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Fri, 3 Feb ’12

They Are the Champion! (Staff): Mike Cotton, Steve Blackwell and Ralph Cirella

Once wizards, now champs, they still cover the comics scene in the best way.

Having taken iPads by storm with the first issue of Champion! – an innovative downloadable magazine full of interactive features and fun pop-culture content – Mike Cotton, Steve Blackwell and Ralph Cirella already had our interest. And then they persuaded Howard Stern to shoot the cover photo for their follow up (a sample of his work is pictured, left). In advance of that issue, due later this month, we spoke to them about the future of web comics and the skills of Stern.

GCD: If someone hasn’t given Champion! a try yet, what will you have to offer a new reader in 2012?

Ralph Cirella: Simply put….great content presented in fun and creative ways.

Mike Cotton: Right, above all the bells and whistles, we’re producing the kind of reading experience and stories you can’t and won’t find anywhere else. In-depth articles, profiles, a real feeling that you’re getting the kind of access you won’t get on a blog or website – those are the qualities that really define us over other outlets. Add in those amazing bells and whistles like 360 degree photos and interactive content along with a price of just .99 cents an issue and I think this is a one of a kind product for iPad users.

Steve Blackwell: In 2012, we’ll have more creator interviews, industry insight & technical innovation. Our goal is to create an immersive and interactive environment that provides our readers with a way to get the content they want in a way no one else can deliver.

GCD: Will Champion! be available for the iPhone anytime soon?

RC: I get that question a lot but it’s really apples and oranges…Champion is carefully designed to fit the size and shape of an iPad…The content would have to be rethought and presented much differently. It’s not the kind of thing you can just shrink down….well, you could, but it would SUCK!

MC: Our new website will be launching along with the new issue. While our focus is on the iPad app, mobile users can check out some sample content and teasers there.

GCD: Are there plans to expand into non-Apple products? Will we see Champion! for the Android at some point?

RC: Absolutely…the more the merrier…Android simply does not support all our functions and would lessen the user experience that we strive for.

SB: We’re looking into expanding into the Android markets but ideally, we would prefer that all of our readers share the same experience. That platform does not currently allow us to use some of the interactive tools we put into our iPad version of the product.

GCD: Why a digital magazine and not a blog? What does the magazine format have to offer that makes it unique?

MC: Our format is both familiar to readers, while also offering the most cutting edge technology and interactivity. It’s the best of both worlds. Blogs and websites just don’t have the impact or edge they once did. Today, it’s not about the Internet, it’s about how you receive news and entertainment and that’s through apps.

SB: Can you touch a blog? We can literally make a connection with our readers. Through a combination of visuals and words, we are able to create an experience for our readers they can’t get anywhere else.

GCD: You obviously have a lot of experience with digital distribution. What do you think of the current state of digital comics distribution?

SB: Personally, I think the average digital price point is too high. I understand some of the rationale, but I can’t see plunking down $3.99 for a virtual copy of a comic. If they more closely followed the iTunes model, I would imagine the numbers would be much higher, but that may leave you with a slew of upset retailers at the same time. For now, there’s no easy answer.

MC: It’s unfortunately tied to a broken print distribution service and retailers. One of the reasons we chose .99 cents for issues of Champion! is because we think that’s a fair price. $3.99 to $4.99 for digital comics is only holding back expanding readership. Everyone knows the sweet spot for comics is $1.99 for new comics and .99 cents for back issues; it’s just a question of how long it’s going to take the industry and mainly the big two to get there.

GCD: What did you learn from Wizard as far as what to do in a new venture?

MC: I worked with a ton of talented people who taught 90 percent of what I know about publishing, and the big lesson I took away from my experiences there was to always strive for an authentic editorial voice that reflects fan feelings and a critical eye.

SB: The editorial team during Wizard‘s heyday was an amazing group. One of the things we did best was we refused to just regurgitate PR statements as news. If information was sparse on a subject, we found ways to generate original content based on that subject, often using humor as the backbone. The focus was always one providing the audience with content that they couldn’t find anywhere else and to make them laugh or think.

GCD: What are your favorite books right now? Your can’t-miss comics?

RC: Batman (Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo). Great story and great artwork. Ultimate Spider-Man; sorry to see Peter Parker go but love the new Spidey and the storyline.

MC: Swamp Thing and Animal Man over at DC are excellent examples of how DC has excelled with its relaunch, and over at Marvel the Ultimate line of comics has really come back into shape. Any of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. series are must-reads as is the G.I. Joe: Cobra series from IDW – it’s the G.I. Joe book I’ve always wanted to read.

SB: Lemire & Snyder are two of my favorites right now. Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Sweet Tooth…good stuff.

GCD: What’s your opinion on the just-announced Watchmen prequels?

RC: I view this as any other sequel: if it’s done right, why not? There’s a huge fan base and most importantly, it will be fun for all to speculate and argue over.

Mike: I can’t wait for these. If the leaked artwork from Amanda Connor, Adam and Joe Kubert and J.G. Jones is any indication, it looks like DC is not skimping on talent. There’s no reason DC shouldn’t add to the mythology of the most critically acclaimed series of the last 30 years.

SB: The images I’ve seen look good. It seems that if they stay with prequel stuff that fits within the framework laid out in Watchmen, it’ll be easier for fans to accept. So much of the industry these days seems gimmick driven like the way the industry was in the early ’90s. That was short term thinking that ultimately hurt the industry. I hope this doesn’t fall into that category.

GCD: How did you persuade Howard Stern to shoot the cover of the current issue? How did he approach it? Did it make him appreciate what you do more?

RC: I’ve worked with Howard for years on different things, and he’s gotten into photography in the last year. He’s really gotten quite good, and I was over there one day looking at some of his work, and I kinda jokingly said, “Wow, you might have to shoot a  cover for us,” and he goes, “Yeah, I’d do that.” I go, “Really? OK, I’m gonna hold you to that.” So that’s how it started. Then we knew that we had wanted to do this cosplay feature at some point, because it’s such an industry now: the girl we have featured makes a living doing it,

Another time I was over there showing him some pictures that I took at one of these turn-of-the-century hotels in Manhattan, and he turns to me and says, “You know what we should do? That’s where we should shoot those people; put them in a really luxurious setting.” We didn’t end up at that location, but I found an upper westside, four-story townhouse that they do a lot of shoots at, like Vogue, so we rented it out for a day and he shot away. We got a lot of great stuff from him.

GCD: How did he approach the shoot?

He approached it very professionally and he learned a lot, in that it was a new situation. He’s one of those people who’s just hard on himself. Even the other day, we were looking at some pictures and he goes, “I really wish we would’ve gotten that other set-up.” He came in on a Sunday and gave us seven hours, brought his cameras and lights; it was as professional as any shoot that I’ve ever been on before. I think people are gonna be very impressed when they see all this – we also have video of him in action shooting.

GCD: Was it his first time doing something like that?

He has been doing a lot of shoots with people and models and things like that. I was going off of the work he’d already done. He’s done a calendar for North Shore Animal League, with his wife posing with all these rescue dogs. It’s not just that he takes pictures; he goes in Photoshop and he’s a whiz at it. He knows his layering, filtering, bumping up the colors, masking…he’s just really a pro.

Champion! magazine is available for download on iTunes. Look for the Stern-ly covered new issue later this month.