Sqweegel - Level 26I’m a little over halfway through an advanced copy of Anthony E. Zuiker’s novel Level 26 that was given out at Comic-Con last month. And I can honestly say that this latex wearing contortionist killer (“Sqweegel”) has officially creeped me out. It’s one thing when you read a crime novel and are limited to your own mind’s imagery of the twisted killings. But when you mix that with interstitial video episodes, you get those perverse contorting images burned into your retinas. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Zuiker, most known for creating the megahit procedural crime drama franchise CSI, has made the move into two mediums he hasn’t touched—publishing and web television. Ok, it’s really three if you count his surprisingly formidable start to his blogging career on the Level 26 site. It’s everything you don’t normally get from Hollywood players—refreshingly candid and actively updated by the man himself.

The project was announced back in March and perked ears of the online drama world with news of web studio EQAL’s involvement.

I had a chance to chat with Zuiker before his panel at Comic-Con and I wanted to figure out how genuine his commitment to online storytelling really was. He was remarkably humble about his new steps into blogging and the challenges of online audience building.

“I’m not some sort of television mogul who just decided he’s going to throw his hat in the race,” said Zuiker. “I’m literally committed to the space. I feel like I’m starting at ground zero with respect to an unproven community. I want to earn a level of authenticity with that audience and realize that I am taking a chance and putting my money where my mouth is. Hopefully through my blog posts they will really get to know me and develop an authentic following, not just a fan following. That’s for me to earn still.”

Dark Chronicles - Level 26

Zuiker said the idea for Sqweegel was born in his mind about seven years ago while in the shower. It was several years later that he would take the idea out to publishers. He said he pitched the idea to 8 publishers and had 7 offers the following day, resulting in a bidding war between Dutton and Hyperion before Dutton won out. The deal itself is said to be seven figures for three digi-novels and corresponding web series. Zuiker quipped on the panel that he “put every single penny of that deal into production.” In fact he mentioned that they spent more that the total book advance on the first one.

His attention to the web series’ production shows, and Zuiker’s TV background is not lost on the 20-episode series. He shot on the RED camera and cast professionals, recognizable faces like Michael Ironside, Daniel Buran, Kevin Weisman and Bill Duke. And to really sell the creepiness of his uber-killer, he found actor (and world record holding contortionist) Daniel Browning Smith to play Sqweegel. He even brought on fashion designer Marc Ecko to go the book cover art and even a special edition t-shirt.

Level 26 book cover

There are traces of CSI banter in the series, but Zuiker pointed out that “it goes horrifically more horror and dark and Rated R.” “I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t something that when you watch it you feel like you’ve seen it on television,” he added, “I wanted it to be a lot more edgier than that.”

Zuiker even showed me a preview version of the iPhone/iPod app that blends the novel with the video cyberbridges. Truthfully, it seems like the only frictionless way to experience the project, since it fully downloads the episodes as part of the application purchase though iTunes. The other methods, like reading the book on the couch within reach of a laptop are passable, but naturally require nearby internet access. So much for reaching on the beach.

How far a reader wants to experience the project is up to them, say Zuiker. “If a passive reader just wants to read the book they’re happy,” Zuiker noted. “But if some early adopter wants to go as deep down the rabbit hole as the possibly can, that’s there for them too.” He even mentions some mild ARG elements like a phone number to call the killer that might have the killer calling you back.

Watching the series on its own is a bit tricky I’ve found as I accidentally jumped one ‘cyberbridge’ ahead of where I was in the book. I was missing some context to the episode and realized I need to catch up on the print side.

The official launch of the Level 26 series is September 8, the same day as the book hits the shelves. With still weeks to go until the launch, there’s not shortage of activity on the Level26.com community site. “The primary focus of the site is the content and the discussion around it,” said EQAL co-founder Miles Beckett, who’s company custom built the site using tech from its Umbrella software platform.

EQAL’s Greg Goodfried put it this way on the Comic-Con panel: “Books are an amazing medium of connection, and with the web, the world is now your book club.”

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