Bitstrips creator Jacob “BA” Blackstock. (photo from Bitstrips)
One of the most popular apps ruling the Internet today is Bitstrips, digital comic strips made from computer bits. The app achieved virtual global fame in no small part due to it creator, Jewish cartoonist – now Bitstrips chief executive officer and creative director – Jacob “BA” Blackstock.
A Canadian venture, Bitstrips allows users to create avatars of themselves and others to produce a comic based on various customizable scenarios. New ones are provided nearly every day. The users can make adjustments to their facial expressions or gestures, choose who to include in the scene and add dialogue or thought bubbles to create a cartoon to encapsulate a moment, a holiday sentiment or a mood. And for those who are cartoon fans, Bitstrips has proven a popular vehicle from which to demonstrate one’s wit and talent – or lack thereof.
Born and raised in Toronto where Bitstrips was founded in 2007 and where its headquarters remains, BA – Blackstock’s nickname since childhood – has enjoyed a lifelong passion for comics.
“I’ve been drawing and creating comics since I was a little kid. Our team has been friends for decades and a love of comics has always been central to our friendship. We’ve always enjoyed making comics for each other, whether in the classroom in high school or later on in life,” said Blackstock in an interview.
Bitstrips’ executive team is comprised of Blackstock, David Kennedy (vice-president, technology), Shahan Panth (vice-president, marketing) and Dorian Baldwin (lead interactive developer), who were all co-founders.
Bitstrips essentially came about while Blackstock was developing a quicker way to make his own comics. He “realized that this technology could be used to make comics accessible to everyone – and enable them to have the fun of social comic creating and sharing that my friends and I had already been experiencing for years.”
While the company started up in 2007, bitstrips.com was formally launched in March 2008 at SXSW (South by Southwest), which sponsors festivals and conferences for film, interactive media and music in Austin, Tex. However, though its Facebook app had been around since December 2012, Bitstrips’ popularity took off almost overnight when Bitstrips iOS mobile app launched for the iPhone in October 2013.
The sudden fame exceeded Blackstock’s expectations. “We launched in stealth mode with no PR or marketing with the sole purpose of testing out the app and letting it grow organically. We never expected the explosion in users once the mobile app launched so we definitely weren’t initially prepared.”
After the iPhone release, use of Bitstrips grew almost exponentially. “Within two months of the apps launch,” Blackstock said, “we saw over 30 million avatars created through the app (iOS & Android). It quickly became the #1 free app in over 40 countries,” including the United States, “and the #1 entertainment app in over 90 countries. Many of the world’s biggest cities, including New York, Chicago, London, Hong Kong and Mexico City, now have hundreds of thousands of citizens with Bitstrips avatars.”
Today, Bitstrips are visible everywhere and are shared via email, SMS and on all the major social media channels. Additionally, Bitstrips for Schools, which hit the education market in fall 2009 to teach children with the aid of comics, is another division that continues to thrive.
Even before it became popular, Bitstrips had already attracted the attention of investors with a $3 million infusion by Horizon Ventures, a global investment firm headquartered in Hong Kong. “They discovered us last summer, before we’d finished the mobile app, as Bitstrips were already popping up all over Facebook,” said Blackstock.
This infusion of capital has enabled the Canadian-based company to expand. “We will use this round of funding to add to the engineering team, hire more artists, enhance the product and, of course, increase the number of servers to help us handle the dramatic growth in users we have been experiencing,” he explained.
But what attracts so many social media users to Bitstrips?
“Everyone needs to express themselves, however they can – and comics are an incredibly powerful way to communicate. Bitstrips is giving people a genuinely new way to communicate, one that is more visual and relevant than simple text, photos and emoticons,” said Blackstock.
“It’s a visual language that everyone understands. But, even more importantly, it’s you – your Bitstrips look like you, and reflect your personality. And not only is it a new form of self-expression, it’s a new way to interact with your friends. Combine all those things and you have something that people all over the world will enjoy.”
Dialogue is still only available in English, though other languages are in the company’s future.
“The amazing thing about Bitstrips is that people in many different countries and different cultures have been adapting the same comics, adding their own text, to make their own personal creations,” noted Blackstock. “It’s been the #1 entertainment app in 100 countries.”
Inevitably, with such popularity also comes a measure of disdain.
Blackstock acknowledged this development. “While Bitstrips is extremely popular, which is great, some enthusiastic users were oversharing on their Facebook feeds and some people who don’t love Bitstrips were getting quite upset. In terms of a solution, Facebook sharing can be turned off. Also, we rolled out an update that makes in-app sharing the default with Facebook sharing an option users need to select.”
The scenarios for Bitstrips cartoons come primarily from the creative minds of a team of four, including Blackstock, co-founder Panth, T.J. Garcia and James Spencer. The rest of the company team is also invited to contribute ideas on a regular basis.
These days, said Blackstock, the company is “entirely focused on making Bitstrips a seamless and awesome experience.” From a business perspective, he added, “We have lots of ideas for monetization down the road, potentially including in-app purchases – but whatever we do to monetize, we will make sure it is done in a way that enhances the user experience and remains true to our brand.”
Blackstock is confident that the future of Bitstrips remains bright. “We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to Bitstrips’ popularity,” he said.
Asked about his own background and attraction to the comic medium, Blackstock said it began “through mass consumption of comics.” He realized early on that he enjoyed making comics himself.
“I’ve been making comics, animation and games since I was a kid. Before creating Bitstrips, I spent 10 years developing another epic cartoon project called Griddleville, which I partially funded by running animation workshops in schools.”
Blackstock himself spent considerable time in school drawing instead of studying. Following high school he studied film at York University in Toronto only to drop out, he explained, “when I became too busy with other projects that were much more exciting than what was happening in my classes.”
Jews have played an influential role in the history of the cartoon genre and some of those involved had a profound influence on Blackstock. His primary inspirations were “the amazing old cartoons by the Fleischer Brothers,” Max and Dave Fleischer whose New York-based Fleischer Studios produced theatrical shorts and feature films until the animation company was acquired by Paramount Pictures. Other significant influences were Mad Magazine’s founder, William Gaines, and Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics. One of Blackstock’s favorite modern cartoonists is Daniel Clowes, known for graphic novels such as Ghost World.
But the work of a cartoonist is neither easy nor fast, which Blackstock fully realized while working on Griddleville, a cartoon from his own imagination.
“To create it,” Blackstock related, “I locked myself in a small room and taught myself classical animation along with all kinds of software. In the end, it took three years to produce 11 minutes of animation. The resulting impatience was a contributing factor to the creation of Bitstrips.”
The burgeoning popularity of social media was also a strong influence. “The concept of Bitstrips from the beginning was to connect comics to social media – that comics could one day be one of the main forms of social media, just like photos or videos.”
Those who follow Bitstrips daily, weekly or close to holidays might notice themes. While Blackstock is Jewish, he doesn’t limit Bitstrips to any one audience.
“Bitstrips are enjoyed by all cultures across the world – we try to make them as universal as possible, so that anyone anywhere can find a comic to express themselves through.”
Yet Blackstock gives a nod to members of his tribe. “We do have some scenes in the app based on Jewish holidays, which I think are pretty funny.”
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. A version of this article was originally published in the Times of Israel.