“No one’s ever gonna want to watch movies in their living room.”  That’s what my dad said in 1982, when my buddy Andrew became the first one to have a VCR.  There was one video store in our Brooklyn ‘hood, half a mile away, which had a paltry stock of movies that were usually unavailable and cost $6 a night to rent.  Within three years, everyone had a VCR and there were three video stores within three blocks of my house.

I was reminded of my father’s poor prognostication a few weeks ago, when my favorite comic shop owner shook his head while he rang up my floppies (the new Amazing Spider-Man, Fatale #s 1 and 2, and Action Comics #7, if you’re curious), saying, “No one wants this on their computer.  There’s so much more exciting stuff you can do on your computer.  If this is the future, comics are done.”

I have to disagree.  In the past few days, the premier digital comic book provider, comiXology, announced its 50 millionth download (I don’t say “sale” because the vast majority have probably been free) and partnered up with brick-and-mortar Barnes and Nobles to provide the wonderful Classics Illustrated line through the Nook store.  At the same time, Marvel announced free digital versions with every $3.99 hardcopy purchase and made some even bigger announcements at SXSW (discussed in more detail below).

But is the market ready for us comic book fans?  Is the technology there yet?  If you’re thinking about making a switch to the digital market, hit the break.

The biggest, and only real, player in the world of digital comics is comiXology.  Most publishers have their own apps (at least for iOS), but these generally sync to comiXology as well.  There are some Nook-specific apps and publishers (Dark Horse has partnered up with them), and iTunes is aggressively trying to break in by offering a free New Avengers comic, but on the whole we’re talking about Mac platforms and comiXology products.

Are digital comics worth reading?

Aesthetically, I’m a total convert.  I read on the iPad, which has a size that is almost the same as a “regular” comic book page, so I only lose out when there are two-page spreads, which force me to turn the iPad horizontally and shrink the image significantly.  On the other hand, I can zoom in and get a clear and crisp larger-than-life picture of any panel—or any part of a panel–I want to focus on.  I strongly prefer reading on my iPad, except when I’m reading with my kids.
But there are two major problems with digital comics: The Purchased Product and the Price.

What are you really buying when you buy a digital comic?

Let’s start with the product: When you “buy” a comic from comiXology or any of the related publisher-owned apps (the famous Marvel Comics app included), you don’t actually download a .cbr or .cbz.  All you get is the right to read on line.  CORRECTION: You do receive a file, but not one that you save, restore, or read on anything other than the comiXology app.

I’m sure you all remember Napster, and that’s the fear here: No matter how much DRM encryption they stuff into a .cbr file, comic publishers fear piracy.  But let’s look at what really happened with Napster.  When digital music bootlegging started, there was no iTunes.  There were no Bandcamps or Amazon download service, or any digital providers at all.  People wanted that.  When the iPod came out, they demanded it.  Some were willing to pay for it, but for others demand was greater than availability (remember when you couldn’t legally download The Beatles?) and they turned to illegal means.  Still others bought the CD but got irritated that they had to rip it and reload it to hear it on their portable device, so they, too, turned to the internet.  The comic industry is heading this way as well.  Their fear of piracy and changing their business model will destroy them entirely unless they quickly change and adapt.  Oh, and if their worried about illegal digital copies: Too late.  They’re everywhere.  In fact, a few weeks ago it was revealed that pirates had hacked Marvel’s own site to get new digital scans even before they became commercially available.

And it’s not just the inconvenience, it’s the principle of the thing.  Comic fans are collectors.  We want things to sort and file, even if it’s just a .cbr.  If you’re going to ask us to buy something, we want more than just a “right to read.”  If this doesn’t change—and soon—digital comics will end up like digital music, with a huge illegal fanbase that expects to get their products for free.  You’ve got to make it easy at the outset, before these bad behaviors become habitual.  How about letting readers send in a UPC cut out from a trade paperback that gives them free digital versions of the same material, so we start seeing the value of having our collection on our devices?  Or hell, just give away signficant back stories: Get the House of M mini free, but you have to pay for the tie-ins; get a “golden age #1 collection for a buck with the first appearances of Thor, FF, and Cap.  Stuff like that will get us used to the idea.

Even crack dealers offer free samples!

Pricing problems

Now, as for price: Again, if I buy something, give me something.  This isn’t like going to the movies—I want more than a “user” right.  I want something to own.  But if you’re not going to give me that, then how can you charge me the same amount?  Most digital comics are the same price as their paper counterparts—or at least close to it.  A successful digital provider has to more of what comiXology recently did with their exclusive digital-only omnibus of Jonathan Hickman’s early work for Image Comics, priced at $35 (where a comparable paper hardbound would start around $100).  Fantastic idea.  We need more of this.  People aren’t really still buying back issues of, for example, the Roy Thomas Avengers material—so offer it as a bulk package!  And if I’m only going to get a reader subscription (i.e., not a .cbr or .cbz file) then how about giving me a month-to-month right to read back issues?  That would be a great idea.  Marvel’s tried it, but their app is not iPad friendly(!)

The other problem with “read only access” is lack of confidence: Digital comics are an emerging format and an emerging market.  In the next year or so, who is to say that any of these apps will still be around?  Marvel has announced digital only content in the past, and that content is now lost to the ages—if you give us a .cbz file, at least we’ll have something to hold on to when the formats all go belly up.  It might be like cassette tapes, in that we’ll have to keep and maintain our own program to read the files, but that’s our problem.  At least we won’t be shorted for having paid for something that dissappeared beyond our control.
Of course, if you’re going to try to sell back issues, you have to make sure that your catalog is well-organized and complete.  That’s my major gripe with comiXology.  It’s difficult to figure out if, for example, they have every issue of Peter David’ 12-year Incredible Hulk run, or if they’ve just cherry-picked a few.  Comic Zeal, the best .cbr/.cbz reader on the market, has brilliant organizational tools that can be customized by the user.  Learn from their example!

New Marvel innovations, and what’s to come

I mentioned some new announcements from Marvel about the digital market.  At the famous South By South West festival, the company announced a new, improved Marvel App that will feature creator commentary and backup material.  It will also give you an iPhone trailer if you point your phone scanner at a UPC… The bigger deal is that Marvel will be doing a few digital-only spin-off series, which will be available for under a buck if you buy the “main” series.  It’s starting with, of course, the big Marvel event “Avengers vs. X-Men,” which promises a new dawn for the entire Marvel U.  Big name creators Mark Waid and Stuart Immonen will be doing a series about the character Nova, who Marvel also keeps dropping as a possible movie or TV character (he’s appearing in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon launching April 1).  They’re calling this their “Infinite” publishing line.  Not sure why.

Although I could care less about Nova, big props to Marvel for trying to tie the digital and print worlds together, so that both can be relevant, and for trying to penetrate the market without sacrificing quality or content provided to retail shops.  A suggestion, if you’re reading this Axel, would be to include these bonus series somehow when the trade paperbacks come out—either as bonus back-up stuff or collected as a separate trade (“Infinite AvX,” e.g., could collect Nova and whatever else they produce).


A final note: Kids.  Comics got where they are because of kids.  They stayed where they are because kids became adults.  If they’re going to move forward, they need…Kids.  Today’s youth is more likely to be interested in reading something on a screen than something on a page.  Many of them have tablet access as well, or at least smartphones, and most of them have computer access.  An essential part of keeping alive the art form of comic “books” has to be integrating with the younger market.  So, why not create/give away comic book apps with special Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr tie-ins?  And not just teens, I’m talking about the family–oriented line of comics like Marvel Adventures or DC Kids—make special issues that take advantage of the digital format.  Offer them free for use in school libraries or public libraries.  Most parents still read picture books to their kids—why not offer them kid-friendly comics as an alternative?  Make it impossible to resist through promotion, innovation, and accessibility.
It worked for Stan Lee way back when.  It’ll work now.

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