Since I was a child, I ‘ve always enjoyed reading comic books. But in those days, 3.5 inch floppy disks were the only means of transferring files between computers (as a mainstream consumer, anyway), so there was no way to read them on a computer.
Today, I catch up on the latest Deadpool issue via an app on my Kindle Fire tablet. The reading experience is fluid, the images are sharp, and the prices of the comics are cheaper because they are all electronic copies.
Mainstream comic book publishers such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics have their own marketplace apps, which also offer subscription plans — making it really easy for fans to access their large repository of comic books that date back to the 1930s.
In the US, cloud-based comic book distribution app ComiXology has aggregated smaller publishers including Dark Horse and Image Comics under its umbrella. It also offers a subscription service, at US$5.99 per month.
What is interesting about ComiXology is that it also allows fledging, independent comic book artists to publish their work via its platform. The self-publishing tool is free to use but ComiXology takes a cut from each sale of their comic books.
Closer to home, several startups have also built their own localised platforms that offer user-generated comics. One notable company is Thailand-based Ookbee. Besides comics, it also offers other kinds of user-submitted creative work, such as music, novels and blogs.
White Merak Comics Studio is another similar but lesser-known platform (although it focusses only on comic books). Situated in Myanmar — a young tech ecosystem that is still trying to find its footing — White Merak wants to cast a spotlight on the country’s burgeoning creative talent.
Aung Ye Kyaw, Founder & CEO of White Merak, says that, currently, Myanmar artists have no platform to effectively publish and distribute their comic books.
It’s not difficult to see why: internet usage only took off in the country when SIM cards became affordable in the last four years.
That being said, internet connection in Myanmar is still comparatively slower than its regional neighbours. For that reason, White Merak’s app does not have a streaming option, readers have to download the comics.
Aung says each comic book cost about MMK 500 (US$0.40). Readers can pay via a range of mobile payment platforms and scratch cards. “We have Wave Money’s mobile money, 2C2P’s Easy Point, and Red dot. Other than that, we let everybody pay with MPT or Telenor top-up scratch cards,” he says.
The creators receive 60 per cent of the revenue from each comic book sale. Aung says White Merak has accrued over US$1,000 in revenue within seven months from its launch.
Its database consists of over 40 comic books which are spread over 12 series; two of which are actually published by White Merak’s own publishing studio. These titles cover genres such as action, thriller, fantasy, horror and the ‘superhero’ genre.
Each comic book is also available in dual languages — English and Burmese. All readers can tap on a button anytime to switch languages.
Aung says the comic books do not just contain static pictures, there are also animations embedded within. Despite that, White Merak has managed to compress the comic books to as small as 4 megabytes — which is crucial because most Burmese don’t get a lot of data for their mobile phone plans.
It currently has about 17,000 users and 1,000 monthly active readers (an impressive figure considering the small pool of comics available). They hail from markets such as Malaysia, Philippines and even as far as the Middle East.
White Merak has garnered quite a fair bit of support locally. It is backed by Myanmar’s first startup accelerator Phandeeyar and has also received about US$140,000 in funding from local angel investors.
But there are still many hurdles to cross in this nascent market. Although White Merak accepts a range of payment solutions, the Burmesef haven’t got quite used to using them yet.
“There is no single one universal payment system that everyone is using to pay online. There are too many e-payment systems. Another thing is that the banking system is not quite developed yet,” says Aung. He adds that e-payment adoption in the country, even in main cities like Mandalay and Yangon, is still relatively low.
Then there is the problem of copyright. According to Aung, Myanmar does not have an IP law that can enforce encryption of content — meaning that there would not be much recourse in the event White Merak’s content is stolen.
Still, Aung is pushing ahead with new platform features. He plans to add a ratings and comments section, sound-enabled animations, and even interactive and educational games to the White Merak.
It is still too premature to see how the rest of Southeast Asia will take to White Merak. But if the reception is positive, it could help drive up interest to Burmese culture and creative talent — and provide the artists greater means to showcase their work to a wider audience.
Image Credit: White Merak Comics Studio