Seeking an easier and more efficient way to produce their own comics, friends Jacob Blackstock, Shahan Panth, David Kennedy and Dorian Baldwin launched Bitstrips in 2008. Offering creative, customized tools for comic designers, Bitstrips was, in many ways, a YouTube platform for comic producers. Initially it was meant for their use only; however, the team soon realized the tools they were building had value for others too.
“Comics are an amazing medium that everyone reads whether they realize it or not,” says CEO and creative director, Blackstock. “It also uses language that is a powerful form of communication.” Yet, few possess the patience or ability to create one from a blank canvas. So the founders decided to democratize their newly created comic production platform to make it accessible to everyone.
Soon Bitstrips grew, with an increasing number of comic enthusiasts on board. It intrigued the founders that many of their early adopters were teachers. It turned out that teachers were introducing Bitstrips into their classrooms and were seeing immediate results. Students were engaged by this effective and entertaining tool.
The founders decided that the logical next step would be to tailor a version of their product for the educational market. Bitstrips for Schools was launched in 2009. After running successful pilot projects in 20 classrooms in the spring of that year, Bitstrips for Schools was licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Education as a subscription-based site for educators in the province. It experienced rapid growth, becoming the fastest-growing software product the Ministry had ever licensed. By 2013, Bitstrips for Schools was in use by over 95% of schools in Ontario.
Offering students a unique medium within which to communicate, the program is completely web-based. It needs no installation and offers a variety of curriculum-connected activities with a range of creative possibilities, all organized according to topic. A history teacher, for example, can engage their students in creating a comic about the War of 1812. A science teacher can assign a similar project on astronomy. Bitstrips provides frameworks for teachers to browse. Teachers can create activities based on these these frameworks, and also monitor their students’ work.
Without needing to spend time and effort on drawing, the comics allow students to communicate through a fun and straightforward medium. According to Blackstock, the most popular part of the program is an avatar. Each student starts their projects by making one―a cartoon representation of themselves that is fully poseable, with many emotions and expressions from which to choose.
In this way, kids can infuse themselves into their strips, and also access the avatars and comics of their classmates. Students can dress their characters and give them words, actions and emotions that fit their purpose. Students can add scenes and props from the growing Bitstrips art library or import their own images. Sharing, collaborating and commenting on one others’ project is possible too.
The team at Bitstrips continues to build new content for the activity library and teachers can create their own activities too (these are vetted by the company before being shared on the site).
Stemming from their Bitstrips for Schools program, the founders established a partnership with the Cartoon Network as part of an anti-bullying campaign. The Stop Bullying Comic Challenge asks students to use their avatars to complete a comic in a way that resolves a bullying situation. The most popular comics are then compiled in an anthology for schools to use as a resource.
In 2013, in the process of doubling their staff, Bitstrips has found that the biggest challenge is to acquire the right people and to readjust the organization accordingly. Blackstock also notes that other company hurdles include juggling multiple projects while managing priorities.
The company has recently launched the next version of Bitstrips, an app for Facebook that lets people design avatars for all their friends and use ready-made single-panel comics that can be individualized and shared. Having recently received funding from the Canada Media Fund, the team is also busy making their first video game.