Over the last year or so, a new phrase has entered the comic book lexicon: digital-first. This refers to comics that are released in digital format before they eventually reach print. While the majority of digital comics are just digitized versions of print comics, available simultaneously (known as “day-and-date”) or after the physical version hits shelves, current digital-first offerings seem to represent an alternative, more specific market as publishers begin to treat digital more as a complement to print rather than a replacement.
However, with few precedents for digital-first releases, publishers both big and small are trying a number of different strategies with a variety of comics. At this time, there is no standard method for digital-first comics. Publishers, working closely with digital distributors such as Comixology, iVerse Media's Comics Plus, and Graphicly, are in the process of seeing what works and how they can use the digital platform as both a source of revenue and a less risky and costly place to build an audience before an eventual print release. In this way, going digital-first is a sort of hybrid approach to publishing comics, utilizing the web in new ways to reach readers and boost sales. So far it’s been successful, and even digital-only titles seem to be doing well enough to warrant a print edition. With the comic book industry displaying an increasingly wider range of books and readers, digital-first and other innovative methods of publication will likely become more common going ahead.
Of the major comic book publishers, DC Comics has been leading the way in terms of digital-first comics (available on its digital comics app powered by Comixology), offering a handful of titles aimed at specific groups of readers. Its most successful digital-first comic is Smallville Season 11, the comic book continuation of the long running CW drama starring a young, pre-Superman Clark Kent. Even though the show concluded in 2010 it still has a loyal following, many of whom may not be regular comic book readers, so DC is reaching them using the digital platform. Currently, 22-page digital chapters of Smallville Season 11 come out weekly at 99 cents each, followed by a print issue made up of three digital installments for $3.99 roughly every three weeks. The formula, though largely untested, seems to be working – Smallville Season 11 has been a consistent top seller digitally since it began, and the print issues broke the top 100 best-selling comics for May and June.
Another two digital-first comics, Batman: Arkham Unhinged and Batman: Arkham City: End Game, both tie-ins to the bestselling video game Batman: Arkham City, follow a similar schedule to Smallville Season 11, and are also selling well in both digital and print. DC is hoping the titles will appeal to fans of the Arkham City videogame by offering a comic with the same look as the game, available in a format that is familiar to many gamers. DC is also looking to attract more non comics readers with Legends of the Dark Knight, a series of one-shots by a variety of creators including Jeff Lemire, Steve Niles, Nicola Scott and Lost’s Damon Lindelof that seems to be made for fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies that have little to no comics experience.
Digital-first Batman can also be found in DC’s two “Beyond” titles (which take place in an alternative future DC Universe), Batman Beyond and Justice League Beyond. Batman Beyond, by Adam Beechen and Norm Breyfogle, continues the adventures of future Batman Terry McGinnis (along with an aged Bruce Wayne as his mentor), first introduced in the animated series of the same name in 1999. Justice League Beyond, by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, is a spinoff of Batman Beyond that stars the future Justice League of America. The two digital-first series come out weekly (alternatively) at 99 cents each, and are published together in a monthly print issue called Batman Beyond Unlimited for $3.99. Like Smallville, Batman Beyond still has a sizeable fanbase that is willing to purchase a digital issue or double-sized print issue than a traditional Batman Beyond periodical (which DC has put out over the years, to little long-lasting success).
In conjunction with its new print series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (based on the 1980s cartoon), DC has been releasing Masters of the Universe, a series of bi-weekly digital installments showcasing Eternia’s many heroes. Although labeled a digital-first, DC has yet to announce any specific plans for print, i.e. whether it will be collected on its own or with the print series.
Ame-Comi, an anthology series featuring a number of DC heroines including Wonder Woman and Supergirl written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray and illustrated by rotating teams of artists, is based on the popular line of manga-inspired DC statues. In what seems to be the trend for most digital-firsts, the publisher is catering to a specific group of untapped readers, this time young girls, with a book that probably wouldn’t have been sustainable in print by testing the waters digitally and gaining some visibility.
In an interview with Comic Book Resources in May, DC Comics sr. v-p of marketing John Cunningham characterized the publisher’s strategy to digital and its transition to print as less about concrete dos and don’ts and more “Let’s try this and see if it works.” Currently DC has been taking its time with digital-firsts, but it’s seeing some impressive numbers being put up by Smallville: Season 11 and Batman: Arkham Unhinged, and, like so much of digital comics, is learning it as they go.
Digital-first is not completely foreign to DC, though. In 2007, relatively early in the digital comics timeline, DC introduced Zuda, a webcomic imprint that began as a competition for creators to submit their comics for a chance to be serialized through DC. Although it did cultivate a vibrant digital community, Zuda folded in 2010 and was absorbed into DC’s greater digital publishing service. However, three of the imprint’s most popular titles, High Moon, a supernatural western by David Gallaher and Steve Ellis, Bayou, by Jeremy Love, a macabre saga set in the old South, and The Night Owls, by Peter and Bobby Timony, following the adventures of a group of paranormal detectives in 1920s New York, were all subsequently released in print editions.
On the other hand, Marvel has yet to announce any digital-first comics, despite its heavy push into digital with its Marvel Infinite imprint, powered by and available through Comixology. The imprint, announced in March at the South By Southwest music and multimedia festival, currently releases 99 cent (or free with the purchase of a corresponding physical comic) digital-only issues that are companions to print, such as Avengers Vs. X-Men Infinite (tying into Avengers Vs. X-Men). No plans have been made for these comics to see print, which would be problematic since they take advantage of digital technology such as digital effects and panel transition. It will be interesting to see what Marvel does with its Infinite issues, whether or not they’ll somehow see print or get included as a bundled digital download with the purchase of a print edition, like most of Marvel’s current digital comics.
While Dark Horse has no specific digital-first titles, some of its licensed “digital-exclusive” (aka digital-only) titles have ended up in print. Prototype 2: The Anchor, a six-issue monthly based on the Prototype action video game series from Radical Entertainment which bridged the gap between the first game and its sequel, began in February and led into the game’s April release. Although originally an exclusive on Dark Horse Digital (the publisher’s online digital store) for 99 cents an issue, a hardcover collection of the series is scheduled to come out in August at $14.99.
Dark Horse is following a similar plan for its Dragon Age comics, based on the medieval adventure series from BioWare. Dragon Age: The Silent Grove, was a digital-exclusive title when it was released in February and a collected print edition in July. Other digital-exclusive series like Dragon Age: Those Who Speak and a five-issue series based on Darkstalkers II, both started coming out in July and seem to be following the same plan.
Like DC, Dark Horse also had an early foray into digital-first when it teamed up with social networking site MySpace when it revived its Dark Horse Presents anthology in 2007. MySpace Dark Horse Presents, contained comics available on MySpace and featured titles by creators such as Mike Mignola, Joss Whedon, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Gabriel Ba and Stan Sakai. THe comics were eventually collected in six trade paperbacks.
IDW began its digital publishing ventures in January with Transformers: Autocracy, a twelve-issue bi-weekly digital miniseries, written by Chris Metzin and illustrated by Flint Dille that recounts how Optimus Prime came to be the leader of the Autobots. While Transformers: Autocracy began as a digital-only title (available through IDW's app, powered by Comixology), it sold well enough that IDW published a paperback edition in July, and announced a sequel, Transformers: Monstrosity at the publisher’s “Digital First” panel at San Diego Comic-Con.
Also at Comic-Con, IDW announced Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, a bi-weekly six-issue miniseries beginning in August. The series, written by John Barber and illustrated by Dheeraj Verma, tells the history of the Dinobots and is a prequel to the upcoming video game of the same name. Although no plans for a print edition have been revealed, it seems likely the Fall of Cybetron could find its way onto shelves if it performs as well as Autocracy.
In addition to its Transformers titles, IDW revealed that the sequel to writer Chris Roberson and artist Rich Ellis’s Memorial series will be released digital-first. IDW’s digital efforts seem to be paying off, reaching new readers who may have never picked up a physical copy of one of their titles. Digital comics are also driving print sales, said publishing CEO and president Ted Adams in an interview with ICv2 in May, where he also said that digital made up about 10% of IDW’s overall direct market sales.
Like DC and IDW, Archaia has embraced digital by publishing a number of digital-first titles, available exclusively on Comixology. The publisher recently announced two monthly digital miniseries, Space: 1999: Aftershock & Awe, based on the cult science fiction TV series, and Mumbai Confidential, a crime noir story that takes place in the Indian city’s underworld. Both began in July and are scheduled to be collected in print by late 2012 and early 2013, respectively.
Archaia also announced the second volumes to two of its all-ages titles, Rust and Spera, will be released digitally each month beginning in July, and later published in collected hardcover print editions in the fall. Rust Volume 2: Secrets of the Cell, by Royden Lepp, follows the ensuing adventures of Jet Jones, a mysterious jet-pack wearing boy who is adopted into a farm family in a war-torn industrial world. Spera Volume 2, based on the fantasy webcomic by Josh Tierny, follows two exiled princesses getting into assorted adventures, while avoiding their evil queen mother. The book is told in four standalone stories featuring art from four emerging artists.
There’s also Iron: Or The War After, an espionage thriller starring an anthropomorphic rabbit, by Shane-Michael Vidaurri, which is currently released monthly in digital format with a collected print edition scheduled for October. City in the Desert, by Moro Rogers, a four-issue series about two monsters hunters whose livelihood is challenged by a shadowy religious group, is currently available as single digital issues, and is set to be collected in a hardcover edition in October. French comic The Grand Duke, a six-issue WWII fighter pilot love story by writer Yann and illustrator Romain Hugault is currently only available digitally in translated individual issues, but is set to be collected and published in print in October.
Image Comics, while leading the industry in terms of creator-owned comics, has yet to announce any digital-first or titles, but over the years it, along with its Shadowline imprint, has collected a number of webcomics into print editions. In June, Image began publishing Planetoid, by Ken Garing, as a monthly series. Originally, the series was only available on digital publishing platform Graphicly, but is now seeing print thanks to Image, and its debut issue sold out.
In 2011, Image began publishing S. Steven Struble and Sina Grace's Li'l Depressed Boy, a webcomic about a lovelorn youth and his travails in love and life. The series is now published as a monthly periodical and its third volume arrives in September.
Image is following the plan for Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen’s Valentine, publishing the first ten chapters of popular webcomic as a graphic novel in September. Valentine takes place in a world where magical beasts roam the Earth, and centers on a soldier in Napoleon’s defeated army who is tasked to deliver a mysterious package to France. If Planetoid and Valentine’s success continues, it could motivate Image to regularly bring more existing digital comics to print – a digital-to-print strategy used successfully by many webcomics.
Image's Shadowline imprint has also brought webcomics to print, with titles like Nightmare World, written by Dirk Manning and illustrated by a vairety of artists, a collection of loosely connected horror stories, that is currently on its third print volume, and can also be read at ShadowlineOnline (along with a bunch of other webcomics).
Top Shelf Productions
Top Shelf publishes multiple digital titles, and plans to collect some of them in print. The Surrogates: Case Files, a new miniseries from Surrogates creator Robert Vendetti and artist Brett Weldele, explores new crimes in a science fiction world where people interact through remote bodies. Since Top Shelf is mostly known for putting out graphic novels as opposed to single issues, Vendetti decided to go digital-first to maintain a more episodic approach to storytelling. Digital made sense thematically too since the series primarily deals with the increasing role of technology in the world. Neither Top Shelf nor Vendetti have yet to announce a print edition of The Surrogates: Case Files, but since past Surrogates comics are still in print, it seems likely that it will eventually find its way to bookshelves.
Making its debut in June, Double Barrel, a twelve-issue digitial magazine from Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, is scheduled is see print once it finishes its run. Each issue is priced at $1.99 ($0.99 for back issues) and currently contains two ongoing stories: Heck, about a high school gym coach who travels into the underworld by Zander Cannon, and Crater XV, by Kevin Cannon, starring old salt Army Shanks first seen in Cannon's first graphic novel, Far Arden. There's also bonus content from both Cannons and comics from other creators as well.
Over the last few years, Archie has become a pioneer of the digital format, becoming the first major comics publisher to adopt a same day as print schedule for all its titles and offer digital exclusive content. In 2011, Archie revived the classic Red Circle line of characters including Shield and The Web, and announced a partnership with digital comics distributor iVerse Media to develop a subscription-based Red Circle App for direct access to old and new Red Line titles for 99 cents a month. Headlining the new app is New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes, a new twelve-part digital-first series by Ian Flynn and Ben Bates, released in weekly six-page segments. The series was originally going to be published in collected editions, however, in an interview with Newsarama, Archie president Mike Pellerito, explained the publisher’s decision to instead launch a monthly print comic collecting the digital installments after receiving feedback from readers. The first print issue is scheduled to arrive in comic shops in August.
Red 5 Comics
In 2010, Red 5 Comics, publisher of award-winning Atomic Robo, started a line of digital-first comics that was later released in print. The debut comic was Bonnie Lass, a four-issue monthly written by Tyler Fluharty and Michael Mayne and illustarted by Mayne, which follows a plucky female pirate who is determined to escape the shadow of her infamous father, and is aided by her two sidekicks in her search of "The Eye of Leviathan." Individual issues are $1.99 on Comixology, and a print edition of issue #1 was released in September, 2011 for $2.99. There's also Cubicles, an original graphic novel written and drawn by Walter Ostlie, about a pair of office-dwelling employees who deal with the mundanities of life and embark on wild, offworld adventures. The book made its digital debut in July 2011, but currently is only available in print directly through Ostlie.
In September 2011, Slave Labor Graphics boldly entered the digital comics game by adopting a digital-first publishing strategy for all its new releases. Although the move came as the result of decreased revenue and financial restraint, Slave Labor has survived and seems to be doing well. The publisher launched its new digital initiative with Sanctuary, by Stephan Coughlin, about a nature reserve that houses some highly intelligent animals, and Monstrosis, by Chris Wisnia, a Kirby-esque story of monster chaser Doris Danger. More titles have been added since then at 99 cents per issue with the first one for free. Slave Labor has plans to eventually collect each title in print upon its completion.
In July, Cryptozoic and popular webcomic Penny Arcade announced The Lookouts, a new ongoing series based on the popular strip developed by Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins, Cryptozoic president and chief creative officer Cory Jones and writer Ben McCool, available exclusively on Comixology. The series, written by McCool and illustrated by Robb Mommaerts, follows a group of adventurous boys called the Lookouts who navigate a magical forest and earn badges by completing various challenging tasks. The series’ first issue dropped in July for 99 cents, and its print counterpart is set to arrive in August.
Like Slave Labor, Canadian publisher Arcana Comics is seeing how embracing a digital strategy can greatly benefit smaller publishers, getting their comics in front of potential readers, despite less marketing and visibility, and building an audience prior to a collected print edition. In July, the publisher teamed up with Comixology to release a new line of digital-firsts with debuts each week. Titles include Deadly Harvest, by co-writers Erik Hendrix and Michael David Nelsen and illustrator Yannis Roumboulias, about a group of intrepid space miners who accidentally uncover an evil alien horde, Champions of the Wild Weird West, also written by Hendrix and Nelsen with art by George Kambadais, an Old West/samurai/zombie mash-up, and The Inventor, written by Rave Mehta and illustrated by Erik Williams, a fictional history of the age of invention starring a heroic Nikola Tesla.
Los Angeles-based publisher Asylum Press recently released Trenchcoats, Cigarettes & Shotguns, a new digital-first miniseries written by Chuck Brown and illustrated by Philip Neudorf about a hitman who works in a demonic criminal underworld.
Before the graphic novel arrives in print in September, 12-Gauge’s Afflicted, about a group of teenage outsiders who have superpowers, written by Shane Riches and illustrated by Jose Holder, is currently available in its entirety through a number of digital platforms like Facebook and Amazon’s Kindle.
Over the last few years, acclaimed writer Mark Waid has become one of the most vocal proponents of digital comics, even offering insights and guidance for aspiring digital creators on his personal process blog. In May, Waid and writer/producer John Rogers launched Thrillbent, an evolving venture into digital publishing that aims to be one of the premier destinations for original digital content that utilizes new technology. Thrillbent currently has two titles, both free to read: Insufferable, written by Waid and illustrated by Peter Krause, about a superhero trying to reform his onetime sidekick who has grown arrogant and selfish over the years; and Luther, also by Waid and illustrator Jeremy Rock, about a zombie clean-up crew. Eventually, Waid would like the comics of Thrillbent to see print, but with the site still in its infancy, he is not making any promises just yet.
Like Waid, writer Chris Roberson has also joined the digital comics community with his own imprint, MonkeyBrain Comics, part of his and partner Allison Baker’s independent publisher, MonkeyBrain Books. Launched in June, MonkeyBrain currently offers a handful of original titles for either $1.99 or $.99 an issue exclusively through Comixology. Series include Bandette, by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, an adventure comic about the leader of a group of revolutionaries/art thieves, Edison Rex, written by Roberson and with art by Dennis Culver, about a genius supervillain dealing with life after the dispatching of his heroic nemesis, and Aesop’s Ark, written by J. Torres and illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer, a series of fables and anecdotes told by and to the animals on Noah’s Ark. And while these titles are all considered digital-firsts, MonkeyBrain is only releasing the comics digitally, allowing the creators to maintain print rights.
In order for North American manga publishers to release chapters of their titles in time with Japan, giving fans the latest chapters and averting online piracy, digital is a necessity. In 2011, Viz Media, a global manga publisher, introduced Shonen Jump Alpha, an all-digital replacement for its Shonen Jump print magazine containing such series as Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and Bakuman. A yearly subscription to the magazine, which includes 48 issues a year, is priced at $25.99. At the time of its launch, new chapters came out in English two weeks after Japan, a gap Viz general manager Alvin Lu has said would close over time. Leading up to Shonen Jump Alpha’s debut, Viz released three digital-first volumes of both Naruto and Bleach in rapid succession, and jumped ahead twelve volumes of Bleach, in what the publisher called “Shonen JumpDigital warp,” a strategy that allowed Viz to catch up to its current digital schedule. Shonen Jump Alpha’s schedule is completely digital-first, as chapters and volumes are released online and available on Viz’s website and the Viz Manga App months before they are collected in print.
Yen Press, graphic novel and manga imprint of the Hachette Publishing Group, has a pair of digital-only titles: Welcome to the Erotic Bookstore, by Watanabe Pon, a slice of life comedy about a woman who runs bookstore with an adult toy section in the back, and Another, a novel and manga series written by Yukito Ayatsuji and illustrated by Hiro Kiyohara, a murder mystery about a boy who transfers into a school haunted by the death of a student 25 years prior. Yen Press plans to release an omnibus edition of the Another manga adaptation, but the novelization, as well as Welcome to the Erotic Bookstore, are currently digital-only but could see print depending on their reception.
GEN Manga, a monthly magazine containing alternative and indie Japanese comics of a more mature nature, has a similar strategy to Viz's Shonen Jump Alpha, offering its titles digitally before the collected volumes see print. Fans can subscribe to GEN Unlimited Access for $1.99 a month and digitally read series such as VS Aliens, by Yu Shizuki, about a schoolgirl rivalry where one of the girls may be more than human, or Wolf, by Shige Nakamura, which centers on Naoto, a boxer who seeks out and confronts his father who abandoned him as a child, months before the print editions are released.
Kickstarter has quickly become one of the most popular places for aspiring and accomplished comic creators to fund their projects directly from readers. One of the most successful Kickstarter comics has been Sullivan's Sluggers, a 200 page beat-em up comic where a group of washed up minor league baseball players face a hoarde of monsters terrorizing a small town, written by Mark A. Smith and illustarted by James Stokoe. After Sullivan's Sluggers far surpassed its goal, it was introduced in periodicals exlcussively on Comixology in June, before the book hits print in January.
(Thanks to all the PW readers who pointed out any omissions/ inaccuracies)