buy comics. Writers at The Comic Book Bin are also independent, meaning that there is a mix of ideas and discussion about comic books that’s not allowed elsewhere. But The Comic Book Bin is also about covering all parts of the comic book industry. We care as much about comic strips, European comics, manga and Web comics as we do superhero material. We also cover areas related to a comic book reader’s hobby, such as action figures, films and books. There’s more than a thousand articles on movies, toys and books within the ComicBookBin iPhone app.
Over the last few years, people have predicted the end of comic books the same way people keep predicting the end of newspapers, based mostly on the change of user habits related to buying and consuming music and films. People assume that comic books are going to be purely digital in a few years and that we’ll all be using iPads and similar tablets to read about them. I’m saying that this is wishful thinking. There will be a greater place for digital and Web contents in the future of comic books, but that’s not a reason to abandon an entire 30-year infrastructure that is not obsolete. The Comic Book Bin is moving ahead and our iPhone app is about that, but we’re taking comics readers and the comic book industry along with us for the ride.
Editor's notes: This interview was originally written in March/April 2010 and was part of the press kit sent to the media about the first version of the ComicBookBin iPhone app. Since then, an Android and webOS version of the app have been introduced, the app has received many updated with new features, and Coolstreak Cartoons Inc. formally changed name to Toon Doctor Inc. The content of the original article were preserved for historical purpose.
Last Updated: Nov 2, 2013 - 23:00