Technology and the Future of the Comic Book
Welcome back to Digitalwerks, and apologies for the long delay between postings. I’ve been working on a few articles, but each of them has encountered some complications that will be explained later as they come out, which should be soon hopefully. In the meantime I did want to discuss a topic that may fall a bit outside of this blog’s usual the topics, but actually does share some logical connections as it turns out.
Living in San Diego has many benefits, not least of which is that we are the hometown of the biggest annual popular cultural extravaganza in the U.S., the San Diego Comic-Con, or as I like to think of it, “nerd-vana.” As an old-time comics fan, if very sporadic these days, I still love to attend the SD Comic-Con every year, sometimes professionally but always as a big-time geek, reveling in the seemingly unstoppable advance of nerd-favorite themes in Hollywood and culture generally. This year, other than helping out an old friend with some of her blogging responsibilities, I spent my time at the Con tracking what clearly was a big theme in 2009, the possibility of digital distribution coming to the comics industry. Unlike the music and film industries, the adoption of new distribution technologies in comics is very much in its infancy, but 2009 may turn out to be a tipping point, when digital comics went from at best a sidelight to a major player in how comics are sold and consumed.
Why have comics lagged behind other entertainment industries in feeling the effects of new distribution technologies? Comics are strangely, sui generis, in the sense that they share many of the characteristics of the publishing industry, but in my opinion are quite different from books. Specifically, comics share many elements with art. Comics, no matter how low brow their history, are undeniably a visual medium with a very different experience than purely textual books. Further, comics have traditionally been a collector’s medium, in which the tangible object of the individual comic book, no matter how widely distributed, has value (monetary and sentimental) in the physical sense. Traditional elements of comic book culture often include garages and attics full of “longboxes” containing hundreds or thousands of revered comics safely protected in mylar bags. Nonetheless, even the traditional culture of comics is beginning to recognize the possible benefits of digital distribution, for readers, artists, and for publishers alike. Comics distributed digitally, as plain .jpeg’s or as proprietary formats embedded in separate platform specific applications, do have a number of potential advantages, including eliminating onerous storage requirements, vastly improving search functionality, and providing many new avenues of innovation for enhanced reading experiences or aggregation services. At the same time, digital distribution would radically disrupt existing revenue models, particularly for the two big publishers, Marvel and DC that continue to dominate overall sales and rely very heavily on the quasi-monopolized “direct market” of specialty comics shops. Anything that could damage that revenue stream will certainly need to prove its compelling rationale for acceptance to reach the mainstream of comics publishing.
Yet, in all the comic-themed panels I attended at this year’s Comic Con, digital distribution was an unavoidable topic, brought up by audiences, creators or outside observers, no matter the specific theme of the talk. Not surprisingly, the most vocal proponents of digital comics were those entrepreneurs with their own digital comic services to promote, including LongBox, iVerse, comiXology and the digital arms of DC and Marvel. A consistent message from all the digital spokespeople is that attitudes have changed enormously in recent years and that the acceptance of digital distribution from artists, publishers, and readers has grown by leaps and bounds. The most visible proponent of downloadable comics was LongBox CEO Rantz Hoseley who was seemingly ubiquitous at Comic-Con, appearing at numerous panels and actively giving out codes for users to try out the beta version of his company’s software application (launch is expected in September or October). A tireless marketeer, Hoseley envisions LongBox as the “iTunes of comics,” empowering publishers to sell their comics in a digital format (at .99 an issue) via the internet, to be read on PC’s (and eventually mobile devices and e-readers) using a slick interface that will ultimately have a heavy social recommendation engine. Instead of cannibalizing existing sales, Hoseley believes digital distribution will only increase the size of the comics marketplace by appealing to an audience that would “never” walk into the self-limiting world of comic shops. A key part of his business plan, to entice publishers to cooperate is a system of coupons allowing purchasers of single digital copies of a comic to get a discount on printed collections, the graphic novels that are today a very large percentage of comics sold. Presenting LongBox as a particular champion of smaller independent publishers and creators, Hoseley uses well respected comic creators, like Phonogram‘s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie to extol the possibilities of digital sales in providing non-mainstream comics artists with a living wage.
A central element to what LongBox, and its competitors, tell prospective publishing partners is to give up the “myth” that readers will not support experiencing their comics on computer screens. Not just anecdotal experience but also his tracking of the “multiple millions” of downloads of popular titles via file-sharing networks clearly demonstrates to Hoseley that readers are comfortable with digital comics. In fact, when the top selling title in a particular month, including big name books from Marvel or DC, barely cracks 100,000 actual copies sold, there are likely more people in sheer numbers reading it digitally than physically. Of course the trick will be in enticing some of those readers away from piracy back to purchasing titles, or by creating enough of an expanded marketplace through new technology to mitigate the “risks” that digital distribution could pose to existing revenue streams. Some of the new players are limiting their offerings to comic versions readable only on mobile devices, primarily the iPhone, taking advantage of the built-in iTunes market system, although obviously limited by the size and resolution of the iPhone screen. All of the solutions discussed at Comic Con 2009 retained some form of DRM, obviously to allay fears of publishers, although the piracy evidence would suggest that DRM, as in other media, would do absolutely nothing to stem unauthorized distribution, but will increase hassle and interoperability challenges for readers willing to pay for authorized copies. While DC and Marvel rarely came up in any of the technology discussions I heard at the Con, I’m sure that all the digital service providers are hoping that they can distinguish themselves from the pack and ultimately convince the big 2 to join with them. Currently the dominant publishers are basically running their own exclusive systems. Marvel in particular has a digital comics subscription (9.99 for a month’s access, 59.88 for a year) service that has a large number of back issues and a smattering of current comics. For some observers the comics industry is still in the “balkanized” stage of distribution, where the larger properties hope to maintain sole control of their products, and want company-specific services that are absolutely designed *not* to replace physical sales, but act more as a teaser. Whether publisher specific services can attract a large enough paying readership, most of whom probably read titles from a number of different publishers, remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, innovation is occurring as publishers and creators recognize that the new digital medium will allow for all kinds of different expressions of comics art than the clearly defined borders of the traditional four-color publication. A number of companies are experimenting with “motion comics,” short films that take the art directly from a published comic, adding some animation, music, and voice-overs to create an amalgamation of comic and movie. Probably the best known example was the 12 part motion comic recreation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s famous Watchmen that was released prior to the 2009 motion picture based on the original comic. In some ways Watchmen was well suited to the nascent form, as heavily as it relied on dialogue, but other attempts have been rather gimmicky in my opinion. Hoseley of LongBox speaks often of “enhanced” digital comics that may not include animation but could include soundtracks, voice-overs, directors’ commentary, etc, something that could be a natural fit for the music-themed Phonogram that he has secured for his service’s launch.
The future of digital comics remains to be seen, but I suspect we will see continued developments in a couple of directions. First, the Japanese manga on mobile phones boom clearly points towards comics becoming more popular on mobile devices, although the specifics of Japanese mobile culture may not be precisely repeatable in the US. More importantly, however, I think you will see a trend towards more comics becoming available widely in digital format, but also at lower and lower price points. Because comics do share some of the qualities of art, they have a tangibility that is different from music and film. They also have a much stronger tradition of collecting, so I think it’s possible you will see an interesting bifurcation, between cheap and possibly free digital copies matched with increasingly expensive limited editions. It would not surprise me if original comic art, limited print runs, special versions, etc. become more collected just as free copies of the same comics go down in price to zero, and become marketing materials for the tangible artistic goods or for non-comics media. Brand awareness of Captain America could become more important than individual issue sales to Marvel as the release date of the Avengers movie approaches. In other words, the digital distribution, even at little or no cost to the reader could become accepted business models as other revenue sources grow in different directions.