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Graphic novels: Publish online, or perish

Canadian writer Jim Munroe burst onto the comic-book scene in 2007 with his self-published graphic novel, Therefore Repent! Set in a post-Rapture Chicago, the book featured mystics, talking dogs and machine gun-wielding angels hell-bent on purging the world of any more sinners. Munroe returns to that world with his new series, Sword of My Mouth , which moves the focus from Chicago to apocalyptic Detroit.

The first issue in the series was released in May. The second came out earlier this month - but it's only available online, as are the remaining four issues that complete the story. This is one of the first times a comic series has jumped online in mid-story, forcing readers to move with it. Graphic-novel collectors will have to wait until 2010 when the complete series will be released in hard copy. Some industry watchers see it as the end of the comic-book industry as we know it.

"The benefit is that he's hitting every market," says Robin Fisher, a comic-book aficionado who runs the website cartoongal.com. Fisher points out that Munroe's plan attracts people who enjoy the tangible by releasing the first pamphlet in stores.

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"He's grabbing them with the first one and forcing them to go on the Internet if they want more," she says. "It's a really wise decision."

Munroe says it is time to experiment with a new print business model.

"People are constantly complaining about how print is dead and it seems to me like there is a lot of talk about this controversy, but very few alternative models are being floated," says Munroe about his decision to relegate the subsequent issues of Sword of My Mouth online.

For an independent publisher, it can be extremely costly to produce a single issue with no guarantee of how many it will actually sell. Munroe's readers have the option of subscribing to the digital edition for $6 (a dollar an issue, while printed individual issues normally go for $4) or pre-ordering the complete print version for $12, which also gives them access to the online issues, a move Munroe hopes will bump sales of the graphic novel next year.

Munroe, a former managing editor of Adbusters magazine, now runs No Media Kings, an online forum for do-it-yourself books and comics as well as an independent press. He has been releasing his books for free on the site since 2000 and believes that the move does eventually pay off.

"You have to think long-term," he says. "I might not make the sale with this book but definitely there is a promotional buzz that is a benefit."

Sword of My Mouth illustrator Shannon Gerard also echoes the sentiment that giving away her work ultimately benefits her career. "I make money off other projects that come to me as a result of this one," she says.

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The online venue also provides a forum for instant criticism, and readers have made their displeasure about her handwriting known. "It doesn't look like the font you would find in most serial comic books," Gerard explains. "There's a lot of people with expectations of the conventions for how you draw and write a comic book." She and Munroe have decided to keep her text as it is because it fits with the novel's unconventional style. Still, Gerard believes the feedback is worth it because until Sword of My Mouth appears next year, the online issues succeed in "keeping it in people's imaginations."

"I do see it as the future of graphic novels," says Robin Fisher, "on all levels it's a smart idea." But she adds that it means artists will create and distribute their work without being paid, and she wonders if the online model will make print editions obsolete.

"It's also encouraging the end of the comic-book industry," she says. "But you have to roll with the punches. You have to evolve, and that's what he's doing."

Sword of My Mouth can be found online at nomediakings.org/sword .

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